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779: How to Unlock Greater Potential through Unlearning with Barry O’Reilly

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Barry O’Reilly shares his strategies on how to unlearn the mindsets and behaviors that hold us back.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key to breakthrough improvement 
  2. How to identify what you need to unlearn
  3. How to overcome the fear of change 

About Barry

Barry O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of ExecCamp, an entrepreneurial experience for executives, and the management consultancy Antennae. A business advisor, entrepreneur, and sought-after speaker, O’Reilly has pioneered the intersection of business model innovation, product development, organizational design, and culture transformation. He works with the world’s leading innovators, from disruptive startups to Fortune 500 companies.

He is a frequent writer and contributor to The Economist, Strategy+Business, and MIT Sloan Management Review, as well as a coauthor of the international bestseller Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scaleincluded in the Eric Ries Lean series and a Harvard Business Review “must-read” for would-be CEOs and business leaders. He is also an executive advisor and faculty member at Singularity University.

Resources Mentioned

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Barry O'Reilly Interview Transcript

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

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, no, it’s a pleasure to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom about your book Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results. Could you kick us off by sharing a key thing that you’ve unlearned that has proven quite valuable in your own career?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah. Well, even writing the book is probably one of the best examples. I have a solid history of D minuses in English literature through school. I’m dyslexic. I think if I told my teacher that I managed to write one book, never mind two, that they wouldn’t actually believe me. So, it was kind of, for me, one of the big unlearning I had to have is actually how to write a book.

And as conventional wisdom, I always say that writers sort of sit there by a roaring fire with a perfect velvet jacket on and a glass of wine, and just like tearing out pages and pages of content. Believe me, I tried that but it didn’t work for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Too hot?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, not too good. And, yeah, I would sit there for hours just with writer’s block and I couldn’t quite get the words on the page, and it was really frustrating because I felt like I was doing everything, the tips that people told me. And it’s a real challenge. So, then I started to think about, for me, “Well, how can I sort of reframe what I’m looking at? My existing behavior is not working, so, therefore, I need to unlearn. I’m not getting the outcomes that I’m aiming for writing whatever it is, 10,000 words, 10,000 words a day. Whatever I’d set myself.”

So, I started to actually think about, well, reframe my thinking away from just typing as the only way to create content, and I actually started thinking about content. It’s actually really like creating a book is content. And there were suddenly many ways to create content. Typing is just one of them. So, I started to think about other ways to create content. I could record it. I could speak it. I could interview. I could have someone help me.

So, I landed on the idea of actually talking because that was the most natural way for me to share my stories. And what I did is I got a journalist to interview me. So, we would write down, like some bullet points that I wanted to cover in each chapter, and a journalist would interview me, and I would just tell stories about what the chapter would be about. And we would record it and transcribe it using an AI transcription service.

So, we’d speak for 45 minutes, and I’d get in the region of 20,000 words, record it and get a copy of it in text very, very quickly. And the journalist would then sort of go through that copy, edit it really fast, and send me like this sort of early version of a chapter that was sort of relatively raw but it was edited. And it gave me something to react to. It’s like an MVP or minimal viable product or chapter.

And, suddenly, as I would read through it, then I’d be like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t need to go here,” and I’d remember things I’d forgotten to say. So, we got into this iteration really fast. And that literally got me there. I actually unlearned how to write a book by learning how to speak about the ideas that I wanted to talk about.

And the product of that is Unlearn. And then, yeah, many people are often surprised when they realize when I say I didn’t write hardly any of it. I spoke most of it and I got somebody to work with me, and an AI to transcribe it, edit it, and ship it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. So, you unlearned the notion of what writing a book looks like. And in so doing, you found an approach that worked for you, and that’s beautiful. Well, tell us, when it comes to zooming out a little bit and broadly speaking about people and unlearning, any other big surprises or aha discoveries you’ve made while researching and putting together Unlearn?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, the notion of unlearning was the thing that probably struck me the most. So, the first book I wrote was Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. It was part of our recent series, or the lean series, and it was more successful than I could’ve imagined, to be honest. And when we released that book, a lot of, sort of medium to large scale enterprises or scale of startups were sort of saying, “We’re not a startup. We’re actually scaling our business, so what do we need to put in place to make us successful?”

And, suddenly, I was in the room with like Fortune 500 executives or startups in Silicon Valley that was scaling rapidly to work with them, to help them grow and innovate their businesses. And I was fortunate to spend time with these people, some of the most competent talented people you could ever hope to meet. And what I kept discovering was that while learning new things was hard, what was even harder was letting go of their existing behavior, especially if it had made them successful in the past.

So, the unlearning even in itself was a big aha moment for me, is that the real skill is not learning new things; it’s actually recognizing when your existing behavior and thinking is actually limiting your success, and then how do you find ways to adapt or innovate yourself to meet the sort of changing market or situation that you’re in.

And that was really my big inspiration for sort of writing Unlearn and the stories and the examples and so forth that are captured sort of within it, and have just sort of been really the things that have driven me on continuously to sort of do this. And for many people, it’s interesting because unlearning is sort of an act of, if you will, sort of vulnerability. You have to sort of say that, “What I know is actually limiting my success, and, really, I have to sort of shift out of it.”

And for many people, that’s very difficult because their success is tied to their behavior. Their behavior and actions are tied to their identity. You’re asking someone to change their identity, in a way, and that is extremely difficult for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you maybe walk us through an example that illustrates the unlearning process that would be helpful for professionals looking to become all the more awesome at their jobs?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, probably sort of one of the classic examples that I cover in the book is working with a senior executive from a Fortune 100 bank, and she took over the role or went into the role, and everywhere she went, first day, people just kept asking her to make decisions, everything from what direction should the company go in, right down to what paperclips they should order. Every single person was just turning to her to say, “What do we need to do here? What do we need to do here?”

And, for her, that was a signal. She was like, “There’s a decision-making problem here. I shouldn’t be worried about what paperclips we’re ordering. That should be people are confident and inspired enough to do that. Like, why is everything from paperclips right through the company direction landing on my desk and everyone freezing?”

Now, the process for unlearning is it’s a three-step process. It’s first about this recognition to unlearn, identifying or diagnosing where your existing behaviors are not working. In fact, the way I defined unlearning is it’s a process of letting go, reframing or moving away from one’s useful mindset and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past but now limit our success. So, it’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding your knowledge or experience. It’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and making space for new information to come in to inform your decision-making and action. So, the first step is a diagnosis.

So, straight away, this executive could diagnose that nobody was making decisions, and that is not the outcome that she was aiming for. She wanted to have a high-performing organization where people could take responsibility and have an accountability to make decisions at the appropriate level, depending on the decision to be made. So, that was a signal for her.

And so, I sat down with her, and I got her to say, “Well, let’s describe it. Let’s describe what success would be. If this is the behavior that needs to be unlearned, how could we talk about division or the objective or the outcome you’re aiming for the people would be achieving?” And I got her to sort of write a story about it, write a vision statement for what would be true in the world if they had unlearned this challenge.

So, she wrote down things like people would be making safe-to-fail decisions, that they’d make small decisions to understand. If they had to make a big decision, they’d break it into smaller parts and learn along the way what works and what doesn’t. And this sort of learned helplessness to make decisions would be removed, and all of her direction would be what success is and why it matters. None of her direction would be how to achieve it. The teams would offer opportunities on how to do that.

So, writing this sort of story, it gave her these sorts of outcomes that she talked about, the learned helplessness disappears, her direction of what success is and why it matters. She wouldn’t be saying how to achieve it. And, straight away, we wrote those down in an unlearning statement that would basically say, “The company would’ve unlearned when 100% of her direction is what success is and why it matters. Zero percent of her direction is how to achieve it. Zero percent of people displayed this learned helplessness when making decisions.”

So, suddenly, she had sort of had this statement that would encapsulate this unlearning of decision-making as a problem within that company, and she actually shared this with a bunch of her team to sort of for them to understand as like what would be success criteria for unlearning it. And then the next step is to sort of re-learn. It’s like getting people to try new behaviors to try and move towards these objectives or outcomes that we’ve described.

And so, I always get her to sort of like pick one of these outcomes that she originally had described to sort of focus on. So, there was the learned helplessness, how to achieve a decision, or what success is and why it matters. And we picked actually that this one, zero percent of her decisions would include how to get there.

So, she took this sort of very bold sort of stance. And I often say to people, “If you want to re-learn, it actually means you have to do something uncomfortable,” and people mostly write down like simple things that they would try that they’re used to, like just be quiet for a moment, or don’t be the first to speak when someone offers a problem, or let all the team speak before she did.

But the one she chose was even more uncomfortable. She said she wasn’t going to make any more decisions. So, if someone came to her and asked her to make a decision, her immediate reaction would be, “What do you think?” So, introduce this tiny little new behavior. Now, you can imagine when you’re a Fortune 100 executive, and you sort of announced that you’re not going to make any more decisions. It would cause panic across the company.

But the way that we made it sort of safer, rather than just sort of never make a decision again, she was just going to try it for one day. So, for one day, make it sort of safe-to-fail, she’d think big but start small about trying to conduct this new behavior of not making decisions, and asking people what do they think.

And this is sort of the moment that we call a breakthrough. So, a breakthrough is literally when you start to get this new information, new behavior, new action, and the results that actually give you a feedback statement that you should keep doing what you’re doing or do something different. So, literally, she went into work, I think it was on a Tuesday. I think it was a Tuesday. And every time one of her team came in to ask or to make another decision on something, she sat there and said, “That’s interesting. What do you think?”

And what that did was something really magical. It allowed her to learn. It allowed her to learn about the people and what help they might need. Because some people, when she asked somebody, “What do you think?” would freeze, would be sort of “Ah, I don’t know. I really need you to make this decision. I don’t have enough confidence or control to do it.” So, she could realize straight away that person would need coaching.

But other people, when she asked, “What do you think?” would say, “Well, we’ve got three options. We can do option A, and here’s the pros and cons of that. We could do option B, here’s the pros and cons. Here’s C and pros and cons. I think we should do C, and here’s why.” So, instantly, she could go, “Great. Let’s do C,” because she could see the rigor and the thinking that her team had actually performed, and it gave her confidence to say, “Right, that’s the direction we should try. Let’s do it.”

So, this simple act of just not making a decision and asking people to sort of say what they think sort of revealed all these insights about who is able to make decisions and should be encouraged to make more, versus who was hesitant to make them and needed coaching and support to sort of get there. And instantly then, she just gets this uplift in performance because once she starts doing that, all her teams start replicating that. And then, suddenly, you’ve got this big performance improvement where you can start to eradicate decision-making problems.

So, that’s an example of a sort of unlearning statement and going through the diagnosis of decision-making, the re-learning of actually thinking big and starting small, defining outcomes, and taking a small new behavior, which was not to make decisions, and ask people what they think. And then the breakthrough was seeing this insight or learning from the team about who could respond well and who needed help. And that sort of informed her to keep doing, and that’s literally the cycle of unlearning.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you for that story. That’s really cool. And I’m curious, as we zoom into individuals listening here, are there any key questions or prompts you find super useful to surface, to highlight, to assess, to diagnose, “Aha, I may have an outdated or suboptimal belief or practice or mentality that I would do well to unlearn”? Like, what’s sort of the canary and the coal miner, some key indicators that I should be on the lookout for?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. And the simple question many people that ask is, “How do I know what I need to unlearn?” And to diagnose, there’s a set of questions that I ask people. It’s basically getting you to think, “Is there a situation where you’re not living up to the expectations of yourself? Maybe there’s somewhere you’re not achieving just sort of outcomes that you desire. Maybe you sort of tried all the things that you can think of and you’re not getting a breakthrough. Or, maybe there’s a situation that you’re avoiding altogether because you just can’t think, ‘How am I going to tackle that?’”

These are all the sort of signals that your existing behavior is not working. So, not living up to your expectations, not achieving the outcomes you’re aiming for, situations you’re avoiding or struggling with, or maybe you’ve tried everything that you can think and you’re still not getting a breakthrough. I’d even ask you that, Pete, and you probably can come up with four or five answers straight away. And these are all signals that our behavior is not actually helping us achieve the outcomes that we’re aiming for. And, therefore, we have to unlearn, we have to try something different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And as you’ve seen a lot of workplaces, are there some common examples that pop up again and again and again in terms of, “Oh, these are some things that would be great to unlearn”?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, I think like risk-taking is always a big one, like people’s risk aversion, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, trying new things, being willing to fail. These are all decision-making. It actually comes up quite a lot. These are sort of like the commonalities, I guess, that I hear from a lot of people, is how to help them sort of get those breakthroughs, is trying new things that they’ve never done before.

A lot of it is about, I think, when people perceive that there’s risks for both personal and perception, that if they try something and it doesn’t work, how they’d be perceived. That one really comes up a lot, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s juicy. And so then, if I was working on that, how might you help coach me through that emotional stuff?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah. Well, first of all, it’s just a recognition, people diagnosing that that’s the heart of the issue. Most people sort of write it up as, “My boss won’t let me do something,” or, “We’re stuck in the status quo. We’re struggling to do new things. We don’t innovate in my business.” Like, a lot of people would sort of deflect it off to company not allowing them to do things.

And a lot of it is sort of then helping people recognize, well, first of all, you have agency and you can try. So, how do we make it safer for you to try? Or, you feel safer that if you fail, how you’ll be perceived? And one of the mantras in the book was this notion of thinking big, start small and learn fast. So, it’s important to have a big aspiration or big outcome that you’re aiming for because that allows you to sort of shift your thinking and your behavior, potentially, to get there.

But the way when you’re trying to make big changes is you don’t take big leaps. You take small steps and learn your way through. So, when somebody has a big idea to change their business, what I often say to them is, “Right. Well, write down that big idea.” Amazon has a famous practice where they get people to write press releases to describe what the world would be like if their product was in the market in two to three years’ time, what would be fantastic about it.

Now, with the way that they start is they don’t do a huge big project. They start small. They run some experiments with small customer bases to see what works and what doesn’t, and then sort of grow it from there. So, what I often say to people is if you have a big idea to change the way your company works, don’t expect that you can walk up to the CEO and get millions of dollars of funding and a new team, and then just sort of start working on it.

Do something small to start testing if that idea is going to work. Pick maybe one or two customers and sort of show them a very naïve version of the product that could work or could not, and get feedback and show that it’s working or not. And even if it doesn’t work, it’s okay. You will have learned something from those one or two customers about what success could be or what’s the right product that they’re looking for and iterate it.

So, these are the ways that you can think big and start small, to start tackling uncertainty and be successful as you try new ways of working new products, etc. And so, that’s what we do most of the time is just coaching people how to think bigger but start smaller so they can learn what works and what doesn’t in a safe-to-fail manner. And once they sort of get into that habit, then they’re able to take on these more audacious goals as they sort of see success moving towards it.

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

Barry O’Reilly
No, I think, like the message from me always with this is, like I experienced that I’ve got to unlearn stuff all the time. It’s tough sometimes to recognize the actual reason you’re not being successful is yourself, that you can’t get out of your own way. So, I think a bit of humility, a bit of not trying to beat yourself up too much when you’re not getting the success, I think, is quite important, and recognize that a lot of this is a sort of journey, a learning journey, if anything, a constant iteration and experimentation on yourself. And if you see it like that, it can be a fun journey to go on rather than beating yourself up along the way when things don’t work.

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

Barry O’Reilly
One of my favorite ones, and people will have to buy the book maybe to find out what chapter was this one, is that something always gives up. Either the problem gives up or the person gives up. But if the person doesn’t give up, ultimately, you’ll get the breakthrough that you’re looking for.

And that was really interesting for me as a notion to sort of think about. It is a little bit of a battle of wits between the problem you’re trying to tackle and the person, or yourself, trying to tackle it. And, really, half of the way to succeed is to keep showing up. If you just keep showing up, something will give. Either the problem will sort of give and you’ll get past it, and, hopefully, before the person gives up because then the problem wins. So, that’s always motivated me to keep being persistent and to keep showing up, and I really enjoyed that quote.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Well, I think my favorite example in the book is Serena Williams, and her story is just purely phenomenal. She’s sort of an against-the-odds story. And also, the success that she had and continues to have is sort of totally unheard of and a total outlier for the sport that she plays in. She actually is getting better as she gets older, which is sort of unheard of. Most tennis players retire at the age of 27. She’s 40 and she’s still competing at the highest level, getting to finals and being successful. So, yeah, really a fantastic story that I open the book with, and would highly recommend people check her out.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Barry O’Reilly
It’s called Maverick, and it was basically written about a small little factory in Brazil where the CEO, who took over, whose son who took over from his father, started using all these contrary methods to manage people that were much more about empowering people rather than the typical, let’s say, corporate institutional management techniques, and they had massive success. So, I highly recommend people check out that book. It’s one of my favorites.

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

Barry O’Reilly
I like the Shure SMB mic. Sounding good when we’re on podcasts, I think that’s one. One thing I learned, I think, through the pandemic especially, is that it’s really important to have good sound when you’re communicating because when the sound is bad, it makes it harder for people to listen. When you’ve got good sound, it makes it easier for people to listen and more of the information goes in. So, yeah, get a great mic. That would be my tip for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Agreed. And a favorite habit?

Barry O’Reilly
At the moment, well, there’s two. One is making a really nice coffee in the morning when I wake up. That’s definitely, that’s my special time. And then exercising as much as possible. I think one of the things I really learned as well, especially as I work in a venture studio called Nobody Studios, and I work with a bunch of biohackers. And this idea of like persistently improving your whole, both like mental activity, like doing exercises like this, reading, writing, etc. but also the physical aspect of how important it is to exercise and sleep.

We’re actually working on a sleep company at the moment, and it’s just been fascinating to me to realize and learn how important sleep is to our actual performance, in general. So, now I’m somebody who…I used to stay up and think I could get by on six hours of sleep at night, but now if I don’t get eight, I get angry at myself. So, it’s been really interesting to learn some of these habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Barry, now you got me curious about, if you’re allowed to disclose, what’s the sleep company and what transformational insights have you gleaned thus far?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, the first one is how important sleep is. I think most people sort of undervalue how important it is. It’s the most restorative process that we have, so no surgery or amounts of vitamins or supplements are going to improve your wellbeing as much as sleep. So, it’s actually one of the most important things that we have to do.

So, yeah, some of the habits that I have had to unlearn was like going to bed late, or a routine to actually optimize when you do go to lie down to sleep, that you get the maximum sleep, that you can get a high-quality sleep at that. And it’s everything from the triggers, simple things that people might say to you, like don’t drink coffee, or don’t have high amounts of sugar, or don’t let your body be in a stress state when you go to sleep because you actually can have negative sleep, which hurts you more.

So, all of these things have been really fascinating to sort of learn and discover. And, yeah, if you follow our venture studio, Nobody Studios, you’ll see the sleep company when we launch it to the public in the next couple of weeks. I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to do.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Well, I think just even the word unlearn. It seems to be one of these provocative words that people go, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly what we need to do. We don’t need to learn more things. We need to unlearn some things.” And I think it’s been a fascinating way to connect with people in terms of the interest area, or a way to describe something, or a notion that many people have felt but weren’t able to put word on it. So, yeah, I think unlearn, that’s it. It’s a fun one. Let go of past success to achieve extraordinary results. It’s all in the title.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, I’m pretty much Barry O’Reilly on every social platform you can imagine, or BarryOReilly.com. And if you’re interested to follow our studio, we’re at NobodyStudios.com. Go check us out on the web and similarly on most social media platforms.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, just think big, have a big bold aspiration that you’re aiming for, that something you think could change, but start small. What’s the first small step you can do to start moving towards it? And you’ll learn fast what works and what doesn’t. So, that’s my message to everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Barry, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with Unlearn and all your adventures.

Barry O’Reilly
Thanks very much. Thanks for having me, Pete.

665: How to Make Lasting Change – According to Science – with Katy Milkman

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Behavioral scientist and Wharton professor Katy Milkman reveals how behavioral science can help you make changes that stick.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top obstacles of change–and how to overcome them 
  2. How to overcome your impulsivity 
  3. How you can make your laziness work for you 

 

About Katy

Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, host of Charles Schwab’s popular behavioral economics podcast Choiceology, and the former president of the international Society for Judgment and Decision Making.  Over the course of her career, she has worked with or advised dozens of organizations on how to spur positive change, including Google, the U.S. Department of Defense, and Walmart. 

An award-winning scholar and teacher, Katy writes frequently about behavioral science for major media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her book How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You are to Where You Want to Be came out two days ago! She earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University (summa cum laude), and her PhD from Harvard University where she studied Computer Science and Business. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Katy Milkman Interview Transcript

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

Katy Milkman
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to learn how to change once and for all. You’ve literally written the book on this and I can’t wait to hear your insights.

Katy Milkman
Well, I’m excited to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, maybe to kick it off, could you share maybe what’s maybe one of the most surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about us humans doing behavior change while researching the book How to Change?

Katy Milkman
That’s a great question. I love starting with that question. Probably it’d be a study I ran at Google that had the most counterintuitive finding to me. And it was a study where, actually, my collaborators and I were trying to figure out if we could create more durable habits around exercise in people if we got them to build really consistent routines, which is what our read of the habit literature suggested makes habits sticky, like, “Always at the same time of day, I’m really, really grounded in that routine and now it becomes like second nature to me.”

And if we could build that, we thought, then we sort of let go and we’d see these lasting habits. So, we ran this experiment with Google employees where we basically, for a month, gave them rewards for either visiting the gym at the same time of a day, a consistent time that they’d said was ideal for them, or for any time, whatever they wanted. So, about half of their visits ended up being at a consistent time but the other half were all over the place.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, one group was rewarded only when they went during the time they said and the other was rewarded regardless?

Katy Milkman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Katy Milkman
We actually varied the size of the incentives so we got variance in how often people went, and we basically ended up with two groups who went the same frequency but in different patterns. One is going very consistently, the other is more variable when they go. And then the question was, “What happens at the end of this month?” And we were sure, we knew, it was going to be the people who had that consistent routine, and we were wrong.

And what we found out is that the reason we were wrong is not that we had our model completely messed up, it was true that the people who had been really consistent in their exercise who would basically train to be automatons, the same time, same time each day. Those people actually were a little more likely to keep going at that same time, but if they didn’t make it to the gym at that time, they didn’t go at all.

And the folks who had built a more flexible habit ended up with a more durable habit because they went a little less often at that magic time, it was the best time each day for them, but they went at other times too, and at that they went more. And that was really surprising to us that, it turns out, and I write about this in the book, I call it the power of elastic habits. I really expected, from everything I’d read, that those consistent cues would be critical to durable habit formation but what we found instead was that it bred rigidity, and that if you’re going to get something done, you need to be flexible, and just say, “I’m going to do it no matter what,” not, “I’m going to only do it under this narrow set of circumstances.”

So, I think that’s really interesting and it was a really important takeaway and counterintuitive to me. Although, now it makes sense, in hindsight I can see why that’s important but it’s not what I expected. And we surveyed professors of psychology in all the top universities, and 80% of them also were surprised. They predicted strongly, “Oh, yeah, that consistency, that’s what we know about habits. Consistency breeds habit,” and it’s just not what we found.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Wow, that’s striking. And so, well, there’s one gem right there, so thank you.

Katy Milkman
You’re welcome. That’s a great opening question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s zoom out a little bit in terms of, okay, your book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Can you lay it on us sort of the big idea or key theme or thesis associated with this work?

Katy Milkman
Yeah, absolutely. So, the key idea behind this book is that there’s a lot, of course, of great books and a lot of great knowledge out there about how to change and, yet, it’s not getting us where we want to be for the most part. People are still looking for these kinds of books, still trying to figure it out, a lot of us aren’t where we want to be. And one of the things I have found in my career, devoted to studying this topic of where change comes from, is that I think part of the problem is we often don’t focus on what is actually obstructing change for a given individual, for a given challenge or a given goal they’re trying to achieve, and tailor the solution to that obstacle.

We sort of grab one of those big ideas off the shelf that sounds sexy and appealing, like, “Set big audacious goals and then break them down,” or, “Build a really tiny habit and piggyback.” Like, there’s all these ideas that are out that are appealing but they won’t work if they’re not solving for what’s holding you back.

So, that’s kind of the big idea behind the book. There’s all these different things that can be barriers to change, whether it’s, “I don’t enjoy doing the thing that I need to do to change,” or, “I keep forgetting to do the thing and flaking out because I’m too busy and it’s just, I can’t prioritize it,” or, “I’m having trouble getting started,” or, “I don’t have the confidence to change. I don’t believe I really can and that’s holding me back,” or, “My peer group is not showing me the ways to do it and is a bad influence.”

Like, what is the challenge and the solution then will be different. And we can make more progress if we actually diagnose what’s standing in the way, and then use the best science to solve that specific problem. And I see this all the time in my work with companies, that they have some behavior, “We want get people to save more for retirement,” or to get their flu shots, or to be more productive. Like, let’s just grab from this bag of tricks from behavioral science and we think we’ll be able to slap a solution on it, but if there isn’t an understanding of, “Well, why aren’t people saving? Why aren’t they productive? What’s holding them back?” that is matched to the solution, we don’t get very far.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s resonating a whole lot. I’m getting chills in terms of like there’s much truth here.

Katy Milkman
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in a way, it seems like self-evident, “Well, of course, you should figure out what’s the challenge and address it.”

Katy Milkman
It does seem self-evident.

Pete Mockaitis
And, yet, we don’t.

Katy Milkman
It’s astounding how often we don’t, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you lay it down, lay it on us then, what’s maybe the menu of categories of obstacles and the best practices for deconstructing or addressing those obstacles? And then, maybe even before we go there, how do we go about identifying it and zooming in on it very well? Because, for example, when you say, “Why don’t people save?” like, “Well, I just don’t have enough money. I don’t have any spare money to save. I guess we’re done.” And so, it’s like, “Well, no, not quite. I think we got to dig deeper.” So, yeah, let’s start there. How do I identify, like, what’s the crux of the obstacle here?

Katy Milkman
I think the answer is probably most people will recognize themselves and a specific problem when they see these different discussions.

So, for example, I mentioned it’s not fun. That’s a really common one. I don’t know if that’s not a super common one for retirement savings. Most of us aren’t like, “I want it to be fun to save. And I find it dreadful and dreadfully unpleasant in the moment to do it.” That’s more like exercising or eating right or really focusing at work instead of scrolling social media. But that’s a category of obstacle.

Another category of obstacle is, “I don’t see how I can do this. This doesn’t seem doable.” I think that’s a big one, and retirement savings is actually is like, “Wow, it doesn’t feel feasible.” And that can come down to confidence, it can come down to what you’ve seen other people like you accomplish, and how, if you’ve learned their techniques and skills for doing it.

Another category can be, as I mentioned before, just flaking out, like, “There’s just a lot going on and I can’t get this to the top of the list, and I keep spacing it when it’s time to actually setup the 401(k).” So, it depends on which one you see yourself in, and I think it’s not like a category of problem, it’s always the same answer for different people. For some people, savings is also about procrastination, like, “I mean to do it but tomorrow I’ll get around to do it,” and then tomorrow never becomes today.

So, I think the goal of the book is that the reader will be able to see themselves as they see the classes of challenges and see what the solutions are. And there really are some experimentation individuals have to do, like, “Oh, I thought this was right solution for me. I tried it. Oops, I had diagnosed my barrier wrong. Really, that wasn’t what was holding me back. It wasn’t that I wasn’t going to the gym because I thought it was incredibly unpleasant. It was that I just hadn’t made the time to do it with the right people and I didn’t have the right social network and the right structures.”

So, there’s different problems for different people even for the same outcome, there are some commonalities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like one way that you diagnose kind of like the core obstacle is you try something and you realize, “Hey, it turns out that wasn’t it at all. Okay.”

Katy Milkman
That’s one way. Hopefully, I think that will be one way. I also think another way will be looking, for the book and even for this conversation, and seeing yourself in the challenge. So, I do think people will be able to self-diagnose if they just give a little thought. I think normally that’s not the prompt we get. Instead, we get a solution, like, “Here’s your solution. This is going to work for you because it works for lots of other people,” instead of some thought about, “Why is it that I can’t motivate myself to do X.” And often, introspection is going to be enough. We’re not that hard to understand when we look internally in a lot of cases.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s say that if I am thinking about, “Hey, what’s my obstacle?” and then what I come up with is something lame, like, “No, I just don’t have enough time”? Like, what does that really mean and how do we get deeper?

Katy Milkman
Yeah. Well, “I don’t have enough time” isn’t the kind of obstacle that the book is about because that’s not an internal obstacle. So, the book is really about how are you holding yourself back. “I don’t have enough time” is an external obstacle, like the way you structure your life needs to change. And I think you’d get some ideas about that once you’ve read the book about, “Oh, okay, does that mean you really don’t have enough time or do you just need to restructure yourself and your life differently?”

But the book is more about, so, if you’re like, “I don’t have the resources,” that’s a different kind of challenge than, “I can’t get myself to and I need to find a way to get myself to do something differently.” Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I hear you. And I guess maybe you’re kinder than I am to our imaginary interlocutor here. I guess when I hear “I don’t have enough time” I guess I just don’t buy it as my default.

Katy Milkman
Oh, yeah. And it can also be like, “I don’t have a priority to do this.” So, the book is not to convince you that you need to change. The book is for someone who has a goal, they want to achieve it, they haven’t been able to get there, or maybe they haven’t tried yet, they’re ready to try, and it’s going to offer the best science has for them about how they can set themselves up for success.

It doesn’t guarantee success by any stretch changes really, really hard but, hopefully, I think my career has been devoted to understanding what is the best knowledge out there, what’s the best science out there on how we can change, and I’ve tried to put it all in one place so that, for someone who’s motivated and ready to give it a shot, it’ll give them the best chance available.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. And I think that precondition right there says it all in terms of, like, if you’re really motivated, “I don’t have enough time” is probably not going to be what you say is your obstacle because, by definition, you think it’s important enough to make some time, and it might just be tricky to actually figure that out in a calendar, like, “No, for real, where do these 30 minutes actually emerge from?”

Katy Milkman
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, maybe can you lay it on us, perhaps like the top three obstacles and some of your favorite solutions to those obstacles?

Katy Milkman
Sure. Okay, I can give you one that I love because I’ll probably pick on ones where I have done the most research personally which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the most important ones but they’re the ones I find most interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Katy Milkman
So, one of them is impulsivity, and I’ve touched on this a little bit already and things I’ve said, which is like people are wired to look for instant gratification and to dramatically discount things that are good for us in the long run, which is why it’s so hard to drag yourself to the gym and eat that healthy food when there’s a pizza right next to it or a brownie calling your name, stay off social media, study for a test when there’s more exciting options that, even though you know clearly what’s good for you in the long run, is just not fun to do in the moment.

And I think one of the really interesting things research has shown is that people, generally, when they face a challenge like this to motivate themselves to do something that’s not that enjoyable in the moment but that’s good for them in the long run, our inclination is to just try to push through and look for the most effective way to achieve our goal.

So, if we’re, I’m going to go back to the gym, but there’s lots of places you can think about this, if you’re choosing to work out at the gym, most people are like, “I’m going to do the most effective workout on this first trip to the gym,” as opposed to an alternative, which would be, “I’m going to do the most fun thing I can do. I’m going to do the Zumba class. It’s not going to burn as many calories per minute maybe but I’m going to enjoy it.”

Same thing with healthy foods. We look for the basket of foods that’s most sinless as opposed to a healthy food that we actually enjoy eating. Or, you need to study and do work, like do you try to set up an environment where you’re really going to actually enjoy it? Maybe there are some people around that you’re studying with, or you’re in a coffee shop that you like, and you get yourself your favorite drink and you feel great. Or, are you just going to try to do it in distraction-free environment because that’s the most effective?

So, most of us think effective, and what research shows is we’re actually better off trying to do the fun workout, eat the tastier, healthy food even if it’s a little worse for us, and study in a way that’s a little less effective but more fun if we want to persist because we’re so wired for that instant gratification. We won’t push through, we think we will, but we won’t, if it’s not fun.

So, I think that’s a really important insight and it actually is really related to some work I did early on in my faculty career on something that’s a very specific solution to this. I call it temptation bundling. And the idea is only allowing yourself to enjoy some indulgence that you look forward to but maybe you shouldn’t indulge in too much, some guilty pleasure, while simultaneously doing something that’s good for you and productive so that now you start to crave.

Maybe it’s trips to the gym to binge-watch your favorite TV show, or trips to the library because you’re always going to pick up your favorite Starbucks Frappuccino en route, or folding the laundry or home-cooked meals because you’re listening to your favorite podcast at the same time. So, if you can temptation bundle, suddenly, this thing that was a chore, actually becomes something you look forward to.

And I’ve studied this and show that it can help people exercise more, and found in my own life, of course, that it also is very effective for solving all sorts of dual self-control challenges. So, in general, a principle is, make it fun, and then temptation bundling is one tool to do that, and the obstacle is when something isn’t instantly gratifying, and because of impulsivity, therefore, you aren’t making progress on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it. And that just seems like a game-changing insight distinction right there. Because of our impulsivity, don’t go guns blazing for the most effective path, but rather the most enjoyable path if what you want is consistency and persistence, like, that’s huge. Thank you.

Katy Milkman
That’s beautiful, yeah. And I only gave you one, you asked for three. I was like, “I have to breathe in here.”

Pete Mockaitis
You’re allowed to breathe. Your temptation for breathing can be bundled to more insight, Katy.

Katy Milkman
I will breathe while giving insight, okay. A second one that I like, is actually, I’ll call it the getting-started problem. And that is even though we want to do something, or motivated to do it, like finding the moment where you’re like, “Okay, and now I’m going to take action. I’m going to do something. I’m going to do something about it. This is the moment action is beginning.” It’s hard to get over that hump from visualizing it to doing it.

And I had this really interesting conversation with one of the HR leaders at Google about a decade ago when I was visiting and presenting. It’s actually as a precursor to doing the gym study I mentioned earlier on habits, I was telling them about some of my other work on nudging better decisions, helping people through use of behavioral science, make better choices at work about everything from enrolment in 401(k) plans to getting flu shots, you name it.

And this question was, “Okay, Katy, totally sold. We should be using behavioral science to encourage more productivity at work, more use of health and wellness programs, more retirement savings. But is there some optimal time to encourage that change? Is there some moment when people are particularly likely to hop on the bandwagon if we offer up tools that will help?” And I thought that was such a fascinating question and I didn’t know of any research that really addressed it so it ended up guiding my work for the next several years.

And what I immediately thought of, which came to mind, for you, too, when I posed that question was New Year’s. We all know that at the beginning of a new year there’s like this huge boost in people’s enthusiasm for starting resolutions. Forty percent of Americans set some sort of resolution. Many of them fail but they at least give it a shot which is more than we can say for many other times of the year. And I wondered, and my collaborators and I wondered, too, like, “Is there something bigger going on there? Is it just New Year’s or are there moments like that? And why New Year’s?”

And what we realized is, of course, there’s this like, it’s a social construct now, there’s norms around it, but part of it, what’s going on, is that at these moments, like New Year’s, that feel like a breaking point in life, we step back and think bigger picture, and we also feel some sort of dissociation from our past failures, because, “Oh, like, that was the old me last year, and the new me has a clean slate and I’m going to be able to do the things that were tough before and that seemed insurmountable.”

So, that sense of a clean slate and identity shift, boosted optimism, the tendency to step back, actually arises at a lot of moments in our lives that basically serve as chapter breaks in the way we structure our narrative. So, there are small ones like the start of a new week. There are big ones, celebrating a birthday, moving to a new job or a new city, becoming a parent. All of these moments turn out to make us feel like we have a clean slate and a new beginning, and people are more likely to do things like create goals on goal-setting websites, search for the term “diet” on Google, go to the gym, at these moments, and so I think that’s really interesting.

So, my team has studied specifically temporal landmarks, so moments that actually don’t involve a change in our lives but there’s also research that’s shown when you move to a new place, you move to a new job, those moments are productive times for change because, literally, you have a clean slate. You don’t have old bad habits to fall back on and you have an opportunity to build and structure new routines and not walk by the Dunkin Donuts on the way to work on this new commute.

And so, whatever it is that has been tripping you up, you have that clean slate in addition to the psychological clean slate. So, in that sense, I think the obstacle there is, “How do you find the motivation to get started?” And our research points to looking for these moments that have fresh-start resonance as jumping off points, and also nudging other people to notice them.

So, we found, for instance, if you just mark your calendar with the first day of spring on it and give you an option, like, “When might you want to start getting reminders from us to pursue a goal you’ve been meaning to get around to?” and March 20th is labeled first day of spring. Now, it triples your excitement about getting reminders to start your new goal in that day than if we gave you a calendar without labeling March 20th the first day of spring.

So, we can do, and we ran a study where we invited people, thousands of people who weren’t saving adequately for retirement, to sign up for our retirement program at their employer to start setting aside a portion of their paychecks in retirement savings. And everybody got an identical offering, you could start saving right away or you could delay a few months. But some people that delay, we labeled, and it corresponded either to a birthday or to the start of spring, and we said, “Do you want to start saving after your next birthday? Do you want to start saving at the start of spring?”

So, we’re literally making an apples-to-apples comparison because everybody is getting that same offering but some people don’t have it labeled for them as their birthday. It just says in three months. And we see a 30% increase in savings over the next eight months when we’ve invited people to start saving after those fresh start dates.

Pete Mockaitis
I was just going to ask, Katy, so not only do we have more enthusiasm to start but the proof is in the pudding. They actually do it afterwards.

Katy Milkman
Well, I do think a really important note is that, in that case, we set ourselves up for success because it’s an auto…it’s like a self-fulfilling thing.

Pete Mockaitis
You flip the switch once to do it, yeah.

Katy Milkman
Yes, and those are the best things to do at fresh-start moments because the motivation wanes and that’s why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. So, it only solves one problem, which is getting started, and the rest of my book talks about how you solve all the other problems so you stick to it and actually get somewhere with your goals. But if you can put it on autopilot, how about if that’s my third answer, but it’s not a super original and it is a super powerful one.

Anything we can put as a default so that it is just self-perpetuating, that’s a huge win because an obstacle to change is laziness, but you can turn it on its head and make it into a solution if you set defaults, like in that moment of motivation, you sign up for the retirement savings plan on January 1st, and now it’s going to just kick in. You’d have to actually lift a finger to change it and, goodness knows, you’re never going to. Or, cancel all of your subscriptions that you don’t really need, one day a year, when you’re feeling motivated after your birthday. Those are the kinds of things that can sort of be gifts that keep on giving. Or, signing up for an educational program or subscription of some sort that’s really valuable. Those also can carry you forward and sort of have like riptide-like effects.

So, if you can use that moment, when you’re feeling motivated to do something and lock in a change that will continue, that’s really valuable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool. So, let laziness work for us if you can somehow shift it such that the default of doing nothing benefits you, then that’s awesome.

Katy Milkman
Exactly, which is what happens when you sign up for a savings program once, that just keeps going. Or, when you enroll in school, I mean, you still have to show up, but you’re going. It’s hard to get out. Like, the path of least resistance is to go for the thing that you’ve put a down payment on.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, Katy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Katy Milkman
No, this has been so…you’ve asked such good questions. I feel like I’ve been giving you really long and detailed answers, like highlights of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love them.

Katy Milkman
So, I’m excited. Thank you for the great questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, maybe I’ll give one more. What should we not do? And maybe something counterintuitive, like, “Hey, I’ve heard I should do this, but maybe I shouldn’t.”

Katy Milkman
I’m not a big fan of setting like really big audacious goals, like that model, and just assuming that will carry you forward, because without actually getting into the nitty-gritty structures, like I do think people try to think about a north star huge objective and that having that could be really valuable, and I think it can be distracting, it could be overwhelming. There’s also research showing that if you make too many, set too many goals, and then plan for each of them, that’s really demotivating because you can’t do it all and you sort of throw up your hands and give up.

So, I think sort of too big and distant and dreamy and not broken down is bad, and too many objectives that you do break down and plan for is bad. Like, focusing on one thing at a time, that’s a little bit of a stretch but it’s doable and you can plan for it, and then you can use these tactics to help you is the right way forward.

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

Katy Milkman
Is it “Well done is better than well said”? Is that Ben Franklin, I believe? I like that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And how about a favorite book?

Katy Milkman
My favorite book is Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, and that actually has a new edition coming out later this year which I’m really excited for. Though, I’ll also say, my second favorite book, and it’s really close, is Influence by Bob Cialdini. I know you’re a big fan too.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Katy Milkman
I assign both of those books, by the way, to all of my MBA students at Wharton. I love them and read them every year, and they’re just classics and truly wonderful and have changed the way I think about the world.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit for you?

Katy Milkman
That’s interesting. I wouldn’t call it a habit. Can I say a favorite behavior?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Katy Milkman
Because habits have this very narrow definition in academia where we’re like it’s on autopilot. Okay, so like a favorite behavior or this thing I do, which is I choose to work with people I really, really admire and enjoy spending time with so that work for me is a treat intellectually but also socially. And I feel really lucky to have the privilege of being able to choose who I collaborate with. And so, that has made my career tremendously fun, and I think it’s part of what’s helped me be productive and successful in my career as well.

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

Katy Milkman
My website which is KatyMilkman.com. It has all sorts of information about my book How to Change, about my podcast Choiceology, I have a newsletter called Milkman Delivers, which is a name that I was shying away from but my MBA insisted I had to go with, and about my research.

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

Katy Milkman
I would say one of the biggest takeaways from all of my research on behavior changes that, and we sort of started here, it’s super important to expect that there will be things that don’t work out, that if you are too rigid in your expectations of yourself, if you set up habits that are too rigid, if you set up goals that are too rigid, and let yourself be discouraged when things don’t work out according to plan, and don’t push through, you just won’t get very far.

And in change, anticipating setbacks and being prepared for them, having a backup plan, is just absolutely critical. Even in habits, we found that it was critical to be flexible and build flexible habits. So, it’s “I’ll always…” not “If only…” kind of habit. And I think that’s critical to everything. It comes up again and again in my research, how important it is to find ways to get back up after you’ve fallen down, and to be expecting that that could happen and planning for it.

So, my words of wisdom would be don’t let yourself be discouraged too easily, expect that there’s always setbacks. But on the path forward, it’s, hopefully, two steps forward and one step back, and just be prepared for that and set yourself up for success when you hit those roadblocks.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Katy, this has been a pleasure. Thank you. I wish you lots of luck with the book and all the ways you’re changing.

Katy Milkman
Thank you. So lovely to chat. Thanks for having me on the show.

644: How to Sharpen Your Skills for Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet with Michelle Weise

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Michelle Weise sheds light on the learning challenges professionals will face in the near future—and how we can prepare for them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to surface your hidden skills
  2. How to keep AI from making you irrelevant
  3. Nifty tools for upskilling quickly

About Michelle

Michelle Weise was just named to the Thinkers50 thinkers to watch in 2021. She is senior advisor to Imaginable Futures, a venture of The Omidyar Group, and BrightHive, a data collaboration platform. 

She is former chief innovation officer of Strada Education Network and Southern New Hampshire University. She led the higher education practice at Clay Christensen’s Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Her most recent book is LONG LIFE LEARNING: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet (Wiley, 2020). Her first book, with Clay Christensen (2014) is Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution.

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you, sponsors!

  • MunkPack. Save 20% on delicious, keto-friendly snacks at Munkpack.com with the promo code AWESOME.

Michelle Weise Interview Transcript

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

Michelle Weise
Great to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, as I was reading all about you, one thing that I found, I guess, touching or moving or wanting to touch up on for a moment was we’ve spoken with some people who have worked and written books with Stephen R. Covey, and it was just sort of beautiful to hear some memories of that great man and teacher who’ve lived on, and, likewise, I wanted to hear a bit from you, to start us off, about working with Clayton Christensen. What’s something folks should know about him and who he was when you were collaborating with him?

Michelle Weise
He was one of the most generous people. He would always kind of make you feel like you were the most important person talking to him at that moment. And, it’s funny, I had a lot of folks who would see him speak at large events and they could sense his sort of folksy tone from him and his kindness, and he would say these beautiful things, and people would turn to me and say, “Is he really that nice? Is this for show?” and it really wasn’t.

He was sort of rooted in that way. He was driven by a really intense faith. He was a Mormon. At his funeral, it was kind of amazing to hear the incredible amount of service he did on the sidelines. And that just sort of…that feeling of just kindness and generosity that was emanating from him, I think it just showed through every action.

And, for me, it was life-changing to work with him directly and to write with him and to learn from him, and to go very deep into the theories of disruptive innovation and sort of see where he would get frustrated with kind of the misuse of his theories. And everything I learned about storytelling, I learned from him.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And so, oh, yeah, we’re going to be doing a little bit of storytelling, I suppose, here about your insights associated with long life learning. I keep almost saying life-long learning every time, it probably happens to you a lot with your collaborators here. So, well, hey, let’s go meta for a second. Michelle, tell me, how can we tell this story most effectively?

Michelle Weise
Yes, so the reason why we’re getting tripped up on long life learning is we’re so much more familiar with this concept of life-long learning that we should be constantly learning how to learn throughout our lives. What I tried to do in this book was to move us into action. I was just noticing a lot of inertia around this concept because we know we need to reskill throughout our longer more turbulent work lives. But where is the actual infrastructure to sort of take these on and off ramps, in and out of learning and work, or do both at the same time and not have it feel so painful?

And so, for me, this mental shift comes through this concept of a longer life. If we extend our life spans, which we know since 1840, we’ve tacking on three months of life to every single year since 1840, so our life spans are just definitely extending but so are our work lives. When you look at early Baby Boomers and how long they’re staying in the workforce and how many job changes they go through by the time they retire, it just helps us kind of snap us into attention, and to say, “We have to start building a better functioning ecosystem in which we can access the education and training we need in order to thrive in the labor market.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that thesis seems to just make sense as a natural implication of living longer and such. So, could you maybe share with us something that’s surprising or counterintuitive as a discovery that you’ve made along the way as you’re putting this together?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, I have been doing a lot of research on the future or work, and what I noticed in a lot of the literature and the analyses out there by chief economists as they’re trying to sort of forecast all the different kinds of ways in which jobs are going to become obsolete or this industry will become decimated by these technologies, what I realized was this kind of intense focus on the “it”, or the things or the jobs, or the tasks and numbers.

And so, what I realized is if we actually kind of move away from thinking about the future of work to the future of workers, and all of us having to somehow kind of move through this learn-earn, learn-earn cycle, to me it kind of helped surface some of the most intractable issues and barriers that we need to solve for today.

So, what my book does is it really actually elevates the voices of people who only have a high school degree, who are constantly being overlooked for work they could actually perform, and noticing where the barriers kind of coalesce. So, these concepts that I come up with around better career navigation, or better wrap-around support services, or more targeted educational pathways, or more integrated learning and earning, and more fair and transparent skills-based hiring practices, those aren’t just coming from me thinking what we need to do. It’s really kind of trying to gather all this qualitative data.

We did over a hundred hour-long in-depth interviews with folks to sort of sass out, “Where do people keep kind of bumping up against pain points?” And if we designed this future system better, then all of us are going to actually end up benefiting. It’s the same idea of the curve cuts that we did when we kind of created the Americans With Disabilities Act.

When you’re cutting into the curve and you’re making a sloping curve, you’re not only helping folks who are disabled who need to use a wheelchair, but you’re helping mothers pushing strollers, or FedEx delivery folks with their dolleys, you’re helping runners, cyclists, skateboarders. It’s this idea of universal design. But when we want to target our focus, because it just seems like this huge, expansive challenge, we focus on the people, the future of workers.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. Well, so then, as we got a lot of workers listening right now, can you sort of frame things up for us a little bit in terms of…? So, you make a point that the old model of, hey, there’s education, then there’s work, then there’s retirement isn’t what we should be relying upon going forward. Can you expand upon that?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, just the notion that we could have one or a handful of jobs and retire in comfort, that’s already become sort of a quaint notion. And when you look at the amount of job changes that people are experiencing by the time they retire, folks are already going through, on average, 12 job changes by the time they retire.

And so, as we think about that longer more turbulent work life that is shaped by rapid advancements in technology, we can only extrapolate from there, “Wow, we may have to somehow entertain 20 or 30 job changes by the time we retire. And so, how in the world are we going to navigate that when one is just so difficult to navigate?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, lay it on us, how should we navigate these optimally?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, I think the perfect illustration of what’s not working today is when we look at what the pandemic has shown us, which is when retail and hospitality were just completely decimated as industries, we had no way for people who were in those customer service roles or those frontline worker roles to actually transfer their skills from retail or from hospitality into something totally different but to identify their kind of transferable skills.

And I think, all of us, we believe that we have really important kinds of skills. Those transferable skills that can help us port our assets from one specific area to another. But, in general, when you think about the job market, we think about it in such a linear format. We kind of, if we start off in retail, or if we start off in office admin, when we think about advancement, we think within that line of work. It’s harder for us to sort of think about moving beyond that industry that we started in.

And the reason why we feel that way is because that’s what employers tell us, right? The employers want to see exact work experience in hospitality to move you up to a manager role. We don’t have ways of validating other kinds of experiences. So, one of the key solutions for us that are exciting for us to anticipate, and we already see these different kinds of AI-powered platforms.

What they’re doing is they’re helping us surface maybe some of our hidden skills. The skills that aren’t necessarily recognized by a formal credential, like a degree or a certificate or a certification. And what they’re doing is, as we’re typing in, I used to be a barista, that signal of the barista helps the platform actually surface, “Oh, did you know that folks who were baristas they have these specific competencies and skills.”

So, there are ways in which these platforms can not only help us surface our own skills but then help us envision pathways where we might actually be 75% of the way there towards something in human resources, or 85% of the way there towards something in advertising and marketing. We just didn’t know it; we couldn’t envision it for ourselves.

So, these kinds of tech-enabled platforms are interesting kinds of seeds of innovation to look at that might help us not only kind of validate our own skills whether we’ve acquired them through taking care of our own families or through work experience, and also understand the kinds of gaps we might have to fill in order to move into these other opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really interesting when you mentioned that if you’re a barista, you can very well have under the surface like all of these skills that you’re applying there. And that reminds me of a previous guest we had, Todd Rose, talking about dark horses and how what might seem like completely different skills are actually, if you zoom way in, super similar in terms of, “Oh, actually, well, you’re using your hands to shape these things into other things so that they fit. Those are similar.” Much like, “Oh, you are optimizing a manufacturing production schedule is sort of like solving a puzzle over in the realm of math or physics or something that, who would’ve known, those are quite common or quite complementary.”

Michelle Weise
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, these platforms you speak of, how do we get our hands on one? So, can I go to some website right now and it’s going to tell me all my hidden skills?

Michelle Weise
So, that’s one of the challenges. There is like a free one off of Emsi called Skills Match where you can start to surface and kind of build a resume using these technologies. But this is one of the challenges and this is what I’m trying to point out in my book is that there are hundreds of thousands of innovations and solutions out there. The problem is for any normal person to understand where to go, like if we’re suddenly laid off, we don’t know who to call, where to go, who to talk to.

There are so many of these solutions out there but they’re not knit together in a way that’s easily understandable and navigable for any person. It’s not that we need a whole slew of new innovations. We need these things to become just more accessible so we can understand and comprehend how to navigate this who to go to for, “How do I know that when I pick this learning experience, a future employer is going to validate it and understand what it means? And how do I know precisely which skills I need to acquire? And which school actually offers those three competencies? I don’t need a degree, maybe. Maybe I already have a degree. I don’t want to go back to school full time. How do I get just what I need in order to move on?” And that’s one of the challenges.

But there’s a bunch of these groups, like Skyhigh, FutureFit. And what they’re doing right now is they’re more B2B, they’re more working with enterprises and trying to help them get a better understanding of who’s in their workforce. Because a lot of companies, and it’s very odd to think about it this way, but most companies don’t actually know what their people can do.

They know job titles, they know names. They don’t have a real granular sense of the skillsets, the competencies, all those hidden talents that folks have. So, that’s where these innovations are starting is trying to help employers be less wasteful, not always recruit externally, but look at the talent that they have right in front of them, and think, “Maybe I could actually take 30% of these folks and build their skills in X, Y, or Z technique or strategic goals for the future.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s exciting, and, indeed, it just seems like a huge opportunity that’s just waiting to be plucked. A great manager would know a lot of what their team is capable of. Yet, how is that information captured, collected, and transmitted elsewhere? And one of the incentives for doing so, you’re like, “No, Michelle is a rock star. She’s working for me. Get your hands off. I don’t want you to snag and do a completely different function.”

Michelle Weise
That is a real challenge within the companies. Yeah, this kind of like zero-sum game of, “Oh, if you take my person, you’re hurting me versus helping the company.” It’s hard to get out of that mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, unless you have sort of a widespread culture and reciprocity and such so that you say, “Hey, you know what, there’s give and take, I might lose Michelle for a couple months, but I’m going to get Phil who’s amazing and fills another role that we really need,” so there’s that trust there that can be handy.

Well, now, you just got me dreaming big, Michelle. I remember I once, I don’t know if I’m going to do this or not, but I hope someone is doing this. But when you talked about the high school folks who did not have diplomas and yet are capable of doing so much but it’s hard for them to sort of prove that. I kind of imagine just like forming this whole business where we just sort of like assess the crap out of people in terms of like all of these batteries of things because I come from strategy consulting and we did case interviews, and I found that that was a pretty excellent means of identifying if some folks have a particular set of skills. And so, that’s one kind of a test for one set of skills.

Likewise, there’s many tests for many other skills. Wouldn’t it be cool if folks could go to some sort of facility for a week or something and get a rundown on all their skills in a language that firms could read and understand, and then open up opportunity for people as well as savings for the companies? It seems like someone should have invented that. Maybe it needs to be me or maybe that’s in the works. But, Michelle, give us your take on to what extent does that exists, a means of identifying and appreciating hidden skills so that companies can save money and not have to hire the Harvard grad, and professionals who don’t have the degree can see some cool opportunities?

Michelle Weise
Yeah. So, what you’re identifying when you’re talking about seeing how someone responds to a case study is you’re testing their problem-solving capabilities, you’re trying to see, “What kind of systems-thinking, critical-thinking capabilities do they have?” I was just talking to a colleague who used to work at Arthur Andersen and they had this very open-question format where they would do the same things where they’d be trying to assess out someone’s sense of initiative and collaboration and these more fuzzy things, but trying to see how they talk about this in the context of solving a problem.

The good news is that there are these innovators who are working on new kinds of ways of assessing curiosity, problem-solving, all these really important kinds of skills that we know are going to be deeply valuable in the future of work. Because as we think about the rapid advancements of AI and how intelligent these AI are, where it’s not only able to read, drive, see, but it’s also able to write poetry, it can paint Picassos. It’s getting scary how far these technologies are sort of infiltrating our lives. What is our human advantage? What is our competitive advantage when we compare ourselves to these machines who can usually do some of this work far more flawlessly than we can? And it comes in these human skills.

So, places Imbellis and Mursion and all these different groups are trying to figure out ways to test out someone’s problem-solving capabilities where you’re on a computer and you’re thrust into this setting where you’re in this natural environment in the mountains and something is dead in front of you, and you need to kind of poke it and look at it, sort of see what is going on, and you’re trying to figure out what happened.

And so, on the backend you have psychometricians kind of figuring out what all those clicks mean, what are you doing when you’re putting these two datasets together. So, there’s really interesting ways in which groups are trying to democratize the process, and say, “We’re looking for the best problem-solvers in the world. If you can kind of solve this problem, this is really exciting.” And it makes me think of what you’re talking about with Todd Rose’s concept of the dark horse.

One of the most valuable assets that we will bring to the table is our ability to take concepts from seemingly unrelated domains and make them make sense in the context of the problem we’re trying to solve. So, InnoCentive, as an example, this was a platform that was created partly because at Eli Lilly, these chemists and scientists couldn’t figure out a problem so they posted it online and they found out that a lawyer could actually solve the problem using his sort of different kinds of contextualized expertise to help them figure out a way forward. Or, when they tried to figure out how to create more efficient ways of solving for oil spills in oceans, it was actually a pastry chef who talked about the process of making chocolate mousse and how that might actually help us think through how you remove oil from water.

And this is all, I’m totally stealing this from David Epstein’s book Range, but it’s this idea of, “How are we going to cultivate not only problem-solvers but people who can display that sense of range?” And it doesn’t always come from a four-year college degree. We don’t always get that real intensive interdisciplinary learning that we probably should. And, for me, for the next steps for higher education, that is a real opportunity for them to kind of break down silos across disciplines and departments. But, as we think about those skills that are going to make us most valuable, it’s going to be those kinds of hidden ways of thinking about problems.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hit that for a minute there. So, AI can do a lot, and right now we’re very much evaluating humans being able to draw from different disciplines and putting them together. So, What are the fundamental kinds of principles or distinctions that…? Like, we think human brains are going to be able to do this better than machines even 20 years from now. What are those things? It’s not playing chess or Jeopardy, but what is it?

Michelle Weise
I think probably the most helpful way of thinking about it is when I talked to an executive from Apple who, he actually went to Stanford for a mechanical engineering degree, but as part of his general curriculum he took a class on ethics. And he mentioned that that class is probably one of the most valuable classes he had while he was an undergraduate, because when they’re producing technology, new technologies, new products, the thing they have to think about is, he called it sort of volume impact repercussions, where they have to think of second-, third-order effects of what they’re building, because, in an instant, millions of people are going to be leveraging whatever it is they are producing. And so, they really have to kind of anticipate forward and think, “What are all the ways in which this can go wrong?”

And if we think about where we are today with social media, we didn’t do enough of that. We didn’t extrapolate enough far forward. And when you hear the co-founders of a bunch of these different social media companies, you hear them say, “I didn’t think that this is the way that it was going to be used.” But this is what humans do bring to the table when we sort of bring ethics and judgment and values, and try to think forward.

And this also has implications on the kinds of people you bring around the table to do that sort of analyses. It has to be a diverse group. It cannot just be young white male undergrads kind of thinking about this problem. It has to be a diverse group of folks kind of thinking about those volume impact repercussions. So, I think those real skills in exercising judgment are going to be critical, that we can’t rely on the AI to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, second-, third-order things. And I guess that makes sense to me in terms of like as I think about things that are like playing chess or Jeopardy or even like composing or painting, it’s sort of like they’re all kind of bounded in a way in terms of find the right answer, or the right move, or apply a principle of color or sound.

Michelle Weise
Right, they’re finite. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Versus saying, speculating as to what social media and how it will impact us with widespread adoption. That does seem harder to stick inside code. Anything else that we humans do great?

Michelle Weise
So, a couple of years ago, Amazon had tried to leverage AI to diversity their hiring processes, and they thought maybe AI could do a better job than humans. And so, they kind of built out this new system, the AI started kind of going through the diverse set of applications. And then it was the humans kind of watching and seeing the output to sort of identify, “Huh, kind of strange that so many of these folks are named Jarod. Or, a lot of them played lacrosse.”

And they started to realize, “Oh, my gosh, we’ve trained the AI on flawed data.” They kind of looked at their existing talent pool. They tried to sort of say, “These are the senior leaders at our company that do great work.” But what they did was they trained the AI to search for people that looked and sounded exactly like their existing leadership, and that is not a way that you diversify your talent pool.

And so, it took humans to kind of notice and sort of exercise some judgment to say, “Wait, something is wrong. Interrogate it. Look deeply, look into the data,” and sort of say, “Oh, okay. We’ve got a problem here.” Because the AI will only just kind of repeatedly get smarter and smarter with the data that it is trained on. And we see this also happening, unfortunately, in the legal system where we’re developing sentencing structures based on deeply inequitable past data of how we’ve punished people.

So, we need this kind of deep-thinking humans for the future who have enough domain expertise to be able to question the AI because we cannot just let it…the crazy thing is that most companies…

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Jarod is in here. Whatever you say, robot.

Michelle Weise
Yeah, most companies like don’t know if they can trust their AI right now. I have a statistic in the book where they are not comfortable auditing the sort of their existing AI.

Pete Mockaitis
Not comfortable auditing it?

Michelle Weise
Yes, so this is from an Accenture study that basically fewer than a third of companies surveyed have a high degree of confidence in the fairness and auditability of their AI systems, and less than half have similar confidence in the safety of those systems. So, we’re so reliant on these technologies and yet we don’t fully trust the algorithms that undergird them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I buy that even in a very easy example. I think about machine-generated transcription, which, I mean, that’s existed for 20, 30, 40 years and yet it’s still not great. I don’t know. If you have 98% accuracy, okay, that sounds really impressive, but that’s really still like three errors every minute. And so, in this conversation we’d have a hundred or two, and so I wouldn’t call that good.

And so, anyway, I just find that, I don’t know, not to be quite grouchy, but I’m a little skeptical myself in terms of maybe eventually it will be awesome but right now I’m not super impressed, and maybe I just haven’t been looking at the right places to blow me away.

Michelle Weise
No, what you are pointing out is what this MIT economist named Daron Acemoglu calls so-so automation. So, like when we think about just the rise of ATMs in the last few decades, what’s interesting about an ATM is that it is far better than a so-so technology because it actually completely made obsolete the role of a person counting money because it could do it really well.

And we don’t actually have a lot of technologies that we’re building today, the transcription one is a perfect example, or the robots that we use in warehouses where we have to depend on people as pick-and-packers to be able to sort of get the thing out of the robot’s sort of treasure trove and put it into a box.

So, we’re creating technologies that are just so-so. They’re not great enough to completely obviate a certain task. And, as a result, we’re not creating enough forms of truly creative labor. Because when ATMs kind of took over, what was fascinating to see is the sort of burgeoning of the services industry in banking. It wasn’t that people just became useless, it’s that they actually transferred their skills into different domains.

Here, what we’re having is a lot of kind of unfulfilling what researchers called ghost work. It’s this kind of interstitial stuff that we have to do on the backend even when we’re training AI. You have tons of people, these mechanical turkers who are working for cents on the dollar, who are identifying all the photos that are coming up from the AI to say, “That’s a face. That’s the same face as that one. That’s a body part. Ooh, that’s not a body part we want to show.”

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s a cat. That’s not a cat.” Right?

Michelle Weise
Exactly. And, “Not a hotdog. A hotdog.”

Pete Mockaitis
Silicon Valley.

Michelle Weise
But we have a lot of terrible work that’s emerging because of that not-great-enough technology. Right now, we’re in this awkward phase where we’re not creating enough forms of creative labor.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Michelle, these are a lot of interesting ideas. I’d love it if we could sort of zoom in here now for the professional who are maybe in their 30s or 40s who got a lot of work left in their career before retirement, likely. So, what’s our game plan in terms of learning the right stuff effectively and well and keeping our careers moving in a great trajectory?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, I think one way forward is, unfortunately, for us as job seekers, a lot of the burden rests on us, and a lot of the financial risks also rests on us to make these decisions on our own. But moving into the future, what we really need to see and what, I think, will signify the kind of company that we want to work for are the ones who stop this kind of dis-investment in training their existing workforce and start to realize, “I have all this talent within. How do I help them acquire the skills they need to be successful?”

And I think the most powerful indicator of a company that is truly invested in us as job seekers are the ones that tell us, “You don’t have to do this on your own. We’re not going to just dangle tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement dollars and say, ‘Hey, we’re glad that you would like to advance your education. Go do it on your own time on top of everything else you’ve got going on in your lives.’”

The most competitive forward-thinking companies are going to realize that the workplace is really the classroom of the future. And I’m not talking about on-the-job compliance training, risk mitigation work, like sexual harassment training. I am talking about real new skills-building activities. So, it’s critical that the company not only identifies really transparent internal mobility pathways for you and for us, but it also has to be very explicit about carving out time in the flow of the workday for you to acquire those skills because it’s not fair for us to have to somehow squeeze it in on top of stitching together multiple part-time jobs, or all our caregiving activities. It’s too hard to just kind of stack that on top of everything else.

So, I think the things that we need to look out for the future are the companies that are truly invested in our reskilling and upskilling who kind of figure out ways to make that learning bite-sized, or for an hour a day, or an hour a week where we can be doing this in the flow of work. And, also, for educational institutions and providers to be able to modularized their learning in ways that’s more accessible where we’re not always bending to the sort of linear structure, the college or the university, but that it’s much more flexible and easily consumable.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a beautiful world that I’d love for us to live in. And I guess part of why this podcast exists is that we’re not there, and it is a little bit of a do-it-yourself proposition for a lot of folks these days, and fair or not, pleasant or not, stressful. So, let’s talk to the professional who’s in an environment that’s not so enlightened with regard to offering some great learning opportunity, and let’s say even, hey, they’re a little mercenary, they’re just going to go take it, “At 11:00 a.m., when there’s no other meeting on the calendar, I’m just going to do me some learning.” What are some of the top resources you’d recommend to them? I’m a huge fan of LinkedIn Learning myself, but what else would you say in terms of, “All right, you got an hour. You’re going to do some learning,” what are some of your favorite places to go?

Michelle Weise
So, one that I talk about in the book is called GLEAC. And what they do is they make this kind of mobile-friendly learning apps where they just take minutes and they have folks, for instance, who are customer service or retail folks in Prada stores, as an example, where they’re building up their reflection and communication of this kind of human skills that they’re developing where they’re exercising their judgment. And they are these bite-sized learning applications that a worker can kind of leverage while they’re working.

Another one would be Mursion that I’m kind of really interested in.

So, we tend to think of executive coaching as reserved for people kind of mid-level managers and up. What Mursion enables us to do is practice those really important human skills in a low-stakes environment. So, giving feedback, receiving feedback, these really critical skills for success in the workforce but we generally only practice them in a high-stakes environment, when we actually have to give someone really tough feedback or when we’re receiving it from our bosses.

And, generally, I know whenever I do this, I leave the conversation sort of thinking about all the different ways in which I could’ve done it better. And this environment actually has avatars in front of you, and the quality of the imagery is good enough where you can notice different people’s nonverbal cues, and you hear their voices change, and so you have to be responsive in that moment.

And it’s actually this kind of interesting AI-powered platform that’s puppeteer-ed by one human also in the background, where the human can play the role of like six or seven different people with different voices and different characteristics. And so, it gives you that chance to practice negotiation, all these different kinds of skills that we need to get better at because the fascinating thing, just in general, with human skills is even though we’re human, we’re not very sophisticated at them. We actually have to practice these skills. And just because we take a LinkedIn Learning class on empathy, we’re not somehow going to become more emotionally intelligent just from taking that one class. We have to figure out ways to practice this. So, those are the kinds of innovations that I’m excited about.

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

Michelle Weise
One thing that might be important for job seekers to know about is the existence of different kinds of alternative learning providers kind of outside the traditional realm of colleges and universities. I think most people have heard of these things called coding bootcamps where you go and you get pretty savvy in web development or frontend development and you do this for 6 to 12 weeks, you pay $20,000 out of pocket, and maybe you get this great job.

Those have typically kind of been more geared to folks who already have a degree, sort of more affluent who can actually afford to pay out of pocket. But there are these interesting other set of providers that I call on-ramps where they do this kind of really important human skills-building work but they also help learners get skills in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, data science, enough to get hired by.

There are amazing stories of a US Postal Service worker becoming a quality assurance engineer for Facebook through this data science immersive program. And what they’re doing is that they’re actually stitching together that kind of career navigation with a very precise educational pathway with a direct connection to an employer.

And so, there are these kinds of opportunities available. It’s a matter of trying to, again, it’s back to us as the individual job seekers, the burden is on us to kind of find some of these. But a really interesting example of another one is one called Climb Hire we know that Salesforce administrators, they are a job that are in demand, that are in high demand. And so, what they’re doing is they’re building these skills but they’re also embedding social capital building into the learning process where they’re helping folks, who may not have the best professional networks, learn how important it is to build relationships, build professional networks.

And when a person actually gets a job at a company, as a Salesforce administrator, the onus is on them to refer and bring someone else into the company from Climb Hire because the CEO realized from LinkedIn data, as an example, that people are nine times more likely to get a job through a referral so they’re helping job seekers and learners really build this skill because it is something that you kind of have to learn how to do unless you’re sort of born into an incredible network.

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

Michelle Weise
So, you heard me talk about David Epstein who wrote Range, and he talks about deep learning, but he says, “The most effective learning looks inefficient. It looks like falling behind.” And I love this quote just because I think when we think about all the ways in which we are kind of channeled and incentivized to achieve, we’re always measuring through this kind of testing that is actually not measuring what matters.

And if we were actually to sort of really understand what kind of learners and that kind of deep learning in folks, it would actually look like failing. And I think that’s, I don’t know, that’s important for us to know.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Michelle Weise
Probably Beloved by Toni Morrison.

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

Michelle Weise
I have one of those keyboards that are split into two and kind of at an angle.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too.

Michelle Weise
I have some tendonitis, so.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I’ve got the Freestyle2 from Kinesis.

Michelle Weise
That’s what I have.

Pete Mockaitis
But you got the tents going. I didn’t get the tents. I just got the split because I’ve got, I guess, some wider shoulders and so I always found that I was…Yeah, so I like being able to stretch out and be me without having to crunch them in.

Michelle Weise
Yeah. I have the same exact one, the Freestyle2. Underneath you can flip out the thingies.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s right.

Michelle Weise
You know what I realized, I think I pressed the delete button so much that I actually really kind of hurt my wrist and needed to re-shift my posture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that there’s something beautiful hiding in that. Perhaps it’s revision, commitment to excellence, iterating, learning, that meta stuff there.

Michelle Weise
Yeah, nothing you write is golden.

Pete Mockaitis
Not at first anyway. And how about a favorite habit?

Michelle Weise
Oh, walking.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re kind of known for, people quote back to you a lot?

Michelle Weise
Oh, I think maybe because I learned this from Clayton Christensen, one of the most powerful parts of the theories is when you see something that looks less than, our immediate kind of reflexes is to sort of scorn or disparage it or to dismiss it as, “Ah, it’s not an important innovation to pay attention to,” but Clay always said it could be just good enough. And that is something that I try to convey to folks. When we have that very human reflex, when we perceive newness as danger, that might be actually the precise time where we need to take a beat and look at the thing more carefully.

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

Michelle Weise
I’m always available through Twitter and LinkedIn @rwmichelle or I have a website called RiseAndDesign.io.

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

Michelle Weise
I think, in general, it’s still this concept of collaboration. I think we, generally, just because of the way we trained from K-12 on through college, it’s so often kind of this notion that things are a zero-sum game, where if you’re winning, I’m losing. But in this concept of kind of long life learning, there’s no winning list. And so, how do we actually change our behavior instead of always sort of trying to be the leader? How do we actually make sure we’re collaborating in truly distinctive ways? I think that’s something that I think about a lot. It’s a hard behavior to turn to given the way that we’re trained.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Michelle, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in your long life learning.

Michelle Weise
Thank you. You, too.

600: Scientific Strategies to Make Learning Stick with Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto

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Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto say: "Be an extreme learner. Treat learning like it's a mountain to climb."

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto share practical insights on how to optimize your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three simple tactics that drastically improve how we learn
  2. Why you want the learning process to be difficult
  3. How to get into the optimal mental state for learning

About Sanjay and Luke

Sanjay Sarma is the head of Open Learning at MIT. A professor of mechanical engineering by training, he has worked in the fields of energy and transportation; computational geometry; computer assisted design; and has been a pioneer in RFID technology. He has an undergraduate degree from IIT Kanpur as well as advanced degrees from Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley.

Luke Yoquinto is a science writer who covers learning and education, as well as aging and demographic change in his role as a researcher at the MIT AgeLab. His work can be found in publications such as The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. He is a graduate of Boston University’s science journalism program.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto Interview Transcript

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

Sanjay Sarma
Thanks very much.

Luke Yoquinto
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. So, maybe we’ll just go right off the bat. What’s the big idea behind the book Grasp?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, the big idea is that we, today, in learning, need to focus more on access and more on making content cognitively friendly, and we sort of have it backwards. We make stuff cognitively unfriendly, perhaps not intentionally, and then we struggle with access and inclusion, and we end up sort of weeding people out of the system.

Luke Yoquinto
And, in fact, we could go so far as to say all the things we do to “identify talent” sometimes can step on the cognitive process instead of make learning happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, can you share an example in terms of some cognitively unfriendly practices that we may be better off without?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, there’s a myriad. I mean, one very simple one is every lecture is 45 minutes, half an hour, an hour, and we bag our finger at a student who seems to lose interest. But, in fact, the way the brain works, you’re really taught to absorb material for more than 10 minutes or so, right there, right off the bat. And then we, for example, keep forgetting as something this learner, it’s their fault. Whereas, forgetting is very central to all of learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I’m intrigued. So, 10 minutes, already so much I want to dig into. And so, what’s sort of the best practice then? After 10 minutes, is there sort of a break or refresher or a mental pallet cleanser you’d recommend? Or what’s sort of the best practice?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, after 10 minutes, there are so many things you can do, but the first thing is, take a break. But then the other thing you want to do is actually do something called a testing effect. It turns out that if you’ve learned in the last 10 minutes, and if you personalize it a little bit, and say, “Well, now, what did you learn Pete? What is that? What does that promote?” It promotes learning. And then you can start the next chunk. Well, then there’s other stuff. Maybe, Luke, you can talk about that.

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah. The testing effect is sort of a big theme that comes up in the book. There’s something called the effortful retrieval, which is a major boon to long-term remembering. One of the key researchers we talked to for the book are Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, and they have really intriguing set of practices around retrieval and metacognition. And, basically, one of the big ideas is that when you forget an item to be remembered, it’s not just being lost to you. What’s happening is all the competing misconceptions and confusing little ideas around that item are also being forgotten. And then when you re-remember that item, the true memory, without those competing, conflicting, interfering associations comes back, and there’s a much stronger memory.

And so, one thing you can do with the pre-test before your big final exam, for instance, is you can force yourself to have what’s called an effortful retrieval that sort of strips away all these competing memory associations and you get left with a strong long-lasting memory.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, then is that the value in the forgetting there, is that that provides us that opportunity?

Sanjay Sarma
There’s a lot of value in forgetting. There’s value all the way down to the neurons, and all the way up to the things that Luke was talking about. So, the neuron level, what happens is that when you’re about to forget, you get reminded of something, essentially the brain establishes more physical neuronal pathways, which makes the memory firmer. So, that’s one thing. But then if you go up to the higher levels, you get rid of interfering memories, which was what Luke was talking about. So, the integrating memories go away, and you sort of re-establish your memory in a much cleaner way. So, there’s a whole variety of spectrum of benefits to just being able to forget something, and then to re-learn it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’d love to zoom in a little bit in terms of, so you’re playing a big game on a global stage, and when talking about sort of access and all kinds of cool impact there. I think about our listeners, specifically professionals, could you lay out what’s really at stake here for them in terms of if they’re learning optimally or sub-optimally? How significant is that impact?

Sanjay Sarma
Look, 21st century and I like to joke that the 21st century begins in 2021, right? I mean, COVID is this big reset. So, we are going to enter an economy in which learning is central. The half-life of skills is shorter, etc., future work, there’s enough stuff written about it. We are learning animals and we’re going to have to learn for the rest of our lives just to stay abreast. It’s just the way it is.

And so, the ability to learn and to apply these tricks is central. It’s sort of like imagine the way our education system is structured today, it’s sort of like telling someone you can exercise for the first four years of your life and then you’re ready for the rest of your life, as opposed to, you know, going to the gym three times a week. So, learning has got to become that, right? And Luke and I talk about it at some level in the book about how learning is very important.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, I really want to hear, you’ve got a story in the book about a law school in Florida that incorporated some cutting-edge learning strategies, and they saw a dramatic improvement in their bar exam passage rate. Can you share the story?

Luke Yoquinto
So, Pete, talk about the pre-testing effect that we were talking about earlier, that’s sort one-half of these wonderful researchers, the Bjorks, call desirable difficulties and the effortful retrieval that strips away these competing memory associations that lets you form a really long-term memory. The other half is called metacognition which is basically how we think about our own state of knowledge. So, let me just rewind and then we’ll catch it right back up to the law school, FIU Law School in Miami.

Metacognition. So, back in the ‘60s, for instance, researchers thought that what we know about our own thought was sort of a static measure, sort of like an engine oil dip stick, where you just kind of reach and you say, “I’m trying to get a sense of what I know about subject X. Here’s what it is.” But as the Bjorks, especially Robert, showed in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, it’s more like an active measure, it’s more like a speedometer, and how we gauge and how we know, in part, comes from how easy it is to summon that information in the moment.

And that introduces a number of biases. If you have some new fact open in a textbook right in front of you, that can lead you to believe that you’re going to remember that fact come test time. If you are seeing a fact in a true-or-false question, “Is hemoglobin the molecule in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to cells?” you might be able to answer that in a true or false, but then you might not be able to answer a point blank, “What is the molecule?”

And that false sense of knowing, the false sense that your knowledge of a given subject is not going to change, we know that’s not true, right? We know that forgetting happens over a certain curve, it’s called the forgetting curve. It’s one of the most well-known studies or effects in psychology.

And so, when you combine this metacognition stuff with effortful retrieval, you get what’s called desirable difficulties where you have these techniques you can apply while you’re studying that will sort of steel-plate memories for the long term. And one of the things that Louis Schulze, who was the head of sort of reinvigorating this FIU Law School program, did was he just went all in on these, and other really important study techniques, and just instituted a mandatory class for all first year law students at the school to start studying how to study using these techniques.

And so, prior to the beginning of this program, this program started in 2015, it was a respectable middling law school in Florida in terms of bar exam passage rates, kind of bounced around in the middle of the rankings. And they instituted this program where every student is taking this course on how to study as a fresh year law student. And then if you’re sort of in the bottom of your class, it’s mandatory that you continue in these studies in your second year. And then I think there’s another mandatory semester, or effectively mandatory, since everyone takes it because it works so well, in the third year.

But the effect was this program rocketed to the top of its rankings for the state in Florida. Now, it’s always number one and number two in terms of bar passage rates in Florida. And in terms of ultimate bar passage rates, which is the percentage of people who pass the bar within two years of graduation, it’s top 15 in the country. It’s remarkable.

And one of the big takeaways that we found from this story is you have all these students, these law students who, frankly, would’ve flunked out before this. And now with these techniques that are focused on making learning cognitively user-friendly, we’re retaining that talent that would’ve been wasted before.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very encouraging and quite a testament. So, lay it on us, what are some of the most hard-hitting effective techniques that you think professionals should be using when they’re trying to learn new skills or get that flowing from them?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, here are a few. Do it in short sprints. And, actually, if you go to YouTube, go out to something on YouTube, you’ll find that, naturally, without perhaps understanding the sites, just because of our instincts, people have made their videos very short for a few minutes, 5-10 minutes. The second thing is, at the end of the video, apply the testing effect. So, ask yourself questions about the stuff you learned, right?

So, the third is space it out a little bit, wait some time, ask yourself the next day, do you remember it. Ask yourself a month later. I do this all the time. I’ll watch something, and then like a month later, I’ll try and recall. And rather than blame myself if I forget, I go, “Well, that’s an opportunity because now my brain is going to lit up, cleans the whistles a little bit.”

Here’s another one, very strange. Interleave, that’s part of the effort for learning, the desirable difficulties. What that means is switch. So, let’s say you’re learning two similar things and you’re solving problems or something, if you’re trying to answer questions, just answer questions. Answer questions about the first topic, then the second topic, then the first topic, and second topic, because it forces you to reload.

If you continuously answer questions about the first topic, you’re not reloading that information. You’ve got to sort of reload that program. So, do that. Bottom line is this, at some level, there’s an illusion of learning. We think we’re learning. There’s a lot of biases that Luke talked about, you know, stability, foresight, all that stuff. We won’t bore you with the details, but there’s an illusion of learning.

For example, if you read, read material and with a highlighter you just highlight everything, you feel like you learned because you became familiar with it but it’s an illusion. But when you’re actually learning, it feels effortful, and you go, “Oh, my God, I’m not learning because I’m struggling.” But, actually, you might be learning better. That’s a strange sort of optical illusion related to learning.

Luke, why don’t you add to that?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, that’s right. This applies not only to egghead kind of stuff. You could use this as an athlete. There’s a classic, classic study of, I think, it’s third graders doing the bean bag toss. The goal is to hit a target with a bean bag from three feet away. You have that experimental group throwing two feet away and four feet away but never three feet away. You have a control group throwing from three feet away.

And the experimental group who have never practiced the three-foot throw, on exam day everybody outperformed the kids who have been practicing at three feet. And you can take that to the driving range. This is a classic example that Bob [14:24] talks about. He’s a passionate golfer. If you’re just hitting the same club over and over again at the driving range, you’re not reloading the cognitive program for how to swing a golf club. You’re just kind of re-running the same program.

So, he recommends pull out the driver, hit a few, then switch, aim at a different distance with a different club, switch to a different club, keep switching, keep switching. And that applies whether you’re studying hard facts, whether you’re practicing the piano. The thing that makes it a difficulty is that, initially, you might be discouraged by the progress you make. And, in fact, you might actually make less progress initially than you otherwise would’ve. But in the long term, you’ll see the benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’ve had David Epstein on the show talking about range and sharing some similar takeaways there. And so, what’s interesting is any topic or skill naturally has many sorts of subskills or subtopics under it. So, if I wanted to learn direct response copywriting, that’s of interest to me, there’s many subskills associated with it. Well, there’s the consumer research, and then there’s the intriguing headlines, and then there is trying to pull people in deeper over sort of a longer period of time with paragraphs.

And so, following these best practices, the best move would be to do short spurts of maybe 10 minutes of learning, and then do some effortful retrieval, and then maybe shift gears from one subskill or subtopic to another, and then back and forth.

Sanjay Sarma
That’s exactly right. That’s right you put it well, it’s the reloading. Can you reload that and can you reload this, and can reload that? Not load that and then keep doing the same thing, because it’s a reloading that’s the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Sanjay Sarma
And, yeah, you’re describing it right. By the way, the business of breaking down a complex task into subtasks, that’s something good teachers do, that’s what great coaches do. If you’ve noticed, like in tennis, the great coaches are not necessarily great players. Brad Gilbert coached Andre Agassi sometime but he wasn’t a great player, he was a good player. But because he appreciated what a great player was, he was able to sort of break it down, and there’s techniques for that as well, and then you want to do exactly what you described.

Luke Yoquinto
It’s funny how great players don’t always turn out to be great coaches. It’s often a pretty good player that turns out to be a great coach, which is really interesting.

Sanjay Sarma
In fact, it’s called the expert blind spot because you’ve got to be really, really sympathetic to the learner. But the expert has a blind spot, they go, “Why can’t you get that?” “Geez, because you’re an expert and I don’t, and you need to sort of understand what I don’t get.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And as a learner, that just sort of compounds the frustration in terms of it’s like, “I already know I’m not doing this well, and the fact that I’m apparently displeasing you is just making it worse for me.”

Sanjay Sarma
That’s right. That’s why professors exist, by the way, because parents fall into that trap all the time. I can tell you as a parent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then I’m curious. I know you’ve done some research on learning styles. But I want to know a bit about to what extent is that off base? And how should we think about sort of different modalities in terms of I’m watching a video, or I’m reading something, or I’m listening to something, or I’m trying it out on myself? How do we think about the styles and the best approach?

Sanjay Sarma
So, the problem with a lot of this learning stuff is that there are very subtle findings, and then sometimes people sort of run with them and turn them into something they’re not. So, the whole learning style things, there’s no basis, there’s no proof. It’s never been proven. If anything, it’s discredited as an approach. It’s not like some people learn better by hearing and some people learn better by video or something like that.

There is research into how to mix modalities. Various research. Myer is a professor who did a lot of work on that, so there is research on that. But the deeper concept, the deeper thought here is that this field that Luke and I talk about in this book has been explored in the past but it’s also led to a lot of faddishness which then falls into convenient buckets. And wouldn’t it be great if some people were just visual and we can just bucket them into visual and put them into visual classroom, and just sort of goes and runs amok a little bit?

So, that’s the whole problem with the learning styles argument. But, really, creating an excellent learning environment takes effort, takes thought, and it’s not that simple that you can just say that a person is a visual learner. And that’s sort of what we talk about in the book. It’s pretty nuanced, it’s pretty subtle, and you’ve got to understand it, and understand as much as possible. And also it’s changing fast. Right, Luke?

Luke Yoquinto
That’s right. Yeah, I would say that people take a lot of comfort in the learning style things sometimes, and that comfort that you think is not misplaced. The origin of that came from some of Howard Gardner’s work where he saw people who had different types of strokes, and a few differences have your language skills impacted but not your numbers skills at all. That helped him formulate his idea of multiple intelligences, which is still a really interesting idea, and it suggests that what might be measured in a standard sit-down IQ test or an SAT in no way encompasses your total powers as a learner.

And when we say learning styles isn’t something that we put much stock in, it’s not to say that you should take your SAT score as your sum total value as a learner. SAT scores and IQ tests capture a very narrow window probably of what people are capable of.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then this is helpful in terms of figuring out some best practices and some sort of mistaken ideas that may not have as robust research base behind. I just want to make sure, we talked about the phrase effortful retrieval a couple times. I’d love it if we could hit a few examples of that. I’ve heard of the Feynman blank page technique in terms of you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to teach this to someone new,” or, “I’ve got a blank page. I’m just going to write down how this process works, or my true understanding of it.” What are some of the other approaches to do an effortful retrieval?

Luke Yoquinto
The simple answer, honestly, is if you’re in mid-career and you’re thinking about ways to improve, to be really blunt, there are programs online. MITx is the home team program, and we’re a little biased, will build in little quizzes and games and so forth to sort of force that in between video lectures and things like that. So, there are ways you can force that to happen just by choosing a program or choosing approach for your continuing education.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah. For example, you learn something, a book, you read a chapter, there are questions at the end. No one wants to take on these questions because they involve effort. You just skip over them. Answer the questions. Try it. I know it’s effortful but you learn better. So, that’s the testing effect, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Sanjay Sarma
So, it’s strange. The more tests you take, actually, the better you learn. And these are formative tests as opposed to summative. In other words, you’re taking a friendly test. It’s not like someone is grading you on that. So, that’s one very simple example. The other one we talked about is switch topic, switch topic, etc. So, these are examples. But a lot of the systems out there, sort of do it automatically as Luke was talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
And if you don’t have the advantage of some of those systems, or the games built in, or thoughtful questions at the end of the chapter, are there some self-prompts you might recommend for folks to engage with?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, make up a question, for example. Look for ways to break what you just learned, right? Actually, now I’m thinking of this as an academic professor and someone who teaches, and I learn a lot because of my research. There’s always some nagging doubt, and it takes a little bit of introspection to identify that doubt, and you’d rather bury it. But you identify it, you surface it, and you sort of psychoanalyze your doubt. That’s effortful. That actually helps a lot, and that’s something that’s become instinctive for me.

Pete Mockaitis
So, analyze the doubt.

Sanjay Sarma
Don’t bury it. Don’t just whitewash it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great in terms of where might this not work or not apply, or what about this counterexample that doesn’t seem to fit or follow the theory or the principle.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, try and apply it, that’s the other one. Try and apply. If you learned something, apply it. Let’s say it’s a management thing. You learned something in management, well, apply it.

Pete Mockaitis
Porter’s five forces. Okay. Sure.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, exactly. Porter’s five forces.

Pete Mockaitis
Take a look at the mobile phone industry and put those five forces on there. Okay. That’s good. Well, there’s a lot of conversation right now about, hey, in-person versus remote learning. I’m sure we can talk for hours about that alone and how it impacts children and folks in college. What are some key perspectives that we should bear in mind as professionals in this game?

Sanjay Sarma
Look, the elephant in the room is engagement in remote learning, okay? So, let’s leave that elephant out for the time being, let’s kick it out of the room, and come back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
It turns out that, if you look at the learning process, what makes learning work? Curiosity. What you talk about. Curiosity is incredible because if you’re curious, the brain releases dopamine, it’s called the dopaminergic circuit, you learn better. Then there’s the actual content presentation. Then there’s all the fun but effortful parts, like Q&A, discussion, arguments, applying it, doing something with it. All that stuff. Projects. Forgetting and relearning it in a different context. You learned it in a different context but you recall it because, in a project, you need to pull out the stuff you learned.

So, just if you look in a classroom right now, what we do in the classroom is we do lectures. And the lecture is the one thing actually you can do online. And even online you can do it asynchronously, which is what these YouTube videos do, like Khan Academy, etc. And the things that actually we couldn’t do online, we sort of don’t do as much of in the classroom, we ignore it. It’s a tragedy actually. The things we should be doing online, we do in the classroom. And the things we could do in the classroom, we sort of don’t do very much of.

Luke Yoquinto
And we’re talking about discussions, we’re talking about hands-on, contextualization of what you learned, right?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah.

Luke Yoquinto
So, it’s almost as though you have learning as a delivery mechanism where you have lectures that’s introducing knowledge to you for the first time, right? Then you have learning as a steeping mechanism, to steep in the information that you learned after it’s been delivered. And that’s where you’re talking about lab activities, that’s when you’re talking about discussion sessions where the knowledge ping-pongs around the room.

And I think what Sanjay is saying is a really good way to do that initial burst of knowledge is a video lecture. But you really have to do that second part, the ping pong knowledge around the room, and that’s what’s real ideal for in-person learning. And you’ll hear sort of buzzwords like flipped classrooms where you would, for instance, watch your lecture content at home, and then you’re taking part in the discussions, and you’re doing your homework with your teacher at hand to answer questions in the classroom. That’s some of what we’re talking about there.

Sanjay Sarma
And then, so today, during COVID, students are taking stuff remotely. And the problem is what we’ve done is we’ve done something that we shouldn’t be doing which is these lectures where the professors are groaning on, and we put it online. So, of course, students are going to disengage. So, we would say that the right thing to do is use these Zoom to do instructor stuff, get students excited about something, and then use an asynchronous video where they consume the material. Then come back to Zoom and, as best as you can, make up the in-person stuff, discussions, etc. Obviously, you can’t do a chemistry lab over Zoom. You sort of can actually but I wouldn’t recommend it.

So, we sort of have it backwards right now. And, in some ways, the Zoom lecture is exposing the problem and, in fact, when COVID ends, we’re going to go back to the classroom. And what are we going to do? Recreate the Zoom lecture except it runs in the same room. Unfortunately, that’s where we’ll end up, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I want to hit that curiosity point because that is really important. And I guess if you’re not feeling curious, but you got to learn something, how do we stir up some curiosity?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, there’s some really interesting work there about that. It’s important, first of all, to think of curiosity, it is a drive state in the brain. The sensation of hunger and the sensation of curiosity are not actually that different. They’re both something that the brain experiences as something you really want. In one case, it’s food. The other case it’s information.

Now, how does the brain determine what information is worth wanting? That’s a really interesting and constantly unfolding question. But there are some very fascinating work being done around this where you have a study, for instance, where people are being presented with trivia questions as a means to trigger curiosity. And then they’ll be presented with a completely unrelated set of information to remember.

And if they are in a curious state due to the trivia questions, they’ll remember that unrelated information better. It’s as though curiosity creates this global state of stickiness for information in the brain, and it’s really, really fascinating. So, one thing we have to really take on actively is how to promote that sense in the classroom, or whether you learn it on your own, you try to promote it for yourself. And there’s a lot of interesting discussion about what actually promotes that feeling. Is it just the impression that something new to know is available? No, that’s probably not it. It’s called neophilia, and if that were true, we would always be curious about what’s down in a scary dark basement. And we’re often not curious at all to find out what that is.

But one really interesting theory that comes up in the book is this idea that we have the sense that the information at hand is something that will modify what we know in a meaningful way. That might be something that would trigger curiosity. And teachers have been doing this for a really long time, like that’s what this Socratic method is kind of about. It’s about framing things as questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing about curiosity, I’ll give you some tricks to power curiosity. So, because I have to elicit curiosity in students when I teach, I’ll figure out how to do it to myself. And one technique is, one, wonder about the history. I mean, pick a topic, five forces. How did it happen? Who is Porter? What did he arrive at? What problems did he look at? What are other…? What is a three forces approach that failed because two forces are missing? That’s one technique.

So, you have to sort of figure out what gets you going. Why is it right? Critique it, that’s another one. Why does it work? Let me see if I can break it. So, it’s sort of related to the effortful, but you’ve got to sort of get the juices flowing. And this is equal in saliva for hunger is dopamine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing how with the Socratic method and these questions about the history or why does it work or where it might not work, it’s like the questions alone are getting some drive going. And I found that…and Bob Cialdini has this in his book Pre-Suasion which I think is excellent, is that if we could start with some mystery, like, “How the heck did this come to be?” or, “That doesn’t seem to make sense. What’s really going on here?” is handy.

But even if you can’t summon it for the thing that you need to learn, it sounds like I can just go ahead and get it from somewhere else, and then shift gears quickly into the thing I need to learn, and that’s helpful too right there.

Sanjay Sarma
That’s what Luke just described, the trigger question. If you’re curious about something else, you’ll quickly learn the thing you, well, one particularly, curious about, you learn better. Preferably not the right approach but…

Luke Yoquinto
It’ll be a longer-lasting memory that’s not going to give the context you need but the memory will last longer so, yeah, it’s really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Luke Yoquinto
Just another thing is if you’re encountering a new body of information for the first time, something that can be really helpful is just to look it over, examine it, and it’s really confusing and it’s bothersome. Build in enough time to get a night’s sleep and then come back to it. There’s a lot of reorganization of long-term memory that happens overnight, and you’d be surprised what made sense in the morning. And sleep on it, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, I know that, we’re talking about learning and technology, we can sort of go overboard when it comes to tools and platforms and software, but I’ve got to ask the pros here. Are there some really cool tools that you think your typical professional can utilize to give their learning a jolt, maybe it’s an app or software, or even just sort of a low-tech technique?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, a lot of tools use this stuff. Obviously, the MOOC platforms because they have Q&A built in and most MOOCs have short videos. I’m going to shout out here Quizlet. Quizlet is Andrew Sutherland. He’s an MIT guy. And it’s used by more than 50% of high school students, I believe, in the country now, and it’s flashcards basically. But he’s got built in other things.

But a flashcard works because it forces you to reload. Boom! Reload. Mix it up. Reload. In fact, there’s a version of the flashcard called a Leitner box which is sort of almost like a card game. It forces you to remember the things you’re about to forget. So, there are tools that apply that. And then there are tools that make things more vivid. I mean, for example, it doesn’t happen all the time, but AR/VR, things like that. They make things more vivid, more realistic. If it’s cognitive and motor, then AR/VR is very interesting, very useful.

By the way, very interesting. There’s an entire industry. I’m going to put you on the spot here, Pete, and ask you. Entire industry that is, for almost a hundred years, has been driven by augmented reality, can you guess which one it is? Luke, do you know the answer?

Luke Yoquinto
When was the first flight simulated?

Sanjay Sarma
Exactly. It’s a hundred years. You got it, Luke. Hundred years, right? Because The Link Company, which is an American company, made flight simulators, like the 1930 timeframe. In fact, during World War II, and that’s basically, a simulator is essentially, a flight simulator is actually augmented reality. And during World War II, America was able to produce more pilots. Japan had the planes as well but they couldn’t produce the pilots. Anyway, there’s a range of tools that work on everything from memory, interleaving. Duolingo does it, Rosetta Stone. Rosetta does it. Quizlet does it. It forces you to go through these tricks.

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

Sanjay Sarma
Well, I think the other thing we need to understand is like gaming software. Gaming software sort of uses another part of your brain, sort of joy center, the limbic system, etc. And we haven’t quite figured out how to work that into games, but there’s, in fact, a nice field called Educational Games. It’s not gamification. It’s more where they try and work it into simulation, doing something and learning along the way. That’s another field that’s emerging, and there are some experts at MIT that know this very well, but I think that’ll become important in the years ahead.

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

Luke Yoquinto
Okay. I chose a nerdy one. it’s, “Fear is the mind-killer.” It’s from Dune.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

Luke Yoquinto
Any Dune fans in the house? In terms of this book, I joke, but fear is the mind-killer. Anger is another mind-killer. It can really just take away your ability to process information. And, especially, in the current moment, I like to hold onto that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
Mine is the Eisenhower Principle which is “Sometimes it’s easier to solve the bigger problem than the smaller problem,” because when you’re trying to solve a smaller problem, you get caught in the weeds. So, generalize, I’m trying to solve a bigger problem. And if you look at all the blitz scaling, the Dropboxes and Googles of the world, Google didn’t say, “We’ll search academic documents or we’ll just search the whole web,” because in doing that, they get the experiential benefit upside but they can actually take on a problem and just solve it, indexing site NDC’s, etc. and build several farms.

So, I actually truly believe that sometimes it’s easier to solve the bigger problem than the smaller problem. I believe in generalizing.

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

Luke Yoquinto
So, I chose one that’s apropos of our book, which is Consciousness in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene. We don’t know what makes us tick in our heads and what makes consciousness work exactly, but researchers are picking away at the edges, and there’s some really fascinating research being done about just the edges of what’s perceptible and the pathways that takes in the brain, so I would recommend this book, Consciousness in the Brain.

Sanjay Sarma
For me, I was actually going to go for a consciousness book, but now that Luke stole my thunder, I’m going to have to go in a different direction. I’m going to say Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. And why Is that? Because I believe that some of his absurdist humor, just sort of mind-bending lateral thinking stuff is very essential to creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where shall we point them?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, they can shoot me an email or get in touch with me on Twitter. My name is Luke Yoquinto, and so my Twitter handle is just that, it’s @lukeyoquinto, and you can shoot me an email too. My Gmail is lyoquinto@gmail.com.

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

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, my call to action is spend three hours a week learning something new. Learn to learn.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Luke Yoquinto
That’s a good one. And just to pile onto Sanjay, Be an extreme learner. Treat learning like it’s a mountain to climb. It’s a habit of the mind to start doing the ones you do. It can be hard stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Sanjay Sarma
Maybe I’ll leave you with a Dos Equis. You know what a Dos Equis said?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right. Yeah.

Sanjay Sarma
I’m not recommending the actual beer although it’s pretty good, “Be curious, my friend.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Sanjay, Luke, this has been fun. I wish you all the best.

Luke Yoquinto
Thanks.

Sanjay Sarma
Thank you very much.

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, thank you.

598: How to Remember Names, Faces, and Facts like a Memory Champion with Chester Santos

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Chester Santos says: "Anyone is capable of developing a powerful memory with just the right techniques, a little bit of training and practice."

U.S. Memory Champion Chester Santos shares his expert tricks and techniques for improving your memory.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why good memory still matters in the digital age
  2. The three principles to remembering anything
  3. How to remember anyone’s name in four steps 

About Chester

U.S. Memory Champion, Chester Santos – “The International Man of Memory” is the world’s leading memory skills expert and founder of MemorySchool.NET.  His memory building tips have been featured on CNNABCPBSNBCCBSBBC, and the Science Channel. He has been quoted in the NY TimesWall Street JournalSF ChronicleWashington Post, and TIME Magazine. Chester has presented in over 30 countries with speaking credits that include TEDx, Talks at Google, and the International Festival of Brilliant Minds.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Chester Santos Interview Transcript

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

Chester Santos
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really looking forward to talking with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking forward to talking to you too. And I’ve been so curious to ask you, first of all, you’re sporting one fedora right now. I understand you have a collection of 25. How did this come to be?

Chester Santos
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I just, at one point, went through a rebranding as the International Man of Memory because I give speeches all over the world. And part of that involved hiring a stylist to come up with a look for the International Man of Memory, and the stylist came up with this fedora hat idea that I incorporate into the outfits. And I just started to really love it and I’ve been collecting hats for six plus years at this point.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it looks great. Imagine your vest, listeners can’t tell but I’ll let them know you look great.

Chester Santos
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
I have one fedora and, you know what, it was a lot of fun. It drew attention to me which sometimes I like and sometimes I didn’t like. So, I just took it off if I didn’t want it. So, International Man of Memory, that is a good branding, not mystery but memory. So, maybe, can you orient us, first of all, what is a memory grand master? Like, maybe people have heard of a chess grandmaster, but what are these competitions like? How is this life?

Chester Santos
Sure, I’ll get into that. So, what I won was the United States National Memory Championship. It’s an annual competition which has been held in various locations each year. Most recently, it’s now held at MIT, the university, the finals.

Pete Mockaitis
It seems fitting.

Chester Santos
Yeah, the finals is held at MIT. It’s one day of just really hardcore memorization. So, some of the events, one is memorizing a deck of cards, a shuffled deck of 52 playing cards, in the fastest time possible with 100% accuracy. I used to be able to do it back when I was competing in a little under 90 seconds, a minute and a half. Nowadays, some people can do it in even less than 30 seconds. I memorized a 132-digit sequence of computer-generated random digits, forwards and backwards, in 5 minutes. We memorized hundreds of names and faces in just minutes. So, those are some of the events in the United States Memory Championship.

I won it way back in 2008, and since then, I’ve gone into training other people around the world in the subset of techniques that I used to win the US Memory Championship that I feel can also benefit people right away in their career, their personal life, and also they can really help out their kids or grandkids that they might have in school.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you can stop if this is too personal, but I’m always fascinated by, like, competitions where people are like the best in the world, like bodybuilding, Mr. Olympia, or if it’s tennis or football or basketball. So, if I may, just sort of is there an associated prize purse, or what is the size of the prize for the top memory grand master?

Chester Santos
Yeah, good question. So, it varies depending on who they have as the sponsors for that particular year. When I won, unfortunately, there wasn’t a cash prize.

Pete Mockaitis
Aww.

Chester Santos
British Airways was the sponsor so I got business class tickets to represent the United States in the World Memory Championship. And even when there is a cash prize, it hasn’t ever been very high, but what you get more is in terms of, you know, after I won, I was on CNN. Over the years, I’ve been asked to appear on a lot of different TV shows, I get interviewed by newspapers, magazines, and things like that. So, it helps in what I’m doing now as far as it helps me to build my brand, build my name recognition in terms of a memory skills expert. So, it helps out there but in terms of a cash prize, not so much, upfront anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
On the backends. And now you’re here with us in How to be Awesome at Your Job, so we’re delighted. And I want to dig into some of these techniques, which I’m excited about. I understand we’re going to do some demos as well, which is always fun. But maybe, first, if you could sort of contextualize for us, could you paint a picture for why, in this age of Google and computers and smartphones and all this info available kind of outside of our brains, why is it beneficial for professionals to have a great memory?

Chester Santos
Yes. So, you hit on something important. We are in an age of, I sometimes call it, dangerous digital dependency, but definitely digital dependency in which we are outsourcing not only our memory but other mental functions to electronic devices. In terms of memory, specifically I’ll give a couple of quick examples. Phone numbers, we all used to be able to remember the phone numbers of so many friends and family members, easily dial those.

I remember growing up, my parents would give me some emergency numbers that they thought were important for me to know. We all used to be able to do that, but nowadays you give someone even one phone number, and they feel paralyzed. They don’t even think that they can remember.

Pete Mockaitis
“Uh, let me…uh.”

Chester Santos
Yeah, exactly. And it’s getting so bad that some people out there can’t even remember their own phone number. So, it’s a really good example.

Pete Mockaitis
Or their wife, or husband, or mom. Like, if something happened, and your phone got stolen, you could be in a tight spot.

Chester Santos
Exactly. So, it’s really a good example of the “use it or lose it” principle as it applies to memory. Another quick example, navigation. So, you might have an Uber of Lyft driver that’s been driving in a city for five plus years, but if something is wrong with the network connection in that particular area, or something is wrong with the app at that time, it’s happened to me many times over the years, they’ll just need to pull over, they’ll restart their phone maybe ten times until whatever issue is happening will resolve itself. They, a lot of times, haven’t even learned a few basic locations or common landmarks in the city. It’s just a very good example of what happens when you completely turn off your brain and you become 100% dependent on technology. So, that’s a little bit of the negatives, and I think that illustrates a little bit of what I mean by digital dependency.

But what this creates on the job and in the business world is actually a business opportunity to, if you will work on developing your memory skills, even to a small degree, there really is an opportunity now to set yourself apart from others, become much more impressive, and much more memorable to people in business when you do have a really good memory. It’s very noticeable and impressive to people nowadays.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think that’s true. It’s funny, I was just chatting with my buddy about a previous podcast guest, Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income, who’s just an authentic, genuine, friendly guy everyone just loves. He walked the talk. And one thing that’s impressed me is I have bumped into him in person, I don’t know, four times at different events, and I don’t expect him to remember me because he’s a celebrity in his niche, but he does. And I always sort of like, “Hey, Pat, I’m Pete. I was at your event six years, blah, blah, blah.” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course, yeah, yeah.” And so that just makes me like, respect, appreciate him all the more.

And I think I’ve seen the converse in terms of friends talking about other friends, and they say, “I don’t really like him.” I was like, “Why?” It’s like, “Well, I’ve had to introduce myself to him four times,” and so they feel kind of insulted in terms of, “You don’t remember my face, my name, who I am at all, and this is kind of ridiculous at this point.”

Chester Santos
Yes, absolutely. So, remembering names is huge in the business world. I like to quote a lot of times How to Win Friends and Influence People. To this date, it’s still one of the most popular business and personal success-related books ever written. And in that book, it was written that the sweetest sound to a person in any language is the sound of their own name, and also that everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. So, in fact, by remembering people’s names, other things about them, it helps you to build better business, personal relationships.

When you think about the most popular people on the job and in various organizations that you might be involved with, when you think about those people, you’re going to notice that they tend to know everyone and also their names and other things about them. Remembering people’s names and things about them really increases your likability factor in business, and that is going to be a factor in advancement of your career. Unfortunately, in the business world, it isn’t always 100% based on the numbers and on only the job performance. It would be nice if that’s how it actually worked, but, in fact, your likability in the department is a factor.

I won’t say where I used to work, but I had a career in Silicon Valley, and I had seen this happen on the job. It’s not always necessarily the most brilliant engineer that gets the promotion. Maybe that brilliant engineer, for whatever reason, didn’t get along as well in the department with someone else that just had that likability factor, they might get the promotion. So, it is something to keep in mind as far as how things actually work in the real world. And, definitely, if you know everybody, you know their name, you know things about them, you’re going to be more popular, more likable.

Politicians are some of my clients, have been my clients over the years. They’re very clear on how this helps make you more popular and more likable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of the specific tactics, and I think names is going to be big. If we’re going to get it, I’d love to hear how we should think about memorizing parts of a presentation, maybe remembering more of what we read, and, hey, whatever else we have time to cover. But, maybe, could you start by sharing sort of what’s the most, I don’t know, surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive thing that we should just know about our memories before we dig into the tactics?

Chester Santos
Yes. So, I’m really looking forward to getting into some specific, first, general strategies and then techniques with you today, Pete. Surprising thing about memory that I think people don’t realize is it isn’t the case that you’re just born with a good memory or a bad memory. That’s a very common belief. People think that if they have a bad memory, that they’re just stuck with that, there’s nothing that they can do about it. Really, anyone is capable of developing a very powerful memory. It’s just about learning the right techniques and putting in a little bit of fun, training, and practice.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m intrigued, I’m game. So, yeah, well, you have some demos in mind, let’s do one. And if it happens to be in the realm of remembering what we read, or names and faces, or presentations, I’d love to steer there if possible.

Chester Santos
Okay. Awesome. So, first, what I’d like to cover, Pete, are three main principles to a powerful memory that will apply no matter what specific memory technique you end up using, and then we’ll start to get into a specific technique and a couple of demos.

So, the three main principles are, one, visualization. So, turn whatever it is that you’re trying to remember somehow into something that you can picture or see in your mind. So, in the case of names, if the name was Mike, sometimes I visualize a microphone to remind me of the name Mike.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m seeing one of those right now.

Chester Santos
Yeah. If the name were, for instance, Alice, sometimes I visualize a white rabbit because that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, right? Now, I realize that sounds maybe a bit silly or unusual, but, in fact, this can be very powerful and effective. I’d like to get into names in much more detail toward the end after we cover some basics, but what I just wanted to introduce there was this concept of creating a picture in your mind to represent the information.

Pete Mockaitis
And to that point about the picture, so Alice and that rabbit, so that’s kind of personal to you, and that’s probably better, I imagine, because it’s more meaningful, I would speculate. Is there any risk? Like, I guess nobody’s really named Rabbit that I’ve ever met. But do you ever kind get your wires crossed or is that pretty safe, “Hey, Alice is rabbit, and rabbit is Alice, and we’re all good”?

Chester Santos
Knock on wood, I haven’t had any issues yet even at a conference that might have a cocktail hour at the end or something like that. I haven’t slipped up. That really isn’t anything to worry about really. These visuals really are just going to help you to better remember the names. The reason why you want to come up with a visual is because we all tend to be very good at remembering things that we see. I’ll give a quick example here.

Let’s say you go to a party, Pete, and you’re meeting a lot of new people, right? Two weeks after that party is over, you’re talking with one of your friends that was there with you, and your friend describes someone to you from the party, your friend says, “Hey, Pete, you remember that attorney that we met at the party a couple of weeks ago? He’s also a member of the tennis club.” As your friend is going through that description, a lot of times you can picture who they are describing. And, of course, your friend can picture who they’re describing. But a lot of times, neither one of you can manage to remember what the person’s name was, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Or even like a setting, like, “Oh, yeah, we were in the hallway, near the door,” but you don’t remember their name.

Chester Santos
Yeah, really good, there, clarification. It’s true. Sometimes you get even more details, like where they were standing in the party, what they were wearing, but that name you can’t get it. And that is because you didn’t see the name, the name is something much more abstract to your brain. And it is very common for people to be good at remembering faces but not names. And it makes sense because when you are interacting with people in various ways, you do see the face, the face is recorded into your visual memory but not the name. So, that’s why one thing you can do is come up with a visual representation of the name. But the principle, in general, is to come up with something that you can picture in your mind to represent the information.

Now, the second principle that will apply, no matter what information type, is, after you come up with a visual, try to involve as many additional senses as you can, because when you do this, you will be activating more and more areas of your brain, and you will be building more and more connections in your mind to the information, making it easier to retrieve it later on.

So, I was, at one point, on an episode of PBS’ Nova Science, I performed what, at first, seemed like some pretty crazy memory feats. They had me train David Pogue on the show as well. And then after that, they had these brain scientists, neuroscientists, come on and explain to everyone at home, watching at home, “Okay. How in the world did Chester do that? How in the world did David Pogue pull that off with just a little bit of training?” And these brain scientists confirmed that it’s because, with these memory techniques that I’ve mastered over the years, and that we’re going to learn a little bit about during the interview today, what’s happening is we are recruiting extra areas of the brain.

So, areas of the brain that most people would never involve when trying to commit things to memory. With these techniques, we are activating more of the brain to help us, and part of this is learning to utilize additional senses. So, the more senses you involve, the easier it becomes to remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, I’m thinking about with the Alice and the rabbit, I mean, maybe you have the scent of the rabbit as opposed to just, “Oh, there’s a white rabbit.”

Chester Santos
You got it. You are exactly right. So, step one, to come up…

Pete Mockaitis
Or maybe it’s like you can feel the nibbles of the rabbit’s teeth on your finger.

Chester Santos
You got it. So, first, the visual, then involve additional senses, exactly as you just described, and then you are activating more of the brain. You’re more powerfully encoding that into your memory.

Third and final principle, while you are seeing and experiencing this with additional senses, try to make the whole scenario crazy, unusual, extraordinary in some way so that you can take advantage of the psychological aspect to human memory, and that is, all of us, we’re putting forth little to no effort at all, we tend to remember things that catch us by surprise, that are strange, unusual, extraordinary in some way.

Pete, if this actually happened at this moment, if an elephant suddenly crashed into the room that you’re in, and people that are listening to the interview, if an elephant suddenly crashed into the room that they’re in and started spraying water all over the place, if that actually happened right now, you would probably remember it for the rest of your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Chester Santos
And always tell that story, “You’re never going to believe this, okay? I was interviewing this memory guy, out of nowhere, an elephant just crashed into the room.” That might be stuck in your mind even 30 plus years later without you putting forth any effort at all to remember it. Whereas, other times, we might spend weeks, months, trying to get really important information into our long-term memory. We find it to be very difficult, right?

Although this isn’t fully understood exactly how this works in the brain, we do realize that there is this psychological aspect to human memory. Realizing it, we can harness that and apply it to things that would be useful to remember. Names and faces, presentations, foreign languages, training material, and so on. There are really practical applications for this. Memory is a fundamental part of learning and the acquisition of knowledge. So, when you improve your ability to remember, it’s going to have a really huge positive impact on many different areas of your career and also in your personal life in terms of your lifelong learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. So, okay, it’s visualizable, we bring in the senses, and if you make it somehow extraordinary, unique, kind of wild, or larger than life, those are the principles at work.

Chester Santos
You’ve got it down. So, those are the three main principles. They will apply no matter what specific memory technique you end up using.

I’d like to, now, go into an interactive exercise that you’ll go through, Pete. I’m sorry to put you on the spot here.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. But if I look dumb, we’ll edit it out. That’s how I roll.

Chester Santos
Just do your best, and I think people listening to the interview today will enjoy just giving this a try and see how they do with it.

So, we’re going to apply those three main principles to try to memorize a really long random list of words. The list will be monkey, iron, rope…

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I shouldn’t write this down, right?

Chester Santos
No, don’t write this down. And people following along with the interview, please don’t write this down. Don’t use any electronic device. So, use nothing but your brain and your memory. I know people aren’t used to doing this nowadays, but we’ll just give it our best shot.

So, the word list is going to be monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, cheese and dollar. Now…

Pete Mockaitis
That’s long.

Chester Santos
Yeah, it’s a really long list of random words. And when I recite that at my live presentations around the world, people in the audition often look at me as if, “Come on, Chester. There’s no way I’m going to be able to remember that, not unless you give me a lot of time to do it.” But, in fact, Pete, you’ll have this down, your listeners will have this down, perfectly forwards and backwards in just about three minutes. That’s all. Three minutes.

And without any further review, after today, even weeks from now, people will still know this, forwards and backwards. I get people even writing me emails months later telling me they’re wanting to demonstrate to me that they still remember this. How you pull it off, just listen to what I describe to you, see and experience it in your mind as best you can, and just really relax, have fun with it.

So, if people ever went to my website, I guess they’ll find it in the show notes later, they’ll see me on CNN. On CNN, I had to memorize a half deck of cards during the commercial break. I only had about two minutes to do it, and then when they came back live on the air, I had to do that perfectly from memory. There was a lot of pressure on me. If people look at that clip, they’re going to notice that I’m smiling, I’m giggling. I think they maybe thought I was a little bit crazy or nutty when I was on the show, but, really, that’s an important key to this. If everyone is smiling and giggling as they’re going through this exercise, it’s a really good sign that they’re going to remember the words. So, just relax, have fun. You’ll have it down.

The first word was monkey. So, just imagine that you see a monkey in your mind. The monkey is dancing around, making monkey noises, “Hoo, hoo, hoo,” whatever a monkey would sound like. I’m working on my monkey impression, but the point here is to see and hear the monkey, right? The monkey, now, picks up a gigantic iron. So, the monkey is dancing around with this giant iron now. Picture that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, for like steaming clothes.

Chester Santos
You got it. Yeah, something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chester Santos
Picture that iron like for your clothes. The iron now starts to fall but a rope attaches itself to the iron. Maybe even feel the rope, really interact with it, right? Maybe it feels rough. You look up the rope and you see the other end of the rope is attached to a kite. Maybe it’s flying around, and it’s just out your reach, that kite. The kite you see now crashes into the side of a house, really see it smash into the house. Picture that.

The house is completely covered in paper. It’s completely covered in paper. Out of nowhere, a shoe appears and it starts to walk all over the paper. Maybe it’s messing it up as it’s walking on it, that shoe. It smells pretty badly, so you decide to investigate and see why. You look inside of the shoe and you find a little worm crawling around inside of that shoe. Really see the smelly worm.

The worm now jumps out of the show and into an envelope. Maybe it’s going to mail itself or something. I don’t know, but envelope was next. A pencil appears out of thin air and it starts to write all over that envelope. Maybe it’s addressing it, that pencil. The pencil now jumps into a river, and there’s a huge splash, for some reason, when it hits the river.

The river, you notice, is crashing up against a giant rock. That rock flies out of the river, it crashes into a tree. The tree is growing cheese. You probably haven’t seen a tree like that before. This one is growing cheese. And out of nowhere, a dollar starts to shoot out of the cheese, right? Really see that dollar. That was the entire list. I’m going to run through this again very quickly in about 30 seconds, and your job is to simply replay through the story that you’ve created in your mind.

So, we started off with a monkey. The monkey was dancing around, with what? It was an iron. What attached itself? It was a rope. The other end of the rope was attached to what? It was a kite. The kite crashed into what? It was a house. What was the house covered in? It was…

Pete Mockaitis
Paper.

Chester Santos
Paper. What walked on it? It was a shoe. What was crawling in the shoe? It was a worm. The worm jumped into what? An envelope. What wrote on it? A pencil. The pencil jumped into the river. The river was crashing up against the rock, that flew into a tree. It was growing what? Cheese. And what came out? It was a dollar.

So, now, Pete, I’ll have you give it a try. Take your time. And people that are listening can follow along and see how well they do. Try to recite all of those random words for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. We’ve got monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm…oh, no, no. Yeah, yeah, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, dollar.

Chester Santos
Tree? After tree?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, tree. Cheese, dollar, yeah.

Chester Santos
You got it, man. Great job there. Excellent job there. Pete, you did so well, in fact, though that I’m going to have you attempt to do that now backwards. Take your time, and people can also see how they do.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’ve got the dollar, cheese, tree, is it a rock?

Chester Santos
You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
River, pencil, envelope, worm, shoe, paper, house, kite, rope, iron, monkey.

Chester Santos
Perfect. A hundred percent, man. Great job. Really nice. Nice work there.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sweating a little bit, Chester.

Chester Santos
Yeah, I put you under a bit of pressure there, but great job under pressure. You got 100%, and I’m sure that people listening to the interview today probably got, if not 100%, close to it. That technique that we’ve just covered is called the story method. And the story method is just one of many techniques that memory champions, like myself, use to pull off what, at first, might seem like extraordinary memory feats. But, again, there’s nothing different about my brain compared to everyone else’s. It’s just about using the right technique and putting in a little bit of training and practice.

This doesn’t just apply to random words. It can apply to even very much more complex types of information. And later on, in the interview, I had in mind, we’d take it a step further but if you have any other questions, just let me know before we move onto maybe a little bit, I guess, a level two in terms of memory skill exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. That was fun. And I’ve heard, this probably isn’t the place for this, that with numbers, it’s kind of a matter of each one is assigned a letter, which can, thus, become words, which can, thus, become memorize-able. And, it’s funny, I used this, I don’t know, it might’ve been in my honeymoon or maybe it was earlier, with my wife in terms of, she’s like, “Tell me what my phone number is.” Like, okay, and so I really took my time to break it down using that. And sometimes, to this day, I’m still summoning the ridiculous picture story phrase that gets those numbers there, but it works.

So, yeah, okay. Well, yeah, let’s do another one. And if it happens to help us with reading or presentations or names, I would love it.

Chester Santos
Okay. Cool, yeah. So, you hit on numbers there. And, again, no matter the information type, the three main principles will remain the same that we covered earlier – visualization, additional senses, make it all crazy, unusual, extraordinary. But for something more abstract like numbers, there’s a system you need to learn. It only takes about one hour to learn it, that’s it. That allows you to take something abstract like numbers and turn it into a concrete image.

Once you have an image for the abstract piece of information, you could then build a story, and there are many other techniques that you could use from there. That system has been known by many different names. One is Phonetic Alphabet system. Another is major system, that’s covered. Because it’s going to take a minimum of an hour to learn that by itself, it’s covered in my online memory school, and I think you’ll have the link in the show note, but it’s MemorySchool.net.

So, again, the techniques don’t apply to just random words. We’re going to move onto level two in terms of difficulty. We’re going to learn now how to create mental notecards or mental cue cards. This is a concept that I covered in my talks. Over at Harvard University, I gave seminars for their graduate students. I also covered this in my talk for SAG-AFTRA, the actors foundation, to help actors remember their lines. We’re going to build mental cue cards here.

I want for you to just visualize what I describe to you, that’s all. See and experience it happening, as we did earlier, and then I will explain what we ended up, actually what we built mental notecards for. So, Pete, just try to visualize some giant machines, as best you can, some gigantic machines. These gigantic machines are smashing up a huge pile of gold and silver. A huge pile of gold and silver. Rising up out of the gold and silver – vehicles. Okay? Whatever that looks like to you.

Shooting out of the vehicles – medicine. And exploding out of the medicine – oil. Maybe black petroleum oil would be easiest to visualize, okay? That’s it. I’m going to run through that again, just replay through this little story. So, we had the giant machines were smashing up the gold and silver. What rose up? Vehicles. What shot out of the windows? Medicine. And what exploded out of the medicine? It was oil.

So, first, go ahead and try to give those main items back to me from memory.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure thing. So, we started with giant machines that were smashing gold and silver, from which emerged vehicles that had medicine spilling out, and then in the medicine was oil.

Chester Santos
Perfect. So, you got that 100% correct. What you’ve done there, Pete, without realizing it, or maybe you did realize it, I’m not sure, I actually had you there just memorize the top five exports of the UK. So, if you were to look that up right now and see what the top five exports of the UK are, you’ll see listed machinery, precious metals, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and oil. So, you start to see how the image doesn’t need to perfectly match what you’re trying to remember, you’re simply building a mental notecard.

So, can you try to give me now the exports using that little story to guide you?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. So, it’s machinery, precious metals, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and oil.

Chester Santos
You got it. Perfect. So, Pete, it might not seem like much at first but, again, in today’s world where no one is using their memory very much, when you get into a meeting with maybe it’s clients for your company or potential clients, or it’s a meeting with colleagues or your boss, when you get in there and you’ve prepared for that meeting, you have 5, 10, 15 key things committed to memory, what this does is really better demonstrate your knowledge, right? You’re showing that you actually know something, that you actually know your stuff. You’re better demonstrating your expertise. You’re going to be perceived as more of an expert in your field. People are more impressed with you. People will have more confidence in you and your abilities. And, also, when you have a really good memory, again, you become so much more memorable to people in the business world, on the job.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that. So, I’m eager to get into the names here now and so I went ahead and grabbed the Social Security Administration’s top names over the last hundred years. So, we talked about it being visualizable, and with Alice, you saw a rabbit because that was resonating for you with the story. I’m seeing the top names here. We got James, Mary, John, Patricia. How would I turn some of those into things I can see?

Chester Santos
Well, so my example for…I’d rather actually have people come up with their own image, but my example for John, you can watch that CNN clip, I gave…

Pete Mockaitis
I’m here. Let’s do it.

Chester Santos
Yeah, somehow, I didn’t get in trouble for that. The host, one of the hosts of that show was named John, and, luckily, he wasn’t too upset with me, but I might imagine, you know, a toilet bowl as in going to the John, right? Mary, I might imagine a little lamb because Mary had a little lamb.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Or the Madonna, you know, for a religious perspective.

Chester Santos
James, I might imagine just a famous James. It could be a character from a TV show or movie. It could be simply a friend or a family member that has the same name like your uncle.

Pete Mockaitis
Or Darth Vader.

Chester Santos
It could be that you visualize even just your Uncle James. Patricia, I might think of Patricia Arquette. So, I want to clarify this point a little bit. So, I said come up with a visual. Now, how you come up with that visual can vary. So, it can be a famous person that has the same name, a friend or family member that you’re seeing in your mind that has the same name, or it could be something like a sound alike. So, for the name Jane, I might picture a chain, okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chester Santos
I gave you something more symbolic like a white rabbit for Alice. So, there are various ways as to how the image can remind you of that name, but the best way to describe the concept, in general, is to come up with an image, or series of images, that will some way, anyway, remind you personally of the name, right? And there actually is another step to this.

The next step is to connect that image to something unique about the person’s look. So, if, to you, Jane has really cool-looking hair, you might imagine that chains are going through her hair, clacking together, making a really loud noise. So, how this works in practice is the next time you see her, all you have to do is ask yourself, “Okay, what is noticeable to me about her look?” What you notice, personally, what was noticeable to you before, is very likely will be noticeable to you again. And then the image that you stored there will come right back to you.

So, in this case, the chains might remind you of, again, chain might remind you of Jane. So, that is kind of an overview for how it works. It sounds weird, again, I realize but anyone can become really good at this with a little bit of training and practice, and that’s how I open presentations around the world with naming even hundreds of people in the audience after hearing each name just one time before the presentation starts.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think you said something there, kind of quickly, but it’s important. You hear the name, like you make sure that you get it in the first place, and don’t be shy to ask them to repeat themselves if you need to. Like, if you didn’t hear Jane said Jane, you’re dead in the water.

Chester Santos
Absolutely. Absolutely, Pete. So, let me give you four quick steps that will help you with that because that’s absolutely necessary for this. So, I recommend that you combine that visual-based technique with the following four steps when you’re meeting someone.

Step number one, immediately repeat the name. So, if you’re introduced to someone named Jane, “Nice to meet you, Jane,” or, “Please to meet you, Jane.” That’s it. It seems totally obvious but, as you mentioned, a lot of times we’re not paying that much attention to the name. Our mind might be all over the place. We’re thinking about all sorts of other things.

Pete Mockaitis
“No, I said…” Or you might have gotten it wrong. Like, “No, I said Tane.” “Is it Tane? Oh, okay. I’m glad I clarified with you.”

Chester Santos
Yes. So, repeating the name really gives you the opportunity to clarify the name, as you mentioned, and also make sure that you pay attention for at least one second. That’s the only way you could attempt to repeat the person’s name back to them, right? So, that first step, if you start doing that today, eventually it’s going to become a habit and second nature to you.

Step number two, I recommend that you use the name early on in your interaction with the person. So, simply, “Jane, how do you know Chester?” or, “Jane, how long have you been involved with this organization?” And I want to clarify, I don’t mean use the name over and over again in the conversation to where it starts to seem a little weird. Really, just using it once early on in the interaction will be enough to reinforce the name in your mind.

Step number three, take a few seconds, or less, to think of a connection between the name and, literally, anything at all that you already know. So, Jane, I don’t know, maybe think of Jane Goodall. And, again, as I mentioned, it could be like a character from a TV show or movie. It could be something as simple as you have a friend of family member with that name. Maybe you have an Aunt Jane. And when you’re going through that step, that might also help you come up with your visual, right?

Fourth and final step is to make sure, whenever you leave the meeting, the party, whatever type of function it might be, the conference maybe, make it a point to try and say goodbye to people actually using their name, “I hope to see you again sometime, Jane.” Using the name that last time is going to go a long way toward helping you remember more of those names the next time you see those people. And if at that point you’ve already forgotten the name, I highly recommend that you ask them their name again right then and there because, at that point, they’re less likely, I think, to be offended. At that point, I think they’re more likely to appreciate the fact that you care enough to remember their name for the next time you see them. You’re expressing interest in that person, and they’re really going to appreciate that fact.

So, those four steps, combined with the visuals that I talked about earlier, I think are really going to help you out. You might not be 100%, even I’m not 100%, but if you can remember 80% plus of the people that you’re meeting, this is going to pay huge dividends for you in your career and in your personal life. And in my online school, I actually simulate introducing you to people so that you really develop that skill.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, Chester, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Chester Santos
I think I’ve covered really everything that I had in mind in terms of the main concepts that are always going to be involved when you want to develop a powerful memory no matter what specific technique. We got into a couple of interactive exercises that I think people will enjoy playing around with, and we got into some specific tips on names. Those are some of the most important things that I really wanted to cover that I think people will be able to put to use right away on the job and in their personal lives in terms of lifelong learning. And you can also share what you learned from this interview with your kids or grandkids that might be in school as well.

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

Chester Santos
“You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” I like that. I like that quote a lot. And that applies to my area because some people, you know, they’re scared off because maybe they’re not…they don’t currently believe that they have a very good memory. But, really, all you have to do is get started in learning these types of techniques and, before you know it, you will have a very powerful memory. But you do just have to get started.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Chester Santos
How to Win Friends and Influence People that I often quote in my presentations. There’s a lot in that book, not just about names and how important memory is in the business world, but really just a lot of business and personal success-related tips in general. So, that’s one of my favorite books, and I do recommend that people check that one out if they haven’t already, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, it resonates, and folks quote it back to you a lot?

Chester Santos
I think what I’d like people most to note about my message, in general, is that anyone is capable of developing a powerful memory with just the right techniques, a little bit of training and practice, this can be fun to do, and it’s going to benefit you in so many ways because, again, memory is a fundamental part to learning and the acquisition of knowledge. So, I guess that’s the main nugget that I want people to keep I mind.

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

Chester Santos
Yeah, if people are interested into diving into memory skills training deeper and really put this to use in their career, personal life, help their kids in school, MemorySchool.net is my main training website. I would visualize a giant net so you remember that it’s .net. And I setup coupon code AWESOME in honor of being on your podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Chester Santos
So, the first 50 people to use couple code AWESOME at MemorySchool.net will be able to get started with no enrollment fee whatsoever. So, I hope people will be encouraged to check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s going to be a mad dash to put that in there. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Chester Santos
I want to encourage people to just take action. If this is something that…and not only my area, not just memory skills, but, really, anything that they’re hearing about on your podcast, any particular topic that they find very interesting, I really encourage people to take action on it as soon as possible because, once you do take that action, whether it’s signing up for the Memory School, whatever it might be, once you take the action, you are ten times more likely to actually develop that skill.

Whereas, if you don’t take action right away, it could be that I’m on your show again in a year or two, and people will not have developed the new skills. Again, you really just, as I mentioned in my quote, you really just have to get started in order to eventually become great.

Pete Mockaitis
Chester, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in your memory adventures.

Chester Santos
Thank you so much again, Pete, for having me.