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415: Pursuing Your Passion the Smart Way with Brad Stulberg

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Brad Stulberg says: "Do you control your passion or does your passion control you?"

Brad Stulberg explores the inherent contradiction between pursuing passion and balance…and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three common paradoxes of passion
  2. The dangers of rooting your identity to a passion
  3. Why self-aware imbalance is often appropriate

About Brad

Brad Stulberg researches, writes, speaks, and coaches on health and human performance. His coaching practice includes working with athletes, entrepreneurs, and executives on their mental skills and overall well-being. He is a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance and a columnist at Outside Magazine. Brad has also written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Wired, Forbes, and The Los Angeles Times. Previously, Stulberg worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, where he counseled some of the world’s top executives on a broad range of issues. An avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast, Stulberg lives in Northern California with his wife, son, and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brad Stulberg:                      Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, I’m excited to dig into your next book, but first I want to hear about your love of cats.

Brad Stulberg:                      My love of cats. How do you know I love cats?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, there’s a form I have guests fill out about-

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh, I said I loved-

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh, yeah, you totally … You just gave it up that you love cats. It’s also in your bio that you live in Northern California with wife, son and two cats. So you can’t escape it.

Brad Stulberg:                      I’ve got two, as you said, Sonny and Bryant and they’re endearing, adorable creatures. It’s like having two of the goofiest roommates that are just there and they don’t pay rent.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, tell me what are some of the goofy behaviors?

Brad Stulberg:                      The goofy behaviors. Well, let’s see. So Sonny, who is an orange tabby, she has, my wife and I joke, we call it office hours. So she is the cuddliest, most loving cat between 1:00 and 4:00 PM. Otherwise you can’t touch he. It’s so bizarre. She’ll come find you wherever you are in the afternoon and plop on your lap and just love on you. But then when 4:00 PM rolls around, she wants nothing to do with it. And then Bryant, everything about Bryant is interesting. We would have to record for hours and hours, I’d just have to follow him around with a video camera, but he’s just a total mess in the best way possible.

Pete Mockaitis:                    All right. Well, it sounds like that’s keeping things interesting and I also want to hear about some of the most interesting, surprising, fascinating discoveries you’ve made when researching The Passion Paradox.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that sounds good. That’s a little bit more concrete than Bryant the cat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, yeah, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, so the book is called The Passion Paradox and the title is pretty telling in the sense that the biggest discovery is so much of what conventional thinking around passion holds is all paradox. And there are three main paradoxes. The first is that people are told to find your passion, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to stumble upon something that will be like love at first sight and you’ll immediately feel energized and you’ll know this is the thing that I’m passionate about. That’s not how it works.

In the vast, vast, vast majority of the cases individuals cultivate passion over time and it doesn’t start out perfect and it’s that very belief and expectation that something should be perfect right away that actually gets in a lot of people’s way from ever growing into a passion.

Second big paradox is this notion that if you just follow your passion you’ll have a great life. And passion is a double-edged sword. Passion can absolutely be a wonderful gift and it can lead to great accomplishments, it could lead to a meaningful life, it can lead to great energy. At the same time passion can become a destructive curse. And that can happen in a few ways.

One is that the inertia of what you’re doing gets so strong that you can’t see beyond it and you get so swept up in what you’re doing that everything else falls away. And for a period of time that might be okay, but in the long term a lot of people end up with regrets. And then the second way that passion can take a negative turn is when you become more passionate about the external validation you get from doing something than the thing itself.

And this is a really, really, really subtle thing that happens to people. You start doing something because you’re interested in it. If you’re lucky you cultivate a passion, you love it. And then you start doing really well, and when you start doing well, you start getting recognized for doing well. And often what will happen is without someone even noticing it, the lotus of their passion shifts from the activity to all the recognition. So you love writing and then you make a best seller list and then suddenly you’re only happy if you’re on bestseller lists. You love your job and suddenly you’re only happy if you’re constantly noticed in meetings and you’re constantly getting promoted.

So it’s this fine line between being passionate about the activity itself versus being passionate about the recognition you got from it. The former, here’s the paradox. The former, if you’re passionate about the activity, that’s associated with overall life satisfaction and high performance. The latter, if you become passionate about the results, which is called obsessive passion, that is associated with burnout, angst, and depression.

Yeah, so there’s that and then the third thing I’ll lay it all on you because that’s what you asked for and then we can dive in more detail perhaps. The third thing is, that I can’t tell you how many times since I’ve graduated college, which is a little bit over a decade ago, I’ve been told two things. One is to find and follow my passion and the other is to live a balanced life, and this makes no sense because passion and balance are completely antithetical.

By definition when you’re passionate about something the world narrows and it’s the thing that you’re passionate about that is going to consume you. So that seems opposite to balance. And if you ask people when they feel most alive, very rarely does someone say, “It was when I had perfect balance.” Often what you’ll hear is, “It was when I was falling in love or when I was training for my first marathon or when I was launching a business or when I had a new kid.” Now, those are not very balanced times.

They’re describing time when they felt like they were like being consumed by something. Yet if you ask people over the course of a life, what does it mean to live a good life? Most people will say, “To have balance.” So again, both things are true at the same time. So it’s really about, how can you be passionate, go all in on things, get that good energy, but then be able to pivot to other things when the time is right. And that’s so much easier to say than to actually practice.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, you are a master. Thank you. That is so much good stuff and we could spend hours unpacking that, maybe even more hours discussing this than the cat, I might say, in terms of all the nuances to be explored.

Brad Stulberg:                      The nuance of Bryant’s behavior. He contains multitude.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh boy. So let’s have some fun with this. All right. Well, I think each of those things you said makes great sense to me and sparks all kinds of curiosity. So why don’t we just dig into each in practice. So okay, for the find your passion advice you say we kind of have a little bit of expectation or hope that it’s going to be love at first sight. And in practice, it’s not. It’s more of a cultivation over time. So can you explain a little bit for what does the progression look like most often in terms of when folks got a passion alive at work for them, how did they get there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s interesting is the first thing that’s very important is this mindset shift. Again, if you have the expectation that you’re just going to stumble into an activity and you’re going to find your passion, that is the foremost barrier to actually having a passion because almost nothing is great right off the bat. And what’s very interesting is the research and passion parallels the research and love. So individuals that want to find the perfect partner, they end up constantly seeking versus someone that goes in and says, “You know what, I’m going to pursue good enough and I’m going to cultivate it and nourish it and maybe 30 years from now it will be perfect.” And there’s all kinds of research in relationships that shows that that mindset tends to lead to lasting love.

And it’s very much the same with passion. So going in and thinking of it less as this lightning striking and more as a curiosity for the things that interest you and then pursuing those interests, that’s the conduit into what becomes passion. And then when you’re pursuing the interests, the research is very clear here that there are three key things that help something perhaps become rooted in your life as a passion. And this is born out of a psychological theory called self-determination theory.

And what that states is that if an activity offers you autonomy, so you have some control over what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, if it offers you competence or mastery, so there’s a path of progression of improvement and if there’s a sense of belonging and whether that’s physical belonging, you’re actually working in a team or with other people or if it’s more psychological belonging, so you’re picking up a line where there have been craftspeople before you and there will be after you. Those three things tend to help interests transition from merely being an interest or a hobby into a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I’m intrigued by the autonomy point because as I think about some passions very much are kind of team sports if you will. It could actually even be sports, hey, it’s basketball, you know, play in the basketball team. Or it could be music, I’m in the orchestra. Or it could be entrepreneurship, hey, my team is doing this thing. So how are you defining autonomy here?

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s a great question. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going at it alone, but more so that there is room for you to chart your own path. So you might be playing on a team for sure, but I mean, if you have a coach that tells you exactly and I mean exactly how to style your game and what you should do minute-by-minute, day-by-day, that probably won’t be so happy whereas if you have some room to explore yourself and decide how you want to craft your game.

Same thing with the musician perhaps. There’s definitely autonomy in how you practice and most musicians, at least those that have passion, they’re in orchestras or they’re in arrangements where they also have some autonomy to explore their own style of music. And in a workplace setting, its this is just the difference between good management and micromanagement. Someone under good management should feel autonomy to drive their work, make decisions, take risks. Someone that’s being micromanaged often doesn’t feel that.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay, I got you.

Brad Stulberg:                      A great example to make this really concrete is actually what you’re doing right now, and I know that you’re passionate about your podcast and my guess is that when you first started going into podcast … You didn’t know podcasting was going to be the thing and my guess is also that you probably weren’t great right off the bat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    It’s true.

Brad Stulberg:                      There was a line of progression and yet with the podcast you have full autonomy. It’s your show. You decide who you’re going to interview. You decide the flow. There’s clear mastery and progression. I bet like this episode is going to sound a lot different than your first one. And there’s, of course, belonging because you’re sharing this with your audience and you’re getting to meet and have interesting conversations with people that have similar interests to you.

So I think that there’s no … It’s not ironic that podcasting has taken off because again, it’s something that people can start is an interest, very few people expect to be great right away and it fulfills those three criteria really clearly.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Indeed, it does. Well, I’d love to get your take on … Well, what are some things … Are there some activities or pursuits that by these criteria cannot become someone’s passion?

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, there are plenty. I think the first is that if you find yourself in a workplace situation where you are being terribly micromanaged or where everything that you do is pretty murky, and what I mean by that is there are no objective barometers of whether or not you’re improving or doing a good job, those are the kinds of jobs where people tend to get pretty frustrated and either burn out or they just kind of accept it and go through the motions.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I guess what I’m thinking is that the activity in a different environment or context could provide autonomy or mastery.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, totally. It’s often context-dependent, not activity-dependent. And I think this is really important for managers that are listening out there, You want your employees to be passionate and your job is then to create those conditions where people have the ability to pursue what interests them and they have autonomy, they have some sense of progression or mastery, and they feel like they belong. And the flip side is, if you’re being managed and you don’t feel that, it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with who’s ever managing you about those things or perhaps it’s time to find a new job.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay. Well, there it is. So that’s how passion comes about. You’re curiously pursuing something that’s interesting and then if you got those ingredients of autonomy or pursuing confidence, mastery and sense of belonging, that can lead to hey, we got a passion here.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, and then the second paradox right is now awesome, I’m passionate, it’s all downhill from here, life is going to be great. And the common trap is that life is great and then suddenly you start crushing it at your passion and people start recognizing that and then you get attached to that recognition. And in the worst case your entire identity fuses with that recognition. So you’re only as good as your last podcast or you’re only as good as the last project that you took on.

And even worse, you’re only as good as how people received the last podcast or how people received the last project that you took on. And that’s a very precarious position to be in because that can set you up for all kinds of highs and lows in a really fragile sense of self-worth and identity.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Yeah, that’s powerful. What’s coming to mind for me right now is this interview in which … I think was on Ellen, in which Ronda Rousey, The Ultimate Fighter, who she lost a big match, I don’t know the details, and she was on Ellen talking about it and she’s just crying and it’s powerful because for one, hey, this is a tough fighter person who’s crying and two, she really articulates that notion in terms of like, “Well, if I’m not a champion, then what am I?”

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that’s hard. And as I said, obsessive passion is associated with anxiety, depression, burn out and then it’s also associated with cheating. What’s really interesting is you look at someone like Elizabeth Holmes, who is the former founder and CEO of Theranos, which is the kind of sham pharmaceutical company, all kinds of fraudulent behavior. When she was being celebrated it was all about her passion. I believe it was the Washington Post that ran a story that basically said like, “Elizabeth Holmes is the most passionate, obsessed person there is and that’s why she’s so successful.”

And yet, it might have been that very passion and that very obsession that led her to lie when things weren’t going great in her company. Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player who we now know was using performance-enhancing drugs and steroids throughout his career, when he retired, even after all that he was interviewed by Forbes for his career advice and his number one piece of advice was “follow your passion.” So again, it’s this double edged sword where yeah, passion is great, but if all you care about is hitting the most home runs or all you care about is being the company that everyone’s talking about, well, when things don’t go well, you’re going to do anything possible to remedy that even if it’s not so ethical.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, so that’s, you said double edged sword. That’s one way is you come attached to the sort of validations and externals instead of the thing itself and it can be-

Brad Stulberg:                      And I don’t want it to be negative. So let me also … So there are practices that can help you remedy this, and there are a whole bunch in the book, but the one that I find the most powerful it to mention here is just this notion of getting back to the work. So after a huge success like yes, pause, celebrate, feel good about it. Do that for 24, maybe 48 hours, but then get back to doing the work. There’s something about doing the work that is so humbling and that on a very visceral level, you feel it in your brain and in your bones. It reminds you that hey, I like the work. As much as the validation feels good, what really makes me tick is the process of doing the work.

The concrete example in my own life as a writer, when I write a story that has a very positive reception or for that matter, a very negative reception, a story I thought I would do great that doesn’t, I’ll let myself have those emotions for a day and then I really try to make a discipline of within 24 hours starting on the next thing, because otherwise I can get very caught up in this kind of cycle of like praise or negativity and then once that cycle grows roots, it becomes harder to step out of.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, that’s really good stuff. And as I’m thinking there about the double-edged sword, you talk about consumption, I guess that’s the third paradox. So it’s a sword both in terms of you feeling like you’re pursuing a great life and loving it and digging it and having tons of fun with it, but also getting tempted perhaps to follow the external. I’m curious, you’ve got that practice there with regard to hey, when you get the celebration or the victory, you celebrate, then you return to the work. I guess I’m curious, are there any little internal indicators or like kind of early warning signs you might be on the lookout for? Like wait a minute, alert, alert, passion is starting to get externalized, you’ll correct now.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, it’s a great question. There are. The first one that comes to mind for me is if you notice massive changes in your mood based on how well something does in the outside world. So if you’re in a great mood and you go into a meeting and an idea you have isn’t while received or you don’t get to share as much as you would have hoped and the rest of your day is completely ruined. If that happens once or twice, fine. If that’s an ongoing pattern, like yikes.

If you do anything that has a kind of more broad social measurement scheme and what I’m thinking here is social media. So if you’re kind of obsessively checking your retweets or likes or comments, that is a sign of uh-oh, am I really in this to connect with other people and to create good work or am I in this because it feels really good to see how many people liked my post? And if it’s the latter then again, like what happens when you have a post that no one likes? Well, you feel like shit.

I think it’s important to state here that no one is 100% like disciplined or harmoniously passionate. We’re humans. Everyone likes to feel good. The thing is that you just have to realize that hey, that’s a normal behavior and if I catch myself engaging in it too often, it’s time to get back to the work. So don’t judge yourself and be like, “Oh, I’m obsessively passionate. I’m doomed.” It’s more like, “Oh, wow. I noticed myself caring quite a bit about external validation. Let me think about why did I get into this thing in the first place and have I actually done the activity itself recently? And if not, I should dive back into it.” Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Absolutely. Got it. Well, so now let’s talk about this passion and balance being antithetical. Passion can consume you and so then yeah, how do you play that game optimally in terms of if you want to feel alive so you want to have the passion, but you also don’t want to I guess let everything else fall apart in your life? What are your thoughts there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What I found in the research and reporting on the book is that there’s an expectation, a cultural expectation to have balance day-to-day. And when people hear balance, at least those people that I’ve surveyed, they often think or they often describe everything in it’s right place, in right proportion day after day. I wake up at this hour. I get my kids off to school. I do my yoga. I go to work. I listen to a podcast. I leave work at 5:00. I come home. I watch a TV show. I spend time with my kids. I cook dinner. I have passionate sex with my romantic partner and I sleep eight hours and then I do the same thing the next day.

If you can do that, great. If you can do that and you’re happy, great. Don’t change anything, that’s a great life. But I say that kind of laughing because most people can’t do that and then they get frustrated or they think that they’re doing something wrong when in fact, nothing’s wrong. There are times when it is good to be imbalanced. And those are the times when you’re really passionate about one of those elements in your life. So to try to force balance day in and day out, again, if it’s there, great, roll with it, but if it feels like you’re having to force it, that’s a pretty like narrow contracting space.

And it’s much better to allow yourself to actually go all in on the things that make you tick. And here’s the big kicker is, so long as you have enough self-awareness to realize when the trade-off is no longer worth it. I’m going to train for this Olympic cycle at the expense of my family and my friends. Okay. What happens if you don’t make this Olympic cycle or what happens to the next Olympic cycle? Those are the questions that people have to ask because as you’re pursuing this passion, the inertia of the thing that you’re doing is really strong and when that takes whole, it’s hard to have the self-awareness, to evaluate well, am I prioritizing? Am I evaluating these trade-offs as I should be?

There’s some fascinating research in the book that shows that individuals that are in the throes of passion, even if it’s a productive passion. So someone training for the Olympics or an entrepreneur starting a company, they show very similar changes in brain activity as somebody with an eating disorder. And that is because when someone with an eating disorder looks in the mirror, they often don’t see someone that is skin and bones. They actually often see someone that is fat, that is obese or overweight. They have a distorted view of reality.

Well, what is training for the Olympics or trying to start a company other than a distorted view of reality? We know only 0.1% of athletes ever make the Olympics. We know that something like 99% of startups fail. So it’s kind of delusional and in a neurochemical level, it’s the same thing that you’d see in someone with a pathological delusion. The difference is in the case of passion, you’re pointing at something that society says is productive, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less gripping. So the ability to maintain some self-awareness, to look in the mirror and see things as they actually are is so, so important when pursuing a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Wow, that went in a very different direction that I thought that we’re passionate … Yeah, well, you said passion and then eating disorder, brain activity is the same. I was like, oh, okay, so it’s sort of like that obsessiveness, but now you in terms of like what we’re actually perceiving in terms of what is right in front of our face is wild.

Brad Stulberg:                      I mean, I’m sure that there’s some relationship due to the obsessiveness, but it’s really, it’s a perception thing. And this is a common thing, you hear about marriage is falling apart when someone starting a business and the significant other, it’s like the person completely loses self-awareness. The only thing that matters to them is the business and they don’t understand that they’re being a terrible spouse, a terrible parent, a terrible friend. They’re just so wrapped up in what they’re doing.

And again, I’m a firm believer that as long as you communicate with the other important people in your life, that those trade-offs are okay to make so long as you’re consciously making them. And once you stop consciously making them, that’s when all kinds of problems start.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, I hear you. I also want to get your take on sort of how we go about lying to ourselves when we’re in the midst of this, like what are some kind of watch out words, sentences, phrases that if you hear yourself saying them that might make you think, wait a sec, let’s double-check that.

Brad Stulberg:                      It can be similar to another example, and this is a back to the paradox of passion is addiction. So the definition of addiction or at least the definition that I like to use, and this is one that’s pretty widely accepted in both the scientific and clinical communities, is the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences. And I would argue that the definition of passion is the relentless pursuit of something with productive consequences.

Often times those consequences are socially constructed and socially defined. An example, an Olympic swimmer spends between six and eight hours a day staring at a line in the water. They do this at the exclusion of their family, of other interests. With the remaining time they have, they eat a meticulous diet and they sleep. If that isn’t like abnormal behavior, then I don’t know what is. The difference is that it’s pointed at this thing, being an elite athlete, that society says is productive.

Whereas imagine like if swimming wasn’t a sport that people celebrated. Someone would diagnose that person with some sort of psychological psychiatric disorder. But again, it’s because it’s pointed at something that society says is productive. The reason that I use that example and I bring in addiction in this despite negative or despite positive consequences, I think the ways that we lie to ourselves even when we’re doing a productive passion is we ignore the negative consequences or we tell ourselves they don’t really matter.

And again, it’s so hard to maintain self-awareness because there’s so much inertia. I mean, another example to make this real for listeners is when you fall in love. Generally when people fall in love, all they can think about is the object of their affection. It’s like everything else disappears and passion can be pretty similar. Again, it has to be a practice of maintaining some self-awareness, and there are concrete things that you can do to keep self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s ironic here is that the way to maintain self-awareness in the pursuit of a passion is to get outside of yourself, because yourself becomes so wrapped up in what you’re doing. It’s like this web where only your passion is there. So some very simple things that you can do. One is to put yourself in situations where you’re experiencing awe. Go to an art gallery without your phone. Go on a day hike in a forest with no digital devices. There’s something about putting yourself in the way of beauty that kind of helps gain perspective and resets your brain to hey, like there’s more to life than this thing. I’m doing.

Another way to help with self-awareness is to have a close group of friends that you can really trust and make sure that they’re comfortable calling you out when you can’t see for yourself and then you have to listen to them. That’s the hard part because that’s when you’re going to lie to yourself. Your friend says, “Whoa, actually you’re a little bit overkill right now.” You’re gonna say, “No, I’m not. You don’t know what’s going on.” You have to make an agreement both with the friend to call you out and yourself took to listen to that friend.

If you’re not comfortable doing that, a really simple mental Jedi trick can be to pretend that one of your good friends was doing exactly what you’re doing and asked you for advice, what would you tell that friend? And then do that. It’s often very different than what you tell yourself. An example here that comes up often is you get an athlete that gets injured and they’re trying to train through the injury, which is so dumb and then you ask that athlete, well, like if your friend had the exact same issue and was trying to force themselves to the gym today, what would you say?

And you’d tell them, “Well, don’t go to the gym better to take a week off now than a year off later.” And then you say, “Well then why are you walking to the gym right now?” So it’s the ability to step outside of yourself that often helps you see what’s best for yourself in the midst of a passion. And then another simple practice is to reflect on mortality. There’s something about acknowledging the fact that you’re going to die one day that makes real clear what actually matters and it helps point you in that direction.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Well, that’s good stuff. Yeah, it’s heavy and it’s excellent. Maybe because you share an example of someone that you’ve encountered that you think is doing the passion thing really well. Maybe if you can particularly in sort of their career.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah. There are lots of people, which is great. It’s very feasible and it’s very doable. Someone that comes to mind is an executive that I’ve coached and worked with quite a bit. She is at top five position at a Fortune 25 company.

Pete Mockaitis:                    So it’s only 2,500 people in the world it could be.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, I know.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Mathematically, wrong to be speculating.

Brad Stulberg:                      That’s as much as I’ll give, but you guys can do the research. This individual has been so good about setting goals and progression markers that are fully within this person’s control and then judging herself and whether or not she executes on those progression markers. Very, very good at ignoring to a large extent all the noise around her and what other people think, especially because when you’re in a big company like that so much of that is just political wind. And if you get caught in the political wind, you’re going to get blown around.

So the first thing that comes to mind is a relentless pursuit of the things that you could control and judging yourself only on those things. The other thing is completely sacrificing from this idea of balance and instead thinking about boundaries and presence. And what that means is setting real, clear boundaries about these are the times I’m going all in and these are the times I’m going to be going all in with something else, and that can be the difference between work and family, and then bringing full presence to those things.

Versus what so many people do and it’s a common trap is when you’re at work, you’re like 80% at work, but 20% dealing with family and friends. And when you’re with family and friends you’re 70% with family and friends, but 30% checking your phone and at work. Versus being really, really stringent about 100% there and then 100% there. And then evaluating trade-offs and making trade-offs. You have to give up a lot to be a leader in an organization like that, and this individual quarterly reflects on her core values and makes sure that the way that she’s spending her time is aligned with those core values and has made some real changes as a result of what’s come up.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Very nice. Brad, tell me-

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s doable though, which is great. It’s actually very doable. It’s just that, and this is part of the reason if not the whole reason that I wrote this book. This is not stuff that I was told going into the workforce, not stuff that I was told once I was in the workforce. These vague terms are thrown around, find your passion, follow your passion, have balance. And I wasn’t really sure what it meant and I saw myself falling into some of the traps of the obsessive bad passion and I also saw myself being so immersed in what I was doing that I was starting to question like, is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Maybe it’s just a thing but it’s both good and bad.

And when I started looking at the research, it’s kind of what I found was that wow, the way that people talk about this topic, which is so often talked about is completely out of sync with the truth and the nuance involved.


Pete Mockaitis:                    That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now you can share with us a favorite quote so that you find inspiring.

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s actually very simple. The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is it.” And I actually have a little bracelet that just has a charm that says, “This is it,” on it. And I think that that’s a wonderful reminder to be present. It’s basically like whatever is in front of you, that’s what’s happening right now. It’s an especially helpful practice for me with a one-year-old at home, sleepless nights, middle of the night he’s crying. It’s really easy to get lost in a pretty negative thought space. But nope, this is it, this is what’s happening right now. How can I be present for it and deal with it?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Brad Stulberg:                      The research that I’ve been sharing is top of mind for me. And I think just this notion of obsessive versus harmonious passion or being passionate about results versus the thing itself and just a strong relationship in the former to anxiety, depression and burnout and in the latter, to performance, meaning, and life satisfaction and how they’re both passions, it’s just like in which direction are they pointed and how at different times of people’s lives they’re in different ends of that spectrum. That’s to me it’s so fascinating and so important to be aware of because that can be the difference between a long fruitful career and a not so long rocky career.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And how about a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh my gosh, really? I have so many. How many am I allowed to go over?

Pete Mockaitis:                    We’ll say three-ish.

Brad Stulberg:                      Three-ish. All right. It’s funny. I get asked this question sometimes and I try not to have just like a can three books because I really think that the books are kind of … It’s like the right book for the right person at the right time. So what are my three favorite books right now? So Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig is a perennial favorite. I think that that book is always going to be in my top three, and then I’m going to pair it, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to pair it with the sequel Lila, which is less read, but an equally phenomenal book. So there’s that.

This is so tough. I’m reading Devotions right now by Mary Oliver, the poet that just passed away, which is a collection of her best poems and that feels like a favorite book right now. That woman can just get to the truth of how things are in so few words in a very lyrical way. So that’s a beautiful book. And then my third favorite book right now is probably a book called The Art of Living, which is by Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s the Zen Master whose quote this is it I just shared.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool so that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brad Stulberg:                      Meditation. That is a daily practice for me and it is so helpful in separating myself from my thoughts and my feelings and allowing me to have a more stable base upon which I work out of and then also allowing me to not get so attached to any one thing at any one point in time.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Is there particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re conveying this wisdom to them?

Brad Stulberg:                      I think it’s really important to ask yourself do you control your passion or does your passion control you? That’s kind of the heart of it. And if you control your passion, you’re in good shape. If your passion controls you, maybe consider some changes. And then equally important is this notion that passion is an ongoing practice. So it’s not a one time thing. So just because you control your passion right now doesn’t mean that that can’t change and just because your passion might control you right now doesn’t mean that can’t change. So it’s shift in mindset and to see passion is a practice and there are skills that support that practice and you have to develop them.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And Brad, if folks want to learn more or get in touch with, where to point them?

Brad Stulberg:                      So you can get in touch on Twitter where I am @BStulberg. So first initial of Brad and then my last name. And then through my website, which is www.BradStulberg.com.

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

Brad Stulberg:                      I obviously am going to encourage folks to read the book. I’m proud of it. It’s my best work yet. There’s a lot of things in there that have certainly had a huge impact on my career and my life outside of my career. So I’d love it if people consider reading the book. And then the second thing is to do something active for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you are already, great, keep doing what you’re doing. And if not, there are few things that are more transformative.

We spent a lot of time talking about this neat psychological stuff, but just try to move your body regularly and it doesn’t have to be formal exercise. It can be walking. It can be taking the stairs always that adds up to about 30 minutes, but move your body. That’s something that’s kind of getting more and more lost in our modern world, and it’s unfortunate.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well Brad, thank you so much for sharing the goods and I wish you tons of luck with the book, The Passion Paradox, and all your adventures.

Brad Stulberg:    Thanks so much Pete. I really enjoyed being on your show.

373: Getting Consistently Good Results from Yourself and Others with Weldon Long

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Weldon Long says: "Consistent results come from consistent activities. Random results come from random activities."

Weldon Long explains how his FEAR framework helped turn him from three-time ex-convict to a New York Times bestselling author and top sales expert.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How Weldon went from being a dropout and convict to a star salesperson
  2. A five-step process for getting what you want from others
  3. Achieving more consistent results through the FEAR framework

About Weldon

Weldon Long is a high school dropout who spent 13 years in prison for robbery, money laundering, and mail fraud. While in prison, Weldon started studying; earning his GED, BS in Law, and MBA in Management. Then, at 39 years old, Weldon was released. While living in a homeless shelter, Weldon landed a commission-only sales position and quickly became the company’s top sales leader. In 2004 he opened his own heating and cooling business and grew it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. He now trains the sales teams at major Fortune 500 corporations including FedEx, Farmers, and Home Depot.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Weldon Long Interview Transcript

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

Weldon Long
Hey, Pete thanks so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. I think you’ve got a fascinating story. You say that sales saved your life. Can you walk us through how that worked?

Weldon Long
Yeah, absolutely. It may sound a little overdramatic, but it actually is true in my case.

From 1987 until 2003, over those roughly 16 years, I spent 13 years in prison, in federal and state prison. I was a ninth-grade high school dropout. I was kind of a punk and a thug, running the streets, using drugs and not being a very responsible person obviously, a very dysfunctional life.

At 23 years old I ended up going to prison, was out trying to pawn a shotgun for some rent money, couldn’t pawn the shotgun, ended up getting high with a guy that I picked up hitchhiking. We had a loaded gun in the truck, what could possibly go wrong with that scenario? Within a couple of hours he and I used that gun to hold two innocent men at gunpoint. Next thing I knew I was in prison for ten years.

I did about four and a half years and I paroled. I got out. I was still a ninth-grade high school dropout. Now I was also a convicted felon, so I didn’t have many opportunities. Then I ended up going back to prison again on some parole violations, got out again at 30 years old.

Now, I’m a two-time convicted felon, still a ninth grade high school dropout. Ended up taking a job doing some telemarketing and one day the FBI showed up. We all went to federal prison on mail fraud and money laundering convictions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh bummer.

Weldon Long
Yeah, I know.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re trying to be legit and it turns out the company is – well, did you know they were fraudsters?

Weldon Long
Hey, listen, I should have been suspicious when they hired me, right? Anyway, then I went to the federal penitentiary for seven years. But it was during those seven years that I kind of had my moment of clarity and kind of set me on the path that I’ve been on for the last 22 some-odd years.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s hear about the moment of clarity, shall we? What happened?

Weldon Long
Yeah. Well, it was June 10th of 1996. I had already served about six years in state prison. I was just starting seven years in federal prison. On June 10th of 1996, one of the cops walked in the cell house and handed me a note to call home. I called home and learned that my father had unexpectedly and suddenly passed away at just 59 years old.

When I realized that my dad went to his grave knowing me as a thief and a crook and a liar, it completely devastated me. Just the reality of my life was right there in front of me. I was 32 years old. I had destroyed my entire life.

I started thinking about a conversation that my dad and I had a couple weeks before he passed away. We were on the phone and I was kind of complaining about my life and my dad said to me, he said, “You know son, your life could be worse.”

I said, “Dad, how in the world could my life be worse? I’m a ninth-grade high school dropout. I’ve never had a job, never had a home as an adult. Three-time convicted felon, not getting out this time until I’m 40 years old. I had a three-year-old son that I had fathered while I was out on parole. I had abandoned him.” I said, “Dad, how could my life be any worse?” He said, “Son, you’re still breathing. As long as you’re breathing, you’ve got a shot to change your life.”

With that we exchanged our I love you’s, hung up the phone, I never spoke to my father again. That was the last thing he ever said to me. Two weeks later, he was gone. After he passed away I made the decision, I was going to change the course of my life and become a man that my father could have been proud of and the father that my little son deserved. That’s exactly what I did.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Well, congratulations and kudos and thank you for contributing to humanity in this way and taking charge and overcoming those challenges to do an about face, that must be super challenging. Go ahead.

Weldon Long
It wasn’t easy. But it’s interesting that you said kudos on the contribution. I think that’s what it really comes down to. We all have to work for our success, but the older I’ve gotten, I realize how important contribution is to the overall success in our lives.

My first book is a little book called The Upside of Fear. I was very pleased to receive endorsements both from Dr. Stephen Covey, who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and also Tony Robbins, who’s probably the greatest personal development person in the last 40 years.

When Tony Robbins endorsed that book, his endorsement read “Congratulations on your turn around from prison to contribution.” It’s funny that you just used the exact same word because I think that’s a huge part of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then so let’s hear it. You were in prison. You made a decision. And then what happened and how did the sales enter the picture?

Weldon Long
Yeah, well the initial kind of step was that where do you turn this titanic of a life around? I’m 32 years old. I’m a ninth-grade high school dropout, a three-time convicted felon, wouldn’t get out of prison for another seven years. Where do you start? I came up with a master plan to find out what really successful people do and start doing that whatever it was, not reinvent the wheel, not second guess it, just do it.

I started reading. The first book ironically I picked up was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That led to many other books. As I begin to read these books, I remember reading a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche said “We attract that which we fear.” I thought, well that’s just kind of crazy. Why would I attract things in my life I don’t want? I kind of dismissed it.

A couple of months later I’m flipping through a Bible and I come across a scripture in Job. Job says, “Father, that which I have feared has come upon me.” I thought that was really interesting because Nietzsche was an atheist. Job believed clearly in God. Separated by philosophy and thousands of years, but they were saying the exact same thing.

And then I stumbled into a little book called Man’s Search for Meaning written by Viktor Frankl. Frankl said “Fear may come true.” I started thinking about this. Somehow maybe all the chaos in my life is because of what’s in my brain.

So I sat down at the little metal desk in my cell and I wrote down everything I was most afraid of. It turned out to be living and dying in prison, being broke and homeless and impoverished my entire life, never being a father to my son. That’s what I had attracted into my life. My life was a perfect reflection of the things I feared the most. So I’m like, wow, these guys are right. There’s something to this.

I decided initially I’ve got to change what’s in my brain. I sat down at that same metal desk and I wrote out for me, Pete, what a perfect life would look like. I’m an awesome father to my son. I’m wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. I’m a successful writer and entrepreneur and blah, blah, blah, all this amazing stuff.

I took that sheet of paper. I put toothpaste on the back of it and I stuck it to the wall of my cell. There it sat for the next seven years. Every morning when I got up I would read that list, I would meditate on it, I would visualize having that life, being that person. Now I didn’t know the neuroscience behind all this at the time. I was just a guy desperate to do something.

I had read in Napoleon Hill’s book, Think & Grow Rich, he said “Write these things down and imagine yourself already in possession of them.” That was just so beautiful and romantic, imagine yourself already in possession of them. Stephen Covey said, “You can live out of your imagination rather than your past.”

That’s what I started doing. I would visualize that life. I did it for seven years. There’s a lot of neurology behind it, but eventually it changed my thought process, it changed my habitual thoughts.

Seven years later I walked out of the penitentiary. Within five years I had built an Inc. 5000 company. I sold that and started writing books and speaking and training and developing others in the field of business and sales. That’s kind of how the sales thing kind of came to be.

I got out of prison at 40 years old to a homeless shelter, couldn’t find a job. I was very motivated because I had that right mindset after 7 years of telling myself I was going to be successful, but I still was a three-time convicted felon and 40 years old with no work experience. But I got a little job as a salesman. I was really good at it.

A year later I opened my own company. I grew that. Because I built a strong sales organization, I learned so much about sales primarily through books, Tom Hopkins and Brian Tracy and many of whom have become great friends over the years, but at that time I was just a guy in a cell reading their books.

The reason I say that sales changed my life is because it was the sales profession that took a guy like me, a ninth-grade high school dropout, a three-time convicted felon, it picked me up, it dusted me off and it gave me a real shot at prosperity and wealth, at having a productive life.

I’m extremely grateful for the sales profession because as an independent sales professional, if you’re good, you’ll find a chance to make a living. You can build your own business, work for somebody else, whatever, but if you’re good at it, you’re going to make a living regardless of your background. Even a guy like me can have that kind of success in sales.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so cool. Now I understand that in your very first weeks of selling, you were doing awesomely. What was kind of going on there with regard to how you were approaching it differently or what did you do that was note worthily – note worthily, that’s a word – distinct from out of other sales folks that you were just crushing it from the get-go?

Weldon Long
Well I think – actually that’s a great question, by the way. I don’t know that anyone has ever asked me that specific question.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Weldon Long
But it’s a great question. For me, initially, it was pure desperation. I’m living in a homeless shelter. I get this job at a small heating and air conditioning company. I’ve been knocking on doors for six months. I must have had a thousand people tell me no thanks once they found out about my record. But this one guy decided to give me a chance.

I went out my first month. I sold $149,000 of air conditioners sitting at the kitchen table across from mom and pop home owner. And I made over $13,000 in sales commissions.

But what was driving my success at that point was just pure desperation and need. I had a ten-year-old son that was out there somewhere. He was three-years-old when I went to prison the last time. He was ten when I got out. I was driven by the singular focus to get a job, get a place to live, get my son. Right? I was driven by that.

I was good at it primarily because I learned very quickly that good, honest, hardworking people will look you dead in the eye and say, “I’m going to call you next Tuesday,” and then they won’t call you next Tuesday.

I learned very quickly that your best chance of getting the sale is to have your prospect make a decision about you and your company and your products, and your services with you sitting right in front of them, right, because people really don’t want to say no to your face. People like to say no in business and in sales, they like to say no by ignoring an email or not returning your phone call.

And by the way, this is true. You and I were talking before the podcast that in business, we’re always selling something. Maybe we’re selling an idea or selling our boss on promoting us or giving us a raise. The key to those things is to get your boss, get your customer, get that person to make that decision about you with you sitting right in front of them. The probability you’re going to get a yes is way higher because people just tend to say no by ignoring you.

To quote a famous line from Fatal Attraction, “I will not be ignored.” That’s the key, man, making people reach a decision. You’ve got to do your job. You’ve got to build trust. You’ve got to build all the factors in sales and build relationships, investigate the problems, but at the end of the day, the real key is getting people to make a final decision about you and your company with you sitting right in front of them, even if the answer is no, by the way. I tell people all the time yes is best, but no is a perfectly acceptable answer in sales.

Pete Mockaitis

Weldon Long
The no’s aren’t going to kill you. What’s going to kill you is the-

Pete Mockaitis
And it frees you up.

Weldon Long

Pete Mockaitis
Once you have a no, it’s like okay, I don’t have to think about that anymore.

Weldon Long

Pete Mockaitis
I can focus my energies on more worthwhile opportunities.

Weldon Long
Amen, amen.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I wonder, so that’s sort of one sort of very specific differentiator is that you prefer to be in person when someone is making the decision about you. Then that kind of automatically tips it in your favor.

So then I guess I’m wondering in the context of hey, selling your boss on giving you a promotion or a raise, there’s some things that need to occur with regard to approvals and consideration, and on and on. How do you play that game? Do you say, “Okay, I’ll meet back with you on this day and you can tell me your decision then?” Is that how you do it or how does it work?

Weldon Long
Well, that’s part of it. I mean the key thing is and in sales and in business, just influence and persuasion, you’re exactly right. Sometimes there can be a process involved. You talk to your boss. He’s got to talk to his boss.

But what I really mean is that before they are allowed to make a final decision, so in the situation you described, you would say, “Okay, I understand you’ve got to go talk to the VP of sales, but I’ll tell you what, just promise me one thing, before you make a final decision, you’ll let me have one more conversation with you.”

You’re getting them that you’re going to be in front of them before they give you the final decision. The key then is, it’s kind of a little five-step process.

Pete Mockaitis

Weldon Long
It works in sales. It works in influence.

Pete Mockaitis
One, two, three, four, five. All right.

Weldon Long
One, two, three, four, five. The first thing is to anticipate the objection. You have to anticipate why they’re going to say no.

Let’s say for example you go to your boss and you say, “Hey, I want a raise. I think I deserve a raise.” He says to you, “Okay, I’ve got to talk to my boss.” He goes and talks to his boss. But you get that commitment he’s going to come back and talk to you one more time. Now you’re at that final meeting. You anticipate that the objection is going to be the budget just won’t permit it. You go in with that in mind.

Once you anticipate the objection or the obstacle, the key is then to get them to acknowledge that that particular objection should not be the thing that keeps you from getting what you want. Let me give an example. It will make more sense.

So if I know the budget is going to be an issue, I’m going to go back in and talk to my boss and say, “Boss, I appreciate you taking some time to explain whatever your final decision is. However, before you go there, I just want to ask you a simple question. Would you agree or disagree that my performance has been great the last year.” “Well, of course I agree.”

“Would you agree I’ve been on time with great sales productivity?” “Yes, I would agree.” “Would you likewise agree that those factors are every bit as important as what some arbitrary budget would be relevant to my pay raise?” What’s he going to say? He just told you it was important and you’re really good. Well, of course, there’s other factors more important than just the budget.

Then you’ve got to make your case. That’s the third step. The first step is identify the objection. Get them to acknowledge the objection should not prevent you from getting what you want. The third step is to make your case. That’s where you sell yourself.

“Boss, I appreciate you saying that there’s more factors more important than just the budget. I want to – here’s my attendance record for the last year. I’ve been on time every single day. Here are my sales records, my productivity records. I have the highest closing rate in the division, highest average … division. I make my case. I’m devoted to this company. I’m committed to this company. I make my case.”

The fourth step is to make a specific request. “Boss, I appreciate you considering all this stuff. All I would ask at this point is a simple question. Will you permit me to have this raise that we both agree I deserve?” It’s going to make it very difficult for him to say no because you’re sitting right there in front of him. Even if his boss told him no, it’s going to put him in a situation. Hopefully the big boss gave the middle boss a little authority to make the decision.

But you have to make a specific request for the thing that you want. One of the biggest people – mistakes people make both in sales and just business is they fail to make specific requests. They’ll kind of hint around toward something. They’ll kind of say, “Hey, I kind of like that raise. Heck, I probably deserve it,” or whatever. You’ve got to go in and say, “I deserve this.” You’ve got to claim it.

“What I’d like to do is get your permission to go ahead and get this raise. I’ll go tell accounting myself to change my pay structure.” Make the specific request.

And then the final, the fifth step is if they deny you, you have to remind them of their previous declarations. This is based on a lot of work of a very smart man, Dr. Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University. He’s written several books on influence and persuasion. And there’s a principle he refers to as the Consistency Principle, which is public declarations dictate future actions. What that means is we tend to take actions consistent with our words.

If I ask my boss, in step four I ask to make the specific request, “Can I have the raise?” if he says no to me, if he says, “No, I can’t. It’s just not in the budget,” I’m going to say, “Mr. Boss, earlier you agreed that there were more factors related to my raise than just the budget: my productivity, my punctuality, all those things should be just as important. Has that changed?”

“Well, no, I don’t know if it’s changed. But it’s just a budget thing.” “I understand, but we both agree it’s more than just the budget. I’d like to go ahead and ask you for that raise and to get this thing initiated.”

Now there’s no guarantee he’s going to say yes. Life is about probabilities. But I guarantee you through that little process, I’ve got a much better chance of getting my raise than if I just said “Hey boss, I could really use some extra money,” in kind of a passive aggressive or kind of a roundabout kind of way. It’s about being direct, anticipate the objections, head off the objections, make specific requests. It’s true in sales. It’s true in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah. As you laid that out there I guess I’m thinking that the only – maybe not the only, but perhaps the highest probability gremlin that could come up the works it would just be you could call it the budget or just sort of like policy.

It’s like, “Well, a fourth-year program manager earns between X and Y dollars. You know? I know you’re the most extraordinary programmer manager we’ve ever seen in our lives or the history of this organization, but that’s just not how the policies work.”

That’s just kind of one of my pet peeves I guess is when structural policies, rules trump good, sensible thinking. It’s just like, “Well, I guess the policies that you’re going to lose the best program manager you’ve ever seen as I go elsewhere and get compensated appropriately.”

Weldon Long
Right, yeah. I hate policies too. They sound a lot like police to me. It’s – I don’t like it either.

You look at the organizations, they range kind of from the bureaucracy on the far end of one scale. The other end of the scale would be a very creative learning organization, maybe like Microsoft or something like that. The bureaucracy, let’s just take a prison as an example. Right?

The problem is that when you have a bureaucracy, the reason they have bureaucracies is because the people attracted to those jobs – no disrespect to people that work in government agencies or things like that – but they tend not to be the most creative and have the best judgment. And so often what happens is that policies are made to replace judgment because they decided we can’t trust the judgment of the person at the driver’s license bureau.

If you show up in the line and you’ve got to go two windows down, you’ve got to get at the back of the line. The fact that you are having a heart attack is not in the policy, so we’re not going to hurry you through. The policy says you’ve got to go to the back of the line at window number two because we don’t trust the judgment.

You go to a Microsoft, where they trust the judgment, and they have very few policies, right, very few rules. The policies are going to be more intense on the organizations that are less creative and the leadership doesn’t have the trust in the people to make decisions.

But the other point you made is also interesting, that you have a choice in your life. We can control the process of properly asking for a raise. We don’t control the outcome. Right? And that’s about learning to know that you can – you’ve got to focus on what you can control in life. You can’t focus on what you can’t control. It’s a big lesson that I learned. Believe me.

But like you said, at the end, then you have the choice of saying, “Okay, I’m going to find a company that appreciates superior productivity.” And then that’s an individual choice. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get the raise. The guarantee is you probably won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. If you do ask for it, you’ve got a shot because the answer is always no until you ask.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really a good thought in terms of policies replacing judgment and very well said succinctly. It just gets me thinking about how – I don’t know the right way to play this, but I guess if I were the manager who were handcuffed by a policy and then just sort of highlighting this notion, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a shame that this policy is deemed to be superior to your judgment.” I don’t know. You’ve got to tread lightly there.

Weldon Long
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It just seems like I wonder if there’s a magical turn of a phrase that could stoke just a little bit of righteous anger, like, “You know what? That is ridiculous. I don’t care for that.”

Weldon Long
But you know what? Listen, people like yourself, very creative, very ambitious type people, you don’t want that kind of policy control. Some people actually like that. Some people don’t want responsibility.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s … can be safe and calm.

Weldon Long

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like I don’t …, it’s just kind of handled. Yeah.

Weldon Long
Right. If you wake up and do something in your business with your show, for example, you do something, it’s your responsibility. Some people don’t want the responsibility. If I make the decision according to paragraph three, subsection two A, I’m not responsible because that’s what I had to do.
Some people prefer not to have the responsibility of the consequences of the decision, so they abdicate their judgment in favor of the policy book, the manual.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, thank you for digging into that. I also wanted to get your take on – you’ve got a book called Consistency Selling. I just want to get your take on consistency. I’d say whether we’re talking about sales professionals or any other group of folks, how – why consistency, what difference does it make and how do you develop it when you’re just not in the mood. I don’t feel like doing it. How do you do it anyway?

Weldon Long
Yeah, great question. This was really the foundation of what changed my life was learning how to consistently have more creative, responsible, powerful thoughts. It really comes down to a very simple concept. Consistent results come from consistent activities. Random results come from random activities. That’s true in business. That’s true in sports. That’s true in anything.

If you just do something randomly, by definition you can’t repeat it and therefore if you had a good result, you probably won’t get the good result again unless you do the same thing. You’ve got to do the same thing to produce those results.

When I think about consistency, you really go back to my second book, which was a book called The Power of Consistency. It’s about how do you create a prosperity mindset, a mindset that is geared and programmed to repeat the things that work in your life and consistently produce the good results.

Now, what I did is I developed a program around the acronym of FEAR, F-E-A-R. F is focus, E is emotional commitment, A is action, and R is responsibility. Through those four steps it gives us the opportunity to kind of examine our habitual thoughts. What are the habitual things I’m thinking all the time?

I tell people, you get up in the morning and you start thinking. As soon as your eyes open you start thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking about your family, thinking about your job, thinking about your friends, thinking about whatever. But how often do we think about what we’re going to think about before we think about it. That to me is getting to the essence of our decision making. Where are those habitual decisions coming from?

If I go and have lunch and I didn’t think specifically about what I’m eating and whether or not I’m going to put nutrition or taste as the higher value, if I don’t ever have that conscious decision, I just order something off the value meal, where did that thought come from? Because if I didn’t think what I think about, it came from somewhere.

We have to examine, where are those habitual thoughts coming that are driving our results in life. We’re making a million decisions a day, what I call seemingly inconsequential decisions, that determine our fate.

For example, if I go home tonight and I have an argument with my wife, I have to make a decision about how I’m going to conduct myself. If I make the decision to yell and scream and intimidate, I’m going to define that relationship. If I go home and I make a better decision and I have some love and some patience and some understanding, I have a different kind of relationship.

My relationship is not some random thing that just happened. It’s a product of my seemingly inconsequential decisions about how I react in that situation.

I’ll give another example. I get my paycheck. It’s Friday night. I’ve got the choice. I can go spend it all, have a hell of a weekend or I can save 20%. Well, I reach in my brain, I pull out a decision. If I pull out the save 20%, I pull out a piece of my financial future. If I reach in there and pull out I blow all my money this weekend, I pull out a different financial future.

Twenty years from now, my financial condition is not some random thing that lo and behold just happened to me. It’s simply a reflection of millions of seemingly inconsequential choices that we have made over our life.

Smoking is the perfect example. How long have we known smoking is unhealthy for us in this country? 100 years or so maybe? 80 years? A lot of people still smoke, a lot of good people. Smoking is not a moral thing. A lot of good people, honest, hard-working people smoke cigarettes. But why would people smoke cigarettes knowing what we know about the health impacts? The answer is very simple.

It feels good, right? It’s not a moral issue though. It just feels great. But moreover, smoking won’t kill you today. Whatever impact smoking is going to have is 20 or 30 or 40 years down the road.

But imagine this scenario, take the most avid smoker that you know, but instead of giving him one cigarette at a time, one seemingly inconsequential cigarette at a time, give him a year’s worth of cigarettes at one time, 2,000 – 3,000 cigarettes. Roll them up like a giant blunt and put some fire to it. Smoke them if you got them, pal. Would he smoke 2,000 cigarettes at one time? Of course not.

If you ask him why, he’ll probably say, “Because it will make me sick. It might kill me.” Yeah, smoking 2,000 cigarettes will make you sick and it might kill you, but guess what, smoking 2,000 cigarettes one seemingly inconsequential cigarette at a time will make you sick and might kill you too. It just takes longer.

The key is we’ve got to look at the tiny decisions that we’re making habitually about our food choices, how we interact with the people we love, picking up a cigarette, whatever, and it impacts every area of our life.

Here’s the rub on the whole thing. The FEAR process allows us to examine those habitual decisions, find out where they came from, ask ourselves are they consistent with what I want today and then change hem if we want to change them through a simple neurological process.

I don’t know how much detail you want to go into with the fear process, but it’s actually very simple. In fact, part of the struggle is it is so simple. It’s so simple people will be like, “Well, man, that can’t work,” because it’s so simple. In reality, it can move mountains.

It’s the single most important factor that turned my life around from a ninth-grade high school dropout, three-time convicted felon to a successful writer, entrepreneur and who’s created a lot of prosperity in my life. I didn’t get any smarter. I didn’t get any luckier. I damn sure didn’t get any better looking. I changed my thoughts. I changed my habitual thoughts. That’s what Emerson meant when he said, “We become what we think about all day long.”

Pete Mockaitis
This is intriguing. You take a look and you go through these four steps. Then how do we get a transformation? I guess I’m thinking about if – let’s say I’m having a thought habitually that I don’t care for, what do I do with that?

Weldon Long
Perfect example. Here’s what we do. The first step is focus. The step in focus is very simple. What do you really want? I encourage people to identify two goals in the three main areas of their life: their money, which is their career, their business, their financial future; their relationships, which is your spouse, your kids, your community, your family, friends, whatever; and then your health, your mental, spiritual and physical health.

Those are the three primary areas of anyone’s life: your money, your relationships, and your health. What do you want in those areas? What one or two things do you want in each of those areas?

Once you identify what you want, let’s say you say for example, “I want to make $200,000 a year in sales.” “What two or three things must I do every single sales call, every single day to get there?” Not 10 things, not 100 things because the confused mind says no. What one, two or three things if I did every single day.

You find out what those are. In sales it’s running every call with passion and purpose, learn to diagnose problems and recommend solutions, and learn to ask for the order every single time. If you do those three things in sales and business, you’re going to be successful. You can screw up everything else. But if you do those three, you’re going to be successful.

The next step is the emotional commitment step. I’ve got to get deeply emotionally committed to the income and the things I have to do to generate that income. So you’ve got to write it down in present, current tense and then do what I call a daily quiet time ritual. Ten to fifteen minutes a day reviewing the thing you want, the things you have to do. This turned out to be that little sheet of paper I had on my wall, stuck there with toothpaste.

I didn’t realize the impact of what I was doing, but it was changing the neurology in my brain. I’m not a neuroscientist but I’ve had neuroscientists call me. I had a guy call me one time and said – he was a neuroscientist, a PhD, a clinical psychologist. He said, “Mr. Long, this is the easiest explanation I’ve ever read in my life about the principles that are the underpinnings of rationally emotive behavior therapy and decision making.”

I’m like, “There’s a name for this?” It’s common sense. I’ve got to get focused on what I want, visualize it, it begins to change the brain.

The third step, action. We leverage a very big driver of human behavior, which is cognitive dissonance. If I tell myself I’m going to run every call with passion and purpose and ask for the order every single time, and then I go out on the sales call and I just drop off a bid, I don’t do that, I’m going to feel dissonance, anxiety, the difference between what I said I would do and what I actually do.

That dissonance starts driving the behaviors we want because we don’t want to be in a state of dissonance anxiety. We want to be in a state of resonance. We want to be integrated with our thoughts and our actions.

If I tell myself every single day that I’m going to run a sales call a certain way or if I tell myself every single day I’m going to eat healthy and then I find a cheeseburger in my mouth at lunch, I’m going to experience dissonance. The dissonance drives the behavior, like, “Oh, that doesn’t feel good,” so I order the salad.

And then the fourth step is responsibility. Everybody has problems in life. That’s the bad news. The good news is our life is not a reflection of our problems. Our life is a reflection about our decisions about our problems.

In other words, I had a bad set of problems 15 years ago. I got out of prison at 40 years old without any money, any clothes, any car, anything. But my life today is not a reflection of that situation. My life is a reflection of the decisions I made about that situation.

That’s true for everybody. Everybody’s life is product of their decisions about their problems, not necessarily about the problems themselves. I’m not saying that we don’t have problems that affect us long term because I just met a fellow named Aron Ralston. This is a guy you should get on your podcast, by the way. Do you know who Aron Ralston is? Does that name ring a bell?

Pete Mockaitis
A little bit. Tell me more.

Weldon Long
He’s the guy that got trapped in the Utah desert and had to cut his arm off to get out. They made a movie about it called 127 Hours. This dude is like the most awesome guy you’re ever going to meet in your life. It was amazing. He was there six days before he finally did it.

His life today – you know he’s never going to have that part of his arm again, right? But his life today is not a reflection of that tragedy. His life today is a reflection of the decisions he made about how he’s going to deal with that tragedy.

If you ever get a chance to read his book or watch the movie, 127 Hours, the book was called Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The movie was called 127 Hours. He’s one of the most powerful human beings I’ve ever met in my life, just an amazing story. He’s an excellent example – my life is too on a different type of way – that you can overcome any adversity if you want it bad enough.

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

Weldon Long
Well, I just would encourage your listeners if they want to get more information, we’ve got some free content available on the website at WeldonLong.com. Or they can just text the word ‘videos’ to 9600 and you get three videos of the mindset, sales, and business process, all the stuff that I’ve learned. It’s free content. It’s very powerful information. I think it’s about 50 minutes worth of video content. Just want to make sure people know how to access some of that free content.

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

Weldon Long
My favorite quote is a quote from Henry David Thoreau. And this quote was written on the wall of my cell. It’s on my desk today. It’s one that I use constantly. It’s very simple. “If you advance confidently in the direction of your dreams and endeavor to live the life that you have imagined, you will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

What I love about that quote is that if you live the life you imagined, that means to me that you had to imagine it first. In other words, you saw it first. Dr. Covey used to say, “All things are created twice, once in our mind’s eye and then in our physical reality.” I just think it’s such a powerful – it’s a beautiful quote. The words are beautiful, but it’s like it’s so poignant because you have to imagine that life first.

The last part of that “you will meet with succeed unexpected,” that means that the success, the results, will be even better than you anticipate. And that’s what happened in my life. Listen, I knew when I got out of the joint the last time, I was doing some cool stuff with my life. I was getting my son. I was getting my act together. I was plowing ahead. But man, what’s happened has been like 100 times bigger than what I expected.

That to me is one of my favorite quotes. It’s just so beautiful.

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

Weldon Long
I would say with respect to research, it would have to be on the theory of consistency. Primarily is researched and discussed by Robert Cialdini. There’s some powerful research that he’s done.

A quick example, there was a company in Arizona that was raising money for childhood disabilities research. They would send in canvassers to knock on doors and ask people to donate money. Cialdini got involved and he kind of redesigned their process. What he did, is – by the way, about 16% of people would contribute money to childhood disabilities research. Somebody randomly knocked on your door, 16% of people would give some money.

Cialdini got the idea of having telemarketers call into those neighborhoods the week before the canvassers. Now the telemarketers did not ask for any money. They would simply take a survey. But one of the survey questions was “Do you think it’s important to do childhood disabilities research?” Of course people say yes. The next week they would send in the canvassers to ask for money.

Their rate of contribution doubled to 38% because people feel an obligation to take actions consistent with their words. It’s powerful, powerful research. I would recommend anybody who’s interested in that – Robert Cialdini – he’s written several books on persuasion and the power of influence and is just probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever read or had a chance to study.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, his books are fantastic. Influence: Science and Practice and Pre-suasion.

Weldon Long

Pete Mockaitis
I look forward to the day he joins us on the show.

Weldon Long
Man, he’s a smart dude. Make sure I get an email on that one because I don’t want to miss it.

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

Weldon Long
I think the thing that helps me the most is what I call my daily quiet time ritual. 10 – 15 minutes reviewing my key priorities, whether it’s my family goals, my financial goals, my health goals.

Life can be pretty hectic. I travel 150,000 miles a year. Literally, this week, for example, I’m in my third city this week speaking. Sometimes I wake up and I literally for five or ten seconds got to remember what hotel, what city, what I’m doing there. Life can be very hectic for everybody: families and bills and jobs.

That quiet time ritual, 10 to 15 minutes a day reviewing your key priorities in life, in other words 10 to 15 minutes thinking about what you’re going to think about before you think about it. It’s the one thing that keeps me grounded. I’m pretty high-strung, but that’s the one thing that keeps me grounded and keeps me sane. There’s nothing more important in my life than reviewing my key priorities every single morning for 10 or 15 minutes.

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

Weldon Long
I think – I wish I could take credit for it. I used it earlier. Emerson’s quote, “We become what we think about all day long.” I think that that’s super, super important. If people understood the relationship – I wish we had time to go into the neurology behind how a thought translates chemically to emotions, which drives some reaction, which drive a result.

But let it suffice to say that your thought, everything you think, drives how you feel and what you do and what you get, even if what you think is wrong. Even if the things you’re thinking are wrong, they can still drive very real emotions, real reactions, and real results. We call it the self-fulfilling prophecy.

My single most important piece of advice I give to anybody, whether it’s speaking at FedEx to their top 200 performers or speaking at the Nebraska State Penitentiary to a group of lifers, I tell them the same thing: you become what you think about all day long. I wish that were my quote. It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I love to use it.

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

Weldon Long
I would point them to social media. They can find me easily there are Weldon Long. Also, on my website, WeldonLong.com W-E-L-D-O-N-L-O-N-G, WeldonLong.com.

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

Weldon Long
Yeah, I would encourage everyone to get crystal clear on what you really want. We don’t do it enough. We don’t take enough time. What do I really want? What do I really want with my family? What do I really want with my job, and my income, my financial—don’t just go along and just assume it’s all going to work out. Get very specific.

One of my favorite books is Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill, written in 1937. The very first success habit that Napoleon Hill taught was that you have to have a definite purpose. That’s specifics. That’s focus. Figure out exactly what you want and then start going for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Weldon, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck and keep doing the inspire that you’re doing.

Weldon Long
Thank you my friend. I really appreciated it. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.

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.


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

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


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


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


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


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.