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KF #3. Manages Ambiguity

387: Becoming Comfortable with Uncertainty with Julie Benezet

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Julie Benezet discusses the importance of taking risks and being comfortable with the discomfort of outcome uncertainty—and how you can achieve that comfort.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How discomfort brings out your best game
  2. The four steps to becoming comfortable with discomfort
  3. Four self-sabotaging behaviors and how to stop them in their tracks

About Julie

Julie Benezet has devoted her professional life to exploring the new, building businesses and helping others do the same. She currently works as an executive consultant, coach and teacher, following 25 years in business and law. She is the founder of The Journey of Not Knowing®, a leadership development program that teaches its executives how to navigate the new.

Julie spent four years as a member of the Amazon.com leadership team that brought the company from the early steep ramp up phase to its emergence as an established business. As its Vice President, Corporate Resources and Director of Global Real Estate, she is credited with leading the delivery of over 7,000,000 square feet worldwide with the supporting corporate infrastructure in just two years.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Julie Benezet Interview Transcript

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

Julie Benezet
Nice to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’re going to have a lot of interesting discussions, but I want to start by hearing some fun tales from your time working at Amazon.com way back in 1999.

Julie Benezet
I think I could any story and it would be deemed insane. Amazon was a complete adventure. Here it was a new company, new industry, new organization, reorg by the hour and no strategy, no capital budget. We were supposed to roll out the worldwide platform of real estate somehow.

The first big pursuit we went on was the pursuit of finding a distribution center in Nevada. We had to work by dark of night. In 1998 when the initiative first started, everybody wanted to know what Amazon was up to because they figured every move they made was going to be a great indicator of its strategy from which they could learn and compete.

I had to travel into Reno, Nevada with a fake name, which when you fly in and meet a broker there, you think that having a fake name is a nothing, but you have to come into a part of the airport so they can’t tell what plane you got off. When they ask you, “Oh, what time did you leave this morning,” you have to make up the numbers so that they can’t back into where you might have flown out of. It goes from there.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Julie Benezet
We looked around. I thought that was tensest part of the journey. We looked around and 500,000 square foot distribution centers aren’t just lying around waiting for you, but we finally came up one that was an occupied on in a place called Fernley, Nevada. It was about to be emptied of a large corporation there that wasn’t doing so well, so we were going to take it over.

We proceeded to negotiate it with a developer who was going to buy it and then rent it back to us, but the key to the thing was we couldn’t disclose to them who we really were. They knew who the broker was, so she had credibility. That allowed them to talk to us, but beyond that they had no idea who we were. Somehow we had to convince them and they had to convince their banker that this is going to be a deal worth doing. Everything was done, again, under cloak of darkness.

We go through this and we get to the point where we’ve got all the deal points made. We’re standing out at the distribution center and my boss, who was the chief logistics officer – he was formally at Wal-Mart – he had a large retinue of people who could come in and figure out how to create a throughput system that was the first of its kind, that could process four million SKUs of product to individual customers. Never been done before.

He invited 24 of his closest friends, who were all the rock stars of the logistics community. But the deal was, again, nobody could know who we were. Anybody was in logistics, including the people who were the managers of that plant, absolutely would have recognized these people. We had to separate them out from our guys, who came in without the benefit of a lease, to sit down and have a day of brainstorming to figure out how to create a throughput system.

My job was to make sure the workers stayed at a distance from the room so they couldn’t overhear names and disclose them to their bosses and keep the bosses out of the building. This is not what I went to college to do. We sweated our way through this.

The last minute the big boss decided he was going to fly into Reno to come out and say hi. We said, “No, you can’t do that,” because he definitely would have known these people. We had to dash into Reno, meet him there, because he wouldn’t have known me, dash back, arrive back, and finally we got our final deal point and it’s time for the big reveal.

The big reveal is when we’re going to send a non-disclosure fax to this developer to say who we were so they could turn around and tell their bank and everybody could decide if they were going to do this deal or not. We get the fax ready, walk over to this fax machine and all of the connectivity in the building went down. Everything. This state of the art place that we’re supposed to be leasing has no connectivity.

I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh my, oh my.” I’m staring at across this 7,000 person town, which is a farming community and there’s not a lot of fax machines hanging around there much less anything else. I finally spot a Best Western Motel. I thought, well, they’ve got those ugly old fax machines, the things with the thick piece of paper that puts out about a page a minute.

I grabbed the broker and said, “We’re going to the Best Western.” We fly down half a mile to the Best Western and sure enough they have a fax machine with the thick paper and one page per minute. The woman was nodding and smiling. She says, “Well, of course, of course.” We’re sitting there and eight pages, each takes a minute to go, so you kind of do the math there or each page took eight minutes to process.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh wow, eight minutes per one page.

Julie Benezet
Yeah and we have an eight-page fax. I’m sitting there thinking about what I can do in my next life. I’m watching the hotel manager humming. She’s this woman and she’s putting up Christmas decorations and she’s offering – her friends would wander in and she’d offer them blueberry muffins. I’m watching her thinking, “Oh wow, that looks so nice, so calm.”

Meantime, the eight pages get through and the broker goes outside to talk to the developer. She gives the name of who it is. They said, “Oh, okay,” and that was it. I’m a puddle by this time. She comes back and says, “We’re good.” I’ve just had my first heart attack.

I go up to pay for the fax and all this time I’ve been thinking, “Where did I go wrong? How did I choose a life that’s insane like this, that challenges my heart rate, that has all this craziness?” I’m watching this woman decorating her lobby and feeding her friends with blueberry muffins and she seems so calm and happy. Where did I go wrong?

I’m paying for the fax and I’m just chitchatting with her, asking where she’s from. Well, she’s from Claremont, California. In fact, she and I went to junior high school together.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh wow.

Julie Benezet
I’m looking at this and thinking, “Oh, it’s a small world.” But it was very much consistent with the journey of not knowing. You never knew what you were going to come up against. It was a challenge every step of the way, but you had to know that you loved doing this stuff because the insanity was liberally applied.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is quite a story.  Thank you for really taking us there and painting a picture. Yeah, let’s talk about this book and the accompanying journal. We’ve got The Journey of Not Knowing and The Journal of Not Knowing. It sounds like you learned a thing or two about not knowing and into that. How would you articulate sort of the main point of the book?

Julie Benezet
The Journey of Not Knowing is about pursuing what it is you don’t know, which is a scary place, in order to put in motion something better, a bigger idea. That we lived in the 21st century, where change is the order of the day, that we have to constantly come up with new ideas, whether it is for our team, our community, our family, our career, something that has to meet the needs of an evolving market around us.

The Journey of Not Knowing is how you deal with the fact that you have to be comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing what’s going to happen and accept that discomfort as part of the deal of getting to something better.

We spend a lot of time running away from scariness and say it’s a bad thing and trying to de-stress and say that there’s no value, but in fact what I discovered – and Amazon was very much an example of this – is when you go towards things you don’t know to try something new, it brings up your best game and you really pay attention to what the possibilities are. If you stay with it, you can get to new places that can be pretty compelling.

Pete Mockaitis
What I like the way you’re describing this because it sounds so fun and adventurous and exciting as opposed to just terrifying and nerve racking.

Julie Benezet
Well, it is terrifying and nerve racking, but that’s okay. When I came upon the concept was when I was at Amazon and that I’ve always had an affection for the new. Even as a kid who was afraid of other people, I was always trying to turn things upside down and go a different place. Amazon was this whole concept grown large.

But when we finished that Fernley deal, I came back and literally the next night I’m sitting in my office trying to enjoy – in corporate America the amount of time between ‘Job well done,’ and ‘What have you done for me lately?’ is about a nanosecond.

I’m sitting there enjoying my nanosecond and I get this phone call saying, “Julie,” this was the right hand of the chief logistics officer, basically he says, “Julie, we need you to go to Germany and get another 500,000 square foot warehouse.” I’ll spare you that story, but the key to that was as I’m thinking about this is okay. Of course there’s no parameters. Of course they want it in three months. Of course these things are not just lying around.

I thought of all the impossibilities that we attach to it. Treasury is going to tell me, “No, you can’t get last minute travel.” HR is going to say, “You can’t move your people more than 30 miles from where they are now,” because then we’d have to do a social plan and they’re expensive. Legal is going to say, “Oh, those German lawyers are a nightmare.” IT is going to say, “No way we can get the right infrastructure.” Etcetera, etcetera.

I’m just ticking off in my mind all these totally frightening things and wondering how I’m going to do this, but that’s when it hit me. That’s when I realized that no matter how scary it was and how impossible this could be, no part of me didn’t believe we wouldn’t pull it off.

That’s when I came up with the concept of the journey of not knowing is being comfortable with discomfort of not knowing and realizing that that just goes with the territory, but it will challenge you and it will challenge other people, but it’s worth the adventure, again, whether it’s your career, your home life, your community, your team, whatever.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds like a pretty cool place to be in terms of “Boy, there’s going to be a bunch of challenges. Have no idea how we’re going to resolve them all, but I’m certain that we will.” That’s a pretty cool spot. I’m wondering for those who don’t have that level of confidence and certainty when they’re entering into such endeavors, how do you get to that place?

Julie Benezet
Well, I talk about something in the book called the core four. The core four are four ways of milepost to get you on the way through the journey through the unknown.

The first one is to first of all know what your dreams are. What is it you want to achieve? If it’s a career ambition, you want to change disciplines or you want to move up and be a senior vice president, you want to do something different with your life, then it’s important first to label what your dream is and say okay. Often your dream is something that you’ve been avoiding because it’s too scary to you, but that is the one that probably has the most power.

You want to create a different system of team selection, where the teams choose their own members rather than the manager doing it and giving much more power to the team members and you don’t know what that’s going to look like, but you think that could be pretty compelling for people and a great recruiting tool.

The first is your dream. Once you have a dream within that, then you have to say, “Who is this going to benefit?” In the journey of not knowing, your job is to work through the uncertainty to find out what you can learn about what you don’t know.

In anything there are things we know, like I know your name is Pete and I know that you’re on the other end of a phone. I know you have a show. But I don’t know what you’re wearing, but I could ask you. I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but I can ask you and you can tell me or you won’t.

Then there are things that you can’t know either because the other person doesn’t want to tell me. I may sound like a girlfriend you had ten years ago and you just hate even hearing my voice and you certainly don’t want to share that or it’s something that you’re not aware of and I have to be comfortable with that.

When you’re trying to figure out your dream and learning about the people who would benefit, then you have to go after those things that you don’t know, but you can find out. One of the things you need to find out is what are those people, like if it’s your team now, what do you need to learn about them to pull this thing off because you’ve got to get their buy in?

That’s step one. That will also inform more about what that dream is going to look like.

Step two is to get comfortable with the scariness of risk, you’ve heard me talk about this, and accept it as part of the game. The thing that scariness can do for you is it doesn’t have to disable, but it can raise your attention. It says, “Okay, I’m nervous because I don’t know what was going to happen. I don’t know the consequences. I don’t know if people are going to like it or hate it. But I really would like to try this. I have to be okay with that worry.”

That’s an important thing. In fact there’s research coming out now in the area of mindfulness that mindfulness is very good for applying yourself to a task you already know, but it’s not so good when you apply it to something that’s new, that you don’t have enough edge going for you. That certainly is what I’ve witnessed in my career and the careers of others.

Pete Mockaitis
You don’t have enough edge going for you, you said?

Julie Benezet
Yeah, you don’t have enough – are you going to reach and stretch into a place that makes you a little nervous, but you’re willing to try. Because if it’s something that you feel really calm about, you’ve probably done it before and so have other people, so it’s probably not a new enough idea. It’s maybe not fixing the problem.

There’s a lot of these things, these new ideas are to fix old problems that people don’t want to talk about, don’t want to face or there’s some person standing in the way that nobody wants to stare down. But that allows you to go into those places where it’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. That’s why it’s important to go towards not away from discomfort and recognize that is an empowering thing rather than a disempowering thing.

The third is to watch out for self-sabotaging behaviors. These things are your defensive behaviors that I call hooks. Everybody has defensive behaviors.

Defenses are just to take away discomfort, that if I’m in a situation where I find the people are condescending and make me feel little and upset and yet they might be people that I really need to help me with my project, but if I find that I’m reacting that way, one defensive behavior is just to disengage, just check out or tell myself I don’t need them. I’ll figure it out some other way. I’ll walk away from it.

A very common one is micromanagement, that micromanagement is about trying to take control of things. Instead of waiting to see how something or whether something is going to turn out, instead you want that instant feedback.

When you micromanage, “Well, Pete, can you move your paper over three inches? Could you please call so-and-so and tell them thus-and-thus? Would you put the stapler to the side?” I do this micromanagement role play with people and they just love it because everybody – if you don’t know what micromanagement is, you’ve never worked.

But what it does is when you get into it, it gives you near-term comfort and gives you this sense of control, but it takes you off the pathway to something bigger.

Personalizing is a big one. Personalizing is if I hear someone has criticized an event as a reflection on me, instead of hearing what the value is to the broader picture, it will get me. I will spend my time worrying about my own self-esteem rather than what’s going to be valuable to the organization.

For example, if somebody says, “Julie, that was a horrible presentation,” if I have a personalizing thing, I’ll go into unknown territory saying, “Oh, I’m just a screw-up. I’m terrible. I know I should have, would have, could have.”

Instead of stepping back and saying, “Well, let’s see. What went wrong there? Maybe they have already heard that topic before or maybe it’s hitting a nerve ending that they’ve tried to address before and it didn’t go so well and they’d rather not think about it or maybe they just heard that there are going to be layoffs and they weren’t even paying attention.”

What I need to do is get past that hook of personalizing, worrying about how I look and look at how the situation looks. Again, you have to go and figure out what it is you don’t know. Personalizing is particular common among women, but men do it too. It’s very common as I said, but it is one to catch yourself, “Uh oh, get over yourself. Let look out here and see what’s going on.”

The final thing, and this is where the juice is, you need to find drivers to fuel your way through the unknown and the discomfort of finding out new ideas.

Drivers are anything from, “I so dislike the guy who I’m competing against for this bid that there’s no way on this earth that I’m going to let him win. I am going to go deal with the scary analytics department, who always make me feel like a moron because I know they can put together a bid that will be winning so that will help me push through all the discomfort that’s going to take to get me there.”

Or more important are core drivers. Core drivers are about who you are, what are your values, what do you care about, what are your dreams, and what are your life stories. There are a lot of them. Did anybody doubt that when Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” did they ever doubt that he really meant it? That gave him a lot of fuel to go through a lot of scary places in the name of civil rights.

In my coaching practice I run up against this depressingly often, particularly women whose mother when they were children told them they would fail, which is incredible. You and I could probably talk for a long time about the dynamics of mothers and daughters and woman and mothers with their own issues.

But it’s a very powerful motivator when I’ve seen woman after woman go out there and say “I am going to go after that promotion as terrified as I am about what it’s going to take to get there, all the speeches I’m going to have to make, all the reports I’m going to have to write, all the people I’m going to have to prove myself to, so I can show my mother that I will not fail.” That’s a core driver and it’s very powerful.

Those are the four steps that get you on the journey through that discomfort towards something bigger.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you. Well, there’s much I’d love to dig into here. I’ll go in reverse order. These drivers, it’s interesting in that the notion that “I’m going to prove to my mother that I can do it and I’m awesome,” or “I want to stick it to this competitor because I don’t like them at all.”

Julie Benezet
It doesn’t have to be laudable, Pete. It just has to .

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well that’s what I was intrigued is that – I guess I’ve been there too with regard to sort of quote/unquote noble drivers and maybe less so. Is there any downside to tapping into a less laudable driver?

Julie Benezet
That’s a good question. A downside. Well, you don’t use it as your press clips.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Julie Benezet
You don’t say, “Okay, we’re going to go get the guys.” Although Ford made a whole – its whole vision for a long time was “We want to beat Chevy,” and that did rather well for them, so it’s not always a bad thing to do.

I don’t think so. Unless you let it consume you in a negative way. If you just say, “This is what I’m using for,” and then use it for the positive of the endpoint you want, then I think it’s very useful. If you use to basically revisit and wallow in past slights from somebody, that’s not so good.

All of these involve leadership in some way, whether it’s for your personal career, for your team. Leadership is simply about having an idea to make things better and bringing other people along to help support you in it.

When you want to get help with your idea, you want to be able – it’s really a sales job. You need to motivate other people to come into the tent to join you here. Having a negative driver is not something, as I say, you translate into your motivational speech. A different way is what if you win this bid, the group will win for itself and how life will be better as a result of this.

You need to make a division between what inside is making you go versus what it is that you need to use on the outside to socialize it and get all those people to help you come along on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Now you also mentioned back to the self-sabotaging behaviors that you’ll note that these are just sort of responses to natural defensiveness that’s popping up. You offered a couple kind of particular prescriptions, like if you start the personalizing, here’s what to do instead.

I’d love to get your take on are there any sort of universal tips that you’d suggest in terms of if you find defensiveness is bubbling up and you’re starting to go down whatever your particular unique self-sabotaging flavor may be, are there any kind of universal things that can help get you back on track.

Julie Benezet
Yeah, there’s something I call the hook cycle. The hook cycle begins with you being triggered by something. I’ll give you a quick story to demonstrate it so you get the pieces.

Cheryl was a senior project manager at a company. She really wanted to be promoted to director. She made a point of really going the extra mile with the client to dazzle them, so she would do well with them, then finally get promoted.

Well, one day Cheryl heard via the grapevine that Michael, who worked for her, had told her boss that the client was unhappy about their services. Well, this was the first Cheryl had heard about that. She went into this great angry place and she tended to personalize. She had parents who were shamers and blamers because we all carry our life history with us. You have to pay attention to that.

But she went into this place of, “Oh no, this should never have happened.” Instead of thinking about what the client really was saying and why Michael spoke to her boss, she went into this reactive mode. She was hooked by personalizing. The first part of the hook cycle is when you are hooked by something that triggers you.

What can happen in a negative hook cycle is if you don’t catch yourself, then you go into this reactive place, which she did. She went into this reactive place and what she did was she goes storming to her boss and says, “I can’t believe Michael came and said that to you. How dare he? He’s just playing the male chauvinist pig card.”

Her manager is listening to this. He reacts to her reaction. He’s thinking, “Whoa, she can’t manage her people. I couldn’t possibly promote her.” The result is that she is not promoted.

Well, the trick of getting to a better place is to catch yourself when you catch yourself being hooked and stop and to form a new cycle. The new cycle is when you catch yourself – and it can occur in different ways. You suddenly get almost a stabbing feeling, you get really nervous, sometimes if it’s like micromanagement, you get dead calm. Something tips you off that you’re going into a defensive place.

At that point, literally stop and shift to what I call pause and reflect. Even if you are quiet for 30 whole seconds, it will stop the speeding train of reactivity. What it does is it allows you to start to detach from all that emotionalizing and start to shift to a place of looking at it differently.

Then the second part and you build a new cycle and a more productive one. In that new cycle first thing is to give yourself compassion. We all are human. We all have things that cause us to react. That’s okay. We can forgive ourselves for that and acknowledge it. But then say, “But this isn’t going to work. Me going storming into my boss’s office and complaining about Michael, not so hot. I need to come up with a new strategy.”

Then in looking at a new strategy, that’s when it’s like opening the aperture of a camera. As the more you detach and breathe deep or whatever helps to bring in some calm, you literally can see more what’s happening. You look around and say, “Okay, what do I need to learn here.” It goes back to that not knowing thing. “What is it do I not know?”

One of the things that Cheryl did not know was why Michael talked to her boss first. Well, it turns out, so she went and talked to Michael. She learned that well, it wasn’t a planned event. He just happened to be standing in the coffee room next to the boss and he had just heard this information. He just thought he was being helpful as they’re both pouring their coffee.

But he had also worked for himself for 17 years and this chain of command thing was brand new. He had never heard of anything like that. The last thing that had occurred to him was to be undercutting her. She realized that she needed to understand Michael a whole lot better to get a more constructive working relationship. The next step is to work on that relationship.

Another piece of it obviously, they have to go solve for the client problem, which they did. This actually comes from a real life event. I happened to have been the coach for both the big boss and Cheryl, so these are not their real names. But they did go and rehabilitate it, both with Michael and Cheryl. They also had to rehabilitate the issue with the client. Six months later she was promoted to director.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. That’s nice to see how that unfolds there and makes it all the more real. Along with making it real, you mentioned a couple of those behaviors. I’d love to hear a few more so that listeners might recognize themselves in them.

I think one of my defensive behaviors is I just sort of – I start the argument without the other person. I’m like, “I can’t believe he would say that. After this and this and this. Well, he might thing this, but I’d say that. Then he might say this and I’d say that.”

It’s like I’ve already got the whole script. The whole script is playing out before me and I’m getting kind of riled up about an argument that has not happened and very well probably won’t happen. I sort of notice that in myself, so I try to take a breath in those situations. What are some other patterns that show up again and again there?

Julie Benezet
Look at our political environment right now. Nobody is listening to anybody because everybody is going around basically … each other because it’s a very anxious, anxiety provoked thing. It’s not terrible. It’s very human. But what it does is, again, it’s like something that person said to you, you took off – triggered you. How could you recognize that in yourself and then be able to pull up long enough to say, “Well, how do you get there?”

Most of my experience has been and I’ve watched this in negotiation training is the winners tend to be the ones who are quieter and ask more questions. I’m not saying you never can correct, but something to consider is what is it that I can do here to learn more about what I don’t know about this person’s position and why it is we’re not on the same page.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a handy one. Thank you. Any other patterns associated with when the defensiveness is starting to bubble up?

Julie Benezet
Perfectionism is a big one. There are ten hooks. Perfectionism is of course a rabid fear of failure. The perfectionist thinks if they just keep doing it until they get it right, they’ll be okay. It’s almost like a safety thing. It’s a great way of spinning because there’s no end point to it. There’s no such thing as something that’s perfect.

But a lot of people get into perfectionism. For example, if they’re going to go out and sit down and do a customer survey with a customer who they know might not be happy, they might find themselves spending a long time getting the wording just right on this survey rather than picking up the phone, calling up the customer and saying, “Hey, I need to come see you and learn some things here.”

It’s perseverative behavior. It’s round and around. What it can do is while you’re trying to get the perfect product, you’re avoiding making a decision. It can be a real career ender. You see a lot of perfectionists in a number two seat, not a number one seat because they’ll just keep trying to make it nicer and better and cleaner.

You see this in finance a lot. You see it among engineers. We’ve all got pieces of this. I was a lawyer for years, believe me, they’ve got perfectionism down. But what it does is if you don’t make a decision, then you’re not accountable. If you’re not accountable for something, you can’t fail at it. That’s the myth, but that’s what keeps a lot of people in that trough.

Getting out of perfectionism, again, is to first catch yourself when you’re doing it. When you’re adjusting the font for the 14th time on this proposal, you might step back and ask yourself “Am I picking on this font because the font really needs to be fixed or am I failing to look at whether this proposal is really answering the question that the potential client is asking? Is this really going to win the deal?”

Particularly if it involves things that you feel stretched in trying, but may be important to do so. Perfectionism is another big one.

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

Julie Benezet
Oh, I could mention a lot of things. When I wrote The Journey, I wrote it as a story because it’s full of people that are familiar. All of these things are very typical and yet the final goal is to pursue something better, the adventure of improving things and making a difference. I think that’s worth all the sweat along the way.

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Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Julie Benezet

Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Julie Benezet

Well, I tend to look at biographies as telling important stories. I look at research too. But a couple books for example that are very illustrative of what I’m talking about is Shoe Dog, which is Phil Knight’s biography of how Nike was formed. You spend the whole time wondering how it is possible that this company ever succeeded to make a dime much less a billion dollars.

There is a study, it has an important moral. It’s for people who love animals like I do. It’s not a great one to read, but it’s Martin Seligman’s Learned Helplessness. It’s all about how people can get into situations where they feel like they have no control over the end, so they just quit trying. You see that in lots of different ways.

But it was done in the early ‘50s. It remains true today. It has powerful implications. The moral of that one is to find out what it is you can control and to go towards that.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Julie Benezet

One is free writing. Free writing is something where you don’t sit and organize it. You just sit down and you just start writing. Handwriting is better than typing because it’s kinetic. It actually slows you down, so you think better. It improves the memory that comes out of that work, but it also tends to personalize it more.

Free writing is you say, “I just wish I could go down there and tell them what I think. The reason they’re bugging me about this.” It can sound like a word salad, but by dumping it out of your head and putting it on a piece of paper, you start to see things bubble to the surface. “What are the themes, the patterns here that are showing up for me? Oh, I see. These are all instances where somebody treated me like a little thing and put me down and that makes me crazy.”

Another one is white boarding is that people are very visual and whether you’re one person, two or a roomful, there’s something very powerful to going up to the wall and drawing shapes, words, colors, lines, whatever, to talk about what you’re thinking about. I find it’s less structured and, again, it surfaces patterns and thinking and can be very powerful to getting to a better place.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite habit?

Julie Benezet

Well, if you knew me, you’d think this would be strange, but sitting still. Because I like to be very active, strong bias for action, you might have figured that out, when I really want to sit down and figure something out, the idea of being still makes me shift into a different gear and quit distracting myself with other stuff. It makes it impossible for me to run anyplace else.

I just sit, feel, breathe, and let my head drift. I don’t do it for very long. I do it for at most five minutes, but it’s re-energizing and it can be very clarifying because when you have a little meeting with yourself like that, it’s amazing what shows up on the agenda.

Pete Mockaitis

Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they repeat it frequently?

Julie Benezet

One of the things that I hear a lot is about leadership. It’s not a job; it’s a mindset. It’s a state of being where you’re always looking for the bigger opportunity in whatever is going on. If something goes wrong in your job, don’t just fix the little thing, like the team didn’t put the paper in on time. What’s the bigger deal that’s going on?

Why is it that they didn’t come through on that? Did they not understand it? Did they realize that nobody is going to read it? Did they think that the data were flawed? What was sitting behind that stuff that stopped them from doing it because that’s what you go to fix. The mindset is always looking for that bigger opportunity.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Julie Benezet

On my website, JulieBenezet.com or there’s Author Central off of Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Julie Benezet

Dare to dream, face your fears, and go for it.

Pete Mockaitis

Beautiful. Well, Julie, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck and more adventures and more unknowing places.

Julie Benezet

Guaranteed. Thank you very much.

378: How to Tackle Uncertainty–and Enjoy It with Josh Kaufman

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Josh Kaufman shares his research regarding tackling uncertainty, the value of persistence in new skill acquisition, and best practices for self-directed learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The PICS formula for assessing your goals
  2. The five parts of every business mental model
  3. How and Why to pre-commit to learning a new skill

About Josh

Josh’s research focuses on business, skill acquisition, productivity, creativity, applied psychology, and practical wisdom. His unique, multidisciplinary approach to business mastery and rapid skill acquisition has helped millions of readers around the world learn essential concepts and skills on their own terms.

Josh’s research has been featured by The New York Times, The BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Time, BusinessWeek, Wired, Fast Company, Financial Times, Lifehacker, CNN, and many others.

Josh has been a featured speaker at Stanford University, World Domination Summit, Pioneer Google, and many others. JoshKaufman.net was named one of the “Top 100 Websites for Entrepreneurs” and his TEDx talk was viewed over 12 million times.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Josh Kaufman Interview Transcript

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

Josh Kaufman
Pete, it’s a pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get into this discussion. One fun thing I learned about you as I was stalking you in preparation for this discussion is it still active that you have a monthly Dungeons and Dragons group going? What’s the story here?

Josh Kaufman
That is absolutely accurate. Actually, we just had I think it’s our one-year group anniversary this past Saturday.

Pete Mockaitis
Congratulations.

Josh Kaufman
It’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me, what’s the – Dungeons and Dragons, it’s so funny. It has all sorts of connotations, but I want to hear straight from the horse’s mouth, what is it for you that drew you in and keeps you coming back?

Josh Kaufman
Oh, it is the most fun game that has ever been invented. It’s this really wonderful combination. When I try to explain it to people who have never played, it’s like imagine a game where literally anything is possible and people can do crazy things that you have not prepared for and don’t expect and there’s some way of figuring out if a character who tries to do something crazy in a story, if they can actually do that thing.

I love it in two ways. It’s this wonderful combination of group storytelling and improv. The storyteller kind of knows where it’s going to go, but doesn’t know for sure. The players have agency and latitude to do whatever they want.

Then the players can explore a world where they can and try and pull off things that are just really fun to think about and come up with creative solutions that the person w ho’s telling the story just never anticipated. It’s this wonderful combination of story and surprise and creativity. It’s the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Not to get too deep into the weeds, but I’m intrigued. How do you make the call on whether something that someone invents out of their head – I guess I just saw matches like “You are locked behind a dungeon door.” It’s like, “I’m going to pull out some – a bazooka and blast it away.”

I guess how do we determine whether or not they in fact can or cannot pull out a bazooka and blast it away? That’s always kind of been my sticking point looking out from afar, having not experienced it first-hand.

Josh Kaufman
Sure. There’s actually very active conversations in RPG circles about how you deal with this. I think the term is verisimilitude, so how much do you want to try to emulate real life in this fantastical story that you’re all telling together.

Every system has different ways of doing it. At least in Dungeons and Dragons, all of the player characters are playing an individual who has certain goals and desires and also, very important, a list of equipment that they have on them at their disposal, so pulling out a bazooka from nowhere is totally not kosher as far as the rules of the game.

Pete Mockaitis
It would be on the equipment list in advance is what you’re telling me.

Josh Kaufman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Josh Kaufman
Imagine somebody like Conan the Barbarian fighting a dragon at the top of a mountain. The dragon is hurt and tries to flee and Conan flings himself off of a cliff and tries to grab the dragon in midair. Most games don’t really have a good system for figuring out what happens next.

The whole point of a rule system in a role-playing game is essentially giving you the tools to figure out just that. What is the situation? How difficult is it? What is this player? What are they good at and what are they not good at?

There’s a way to essentially reduce it to statistics of you don’t know for sure, you’re going to roll some dice to figure out what happens next, but how great are the chances that Conan will be able to leap far enough to get to the dragon and then hold on if they’re able to make contact. Things like that. It’s really fun.

Pete Mockaitis
I see, so you’re kind of jointly deciding that as a group.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, and the really interesting parts are when the players figure out a solution to a challenge that you didn’t anticipate. At risk of going too deep, my players were fighting ice demons that exploded when they died this past Saturday.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve all been there, Josh.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, as you do. It was really interesting to see the group brainstorm and come up with solutions of how to isolate and then put these monsters in a position where they could be defeated without doing damage to the party.

There were five or six different solutions. Every player came up with their own take on it. But it was just really interesting to see with all of the different personalities and the different sets of skills at the table, everybody came up with their own little solution to figure out this thorny problem.

I was telling the story and I had no idea what they were going to do. The fun of it for me was putting a whole bunch of people in a situation and seeing how they tackled it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s nifty. You’ve compiled some wisdom when it comes to fighting fantastical and mythological beasts in your book, How to Fight a Hydra, but there’s more to it than just a fun fantasy fiction romp. Can you unpack what’s this book all about?

Josh Kaufman
Sure, so How to Fight a Hydra is compiling a lot of research into a universal problem that all of us have that’s we may have a big ambitious goal or pursuit, something that we want for ourselves and we’re not quite sure if we’re going to be able to pull it off. There’s a lot of uncertainty. There’s a lot of risk. There might be fear of the unknown or uncertainty that we have the skills that we’re going to need in order to get what we want.

A huge tradition both in ancient and modern philosophy about how to deal with topics like uncertainty and risk, but also a lot of new cognitive psychology or behavioral psychology. How do you get yourself to do something that you know in advance is going to be challenging or is going to be difficult?

I started researching this and started doing it the way that I did my previous two books, which were research based non-fiction. The funny thing about writing about uncertainty and risk and fear is that if you treat it that way, you start writing a book that nobody wants to read because those topics are inherently uncomfortable to think about too long.

That’s where the idea of instead of explaining how to do this, approaching it from the perspective of a story. Let’s take a person who is deciding to pursue something genuinely difficult, something that they don’t know if they’re going to be able to do and let’s follow them as they go through the process of accomplishing this very big goal and experiencing all of the normal challenges along the way.

Then watch them skillfully apply these things that we know from research works in these sorts of situations. It’s fiction. It’s a story, but it’s a story with an underlying logic and purpose that is very firmly rooted in this universal challenge that we all face.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. We won’t spoil the story elements, but within it, there are some components associated with sort of physical training and getting tougher as well as acquiring or crafting a sword in order to pull it off. Could you – at the risk of us entering into the boring territory for the book that nobody wanted to read – what are some of the fundamental steps and scientific insights associated with flourishing when you’re tackling a big project like this?

Josh Kaufman
There are a bunch of insights around – let’s group it around expectations going into something – a new big project, something you’ve never done before, something that is at the limit of your capability. And there are a few common patterns or denominators in how you approach that, and how you approach it makes an enormous difference.

Let’s say you want to enter a new career. You want to start a new business, pursue a creative project. Whatever it happens to be, there’s this undercurrent of, like, “I don’t know if this is a good idea. I don’t know if this is going to work. I don’t know if I invest my time and energy in this way I’m going to get the results that I want. I may have a vague idea of what I’m trying to do, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next.”

Those are all very common things that I hear from lots of different people and experience myself. One of the things that’s very useful to know from the beginning is that that is completely normal. It doesn’t mean that you are not up to the task. It doesn’t mean that this is a bad idea or there’s something wrong with you. It’s just a fundamental feature of the world.

These big things that we want to achieve, there’s an inherent element of uncertainty, complexity, variability, ambiguity and risk. Those things are never going to go away. If you understand that from the beginning, you can shift your mindset more from “How do I get this uncertainty to go away? How can I make it stop?” to more of a you are pursuing an adventure. You’re exploring something interesting. You are challenging yourself in important ways.

One of the things that makes an adventure interesting, or exploration valuable, is you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. That’s part of the fun. That’s part of the challenge. Just thinking about these things that we want to do more along the lines of adventures or exploration is a very useful way to think about the process of pursuing something in general.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really cool in terms of just reframing it as an adventure because we pay good money to experience adventure, whether you’re going to REI and buying some outdoor backpacking-type stuff and going out on a trail or a mountain or a campsite or whether it’s more indoorsy, a room escape adventure, you know?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
Paying money for that kind of experience or just a trip to the movies or a novel or whatever. Yet, elsewhere in life, we want that uncertainty gone. We would like to just sort of know how it’s going to unfold. That’s a pretty clever move in terms of by reframing the uncertainty into adventure, now it’s no longer terrifying and doubt-producing, but rather it’s fun and interesting.

Josh Kaufman
That’s absolutely the case.

Pete Mockaitis
Nifty. I imagine some ways that may be easier said than done, but let’s say you’re in the heat of it. Someone’s looking to change their career wildly from we’ll just say one field of accounting to another field of pinball machine design.

Josh Kaufman
Fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve always loved pinball and this is kind of a crazy switch, but they think they’ve got some special skills and abilities and things to contribute there.

Let’s think about it. One person may very well be freaking out in this situation, like, “Oh my gosh, where would I even start? Why would anyone want to hire me? Should I quit my job? Should I not? That’s pretty crazy. How am I going to support my family, pay the mortgage?” Here we are in the midst of uncertainty and big dream and fear. Where do we go?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, the first bit is exploring more fully what the new thing looks like. I’m guessing that our fictional example may have some experience doing this but may not have completed an entire project start to finish.

One useful thing about thinking about all of these transitions as adventures is there’s a certain amount of exploration that’s always going to happen, particularly at the beginning. There’s actually – I did a full essay about this on my website, JoshKaufman.net, about exploration versus exploitation.

There’s a lot of research about it in computer science, but it’s one of those generalizable things that’s useful in a lot of circumstances. When you’re doing something new, it is in your best interest to spend the vast majority of your time exploring all of your different options.

Maybe in this case, the individual is still working their day job, so there’s some risk mitigation going on there, but then most of the time and energy devoted toward this new activity is spent exploring.

What types of pinball things sound good? What are some of the different industries or businesses that you could work with? What do they tend to specialize in? What do they need? Are you going to build your own pinball machines or are you going to outsource it to a contract manufacturer? Are you selling it yourself or are you selling it through somebody else? There are all sorts of unanswered questions around this topic.

Spending a lot of time and energy in the exploration phase makes a lot of sense. You’re gathering information. You’re trying new things. You are testing to see what are the parts of the business or the venture or project that you really like and what are some of the things that you would rather avoid.

All of that exploration is extremely useful later when it comes to the second phase, which is called exploitation. Exploitation is when you’re spending most of your time doing the things that you know are rewarding.

Imagine you move to a new town and you don’t know which restaurants are good. You spend maybe the first couple years that you live there, you never eat at the same place twice. You explore lots of different options to see what you like and what you don’t like.

But the longer you live there, the more you know what’s going to hit the spot at any particular moment, so you spend more and more time doing the things that you know work and doing less and less of the time with things you don’t.

So for our aspiring pinball designer, after that period of exploration, they’re going to have a much better sense of what works and what doesn’t. Then the more and more things that work, the easier it’s going to be to make a transition from accounting to pinball.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing example there when it comes to the food. It’s so dead on because I found myself, particularly when I’m at a restaurant that I’ve been to several times, it’s like I’m torn. It’s like, okay, there’s one thing I know that will be delicious and wonderful, so I’m naturally drawn to that and yet, I’m also intrigued by the new and seeing what could be there.

I’ve had it go both ways. I try something new and it’s like, “Wow, that was even better than the thing I loved. I’m so glad I did that,” versus “Oh, this is kind of lame. I could have just stuck with the thing I knew was good and then been feeling more delighted post meal.”

I like that you’ve provided a particular rule of thumb here, which is in the early phases, you’re going to get a better bang for your buck by doing more of the exploration versus once you know the lay of the land, you’ll have a better return by doing the exploitation.

Josh Kaufman
Absolutely. And the additional wrinkle to this, so this is often in the research literature called the bandit problem because the classical mathematical formulation is you’re playing slot machines, which I do not recommend by the way, but for the sake of understanding, it’s a good example.

Imagine you go into a casino and you can play any slot machine you want. You don’t even have to spend money. It’s just the time that it takes to pull the lever and see the result. If you’re given this opportunity and you want to maximize your return from this experience, what do you do? Well, that’s where the exploration and the exploitation phase comes it.

You spend quite a bit of time testing different machines gathering data. Then after a while you start shifting to the machines that you know provide a much better pay off.

The interesting thing is you would think at a certain point that exploitation is the way to go. You just do the thing you know works over and over and over again. When you look at the studies and you look at the math, that’s actually not the case. There’s always a certain amount of your energy and attention that is going to be devoted to exploration because you don’t have perfect information about what is going to be the most rewarding thing you possibly could do.

The more time you spend, the more confident you can be that you’re on the right track, but it’s always beneficial to you to reserve at least some percentage of your capacity for trying new things and seeing if they work out.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. I guess it’s just my personality or strengths or whatever, it’s just like I find that exploration of the new is so much more exciting and interesting.

Josh Kaufman
I’m right there with you.

Pete Mockaitis
And sometimes to my detriment. It’s like, “No, no, Pete, just continue doing the thing that’s really working for you instead of gallivanting off to some crazy thing,” but the gallivanting is fun. I guess when you talk about the context of slot machines, which is gaming is for the purpose of fun, then that may be all the more true.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, I think a lot of it comes down to – in the personal context, why are you doing this thing in the first place? There may very well be situations or decisions that you might make from a career standpoint that might get you a lower financial return than other options, but if you have a payoff in another dimension, so maybe it’s personal interest and engagement maybe it’s exploring an area that you really love and you’re willing to make tradeoffs in order to work in that area.

There are all sorts of things to optimize for that aren’t necessarily financial return. I think the more broadly you think about what’s the reward for this thing that I’m trying to do and how can I get more of the things that I care about, the easier it is to make those sorts of tradeoffs.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Okay, when it comes to the hydra fighting, any other kind of key takeaways that you think are particularly on point for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, I think the understanding that it’s going to be difficult and that’s okay, is a really great mental framework to begin and that most of these sorts of challenges are met by both improving your skills, so getting better at doing the things that are critical to achieve the results that you want, and persistence and specifically persistence in the face of frustration and difficulty.

And so it’s very easy, particularly early on – this is actually a theme in my second book, The First 20 Hours. When you’re doing something new or something you’re not familiar with or something you’re not very good at yet, that early experience of trying to make progress and not getting the results you want is extremely frustrating.

Understanding that persistence is the thing that allows you to push through those early barriers and solve the challenges and get what you want, the more you can understand that that is the path to victory. It’s not being naturally skilled. It’s not having some sort of magic problem-solving device. It is consistent effort, attention and energy over a long period of time.

That is setting you up for success in a way that a lot of messages in broader culture, just don’t really help you with.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us a couple, quotables or articulations of the counter message that’s suboptimal?

Josh Kaufman
Well, I think the best way to frame it—that I’ve seen in various forms is don’t compare your inside versus somebody else’s outside. social media does not do us many favors here because you tend to see the highlight reel of other people’s lives. You see the promotions. You see the vacations. You see the raises. You see the major status-oriented achievements. You don’t necessarily see, the struggle or the fear or the anxiety or the work that goes into a lot of  the achievements that other people have.

Understanding that everyone deals with the same challenges of not knowing what’s going to happen next, not knowing if an investment is going to pay off not knowing if something is a really great idea that’s going to change their life or career or a terrible idea that is going to blow up their life or career. It’s a universal problem.

Giving yourself a bit of grace and being comfortable saying “I may not be where I want to be yet, but I am on a path and I am working towards getting there,” that goes a very long way.

Pete Mockaitis
Not to kill dreams prematurely, but I guess the counter side of persistence is knowing when is it appropriate to shut down a plan that is not going to cut the mustard. Any pro tips on that side of things?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, the biggest advice I can give in that regard is be very, very clear about what you want upfront. The way that I like to think about this most people’s goals or dreams if they’ve articulated them to themselves are very broad and very general. Broad and general to the point where it doesn’t really give your brain anything to work with in figuring out how to get there.

The acronym or approach that works really well for me is PICS, P-I-C-S. That’s positive, immediate, concrete, and specific. Those are the qualities that should apply. When you write down what you want, try to make it as concrete, specific, vivid and something that you can look into the world and figure out, “have I achieved this thing or not. Am I there?”

“I want to climb a mountain,” is very not specific. “I want to climb Mt. Everest by next year,” is much more specific. You can do something with that.

Pete Mockaitis
I like the acronym PICS just because that’s kind of what you’re getting at is we’re trying to paint a picture that’s super clear, that we know if we’ve hit it or have not hit it.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, the more vividly you can imagine what your life looks like and what this thing you want to achieve looks like when it has been accomplished, the more useful it is going to be in terms of figuring out what to do next to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Then it’s easier to make that call. It’s like, “This is what I was going for and what I’m experiencing is in no way, close to that nor getting closer to it, over time,” so there you go as opposed to if it were fuzzy, it would be tougher to know that we’re not where we’re headed or where we wanted to be.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, I think a lot of people experience that particularly early on in their career, where they have this image before they enter the workforce or in a new role about what it’s going to look like and what it’s going to feel like and what their life is going to be. And a lot of times, the early experiences don’t match up very well with that. it helps to be able to really articulate what am I trying to get out of this, what is the benefit for me, what do I care about and what do I not care about so much? And then be able to figure out, okay, on a day-to-day basis, is this thing taking you closer in the direction of where you want to be or is it actually taking you farther away?

In my corporate career, I was actually in product development in marketing at Proctor & Gamble, which a huge consumer goods company. I was really excited. I loved creating new things. That part was really great. I decided to move on from the company when I was in a meeting to prepare for a meeting to prepare for a meeting to prepare for a meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you unpack that?

Josh Kaufman
Four levels of ….

Pete Mockaitis
The layers of the meetings. I’ve got to hear this.

Josh Kaufman
A lot of how product development works was we’re individual teams who are working on things and they would essentially pitch it to the vice president/president level in order to get funding.

I was having a meeting with my manager to prepare for a meeting with the brand manager of the product that this would be under to prepare for a meeting with the marketing director, and then to prepare for a the final pitch to the vice president and president to get funding.

And all of those meetings were important. And then I just looked at my life. I’m like, “I don’t want to exist in meetings for the rest of my career. There are other things I want to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
What’s intriguing is that the final, final meeting was still an internal one as opposed to say a venture capitalist or Wal-Mart, Amazon. Are they going to carry your product? It was still an internal one.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, absolutely. I actually had quite a few meetings with Wal-Mart and Target and Costco and all the big retailers and somehow those were more straightforward than the internal meetings about how to allocate funding. It’s kind of funny.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay, well, so that’s a little bit about the hydra story. I cannot help myself if I’m talking to Josh Kaufman, I’ve got to get some of your wisdom when it comes to self-directed learning. I first heard about you when you came up with the notion of the personal MBA which sounds great. What’s your take here in terms of should nobody pay for a traditional MBA and how do you view this world?

Josh Kaufman
I think that if you’re already working at a company you like, you know you want to move up in that company internally there’s a requirement to have an MBA, uh, to have the position that you desire and the company is willing to pay for it, then that’s probably a pretty good reason to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, some stringent criteria.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah. Anything else aside from that it’s probably going to be more expensive, both in terms of financial time and opportunity cost than you expect and the value of the credential in and of itself is just not really great. In a financial sense, it’s almost always a negative ROI.

If the goal is to understand what businesses are, how they work, and either how to start a new business or make any existing business better, you can learn how to do that on your own. You don’t necessarily have to spend years and tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn business skills. Business skills are very learnable on your own.

The goal with The Personal MBA was to create the best possible introduction, that I could make to the world of business. So assuming you know absolutely nothing about how businesses work, how can you understand all of the parts, that go into making a business work in a way that allows you to do important stuff, whether that’s making a new product, new company or just doing better in your existing job?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. You did a nice job of unpacking the key sub skills that are associated with the MBA and then you’ve got an infamous – maybe just famous, I don’t know about infamous – reading list associated with when it comes to strategy and these marketing and all these things that are handy to know to comprise what an MBA knows and getting there.

I’d love to get your take then when it comes to doing this learning on your own as opposed to in a classroom or a group environment, what are some of your pro tips for pulling that off successfully outside those supports?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah. I think the biggest thing is aside from the basics of setting aside time to read and research and think and apply, that’s going to be necessary in any case. There’s a particular type of thing that when you’re self-studying you should, look for.

A lot of traditional academic book learning is all about memorizing terms and techniques, so specific things that apply in specific situations. I think a much better way to approach learning for application in general is to look for things that are called mental models.

A mental model is basically a conceptual understanding about how a thing in the world works, what it looks like, how different parts of a system interact with each other. It’s essentially one level of abstraction higher.

It’s being able to see the same principles at work in, businesses in different industries, different markets, different products, products to services, understanding how things work at a deeper level and that gives you the ability to look at a situation you’re not familiar with and that you have no context about and have a place to start and have a place to figure out how you would go about getting more information or make decisions in this particular area.

And so, The Personal MBA is really designed around that idea. Let’s learn the most important mental models about business, about people because businesses are created by, run by, and run for the benefit of people, so let’s understand psychology and communication and how that works.

And then systems because most successful businesses are essentially comprised of systems, processes that can be repeated in order to produce a predictable result. The more you understand about systems in general, the more you’re going to be able to take that back to a functioning business or a new business and say these are the things that would probably make the biggest difference right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us an example of a mental model? It’s like, “Oh, because I understand this one thing, I can now take that with me and apply it to having a starting point for this other thing.”

Josh Kaufman
Sure. So one of my favorites, which is, early in the book for a reason is what I call the five parts of every business. And it’s uh, this very universal way of deconstructing a system or deconstructing a business into, universal parts that help you understand how it functions at a very fundamental level. The five parts are value creation, marketing, sales, value delivery, and finance.

Every business creates something of value to other people, could be it products, could be it service, could be a shared resource like a museum. There are all sorts of different ways businesses create value, but it always makes something that other people want or need. So it’s important to understand what that is and why people want or need it, how that value is created to the people who ultimately pay the business’s bills.

Marketing is all about attracting attention for this valuable thing that you’ve created. So how do you make sure that people know that you have something valuable to offer them?

And then from there, you can attract all the attention you want, but if nobody ever pulls out their check book or credit card and says, “Yes, please. I’ll take one,” you don’t have a business. You have something else. And so sales is the process of taking someone who is interested in what you have to offer and then encouraging them to become a paying customer of the business. It’s the part where, money flows into the business instead of running out.

It turns out, if you take people’s money and you don’t deliver what you promised, you’re not running a business; you’re running a scam.

Pete Mockaitis
You find yourself in prison.

Josh Kaufman
Exactly. So value delivery is the part where you have a paying customer. This is great. You have something valuable that you’ve promised to deliver them. Let’s deliver this thing in a way that makes the customer deliriously happy. This is everything from the construction of physical products, the, service, delivery, follow-up calls, and all of those things that turns a paying customer into a happy customer. That’s all in value delivery.

And then finance is essentially the analytical step. So, in, value creation, you’re usually spending money to make this thing. You’re investing. Same with marketing. You may be spending on advertising. You may be spending on any form of outreach to attract more attention to this thing you’ve made.

Sales is the wonderful part where money comes in. Then value delivery, when you are making your customer happy delivering what you’ve promised, you’re usually spending money there too.

And so finance is the process of analyzing all the money that you’re spending and all the money that you’re bringing in and answering two very fundamental questions. One, is more money coming in than is going out, because if not, you have a problem. And then, number two, is it enough. Is it what we’re bringing in from this system worth the time and energy that it’s taking to run the whole thing?

And no matter how large or small the business is, whether you’re one of the largest companies in the world or you are a company of one starting something new for the first time, if you’re bringing in money and it’s enough and it’s worthwhile to keep going, congratulations, you have a successful business. That’s all it takes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so then that mental model there is you just said, hey, we’ve got these five components, so even if I know, know jack diddly squat about, real estate investing and, buying homes and renovating them and renting them out, by applying this model of the five key areas, I can sort of quickly get an understanding in terms of saying, “Okay, what is it that customers, people who rent apartments want?” and then away you go.

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, that’s exactly it. I was doing consulting and advising related to personal MBA for many years. It was really fun talking to people who worked in wildly different industries and markets, being able to come back to the same core process of okay, I may be speaking to someone who is implementing electronic health care records for midsized doctor’s offices with 10 to 20 doctors practicing.

That’s not an area that I had any direct expertise or experience in, but coming back to this framework, it was very easy to understand what was going on, what was important, where the opportunities were just based on a conversation around, “okay, these are the areas of this particular business that I need to know before we can dig in on here’s what’s going to be most beneficial and what you should focus on.”

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you.

Josh Kaufman
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well so then I’d love to go a little bit deeper when it comes to the how associated with, developing these skills. You’ve laid out kind of a four-step approach for learning a new skill within a mere 20 hours, not 10,000. How does this go?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah. This is part of my research for I did for my second book, The First 20 Hours. The goal for that one was to understand how to go from knowing absolutely nothing about something you’re trying to do to being reasonably good in a very short period of time. Usually that early learning is slow and frustrating, so anything that we can do to make it a little bit faster and way less frustrating is going to beneficial for us long term.

That goes back to the PICS acronym we discussed earlier. Like, getting very clear, very specific about what you want to do, how you want to be able to perform, and what that looks like when you’re done.

And so from there you’re able to take that image of what you want and, do what’s called deconstructing it into smaller parts. usually the skills that we want to learn, aren’t single skills in isolation. They’re actually bundles of different skills.

So a good way to visualize this is imagine a complex game like golf. So playing golf actually involves lots of different things. I don’t play myself, so apologies if the terminology is wrong. But driving the ball off of a tee and putting it into the hole, on the green, are two very different things.

And so the more you can understand what those isolated sub skills look like and which ones are most important to get what you want, the easier it is to practice the things that are going to, to give you the best return for your invested time and energy. You practice those things first.

Learning just enough to go out and be able to correct yourself as you’re practicing gives you the biggest return.

Too much research can be a subtle form of procrastination. That’s actually something that I, struggled with quite a bit. I want to know everything about what I’m trying to do before I do it. Spending just a little bit of time and energy researching just enough to go out and try to do it and to be able to notice when you’re doing something wrong and then try, go back again and self-correct. That’s really important.

There are two other things that are particularly important, so removing barriers to practice, some of those barriers can by physical, mental or emotional. Make it as easy as possible for you to sit down and spend some dedicated time getting better at this thing that you want to do. Then pre-commit to learning the most important sub skills first for at least 20 hours.

The pre-commitment is a very powerful tool from a psychological standpoint that makes it much more likely you’re going to practice long enough to start seeing benefits. So the early hours, super frustrating, so you need to have some type of method, some way of getting past that early frustration.

And the best tool that I found is pre-committing to a relatively short period of time and I recommend 20 hours as a nice happy medium for most of the skills that we would learn either in a personal or professional context.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy with the pre-commitment upfront. “Hey, this is what it’s going to be and I’m ready for it. I’m strapped in and we’re kind of pushing past it,” as opposed to, “Hey, it turns out I’m not good at this and I hate it, so we’re done.” That’s nice there.

When it comes to the sub skills, could you – I imagine it varies quite a bit skill to skill – but could you give us a further example of, what’s the approximate breakdown in terms of when it comes to sub skills, I think I might make it a bit too granular in terms of “There are 83 sub skills.” What do you think is kind of the right level of detail when defining the sub skills that we’re going to tackle?

Let’s say I want to be handy. I’m a homeowner now. I want to be handy around the house. It’s like, okay, well, we can talk about screwing screws. We can talk about drilling holes. We can talk about drywall. We can talk about furniture assembly, etcetera.

I think that it might be possible to subdivide it into a huge number of things and maybe, well, hey, being handy is a very broad thing that warrants that. But could you give me a sense for what’s roughly the right size of the piece when we think about a sub skill that we’re going to get our arms around?

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, so in an instance like that, I’m really glad you brought it up because you’re right, being handy is like a state of being that you develop over time. It’s hard to look at your day-to-day life and experience a moment where you think to yourself, “Wow, I have really accomplished being handy.”

Pete Mockaitis
I have arrived at handiness.

Josh Kaufman
Yes, like I’m here. But one thing that’s really useful in situations like these is to think in terms of discrete projects. So look around your house for all of things that you would want to change or improve.

So I think the drywall example is a really interesting one. Let’s say there’s a section of your house where for whatever reason the drywall needs to be replaced. Maybe it has dents in it. Maybe it wasn’t done well the first time, who knows. But there’s some section of wall where you want to do that.

That is breaking down this very meta ‘I want to be handy’ into ‘I want this particular section of my house to look good and having it look good requires drywall work.’ That gives you the context to figure out, “Okay, if I’m going to work on this piece of the house, here are all of the things that I’m going to need to learn how to do and here are some of the tools I need and here’s how I’m going to have to figure out how to get the drywall down.” You can start breaking it into smaller and smaller parts.

And then the practice of it might look like saying, “Okay, I’m going to try to replace this myself. And I’ve never done it before. I’m a little hesitant to do it, but it’s either going to be done or I’m going to put 20 hours into the doing of it.”

If you’re terrible and everything looks horrible and you need to hire somebody to fix all of your problems after the 20-hour-mark, great, but in the meantime you’re going to focus on solving this specific problem with the time you have allotted to it.

Pete Mockaitis
What I love about the 20 hours, to jump in there, is that it’s – on the one hand that seems like a crazy big amount of time if you think about someone who already knows what they’re doing. It’s like, this could be a one-, two-, three-hour job max for, uh, someone who’s uh, experienced with drywall. But you have laid it out that I’ve pre-committed to the 20 hours. The goal is to learn the thing such that I can deliver on this one project.

I think that does a huge service in terms of short-circuiting that frustration because if—if you find yourself in hour 16 like “This is insane. It’s taken me over five times as long as somebody who knows what they’re doing would take them,” you’d be like, “Ah yes, but I’m almost done and according to my 20-hour commitment, therefore I’m winning.”

Josh Kaufman
Yeah, totally. I really like um – there’s just something about making the commitment that short circuits all sorts of very detrimental things. The First 20 Hours, the first edition of the book was published in 2013.

And now like, five years later, having lived with this for a long time, every time I pick up a new skill, I have to think to myself, “Okay, I’m going to do this. If I’m terrible, I’m going to be terrible for 20 hours. If I don’t like it, if I’m having a miserable time, then I only am going to be miserable for 20 hours and then I can stop.”

But just making that mental shift of it’s okay if I’m not good at the beginning. It’s okay if it’s frustrating. I’m just going to push through that because I know that if I stick with it long enough at minimum I’m going to be a lot better than I was when I started.

Um so, there’s just a whole lot of excellent goodness in both letting it be hard, like not expecting it to not be because it very often is. It usually is. But then also helping to really shift into the mode of, um, not comparing your skills or abilities versus other people who have probably been doing it for a lot longer than you have.

Like, that’s a huge trap, both in skill acquisition, but also in business and creative endeavors in general. Like looking at somebody else and their level of development and expecting ourselves to have those skills and that level of development from hour zero.

This—this approach really helps you to hone in on, “Okay, where am I right now? Where do I want to be?” And then as you’re putting in the time, you can see yourself getting better and better and better.

It’s called the Power Law of Practice. It’s one of the most reliable, effects or studies in cognitive psychology. The first few hours that you practice something new, you will get dramatically better very, very quickly. It’s just a matter of sitting down to do the work in the first place and then persisting long enough to actually see that improvement happen.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig that. I also really appreciate the notion of the comparisons and how, I guess, silly and futile and unproductive that is in the sense of I can imagine, it’s like well, you can think about something that you’re amazing at and then say, “Well, what if my contractor tried to start a podcast or deliver a keynote speech or write a book?” It’s like, things that I’m good at.

It’s like, “Well, he’d probably not so graceful and elegant, kind of the way I do right now as I’m hacking through this drywall and doing a comically poor job.”

Josh Kaufman
Absolutely. That’s exactly the way to think about it. Like, there are things that you have become amazing at because you have learned and practiced consistently over a very long period of time. That—that’s just how humans fundamentally improve at everything.

And so you can take that general insight is if you approach the early part of the process in a skillful way, so knowing it’s going to feel hard and it’s going to feel frustrating. And that’s okay. That’s expected. If you can get through that early part, then you can become better at anything that you put your mind to. It’s mostly a decision of what to work on and of all of the things that you could work on or improve at, what are the things that are going to give you most of the results that you want.

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

Josh Kaufman
This has been really great. I think the um, underlying theme of my work in general, and I have some new books that are in various stages of, of research right now, but I really try to focus on, on the, uh, straightforward, practical wisdom if that makes sense, just trying to understand important areas of life, figure out how to get really good results in that area, and describe it in a straightforward way.

If anyone decides to explore my work, I really hope that’s what they take away, whether it’s business or learning a new skill or tacking this big ambitious project you’ve always wanted to do, I hope you’ll take away some, um, very straightforward, very practical approaches and techniques that will help you get what you want.

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

Josh Kaufman
I love quotes. I collect them. It’s hard to pick a favorite. So there’s one attributed to Andy Rooney that I think about a lot, which is, “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all of the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.”

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

Josh Kaufman
Well, all of my books are my collected research,so that’s kind of an ongoing uh, uh project. Part of how the personal MBA came to be, was reading a bunch of business books and—and pointing folks to the ones that I—I found most useful.

A book that I’m in the process of reading now, by Mo Bunnell called The Snowball System, which the best way I can describe it is like, sales and business development for normal people, who may approach the sales or business development process with a little bit of trepidation or not wanting to be a salesy person. Mo does a really, really great job of making sales and relationships very practical and very accessible. I’m about halfway through it and I’m really enjoying it so far.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. How about a favorite tool?

Josh Kaufman
Favorite tool. Well, we were talking about this a little earlier. I’m doing a lot of podcasts and audio book recording.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, you sound amazing.

Josh Kaufman
Thanks, yeah. So, so the microphone I’m talking into right now is the Mohave Audio MA-200. No joke I ordered I think it was 12 different microphones from various manufacturers. I spent—I spent like three solid days recording the same thing into each microphone and trying to compare how they sounded. This one is a really good one. If you do any sort of recording of any sort, I would highly recommend it.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Josh Kaufman
Favorite habit, so I am,  in the process of really firmly establishing a strength training routine. I have been exercising with kettle bells, which I love for all sorts of different reasons. They are inexpensive and compact. I used to live in New York City, so I could imagine myself having this in my former 340 square foot apartment. You can get a really excellent workout in about 25 minutes. In terms of return for your time and effort invested, it’s really high. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks? They keep retweeting it and quoting you back to you.

Josh Kaufman
I think that one of the recent ones, which was related to Hydra, is about the idea of exploration. By virtue of doing it, you’re kind of committing to wandering lost in the woods for a while if that makes sense. So many of us feel really bad when it’s not immediately obvious where we should go next or what we should do next.

Part of understanding that this is an adventure and that adventure requires exploration and exploration involves being lost for a while. That’s something that a lot of people have seemed to find very useful recently.

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

Josh Kaufman
Best place to go is my website, JoshKaufman.net. From there you can find links to the various websites for The Personal MBA, The First 20 Hours, and How to Fight a Hydra.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge for folks seeking to be awesome at their job?

Josh Kaufman
Sure. We’ll go back to our conversation about defining very clearly what you want, what that looks like, what your day-to-day life looks like when you get it, what you’re going to be able to do when you reach the level of skill or development that you’re looking for.

The more clearly you’re able to articulate to yourself what you want, what that looks like, and very importantly, what you’re not willing to do in order to get it – so are there lines you won’t cross, are there tradeoffs that you’re not willing to make? The more you are able to understand the full details, the full scope of what you’re trying to get, the easier it’s going to be for you to figure out how to get it and figure out what you should do next.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Josh, this has been a load of fun. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us and you’re lovely sound over on the microphone.

Josh Kaufman
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I wish you tons of luck with the hydra fighting and all you’re up to.

Josh Kaufman
Pete, this has been great. Thanks so much for inviting me.

156: Making Complex Decisions Confidently with Cheryl Strauss Einhorn

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Journalist Cheryl Strauss Einhorn shares a robust approach to complex decision-making via AREA perspective-taking method.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make complex decisions with the AREA Method
  2. Why you should document your decision problems
  3. How to slow down to speed up your decision-making

About Cheryl

Cheryl Einhorn is the creator of the AREA Method, a decision making system for individuals and companies to solve complex problems. Cheryl is the founder of CSE Consulting and the author of the book Problem Solved, a Powerful System for Making Complex Decisions with Confidence & Conviction. Cheryl teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and has won several journalism awards for her investigative stories about international political, business and economic topics.

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