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335: Become a High Performer in Eight (Scientifically Proven) Steps with Marc Effron

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Marc Effron says: "Bigger goals actually do motivate us to perform at a higher level."

Marc Effron shares his extensive research on the eight essential steps to becoming a high performer at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The eight steps to high performance
  2. The difference between goals and promises
  3. How to estimate and achieve your theoretical maximum of effort

About Marc

Marc Effron is the founder and President of the Talent Strategy Group and founder and publisher of Talent Quarterly magazine. He is coauthor of the book One-Page Talent Management and has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Influencers in HR.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Marc Effron Interview Transcript

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

Marc Effron
My pleasure Pete. Happy to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m happy to have you as well. The first thing I need to hear all about is you and Thai boxing. How did this come about and what’s the story here?

Marc Effron
Yeah, Pete. Muay Thai boxing, I fell into this probably no more than about five years ago. Short story is I’ve always been a gym rat and was in the gym one day and saw these guys doing boxing training over in the corner. I said, “Hey, that looks like fun.” Talked to the trainer, turned out that he’s actually a Muay Thai master.

I had no idea what Muay Thai was, turns out it is a boxing style that the Thais came up with when the Burmese were trying to invade them hundreds of years ago. It was actually kind of a creative way that they discovered to repel the invaders, but now it’s essentially a form of mixed martial arts and turned out to be a heck of a workout.

But also turned out, I found, to be a really good parallel for life and business in that – a very short story – the first three months or so that you train at this, you’re just – you’re kicking, you’re hitting and it’s pretty fun. Like all beginners you think you’re getting pretty good. Then about three months in your trainer takes a swing at you and hits you. You quickly realize, hey, all that kicking and hitting, that’s all theory. When they swing back, that’s practice.

This reminds me of the Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face.” It feels like that’s a really good metaphor for high performance. It’s all theory until you have to go out there and actually compete. But love it. It’s the best workout I’ve ever had.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Does it also enable you to repel attackers? Have you had a cause to use it under intense circumstances?

Marc Effron
If I find hoards of marauding Thais in my office I will – or marauding Burmese I will use it as best I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, you’re all set. Let’s talk about your office for a bit. Your company is called the Talent Strategy Group. What are you about? What do you do there?

Marc Effron
Sure. This is firm I formed eight years ago when my last book came out, One-Page Talent Management. We help large global companies, the Google’s, the Starbucks, the McDonalds of the world help their teams and their leaders to be higher performers. We work all around the globe. We do a lot of performance management work and training work and all great stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, fun. I want to hear about your latest here, your book, 8 Steps to High Performance. What’s the big idea here?

Marc Effron
The big idea is helping individuals to understand that the path to high performance is actually pretty well proven and that there’s a lot of noise out there that distracts folks, but if we go back to the core science about performance, there’s a pretty clear set of steps. If they follow it, anyone can be a higher performer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well could you in rapid fire format unveil to us what are these eight steps?

Marc Effron
Sure. First one, step one, set big goals. Just what it sounds like, a few really challenging goals. The most powerful science out there says that bigger goals stretch our performance.

Second step, behave to perform. We all want to behave like good citizens, but there a few ways of behaving that are actually going to elevate your performance faster than others.

Step three is grow yourself faster. It’s great to be a high performer, but if you’re going to move forward, you need to become better at what you do and better at the things that you want to do going forward. There are some scientifically proven ways of getting there faster than the techniques that you might normally try.

Step four is connect. This is actually the step that I personally have the most challenge with. Connect is forming great relationships inside and outside your company. Again, the science is really clear. People who do that better are going to be higher performers and move further in their careers.

Step five, maximize your fit. Keep this saying in mind. Companies change faster than people change. Companies change faster than people change. That means that your company’s going to evolve very quickly and the needs that the company have from you are going to change over time. You’re going to need to pay really close attention to where’s my company going and what are the different needs it requires for me to be a high performer going forward.

Step six, and this is the one where we hear a lot of noise is fake it. Fake it means that the genuine you, the authentic you, might not always be the you that your company needs to see and that sometimes you might actually need to fake some behaviors you don’t fully feel comfortable with in order to be successful.

Step seven, commit your body. There is great science behind a few things that we can do around sleep primarily, but also we’ll talk a bit about exercise to make sure that you are primed for a high performance.

The final step, step eight, avoid distractions. What we mean by avoid distractions is there is a lot of noise, a lot of fads out there, think of them as the get rich quick schemes for high performance that sound too good to be true. They are. We call out in the book some of the most common ones you should avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, thank you. Now that’s – so many of these are so intriguing and it’s – I’m thinking about prioritization. Maybe I’ll give you the first crack at it. Which of these steps do you think provides kind of an extra leverage or disproportionate bang for your buck or return on the effort you put into trying to take the step?

Marc Effron
Sure. It really is step one: set big goals. Now as fundamental as that may seem, there are a few things that are helpful to know.

One is there is incredibly strong science that says things like bigger goals deliver bigger results, meaning we’re hard wired to respond to more challenge with more effort. Pete, if you say, “Marc, jump a foot in the air. I’ll give you a dollar.” I’m going to try and jump a foot in the air. If you say, “Marc, try and jump two feet. I’ll give you two dollars,” I’m going to try that. If you say, “Three feet, three dollars,”

I’m going to keep trying to do more as long as the reward seems to equal the challenge, so If you say, “Jump four feet, but you still only get three dollars,” I probably won’t do it or I’m too physically exhausted to respond to the challenge. Bigger goals actually do motivate us to perform at a higher level. That’s step one.

But then focus those goals. You can’t have 20 big goals. You’ll kill yourself. But you certainly can have three. Especially at work, the key thing is to understand what are the few things that really, really matter to my boss, not to me, to my boss. What are the three big things that he or she really wants to see me deliver this year and align your goals with his or her priorities.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. I think some bosses would have a hard time limiting themselves to three. They’d say, “I want 15 things from you, Marc. They’re all super important.”  Then some, I’m thinking about our previous guest, Bruce Tulgan, with the crisis of under management, I think some might not really know in terms of “Well, we’ve got to keep things moving and going and operational.”

Any pro tips in terms of having those conversations effectively with your boss to really land upon the big three?

Marc Effron
Sure. Well, let’s say your boss goes too high, meaning “Hey, Pete, you have ten things to do, why are you asking me about three?” “Well, boss, I’m going to get all ten done. Don’t you worry about that. But if there were three that you think I should really, really get done to the highest level possible, which would be the three that you think are most important this year?”

Any type of prioritization at all, reassuring your boss, “Hey, I got it. I’m going to make sure everything gets done.” But your boss very likely has a few things that she or he wants you to ace this year, mainly because it’s going to make them look better. Reassure them that you’ll get them all done but ask them for some prioritization.

If they go too low meaning they say, “Well, Pete, show up and do a good job and work hard,” then ask questions like, “Hey, I’m absolutely going to do that, Marc, but what are you working on this year? What are the few big projects that are on your goal list?” “Cool. Are there any things that I’m doing right now that I can align better with the big goals that you have to achieve?”

Now this also gets into a bit of step four, which is connecting well with your boss. There’s nothing wrong with making your boss look good and goals are a great way to do that. “Boss, what are you working on? Hey, I want to make sure you ace those few things, how can I best help you to do that.”

If they go too high, ask them to help you to prioritize. If they go too low, maybe start with what’s most important to them given what they’re working on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s helpful there. You talk about making promises in this section of the book. Is there a distinction between a goal and a promise and how to think about that?

Marc Effron
Yeah. It’s easy to dismiss that as kind of a cute word trick, but I do think there’s a different emotional component between the two. I can say “Hey Pete, yeah, I’ve got a goal for this year. I’m going to try and do X.” That’s much different than saying, “Pete, I promise you by the end of 2018, I will have achieved this.”

One sounds a lot more serious. Hey, we try to achieve goals, but how many people like to break their promises? Part of it might be a bit of a Jedi mind trick, but it really is just kind of increasing the emotional component of what you’re saying around those goals.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. It’s interesting it almost sort of – yeah, there’s definitely more sort of commitment or intensity, almost anxiety. It’s like, “Oh crap, what if I don’t do deliver. Ah.” It’s kind of spooky when you use the word promises.

Marc Effron
Exactly. You don’t want to disappoint someone by not delivering on a promise, but goals, we almost think, well, yeah, of course you make some goals, you don’t make some goals. Well, hopefully you deliver on most of the promises that you make.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so then your suggestion is that you articulate that verbally or do you write it in the performance management system or a document or review between boss and direct report or how do you recommend these get kind of captured and worked upon.

Marc Effron
Yeah. First of all, if your company has a way of doing it, start there. A lot of those ways are bureaucratic and annoying. If your company doesn’t have a way of doing it, then write them wherever you’re going to see them. Write them on the front of your desk, put them in your phone, wherever it’s going to stay in front of you that there are three big things that I’m trying to get done.

Again, you’re going to have many, many distractions. You have 100 things to get done during the year, and you’re going to need something that helps to reinforce for you, “Hey, these are the three big things that I promised and that are likely going to differentiate whether I’m seen as a high performer at work or not.”

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious then, yeah, when it comes to selecting them, we talked about making the boss looked good, aligns to what’s most important to them, and then makes you look great in terms of it distinguishes you in terms of you being perceived as a high performer.

Any other pro tips in terms of dos and don’ts for selecting these goals? I guess one of the tricky things with goals or promises here is that often there’s – your control is somewhat limited. You have to rely upon other collaborators internally or consumers/customers/clients responding favorably in a marketplace. How do you think about that angle of the promises?

Marc Effron
Sure, I think there’s a fine line between challenges and excuses. Customers come and go, economies get better and worse, people cooperate and don’t cooperate. I think part of it is when you’re setting that goal, identify what are the few key things I’m depending on – that I depend on will happen to allow me to achieve that goal.

It might mean that Suzie needs to deliver on project X in order for me to complete that. Okay, cool. Then you’d better help Suzie get project X done. It could be just a big assumption. “Hey boss, I’m assuming that client Y is going to continue buying our product as they always have. If they don’t, we’ll need to come back and renegotiate that goal.”

Part of it is just understanding what are the variables that are going to either allow you to make that goal or to make that goal challenging. The ones that you can control, put a plan in place to control them. The ones you can’t control, then it’s fair if they change to go back to your boss and say, “Hey boss, I was supposed to sell a hundred widgets to that company. That company doesn’t exist anymore. Let’s talk about what my new goal should be.”

I think it’s a line of saying, yeah, there are lots of bad things that can happen, probably best to identify those things that you can control in advance and work hard to control them and just be aware of the other ones as early as you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Thank you. I’d like to get your take then on behaviors. What are some of the – real quick, some of the best and the worst?

Marc Effron
Sure, well I think that there’s a challenge for a lot of leaders who hear either through books or through their HR group that great leadership behaviors are what makes somebody successful.

Well, the scientists claim great leadership behavior makes somebody a great leader and that’s cool. But there’s also really good science that says there’s a set of performance driving behaviors that doesn’t mean that you act like a jerk, but it means you don’t necessarily spend as much time kind of engaging with your team. It’s all about how do I get higher performance.

Each of those styles might be appropriate at different times. If you are with a company owned by a private equity firm, they have extremely high demands for how your company is going to grow and perform, you might just need to drive high performance. Many people respond very positively to that.

On the other hand, if you’re maybe with a more long service organization, has a more gentle culture, you might really need to spend a lot of time in the care and feeding of your staff.

Either of those are perfectly fine ways of behaving but each of those is more appropriate for one situation than another.

The first step would simply be look at the situation that I’m in, what is the company valuing most from me? Do they value that I get things done the most? Do they value that I am a great leader, grow my teams, support the culture most. First step is really understanding what does my company need from me.

Ideally, your company can tell you, “Hey, we either have a leadership model or a behavior model that give you some guidance.” The challenge with those is they tend to be eight or 10 or 12 things that are all lovely behaviors, but don’t give you a lot of focus.

If your company does have one of those models, I really think it’s helpful to go to your boss or talk to high performers in your company and say, “Yeah, these are eight or 10, 12 really cool things, but what are the two that really, really matter around here? What am I going to get noticed for if I do or in trouble for if I don’t do?”

Again, focus is going to be a key theme on high performers, that’s focus on the big promises, but also focus on the few behaviors that matter most.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re saying then that this really varies organization by organization. Have you zeroed in on some universal best practices associated with driving performance and results?

Marc Effron
There are a few things that are going to make you successful in every environment. One is building the quality and performance of your team. Quality meaning are you increasing the capabilities of the people on your team. Are they more skilled and more capable at the end of the year, than they were at the beginning of the year due to the assignments and the experiences and the challenge that you’ve given them?

You can certainly have people deliver great results and learn nothing. That doesn’t add a lot of value to the company.

Step one is are you building the quality of those leaders by giving them big, juicy challenges that are a bit scary, that stretch their skills that cause them learn so at the end of the year, you have a team that is higher quality than others. Developmental behaviors are going to be ones that are going to be valued everywhere.

To the theme we’re talking about, just classic performance driving behaviors. All of the things that we talk about in the book applying to yourself, are you applying those to others, especially starting with those big goals. Are you challenging your team members to do more, but in a focused way?

So not simply I need ten percent more than last year, but what are the few most important things and how can I stretch you to what we call your maximum theoretical performance.

We introduce this concept in a book. It actually comes from weightlifting. Very simple concept. If you go to the gym and you’re going to lift some weights, what would be the theoretical maximum amount of weight that you can lift if everything was perfectly aligned, meaning if you had been actively training, if your diet was great, if you felt good that day, the gym was the right temperature, if everything was perfect, what would your theoretical maximum performance be?

Now average Joe or Jill goes into a gym, they can lift about 60% of theoretical maximum performance. If you’re a bit of a gym rat, you’re there all the time, you’d probably do about 80% of your maximum performance. Science says that Olympic athletes typically do 93 – 94% of their theoretical maximum performance.

Apply that same concept to work. Most of us show up, we do a really good job, we put in a lot of effort, but what would your theoretical maximum performance be. What would you have to do to perform at that level that is just optimum, that you know that you are giving everything that you have in both performance and behavior standpoint?

A good manager is going to work with their team members to say, “Hey, I know you’ve got more in you. Let’s figure out how we can help you be an even higher performer and have a very clear plan around that.” All the way back to the beginning, more quality, more performance.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to know both for weightlifting and for professionals doing knowledge work, how does one establish what the theoretical maximum is?

Marc Effron
Well, I – I think there are a few ways of doing that. One is if you follow the eight steps that we talked about earlier, you’re certainly going to be going in the right directions because each of those is scientifically proven to make you a higher performer.

But I’m also a fan of simply saying double your standard. Whatever that standard is for great, what would double that standard look like? Doubling that standard probably takes you from about the 50th percentile to closer to the 100th percentile.

That means looking at things like “Hey, I had a great year last year, what would it actually take for me to double that performance? What would it take for me to double what I’ve delivered? What would it take for me to double how quickly or how much I develop? What would it take for me to double the engagement of my team members?”

It feels like a very unreasonable standard, but back to the science around setting big goals, it is amazing how much clarity you will get and how much you will stretch your mind around your own performance if you simply ask yourself that fundamental question. What would it take to deliver twice as much as I do today? The answer can’t be work twice as hard because that probably actually won’t get you there.

But thinking across between my goals, my behaviors, my network, even my sleep, what else could I do differently that would actually allow me to get to that point?

Pete Mockaitis
You’re saying that doubling is a pretty good benchmark rule of thumb for that is likely in the ballpark of possible and the maximum theoretical there?

Marc Effron
Yeah. I think what it’s going to do is it’s going to – if you say double, you’re probably defining your theoretical maximum performance. Is it possible that most of us can double in a year what we did the last year?

It’s going to be a pretty stiff challenge, but it’s going to really clarify your thinking around “Well, what would I have to do to move my performance most aggressively in a better direction,” because you’re not going to think about incremental solutions like, “Oh, I could take a class or maybe I’ll meet a few more people and network.” But really what would the big steps be that are going to have a meaningful difference on your performance?

Pete Mockaitis
I like it. I find it – I guess in a way it’s somewhat arbitrary, but if you think about it, a 5% boost, that’s like “Oh, I’ll just work an extra 23 minutes or whatever in a day,” versus I hear people talk about 10x’ing it, which sounds really cool and exciting, but it just sort of often just leaves me frozen, like, “Wow, I have no idea how I would 10x it.”

But doubling, I don’t know, it’s working for me because I think it sparks ideas for me, like, “Oh, well, I’ve got to stop wasting all this time with this,” or “I’ve got to find a way to automate or outsource or delegate that particular thing which is low value, but to free up more time for this other thing.” Then suddenly it’s like, “Oh, well, that’s not so impossible. That just requires X dollars and a great person and away we go.”

Marc Effron
Yeah. Focus drives performance. It is amazing. I think you really seized on a great point. If I’m going to double what I do, there’s a bunch of stuff I really enjoy doing that I might need to stop doing. That’s part of the tradeoff of being a high performer. I have stuff here at work that I love doing and my team looks at me and says, “You really shouldn’t be spending your time on that.” I guarantee you, I would be a higher performer if I stopped doing some of those things.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell us what are some of those things?

Marc Effron
Oh, I like to think I have a sense of graphic style and I annoyingly provide helpful advice to my team about how email should look and graphics should look and decks should look. They’re so appreciative of my constant advice to them, but they’ve told me that maybe I could dial that back just a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Yeah, I …. Cool. Talk to us a little bit about the faking it notion, presenting a different version of yourself deliberately and what that’s all about.

Marc Effron
Sure. Here is the challenge. People respond very negatively when you say, “Hey, you need to kind of fake things at work,” especially because there’s been such a trend over the past five years or so to be our authentic selves and our genuine selves.

That’s lovely, but the science says that showing up as your genuine self all the time is probably not going to be the right strategy for high performance because the people around us actually need to see different you’s at different times. If your primary concern is how can the genuine me show up 24/7, you’re likely going to miss a lot of opportunities to interact with people in the way that they actually need you to interact with them.

Plus, what we find is that if you say, “Hey, I’m always going to be my authentic self and never change,” there are actually opportunities, there are times in our life when we’re going to need to show fundamentally different behaviors that we just might not feel comfortable with and faking those behaviors until either you become comfortable or just faking them to be successful are going to be critical.

An example, leaders tend to exist in one of two states meaning we start to off by being what we call an emerging leader. An emerging leader is somebody who needs to really show that they are there. They need to wave their hand around a bit. They need to call attention to their work because if they don’t do that, no one is ever going to understand that they’re a high performer or a potential high performer.

Some people are decidedly uncomfortable calling attention to themselves. They believe good work stands for itself. I’ll get noticed eventually. Well, no, good work doesn’t automatically get noticed and people don’t know people who quietly do good work.

If you are uncomfortable doing that, it’s important to recognize science is really clear if you don’t call attention to yourself, you’re not going to get noticed. Fake it for a while. Again, you don’t need to be an arrogant jerk, not that extent of faking it, but there’s nothing wrong with raising your hand in a meeting and offering a suggestion. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out to your boss the high quality work that you’re turning in. You might need to fake that behavior.

The other side of being an emerging leader is being an effective leader. Effective leaders are more established. They are – they have their team. They are a little bit more mature in their career. Effective leaders are going to empower their team, they’re going to be good managers, a bit more humble.

If you’re someone who loves calling attention to yourself, you might need to fake that. You might need to sit on your hands instead of always raising them in the meeting. You might need to cover your mouth instead of being the first person to respond to every question.

Being – faking things a bit allows you to be the ideal person to show up in each situation, to show up as you’re needed, not as who you think you should be. Faking might sound bad because we think, “Well, I’m authentic and that would be being inauthentic.” Well, no, what it means is you’re going to behave in a way that is most appropriate to be a high performer in that particular situation.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. The examples that you’re using there for faking it really don’t feel so frighteningly inauthentic. I guess adapting to circumstances and challenges as they emerge and doing what’s necessary is just kind of part of the game. It didn’t even occur to me that that would be being inauthentic.

I think I’ve had to fire someone before and that was very uncomfortable. I don’t like that. I like to believe in people and their possibilities and their growth and development. Then at some point it’s like this really isn’t the right fit and okay, here we go.

I guess I didn’t think of that as violating myself or being inauthentic. It was just more like, “Hm, what is required now is not something fun and comfortable for me.”

I guess – I think other people think about authenticity in terms of like if they want to have purple hair or a huge beard or almost like fashion expression sensibilities. Yeah, could you maybe unpack some extra examples of things that we might need to let go of when you’re expressing our genuineness or common places where it’s needed – it’s necessary to adapt?

Marc Effron
Sure. I would say on the look and how you present yourself, my view is that’s a great place to be authentic because I think that shows your personality.

But let’s take an example of oftentimes I’ll speak with people who will need to be up on stage in a presentation and they’re nervous. “I’m just not that person who gets up on stage and does that. I just can’t turn on being” – so their genuine you is very afraid being kind of a public speaker.

I tell those folks, “Look, I am a massive introvert, but you know what no one wants to see up on stage? Someone staring at their shoes.” I have to fake it up on stage and I’ve got a lot of good people that are in my mind when I’m faking being an extrovert. Is it the genuine me? No, it is not the genuine me, but guess what? I fake it pretty well.

For a lot of folks it’s simply recognizing that you don’t have to restrain or constrain what you do because there is some authentic you that sets boundaries around how you can behave.

You can say, “Hey, you know what I’m going to do at that next party even though I’m a massive introvert? I’m going to fake extrovert. I’m going to walk into that room saying, ‘I’m the biggest extrovert in the world.’ What would a big extrovert do in this room right now?”

Either you’re going to be at least moderately successful, if not maybe a bit more, and you actually might get a really good round of practice in at being more of an extrovert and find that you’re building some skills around it.

Part of authenticity is stop putting boundaries on your own success by saying, “Oh, that’s just who I am.” No, who you are is whoever you feel like being at that moment. Learn how to fake it. It’s amazing how much progress you can make.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot in terms of rejecting the constraint of “That’s just not who I am,” and being able to adapt there. And I liked the instance of you imagining what being extrovert is like.

We had Srini Pillay talk about what he called psychological Halloweenism, which is quite a turn of a phrase, which is just that, like “Hey, I’ll just put on a costume. I’m going to be this person and see how that goes because it will be very helpful to be this person in this context.”

Marc Effron
Part of is just our fear of risk, our fear of embarrassment, but again, most of us really overestimate how much people pay attention to us. We write about that in the book. Most of think that everyone is always looking at us and always judging us, but actually  we’re noticed far less than we think.

The odds that if we go to a party and we have one awkward conversation with one person, that that’s somehow going to spread like wildfire through our social community, probably not the case. You can probably take a risk.

The science is also very conclusive that people are pretty tolerant of us failing in social situations in ways that others have failed in social situations, so people essentially empathize.

Yeah, it’s tough to walk up to somebody new and have a flawless and fluent conversation. If that person isn’t doing that perfectly with me, I’m not going to think “What an idiot.” I’m going to think, “Hey, they’re kind of getting used to being a bit more of an extrovert.” People are actually largely forgiving in those situations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well, now I saved the most controversial for last. I want to get your take on your final step there was avoiding the distractions of what you call unproven fads and in that category you put grit, power poses, emotional intelligence and strengths. Now, a lot of people love this stuff. What’s your take on this overall?

Marc Effron
Well, here’s the challenge. There are – and we outline in the book – there are really clear scientifically proven steps that will make you a higher performer.

The challenge is that as consumers of information, which I’m sure the folks on the podcast are, you get information thrown at you every day that says you can be a higher performer if only you do this. Because most folks aren’t industrial or … psychologists, they probably aren’t sorting those marketing claims through a very skeptical lens and so something that sounds pretty easy and pretty straightforward, they may be likely to do.

The challenge is some of those things will kind of do no harm, but most of them are going to really waste your time and distract you from doing the things that actually will drive higher performance.

Some of my favorites are focusing on your strengths. Don’t focus on your strengths. Here’s the challenge. Gallup has sold millions and millions of books. They have sold I think 18 million strength finder assessments.

Focusing on your strengths is a great way to continue to be good at things that you’re already good at. If you say, “Hey, I’m in my job, I just want to be really, really good at this job. I don’t want a different job. I don’t want to move up,” in that case, cool, focus on your strengths. You’re going to be great.

But the challenge is that the strengths that we need over time will change in our career, so if all you do is focus on today’s strengths, you are never going to have the strengths necessary for the next job and that there’s really great science that says things like we don’t have as many strengths as we think we do.

If you define strengths as being in the top ten percent of something, actually most of us don’t have that many strengths and a lot of science that says the strengths that we do have don’t necessarily align with what our company needs.

Something like focusing on your strengths sounds really easy, “Well, yeah, why wouldn’t I do that? I’m good at some stuff and the stuff I’m not good at, it’s really annoying to work on, so wow, it feels like there’s a really easy path to success. I’ll just focus on my strengths.”

Unfortunately, the science is clear that the people – people who advance most quickly in organizations, are the ones who actually trim the negative tails. “Here are the things that are actually holding me back. My strengths will take care of themselves. It’s the things that I don’t do well that are going to drag down my career.”

The challenge is we have things like that that sound really attractive, that are presented in a compelling way, and there’s a bestselling book, but there’s just no science that says that it works and there’s lots of science that it probably won’t work as well as other techniques.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. When it comes to the strength stuff, I think this kind of reminds me of maybe any number of sort of health and fitness claims in terms of you can broadly declare something as good or bad, but really I think there’s more sort of nuance to it.

You look to the strengths approach in terms of trying to find how that compares to or correlates to rapidly accelerating, climbing, being promoted, and rocking and rolling in an organization. You say that the data just aren’t there to support the strengths.

However, Gallup will say – I’ve got it up here – people who use their strengths every day are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life, six times more likely to be engaged at work, 8% more productive, and 15% less likely to quit their jobs. None of those results are climbing rapidly into bigger realms of responsibility. 8% more productive is nice.

That’s intriguing. I’m kind of putting together what you’re saying with what they’re saying and it seems like strengths have some value, but it ain’t necessarily getting you to the top of the pyramid quicker.

Marc Effron
Absolutely. I guarantee you and completely agree with Gallup that if you focus on your strengths, you will be happy at work. Absolutely. If your goal is to be happy at work, focus on your strengths. Great solution. If you want to be a high performer at work, then it’s probably not the right way to go. You probably want to focus on big goals, changing your behaviors, and the other eight steps that we outline.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool, thank you. Tell me, Marc, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Marc Effron
I think we’re on a roll. Let’s keep going.

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Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well tell me about a favorite quote, something that inspires you?

Marc Effron
Let me go high and let me go low. I’ll give you two. One, we’ll start with Wolfgang Goethe, the German philosopher. He had a quote, “Doubt grows with knowledge.” “Doubt grows with knowledge.”

I think that we should all become more skeptical the more we know about something because you’ll probably find that a few things in whatever area are true and to what we’re just talking about, when things come along that sound too good to be true, they probably are. The high end quote would be “Doubt grows with knowledge,” Wolfgang Goethe.

The low end quote would be from the famous philosopher Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who said, “The wolf is always at the door.” I think that is a high performer’s mindset, “The wolf is always at the door.” You have to have this mindset that everything could hit the skids tomorrow, so what am I going go to do today to make sure that I’m extremely well prepared for success.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Marc Effron
Not to bore the listeners too much, but I’m a big fan of setting big goals. There’s great research out there, classic stuff by two really brilliant professors, Gary Latham and Ed Locke, about how goals drive performance that we talked about earlier. Just really kind of rock solid science, not light reading, but rock solid science.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Marc Effron
Marshall Goldsmith. Many of your listeners probably know him. You might have even had him on a podcast. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Bestseller New York Times, Wall Street Journal.

Just a great book to help all of us understand that we’re going to need to evolve and change through life and at the moment we rest on our laurels we’re dead. What Marshall does wonderfully is just kind of pick apart all of our wonderful excuses for why we behave, how we behave, and really convince us that it’s probably smart to let go of those excuses and figure out a more successful way to behave across your life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Marc Effron
I had trouble thinking of this. One – a big fan of all my hardware and software, but I probably use – this is not a plug – the Delta airlines app more than anything else. I’m on the road 70% of my time and that app is open almost every single day, so they do a good job for me and that’s probably my favorite tool.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Marc Effron
Favorite habit. I found out many years ago that working Sundays is very productive for me. It started off because I was in business school and doing worse than 98% of people and realized I needed to put in some extra effort and so started hanging out in the library from 9 AM to 9 PM on Sundays and realized you can get a lot done when nobody else is around.

Since that time I have worked not every, but three-quarters of Sundays in the year. One because it’s really quiet and my brain needs that to get stuff done, but also, if I’m working six hours a week more than other folks, that’s probably going to add up over time into something good.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners?

Marc Effron
Probably two things. In fact I was looking at on the Kindle copy of the book things that have been underlined the most. Two things seem to stand out.

One was just the definition of a high performer because that’s probably never been put out there before. I define that as “a high performer is somebody who’s performance and behaviors are sustained at the 75th percentile over time against your peers,” meaning you are always better than 75% of other smart people doing the exact same thing that you do. That’s one.

The other is just this concept we talked about earlier of theoretical maximum performance. How good could you be if everything was working in perfect concert?

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

Marc Effron
I would send them to our website. They can start with The8Steps, that’s The8Steps.com. It talks all about the book. Or if they want to learn more about our organization, TalentStrategyGroup.com, tons of articles, videos, lots of other cool resources.

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

Marc Effron
I would go back to what we talked about earlier. Just think about what would it take to double your own standard for great performance. A know a lot of your folks listening right now think, “Hey, I’m a pretty good performer.” I’m sure that’s true. What would it take to be twice as good as you are now? I guarantee you that will give you focus and motivation to do much more than you do today.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Marc, thanks so much for taking this time. It’s been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best and much success and high performance as you do what you do.

Marc Effron
Thanks Pete. I enjoyed the conversation.

324: Strengthening Your Focusing Abilities with Adam Gazzaley

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Adam Gazzaley says: "We can only take in a very limited amount of the information around us."

Adam Gazzaley takes a deep dive into the brain, why we don’t have the ability to do everything at the same time, and the technologies that will help how your brain functions and focuses.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The strengths and limitations of the human brain
  2. Three focus levers that you can learn to control
  3. Mindfulness practices that train attention

About Adam

Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D. is Professor in Neurology, Physiology and Psychiatry at UC San Francisco and the Founder & Executive Director of Neuroscape, a translational neuroscience center engaged in technology creation and scientific research of novel brain assessment and optimization approaches. Dr. Gazzaley is co-founder and Chief Science Advisor of Akili Interactive Labs, a company developing therapeutic video games, and co-founder and Chief Scientist of JAZZ Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in experiential technology to improve human performance.

Additionally, he is a scientific advisor for over a dozen technology companies including Apple, GE, Magic Leap and The VOID. He has filed multiple patents, authored over 125 scientific articles, and delivered over 540 invited presentations around the world. He wrote and hosted the nationally-televised PBS special “The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley”, and co-authored the 2016 MIT Press book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”, winner of the 2017 PROSE Award. Dr. Gazzaley has received many awards and honors, including the 2015 Society for Neuroscience – Science Educator Award.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Adam Gazzaley Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Adam, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Adam Gazzaley
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve been so excited to have this conversation ever since I heard you on Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness podcast. First of all, I’ve got to know, you said in that show, “Stay tuned to 2018,” because you were working on creating the first prescription video game or digital medicine. Where does that stand today?

Adam Gazzaley
Well, we have advanced. At the very end of 2017, we, we being Akili Interactive, which is a company I spun out from my research at UCSF, we announced that we had positive outcomes on our FDA phase three trial that was targeting improvement of attention abilities in children diagnosed with ADHD.

That’s the big piece that we were waiting for to then go ahead and submit to the FDA. That process has just happened. This is a medical device pathway. It’s the first of its kind for this type of treatment. It would be the first non-drug treatment for that condition, for ADHD. We don’t know exactly how long the process takes, but we’re in it now, so hopefully not so long.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Congratulations.

Adam Gazzaley
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Since I just jumped in there, maybe you can back it up a second. What is the game and how does it make an impact on brains?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, so maybe I’ll take even one more step back. The idea behind building a video game as a digital medicine really popped into my mind after years of research in neuroscience and as a clinician and neurologist back in 2008. It’s been ten years ago that I started on this pathway that was just sort of reaching this really major milestone now of FDA approval.

The concept is that we can engage our brains at a very high level and a targeted experience. This experience can be adaptive, what we call closed loop, meaning it’s challenging you and giving you rewards at the edge of your ability. It’s pushing you. It’s doing this based on your real-time metrics, your performance, your physiology.

We can use this type of experience as a way of optimizing the brain networks that it activates. That was the general idea that I had.

We built a video game called NeuroRacer. Back in 2008 we started the process. I designed it. Brought in friends from LucasArts to help us develop it. Then we did multiple years of research really showing that we can improve older adults’ ability, which is where a lot of my research background had been focused on, improving their ability to pay attention on very, very different tasks and to also hold information in memory.

That was published in Nature in 2013 and also with neuro-recording showing the mechanisms in the brain that led to that improvement in attention. Then that led to the birth of Akili, a patent behind the technology, and now multiple clinical trials as well as the phase three trial for ADHD treatment that I just described to you. That’s the journey.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. That is cool. I want to get into the journey and your book, The Distracted Mind and practical things that professionals can do to be less distracted and have more great focus.

Maybe could you start us off by sharing – you wear a number of hats all at once these days – could you share a little bit of the story and thread that ties together your professorship, Neuroscape, Akili Interactive Labs and JAZZ Venture Partners, all you’re up to?

Adam Gazzaley
Sure. It does seem and it could give the impression that I’m spread thin given that I’ve co-founded several companies, a venture fund, I’m the director of a research center, and a professor at UCSF. I’ve written books and I give a lot of talks, but the reality is I feel like I do absolutely one thing.

They’re all related to each other. They’re all built on the premise that technology can be developed in a thoughtful way with the goal of improving how our brains function.

That could be for people that are healthy and just want to improve their concentration and their memory. It could be part of what we would think of as education, young developing minds on a more positive pathway than we currently see happening. Then, of course, as a type of medicine, which we’ve already been discussing when people have deficits.

The companies that JAZZ invests in, where I’m a partner, the companies I formed like Akili, another company Sensync, a newer one, what we do at our research center in Neuroscape, all of it is built to accomplish that goal of having our technology, our non-invasive, consumer-friendly both from affordability and accessibility point of view, do more than entertain us and allow us to communicate, but actually enhance what makes us human and really improve our brain function.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So much to dig into there. When it comes to brain function, it seems that your brain is functioning pretty prolifically in terms of geez, hundreds of presentations, a hundred scientific articles, and multiple … all at once. Do you have a personal secret for how you’re pulling this off? What’s sort of the key behind this?

Adam Gazzaley
Right. One of the keys is what I said. I really do feel like I have only one thing that I do. I don’t have lots of different voices. It doesn’t matter what podcast I am on or what audience I’m speaking in front of. I have one message. I have one way of presenting it. I have one goal.

I always say to especially my lab here when we hire new people or take on new projects that I have one tree and I’m willing to have more branches, but I’m not willing to have a second tree. A lot of it is just figuring out where is that tree, what is part of the core of my mission and where I want to direct my attention. I think that’s one thing that allows me to seem very productive.

I am accomplishing a lot of things, but it’s all in the same framework. When I watch someone else do things that seem really disparate than each other, it just boggles my mind how they hold that all together. That’s one of the things.

Then I’m really passionate about it. I found something that I absolutely love. I wake up thinking about. It’s what I’ll talk about in a bar with friends. It’s just – it’s my life.

I’m always encouraging young people that I might mentor and advise that that’s the secret. That’s what they have to find. If they’re not doing it now, they have to look elsewhere because it will always come back and haunt them if they passed up or miss that opportunity to find their true passion in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s dig into some of the takeaways here. You sort of unpack a number of these discoveries and practical applications for a popular audience in your book, The Distracted Mind. What’s sort of the big idea behind the book?

Adam Gazzaley
The book, The Distracted Mind, is sort of a little bit of a mash up between myself as an author and Larry Rosen as an author.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. I work in a laboratory where we do functional brain imaging and look at how neural networks underlie different performance metrics like attention and memory abilities, and how interference degrades those abilities. I study really the neural mechanisms of interference through distraction or multi-tasking.

While Larry is really like a field psychologist. He’s out there looking at what real world things, like Facebook and having mobile phones on your bodies might impact your relationships, and your school performance, and things of that nature.

That’s the overview that we try to show. It’s like a deep dive into what’s going on in the brain, why we don’t have the ability to do all the things we want to do all at the same time. It takes a very evolutionary perspective on that.

I sort of dug deep into optimal foraging theories and other views that I think connect our evolutionary path of what has grown in our brains that are strong and what are its limitations and how – then how technology impacts us, largely in a negative way, although the very end of the book is the prescriptive part, how can we change our behaviors to interact with technology in a healthier way.

Neither Larry or I feel that the path is to just abandon it. I always say we’re not putting that tech genie back in the bottle. It is here. How do we live with it in a better way? Then, of course, what I already had told you about, is how do we flip this story around completely. How do we think about technology as a tool to actually help how our brains function and the future of where we can go with that?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Then let’s talk a bit about the brain fundamentally. Where is our human brain strong versus limited and what do we do with that information?

Adam Gazzaley
I’d say one of the main strengths in many ways defines us as human, it might be the pinnacle, the most unique thing that our brains are capable of compared to other animals is the setting of very high-level goals. Goals that are very time delayed. You could set a goal a decade in the future. You can have goals, even immediate goals that are interwoven with other goals and other people’s goals.

That type of ability I think is fundamental for all of the achievements that we have as a species, our communities, and our societies, and our languages, our art, our music, our technology, really depends upon that.

These goals, they also challenge us because they lead us to believe we’re almost capable of anything and we are not. We have the flip side of it is that we have these very fundamental limitations in how our brain works.

When it comes, especially to the abilities that enable us to enact our goals, so our attention, our ability to focus it and sustain it, our working memory, holding information in mind for just very rapid periods of time, and then how we deal with having multiple goals that converge in terms of enacting them, how we either switch between them or multitask them.

When it comes to these abilities, what we call cognitive control, which sort of wraps an umbrella term around all of those concepts I just mentioned, they’re limited. In many ways when you push other animals to behave in the way that we do, to multitask and to engage in such a way, you see that we have actually really similar limitations.

[12:00]

We can focus our attention, and even there the filter is not perfect, but we also can’t distribute our attention broadly. We can only take in a very limited amount of the information around us.

When we try to hold information in mind, what we call working memory, there’s a degradation in the fidelity of that information that occurs very rapidly. When we attempt to multitask or switch between tasks, we see that there is a cost for that type of goal setting and enactment.

We do not engage in two goals that both demand our attention as well as if we have only one. That’s because the networks in the brain that are responsible for each goal, they can’t parallel process. They have to switch between each of the tasks you’re trying to engage in and with each switch, there’s a loss of some of that information resolution.

That’s the sort of the premise of the book, that there’s a disconnect between what we want to do, our goal setting, and what we’re capable of doing, our goal enactment. That’s what leads to interference and leads to what we refer to again and again as the distracted mind.

Pete Mockaitis
That really sums up kind of the whole, in many ways, human condition in terms of – I remember when I first learned economics in high school and we talked about how they call it the dismal science because we have unlimited desires but finite resources. It was like, yes, this is already my whole life. I’m very intrigued to learn more about this field.

It connected. It resonated. That applies not only to the use of time and money, but in fact just what we can put our brain toward.

Adam Gazzaley
Exactly. When it came down to writing this book it was actually a challenge for me because I had sort of moved on from the distracted mind story to my new research focus, which is how do we use our understanding of the distracted mind to build tools to help our brains, make them less distracted. It’s sort of almost like a step back into my history of my research.

But when certain ideas I was able to formulate, like the one I just described to you, other ideas around foraging for information and how it compares to how other animals forage for food, then it felt fresh to me and I was excited about writing that in the book. I think for the most part it’s all pretty logical.

Most people in many ways could sort of just introspectively appreciate these things in their own behavior. But it is – I think it’s helpful and has value to break it down, especially from the neuroscience perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to then dig into some of this in terms of how can we have more cognitive control to achieve what we want sort of day in and day out. Where do you think is the best place to start in terms of setting some foundation? Should we talk about foraging theory or should we start elsewhere?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, yeah. I can give you a little bit about foraging theory. It can get pretty heady and long, so we can do it briefly. The reason I bring foraging theories – optimal foraging theories into the book in the first place and into these discussions is because I’m not – I don’t fancy myself as a self-help guru that I could just throw out things that I tried in my life and encourage other people to do them.

Adam Gazzaley
The idea was that if I was going to present prescriptive advice about how people should engage in healthier behaviors with technology, I wanted to do so from a conceptual framework and use that to guide the advice.

The framework is really based on how we as humans forage for information in a similar way to how other animals forage for food, that the primate brain has coopted a lot of these ancient reward systems, but instead of being for survival, they are for information. There’s a lot of data to support that.

If that’s true, if that premise is true, then could we use the models that describe why other animals forage in the particular way that they do? Can we use that to describe why we engage with technology in a very particular way? Then use that as a basis to say, “Oh these are the areas that we can change our behavior.”

The model that I use is known as the marginal value theorem. It describes how animals forage in patchy environments, like a squirrel in a tree eating acorns or nuts. The resources they have are in a limited space and there’s these empty areas in between those resources.

When a squirrel is in a tree, they’re making an unconscious decision about the benefits of remaining in that tree even though the nuts are getting less and less as they eat them. They’re comparing that with how close the nearest tree is full of nuts. At some point they make the decision to switch and jump from one tree to the other.

I’m creating a comparison that we’re sort of like those squirrels. Our patches are information patches like your mobile phone or a web browser or Facebook. You can stay in there or you can leave to the next one. The influences that drive us to stay and leave are related to how we’re consuming those resources in the patch we’re in now.

One of the premises I make is that we’ve shown, and there’s data to suggest, that we are now accumulating boredom and anxiety, both anxiety of fear of missing out on something else and also performance anxiety, very rapidly. We have this very rapid diminishing return of remaining in a patch, an information patch.

There’s also this force that other patches, those other trees which are links on a website or another browser tab or just having your phone in your pocket, the other information sources are so accessible, so it’s so easy to abandon the one you’re in and just move over to the next one.

That those forces of boredom and anxiety making our enjoyment and our satisfaction of being in an information source last longer as well as the accessibility to the next one, drives this tendency that we all have to just rapidly switch between them and not really engage in a sustained, continuous way in one information source.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Then first I want to talk about the squirrels if I can.

Adam Gazzaley
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Now when we study squirrels that are engaged in this activity, do they in fact behave in a mathematically optimal sort of a way? It’s like, “Yup, that is indeed the perfect decision to jump to that next tree, squirrel. Well done.”

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, so the marginal value theorem, which is used by not neuroscientists, but more ecological behavioral scientists, have shown that they are able to mathematically predict the behavior of many animals, both in laboratory settings as well as in the wild. That field is really interesting.

There’s other types of behaviors like predator to prey relationship. There’s other optimal foraging theories, but this particular one, the marginal value theorem, is about animals foraging in patchy environments. It has been shown, it’s not perfect, there are factors that influence it that are not always predictable, but it is a pretty interesting field of research.

We don’t have the mathematical relationships of how the marginal value theorem applies to how humans forage for information. It’s essentially a hypothesis in the book that I thought maybe would set up research in that particular direction. But I think it does go a long way, at least intuitively, of explaining why we are so susceptible to this rapid switching behavior that we engage in, especially children.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, well because I guess accessibility has just gone through the roof in recent years as compared to where it was before. But are we also seeing trends in terms of we are more easily bored and anxious now than we used to be?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah. The data would suggest, and this is sort of the story we put together in The Distracted Mind, that all of those forces are taking place. They’re both on different sides of the equation.

One is on the diminishing benefits we get of being in a source are not just that you’re using up the information in that source, like a squirrel using up the nuts in the tree, but these very human factors of increasing anxiety and boredom.

You could experience that yourself if you just try to do one thing, which is one of the advice that I do give for a while, you could feel anxiety of not doing something else or checking in on a post or just, “Wow, I’m bored,” accumulate pretty rapidly. This has been well described, especially children feel these forces to a very high degree.

They become very noticeable when you remove their technology away from them. It’s part of the reality of how we interact in the world now. I think it forces us to lose a lot of the control that we want to have over our technology. It is essentially is exerting control over us.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. That idea of being able to stick with something for a long time, it’s intrigued me for ages.

Once again, in high school I remember I always impressed how we did marching band camp. For two weeks, somehow 100 plus of us would endure the pretty hot summer Illinois days for eight plus hour stretches day after day after day.

I just thought, “Wow, it would be so powerful if I could just do this myself,” whatever I wanted to learn or improve or accomplish, whether it’s hunkering down to write a book or whatnot. Yet, it’s so difficult. I guess there’s a whole other element associated with accountability and looking like a slacker if you say, “No guys, I’m out,” which is a lot harder to do in a group setting than individually.

But so how can we sort of work these levers in terms of engaging things so that we are more engaged and interested in what we’re doing, we feel less anxious about what we might be missing out on or we have less accessibility to pull us in another direction. Actionably, how can we pull these levers to do more great focusing?

Adam Gazzaley
That was the reason why I went to this path of using a foraging model in the first place so that we have a framework now. We see the influences. On one side accessibility drives us to another source that’s easily obtainable. On the other side, our boredom and anxiety causes us to want to leave the source that we’re in. Those are three levers right there that you can learn how to control.

Accessibility is in some ways a little easier because it’s less abstract. You can just sit down, quit your email program if you’re writing an article, quit Twitter, put your phone on airplane mode, close your door, work in a less distracting environment and really create the type of surroundings that foster a singular focus, where it’s just not accessibility.

I know people that will put their phone in their bag when they drive home from work because if they have it in their lap, the accessibility will make them go to it even when they’re at a light.

If you feel that accessibility is really pulling on you, which I think it is for many people – I mean I feel it myself. I could be there writing an article and if my email program is open, subconsciously I just go over to it and look. Not that I need to look, not that anything pinged me. I was working just fine, but because it was so easy I just sort of reflexively took a look at it or an open Facebook page.

I do quit those programs when I’m writing on something. I think managing accessibility is a real very tangible one that people can wrap their hands around.

The other side of it, decreasing the anxiety that you feel of missing out on things or not being productive because you think productivity is doing a lot of things at the same time, as well as boredom.

To me the first step of those – of dealing with that is to just put yourself in the situation where you decrease accessibility, do one thing and actually feel those emotions, that anxiety, that stress, that boredom accumulate, and just wrap your head around what it is, become a little bit more introspective and realize that it’s not going to kill you.

It’s fine to be bored. It’s fine to be a bit hungry. It’s fine to be a bit anxious. And that these feelings are – they don’t need to necessarily be corrected immediately.  You can allow them to just sort of bake in a little bit and you might find that they go away after a while.

I always sort of make the parallel between sitting down for an hour to do one thing, like going out and running a mile let’s say. The first time you do it, it could be unbearable. You can be like, “Wow, I never want to run again,” but over time you actually get a pleasure and reward in doing that one thing. All of the negative aspects that accumulate really rapidly when you’re not used to it start going away.

I would say that these other tricks and apps and ways that you could sort of have people not text you when you’re doing something else so that decreases the anxiety. In the book we talk about lots of fancy tricks of dealing with anxiety and boredom, but the one that – the easier one to talk about that I think is a good start is to just put yourself in a scenario where you experience it and just learn how to manage it.

Even waiting on line at a supermarket – I’m in Whole Foods and I have only two minutes to wait and I still feel the allure of pulling out my phone and checking something. Just leave it away. It’s okay. Just feel a little boredom. Just maybe do some internal thinking or looking around. That’s I think a good starting point.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, you mentioned tricks, I can’t resist. Can we hear the tricks too?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah. There are basically ways of using technology to help as well.

One of the things that we recommend and others have as well is when dealing with the anxiety of missing out is to have people be aware, for example, when you’re driving or when you’re working so that you don’t think that there’s texts and other communications coming in when you know you should be focusing.

People do similar tricks like that at work, where they’ll put up a sign of ‘do not disturb I’m focusing,’ of that nature.

The other trick that’s less tech, but it’s really about – it’s about breaks and especially true for boredom is instead of going an entire hour, try and go ten minutes and take a minute break and then go right back to ten minutes and work through the hour in those segments. This way the boredom and even the anxiety could be relieved by that break.

But the trick – and then each day you could make – now go 15 minutes, 20 minutes. Learn how to do 20 minutes with just two breaks along the way. But one of the tricks of this approach is to not take tech breaks, especially social media or email in those short breaks because then they could just take you through these sink holes where just an hour later you’re like, “Wow, I just totally failed there.”

The types of things I that I think help especially with anxiety and boredom when you’re taking those breaks are like some meditation and mindfulness to get better at that type of internal focus, exposure to nature, even light physical exercise in your office, wherever you are. Those are things that can help fill those breaks. Then you just bounce right back into your singular focus.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. I’m thinking here just in my experience like if I’m on vacation, I feel so much better having the out of office email reply up and going than not going just because it’s sort of like, “Oh, that’s handled. They know.”

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re not expecting anything from me. They even have other resources they can turn to to get whatever they’re asking about in that.

Adam Gazzaley
Exactly. That’s a perfect example of using technology to reduce that anxiety. That anxiety is really strong when you’re on vacation. There used to – there was a time in the past when vacation meant that you were actually completely inaccessible and not actually working. That’s gone.

Many people are still communicating with their work every single day and they feel that anxiety that even a short period away is going to be incredibly disruptive. But as you described, there’s a way of structuring your time when you leave your work environment or study environment that is set up to give you success and actually disengaging from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I also just like the little bit about the boredom lever here because sometimes I just marveled at how I could hunker down and play my favorite computer game from 1993, Master of Orion, for like six hours straight, but then I’ve got sort of an email inbox backlog and I have never successfully been able to crank at it for six hours in one day. I think my max is like three and a half. It just – the boredom is I guess overwhelmed me.

One tool you mentioned, just practice, train it. Get better like you would in training for a marathon. Is there anything else we can do to somehow find excitement and engagement in the things that are currently seem boring to us?

Adam Gazzaley
It could be really challenging. I’m not going to claim that you could turn email into the most fun activity in the world.

Video games are a hard thing to compete with. They are designed by very clever people to have reward cycles at multiple different time scales that really keep you engaged. They’re doing exactly what email doesn’t do frequently, which is mix it up and challenge you at a high level and give you constant feedback on how you’re doing.

This is one of the core challenges. It’s really hard to compete with a lot of modern day media that is designed to appeal to people because of these rapid reward cycles.

Sure, you can do things to try to gamify doing email and compete and things of that nature, but personally, I don’t really feel like they work that well.

I would – how I’ve done it myself, it’s always easier for me to describe what I do myself, is really just to learn and to retrain that ability to sustain attention and not be totally derailed every time you try to do it.

Like anything else, like going to the gym, running, it takes practice. It doesn’t necessarily come the first time. You have to work through it and just get better at it. Don’t try to bite off too much and then just be completely disillusioned.

The boredom goes away when you engage in something. Then you might find that, “Wow, I actually am liking doing this.”

Maybe it’s not email, but certainly having a conversation with your significant other as opposed to interrupting it every three minutes to check your phone or writing an article that you’re really excited about or reading a book that you do find engaging. You can get more enjoyment out of it if you just train yourself to sustain your focus for a longer period of time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We talk about training, you mention mindfulness and meditation. Are there some other – what would be sort of your top recommended practices in terms of – I’m thinking about learning about some Buddhist practitioners who stare at a wall for months and you’re like, “Wow, that’s really impressive.”

Are there particular mindfulness practices or can we play some of your video games or what are some of the other kind of activities we can engage in to strengthen our capacity here?

Adam Gazzaley
Yeah. The basic practice of concentrated meditation doesn’t require a lot of fancy tools. It’s where you learn over time to focus usually on your breath. It could be words. It could be a visual image in your mind. Hold the focus. Be aware when your mind wanders and without judgment just bring it back and hold it again.

That’s like one of the most ancient practices. It appears in many, many different forms of meditation and has a long history of success in helping with attention but also stress and mood. It’s quite valuable. Essentially at its core it’s an attention training exercise.

Some people have difficulty with it. They might be pushed to do too much and feel like they don’t get it, they can’t find their breath.

We actually designed a video game. That’s what we do. We take principles from other practices that have benefits in the real world, like meditation, like rhythm and music, physical fitness, then we build algorithms that can allow you to baby step into it so that it’s adaptive to how good you are at it. You’re getting feedback on how you’re doing and you can extend and improve your performance gradually over time.

We did that with meditation. We have a game called Meditrain that we’re writing up our first paper on our results right now showing that we have been able to improve sustained attention abilities in Millennials, in 20-year-olds engaging in this app for six weeks.

We’re super excited about it. It’s not publically available yet. We’re very conservative with how we release things into the market. We want to know that it actually does what we say it’s going to do. We’ve been working on this for many years now. The data is quite convincing. These are some of the things that you can do right now and that will be coming out soon.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Now are any of your games available for the public to do now and how can we get there or they’re all not yet there?

Adam Gazzaley
They’re all not yet there. This is sort of one of the more frustrating points. The one that’s closest is the ADHD treatment, which I hope arrives in 2019. Maybe by the end of this year. We’ll see. The process is unclear because it’s a new treatment, a new device. But that will be the first to arrive.

That is clearly, as I described, the medical route. It will be a prescribable treatment by doctors to children that have ADHD. The only thing right now that’s – the only thing that will be FDA approved that’s not a pharmaceutical or drug, so very exciting.

It doesn’t mean that all of our technologies are going to go down that medical pathway. For example, the meditation training game I’m now looking at other companies that build more consumer facing meditation and mindfulness apps as partners so that’s happening now. Hopefully next year you’ll start seeing things that we’ve been working on for a decade start appearing in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Can we also touch on exercise for a bit? There’s many forms of exercise: yoga, high intensity intervals, steady state cardio, strength training. Are there any particular exercise interventions that seem to go farther in molding the brain to make it able to focus for longer periods?

Adam Gazzaley
Well, most of the data on how exercise improves attention and cognitive abilities more broadly, focus on aerobic exercise, sometimes high intensity interval training, sometimes just long endurance aerobics training. The data is quite convincing, especially in aging, in older adults and even in children as well.

There’s lots of great data, many meta-analysis that have put together results from many different papers to reach that conclusion, but there’s also data about strength training as well that’s often frequently ignored. I would say both strength and aerobic training.

I’m not as familiar with the literature on yoga, but more and more researchers are exploring these practices, as I said, that have been around for a long time and are training to put them in more randomized control trials.

I would even just add one thing that with older adults even the act of just getting out and walking has been shown to be beneficial as well.

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

Adam Gazzaley
I think that is it. I guess I always like to sort of conclude this part of the discussion by saying there’s a lot of things you can do as far as lifestyle changes that are shown to be good for your brain. I put it into five pillars.

Physical exercise, we just talked about that. Cognitive challenge, we’ve been talking about that, some of the things we’re creating. But just the types and way of engaging in the world around you that push you out of your comfort zone. Travel, learning music, even complex social interactions, which also has the benefit of reducing isolation and loneliness, which is also not good for your brain.

Physical challenge, cognitive challenge, nutrition, sleep management, and stress management. By stress management I don’t mean the elimination of all stress. Our brains and our bodies actually like some stress. The challenge is what it responds to, pushes it into a more dynamic phase, but it’s that helpless, chronic stress that really induces damage in the brain that should be avoided.

While you do those things in your daily lives, we’re working on technological implementations that aren’t meant to replace them, but just act as tools to help optimize abilities that might not be potentially optimized otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Adam, now to open up a whole rat’s nest. You said nutrition. Could you give us the one minute do’s and don’ts on nutrition for the brain?

Adam Gazzaley
Sure. Nutrition is as complicated as it gets when it comes to research because the types of randomized control trials that are easy, not necessarily easy, but very doable with pharmaceutical drugs, more challenging to do with video game treatments, but doable – we’ve shown that now – are even more difficult to do with nutrition.

Those randomized double blind placebo controlled trials are hard to pull off. There’s not a lot of data. We’ve constantly seen as professionals, health professionals, change our recommendations, which I think a lot is due to this challenge that I just described.

But the data, at least on the aging perspective of living long, not just long, but long well with a healthy brain, I would say the data is strongest for the Mediterranean diet, so nuts, legumes, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, even red wine finds itself on that list.

Trying to maintain that more whole food diet, which I think probably a lot of your readers already locked into this type of advice. I would say that’s where the strongest data lives.

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

Adam Gazzaley
I have a quote that I actually came up with that some of my friends like to share back to me at certain times, especially when I might not be following it is as much as I should. I once said, “All of life is a celebration of life.”

I do think it’s a good reminder because many times we’re always sort of seeking this like peak experience that is like the culmination of what you’ve been working for. You tend to sort of just drive right by all the little wins and all the little joys that happen.

I experience that as well. But I do try to pull myself out of that pattern and really just celebrate it all, all of life. That’s one that I try to keep dear and close to my heart.

Pete Mockaitis
From all your research, do you have a study that is a favorite or something that comes up again and again, either your own or from someone else?

Adam Gazzaley
Probably our most – definitely our most cited paper is our Nature paper in 2013 where we showed that our video game improves cognitive control in older adults.

I would say the other paper that I am really proud of that helped influence my career a lot, including The Distracted Mind, was a study I guess like 15 years ago now showing that when older adults have senior moments, what they feel like are memory challenges, they’re really attentional in nature. They’re more attention driven than memory per se specifically.

Even there the attention is not that they’re not focusing on what’s relevant to them, but they’re not ignoring or filtering the irrelevant information.

That attending and ignoring are not just two sides of the same coin. If you focus more, you’re not necessarily ignoring more. You can be focusing – and we found that six-year-olds focus like 20-year-olds, but where they fail is the filtering of irrelevant information.

When that gets in through the fortress gates, it creates interference with what they’re trying to remember and creates this degradation that’s experienced as these sort of memory losses.

I quite like that work. That study set off a whole series of studies showing more and more detail what was going on neutrally when these suppression deficits occur.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Adam Gazzaley
I mean I really was incredibly influenced by books that were written in the ‘50s by Isaac Asimov called The Foundation series. It’s sort of in my mind the birth of science fiction.

I read a little bit of science fiction every day pretty much around the year because I – it pushes me to think about the future and outside of the box of what we’re experiencing right now. I feel like I go back to The Foundation every several years, read it again because it just sort of set the pace for how you look into the future in a way that’s not just about technology, but really about humanity.

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

Adam Gazzaley

I have to say I use tablets a lot. I think I use them more than most people do. I use them in the gym. I use them on flights. I find it less burdensome a lot of times than laptops and more accessible than my phone. That’s something that I use for notes, for my calendar reminders. Yeah, I think that I probably engage in tablet use more than most people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Adam Gazzaley
I mean the habit that I’ve been doing since I’ve been 17 years old is going to the gym pretty much every day. I do a bit of aerobic exercise and a bit of weight training. I’m completely addicted to it.

When I don’t do it, if I’m just travelling and can’t and I even do it on the road, I don’t feel just the physical effects of it, but the entire full stack, like from the concentration to my mood and so I would say that habit, which has its burden – I’m a little bit of a slave to it – has much more benefits. I would say that would be the one.

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

Adam Gazzaley
That’s a fun one for me to answer because I have lots of entities as you just – as we talked about. But around just a couple days ago I finished putting together with my wife’s assistance – she’s an amazing web programmer – a website Gazzaley.com, so just my last name dot com.

There I sort of aggregate all the different things in my life from nature photography and wine making to all the things that we already talked about. That’s my new home base online.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Adam Gazzaley
I think that the challenge is really to get to know yourself better. It sounds trite maybe, but it’s a process. It doesn’t come for free. It takes time and patience and honesty. But it goes a long way.

It’s not the full distance that you could go with just insight. You do have to have a plan and a strategy and work to break habits, but it is something that I have found really valuable to get in the practice of understanding how your brain is working and why you do certain things.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Adam, this has been such a treat. Thank you so much for taking this time and the great stuff you’re doing in the world. I’m looking forward to playing your games when they’re available. Just wish you all the best of luck.

Adam Gazzaley
Thank you so much. It was nice talking with you.

313: Closing the Gap between Potential and Results with Thom Singer

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Thom Singer says: "If you're not willing to... take some actions without the guarantee, then you're just going to be mediocre at your job."

Thom Singer breaks open the Paradox of Potential to highlight where potential doesn’t equal results and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to identify the unique things holding you back
  2. The three things that always help achieve better results
  3. How to bring back purpose when it’s most needed

About Thom

As the host of the popular “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” podcast, Thom interviews business leaders, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and others who possess an extra dose of the entrepreneurial spirit. The information compiled from these compelling interviews is shared with his clients, as he challenges people to be more engaged and enthusiastic in all their actions. He has authored twelve books on the power of business relationships, sales, networking, presentation skills and entrepreneurship, and regularly speaks to corporate, law firm and convention audiences. He sets the tone for better engagement at industry events as the opening keynote speaker or the Master of Ceremonies. His Conference Catalyst Program has become a “meeting planners” favorite in how it transforms the conference attendee experience.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Thom Singer Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Thom, thanks so much for joining us here again on How To Be Awesome At Your Job.

Thom Singer

God, I’m so excited to be back. It’s been like three years.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, yeah, time really flies. And thanks so much for saying “Yes”. Back in Episode 17, before I had much of a show, I had to pick people who seemed to like me, instead of anybody.

Thom Singer

Now people don’t have to like you.

Pete Mockaitis

No. They resent me, but they grin and bear it for the publicity.

Thom Singer

Awesome.

Pete Mockaitis

So I want to hear a little bit, you did some stand-up comedy for the first time at the age of 51. What’s the story here?

Thom Singer

You’ve done your homework on me. So, I made a pledge to myself when I turned 50 almost two years ago that I was going to have the most fun ever from 50 to 75 years old. Not that I had a bad time before; I was in a fraternity in college, I had a really good time. And I’ve had a good time in between. But I just decided that I wasn’t going to talk myself out of things. And when I was younger, when I was about your age, I was in my 20s, I wanted to try my hand at just open mic night. I didn’t want to go be a full-time comic. But I always found a reason, like I wasn’t going to be good enough, or “What if I sucked?”, or “What if my friends saw me?” And so I always found a way not to do it. I had a friend who was pushing me to try it, and I just never did.
And recently I had a situation where I was going to be in New York and a professional speaker friend of mine is also a professional comic, and he said, “When you’re in New York I’ll take you to open mic night.” And I said, “Oh, how cool. I’d love to see you work on new material.” And the other friend who was with us started shaking his head going, “That’s not what he means. He’ll take you to open mic night, but he’ll make you sign up and do a five-minute set.” And I was like, “Oh, I can’t do that.” And he said, “Why?” And all of my reasons were false. And he said, “Have you ever wanted to try it?” And I said, “Yeah, I used to when I was younger, I really wanted to.”
So, he didn’t really talk me into it, but he made the offer that he would help me. And so when I was in New York City, we signed up, I got my name drawn and I did a five-minute set. And what was fascinating was, I wasn’t the best one. There were maybe 17 comics that went. But I was probably in the top seven. And so I was like, “Huh.” So I’ve now done it five more times.

Pete Mockaitis

No kidding! That’s so great. Well, so to put you on the spot, could you share one or two of your jokes that got the best response?

Thom Singer

Yeah. So you are putting me on the spot. I’m turning 52 years old really soon, and I just realized that my dad was 52 years old when I was born. I had sort of an older dad. In fact, growing up with an older dad there were a couple of things. One was that I thought things were normal, I thought you were supposed to go to restaurants for the discounted dinner at 4:30. And I thought every time you got out of a chair you were supposed to make a noise like, “Ugggghhhh”. I thought it’s just what people did when they got out of the chair. And then I was the only kid on the block who wasn’t allowed to play on his own lawn.

But seriously, my dad was 52 when I was born, and I realized I’m about to turn 52. So I went to my wife and I said, “Oh my gosh, honey, we could have another kid!” And she said, “No. No, we can’t, for so many reasons.” She said, “You can’t keep track of your car keys; how are you going to be able to keep track of a toddler?” So, that’s just a little bit of what I did.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good. And kudos for having them to be kind of connected in that theme, because sometimes I understand the comedians, they test a lot of material, and they just push together all the stuff that works great, with little segway, and that’s sort of the way of the world. But call me – I don’t know what the word is – someone who likes themes and structure and organization. I appreciate multiple jokes within the same category.

Thom Singer

Well, I only had to do five minutes, so the whole theme of the whole thing was just stories about my dad, about him dating when he was widowed and different stuff like that. So, that was my two cents, and like I said, I wasn’t the funniest guy. Seinfeld is not worried about job security because I did stand-up. But it definitely was a great experience, and I learned that it’s probably one of the hardest things about standing up in front of an audience. It’s way harder than being a professional speaker, because the expectations of a stand-up comic, even a guy at open mic night, are way higher than some keynote speakers. So, I’ve learned a lot from doing it.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s true. Often they sort of expect the speakers to be boring, and when you just sort of provide a modicum of engagement and jokes and enthusiasm and thought provocation, it’s like, “Alright!”

Thom Singer

Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis

So speaking of keynote speaking, you’ve got a newer program

Thom Singer

The Paradox of Potential.

Pete Mockaitis

I really liked the blurb that was on your site and I think that there’s a whole lot of thoughts, concerns, questions when it comes to our potential. And How To Be Awesome At Your Job listeners are into developing potential. So what’s it all about?
Thom Singer
Yeah, I would imagine if you’re listening to a podcast called Be Awesome At Your Job, that you definitely have this interest in being awesome at your job. And yet when I talk to people, and I’ve interviewed 300 or 400 people now through a survey, and then I’ve talked to about 10% of them on the phone and done personal interviews – most of the people who I’ve interviewed say that they’re not doing everything they could do in their career. They could be achieving more in their jobs.
And when I talk to managers I say, “Even if my numbers are wrong, even if it’s not 70% to 75%, what if just half your people could be having better performance and doing more, and being more successful? Wouldn’t you want to know about that, about how to get across that gap between potential and results?” And so that’s what I talk about, is what’s holding people back, and then what are some of the ways to get farther across the gap between potential and results.
Because here’s the deal: Potential does not equal results, no matter how much we want it to, no matter how excited we get about having potential or our team having potential, or our new hire being a high potential employee. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to achieve anything, and yet everybody wants to build a bridge. They want to build a bridge for their whole team between potential and results, put everybody on one bus and drive them across.
The problem is not everybody has the same things holding them back, therefore not one solution is going to help everybody. And the bigger thing is that as you move across that gap from potential to results, what happens is that your potential is going to shift, because you’re meeting new people, you’re listening to a new podcast, you’re reading a new book, you’re having a new experience. So, if you build a bridge and your potential shifts, you drive the bus across, everyone’s going to fall into the ravine. So I tell people that you do not want to build your path across in advance and then go across; instead you want to build a scaffolding, you want to build a modular thing so that you can go across at an angle, diagonal, up, down sideways. And then when your potential shifts further out, you can just add a new module.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, I like that. And I even want to start at the very beginning, which was just that you did so much research in crafting a keynote. I think that’s awesome to start with. Other folks are like, “Hey, here’s an idea I think is good.” And you went deep into seeing, “What’s a real problem folks are having and what’s some insightful stuff I can bring to it?” So kudos from the get-go in developing your speaker potential by doing that.

Thom Singer

I feel I’m one year into about a five-year survey of people. My intent is to interview thousands of people, and I’m in the process of trying to see if maybe I could get a real researcher, like a PhD level researcher to help me, because I haven’t set the questions up right. I’m not a researcher, I’m not an academic. So, my information I found is still somewhat anecdotal, but there’s a lot of stuff going on here. And people get really excited.
When I go into a company and they have me come into their team, once we get through the presentation point and we get it to that interactive piece where everybody gets to start talking about what holds them back, or others on their team… Sometimes nobody wants to talk about themselves, but hypothetically, “My friend is held back because of XYZ” – people get really into sharing the fears and the mistakes they’ve made along the way, and the team gets really excited about figuring out, “How can we support each other?” So it’s kind of a fun job to be able to do working with actual teams inside a company.

Pete Mockaitis

That is fun. And so I want to dig into a number of these gaps that are popping up frequently, and some of the prescriptions for remedying them. And it’s funny – the first gap that I thought of – and you’ll tell me how prominent this is and if people fess up to it – is just, “Yeah, I could be doing better at my job, but that sounds like a lot of extra hours that I don’t want to spend there because I want to spend more time with my family or doing other cool outside-of-work things.” Is that one of the top gaps?

Thom Singer

Yeah, it’s sometimes as simple as that, that “Hey, this just isn’t my priority.” And you know what? That’s okay. Even if they don’t want to, sometimes people have a new baby, or sometimes… One lady told me after hearing my speech – she came up almost in tears and she said, “Thank you”, because she had an aunt who had no children, and she was caring for her aunt in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. And her boss was really supportive of it, but she felt that when she was at work she was cheating her aunt, and when she was with her aunt she was cheating work.
And the reality of what I said is, sometimes work isn’t your priority. Just be honest with yourself, it’s okay. I gave a fictitious example about caring for somebody, but it hit home with this woman. And she wanted to put more time into work, but she had another commitment. So yeah, sometimes there’s either “I just don’t want to do it” or sometimes “I can’t do it, because I have this other commitment.” And that’s a legitimate reason and people can’t beat themselves up for it. We live in a society where we talk a lot about work, work, work, work, work. It’s not always your priority, and if it’s not your priority, that’s okay. But also don’t have expectations if you’re not putting all that work in that you are going to become CEO.

Pete Mockaitis

Right, that’s well said. And boy, that angst there associated with, “When I’m at work I’m cheating my aunt and when I’m with my aunt I’m cheating my work” – I think that really connects and resonates with lots of people with their outside work obligations and concerns. And so, any pro tips on just coming to peace with that? I think in a way just the sheer anxiety is going to diminish your ability to realize your potential. So, any pro tips on how to take that breath and to become okay with that?

Thom Singer

One of the things I talk about is I think we’ve been done a disservice by all these speakers and trainers who’ve come in and tried to teach work-life balance, because I actually don’t believe you’re ever in balance. If you’re at home with your kids, you’re not at work, so work is out of balance. If you’re at work, you’re not home caring for your kids, so that’s out of balance. So we focus on wanting everything to be in perfect balance, but nothing in the universe is in perfect balance. Something’s always going on that’s throwing something out of balance. So, you just have to get okay with that fact, that just do the best you can with what you’ve got in front of you.
A friend of mine wrote a book called Good Enough Now – her name’s Jessica Pettitt. You know Jessica. One of the things she talks about is, everybody is waiting for perfection before they’re going to go do the things they have to do, but really you’re good enough now. Just go do what you have to do. And that’s sort of what I try to teach people.
But here’s the thing – no matter what you look at in this paradox of potential, it all comes down to three things that help you. There are a lot of things that are holding people back – a lot of different fears, a lot of things where people feel they don’t have the right degree or they don’t have the right training or they don’t have the support of their spouse or their boss, or their company is out-of-sync for a lot of reasons. The list is really, really long of what the problems are.
But the answers all fall into three buckets, and those buckets are your plan, your purpose, and people. So your plan is really just goal-setting. And I know you teach goal-setting in some of the seminars that you do. I’ve never understood why people go, “I don’t believe in goal-setting.” I hear this all the time because it’s part of what I teach. People say, “Oh well, I don’t believe in goal-setting.” I had one person tell me, “Setting goals just sets you up to feel bad when you don’t reach them.” And I’m like, “No, because if you strive for something and you come close, don’t feel bad about the 10% you missed. Look at the 90% of the way you came.”
I have a daughter who is a high achiever, and she always sets her goals really high. And then when she lands at something that other people just think is excellent that might have been shy of that goal, she’s thrilled that she landed at the excellent level that she is. And it’s a really good example – she’s always pushing herself and setting expectations, and I’m always worried that she’s going to be disappointed. And then she’s always thrilled because she’s still coming out in the top 90 percentile. And she said if she had just shot for the 90 percentile, she might have ended up in the 80 percentile.
So, I’ve never understood why people think, “I’m going to feel bad if I don’t hit my goal.” If my goal for sales – and I’m just making this up – is $500,000 and I sell $400,000, that’s better than selling $300,000. So if I had no goal, I have no idea where I would have landed, plus I can’t benchmark myself against my own performance if I don’t have some sort of goal. So the first thing is having that plan and knowing what success looks like, and then taking the actions to get there.
The second bucket is purpose, and that just goes back to what Simon Sinek has taught for years, of knowing your “Why”. Everybody on your team at work has different reasons that they have a job. Some people want to pay their mortgage and have a fancy house and things like that. Other people want to feel part of a team. Other people want to contribute to the greater good. Each person has to come to terms with why they do the work that they do. And in some cases it’s, “I have to pay the bills.” Well, okay, as long as you understand what that is. And it’s really coming to terms as an individual about what your purpose is.
And then the third bucket is people, and that is having the right mentors, being part of the right team, knowing who to turn to, having support at home. Being a mentor is one of the best things that you can do if you really want to grow. So it’s all interactions that you have with people. It’s your network, it’s your brand, it’s how you engage. And so those are the three ways across. No matter what’s holding you back you can always find the answer in your plans, your purpose, and your people.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, thank you. It’s nice to have three things and to be alliterative along the way. Really cool. So then, I’d be curious when it comes to executing on each of these. What are some of, I guess the best practices versus the worst practices? I guess in some ways with a plan, just like having no plan is not optimal, as you were laying out here. But what are some other pointers there?

Thom Singer

Well, as I said earlier, potential does not equal results. You have to take action. So, I’ve seen people make plans and make lists and do all these things, but if you’re not checking things off, if you’re not actually moving towards the goal, then nothing’s going to happen. So you really have to be somebody who tries to do something, and I’m a big believer that momentum builds stuff. So a lot of people overthink; they don’t take action because they’re trying to weigh all 10 options against each other.
Yet if you look at really successful entrepreneurs, they know that they have to start their business. They’re really smart in the tech industry in Silicon Valley – the term is “pivot”. Start your business, start building, launch something, and then see where it’s working and where it’s not, and pivot. There are so many companies that started to be one thing and pivoted to something else. Twitter is a perfect example. It wasn’t started to be what it became, but they pivoted it and all of a sudden it went crazy 10 years ago.
So, you just need to be able to start doing something, because if you have momentum it’s easier to change course than to start from an absolute dead stop. And too many people don’t take action until they know that the action they take is going to be perfect. I worked for a person one time – it was in a marketing department – and we were talking about something we were going to do in marketing. And it wasn’t a big spin, I mean it wasn’t $50,000; it was like $6,000, $5,000, something like that. And she said, “What’s the guaranteed ROI?”
And I said, “From marketing, from having an event and doing sponsorship and things like that, you’re not going to have a total guarantee. Here’s what we assume will happen and here’s what we’re hoping for, but I can’t give you a perfect guarantee that we’re going to have 100 people come to our booth and we’re going to meet 10 people and we’re convert three of them. I can’t promise you that.” I go, “Sometimes you may have to throw a little spaghetti against the wall.” And she looked at me and said, “In my company we throw no spaghetti against the wall. Most spaghetti hits the floor.” And I’m like, “Well, then you can do stuff but you’re never going to be able to take the type of actions that are going to lead to the big success.”
Because when you look at people as individuals in their job or companies who have big success, there’s some risk, there’s some trial and error that goes into being awesome at your job. And if you’re not willing to take that trial and error and take some actions without the guarantee, then you’re just going to be mediocre at your job, and that’s not what your podcast is about.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s dead on. And yeah, marketing in particular, that’s hard for anyone to guarantee. And you really don’t know until you start for sure. And so, I think that is compelling, in the sense that if folks do something, or don’t do something because they’re so terrified of the potential for a failure, then you’re pretty limited to a very narrow space of actions you might take.

Thom Singer

Yeah, and therefore you might succeed… But I’ve been doing this in my career for nine years. I throw some Hail Mary passes and sometimes they get intercepted, and that’s just the way it goes.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, so that’s the “plan” side of things. And how about purpose?

Thom Singer

Well, we all are motivated for different reasons. And sometimes we forget why we get out of bed. What are we trying to accomplish? What is it that we want for our family? What’s our purpose of what we do? You have a new child. When you have a kid, that changes your purpose. You may have noticed some things in the past five or six months have changed in the way you look at the world, and that is because you’re now responsible for somebody else.
So I have two kids of my own, and then I mentor two young gentleman who are both in their late 20s, who call me their “fake dad”. They’ve been around about four years; I don’t think they’re ever going away. And my kids are like, “What’s the deal there?” My one daughter is like, “Are they in the will?” And I said, “No, they’re not real kids. They’re not in the will.” And she said, “Okay, then I support your friendship with them, as long as they’re not taking my inheritance.” No, she didn’t say that.
But the thing is that I tell them all the time, because they’re young and they’re both single – I tell them all the time I have a different outlook on the world because there are other humans I’m responsible for. I have a wife and I have two kids. And I said, “When you’re responsible for three other people, that changes the purpose of why you do things and the decisions that you make in your career, in your personal life, what you do on Friday night, etcetera.”
And so, I think that that’s something we have to realize, that our purpose and our plans and our people – they’re going to change from time to time, and that’s okay. But you have to understand, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” So, one of my main motivations of why I pursue the business I pursue is, I want to be that person who’s educating people. I could go be a teacher or a professor or a newscaster. I like being in that role, where I’m sharing information with people. And because I like being in that role, part of my purpose is, I want to be the best I can at that.
Another one of my purposes is money. I’m not ashamed of it – I want to have nice things. I don’t have to make a million dollars a year. So many people focus on giant numbers, but I have to have decent numbers because there’s certain things I’ve chosen to do. Plus I have kids, who one goes to a very expensive college, one’s in high school with her eyes set on very expensive colleges. And the problem is when you have kids who are straight-A students in high school, they get accepted to those colleges, so then you have to figure out, how do we pay for them.
And the problem is that unless you’re making… If you make a million dollars a year, it doesn’t matter. And if you make a smaller amount, there’s often need-based scholarships. But if you’re in the middle, you’ve got to pay for them. And so I’m motivated to make sure that I can make those tuition payments on top of our mortgage payments and still be able to, as a family, take some trips and have clothes and things like that, eat nice meals. So that’s part of that purpose piece is, I have to know why I’m doing it, because it makes me get out of bed in the morning.

Pete Mockaitis

Very good. And so I think it’s often quite common to forget or lose sight of the purpose when you’re in the urgent stuff.

Thom Singer

Absolutely, yes.

Pete Mockaitis

And so any thoughts on how to bring it back, fresh in our mind?

Thom Singer

Well, out of sight is always out of mind, so I encourage people to write their goals down, going back to the plan. The old saying is, “A goal not written down is a wish.” So, you’ve got to write down your goals. Part of that is you’ve got to write down your purpose. And this is more than your company’s mission statement that hangs in the lobby. This is individual to the person. Everyone on the team needs to be clear about why do they work there, and what do they want to contribute.
And you’ve got to review it because otherwise, when things get busy and when things get bad, and it always gets bad… I mean none of us have a perfect career, whether there are problems with the economy, problems with bosses or co-workers, or just caught up in the moment, there’s some problem with the client, it’s just bad – it’s easy to forget why you get out of bed in the morning. So write it down and have it in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful, thank you. And how about on the people side?

Thom Singer

Well, I started my speaking career teaching people how to network better, how to connect with people in a gadget-crazy world. It’s something that I’ve talked about for 10 years. I started my speaking career just as the iPhone and the smartphone started showing up in everybody’s hands. And everybody thought, “It’s going to be so much easier to connect.” And yet, I ask everybody who is over 35 years old, “Do you feel now that you have more friends? And I mean friends who are going to invite you to Thanksgiving. Do you have more friends than you had a decade ago?” And I rarely – there’re sometimes people – but I rarely had a hand go up in the audience.
And then I flip it around to business and I say, “How many people feel that you have more business, like it’s so much easier for you to sell” – because I speak to a lot of sales teams – “than it was 10 years ago?” Now, if somebody is 28, they don’t remember life without a smartphone. But if they’re 38, they sure do. And rarely, again, does a hand go up. Every now and then, there’s somebody who, they do a real good job at Internet marketing and use of social and stuff like that, but in most cases, people shake their heads.
And I say, “Okay, so we can have a room up several hundred people, nobody or very few people raise their hands.” I’m like, “But let’s think back to the last 10 years. Every conference that you went to, not so much now, but certainly 3 years ago to 10 years ago, had entire tracks on social media and mobile and digital. And yet, nobody feels that they’re better connected.” And in fact, there was an article in the Harvard Business Review last fall, written by the former Surgeon General of the United States under Obama, and it was called… I don’t know what the title of the article was, but it was about the epidemic of loneliness that’s going on.
And there are a lot of articles written about how the Millennials feel very lonely, like they don’t feel they have a lot of friends. One of these guys I mentor sent me a funny – I don’t know if it’s called a meme or whatever, because I’m old – but he sent me a thing at Easter time, and it said, “The real miracle is, how did Jesus make it to his thirties and have 12 friends?” So they talk a lot about younger people not feeling like they have close friendships, but this article in Harvard Business Review said it’s not just the Millennials, it’s all the generations. People feel that they’re invisible, people feel lonely, more so than at any time in history. And yet, for the last decade, we’ve put all these connection tools into place.
So one of the things I talk about is we have to step back, we have to see people, we have to get back. The saying in India when you greet somebody is “Namaste.” And if you translate that – and there are a lot of ways I’ve heard it translated – but the simplest one is, “I see you” or, “I see your soul” or, “My soul sees your soul.” Well, that’s what we have to get back to because people are feeling like they don’t see them.
So I talk about this at conferences and I tell people it’s not just the introverts. Sometimes people think, “Oh well, this is a conference of all sales people. Everyone’s an extrovert.” That doesn’t apply. Even the extroverts who are life of the party – a lot of them feel invisible. And I’ll have people come up to me and nod their head and go, “That’s me. I’m right in the middle of the crowd. I can hold my own, but I don’t feel anybody knows who I am or knows what I care about.”
So, we’re living in this age, and for 10 years I’ve been teaching it, about how do we connect with people in this gadget-crazy digital world. And a lot of it comes down to stopping and seeing people and having real conversations. I mean how often have you been in a restaurant and you look over and there’s a whole family – a mom, a dad, and three kids – and everyone’s on their phone at the table?

Pete Mockaitis

Right, yeah.

Thom Singer

It happens all the time. Or you’re in a business meeting, sitting around the conference table, and a couple of the partners in the firm or even lower-level people in the firm are doing what I call “the iPhone prayer”. Looks like they have their head down and they’re praying. But in reality, they’re just tapping away on their screen down in their lap, or they’re looking at the screen by their hip – I call it “the one-hip sneak”. They’re thinking nobody will notice they’re looking at their phone. So, I think we have to get to where we put that stuff down from time to time. I love my phone; it’s always in my hand. It’s in my hand right now while I’m talking to you, but I’m not looking at it. I’m just still holding it. It’s on my lap.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s so soothing, like a comfort blanket. [laugh]

Thom Singer

Right. And I’m going to be 52 right around the corner, so it’s not just the Millennials who are that way. But I think the point that I’m trying to make here, and I’m going around the long way, is we have to realize that the connections to people are so important. I mean the old saying, “People do business with people they know, they like, and they trust” – that’s not a cliché, that’s true. The difference is it’s harder to get to know people, I mean to really get to know. A like, a link, a share and a follow is not a friendship. We have to go back to getting to know people.
There used to be a process to get to know them. You had to go to a few networking events, maybe you had lunch, maybe you played golf, maybe you went to a few social events with them. And then you got to know them, and then like and trust came along, or it didn’t. But nowadays, everybody thinks they know everybody.
They listen to this show – I bet there are people listening right now who are like, “Oh, I know Pete.” Well, no. They know Pete based on the one side of Pete as the podcast host. So, they don’t know how you are one-on-one, they don’t know your soul, per se. And so people think, “I’m connected to them on Twitter. I listen to their podcast. I know them.” So know, K-N-O-W, has gotten misinterpreted to “know of them” or “know about them.” And so like and trust are harder to get to.
And so I encourage people, if to go back to the old school ways of face-to-face spending time with people with no digital interaction in the moment while you’re there, you’re going to get to like and trust a lot faster, and I think it’s more important than ever. And I talk a lot about this whole idea of seeing people. When’s the last time you went into Starbucks? And if people tell me, “This morning”, I go, “Can you tell me what color eyes the barista had?”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good.

Thom Singer

Know. Even if I’m going to have a two-second interaction with them, I try to just register, look them right in the eye, and I think “Blue eyes.” And I smile, and they smile back. They don’t know why, they just know that I just saw something about them.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s awesome, thank you. So we hit the plan, the purpose, the people. You’ve also got some perspectives when it comes to limiting beliefs and how those could be problematic for realizing potential.

Thom Singer

Well, let’s go back to where we were talking about me doing stand-up comedy. When I was 25 years old, my wife and I used to like to go to comedy clubs. We had another couple we did a lot of things with. And he and I used to drink a lot of beer together and we would talk about it. And he goes, “You’re kind of funny. You could do this.” But I had a ton of limiting beliefs. I overthought the entire process. And now that I’ve done this a few times, I’m like, “Well, that was stupid. So what if I went and I sucked? I still would have done it.”
And so this whole concept of “I’m going to make 50 to 75 the best years of my life”, is all based around the fact that I’m not going to have limiting beliefs. So I’ve done other stuff besides the stand-up. I jumped off the Stratosphere in their SkyJump in Las Vegas. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but the sky tower, like Seattle or whatever – they have one at the Stratosphere Hotel. And they have, I guess it’s called a ride or an attraction, where you go out on a platform and leap off the 108th floor in a harness. It’s not a bungee, it’s like a tension thing, and you land on the ground without any impact, because just before you get to the ground, the tension between the three wires gets strong enough where you just kind of go “Bling!” and you land.
But I’ll tell you, it’s really scary. If you watch the video, the guy counts you down. You go through a class, they tell you how to do it, it’s supposed to be a perfect swan dive. And the guy goes, “One, two, three, jump!” And I just stood there. And on the video it’s funny, because I’m just holding on to the rail, and I look over my shoulder and I go, “Say it again.” And he goes, “One, two, three, jump!” And instead of swan diving, I just half-jump off. I go like, “No!”
However, I agreed to do that. I mean I didn’t agree – it was my own idea, nobody talked me into it. But I decided to do that because I looked it up online – nobody’s ever died. The thing’s been there well over a decade, and I figured I’m not going to be the first. And so why overthink it? And I have friends who’ve watched the video who were like, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, not going to do it.”
The other thing is I’m kind of a city guy. All my vacations throughout my whole life have been New York, and Chicago, and Paris, and Rome, San Francisco. And this last couple of years, I have a daughter who’s very outdoorsy. She wanted to hike the Grand Canyon, so we went for three days to the Grand Canyon. And we stayed in the hotel, but we went hiking around and down the Grand Canyon.
With my kids, I do a thing. You have a young child. My wife and I do a thing – I’m going to pass on to you. When the kids turn 13, they get to plan a three-night trip anywhere in the country with their mom. Now, we take care of the airfare and the hotel to make sure they don’t overspend, but they plan all the activities, and it’s anywhere that they want to go. When they’re 16, they get to do it with Dad. Because otherwise, they go on all these family vacations, but it’s mom, dad, their sibling and all this. So this is the one-on-one time for three days with a parent.
And they look forward to it. People are like, “Your 16-year-old wants to go away?” She’d spent years planning this trip, and her answer was “Yosemite.” And I said “Boston? Is that what you said?” And she said, “No, Yosemite.” And we stayed in these tent-cabin-like structures, and the bathroom was a quarter mile down the path, and we had to eat in a mess hall, but it’s what she wanted to do. And so part of my “50 to 75 is the best years of my life”, we hiked 10 miles a day every day for the three and a half days we were in Yosemite, and we had an awesome time.
I did a TEDx talk with three weeks’ notice because I think someone had cancelled and they gave me a last-minute addition. But before, I would have overthought it. I would have had limiting beliefs saying, “Oh, TED talk is a big deal. That video’s going to end up online. Three weeks isn’t enough time to prepare. It’s a topic I’ve never really spoken on before.” And instead I just said, “Yeah, I can do that.” And so it’s all of these types of things combined that in the past, my limiting beliefs would have taken over. And so the answer is, “Don’t overthink. Just do more.”

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. Awesome, thank you. Well, Thom, tell me – anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Thom Singer

No, but I was doing a little research on you, and you’re the only person I know who has a custom-made Superman suit. And so I just am not sure all of your listeners know that. But I watched your video, I watched your speaking video, and there’s a picture of you in a form-fitting… Thank God you’re not old enough to have gotten fat. But you’ve got a custom-made Superman suit, which you said was for Halloween, but I’m a little curious if your wife has the matching Wonder Woman outfit.

Pete Mockaitis

She does not. Thank you for asking, publicly. [laugh] It’s funny. The backstory is, since we’re going here – I remember for Halloween, I always wonder, “Oh man, what should I be?” And I thought, “You know what? I really just want to be Superman”, because that’s what I always wanted to be as a kid. So I would just like the ultimate Superman costume. Christopher Reeve style is my preference.

Thom Singer

Sure, it’s cool, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis

And it was interesting because I got dumped numerous years ago, and I was kind of sad. And my mom had remembered the conversations we had about… I said, “You know what? I’d like to be Superman, but you can spend 300 bucks for an adult Superman costume that doesn’t even include the red boots. Isn’t that absurd?” And so she sent me, unannounced, a pair of red Superman boots.

Thom Singer

In your size?

Pete Mockaitis

Yes, exactly. And it was just like… As soon as I beheld them, I knew immediately what I had to do was to get the…

Thom Singer

$300 Superman costume.

Pete Mockaitis

It turned out I saved about half of that, because I found someone on eBay who made Superman costumes or other hero costumes to your precise dimensions. So it was not just a medium, small, or large; it was exactly my size. And it is my favorite thing to wear, and I do only wear it on Halloween.

Thom Singer

[laugh] Alright, we’ll go with that.

Pete Mockaitis

Alright. So thank you for bringing that up. [laugh] And so now people probably feel like they know me all the more, but it’s an illusion.

Thom Singer

So now people can say, “I know Pete and the Superman costume.” But you really don’t know Pete. You just know about the Superman costume.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s all you need to know. [laugh] Okay. Well then let’s hear…

Thom Singer

All the women listeners are going to look for the picture.

Pete Mockaitis

I declare. [laugh] Well, let’s hear a favorite quote from you, something you find inspiring.

Thom Singer

So I’m worried this might have been the quote I used three years ago. I meant to go listen to that episode to make sure I didn’t use the same quote. But my favorite quote actually comes from my dad. And I recently used it without giving attribution to my dad. I made it sound like it was my quote. And my 21-year-old daughter called me out on it. She saw it online where I’d said this, and it had my name next to it. And she said, “That’s not your quote. That your dad’s quote.” And I said, “Yeah, but he’s been dead for four years, and so who else did he leave the quote to? He left it to me, I’m sure.” So I told her when I was dead four years, she could take it. But it’s really a quote from my dad. And that is, “Be slow to anger and fast to forgive.”

Pete Mockaitis

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

Thom Singer

I’ve got to say this stuff I’m doing with people’s potential and how they feel about their own success in their careers. And I was surprised how many people don’t think they’re living up to their potential, so I found that to be quite interesting.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite book?

Thom Singer

Always go back to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It was a life-changer for me when I was 25.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Thom Singer

My iPhone.

Pete Mockaitis

And I thought you were going to say handwritten thank-you notes, which you sent one to me, and it was very nice.

Thom Singer

[laugh] Yeah, probably my iPhone, but I still send handwritten notes.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite habit?

Thom Singer

Everybody asks about, “What do you do in the mornings?” I have bad habits, I don’t have really good habits. But I will say the best thing – and this is part of the age 50 life change – is, I used to weigh 35 pounds more than I do now. And I gave up sugar and wheat for the most part; I eat limited amounts of processed sugar and wheat. And then I started running. So I think health habits are the one that I didn’t know about until two years ago, but the ones I’m most impressed with because I feel better than I’ve felt in well over a decade. And I wasn’t in bad shape, I wasn’t unhealthy. I’m six foot three, so 30 pounds, it’s not like you’d go, “Wow, fatty.” But having lost that 30 plus pounds and eating a much healthier diet really has been a great habit for me.

Pete Mockaitis

And I’d like to hear, when it comes to giving up the sugar and wheat, how would you describe the difference in your mental clarity or performance?

Thom Singer

So the first three weeks I was an ass, if I can say that on your show. I was grumpy, I was horrible, it was not good. And then the clarity sort of came in and stuff somewhere around a month or two. And I never knew I was unclear, I didn’t know I was foggy. It’s not like I was having problems, but it was like, “Wow.” There was such a huge difference. And coupling that with a guy who was never a runner – I’d never run a mile in my life – and I started training for a half marathon.
And after I completed that… After you finish a half marathon, if you’re not a runner and you’ve never been a runner, all your runner friends start saying, “Now that you’ve done a half, you’re going to want to do a whole.” They’re lying. I don’t want to run that. I don’t even want to run a half ever again. But I am still running three to five miles about three days a week. And the combination of eating a cleaner, healthier diet with the running just makes me feel younger.

Pete Mockaitis

And is there a particular nugget you share in your presentations that really seems to connect and resonate with the audiences?

Thom Singer

I should have probably prepared for that one. No, nothing I share connects with the audiences, I’m sure. No. So lately it has really been around this whole issue of seeing people. Actually, I have a slide, and it says #seepeople. And it’s just a picture up close of someone’s eye looking out into the distance. And I talk about how people don’t feel anyone sees them.
And I’m surprised and saddened maybe how many people come up and say, “I feel invisible. I feel that people don’t see me in my family, at work, in this audience.” So this whole idea of putting your phone down and taking a little bit of time to just talk to people and see them as humans. They don’t have to be your best friend, just see them. And when you’re with people, choose people – probably is the thing that resonates the most.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And if folks want to learn more and get in touch, where do you put them?

Thom Singer

ThomSinger.com.

Pete Mockaitis

Not “Thom”Singer.com?

Thom Singer

It’s not “Thom”, no. It is Thom. So here’s the deal. How many Thomas’s do you know? Everybody is T-H-O-M-A-S. When they shorten it to “Tom” my question is, why did they take out the H? I just get rid of the “AS”.

Pete Mockaitis

Clever.

Thom Singer

Maybe stand-up’s not my thing.

Pete Mockaitis

[laugh] And do you have a final challenge or call-to-action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Thom Singer

Yeah, listen to podcasts like this one. I think the podcasts, the last five years they’ve really exploded. And I do a podcast – listen to mine. But I think the real big thing is I learn so much from listening to shows like yours and so many others, that I think when you’re out for your run, when you’re on the bike, when you’re going for a walk, when you’re in the car, whatever it is you’re doing where you can put ear buds in and just have a human university just broadcast into your head – there’s no way you’re not going to be better for it.
It’s like getting a Master’s degree. If you listen to the right people, you’re going to get all these ideas, these theories, these nuggets, these concepts. Some of them are going to stick. And so I think that listen to Pete’s show, listen to my show, listen to any one of the thousands of other shows that resonate with you. You cannot lose if you’re listening to the right stuff.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Well, Thom – not “Thom” – this has been a lot of fun yet again. Please keep doing the great stuff that you’re doing, and keep on rocking out.

Thom Singer

This was great. And I don’t know why we didn’t have you on my show three years ago, but we’re going to get that scheduled before we hang up today.

Pete Mockaitis

Awesome. Thank you.

298: Key Success Principles that Are Wrong (sort of) with Eric Barker

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Eric Barker says: "We're far more likely to listen, to explore possibilities, and to grow when we don't think we have all the answers."

Eric Barker busts the myths and uncovers truths behind some of the most popular maxims.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How alignment is a genuine key to success
  2. Why valedictorians don’t necessarily shape the world
  3. How to operate like a Navy Seal

About Eric

Eric Barker’s humorous, practical blog, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree”, presents science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life. Over 320,000 people subscribe to his weekly newsletter and his content is syndicated by Time Magazine, The Week, and Business Insider. He has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Financial Times. Eric is also a sought-after speaker and interview subject, and has given talks at MIT, Yale, Google, United States Military Central Command (CENTCOM), NASDAQ, and the Olympic Training Center.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Eric Barker Stanier Interview Transcript

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

Eric Barker
Oh, it’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I got a real kick out of playing around and looking at your website. The domain or URL is, if I’m saying it right, bakadesuyo.com, which has an interesting translation. Can you tell us the story here?

Eric Barker
Yeah, basically my last name means idiot in Japanese. Barker, basically, the Japanese syllabic system doesn’t have r’s, so Barker becomes Baka. Baka means idiot.

When I was first starting the blog like nine years ago and I was doing it on a lark. I didn’t even know where this would end up going. I was just like, “Hey, let’s play with this.” My URL – basically it emphatically states that I am Barker. It also says I’m an idiot because me introducing myself is – those are the same sentence…

Me introducing myself and me calling myself a moron are the same sentence in Japanese, so I have never had a Japanese – I’ve been to Tokyo three times. I’ve never had a Japanese person forget my name.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. It’s fun. It shows some humility, self-effacingness because really I would assert that I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you have some pretty insightful things to share. You’ve got the book and blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Can you orient us a little bit to what that’s all about?

Eric Barker
Yeah, basically the blog’s kind of evolved over the years, but basically I wanted to look at – I wanted to get some real answers. When I first created … I was at a big turning point in my life and I wanted to get the best answers that I could, so I started looking at peer-reviewed scientific research, books, then I started interviewing experts.

Basically, I found that a lot of the questions – there’s this great William Gibson quote I love, where he says, “The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed.” I think that’s true with a lot of questions that we have about life is there is a lot of research and information, good information, about the questions we all ask, but they’re in dusty journals or they’re locked in the ivory towers of universities.

I’ve tried to just get good answers to how can we basically live a great life, so in terms of relationships, in terms of productivity, happiness, all these kind of things. The internet is filled with so much kind of junk information or unverifiable ideas that somebody came up with over lunch to at least get something that has some backing to it.

Then for the book basically after a number of years of doing the blog, the book is basically looking at the issue of success. We all grew up with these maxims of success we hear, like, ‘nice guys finish last’ and ‘it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.’

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve got to work hard.

Eric Barker
Yeah, and we don’t know where they came from. We don’t know if they’re true. We don’t know if they used to be true, but they’re not true anymore.

Basically I decided to play myth busters and each chapter of the book is one of those maxims. I go down the rabbit hole looking at the research, talking to the experts, and basically giving each one of these their day in court looking at both sides of the issue and trying to tell some fun stories and have a good time along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now, you say myth busters, I didn’t see anywhere on your blog, maybe I missed it in which you filled a pig’s stomach with pop rocks and a carbonated beverage, is that there somewhere or did I overlook that?

Eric Barker
I don’t want to talk about my personal life, but you know. No, that’s not on the blog, but I do have an appointment later today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. I knew I would like you.

Let’s dig into some of these things. I’m particularly interested from sort of a career and personal development vantage point, you say that much of what we know quote/unquote, if you didn’t hear that, there’s air quote all over that, about success is totally wrong. Can you expand upon that?

Eric Barker
Yeah, again, specifically I address these maxims, where they’re very black and white, you know, ‘nice guys finish last.’ It’s not as clear-cut as that. There’s many facets to the question, but most specifically I would point to Adam Grant, who is a professor at Wharton, and his research shows that nice guys do finish last, but they also finish first.

When you look at the results from a number of different careers, you find that the most altruistic people, the results are bimodal. They are actually at the bottom and the top of success metrics.

If you think about it, that may sound confusing, it actually makes sense because we all know somebody who is just a martyr, who gets taken advantage of. They’re just too nice. They don’t look out for themselves. But we all also know somebody who is just awesome, supportive and giving and everybody loves them, everybody feels indebted to them, and everybody goes out of their way to help this very giving altruistic person.

We’ve got these overly simplified black and white concepts of success and when you dig into it, you usually find that it’s a little more nuanced than that and in some cases a lot more nuanced than that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’d love it if you could unpack a couple of these maxims. ‘Nice guys finish last,’ that’s a great one to think through in sort of a career or work context. What are some others that leap to mind?

Eric Barker
One of the other things I talk about is the issue that ‘It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.’

When you look at the research in terms of extroverts/introverts what you see is that across a number of metrics, extroverts do do better. They have bigger networks. They’re more likely, in most situations, to become leaders. They generally make more money. In fact, there’s a very significant amount of research that shows they’re happier.

However, what you see is that introverts have their own kind of superpower as well. That is that introverts are far more likely to get better grades. A disproportionate number of PhD holders are introverts. A disproportionate number of top athletes are introverts.

What you’re seeing there is basically that while extroverts derive enormous benefits from having big networks and knowing lots of people; introverts often take that time that they don’t spend socializing and use it to become experts in the field.

Rather than simply saying, ‘It’s not what you know; it’s who you know,’ it depends on your career. If you are in business development or sales or something, hey, being more extroverted, having a huge network can benefit you. But if you’re something like a computer programmer or maybe even a blogger or an author, being an introvert is beneficial because your skill is going to be more valuable, in general, than your network will be.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s my excuse for having a poor quality podcast and writing on AwesomeAtYourJob.com is that I’m so extroverted. I can’t be held responsible. I’m just out and about socializing all the time, Eric.

Eric Barker
The key meta point I make about success in the book is the idea that what is really critical is alignment. Know thyself, the old classic maxim. Knowing thyself and then picking the right pond. Basically really having some information, not just theories: who you are, what you’re like, what you’re good at, what are your signature strengths, what are your intensifiers, and then finding an environment that rewards those.

The alignment between those is critical. Like you’re saying there, it’s kind of like if you know, “Hey, I’m extroverted. I’m really conscientious,” then say what roles, what jobs, what companies or institutions reward those, that’s the path to success.

Actually what the research shows as well is that as opposed to doing what you love, very often what studies show is that when you do what you’re good at, you actually grow to love it. Finding out what you’re good at and passionately devoting yourself to that actually ends up making you happier.

By starting with knowing yourself, aligning yourself with an environment that supports that, that’s a really good path to success. Like you’re saying there, self-knowledge applied is really powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. When it comes to signature strengths, we’ve talked previously on the show about strengths stuff with Lisa Cummings or Scott Barlow, but the word intensifier, can you unpack that a little bit?

Eric Barker
Yeah, this is a concept that was put together by Gautam Mukunda at Harvard Business School. Signature strengths is an idea that – this research is done by Martin Seligman University of Pennsylvania.

Signature strengths, not only obviously does it make you good at your job to apply things you are naturally and uniquely good at, but also makes you happier. There’s tons of research showing it has a range of benefits when you use the unique skills you have.

However, most of those are usually these kind of generally good things, like if you’re agreeable or if IQ, you’ve got positive – things that are just universally well regarded. That’s where the concept of intensifiers comes in.

What Gautam Mukunda realized is when looking at leaders, many great leaders had qualities that were negative at the mean. In other words, on average these qualities were considered a negative, but they had aligned themselves with a context where that quality actually became a positive. It became a superpower.

In other words, in general if I said you were argumentative, most people would consider that an insult, in general. At the mean, argumentativeness is considered a negative quality. However, if you were to decide to become a litigator, being argumentative might be an essential part of your job and might advance your career.

Some people might say you’re stubborn. Okay, well, stubbornness again, in your interpersonal relationships can be a huge negative, generally considered a bad quality. But, if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be stubborn. You’re going to face rejection. You’re going to face difficulty. Stubbornness might be almost indistinguishable from grit and persistence.

Intensifiers are understanding the negative at the mean qualities you possess and then finding that, “Hey, I’m stubborn, but I’m going to be an entrepreneur. I’m argumentative, but I’m a litigator. That even my negative qualities are being put to good use because of the career choices I’ve made.”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well said. I dig that. It’s very potent synthesis and distillation of this stuff. I love it. I’m just going to keep going for it. You also unpack a little bit and explore why is it that valedictorians in fact rarely become millionaires. What’s the story behind this one?

Eric Barker
Basically, this was research by Karen Arnold at Boston College. What she found is that valedictorians, they do well. They do very well. They generally go on to prosperous careers. They often get graduate degrees. They live good lives.

But in terms of going on to being the people that shape the world, lead the world, they very, very rarely do. That is because of the nature of – we think of valedictorian almost as – we give it this kind of halo effect where it just means you’re awesome in general.

Pete Mockaitis
Ahh.

Eric Barker
Exactly. It’s not that. What it usually is is a strong sign of conscientiousness. The big five personality trait of conscientiousness, which means you’re good at following rules. People who are good at following rules, they show up on time, they do what they’re told.

Those people do very well in school, in high school and college because a big part – once you reach a certain minimum IQ threshold, grades actually are not a very good measure of IQs. Standardized tests are a very good measure of IQ. Grades are actually a good measure of conscientiousness. Do you do what you’re told? Do you play be the rules? Show up on time? Cross your t’s, dot your I’s?

That means that means that these people who are conscientious get very good grades. However the world is not just like schools. School has very clearly defined rules. The world does not have very clearly defined rules.

When there’s not a very strict playbook, you check all these boxes and you get an A plus, the enormous success of the valedictorians starts to break down. Like I said, overall they do very well, but they’re not going to be the people who change the world because they’re actually followers.

They’re people who do what they’re told very well, but they’re not the ones who generally go out and try and reinvent the playbook, who innovate, who change things. They usually will check all the boxes, which means someone else has to create those boxes.

To do well in school, also generally means you have to be a generalist. You have to – even if you’re passionate about math, you need to stop studying math to make sure you get an A in history and English. It requires you to be a generalist.

Whereas, as we all know, once you get into the workforce, you are generally rewarded for a singular skill set. If you are an amazing programmer and you don’t know anything about history, Google is still going to hire you. They don’t care about those other qualities.

Again, you are actually penalized in high school and college for too singular a focus, yet what is often rewarded in the work place is expertise in a singular focus. Once again, something that benefits valedictorians in high school and college can be a big negative when they go out into the working world.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s really interesting, Eric, because I am a valedictorian. It’s really connecting that conscientiousness element when I’m getting into some territory that is sort of ambiguous because one of my strengths is input.

I like to collect a lot of different perspectives from folks and then sort of synthesize that and say, “Okay, given all that I know from the experts and my research and the data, it really seems like this is the best course of action.”

But it gets really tricky for me when I’m doing something new and then I’ve got five totally different voices saying totally different things. I go, “Ah, well shucks, now what?” I found myself in my entrepreneurial journey getting a little bit stuck in those zones.

It’s like, “Well, I guess it’s unclear and maybe I will have the presence of mind to push through and find the audacity to chart a new course, but other times it just takes way longer than it should to blast past that ambiguity.

Eric Barker
The thing about all of these personality traits like conscientiousness is that much like the overarching theory of success I have in the book, where it’s knowing yourself and then picking the right pond, it’s always it’s interaction with the environment. There’s not a singular this is always good and this is always bad.

Conscientiousness is a very powerful personality trait in most spheres in terms of earnings, in terms of successful marriages. Conscientiousness, being steady, predictable, consistent is very powerful. Yet, we can all imagine situations where we, perhaps in the arts, in media, in much more creative professions, where being a little too stickler or the rules probably would not benefit you as much.

All of these traits, whether they’re good or bad, and that’s going back to the issue of signature strengths and intensifiers depends on context.

Pete Mockaitis
Mm-hm, I’m with you there. I also want to get your view here, when I’m exploring all this stuff in terms of where you fit best and maybe not so great a fit when it comes to the whole confidence game. What are your takes from the research in terms of sort of bad advice for boosting your confidence versus the evidence-based advice?

Eric Barker
The issue with confidence – first and foremost, it’s a very tricky – it’s a tricky issue to discuss because they don’t write a lot of books on reducing your confidence. Most people don’t say, “My confidence is way too high. How can I bring it down?”

It’s so one-sided in terms of everybody wants to boost their confidence and anything that you see written on the subject is talking about increasing your confidence. It’s a little one sided. It’s only one side of the court room actually has an attorney arguing for it.

But basically it’s interesting because there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides. We’re usually not aware of them because like I said because it’s often a one-sided conversation. Too much confidence is a bad thing. Overconfidence is not a compliment, nor is narcissism and hubris.

When people get too confident, the research basically shows that a) they don’t listen to anybody. They think they have all the answers to a very unhealthy, unproductive degree. Also, they become a jerk. They just don’t listen to anybody else and they generally don’t respect people. And they’re actually more likely to cheat and lie.

But the benefits of confidence, obviously, it makes us feel good, confidence. Nobody likes feeling uncertain. Also, confidence has an enormous, it’s undeniable that it has an enormous effect on how other people perceive you.

One of the studies I site in the book is that given a choice between a person with a great track record, who doesn’t seem very confident, and a person with a mediocre track record, who seems extremely confident, study subjects pick confidence over a great track record. They actually picked just the way the person conveyed themselves.

Basically like picking a stock trader who lost money, but seemed really confident versus somebody who consistently made money, but didn’t come off as confident. People trust confidence over expertise. On the flip side-

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, so you’re saying we’ve got multiple studies across multiple domains and stock picking is one example where the majority of folks-

Eric Barker
I was using stock picking as an example for clarity, but my point is that there’s research showing that people will choose the confident speaker with an inferior track record over the less confident speaker with the superior track record.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. In terms of you’re going to hire somebody for a role and – that is striking. Wow. That’s –

Eric Barker
Yeah, I think we’ve all seen examples of this where, “Hey, he didn’t have the greatest grades, but we really clicked in the interview,” or, “He really made an impression,” or, “She really just came across well,” that kind of ….

On the flip side, less confidence obviously doesn’t – clearly doesn’t make a very good impression on people and doesn’t make us feel good. However, it helps us learn. We’re far more open to new ideas. We’re far more likely to listen, to explore possibilities, and to grow when we don’t think we have all the answers.

The problem is that there’s benefits – there’s strengths and weaknesses to both sides. You see some people succeed by a form of double think, which there is no system to incorporate double think. But some people are great, like thinking about the athletes who can be completely deferential to their coach, work hard in training, and then when they show up on game day, they are 110% sure that they’re going to do it. If you can balance that, great.

But in looking at the research what I found actually was the best answer was that the entire confidence paradigm is actually problematic at its core because it puts us on this constant up and down, where we often feel like we need to prove ourselves to support our self-esteem.

What seems to be a superior answer was actually an ancient Buddhist concept which has been scientifically validated by Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin called self-compassion, where instead of building ourselves up to this superhuman ridiculous level where we will inevitably fail, basically to try and see the world as realistically as possible, but to be forgiving with yourself when you fail, to be very realistic, but to be very compassionate toward yourself.

Actually, that allows you to see the world for what it is. You’re not overconfidently deluded. But on the other hand, you’re not punishing yourself when you fail and you’re open to new ideas because you’re not being unrealistic. Self-compassion actually seemed to be a better paradigm than self-confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. This reminds me of – and I don’t know – you can tell me if there’s a scientific name for this concept, but it really seems related to this confidence matter.

I’ve seen it in myself and in others in terms of let’s say you do something the first time and you’re really concerned, like, “Okay, I’ve never done this before. I’ve really got to make sure,” I guess that’s my conscientiousness, “I really want to make sure that I nail it and I do it just right. I’m going to look very carefully at all of the instructions and the best practices, and research-based insights to do a fantastically good job.”

Then I do that thing. I’m thinking about putting on a leadership seminar once. I did that. I was in my role as the chairperson. It went great, so good, good, good stuff.

Then the next year, I did it again, but this time I had a completely different attitude or mindset, which was, “Oh yeah, we rocked this last year. This should be no problem.” Then I put in less effort and had less curiosity and less diligence associated with doing all the stuff and then actually had in some ways an inferior result in that event that I put together.

I’ve seen this in other people. The term I’ve coined for it is second-time syndrome. You’re doing it the second time and through overconfidence or any number of factors, you do it worse than you did the first time despite that experience would suggest we should have a superior outcome. Is there a name for that in science?

Eric Barker
I don’t know if there’s a name specifically for that, but I think basically what you’re talking about is the development of overconfidence. Is that your initial success was attributable to a great amount of effort and diligence, but then subsequently, you didn’t do the great amount of effort and diligence. You attributed it otherwise. Then without the handwork and diligence, you didn’t get the same result.

There’s actually a similar study that Dan Ariely did that shows that we’re prone to just that sort of thinking, where basically they did a study where they gave people a test and they actually deliberately made it easy to cheat.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. This one, huh?

Eric Barker
They made it easy to cheat on the test and they didn’t let people know that they would be monitoring this. They were able to monitor who cheated.

Anyway, they gave the test, some people cheated, some people didn’t. Obviously those who cheated did very well. Then they surveyed them after the fact and they said to people, “How do you think you would do on another test on this same subject matter?” The cheaters rated themselves as saying, “Oh, I think I would do great.”

What you’re seeing here is that they succeeded because of cheating, yet they somehow rationalize this into believing, “I’m actually good at this.” That’s something that I think is common.

It’s kind of like the example you’re positing, where you succeeded due to a lot of effort, diligence, and perhaps a fair amount of fear, and that really motivated you to work hard. Then we have this natural human instinct to be like, “Oh, well I must be like a like natural.” Then we don’t do the hard work and we find out that, well, actually it was the hard work that was responsible for the success.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. That was interesting. Netflix has a documentary that prominently features Dan Ariely.

Eric Barker
(Dis)Honesty or something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that sounds right, yeah. I loved the scenes where it showed the fake shredders that only shredded like the fringes of the answer sheets they were turning in. I thought that was a brilliant little experimental maneuver there. It’s like, it sure looks and sounds like that thing has got shredded, but it wasn’t. I just thought that was awesome. Cool.

Maybe the last question perhaps. You unpack a bit of the secret ingredient how Navy Seals find that grit. Can you share what’s the master key to this?

Eric Barker
Yeah, this was – Navy Seals basically go through BUDS, which is Basic Underwater Demolition training. That’s the vetting process for Seals. After the tragedy of 9/11, the US military wanted more special operations troops like Seals, but obviously they didn’t want to lower the standards because that would defeat the purpose.

They had to commission a study basically to find what was it that separated psychologically those who got through the training versus those who didn’t because frankly, they didn’t know.

One of the key four things that really kept them going was positive self-talk, was basically we all have this voice in our head. We say hundreds of words to ourselves every minute and if those voices are positive, we tend to persist and if they’re negative, we tend to quit.

This aligns perfectly – I pointed at the Navy Seals as an example, but the underlying research that basically lines up with it pretty well done by Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania is that optimism is probably the strongest element of grit and resilience as we know it, having an optimistic attitude.

It makes intuitive sense. If you think things are going to work out, if you think you’re going to win at the roulette table, you keep playing. If you think you’re not, then you stop playing.

If we believe optimistically things are going to go well, we persist even when things are tough, even when it’s difficult, we keep going. Basically optimism and an optimistic attitude is probably the strongest predictor of whether people will be resilient through difficult challenges.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like to get a little bit more precise when you talk about defining optimism. I’m thinking about Viktor Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which there’s a bit of a distinction as opposed to, “Hey, we’re going to be rescued and saved out of this concentration camp next week, next month.” Then they’re disappointed and it falls apart.

Versus when you say optimism it sounds like you’re maybe in the ballpark of self-efficacy in terms of “I have a conviction that I will be successful in this endeavor,” is that fair.

Eric Barker
I think you’re making a really salient distinction, which is lying to yourself is not the path here. Merely telling yourself pretty lies is not the path here.

Pete Mockaitis
Tomorrow will be an easier day of BUDS.

Eric Barker
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Bad move.

Eric Barker
Yes. The big thing – the distinction that Seligman makes is basically he says what separates an optimistic attitude from a pessimistic attitude – he refers to them as the three P’s, which is seeing things that are positive as personal, pervasive and persistent.

In other words, optimists, when good things happen, they see them as personal, so I was responsible for this. They see it as persistent: this good thing will continue. They see it as pervasive: this good thing will affect many areas of my life.

However, when people have a pessimistic attitude is because they see negative things as personal, persistent, and pervasive.

What you really need to do is kind of a cognitive behavioral therapy style approach, which is we all have moments where we get pessimistic and we, “Oh, it’s all my fault. This problem is going to keep happening and it’s going to affect every area of my life.”

To actually question those thoughts – because we’ll just accept those thoughts because they’re in our head; they must be true, to actually stop and question them. To say, “This is really all my fault? No, it’s not all my fault. This is going to go on forever? No, it’s not going to go on forever? This is going to affect every area of my life? No, not every-“ To basically really question it.

Instead of saying just Pollyannaish, unrealistic lies to make ourselves feel better, if you look at those negatives, usually the negatives, we exaggerate those and to make those more realistic allows us to be more optimistic because we can say, “No, no, no, the reason I’m so upset, the reason I want to quit is because I’m exaggerating the negatives here and I’m not looking at the positives.” To be more objective and not to be overly dramatic in either direction.

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

Eric Barker
No, nothing specific. We can move on to the next phase.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, how about you share with us a favorite quote, something that inspires you?

Eric Barker
One of my favorite quotes is the William Gibson quote I mentioned, where he said that “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

I think that what’s really critical there is just having a little bit of resourcefulness in terms of this resourcefulness is a quality that I really appreciate that people don’t give enough attention to. A lot of the answers are out there, but usually we just shrug our shoulders and we stop.

To realize that usually if you’re asking a question, someone else has asked it. If you spend a little bit of time, you might be able to get the answer or get yourself closer to it. I think that’s something really powerful to think about.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite study? It seems you’ve gotten enchanted by so many. Does one really stick with you?

Eric Barker
I guess something I’ve read recently that really moved me was the idea that if you try to be happier and you live in the United States or the UK and you make a concerted, deliberate effort to be happier, you will fail. The reason for that – however, if you live in Russia, China, Japan, you will succeed.

The reason for that is that so much of what makes us happy is relationships with other people, yet the cultures of the United States and the United Kingdom are very individualistic cultures, meaning that usually when we try to make ourselves happier, we focus on our selves: be yourself, do your own thing, so the efforts we make are usually in the wrong direction, if we live in the US and the UK.

We need to think socially.  We need to think more collectivist countries. Ironically, when people do the usual things to try to make themselves happier in the US and UK, they fail spectacularly. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be happier. It just means we need to think a little bit differently than the concepts that our culture usually promotes.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Eric Barker
Favorite book, there’s so many. There is – I’m trying to think. One that I’ve read recently that I thought was pretty spectacular was – I definitely like Mark Manson’s, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F. I won’t use the full word there.

It is for people who are curious about Buddhism and a lot of the happiness concepts that have come out of that, it is a very accessible way to look at – one of the main ideas Mark describes in there, which I found useful, is basically he says for people to look through the lens of the idea of what challenges, what pain are you comfortable with.

Because some of us there are difficulties that we don’t like to have to deal with and there are other difficulties that we’re – some people are more comfortable with failure, but they have a short attention span and they’re not good with persistence. They’ll be happy to try lots of things and if they fail at 90% of them, but succeed at 10, they’re good.

Other people are really good at persistence, but they hate failure, so drilling down, grinding away for years is an option for them. To realize what kind of suffering are you comfortable with as opposed to saying, “What do I want? What’s my big grand dream?” Well, it’s going to take a lot of work. If it’s a big grand dream, it’s going to take a lot of work to get there.

Then to ask yourself, “Okay, what challenges, what suffering am I comfortable with?” can ask if you really are ready for that challenge or maybe a better challenge would suit you. I think it’s a very interesting perspective to look through.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Eric Barker
Favorite tool. Well that would have to be my Mac Book.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the Pro, not the Air, Mac Book straight up?

Eric Barker
It is a Pro, but I used to love my Air, but now they’re all getting so small and thin, that I’m not sure how much of a distinction there is anymore. I love the Air, but right now I have a Pro. I don’t know. They’re pretty amazing.

But if there’s one tool I could definitely not live without, especially given what I do, it would definitely be my Mac Book.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright, and how about a favorite habit?

Eric Barker
Favorite habit, reading. Man, that one’s really paid off for me. I highly recommend – I’m kind of like an athlete saying they like to exercise.

For me, it’s something I love doing. I often joke or half joke that a lot of the work I do is just the exhaust that comes out of my natural habit of wanting to read, wanting to learn and then that machine, which is going to run anyway, happens to produce this exhaust which luckily I’ve found some weird way to make a career out of. I’m very, very grateful for that.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, we appreciate your exhaust. Thank you for sharing it.

Eric Barker
…. Sorry, I’m destroying the environment.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d also like to get your take, you shared a lot of things with a lot of people, is there a particular nugget or quotable gem that is attributable to you or maybe just even reformulated, restated by you, that really does seem to resonate with folks. They retweet it. They take notes upon it when you utter it. What’s something that really seems to stick?

Eric Barker
That valedictorian study, again, I didn’t do the research, really seems to resonate with people and the self-compassion concept really seems to resonate with people.

The idea of not having to lie, not having to brag, not having to blow yourself up, not having to be a jerk, but emphasizing forgiving yourself. I think that’s a concept that’s really resonated with people, especially lately is the idea that forgiving yourself is more important than blowing up your … to insane proportions.

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

Eric Barker
Given that as we established the URL is hard to pronounce, hard to spell, hard to – not the best marketing choice on my part, happy to grant you that one. If they want to see my blog, there’s a new post every week, which is a deep dive on some evidence-based way to improve your life.

Basically Googling my name, Eric Barker, that will come up and signing up for my weekly email is the best way to keep up with what I’m doing. The book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, is available on Amazon and any of the other major book sellers.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh cool. Eric, do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Eric Barker
I would point to a piece of advice that a former Harvard researcher and now bestselling author, Shawn Achor, told me that he had done research that basically said when you go into the office first thing, first thing you do, sit down and send an email thanking somebody, showing gratitude.

Simply doing that gives people a boost in happiness and there’s plenty of research I’ve cited on the blog before that shows how you start the day, dramatically affects how the rest of the day goes. The challenge I would give people is first thing in the office, send an email, and send someone a sincere thank you email. Try that for a few days, see if it helps you out.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Eric, this has been such a treat. Please keep generating the great things you produce. The exhaust has a fragrant and a lovely aroma. It’s been a lot of fun.

Eric Barker
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it Pete.

290: How to Make the Impossible Happen with Steve Sims

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Steve Sims says: "Most people don't do things not for the fear of failure, but for the fear of being laughed at."

Bluefish founder Steve Sims shares the approaches that enable him to create legendary experiences for his exclusive clientele.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How Steve got the Pope to drop by and bless his client’s wedding
  2. The magic question that unleashes possibilities
  3. How relationships are like oak trees

About Steve

Steve Sims is is the visionary founder of Bluefish: the world¹s first luxury concierge company that delivers the highest level of personalized travel, transportation, and cutting-edge entertainment services to corporate executives, celebrities, professional athletes, and other discerning individuals interested in living life to its fullest. He has been invited to speak to MBA students at Harvard (twice), has spoken at the Pentagon, and has been featured in major media all around the world: From The Sunday Times and China Post, to The Wall Street Journal. You can learn more at stevedsims.com.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Steve Sims Interview Transcript

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

Steve Sims
It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve got so many interesting tales with your clients and extraordinary experiences that folks have had. I was most intrigued if I could hear the tale behind how you got a client to get married in the Vatican by the Pope.

Steve Sims
Yeah. I get some strange ones.

I had a client that just said he only planned on getting married once and he wanted to do it at the top-shelf level. I asked him – I actually flew into Europe and I asked, “What does that mean?” and he went, “I’d love to get married in the Vatican.” We then had to do it.

Bottom line of it is we had no idea what we were doing. In fact I will whole heartedly say that I have no idea what I’m doing 90% of the time. I just make steps to find what needs to be done quickly and in this situation I knew some powerful people in Europe, I knew some powerful people in Italy, so I just started reaching out.

I went out shaking the bush to find out if anyone had any leads, spoke to a very important family in Florence. I said to them, “Look, I want to do this in the Vatican, but like everything I do, I want to see if I can push it further. I want to see how far I can do it.” They said, “Well, what you need is you need someone to introduce you.”

Believe it or not, it’s very, very, very cheap to get married in the Vatican, but you have to have someone allow you to do it and that’s the problem. Along the way of getting people to allow you to do it, those are the people that cost the money.

It’s like most things. You want to go down in the Formula One race in Monaco with Ferrari, the tickets literally say on them one Euro, but you can spend thousands upon tens of thousands to get those tickets. The Oscars have zero price on them, but they’re very expensive if people sell them on. It’s usually the people that get you the ability to have a yes that are more expensive than the venue itself.

I spoke to these people in Florence. They said, “We know some people who know some people,” and we started on the ladder of getting in.

As soon as we knew we had the opportunity for the Vatican, we wanted to find out what chapel we could use. As soon as they show you what chapel we can use, you push it and you go, “Is there another? Is there an alternative we could look?” You just push it and push it until you basically in the end of the road and you get the best possible chapel.

“Well, this would be fantastic. I have to approach this subject and it may sound silly, but what are the opportunities of-“this is a better way of putting it, “What needs to happen in order for the Pope to actually do the ceremony himself?”

You learn the lesson very quickly in my job, never ask a question that they can answer yes or no to, unless that’s the answer you want. No is the easiest word in the planet. Every language in the world can say no. It’s short, easy, and nine times out of ten, the knee-jerk reaction for every question you ask that’s even slightly out of the realm of normality. Don’t ask a question where they can give a gut response with no.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, I’m on the edge of my seat. You said, “What has to happen?” what did you hear? What happened?

Steve Sims
It was kind of “Well, you need to get permission.” I went back, asking people, “How do I get permission?” Then you had to do the walk of the Vatican. You had to visit the certain areas of the Vatican to make sure it could happen.

Then the chapel was chosen, the ceremony commenced, halfway through the ceremony, the Pope walks in and blesses them mid-ceremony and then leaves. The funny thing is, no photography was allowed for the event.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Intriguing. What were the steps that led to the Pope getting the message? By the way, which pope?

Steve Sims
Francis, the current one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the current pope. Okay, cool. Pope Francis, how does he get the memo and how is he inclined to say yes?

Steve Sims
Well, I’m a great believer in two things. No one ever got on the roof without climbing a ladder. I literally will have everyone be a rung of that ladder to get me to where I want to go. As we all know, ladders start at the bottom, which is one step.

I’m using that analogy to make it simple so people realize very quickly, if they haven’t already, there’s no super intelligence on the other side of this podcast. It’s just real – it’s an I can over an IQ. I won’t allow the fact that it’s never been done before to be of any significance to the conversation whatsoever.

I will ask someone that knows more than me, “How would you go about it? What would need to happen you would perceive for this to happen? How would you go about this step?” You ask five people that and you usually find they’ll be a commonality between say two or three of the answers.

Then you go, “Oh, can you help me? Can you introduce me to that person?” If I go in cold, they’re going to go, “Well, who are you?” I want to avoid all that conversation. “Can you contact them as someone that knows me and goes, ‘Steve Sims, startlingly good looking man, perfect face for podcast, can you help him?’”

Nine times out of ten I get other people to introduce me to that person and in fact I would say it’s probably my secret sauce, that way allows more people when I reach out to them they go, “Bobby was telling me that you sent people down to the Titanic and you do this for your own job. How can I help you?” You go, “Glad you asked that question. This is what I’m looking for.”

Sometimes you’ll get, “No, I used to be part of that, but I can’t now.” You go, “Fair enough, I appreciate it.” You may even turn around and go look, “You’re not involved in that now, but if I ever find something that would still be in your circle of influence, do you mind if I come back to you?”

Remember the relationship you make today, may not be one that can be utilized for two, three, four, ten years. But if you look at it for a quick gain, those are usually the weakest relationships. Always be open to see where doors open and keep those doors open.

I just literally got ahold of people that can make the right phone calls, make the right whisper in the ear. When I asked the Vatican to make the question, while they were doing that, I went to other people so that he would get the same request from about four different angles of credibility and respect so that I would be within that same model.

They say credibility by association, if I’ve got five people that you respect telling you I’m brilliant, then I’m going to be credible before you’ve ever spoken to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I guess I’m wondering, with the message, there wasn’t any sort of magic in it as opposed to – or brilliance in terms of the offer, like, “Hey, Pope Francis, I know you’re big on mercy and the joy of the Gospel and forming missionary disciples and if you go here-“ there’s none of that, it’s just people making the introduction, right?

Steve Sims
Exactly. A lot of the time – it’s hard for me – I may know what you have an interest in, especially when you’re working with a certain level. We can brushstroke this with major celebrities, business icons from Elon Musk to Pope Francis. When you’re up in that level, the easiest way for you to get a no, is to contact these people and go, “Hey, how much is it going to cost me?” Money-

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It almost kind of cheapens it, like, “Oh, he is not for sale, Steve. How dare you?”

Steve Sims
Oh, you can guarantee you’re kicked off the line in a heartbeat.  You need to do your homework. You need to either go in there.

In the situation in the Vatican, which is still one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the Vatican itself, and as a country, designate a self-governed country, but the bank of the Vatican is one of the wealthiest banks in the world.

You can’t go there and go. “Hey, I’ll make this payment. I’ll wire the-” They don’t care. You’ve got to go in there and either find something they want or find someone they’ll do it for. I have no idea what my people have done to have the respect that they did from the Vatican, but I made sure that the people asking the question had the ears and the attention of the people they were asking.

I’ll do that with anyone. If I need to get ahold of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, any of these people, I will make sure that the people that I’m talking with have that credibility and respect in the sandpit that when they reach out, they are listened to.

Now, during that I need to come up with what’s the win here. It’s very much easier with everyone else other than the Pope. But I may find out that they’ve got a book coming out, they’ve got a project coming out, they support a local school, they support a local cause, they’re big on a certain gala in their hometown.

You can research things and go, “Hey, I believe you’re part of this such and such gala once a year in Dallas, Texas.” They can go, “Oh, yeah.” “This is what I’d like to do. You know I want something, but I’m going to tell you quickly what I can do for you. I can help promote that. I can help sell out half the arena. Would that be of interest?” Give them a win-win quickly that shows you’ve done a bit of homework.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Thanks for taking us through that pathway.

Maybe we need to back up a smidge. Could you give me a little bit of context? You’ve got a company Bluefish and a book that talks about a bit of your escapades with that company called Bluefishing. What’s the background story here?

Steve Sims
As we’ve already said, if any – I doubt by now anyone listening to this has thought that I’m a genius. That’s good. I’m a bricklayer from East London that went from working on the door to becoming a concierge for not the rich and famous, but the richer and unknown throughout the globe.

I’m a big deal in probably the top 3% of the world. But my website doesn’t even have a phone number on it. There’s no way of contacting me unless you know someone who knows me.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel cool just talking to you now. “Oh, how did Pete do it?”

Steve Sims
Oh, there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve just got to know people who respect Steve Sims. That’s what it’s about.

Steve Sims
Yeah, you know people who know people.

It just grew. Then a couple of years ago Simon & Schuster asked me if I would do a book. I’ve been offered to do a book. I’ve been in the media many, many years. We’re about 23 years old now, so we’ve been in every kind of publication worldwide you can think of, but we never wanted to do a book exposing the clients.

But this time they actually said to me, “No, no, no, we don’t want you talking about what you do for your clients. We want to know how you do it. How do you build up relationships? How do you create a win-win? How do you consult luxury brands and solopreneurs with the same passion and detail.”

It was a great opportunity at the ripe old youthful age of 51 to just go, “I’m going to talk about a bricklayer, how he gets to do this with Elon Musk and the steps it takes to create an irresistible relationship and how to solidify a message to be completely transparent, to be impossible to misunderstand.”

All of those elements, because I’m a great believer that you can download an app now for everything, from how to wash your T-shirt to how to speak in Chinese, how to calculate the weight of a bridge based on a scan from a picture. You can get an app for anything now, but you still cannot get an app that will teach you how to communicate one human to another human.

People have actually called me a master communicator. I am not a gifted or master communicator. I am actually not a very good communicator at all, but I am looking exceptional because of how bad everyone else is getting at it.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright, well that’s a nice frame. Let’s hear it. We’ve heard a couple of the perspectives. Could you share a few more in terms of the core principles and favorite tactics?

Steve Sims
Do your research. If there’s someone that you really want to speak – I’m a great believer that it’s positioning. Everything in life is positioning.

If there’s someone that you want to meet, whether it be romantically, business-wise, mentorship… whatever, but if it’s someone significant enough that you want to get into a relationship with that person, that’s the key. I’m not on about getting a selfie outside a bar at 12:00 at night in Hollywood. I’m on about a relationship. If you want to get a relationship with someone, do your homework.

The internet has given us the ability for you to be able to Google anyone. It could be the principal of your local school, it could be the real estate developer on a new project, it could be the Pope himself.
You can Google what they’re interested in, where they’re seen, what they’re behind, what they support.

And then in doing so, you can actually make sure that now that you’ve seen that they go to a lot of horse events and that they have a great love of equestrian, you can start hanging out in those circles.

Then when you see them, you can make sure you go to the bar or you go to the restaurant, you sidle up next to them, and as you’re doing something you can go, “Hey, listen. That’s a nice watch. Oh, you’re so and so. Didn’t I hear somewhere that you’re a collector of watches?” Drop a nugget in. There’s nothing easier to get someone talking than when they’re talking about themselves or something they love, which in some cases is the same thing.

If you can get them talking about or say, “Hey, I saw you in a magazine and you were with a Porsche. Why do you like vintage Porsches? I saw you were doing something with this vineyard. I like whiskey. Why do you like wine?”

It’s going to be for two seconds while we’re getting a drink. Just do something like that to get them. It shows a commonality. It shows that you’re actually being completely open. You’re not trying to go, “Oh, I didn’t recognize. Oh I didn’t know who you were.” Don’t be an idiot. You stood there. You’re talking to the guy. They probably think that you’re sniffing around in any case, so say to them, “Oh, you’re so-and-so.”

Be very transparent but be entertaining. I’m a great believer in all communication has to have the three E’s. You have to be engaging. You have to be educational. You have to entertaining. If you can have those three, in any communication, whether it be a podcast or chatting up a person at the bar, if you’ve got those three things in there, then you’re going to do well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very nice. In the book you lay out a few particular elements such as the password. Could you unpack that a little bit in terms of what do you mean by password and then how do we get it?

Steve Sims
Yeah, this was a huge intelligent idea of ours. We started throwing parties in Hong Kong, me and this fellow meathead that I worked on the door with. We invited rich people to come to them because guess what? Poor people can’t afford to. Quite simply I invited rich people because I could make money out of rich people.

I thought to myself, but I don’t want to be inviting problems to the club. I don’t want some arrogant git turning up at the door and demeaning everyone and being disrespectful.

What we did was we came up with this really silly, and it is silly, little principle, this little game. What we would do, and this is back in the ‘90s, the age of the fax. We would fax them where the location of the bar was, what time the party started and the password.

What we thought was if you’re humble and solid enough, confident enough to quote a silly phrase, that’s the person we want. We want the people that are up for a laugh. We don’t want the arrogant person turn up going, “I’m on the list. Let me in. You’re wasting my time.” I want the people that are there for a bit of a giggle.

We used to make up the stupidest passwords. We had finish this sentence, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish …’ so people would walk up to us and go, “Blue fish,” and we’d let them in. That’s where the company name came from. That’s how deep we are. It literally came from a password that we used repetitively.

But we would also come up with one and say to people, “Name two of the Telletubbies.” You’d have the head of an airline come up to you or the owner of a bank and go, “Tinky-Winky, Po,” and we’d say, “In you go. Enjoy your night.” It was just a really good way.

We got people turning up going, “Oh, I don’t know the password. Let me in.” We’d stand there and we’d be like, “There’s no party here, mate. No, no. Sorry, you must be in the wrong place.” The whole party is going off behind us. There’s people in a line and we would just dismiss them and get rid of them. Then the next person would step in and go, “Tinky-Winky.” We’d go, “In you go. Enjoy yourself.”

We noticed that if we had a password, if we had a hurdle, if we had something that you had to do, even if it made you slightly uncomfortable, you were more committed and loyal once you were on the other side of it.

We’ve had passwords for many of our events. I’ve worked with Sir Elton John at his Oscar party every year. We have a pre-party on a Friday. We use the exact same thing. We have a password.

We got these people from all over the world in black ties and ball gowns that have paid a serious amount of money, a small car, to go to one of my events, and they’re not getting in the door still unless they’re humble enough to come and say this funny password and we let them in. It’s all a state of mind and a position.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. This reminds me. I had a client who will remain nameless. He was a psychiatry student. He would have parties in which at the front of the door, he would have a handful of pills and we would say, “Well, you’ve got to take one of the pills to come into the party.” Folks were like, “Uh, no thanks,” would go away verse the person who did were, they’re like, “This is an adventurous, bold person. That’s what we’re going here for.”

Now all of the pills were placebos and that could probably get him in some trouble with the review board, so he’ll remain nameless. But it has a similar effect for good or for evil.

Steve Sims
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Of the filtration there.

Steve Sims

Yeah, I’m a great believer on the filter. Even when we get people actually try and join any of my groups, like I have a very successful consulting practice. I interview every single person that I’m going to consult before I go into a consultation. I want to make sure it’s the right fit.

As I openly say, and I don’t want to offend anyone, “Assholes don’t get better with time,” so if you take someone into your company, even if you take them on board as a client, if they’re a dickhead when they come into your company, they’re only going to become a bigger dickhead during the company. Try to be careful of the people you take into your group, into your circle, into your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very nice. Well, there’s a few more elements I want to make sure to cover. You talked about making yourself impossible to misunderstand. What does that look like in practice and how do people screw that up?

Steve Sims
There’s this word at the moment going around that I absolutely despise called authenticity. People go, “Oh, he’s so authentic.” That’s ridiculous. It’s like looking at someone and go, “Oh, he’s bleeding. He’s walking.” It should be something that we take for granted and we don’t draw focus to. But now authenticity, because we live in an insta-perfect life, authenticity is something we strive to find.

I’m a great believer in something called transparency.

I’m also a great believer that my stomach is far smarter than my head, so when you meet someone you look at the suit. Whether or not you think you do, you do. You look at the car, you look at the key ring, you look at the jewelry, you look at the watch, the shoes, the belt.

You look at the whole makeup of that person, even if it’s in nanoseconds and you look at that person to judge friend or foe, can I trust them, is this someone I want to hang around with, and that’s your mental perspective.

Then your stomach gets those little butterflies. The guy is talking a bit too much here and I’m not quite sure I believe what he’s saying. You get those little butterflies. I’m a great believer that forget your head, forget the visuals, if you’ve got butterflies, move away. Get away from someone.

I’m a great believer in talking to people, trying to use transparency in the communication. The easiest way to do that is to be – and I’m going to quote a sentence here from Brian Kurtz and Joe Polish, ‘There’s a difference between being easy to understand and impossible to misunderstand.’

If I’m speaking with someone and I say something along the lines of, “Hey, Pete, I’ve heard about your show. It sounds like a fantastic show. I don’t know too much about it,” don’t lie, “I don’t know too much about it, but I’ve had enough people tell me that I should chat with you in order to be on your show. Is that something that you’re open to pursuing?” Be as blunt and as bold as that.

Don’t go up and go, “Oh, Pete, I’m your greatest fan. What’s the chances, if you don’t mind, if it wouldn’t be an inconvenience.” That’s all fluff. I want to be crystal clear.

When I go up to iconic people that I’ve just started working with or I want to work with. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been at a party and I know someone has contacted someone else and introduced me, but I haven’t yet been able to speak to them.

I’ll go up to them and I’ll go, “Are you Roger-” and they go, “Yes, I am.” “My name is Steve Sims. I believe someone has already reached out to you. If it’s of interest to you, I look forward to making communication with you. But I just wanted to say I’m here. I’m actually going to go over and grab a drink if you’ve got the time, would you like to join me, if not, we’ll talk another time.”

Just keep things real, bold, and direct, and don’t waste the time. You’ll be surprised that when you’re that polite and very transparent, I’ve never had anyone go, “I’ll get back to you.” I’ve always, when I’ve approached it like that, I’ve had them go, “Well, I need a drink. Yeah, let’s just grab a drink together.” “Okay, fine.” Then we’ve gone over and we’ve ended up having a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah.

Steve Sims
That’s the key. Whenever you get into any relationship, you’ve got to look at the relationship and go, “Look, is this a fad or is this an oak tree.”

I look at every relationship with those two questions. Is this person here to help me with this project or is this someone that I want to grow a relationship with. I can know a cool catering company in say Paraguay and know that more likely I’m not going to be there again and I can go, “Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful,” but there may not be any need to invest any further in that relationship.

Then there will be someone I meet that I’d go, “Hey, I really want to be-“ that’s when I look at them as an oak tree.

When I say an oak tree, an oak tree starts off as a little seed. It can be stamped on. It can be crushed. It can die of starvation. To become an oak tree, you have to water it, nurture it, prune it, protect it. So the time that it’s a 300-year-old oak tree and you can run a bus into it and it will still be standing. That’s a relationship.

Relationships are not by sending someone a Christmas card every year. You’ve got to prune them. You’ve got to massage them. You’ve got to feed them. You’ve got to protect them. You’ve got to put energy into anything worth its weight in gold. That’s why I say, when you meet someone, is this a fad or is this an oak tree. That’s how I look at every relationship.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that perspective. As you relay that scenario in which you’re interacting with someone who is high status or influential or super busy or maybe annoyed that you’re approaching them, you have got a turn or a phrase about getting comfortable being uncomfortable. How’s that done in practice?

Steve Sims
Well, as I said to you in the beginning, I don’t know 90% of what I’m doing. I’ve had people ask me to close down museums and have Andrea Bocelli serenade them. I’ve asked people – asked me to send them down to the Titanic. Where do you start? The same as everything, you start at the beginning.

There was a period in my life where I was starting to do more and more of this stuff that I would sit there and almost do a little jingle on the spot and go, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?” My insides, my little leprechaun is just dancing around going, “Whoa, what’s going to happen? I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”

But then I suddenly got used to the fact that most people don’t know what to do. I got comfortable with hang on a minute, why don’t I ask people. “Do you have any idea what would need to happen in order for this to happen? Have you ever done anything like this and if so, what can I do to emulate it?”

I started asking questions. I found the more that I ventured out – it’s the classic elastic band – the more you stretch, you never go back to your original shape. I’ve been uncomfortable many, many, many times.

And my dad actually – and it’s in my book – my dad actually said to me many years ago and it’s probably one of my fondest quotes. At the age of 16 I had no idea, like all kids, no idea what my dad was talking about. I remember my dad just looking at me one day and just going, “Son, no one ever drowned by falling in the water, they drowned by staying there,” and then he walked off.

I remember at the age of 16 going, “What the bloody hell was that about?” It hasn’t been until my later years that I realized that if you’re not getting the answer you want, try a different question or try the same question with a different person, but if you keep trying to do the exact same thing you’re doing and you keep getting the same result that you’re getting, that’s where you’re going to drown.

Pete Mockaitis
You talk about asking three times. What’s the thought process there?

Steve Sims
Yeah, a lot of people, they will come to me. They will see me in the newspaper. They will read a book. They will see me on speaking gigs and they want to do something, but there’s a great deal of humiliation that stops most people actually getting to do what they want to do.

They will come to me, they may want to do something big and grand, but they’re actually scared of humiliation. In fact, most people don’t do things not for the fear of failure, but for the fear of being laughed at.

People come to me and they go, “Oh, I’d really like to just shake the hand of – I’d really like to meet-“ they want to do more than that, but they’re scared of it. You just go, “All right,” and you just let them talk. Then you go, “All right, why do you want to do that?” Literally just ask why and shut up.

Then they will go, “Oh, well, you know, this happened in my life and this happened and they were there and it supported me. I just felt that that would be a good chance to-“ “So there’s quite a bit of meaning to it. It’s not just a quick thought you’ve come up with.” “Oh no, no, no. I’ve had this dream for a while.”

“Okay, so you’re telling me that you’ve had this dream for a while, but you shaking their hands, is that really going to be the crescendo to the end of this movie? Is that going to be case closed, end of chapter? Would that really be significant? Is there something that we could do that would really get you excited and basically wake you up at 2 o’clock in the morning going ‘Holy hell, I can’t believe I did that.’?”

Each time you ask, you start to unlock them a little bit more and you get closer and closer. In the end, you’re prodding the …. When you’re there, you actually can just play with it and find out.

If someone’s really passionate about something, I hate to say it, but they’ll sell their first born to get it. Really dive in to what’s important to them. Never take the first answer because what people say and what they mean quite often are two different things. If it’s about the fantastical and the whimsical and the passion, nine times out of ten, they’re too shy to really expose to you what it is in case you’ll laugh at them.

And you know what I look like. I’m a big ugly fellow. A lot of people now openly tell me what they like because they know the amount of people I work with and they know how credible I am at doing what I do. But a lot of people for many years were very cautious and scared and apprehensive about basically what is unveiling yourself to expose what you’re really excited about.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful, particularly early on. “I just met you,” in terms of there’s a certain level of vulnerability or exposure that is just uncomfortable for folks so they don’t quite go there.

Steve Sims
Yes, yes, exactly. You’re right. You’ve got to help them. You’ve got to ask the questions. “Is this going to do it? Why do you want to do that? Hey, I’m here for you. Let me in. Tell me why you’re stood here in front”

I’ve had people they’ve had the whiskeys at night. They texted me at 1 o’clock in the morning or phoned me, left a message. “Steve, I want to talk to you about doing this because I really want to do it.”

Then when you speak to them in the morning, the drinks worn off and they’re a little bit more embarrassed about actually fully exposing it, which to be honest with you also is great news for me because it makes me look like a rock star when I’ve exceeded what you’ve first asked for.

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

Steve Sims
No, I just want people to get out of their own way. Basically, get that saying that I said about drowning in the water, write it down on a piece of paper, and don’t be one of those people that drown by staring at things too much. Just keep moving. But nope, let’s continue with the podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
All right then. Tell me, can you share a favorite quote and maybe you already did, something that you find inspiring?

Steve Sims
That one was probably one of my most favorite. One of mine that I probably use most regular is I ask myself whenever I’m doing anything that’s copy or writing, ‘Is this impossible to misunderstand?’ I use that one. That’s more of a working quote that I use to myself a thousand times a day whenever I write to someone. Is my message to them impossible to misunderstand?

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful, thanks. How about a favorite book?

Steve Sims
What? Apart from mine? I’m actually a funny reader. I don’t – books aggravate the hell out of me. Joe Polish sends me a load of books. I get very aggravated because as he says aggravated oysters makes pearls.

When I’m reading a motivational book by like Ryan Holiday or Tucker Max or Cameron Herold, or any of these people, Tim Ferriss. I get aggravated because I’m like, “Oh, I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to make some notes.” I find myself getting agitated.

So when I do like to read, I like to escape. I really like the Dragon Tattoo books, the trilogy that they did. I really like anything by Dan Brown, the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. I like to escape my world when I read. Otherwise, I’ll audiobook any of the ones I know I’m going to be aggregated by.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Steve Sims
I’m actually talking to you from the garage of my motorcycles. I collect motorcycles. My favorite tool is to jump on two wheels and escape. That’s my safe zone.

When you’re on a bike, when you’re playing golf, when you’re waterskiing, when you’re doing kickboxing, when you’re doing yoga, you can’t be thinking about anything else. That’s my meditation. That’s my escape. My favorite tool is two wheels going around the canyons.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Any other favorite habits?

Steve Sims
Whiskey, hugging my wife and barbequing badly.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Tell me is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with people when you are hearing your message?

Steve Sims
Yeah, I’m a great believer, and this is usually my consultant gigs and my speaking, I’m a great believer in keeping things ugly. We’ve become too Photoshopped and we’re living in an insta-perfect world all the time.

Every time you see anything, you look at someone and you suddenly realize that the girl’s actually 12 foot tall and the legs are 9 foot. We’ve got used to seeing things that aren’t real anymore.

You’ll look at a real estate advert and you’ll see a beautiful apartment building and the apartment building just happens to have left out all the other buildings around it and shown this big sunset and a picture of the ocean in it and it’s in Minneapolis or Chicago. It’s not even near the ocean.

You can’t trust what you can see nowadays. I’m a great believer in #filterfree. Don’t filter stuff.

If you want to write something, try handwriting it. Instead of typing the letter, handwrite the letter.  A minimum, handwrite the envelope. Use text more. Use video texting more. But do things that expose you and your full content, not just shouting and yelling the message.

I once had a guy yell at me because he had texted me or messaged me on Twitter and I hadn’t responded. That’s not communication. Communication is two people in front of each other going, “This, this.” It’s a back and forth, back and forth. It’s not throwing a message out there and hoping someone responds.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Steve Sims
My terminology with that is keep things ugly, raw, and real.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And do you have a particular place you point people to if they want to learn more or get in touch?

Steve Sims
I’ve got a website with all my ramblings and rants called SteveDSims, S-I-M-S, that’s SteveDSims.com.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge, a call to action for folks who are seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Steve Sims
Yeah, do something that arouses you. I want you to something that you haven’t done that just excites you and just kind of like would make you wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning going, “Holy hell, I did that today,” and do it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Well, Steve, thank you so much for sharing this. It’s exciting, opening a world of new ideas and possibilities and boldness. It’s been a lot of fun and I wish you and Bluefish tons of luck.

Steve Sims
Thanks pal, appreciate it.