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572: How Morning Practices Like Savoring and Investing in Calm Boost Productivity with Chris Bailey

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Productivity THOUGHT LEADER(!) Chris Bailey shares how investing in your calm can boost your productivity and how savoring the little things every day can help you start your day right.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How calm provides the greatest return on productivity
  2. Why you shouldn’t feel guilty over being less productive now
  3. How and why to savor

About Chris

Chris Bailey is a productivity expert, and the international bestselling author of Hyperfocus and The Productivity Project—which have been published in seventeen languages. Chris writes about productivity at Alifeofproductivity.com, and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive, without hating the process. To date, he has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity, and has garnered coverage in media as diverse as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, The Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review, GQ, TED, Fortune, Fast Company, and Lifehacker. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Chris Bailey Interview Transcript

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

Chris Bailey
You have me back.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. It’s number three. That’s pretty rare. Far too rare.

Chris Bailey
Wow, really?

Pete Mockaitis
Did you forget one already?

Chris Bailey
Huh, I think I was asleep through one of them and intoxicated. No, I’m kidding. It’s good to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s good to have you back. And, boy, in the meantime, from my stalking of you because I wasn’t invited, you know, not a problem, I see you got married. Hey, congratulations.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, you can see the ring in the video.

Pete Mockaitis
That too.

Chris Bailey
Thank you for the congrats. It’s fun. It’s been fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I just imagined that your wedding was a star-studded event full of productivity giants which is why it was odd that my invitation didn’t come through the mail.

Chris Bailey
You know, my wife and I, we’re pretty cheap. Frugal. Cheap has negative connotations. We’re frugal so we just had like a dinner party.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no kidding.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, because we thought, “Man, we should put this money towards a house or something rather than a wedding.” And so that’s what we did. It’s hard to keep wedding costs down because you order the same service. The first time you tell them you’re having a wedding. The second time, you don’t. The wedding quote is twice as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I noticed that. I was tempted to see, “How can I not lie?” It’s like, “We’re having a family gathering. Families are gathering.”

Chris Bailey
Two families, specifically, gathering and combining. We’ll pay a third of the price for that photographer and that photo booth, it turns out.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Yeah, that’s wild because they know they can get you. And so, well, you’re married and I want to get your quick take. So, you’re a productivity thought leader.

Chris Bailey
Oh, no, please don’t say that.

Pete Mockaitis
You lead thoughts. What has been like sort of the marital adjustment in terms of how does it feel different?

Chris Bailey
Well, you know, Pete, life as a thought leader is challenging during the best of times, let alone when you’re trying to introduce thought leadership into a new…oh, man, I feel like such a douche right now. But I don’t know, it’s fun. In a way, nothing has changed but, I guess, legally, pretty much everything has changed. We’re both pretty productive. I think the biggest thing that’s changed lately is how our routines are integrated into one another.

I think pretty much everybody on the planet has the same situation that they’re facing where maybe they work with their loved ones, maybe they’re not newly-weds and so their work situation is becoming more challenging perhaps. And we’re all trying to find a new normal right now amidst the virus shakeup, the great shutdown, the hibernation, whatever you want to call it. We’re all trying to find new routines.

So, we settled into a nice routine of working from home around one another. I have my office which makes things a bit easier for me, but she has her own system of doing focused work in her desk area. So, I don’t know, we’re having fun, we’re dealing with the challenges, and we’re just having a good time.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Well, so I caught your name in the Washington Post, nice job, thought leader. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, let’s get Chris again,” because, yeah, we’re in a new world for awhile here. And we’ve had a couple people with sort of episodes kind of really particular COVID-focused and then just a smattering of COVID tidbits and some others. But I want to get your take on, alright, so we’re in this environment where there’s a virus raging, there’s some restrictions and limitations. Some folks are really gung-ho, like, “This is going to be my moment to do this stuff,” and other people are saying, “No way. There’s such a mental load. I’m going to do almost nothing.” How do you think about this?

Chris Bailey
I think everybody is different, and that’s a terrible answer that nobody wants to hear, but the fact of the matter is everybody’s situation is different during a time like this. And productivity is so often a process of understanding the constraints inside of which we live and work. And in a situation like this, everybody’s constraints are changing overnight, and we all had different ones to begin with. So, what we’re seeing right now, it’s a word that isn’t mentioned enough, but privilege. Those of us who have cushier jobs where we’re able to work from home, we’re not experiencing the economic brunt of the crisis that’s going on.

Something else is kids. Our lives are structured, we don’t have kids at the time, but our lives are structured around families and daycares and schools, and those kids existing in a system that isn’t our home during the day when we’re trying to work from home. And so, I think a question like this, you know, there are a lot of posts flying around right now, “Oh, make the best of your quarantine time. Don’t gain the quarantine 15. Lose the quarantine…How to stay productive, how to write the great American novel whilst in quarantine.”

These things totally miss the mark. They don’t get the fact that, “Okay, maybe my situation is different from yours, which is different from the situation of a single working mother with three kids, which is different from the situation of a retiree, somebody who lives in an old-age home, whatever.” Everybody’s situation is different.

And so, I think we have to, A, realize that we’re all operating under different constraints, and, B, not feel guilty about how we’re spending our time right now, because the simple truth and the fact of the matter is some of us are struggling, and that’s okay. It’s okay if you find it hard to be productive right now. It’s okay if you find it hard to focus. It’s okay if caffeine is no longer working for you for some reason. It’s okay if you feel a bit anxious. These feelings are universal and we do need coping strategies for these, but we do need to take care of ourselves at the same time.

People talk of the importance of self-care in the normal-est of times because it’s just a topic that we need to hear and practice, but it’s so much more important right now. And so, in a way, I think I’m a bit fed up with people giving too much productivity advice right now, saying that we should make the best of this time while they don’t recognize the fact that everybody is going through something different right now, and maybe that works for them but maybe not for everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup.

Chris Bailey
Sorry, rant over.

Pete Mockaitis
No, that resonates. It’s absolutely true. We’ve all got a different situation and sometimes it’s a more dramatic change for some than others. I’m still working from home in my home office, which is what I was doing before the pandemic, although there’s different things going on in the family and kid situation. And so, I think that’s a great word right there in terms of it’s okay and it’s normal to be experiencing those sorts of things. So, I’d like to know, that’s one mistake is beating yourself up. Another mistake is providing one-size-fits-all prescriptive advice. What are some of the other don’ts or mistakes you recommend we avoid as we’re trying to stay productive during this time?

Chris Bailey
I think trying to push yourself too hard. It’s something that I’m quickly realizing during a time like this because I’m feeling anxious just like most other people. I have parents who are getting a bit older. I’m connected. My wife has asthma so she’s definitely one of the more vulnerable people in a situation like this.

I think something we need to realize right now is that the path to greater productivity during a time like this is through calm, right? By investing in our calm, we’re able to invest in our sense of productivity at the same time. And the reason for this is our minds are so anxious, they’re so revved up, mine is anxious just like everybody else is. In a time like this, when there’s so much chaos flying around us in our mental and our physical environments, it’s often a settled mind that we need more than almost anything else.

So, the path of productivity is through the lens of calm. And so, if there’s another mistake that we’re making, A, we’re not being kind enough to ourselves, B, we’re trying too hard to be productive, but, C, we’re not investing enough in calm, and there are multiple ways of doing this. One of my favorites that I’ve started to do each and every morning is investing in the analog world. When we’re spending our days inside, we tend to gravitate towards screens. We tend to gravitate to what’s latest and loudest at the expense of slowing down a little bit, and maybe disconnecting a little bit, and being kind to ourselves, and being patient with ourselves, and doing something slow with our time.

So, that’s something that I think is worth getting across. In addition to self-kindness, in addition to taking it easy with your productivity a little bit, invest in calm more than you think you ought to because that’s often…that’s one of the greatest returns on our productivity. And here’s the ruler stick against which we should be measuring our productivity advice today, is, “For every minute we spend on a piece of productivity advice, how much time does that allow us to make back?”

And so, some things, watching Netflix, for every minute you spend watching Netflix, you probably lose about a minute of productivity because that’s the opportunity cost of watching that. Maybe you’re a bit less motivated after the fact and so, you actually lose more time than you spend. But other strategies like planning out our day is a really good example of this. For every minute you spend planning out your day, you make back 5-10 minutes of productivity because of how much more focused you’re able to work.

In an environment as chaotic as the one in which we’re finding ourselves today, calm actually produces a remarkably high return on our time because trying to work with an anxious mind, it’s a struggle to focus, it’s a struggle to pay attention, it’s a struggle to think deeply, and do deep work, and hyper-focus on what’s important each and every day. But it’s calm that provides us with the greatest return. So, maybe that trifecta of ideas might help people out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, when it comes to investing in calm, I’d love to hear, I guess there’s many ways you can do that. Let’s rattle them off. So, you’re doing some analog stuff, you’re doing some non-screen stuff, what are these things?

Chris Bailey
I think the analog world is key to spend more time in. And here’s the thing, a lot of people think calm is a passive thing, like, “Oh, I have a few minutes to spare. Let me go on Twitter. Let me check the New York Times. Let me hop on the Washington Post and see what thought leaders are saying about this current pandemic crisis.” But this is our impulse because we gravitate again to what’s latest and loudest, but it’s not necessarily right. And, by the way, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over that. It’s our natural impulse to gravitate to what’s latest and loudest. But maybe a good way of phrasing this is that we deserve better than we’re giving ourselves.

We deserve like genuine, true relaxation. We don’t deserve Twitter. We deserve more than Twitter. We deserve more than the news. We deserve more than Facebook right now. And so, a good place to start is realizing that calm, acquiring calm, is often an active process. It doesn’t just waff over us. We have to go and seek it out and invest a little bit in it.

And so, I’m kind of an antisocial person. In the best of times, I’m always trying to find excuses not to hang out with people, “Oh, I’d love to grab a drink tonight, Pete, but I have to go to bed early and wake up early the first thing in the morning.” But the truth is, after I spend time with people, I realize, “Oh, there was nothing to be anxious about. And, oh, it took a little bit of energy to get started with a tactic like that, but I was all the more calm for it.” And I think this is something we need to keep in mind right now, is it’s often through actively investing in relaxation strategies that we get the most calm.

And so, anything that allows us to reconnect with the fact that we’re human is a wonderful wellspring of calm. So, meditation, just focusing on our breath, it’s a simple reminder that we’re human, but it’s a beautiful one. Exercise, something we’re probably not getting enough of if we’re in a situation where we can step back a little bit from the current situation and invest in that. Eating good food, proper food that our bodies evolved to thrive in, not processed stuff, that actually elevates our cortisol levels, which is the hormone that our body produces in response to stressful situations. So, simple things like that. Finding something to savor each and every day.

So, I’m drinking a protein shake right now, as you can see, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re savoring it.

Chris Bailey
Savoring the hell out of this thing because it’s this delicious concoction – Vega Protein Shake. Not only are they vegan, if you’re into that, but they also have only one gram of sugar yet they’re chocolate-flavored. They contain a lot of cocoa so I like to savor that. But find one thing to savor each and every day. It’s an active process, and you think, “Man, why don’t I just savor stuff? Why do I have to make a task, a job out of it?” But the truth is you’ll get so much more out of what you’re savoring when you make a deliberate effort to do so.

No cheeseburger will be as delicious as the one you focus on with 100% of your attention because you’re trying to savor the heck out of it. No protein shake will be as delicious and energizing. No conversation will be as engrossing as the one you’re in completely. And so, this is something that we need to find. Engagement is a salve for anxiety, and so when we find things to be engaged with, not only do we become more productive, we also find calm, we also are able to settle down a little bit, become a bit happier, and enjoy the process of doing things.

One other thing that I’ll mention, at the risk of going too long on this answer but I think it’ll be helpful for people, is we walk around so often with a productivity mindset. And so, what I mean by this is we’re always looking to tick boxes, we’re always looking to get things done, and we never really let up with this mindset. So, when we find ourselves with a bit of time during which we can relax, instead of doing something that is genuinely relaxing, we realize, “Oh, we have just a few minutes of time. Let’s vege out.” When, really, intentional relaxation is what we need during which we set aside this productivity mindset when we’re trying to accomplish things.

And when we deliberately set aside this mindset, it abolishes the guilt that we would normally feel that comes along with active relaxation. So, we have this guilt of relaxation that often arises when we do something that allows us to invest in our calm, which is kind of ironic because when calm allows us to become more productive, we shouldn’t feel guilty about how we’re spending our time, and yet we do. And so, do minus productivity mindset. And the savor list, and the things that I was just mentioning, they do help combat this certain mindset because instead of trying to tick a box, we try to enjoy and experience a moment that we’re having.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, there’s a lot of good stuff there. You’re a real thought leader.

Chris Bailey
Sorry, that’s like a loaded suitcase that you now have to unpack.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, I dig it. Well, so then let’s talk about, alright, the process of savoring. So, you could savor a conversation, you could savor a glass of wine or a chocolate protein shake, a song, music, a sensation, a massage.

Chris Bailey
What song are you savoring right now?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a fine question. You know, I’ve actually been saving just some select nostalgic silly songs that remind me of happy times and laughter and friendship. So, it might be like Death Cab For Cutie “The Sound of Settling” for example.

Chris Bailey
Oh, that’s a classic tune.

Pete Mockaitis
It brings me back to college and my roommate and just like being silly, and it’s like, “Oh, those are fun times.”

Chris Bailey
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how does one savor?

Chris Bailey
Well, what’s something in your life that you enjoy?

Pete Mockaitis
I enjoy hanging out with my kids.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. So, how do you savor something like that? You bring your full attention to it. That’s it. We savor things automatically when we bring our full attention to them. And, also, when we notice what’s good about the things that we’re paying attention to. And so, this might sound like the corniest thing in the world, but it actually does work. Savoring things in gratitude trains our mind into looking for more opportunities that surround us.

So, I like savoring my morning cup of tea. I have a whole tea process. I’m a fan of Oolong tea and so I have a fancy kettle where I can make the perfect temperature for Oolong. It’s kind of like a green tea. By the way, the reason people don’t like green tea is not that green tea tastes bad. Everybody is like, “Oh, green tea tastes so bitter.” The reason green tea tastes bitter is you’re burning it. Green tea is meant to be steeped at around, I think it’s 80 degrees Celsius boiling water, around 100.

So, that’s step zero, get the tea at the right temperature. But in the morning, I just sit. I have a hanging chair in my living room that I got from Wayfair, and it kind of swings back and forth. And I’ve usually just woken up, so I wake up, I walk over to the kettle, I steep myself a nice cup of tea, and then I bring it over to the hanging chair, and I just simply try to enjoy the taste of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Don’t spill on yourself in the hanging chair.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, try not to sway too much or bump into something in my tired stupor. But a bit of sway never hurt anybody, as the old saying goes, and so I just kind of sway a little bit and enjoy that cup of tea, noticing the flavor. I think another key to savoring is to notice as much as you can, because when something is a desirable experience, the more you notice, the more you’re able to savor. So, notice as much as you can, bring your full attention to something, look for the things that are worth savoring embedded within an experience.

I don’t think there is anything in the world that cannot be savored. And that might sound like an odd statement because there’s a lot of negative things in the world, but savoring is all about a mindset. By God, Pete, there are these twisted people that derive pleasure from pain. If we can derive pleasure from pain, we can learn to savor pretty much anything. That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine challenges. That’s not to say that we should be placing rose-colored glasses over our entire life, neglecting reality, but this is to say that no matter the time, no matter the circumstance, we can always find something to enjoy deeply even.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I buy it. I was just thinking earlier about finding joy, and that I’m going to be proactively seeking it out, and noting it, and celebrating it, and express some gratitude for it, so that aligns much of what I’m thinking.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. And something that people can do right away. Make a list of everything you savor. And you don’t need to think into the future. Look into your past. What experiences have you had that have enveloped you completely that you found just really enjoyable? Was it a conversation with a certain friend that always seems to draw you in? Was it a cup of tea? Was it a favorite sushi meal from a place that you frequent?

Make a list of everything that you savor. Every day pick one. Treat yourself. And by savoring things deliberately, it’s a nice way of finding calm. You don’t even need to do anything hard with this strategy. You don’t need to focus on your breath for half an hour on a meditation cushion, for God’s sake. You just have to do something you enjoy and bring your full attention to it completely. Do it a bit slower so it goes on for longer. It’s nice. It’s just a nice thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so think that’s a great practice to do daily and always. I’d love to hear, if you were to zoom in to the moment in which, all right, some stuff needs to get done pretty soon, and we’re not feeling it. We are not in that groove but we kind of got to get into that groove kind of fast, savoring is a good kind of long-term strategy. What do you recommend for, in the here and now, we got to shake off the funk, how do you do it?

Chris Bailey
Patience is how you do it. We can become engaged with pretty much anything. That’s kind of the point of meditation. You learn to be able to focus on your breath because the idea is the breath is so boring. It’s more boring than watching paint dry, and our mind actively wanders away from it. And so, if we can focus on our breath and become engaged with our breath, we can become engaged with pretty much anything. But we do need to be patient with ourselves as we settle into certain tasks.

So, if you’re working up to something, a big task, say, you’re writing a report that your mind is finding really aversive, warm up to it. Maybe set a timer for 10 minutes and give yourself the choice, either work on that thing or do nothing. Your mind will settle down naturally and you will be able to warm up to something. So, start with that ugly task if you want, but you can also start with smaller tasks ahead of doing that so you don’t need to do that report right away. But maybe just answer a few emails first, maybe start with something that doesn’t require your full attention, and warm up to doing that thing.

Also, pay attention because anxiety, these days, is not consistent. Usually, it ebbs and flows over the course of the day, and there will be times of your day, for me it’s the morning, although I’ve gotten better, kind of managing things as the pandemic has worn on. For me, it’s the morning though, or at least it was at the beginning, where that was my calmest time of the day, and the anxiety would come later on in the day when I would tune in to the press conferences du jour here in Canada.

And so, I would take advantage of that morning calm by doing the focus work, the hyperfocus work, the deep work, that there was a struggle much of the rest of the time. And so, align the difficulty and complexity of the work you’re doing on top of how you’re feeling throughout the day, and that’s one of the biggest piece of advice that I can give, not only it lets become kinder to yourself, but it lets you warm up to more productive tasks, and also it lets you get more productive tasks done as you become more patient with yourself. You’ll probably need a bit of time for certain tasks but do take it.

Also, know how you start the morning. It matters more than almost anything else. So, distraction begets distraction, stimulation begets stimulation, so the more stimulated and distracted we become, the more we want to continue with that level of stimulation. So, what this means though is if you start the morning on a slow note, if you do something that calms you, if you find something to savor, hey, call back to the previous tactic. Find something to savor first thing in the morning. Play with your kids for half an hour, set a timer, whatever you need to do.

If you find something to savor first thing instead of just checking the news, you’ll find that you’ll become calmer automatically, and that it’ll be easier to focus when you delay the time of first check, because once you get caught into the rabbit hole, you want to just keep going. But if you start the day on a calm note, your mind won’t want to escalate how you’re feeling and it’ll be easier to find calm in a situation like that.

So, when you start calm, you stay calm, but do give yourself a bit of time to warm up to certain tasks, overlay the complexity of work to how you’re feeling if you find that how you’re feeling fluctuates quite a bit still.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Chris, tell me, any final thoughts before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Chris Bailey
You deserve better than to distract yourself right now. And this is a lesson that it’s easy advice to give but it’s something that I’m continually re-learning. We need to reflect on how our behaviors these days, more than almost any other day, what emotions they lead us to feel. So, we tend to gravitate to apps like Instagram and other distractions when we’re resisting how we’re feeling in the present moment, almost like an escape hatch in a way.

Mind the escape hatches of your day and pay attention especially to how you feel after you indulge in them because it’s sometimes with a bit of extra work that we find tasks that are slightly more challenging. For me, practicing the piano is more challenging than going on Instagram, but the feeling that I have after a session of playing the piano, after a session of knitting, after taking a bath, the feeling after these strategies, when I compare them to Instagram, or Twitter, or email, or YouTube even, they’re not even close. They produce more calm. They produce more relaxation. They produce less anxiety. They produce more happiness.

Pay attention to how you feel after indulging in the activities that are habits, have always been habits, to these days more than any. And, now, these days, habits aren’t the same as they were before. If you check up on the news first thing in the morning, usually you weren’t depressed the rest of the day, but if you find that you stumble upon a couple of, frankly, depressing stories each morning, it might be a bad way to start the day.

There was one study that was connected, I believe, by Shawn Achor, he’s an author and a happiness researcher, where he exposed participants to just, I think, three or four minutes of negative news the very thing in the morning after people woke up. And when he measured participants’ levels of happiness six to eight hours later, he found that the group that experienced that negative news was 27% less likely to rate themselves as being happy.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Chris Bailey
Wow, what a reminder that the information we consume matters, and that we need to mind the quality of it these days more than almost any other.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. And, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Chris Bailey
Well, I don’t know where this quote came from. I don’t think I stumbled upon it myself, just something, a thought of mine, but my favorite quote that I think about a lot is “Why do anything if you’re not going to do it right?” I love that, and it speaks to pride of what we do, of our actions, of our work, of what we say, of how we act towards others, and make others feel throughout the day too.

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

Chris Bailey
Oh, I’d find it funny if I did this. This is the third interview and I’ve mentioned three different favorite books.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we want that. Well, actually, keep it coming.

Chris Bailey
Yeah, let’s do “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger. I probably haven’t mentioned this before but it’s one that I’m re-reading. It’s one that I think is worth re-reading every few years. And it’s about the foods that we need to eat in order to live the longest, that are all validated by science. And here’s, again, the golden measurement for any productivity tactic, how much time do you get back. By God, this book might save you 10 or 20 years of your life by extending it by that much, so I can’t think of a better productivity book than that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Chris Bailey
Well, we just bought a drill…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, good choice.

Chris Bailey
…for home reno projects. But this clicky keyboard, this mechanical keyboard I would recommend…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’ve seen those.

Chris Bailey
…to almost anyone. This is the… I don’t remember the exact model. Oh, it’s on the bottom here. The Keychron K2 Wireless Mechanical Keyboard. And it’s these beautiful cherry brown switches that are like chocolate to write on, and it’s beautiful. It’s rich. It’s just a wonderful writing experience. I would equate, if you do a lot of writing throughout the day. Have you ever played a piano, Pete, in your life?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Chris Bailey
Yeah. You know, those like really crappy keyboard pianos where you press down and there’s no weight, and you think, “Oh, I’m just flipping a digital switch somewhere in the system, and it’s playing a sound through the speakers.” That’s what a regular keyboard feels like to me after enjoying the experience of a mechanical keyboard. It’s like upgrading from one of those crappy keyboards with no weight behind it to a grand piano. It’s all about the feeling. What you write matters more when you write it on a mechanical keyboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. And how about a favorite nugget?

Chris Bailey
Oh, man, probably productivity is the product of our time, attention, and energy. That’s one of them. And, also, the state of our attention determines the state of our lives. Those are probably the top two. There’s probably others. I have to look that up. I’m curious.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, right on.

Chris Bailey
Hey.

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

Chris Bailey
Well, there are a few places. My books are called “Hyperfocus” and “The Productivity Project.” I have a podcast now that I do with my wife called Becoming Better which we have a blast doing. And my website is called A Life of Productivity. There’s no ads, no sponsorships, just hopefully helpful productivity advice and one annoying newsletter popup.

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

Chris Bailey
Notice how different apps make you feel, the ones that you spend time on throughout the day. So, sometimes we’re on Instagram or Snapchat and we kind of scroll over to the wrong side of the app, and we see the selfie camera fire up, we usually don’t have like a huge gleeful expression on our face, like, “Oh, I’m on Instagram. What a wonderful time in my day and in my life.” We usually have kind of a dull stimulated look on our face because we’re not tuned in to how we feel when we’re using technology and when we’re engaged in certain activities.

I would say mind how you feel when you engage in your digital world this week, today even, to start after listening to this podcast. How do you feel after checking Twitter? How do you feel after checking the New York Times or the Washington Post? Mind that and change your behavior based on that. It’s one of the biggest and best weeks that we can do.

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best in your life of productivity.

Chris Bailey
Thank you. You, too.

563: Accelerating Your Career by Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist with Ozan Varol

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Ozan Varol discusses how to make giant leaps in your career by thinking like a rocket scientist.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How success can hinder growth—and what to do about it
  2. How to turn worrying into productive preparation
  3. How rocket scientists see and use failure

About Ozan:

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning professor and author. He served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, and later pivoted and became a law professor.

He’s the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. The book is # 1 on Adam Grant’s list of top 20 books of 2020. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain, “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink, and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ozan Varol Interview Transcript

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

Ozan Varol
Thank you so much for having me on, Pete. It’s a delight to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m delighted to dig into this. I really like thinking about thinking so this should be a rich conversation. To kick us off, could you maybe share with us an interesting behind-the-scenes story from your days working on the Mars Exploration Rovers?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One of the stories that immediately popped to mind, it was my first few months of working on the project, so this was back in 1999, and I’m serving on the operations team for the project, and that year was a particularly bad year for NASA for a number of reasons. But one story that I have in mind involves a spacecraft called a Mars Polar Lander, and that year, the Lander was supposed to land on Mars but, unfortunately, it crashed. The landing system failed.

Now, this wasn’t our baby but we were planning to use the exact same landing mechanism on our rover and, of course, our mission understandably was put on hold because what we thought was a safe way of landing on Mars had just failed spectacularly. And so, we were scrambling to find solutions and figure out a safe way of actually landing us on Mars. And I remember distinctly my boss, who’s the principal investigator of the mission, walked into my office one day, and he said, “I just got off the phone with the administrator of NASA, and he asked me a really simple question. He said, ‘Can we send two rovers instead of one?’”

Now, up until that point, NASA had been sending one rover to Mars every two years, so that was the default. And this question, it was such a simple question but one that none of us had thought of asking before. And, of course, we were going to fix the landing system but the NASA administrator reframed the problem because the problem wasn’t just this defect of the landing mechanism. Even if you fixed that, there are so many things that can go wrong when you’re sending this delicate robot 40 million miles through outer space, and crossing your fingers that it lands safely on the Martian surface.

So, instead of putting all of our eggs in one spacecraft basket and hoping that nothing bad happens along the way, we decided to send two rovers instead of one, and I’m so glad we did for a number of reasons. One, with economies of scale, the second rover ended up causing just pennies on the dollar, but on top of that, double the rovers meant double the science. They landed on two very different parts of the planet and we built these things to last for 90 days, they were named Spirit and Opportunity.

Spirit lasted for about six years and Opportunity, and I still get goosebumps when I say this, but it lasted 14 years into its 90-day mission just because someone there to step back and reframe the problem and see just the obvious insight that was hiding before everybody else’s nose.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really fun, and as you’re telling the story, I was thinking of, I think it’s from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster where they say, “Why buy one when you can have two for twice the price?”

Ozan Varol
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
But it wasn’t twice the price instead it was much more cost-effective because you know what you’re doing and then it seems like that’s cool, like the learnings. I guess, it’s that the idea is the second one lasted so much longer because you learned some things and you finetune some things after doing the first or you just got a little lucky.

Ozan Varol
Not necessarily. I think we just got lucky. We had two shots on goal, one ended up being six years and then the other one just ended up lasting for 14 because we were able to send it to a different location on Mars where the geographical conditions, the weather conditions were different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that was a fun story. Thank you. So, we’re going to talk about your book here about Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist. Well, first off, can you frame up the why for us. So, I’m thinking about professionals in particular, those with jobs who want to be awesome at them, why should we think like rocket scientists? What kind of benefits do we get? Or what about the landscape of work these days makes that a beneficial approach?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The world is evolving at a dizzying speed, and we all encounter these really complex and unfamiliar problems in our lives, and those people who can tackle those problems, with no clear guidelines and with the clock ticking, enjoy an extraordinary advantage regardless of what field you’re in. And so, the book isn’t about the science behind rocket science, so I’m not going to try to teach you the theory of relativity. More, it’s about taking these frameworks, ways of looking at the world, processes of thinking from rocket science, and then walking you through how you can employ them in your own life to make your own giant leaps.

One of the biggest conceptions about rocket science is that it’s celebrated as a triumph of technology, but it’s really not. It’s the triumph of the humans behind the technology and this thought process that they use to turn the seemingly impossible into the possible. It was the same thought process that allowed Neil Armstrong to take a giant leap for mankind. It’s the same thought process that we use when we worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission to send these rovers 40 million miles across outer space and land them exactly where we wanted. And it’s the same thought process that’s bringing us closer and closer to colonizing other planets. And, fortunately, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one.

And one of the things I’ve done with my life after I worked on the Mars Rovers project and I left, I pivoted and became a lawyer, and then a law professor, and now I’m an author and speaker, is to take these principles from rocket science and not only employ them in my own life to very different fields, but also teach others how to employ them as well and how to think like a rocket scientist. And the book is a culmination of really a lifelong journey for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so I’m intrigued. You laid out, “Hey, these are really cool results we got when you follow a thought process,” so that’s great. I’d like to have awesome problem-solving innovation abilities for sure. Can you maybe give us a cool story in terms of you saw someone, they were thinking non-rocket scientist-y, and they did something a little bit different with how they were thinking, and they saw a cool result? Could you give us a case study or a before-after tale that brings it together?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The one example that popped to mind that I talk about in the book is Alinea, which is the three-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Chicago. That’s right.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, it’s an amazing place. And one of the things that they’ve mastered is thinking like a rocket scientist, I kid you not, across very different ways. So, one is even when Alinea was at its heights in terms of the accolades that they’ve won, basically every award that one could’ve imagined, and they were bringing in a ton of profit, they decided to take a sledgehammer to themselves. So, at the very top of their game, they said, “We’re successful now, we’re about to get complacent, and to fend off complacency, we’re going to tear the place down and start over again, and to get rid of the assumptions and the outdated thinking that’s cluttering the way that we’re running our business.”

And so, they created Alinea 2.0 which has also been massively successful. One of the other things that they do, so that refers to the principle from rocket science, from physics, really called First Principles Thinking, which is a way of looking at a system and distilling it down to its fundamental non-negotiable components. Everything else is negotiable. So, you hack through these assumptions as if you’re hacking through a jungle with a machete to get at the original raw materials and building it back up from there. So, when you apply that thinking, you go from being, say, a cover band that plays somebody else’s songs, to an original artist that does the painstaking work of creating something new.

And so, Alinea did that with Alinea 2.0. One of other things they did is, in the beginning, they would look at dishes and say, “What can we add? What ingredients can we add? What new spice can we try? What new cooking methodology can we try?” Now, they’re asking a question that rocket scientists ask, which is, “What can I remove? What can we take away? How do we get to the fundamental components of this dish to bring out their best as opposed to adding and adding and adding, which not only creates complexity, it can increase problems, but it can also take away from the taste of the dish as well?” And that’s a question that rocket scientists have to ask themselves and have to contend with on a daily basis because you run into constraints when you’re building a rover in terms of weight, in terms of space.

And the best way to, this is a quote I love from Antoni Gaudi, the famous Catalan architect, but he said, “Originality consists of returning to the origin.” And I keep that quote in mind, really, throughout my life, and ask myself, “How do I get back to the First Principles, to the origin, and build something up from there?” because that’s how creativity results.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really rich and, boy, a lot to unpack there. And so, when you come to, say, the fundamentals in a restaurant business, for instance, I think it sounds like, from the very ground level, you might say, “Okay, we need delicious food people love. We need an ambience that is enjoyable.” Can you share with us what are some of the noteworthy things that they ended up removing that made a world of difference? When you say tore it down, actually I’m not familiar. You know, I live in Chicago. Do you mean literally, like, demolish or sell the space and…

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space, literally demolished the menu, which sounds really, well, astonishing in so many ways. Like, “Why take something that’s successful and then destroy it and build it back up from scratch?” But the founders of Alinea knew something that most of us neglect, which is that success tends to breed complacency. So, when you’ve been successful at something, what most companies do is they look at the rearview mirror and keep doing what they did yesterday. Now that can work in the short term but it’s a recipe for long-term disaster. If you don’t disrupt yourself in some fashion, then others will do it for you.

One practical way to implement that mindset, because not everyone is going to be able to take a sledgehammer to their business the way Alinea did, is to apply this exercise called “kill the company.” And the mastermind of the exercise is an author named Liza Bodell, and I first read about it in…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had her on the show.

Ozan Varol
Oh, great, yeah. I first read about the exercise in Adam Grant’s Originals, the book, and the exercise was conducted by Lisa working with Merck, and Merck’s CEO is Kenneth Frazier, and he wanted to bring more innovation to work, to Merck. Most CEOs ask the same questions, like, “What is the next big thing?” or, “How do we think outside the box?” Those questions have become cliché, which means that people are using the same ways of thinking, the same neural pathways essentially to try to get at novel answers but the answers don’t end up being novel because they’re just taking the same thinking that they used yesterday and applying it.

And so, the exercise basically, the way it ran at Merck, Kenneth Frazier asked his executives to play the role of a competitor seeking to destroy Merck, so this is called the “kill the company” exercise. Their goal was to put Merck out of business. And the executives played that role for an entire day and came up with ways to put Merck out of business, and then they switched perspectives and went back to being Merck executives, and the exercise was successful. So, this was sort of a metaphorical way of taking a sledgehammer to your company, not an actual one.

But the exercise was successful because we’re often too close to our weaknesses to evaluate them objectively. It’s like trying to psychoanalyze yourself. But when you step outside the box and actually look at the box from the perspective of a competitor seeking to destroy it, then you end up identifying problems that you may have initially missed because you’re looking at it from a completely different perspective. And you don’t have to be a business to be able to apply this mindset, by the way. You can ask yourself, “What might my boss pass me up for a promotion?” or, “Why may I not get this job that I’m applying for?” And then switch perspectives, and figure out ways to prevent the potential threats that you identify.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is excellent, and I think that’s really the most constructive productive way to worry that you can do as opposed to just ruminating, like, “Oh, no, all these bad things could happen.”

Ozan Varol
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
You can be proactive. And I like that for prepping for presentations in terms of saying, “Okay, what is the question I fear most? Like, if they’re going to ask me something that’s going to make me look like an idiot because I don’t know and I’m not prepared, like what is that question?” And then, “Oh, I’m going to go find the answer and the appropriate response and approach for that.”

We had a guest talking about what he called red-team thinking in military terms, like, “Hey, if this whole mission goes south, and it’s a mess, like, how will it have gone south? Like, what would be the cause?” And that kind of brings some heads up about doing it. And it’s so great because I think, in a way, our brains are very adaptive coming up with dangers and risks and things to fear if we go there.

Ozan Varol
Yeah. And I want to highlight two things you said, Pete. One is the idea of actually not ruminating about these worst-case scenarios. There’s something really powerful about writing them down because, one, when you let them sort of ruminate in your head, they tend to get worse and worse, and writing them down, putting them down, actually takes their power away, in my experience at least. And then you can look at them objectively and actually come up with strategies to fend off some of those worst-case scenarios as opposed to just letting them sit in your head and get stronger and stronger.

And then the second thing which you mentioned with respect to your preparation strategy for presentations where you think about like the worst-case scenario or what could go wrong, that relates to one of the other principles I talk about in the book from rocket science, which people can apply in their own lives, called “test as you fly, fly as you test.” And the principle is really simple. So, rockets and rocket components are tested on Earth before they’re flown in space, and the goal in rocket science is to make the tests as similar as possible to the flight, and in some cases worse than the flight, because if you find the breaking point of a component here on Earth, that means, well, you break the component on Earth where it’s going to cause far less damage than it will in space.

But many of us don’t apply that principle in our own lives. So, when we do practices or tests or experiments, they tend to be widely disconnected from reality. So, if you’re preparing for a presentation, most people will practice their presentation in front of their spouse while they’re wearing sweatpants in a very comfortable known setting. But if you’re applying the test as your fly rule, you’d be practicing your presentation in front of strangers who are ready to throw curve balls at you. And maybe drink a few espressos before the presentation to give you the types of jitters that you’re going to actually experience in practice.

Same thing with job interviews as well. The way that most people do it is they give a set of questions to their significant other or a friend, and ask them to run through this predetermined list. But that’s so different from an actual job interview. So, the goal should be to bring the tests, the experiments, as close as possible to the flight.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. So, we’ve gone through a few of the strategies, the book has nine. Can you share another one or two that you think can make a world of difference for professionals trying to be awesome at their jobs?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One is the idea of proving ourselves wrong. So, our goal in life, the way that most humans operate, is to try to prove ourselves right, to try to confirm what we actually know. But progress, whether in science or in life, occurs only through generating negative outcomes, so by trying to rebut rather than confirm our beliefs. So, try this for a week, switch your default from proving yourself right to proving yourself wrong.

So, when your focus shifts to proving yourself wrong, you end up seeking different inputs, you open yourself up to competing facts and arguments. And the point, by the way, of proving yourself wrong isn’t to feel good, it’s to make sure that your spacecraft doesn’t crash, or your business doesn’t fall apart, or your health doesn’t break down. In the end, the goal should be to find what’s right rather than to be right. And I give a couple of examples in the book about how you can apply that way of thinking in your life.

Another strategy or principle that comes to mind is a rebuttal or a riff on this mantra that’s so popular in Silicon Valley these days, which is the idea of “fail fast, fail often, fail forward.” So, countless business books tell entrepreneurs to embrace failure. There are now conferences like FailCon dedicated to celebrating failure where thousands of people get together and share their failures.

Pete Mockaitis
I believe you did a podcast about sharing failures.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, I do, exactly. Totally. And Silicon Valley companies are actually now holding funerals for failed startups complete with bagpipes and DJs and liquor flowing freely. And, yeah, I do have a podcast on failure. But the goal, I think, shouldn’t be to celebrate failure, but it should be to actually learn from it. So, if I could change the mantra, and this is one of the things I talk about in the book, from “fail fast,” I would change it to “learn fast.” And this is something I stress in my own podcast as well in trying to get people to share not only what they failed at or how they failed, but what they learned from that failure.

Just because you’re failing doesn’t mean that you’re learning anything. And research bears this out, I cite a number of studies in the book, one involving cardiac surgeons, for example. The study shows that cardiac surgeons who botched a procedure actually perform worse on future procedures because they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a bummer.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, because what happens is when you fail, people instinctively, to feel good about themselves, they blame the failure on external factors. They say, “Well, I got unlucky,” or, “We don’t have enough cashflow to be an entrepreneur,” come up with some external reason for why we failed as oppose to looking at internal ones, the mistakes that we made, the bad calls we made, the bad decisions we made. And so, the goal should be, and this is the goal in science, of course, is not to fail fast but to learn fast, because all breakthroughs in life and work are evolutionary, they’re not revolutionary. People do things wrong. So, Einstein’s first seven proofs for E=mC2 failed, but he learned from his failure and applied it. Thomas Edison famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We have an obsession with grand openings in society, but the opening doesn’t have to be grand as long as the finale is. And the way to make the finale grand is not to fail fast, but to learn from each failure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. So, then I’d also love to get your view on next time we encounter a challenge that just seems tricky, puzzle-some, immovable, what’s sort of like the first thing you do, like the stop, drop, and roll, or the key questions you ask yourself, or the protocol, like, “Here we are, this sounds tough. Don’t know how we’re going to make that happen. Go”?

Ozan Varol
Sure. A couple things. The first is it goes back to the story I told about that simple question, “What if we send two rovers instead of one?” First, ask yourself if you’re tackling the right problem. Because, often, when we get a challenge or a problem, we immediately jump into answer mode, “Is the answer really efficient? I want to come up with a quick answer to this thorny problem.” But when you jump into answer mode, we often end up chasing the wrong problem. So, the first question is to ask, “Am I solving the right problem? Are there better problems that I could solve? Can I reframe this problem in a way that’s going to generate a better answer?” So, that’s strategy number one.

And then after you’ve done that, break down the problem into its smallest subcomponents. So, think about a challenge that you’re facing and, say, you want to get somewhere to an audacious goal in a year or two, and apply a principle called “backcasting,” which I talk about in the book, which is work backward from that desired outcome, and this is sort of the flipside of what we talked about before, Pete, in terms of imagining the worst-case scenario and working back from it. But working back from a desired outcome also works really well.

Work back from what you want to achieve and identify all the steps you need to get there. Because when you look at this, and I experienced this writing this book that’s coming out this week, just when this episode will be released, is when you look at this blank Word document with like 80,000 words to go, it’s really, really intimidating. But if you can take that big thorny problem and break it down to its smallest subcomponents through backcasting, then each step isn’t as intimidating. I can certainly, today, for example, write Subsection A of Chapter 1. But if my to-do just says, “Write book,” that’s really daunting, and this is one of the reasons why people procrastinate.

And so, identifying actual actionable steps is really important, not only because it’s motivating, but it also gives you some sense of progress so you can look back and say, “Yeah, this is what I accomplished today.” It also has the benefit of pivoting your focus away from the outcome to the actual process. So, we tend to, when we’re trying to achieve something, really hone in on the outcome but forget about the process that it actually takes to get there.

And so, for example, if you want to write a book, most people sort of fall in love with the idea of writing a book, and they want to have written a book, but not actually go through the writing process because it can be painful at times. So, doing this backcasting is also a good reality check because it makes you focus on the things that you’re going to have to do to get to that desired outcome.

And the final strategy is, after you outline these steps, so you’ve reframed the problem, found a better problem to solve, you applied backcasting and created some steps of getting there, I would suggest tackling the hardest thing first, the thorniest part of the project. Because if that thorny part ends up being insurmountable for some reason, you want to know that upfront as opposed to a year from now or two years from now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I talk a lot about hypothesis-driven thinking and there are some overlap here when I’m working with aspiring strategy consultants or just teams that want to work better together in my training courses and such, and I think that is one of the best ways to prioritize. Sometimes you might want to start with something that you can sort of confirm very quickly in terms of like, hey, alright, so we can save a lot of time. But that gets to the same core. It’s like you’re tackling the thing that’s kind of like the highest risk in terms of, “Let’s get our answer on the highest-risk matter and then we can move forward.” So, when we talk about think like, I don’t know, a consultant, or like a rocket scientist, or like a lawyer, and I think about political scientists have sort of a whole another way of running their brain I’ve seen, and then maybe like designers.

Ozan Varol
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I think of these very domains, and maybe there’s a book in here somewhere. But how would you sort of contrast sort of like the fundamental maybe priorities and principles of how a rocket scientist thinks differently than, say, a lawyer, or a political scientist, or a management consultant?

Ozan Varol
I think there are a couple of key differences because a lot of that, actually all of the principles that I outline in the book come from the sciences, and a lot of them take sort of a grander scale in rocket science because of the stakes involved. I mean, in none of these fields that you mentioned, whether it’s politics or law, or political science or law, or designers, I mean, in some cases, I guess, human lives are going to be at risk, but the scale involved in rocket science is so massive. Each time you fire a rocket, hundreds of millions of dollars, and for human space flight, lives are at risk. And so, all of these principles take on heightened meaning when you’re talking about rocket science. And a lot of the principles, again, come from the scientific field.

So, for example, I don’t really see lawyers, I’m a law professor, that’s my day job, I don’t really see lawyers think about this, but the idea of in science nothing is proven right. It’s simply proven not wrong. Only when scientists beat the crap out of their own ideas and fail to disprove them can they begin to develop some confidence in them and, actually, that’s something I rarely see in the legal field, for example. The very best lawyers that I’ve seen apply that thinking to some extents of actually trying to get to know the opposition’s argument better than the opposition does, but it’s not something that’s talked about because it hasn’t completely crossed over from the sciences into the legal field. And, again, many of the other principles, like test as you fly, for example, I’ve also really not heard about outside of rocket science.

And there might be some crossover, of course, but because the scales are so massive in rocket science, you have to build in all of these contingencies and ways of thinking in a way that you may not need to when you’re writing, say, an academic article on political science or drafting a brief for a legal case.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ozan, I’m actually very surprised by that response. I thought you would say, “Oh, sure, yes. In the legal community, as I’m a professor, I see it over there.” In a way, I’m a little disappointed if I shell out over 300 bucks an hour for a big law associate, not a partner, an associate, I’m not getting these thinking tools at my disposal. That’s kind of disappointing.

Ozan Varol
Well, if you get one of my students then, sure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ozan Varol
Because I try to get them to apply that rocket science mindset to law every day, but it works for some people, it doesn’t work for others.

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

Ozan Varol
No, I think we’re all set with the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, you gave us one quote. Is that your favorite or do you have another favorite quote to share?

Ozan Varol
No, the quote from Antoni Gaudi is really my favorite. Another one that I think about often is a quote from Warren Buffett where he says, “We get fearful when others get greedy. And we get greedy when others get fearful.” I tend to think about that in my own life, and ask when I see a lot of people doing something, and ask myself, “How can I do the opposite of that? Or what can I do to do the reverse?”

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

Ozan Varol
It’s about this study of college students. The experiment just placed these college students in a room, they removed all of their belongings, so they left the participants on their own, and they told them to spend time with their thoughts for 15 minutes. That’s it, just 15 minutes. Now, there’s also a twist to this. If they wanted, instead of sitting there bored for 15 minutes, the students could self-administer an electric shock by pressing a button. So, you’ve got two options: you can either get bored or you can shock yourself.

In this study, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves instead of sitting undisturbed with their thoughts. There was one person who delivered 190 shocks to himself during the 15-minute period, and I think that’s a really shocking thought, and it’s because boredom is becoming somewhat of an endangered state. And that’s a dangerous development because boredom is so central to creating new insights. I give a number of examples of this in the book. But creative ideas arrive during these moments of slack not hard labor, but many of us are too busy moving from one email to the next, one meeting to the next, one notification to the next, that we don’t build in those periods of boredom in our lives. And as a result, our creativity suffers.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I’m most intrigued by the gender difference actually because what’s that about?

Ozan Varol
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Ozan Varol
It’s called Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan. His argument is really simple, and I think backed by really compelling evidence. He says that there is a serious mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern conditions of Western civilization. We’re essentially apes dressed in suits, eating a diet, and living a lifestyle just wildly out of touch for how our bodies and minds were constructed. And he offers some ways of adjusting our lifestyle to better match our genetic disposition. It was a really fun read.

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

Ozan Varol
I just signed up actually over the past month and I’ve been obsessed with it is called Readwise, and you can access it at Readwise.io. It hooks up to your Instapaper, so that’s the app I use to save articles and read them later, along with your Kindle account, and it will sync highlights, and it will send you, I mean, you can pick the number, anywhere from, I think, 5 to 50 highlights every day. And so, you open your email in the morning, and these are highlights from a book that you may have read three years ago or four years ago.

And I tend to read books and paperback or hardcover, and there’s a way of typing your notes or importing your notes into Readwise as well. It’s really cool because sometimes I’ll read a book three years ago and I’ll just completely forget about it, and having this system in place where you get an email with these random things that you highlighted from the book is a really good way to help retention. So, I’ll remember things and then I’ll end up using, say, a research study in a book that I’ve read five years ago, and I’ve just completely forgotten about. I’m really loving that tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Ozan Varol
It goes back to boredom, but I’ve become very intentional about creating boredom in my life. And one way I do that is, I sit in the sauna for 20 minutes, I try to do this every day with nothing but just a notebook and a pen just to jot down thoughts that might occur to me. But some of the best ideas I’ve had in recent memory have come to me in that stifling solitary environment of the sauna.

Pete Mockaitis
Doesn’t the paper get wet?

Ozan Varol
It does. It does. But I can still read what I wrote so that’s all that matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a particular nugget, something you’re known for, you share and people quote it back to you frequently?

Ozan Varol
First thing that jumped to mind is, “It can be harder for you to survive your own success than to survive your failure.” And it goes back to something we talked about earlier in the conversation, Pete, about how success breeds complacency, and I give the examples in the book of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, two really tragic disasters that were preventable but NASA got complacent with its own success. And I talk more about that in the book and sure ways that people can use to fend off complacency and to identify the small stealth failures that tend to get concealed when we win because the instinct when we win is to celebrate not to look back at what may have gone wrong.

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

Ozan Varol
I have a weekly email that goes out to over 19,000 people called the Weekly Contrarian, and you can sign up for that at WeeklyContrarian.com. And then my book is Think Like a Rocket Scientist, it’s available wherever books are sold, and you can find all the purchase links at RocketScienceBook.com. And I do have a special offer for the listeners of your podcast, Pete. If people order the book by, let’s say, the end of April, I’ll give them a special bonus of ten 3-minute videos from the book with just action-packed insights, so practical strategies from the book that people can apply into their lives right away. And so, if you order the book, and forward your receipt to Rocket@OzanVarol.com, and just mention that you heard about me on this podcast, and you’ll get that video bonus.

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

Ozan Varol
Question the default. Instead of operating on autopilot and taking your assumptions, your habits, your processes for granted, take time every now and then to hang a question mark at the end of them, and ask yourself, “Do I own my assumptions or do my assumptions own me?” And just remember the research study about how employees at call service centers tend to perform better if they use browsers that don’t come as the default. So, if they use, for example, Chrome when the default browser is Safari, and it’s not because using Chrome magically makes you a better worker, but it’s because someone who questions the default when it comes to the browser choice, also applies the same mindsets to other areas of their job.

Pete Mockaitis
Ozan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck with the book and your adventures.

Ozan Varol
Thanks so much, Pete.

556: What Drives Your Career Growth with Korn Ferry’s Gary Burnison

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Gary Burnison shares what professionals need to start doing differently to advance in their careers.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three mindsets to accelerate your career growth
  2. The overlooked elements that determine career fit
  3. Why most meetings are meaningless

About Gary:

Gary Burnison is the CEO and member of the board of directors for Korn Ferry, a global organization consulting firm. He is also an author, having written several books on career management. His latest book, Advance: The Ultimate How-To Guide For Your Career, is an insider’s look on everything professionals need to take control and get ahead in their careers.

He is also a regular contributor to ForbesCNBCBloombergFOX Business, and other major international news outlets. Mr. Burnison earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California and holds an honorary doctor of laws degree from Pepperdine University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gary Burnison Interview Transcript

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

Gary Burnison
Hey, great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom once again. It’s funny, I believe it was Episode 273 you were with us, which is almost half of the podcast lifetime ago.

Gary Burnison
Not that you’re counting, huh?

Pete Mockaitis
Roughly in the bubble. So, we’re going to talk about how to advance in careers. And I thought it might be fun if you could maybe open us up with a powerful story of someone who was kind of stuck where their career was going and then used some of these tools to get unstuck and see some great results.

Gary Burnison
You know, interviewing is kind of a trip between, it’s this in-between going to Disneyland and a dentist, and we psyche ourselves up, right? And it kind of goes back to the sixth grade, “Are they going to like us? Are they going to like me? What are they going to think of me?” It’s a very natural human emotion.

I was in a Starbucks in New York City a while back, and there was a young gentleman, he had a triple Red Eye that he had ordered, and he had a portfolio in front of him, and I figured this guy is getting ready for an interview, and I see the resume, and his leg is tapping uncontrollably up and down. And I just go up to him and I say, “Hey, so what are you doing? You got an interview, huh?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. I really need this job. My wife relocated here and I’ve just got to get this thing.” And I said, “Listen, you got to chill out because you’re not going to make it past security. The way you’re going right now is not good.”

And I said, “Look, you got to treat this like a conversation. You’re not auditioning for Annie. This is not a rehearsed deal.” And he ended up, come to find out, he got the job. And he got the job because he was authentic, he made a connection, and he gave the interviewer a taste of who he was as a person, not just what he did.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that that’s dead on, and I remember being on both sides of the career fair table, and whenever I heard someone just say, “Hello, I’m looking to combine my interests in accounting and finance in a challenging role that is like…” No human talks that way. I mean, it’s not that that’s a deal-breaker but it’s sort of like, “Oh, you’re not making a great first impression right now, and we’ll keep talking and we’ll see where we go, but I’m not enthusiastic about the rest of this conversation from the first 20 seconds.”

Gary Burnison
Well, no, because people, they make up things, they say things that they think you want to hear. Resumes, God, if I see another resume where, number one, you shouldn’t have an objective, I think that’s really bad on a resume, but a lot of people do. And how many times have you seen, “I want to be part of a collaborative team in an entrepreneurial environment where I can make a real big impact”? Oh, really? Like, you and a billion other people in the world. It’s not authentic.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, we’ve got some great tips right off the bat. Chill out, keep it authentic, and it’s not an audition, it’s a conversation. So, then tell us, you’ve got a recent book called Advance. What’s the main thesis here?

Gary Burnison
It’s really to take control, to take control of your career like you would do with your health, and, really, kind of three basic ideas. Number one is it starts with you but it’s not about you, and if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more. So, the reality is you have to, first, be introspective about what your strengths are, where your blind spots are, what your purpose is, what makes you happy, because if you’re happy, you’re probably motivated, and if you’re motivated, you’re going to outperform.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you said that last time. I’ve quoted you on a slide, Gary. That’s one of my faves.

Gary Burnison
It’s true. I mean, and people, “Oh, is this really possible?” Yeah, it is possible. Look, we all need to make a living, so there’s no denying that, and sometimes you just need a job, I get it. But, ultimately, you want to get something where you’re learning, because if you’re growing and learning, you’re probably going to be pretty motivated and pretty happy. And so, that kind of introspection, most people, they just ignore that stuff completely.

And then, secondly, you’re not a sculptor in a studio by yourself. And so, it starts with you but it’s not about you. And so, there’s a whole range of advice in this book around, “What do you do with a bad boss? How do you make presentations? How do you work with others? How do you work virtually? What do you do if you’re managing for the first time?”

So, as you progress in your career, you start out as a follower, and I would suggest there’s kind of six phases to a career ultimately up to a leader. But, at some point, you have to make that transition where you’re not an individual contributor, and it’s really, really hard. And, in that transition, you’ve got to work with others. So, despite all the technological advances of the past century, it still comes down to people, and not just online interaction, but actually old school, offline interaction.

And then, finally, look, if you want to earn more, you’ve got to learn more. We’ve proven that the number one predictor of executive success is learning agility. We’ve done 50 million assessments of executives all over the world, and Korn Ferry would stake its reputation that it’s the number one predictor of success. The distance between number one and number two is not constant. And the reality is, what does a great athlete do or what does a coach do after a game? Well, many times, they review the tape, they look at the video and they go practice. It’s the same for your career. If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, you don’t have to convince me. I’m right on, I’m right with you there in terms of learning. And, often, it’s a bit of do-it-yourself proposition in many environments sort of, I guess, there you go, advance, take control, much like what you do with your health.

Gary Burnison
Well, again, the do-it-yourself proposition. So, here’s the other thing why it’s critical to really target what your next career move is that the reality is, what Korn Ferry would say is that we believe in 70/20/10 when it comes to development. So, when you say do-it-yourself, so, listen, only 10%, after college, of what you learn is in classroom. Ninety percent of it is either who you’re learning it from or what your assignment is.

And so, a critical piece that people don’t think about when they’re going to go take another job, they focus on the bling. And I can understand why. They focus on the title, focus on the money, “I just to make some more money.” Well, that’s great. But they completely ignore that it’s a marathon, and, “Are you going to learn and who are you going to learn from?” Like, that is…Look, I can’t say you’re always going to have a choice, but it’s something that you have to really need to consider for the marathon.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m hearing you. And so, that’s a key consideration and it’s something that’s often overlooked. And I want to get some more of these gems from you here in terms of when it comes to employees who are stalling out, they’re getting stuck in ruts, they’re facing some challenges and not conquering them very often, what do you think are some of like the big things that professionals, they got to nail and they’re not nailing it so well right now?

Gary Burnison
I think there’s a left-brain aspect and there’s a right-brain aspect. So, the left brain is all around specialized skills, okay? So, that’s very, very hard to answer or it depends on what function you’re in. Is it technology? Is it finance? Are you in a services business, manufacturing? That world is clearly, that’s changed, and that’s going to vary depending on the person. I would just generally say that learning determines a worker’s earnings for life. So, those left-brain skills have to continually be worked on.

The right-brain skills get ignored all the time, and those right-brain skills are really important to your happiness. And so, they seem like little things but they’re not so little things. And it could be this little thing called coworkers. The reality is that you’re going to spend way more time at work and with your coworkers than you are maybe with your own family. So, are they getting right or are they getting wrong, the kind of right-brain things around who their boss is? Are they learning? Their coworkers?

That culture piece is, I think, today, overlooked. And it’s critical. It’s critical to just think about your day. Like, what is going to piss you off during the day, right? If you have a job, I guarantee you don’t wake up upset, right? You’re probably pretty happy going to work. And then what happens? Somebody says something, may have been an innocent comment, you get an email, didn’t have the right context, you get a text, text can’t make you laugh or cry, and you just get turned off. And, by the time you’re driving home, you’re so frustrated. And so, those things around culture, people don’t consider.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Absolutely. And I’d love your pro take there on what are some of the best ways on the outside looking in to get a gauge in evaluation on some of those matters?

Gary Burnison
It’s the little things. It’s, “How are people dressed? How do people interact? What’s it like at 7:00 at night there? What’s it like at 7:00 in the morning?” It’s funny, you want a new job, and so you start. I would hope you’re actually targeting, proactively targeting the companies and not being reactive, but many times people are reactive, which I think is a real problem. But you look at these job titles and these responsibilities and it’s all these words, and it’s really hard to tell, “Okay, but what’s my actual job? Like, what am I going to do Monday morning?” because you have all these lofty words, and these responsibilities, and it’s hard to separate what you’re really going to be doing.

And so, I think a great way is to, really, like when you go to buy a house. If you buy a condo or a house, I love to drive by at 11:00 o’clock at night and look at the neighbors. Or my oldest daughter was just moving apartments, and I said, “Stefy, make sure you go there a few nights a week at 11:00 o’clock before you sign that lease because you want to see it when nobody thinks you’re looking, right?” The problem with an interview is like it’s a performance, it’s a stage. People are actually looking. But you want to figure out what the place is like, what the people are like, when nobody is looking. That’s what you’re trying to get to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a nice clear distinction right there in terms of, “Is it on display, on show, or is it the real deal?” and the 11:00 p.m. analogy. Oh, it’s sparking all kinds of things. So, then what are some of the best ways that we can get that view in terms of we’re looking and they don’t know we’re looking? How do we do that? Do we talk to former employees? Tell me more.

Gary Burnison
Yeah, you do. You’ve got to be kind of a private detective. There’s no other way to do it. So, you have to work your network, you’ve got to do the six degrees of separation. You want to find people that knows somebody, that knows somebody that works there. That’s the way you want to do it. And it really does work. I know it seems daunting but that six degrees of separation really does work. I found it to work in my own life.

And so, yeah, you want to work that network, you want to find out from people who have left. Sometimes they may be jaded. I don’t place a lot of stock in Glassdoor. I know a lot of people do. But, generally, in those kinds of reviews, you’re hearing from unhappy people that have left the organization. It could be a reference point, it’s something to triangulate, but I wouldn’t stake my whole career and reputation on it. If you can drive around, if you can get access into the office or the building, that could be something you can do. But, yeah, look, you’ve got to be a private detective.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so then let’s say you’re in the job, away you go, and we’re up and we’re running. You’ve got a number of particular prescriptions when you’re in the midst of things. I want to get your take on the boss relationship and meetings. So, first, what’s the main thing we got to keep in mind in terms of managing a boss relationship effectively over the months and years?

Gary Burnison
Number one, it’s not them, it’s you. So, you’re never going to be able to change the boss but he or she can change you, right? They can actually fire you. So, you can try all you want but if you keep saying it’s them and it’s not you, it’s not going to get any better. So, there’s all sorts of different bosses, we’ve all had them. We’ve had those that are heroes and inspirational. And we’ve had those that are just micromanagers and autocrats.

And so, I think the first thing is you have to look in the mirror, and I know that’s really hard because you’re going to say, “It’s not me, it’s them.” But look in the mirror first, and just recognize that you’re probably not going to be able to change that person. So, then you have to take accountability for performance. And the way to do that then is the days of once-a-year reviews, those are gone. Today, people are career nomads.

So, what you need to do is take the initiative and set goals, you really do, because you can’t politic your way to the top. At the end of the day, it’s performance. Performance does matter. Not that there’s no politics because there’s obviously politics, but performance trumps politics. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to take ownership for their own goals and make sure you are continually talking with your boss about what has to get done, “What do I need to do to contribute? What are the tangible goals towards that contribution? How do we measure success? And how can I help the team win?”

Because, at the end of the day, the reality is the boss doesn’t think about you as much as you think about yourself, right? So, you may think a lot about your salary but the boss isn’t going to be thinking about your salary. It’s not that he or she doesn’t care, it’s just that’s not where their mind is going to go. We have almost 10,000 employees. I think a CEO has to care about their employees, their customers, and their shareholders. But am I thinking every second about somebody’s salary? I’m not. It’s not practical. So, start with it’s you and take ownership for performance, and get in a regular dialogue with your boss around performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s so dead on and a good reminder. It’s true. I manage and pay people, and I think about the compensation pretty rarely, maybe it’s like, “Huh, they’re doing a great job and it’s approaching the end of the year, I want to make sure they don’t leave me.” So, that’s about the extent. It’s that question, it’s like, “Hey, yeah, they’re doing great. I want to make sure they don’t leave. Here we go.”  There you have it. So, that’s a nice reality check for you.

And, yes, I totally am with you that you gotta have those regular ongoing maybe reconnections associated with what’s most important right now, what are we trying to achieve, how are we measuring it, how do we win, and not, I guess, taking anything for granted. Maybe, I guess, the alternative to that might be doing whatever lands in your inbox, just doing that as opposed to these critical goals that we’ve agreed to.

Gary Burnison
Well, you can’t teach hustle. And I will take hustle over pedigree any day. And so, what you’re alluding to is people that have hustle. And so, I would have a bias that I would much rather hire somebody who did not have the pedigree, didn’t have the family name, didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but is hungry. You just can’t teach hunger. And I love that. And I think what you’re saying is get it done. Like, just do it. Take initiative. Yeah, absolutely, that’s actually better than the whole performance goal thing. That’s absolutely the way to do it. But then you’ve got to make sure that you are getting recognized for that and that you’re not just doing somebody else’s work.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I also want to get your take on you’ve got a chapter called “Let’s Have A Meeting – Why They’re All Meaningless.” So, a bold stance. Tell us about this.

Gary Burnison
Oh, it’s a joke. You know, so many times today, the strategic response to any question is, “Let’s have a meeting. Let’s get together and talk about it.” It seems like it’s the response to every problem. And I think, look, there’s a number of problems with meetings. Number one is that people, they’re on stage, and so they’re performances many, many times, and they’re not real, they’re not authentic. And it’s amazing how the dynamic changes when you have two people versus four people versus six people versus ten people, and also how the dynamic changes whether there’s a boss there or not.

And so, ultimately, you defer to the most senior person in that meeting. And are you really going to say what’s on your mind? Are you really going to say the truth? And so, I just find them to be a little bit make-believe. We all remember in college we had these group projects, and some of my kids are college today, everybody dreads those, right, those kind of peer-to-peer group projects, “And who’s going to take initiative? And who’s going to speak out? Who’s going to hide behind somebody else’s work?” I just think that people today, it’s not a stage. And, for me, there’s different kinds of meetings. Is it an information meeting? Is it decision-taking? Is it discovery? Is it brainstorming? Like, what is the purpose? What are you trying to get out of this thing?

And the other thing I’m a big, big believer in is whatever time you give somebody, they’re going to take up that time. And so, when it comes to a meeting, I’ve got the 45-minute rule. Anything after that, unless you’re brainstorming, unless you’re doing blue-sky thinking, it’s not productive at all.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s a fun coincidence that our appointment is exactly 45 minutes today.

Gary Burnison
Look, I believe in collective genius, and I think that people are smarter together than apart. I’m a huge, huge believer. So, the meeting can be absolutely incredible if the right stage is set. And so, what I mean by that is people are free to speak their mind. What I’ve found, being a CEO now for a long time, is that generally people don’t have freedom of speech unless they have economic security. And so, to create that environment where people can speak the truth and people can speak their feelings, and that constructive conflict can be turned into collective genius, I love constructive conflict. But you have to have the right orchestrator so that it turns itself into collective genius.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, well, that’s really thought-provoking, the notion that you’re not really speaking your mind unless you have the economic freedom. I guess that’s true in the sense of, well, I guess they talk about the, “F you, money.” It’s like if you’ve got that in the bank, then it’s sort of like, “I’m just going to tell you what I think. Worst-case scenario, you fire me and that’s no big deal.” So, I can hear that that resonates. So, then if you are kind of working with managing folks who they’re not quite paycheck-to-paycheck maybe but they sure do need the job, how can we facilitate that psychological safety knowing that they do still want to hold onto that job?

Gary Burnison
Well, as a boss, you can’t have retribution. If your actions don’t mirror your words, then it’s never going to happen. So, as the boss, you have to ensure that there really is a safe zone, and that that is absolutely reinforced every single day. We had a funny story recently, I mean, it’s kind of sad-funny, however you want to look at it. But we were interviewing an executive, and the company was looking for a new leader and they wanted this person. They really thought they wanted somebody who was collaborative.

And so, we were interviewing this executive, and so the interviewer asked, “So, give me an example of how you collaborate.” And he said, “Well, look, it’s easy. We have a meeting and we go around the table, and we either give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the idea.” And the interviewer said, “So, how do you exactly do that?” And he said, “Well, it’s simple. I, first, give my view on, ‘Okay, this is a bad idea or a good idea,’ so I say thumbs down.” And the interviewer said, “So, you go first. So, how does that really work?” And the executive says, “Well, we have complete alignment.” Go figure, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Everybody agrees with you.

Gary Burnison
“Everybody agrees with me.” Needless to say, this person did not get the job. So, as the boss, you have to make it real and you have to set the tone. And, as the coworker, what you can’t do is take things so personally that you start spreading all sorts of news at the water cooler. You just can’t do that. That turns into a very cancerous environment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Next bit, you mentioned the top 20 must haves for career development in your book, and that’s a lot. So, can you give us the top, top two?

Gary Burnison
Number one is humility and the second is self-awareness. And I say those two because those are the starters. Without those, the other hundred things will never happen, because, again, your performance is not just absolute, it’s relative. So, this distance between one and two is not constant. You have to improve yourself. Well, if you don’t have humility, then you’re never going to be self-aware, so you have to have enough humility to be able to look in the mirror and say, “What do I need to improve on?” like any great athlete does. Those are absolutely, you have to have those two, because without those two, it’ll be the exception rather than the rule in terms of making more money, getting those promotions, advancing, and all that.

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

Gary Burnison
I think that I’ve just been shocked, whether you’re in the boardroom or you’re starting out of college, you’re starting out in your career, that you don’t treat your career like your health. And what I mean by that is if I told somebody, “Listen, you’re going to have a heart attack in nine months,” I guarantee you, this afternoon you would change things. You would start juicing it, you’d start eating oats, you’d start walking, you’d start running. You would do all sorts of things. You’d go to different kinds of doctors. Like, you would hop all over that.

Well, when it comes to your career, I think people are just complacent and they’re clueless, and they have this view that they’re going to be plucked out of the seat, that somebody is going to come to them with this great opportunity. That is not going to happen. And, today, we’re in a world of career nomads where, I believe, people coming out of college, Korn Ferry would suggest you’re going to work for 25 or 30 different employers.

And so, people are staying for two, two and a half, three years, and they’re moving on. They’re parlaying. They’re taking skills and they’re parlaying. They’re parlaying for more responsibility, they’re parlaying for more money, they’re parlaying to learn more. And so, I think you’ve got to treat your career like you would your health. And I really do believe, I would look at it and say, “Hey, I think I’m going to get fired in nine months. I think the company is going to get acquired. What would I do differently today?”

And what you would do differently is not just sitting with your computer pretending you were Hemingway with your resume and trying to find the right verb. That is the wrong thing to do. What you would do is you would think about where you want to go, and you would start to network, and you would target those places where you think you can really make a difference. That’s what you would actually do. And it’s bothered me that this just-in-time networking, like, something bad happens, your company gets acquired, your boss leaves, all of this stuff happens and people aren’t prepared. And so, you’ve got to treat your career like your health, and be proactive, and don’t just wait for the heart attack to update your resume. Actually, do something before.

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

Gary Burnison
What’s always on my mind is, “You’ve got to believe to achieve.” And I think that I’ve just found that, and I don’t know if that’s something that I came up with or I read, but that’s on my mind all the time. And there’s another one that’s on my mind all the time, and that’s, “Fail fast and learn faster.” And so, most people are scared of failure, but the reality is that’s how we learn. Whether we like it or not, we learn through failure. And you have to try things. You have to take risks in life if you want to grow.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say “You’ve got to believe to achieve,” can you unpack what that means in practice for a career?

Gary Burnison
You have to believe in yourself. You have to have that inner confidence. And so, if you’re the CEO, like myself, I think the most important thing is purpose. In other words, most CEOs, they think about the what, and the how, and the where, but they don’t think about the why. And the why is the most important thing, I think, in business. The why is, “Why are you in business?” And so, I call that purpose. For me, as a CEO, what I have to believe is I have to believe in purpose. I have to believe in our purpose.

Because if I can authentically represent that to 10,000 people, people will get behind that.

For an individual, I would say that you have to believe in yourself. Without that, it is going to be very, very hard to advance. And that’s why it’s so important that when you think about the next job and a career, who’s your mentor going to be? Because, yes, you can believe in yourself, and I tell you, it’s a lot easier to believe in yourself if others believe in you. Both have to happen.

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

Gary Burnison
Well, it’s a book that I think is 20 years old, but Who Moved My Cheese? It has a strange title. It’s actually a very motivational book, it’s a very simple book. And the concept, which is so appropriate for today, is around change. And so, this view of trying to make tomorrow different than today, of having this insatiable curiosity for learning and for change, and not accepting the status quo, and not falling into the den of complacency is what that book’s all about. And I think that is more important today than ever.

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

Gary Burnison
I spend probably an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half at night with nobody, around reading. And so, all the apps that I would have are all around news. And I found that it’s kind of a reflective time, and it’s a time to kind of be in the world, and to understand what’s happening around you, and to make your world bigger. And so, I do that religiously every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, they quote it back to you a lot?

Gary Burnison
Make people feel better after than before. And so, I will get that, people will say that jokingly, they’ll say it seriously to me. I think you should set that as a goal. Any human being, but particularly in the workplace, and particularly if you’re a manager, and for sure if you’re a boss, that with every interaction of an employee, “Do they feel better after than before?”

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

Gary Burnison
Well, I’d take a look at the new book. It’s just simply called Advance, and you could get it on Amazon. And we actually have a new business Korn Ferry Advance that is all around trying to change people’s lives, trying to help them in their careers. We’ve got interviewing tools, we’ve got resume tools. It’s really the whole thing trying to change people’s lives and their professional careers for the better.

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

Gary Burnison
Boy, you want to wake up without the alarm clock. And if you’re not waking up without the alarm clock, you need to make a change. But that change needs to be well thought out.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gary, this has been a treat once again. I wish you and Korn Ferry all the luck and success in your adventures.

Gary Burnison
Great hearing your voice again. And thank you very much for your time.

549: Who Gets Raises and Promotions? Rick Gillis Reveals the Metric that Predicts our Fate

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Rick Gillis says: "Your work does not speak for itself. You do."

Rick Gillis shares how knowing and improving your “quotient” can help you get raises and promotions at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The factor that determines your compensation at work
  2. How to speak up for your work to your boss
  3. The perfect time to bring up your accomplishments

About Rick:

Rick Gillis is a speaker, author, and personal career advisor. He has spent over two decades writing books and sharing techniques to manage and maximize careers across the country. He is the founder of the Richard Gillis Company, LLC which provides training and career coaching to help job seekers land the best possible position at the highest possible pay.

Rick has appeared on several media outlets like Forbes.com, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal. Rick and his wife, Mary, live in Texas where he spends his free time riding along the Texas gulf coast on his Harley or in his music room and art studio.

Items Mentioned in the Show

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Rick Gillis Interview Transcript

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

Rick Gillis
You bet, Pete. Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I think we need to hear a little about you and Harley Davidson motorcycles. What’s the story here?

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s funny, I had a friend of mine one time say, “Gillis, I didn’t know you’re a biker,” and I said, “I’m not a biker. I just ride a bike.” And I do. I have a Harley, it’s a 2006 model, I’ve been riding for years, and I live south of Houston so it’s literally 54-mile straight shot to the Gold Coast, so that’s kind of my riding. I don’t do traffic ridings. Saturday, Sundays, get out on the highway, that’s what I do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds fun, and so you don’t have any family that tries to curtail those adventures. I don’t think my wife would go for that if I told her, “Yeah, I’m learning to Harley now.”

Rick Gillis
Now, that I’m old enough, I got back into it. I gave up riding motorcycles when, I don’t even remember now, 17, 18 after dropping two or three of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man.

Rick Gillis
And I’ve only had this bike for, I don’t know, 10, 12 years. Like I said, I ride by myself, I go down two-lane highways, very little traffic, yeah, I’m not tough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ll get no judgment from me. My wife is a safety enthusiast and motorcycles are probably not in my cards.

Rick Gillis
No, I appreciate that. I really do. They’re dangerous, there’s no question, because I have to drive for everybody when I’m on the road.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. All right. Well, so good to know to get a little background there. You’ve invented an interesting concept called the quotient. Can you, first of all, define that and tell us why professionals might care about it?

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, now we’re not sharing this with anybody, right? This is just between you and me.

Pete Mockaitis
I make no representations of that.

Rick Gillis
Let me tell you what, Pete, the quotient was an epiphany I had literally just over two years ago, and I knew it was developing, and it came out of working with job search, job seekers for so long. I did it for 20 some odd years. And I was literally riding my bicycle, not my bike, in the neighborhood and, all of a sudden, it struck me what this was. And let me tell you, like I said, just between you and me, this quotient thing is really a very rich new powerful concept and I maintain it’s going to be able to resolve the pay disparity issue.

And what it is, it’s kind of like taking from a salesperson’s point of view, which I am and have been for many years, you know, a salesperson knows that if we don’t sell something this month, we don’t have a job next month, and that’s just the way, that’s your mindset. I would like the person who gets a paycheck to start thinking like that because a person who gets a paycheck on Friday, takes off the weekend, comes back on Monday, gets back into the mental mindset of being at work, of producing value. The quotient is exactly this. I take your work contribution, which I spend a lot of time in the book telling the non-salesperson how to determine the value of their contribution to their employer.

Pete Mockaitis
In dollars.

Rick Gillis
In dollars.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the unit we’re working with, or Euro as the case maybe to our European friends listening.

Rick Gillis
Right, exactly. It could be any. But you take the value of your contribution to your employer and you divide that by your base pay. Now, note, it’s not your net, it’s your base pay. And so, what happens, that creates the quotient. So, let’s say, for example, you work for me, and whether you have read the book and have figured out how to do this, or if I’m doing it for you, or mutually, we determined that you have raised, you generated $250,000 in value this year for my company, and I pay you $50,000 a year. So, $250,000 divided by 50,000, your quotient equals 5, which means that you’re a good employee, you generated five times more than I paid you so there’s value there.

But, now, let’s go a little further, because, let’s say I’m a male working with an equally-skilled female, my quotient this year was a 9, hers is like, say, a 23, but I get the promotion and the raise and the bonus. Is that a legal standard? It’s been suggested to me by some very knowledgeable people that it could be a legal standard. And when you consider the possibilities, and I got to tell you, Pete, this is an epiphany I had the fourth draft of the book, I’m about three months away from finishing the book, and I had been writing with the mindset all along of equal pay for equal work.

I even had to look up where that came from, and that’s 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, so I didn’t know where it had come from. And, all of a sudden, it struck me that’s not what this is about. This is not about equal pay for equal work because that’s really hard to define. How many people do exactly the same thing? But if we instead say that this is the proper pay for the best performance, that takes discrimination out of the discussion. All of a sudden, it doesn’t matter, male, female, black, white, Hispanic, old, young, any reason for discrimination goes out the window when you pay the best person who performs the best. That’s really what the quotient is.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I mean, that sounds like a beautiful vision and world there in which compensation is indeed proportionate to your contribution. That sounds fair and equitable and just. And for those who are awesome at their jobs and inspired to be more awesome at their jobs, it sounds tasty and lucrative, so we like that. Thank you.

Rick Gillis
Well, I appreciate that, and I say that because this is the motivated individual that’s going to use this. The person that’s really okay with things or has no motivation, see, I’ve actually got three levels of quotient. One is the quotient of 1, and that is when, let’s say, I’m paying you $35,000 a year to be a delivery driver for me, and you do a very good job. I’m perfectly happy. But a business cannot operate on quotients of 1. We need quotients of +5, +35, +3,000, it depends, so there’s a lot of different thought that goes into this, and there’s also the quotient of less than 1, which can be bad but it depends also on the person.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, there’s a lot here. And I think just conceptually thinking about things in this way is helpful already in terms of, okay, I think in sales, or fundraising if you’re a director for development for nonprofit, then it’s pretty clear. It’s like, “Okay, I see. I know what they pay me, and I know what I brought in, and I can see that I am very profitable, or I’m very not profitable for my organization, and that can indicate I’m likely to be promoted, or get a raise, or to be exited in the near future.”

So, now the game gets a lot more intricate when your value or contribution is not so readily quantified in terms of dollar sales brought in. So, can you help us, maybe give us some examples of how do I think through that in terms of, “I am a program manager, or I am an engineer, how do I kind of get after what my contribution is in currency?”

Rick Gillis
Well, fundamentally, first of all, there’s two ways that you bring value to an organization. You either make money or you save the organization money. That’s it right there. So, most people in a company do not deliver revenue, they actually save money, so it’s a matter of being efficient.
The fact is efficiencies, saving of money, doing your job better than somebody else, and I have, throughout the book, I have 14 Q studies and, of course, that came from “The Quotient,” so I call them Q studies, and they are real people I’ve worked with over the many years, helping them get ahead, because I found a lot of people could tell me what they had done. They could not tell me what that translated to in value. And, candidly, this was a lot of 50+ year old men who had crazy good jobs, who I think got lazy, complacent, and, all of a sudden, they weren’t realizing they were not generating the appropriate value for their payrate, and they got pink slips.

And so, when I talked to them, almost across the board, I would find that they could tell me what they did, they could tell me what that value was, and I actually have a chapter in the book called The Earning Curve where your earnings continue to go higher, your personal earnings, tend to go up and up and up, but the value you’re bringing to the company starts crossing down. And when those two axes cross each other, you’re the problem now because you’re no longer developing or generating the value you should be generating.

So, in my case studies, I have several examples of people from an executive assistant to a bank VP, I even have my own personal story in the book, which I didn’t even realize…by the way, I don’t have anybody’s real name in there so if anybody hears this and goes to the book, when you read Brad’s story, that’s actually Rick, me, so I changed everybody’s name in the book. But I did a deal when I was in the real estate business, and this was about 10 years after the fact that I remembered this. I had created a commercial-lease document that saved my company some $26 odd million.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, there you go.

Rick Gillis
Yeah, and that was a big deal. Now, I was in the business of managing properties, selling space, preparing that space, build out, maintaining the grounds, so I was a general manager. I had 14 buildings on 20 acres that I was responsible for. And I’ll tell you the story and I’ll keep it as brief as I can. One morning I got served by a Texas sheriff, And I got sued by a realtor that said that I owed him $8,000 on a deal that I said, “No, I did the renewal. You’re not entitled.” So, I went looking into the original lease file that my predecessor had done, and I saw that, by damn, they had agreed in handwriting that I had missed it, it was my mistake, that he would be paid on all lease renewals.

So, I called my boss and I said, “Send me a cheque for $8,000.” We had 26 office parks across the nation so it was a big company. He sends me a cheque for $8,000, I paid it, I paid the realtor, I went back to the office, and I told my secretary, “Gaye, you and I are going to go through every lease, and we’re going to put a cover sheet, and we’re going to note any anomalies that happened in these leases so this will never happen again.”

A few months later, my boss comes to town and he’s looking through some of the leases, and he goes, “What’s this cover sheet?” Well, long story short, I had solved a problem that I didn’t even realize was national. He took it back to corporate, and we had 26 office parks, so about three months later I had 25 general managers really upset with me because they had to do what I had done, but I saved the company an enormous amount of money in legal.

Now, I maintain, Pete, and I know this might be a little la, la, but I maintain that people regularly do good things above and beyond their regular daily job that they’re not aware of, they don’t watch out for this, I missed my own and I was a sales guy. So, ten years later, I was working with a client on the phone when, all of a sudden, I remembered this. I went to my whiteboard, wrote it down, and now it’s a story in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. So, that is a fine example. So, that was outside your daily kind of your day job in terms of like your day-to-day normal recurring responsibilities, that you found something, you got proactive to make sure it didn’t happen again. And then when you shared that and it gets extrapolated over broader-based properties, it really adds up in terms of we would pay lawyers or whomever this much money to make that happen. So, that’s interesting. There’s a specific source of savings there, like legal fees not spent, that you can determine based on, I guess if you know, just how many hours legal work versus their hourly rate.

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s an excellent point because, the fact is, the company has been out of business. It was acquired many, many years ago, so I didn’t have a source to go back and get hard numbers. So, one of the things that I’ve developed along this line is what I call the defensible statement. And that is if you walk in and tell me, let’s say I’m hiring a sales guy, and you tell me you sold a billion dollars or something last year, you better be able to prove it, you better have it in writing. But if you came to me and I’m used to doing million-dollar deals, half million-dollar deals, and you tell me that last year you did a million dollars, I’ll take that, I’ll accept it, we’ll question it, we’ll talk about it, give me some head up.

So, the defensible statement is a really important component to this. I did not have any hard numbers, it was well over ten years after the fact, I went and took, which if I was interviewing with a commercial real estate firm, and I told them that I saved 1% of my gross revenue annually by not having to spend these thousands of dollars in covering mistakes, and I had a little bit more information for this. I had the smallest office park in El Paso of the entire nation. I had 400,000 net rentable square feet. Some of the bigger guys in Miami, Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta, they had like two million square feet.

So, using my numbers and taking 1% of my gross revenue and multiplying that out, that comes to like $26,000 based on what I was supposed to be generating gross revenue at that time. And then I multiplied that out times 26 office parks, keeping in mind that I used my office park, which was the smallest venue, and took that across. My point is it’s very defensible, so you got be careful, you got to keep that in mind.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re super conservative there. It’s like at least this amount but probably much more.

Rick Gillis
But I’m comfortable saying more, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
If I may, how did we arrive at the 1%?

Rick Gillis
I figured 1%, at the time I was quoting $12 a square foot per space, I had 400,000 net rentable, so $12 times…it was $4,800,000 times 1%, I came down to where I was about $26,000, I think, I saved annually, or something. And then I multiplied that out times the 26 office parks because it was of benefit to the entire organization. So, that’s exactly how I extracted that number.

But let me give you another, for instance, because this is not all about just big-money players. One of the stories in “The Quotient” is a woman, a friend of mine, who is an executive assistant. A matter of fact, right now, she’s making about $84,000-$86,000 a year, and we were talking recently, and I told her, I said, “Certainly, there’s somewhere you have saved some money for your organization.” I mean, she’s the executive assistant to the CEO so right there she’s worth more than just another administrative assistant.

But she told me that one day she had been assigned to review some contracts, and she found $77,000 of unclaimed discounts that the person who was doing the job was supposed to have been doing, had not claimed it. This was one eight-hour day she achieved the $77,000 gain. And I told her, I said, “I know you’re not being paid $77,000 a month,” because, like I said, she’s making $86,000 a year. So, in that one instant, she had a value, a savings, that she could share that was above and beyond, and people do this stuff all the time. I really believe that, Pete. I really do.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. Okay. So, you get after your value by any number of things, think about that, the money that you brought in or the money that you saved, and then you might need a little bit of help with Excel or Google Sheets to say, “Hey, what’s the value and what’s the parameter, and then why did I make…why did I say that’s the number? And here’s why it’s conservative.” So, it might just be three to ten lines of Excel, but that’s fine, to sort of make that defensible statement.

So, okay, we’re getting out the contribution side of things and your payment you know. So, then these numbers, sometimes you said 5, 35, 3,000, I mean, boy, what’s a good quotient? And what level of quotient makes you say, “Hey, I can probably get a raise now”?

Rick Gillis
I’ll tell you, that’s exactly based on, entirely based on what you do. Like I said, the quotient of equal 1, a Q1 is the person who’s doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing but a company can’t work on that. If somebody is hiring a coder, and they’re going to try to take on, let’s just say Facebook, their quotient might be a thousand to one, “Let’s pay this person $350,000, bonus, etc., options.” That person needs to deliver, at minimum, $3.5 million annually to be a quotient of 1, if you want to baseline all the positions in your company, which you can do if you want to get everybody down to a Q of 1. In other words, that is what that person would be required to deliver before they’d even can see a bonus or something like that. So, there’s lots of different ways to figure this.

And let me tell you another thing too, Pete, that’s really pretty fascinating. I’m not an MBA, I’m not a Ph.D., this comes from just 22 years of working with people and seeing these different kinds of values developing. I really had to stop and think about this from the employee’s point of view, from a manager’s point of view, from a regional’s point of view, see, because you can use the quotient across branch, division, department, you can use it in all. It works all across these different levels. And I’m not saying the controllers don’t already know this stuff. I do understand that. But I think there’s a need here for two things to happen.

Number one, the worker to embrace this and recognize what they’re doing, and also for the employer to understand that if they get somebody who’s more engaged and owns this, they’re going to be a better, more motivated, more engaged worker, and this thing is a double-edged sword. It also cuts the other way, and you get to find out the people who really aren’t carrying their weight because, too often, especially in the big companies, they’re working with a pool of people and it’s kind of like, “Let’s don’t rock the boat, let’s don’t shake things up.”

But, now, what is important to this discussion is that the individual is responsible for pointing out their wins. A company is not responsible. Your company is not required to point out when you have a really big win. For instance, when I discovered and saved my real estate company all that money, it was not their responsibility. Their responsibility to me was to pay me fairly, pay me what we agreed on, pay my, etc. my healthcare, whatever. But that’s it. If I do anything extraordinary, good for the company. That’s to their benefit.

But when I think back on this, and I saved the company millions of dollars, it would’ve been neat, it would’ve been smarter of me had I been able to go to annual review, annual end of your…and say, “Look, I did this. I’m worth a bonus. I’m worth a promotion. I’m worth something, a raise,” and that’s where I think the motivated individual who goes to their supervisor, and/or supervisors, I always strongly recommend you don’t just share this information with your boss but your boss’ boss, and her boss as well, because everybody should know you are an up-and-comer, you’re motivated, you’re engaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. So, you get some great achievements and hopefully they amount to your whole bunch of value and contribution. And so then, part of the game is quantifying that, capturing that, communicating that. And then, yeah, what are some of the best practices for sharing your accomplishments in a way that is not obnoxious and can get you some benefits?

Rick Gillis
Good question. Let me tell you what. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of people who are not comfortable with this. We’re taught not to brag, and I appreciate that. There’s no question, that’s really, really important. But bragging and boasting is not the same as informing and sharing those with you. Let’s say, for instance, you hop in the elevator and it’s you and the CEO, and that does happen to some people. What are you going to say? You have an opportunity to express your value to somebody who can really make an impact on your life, and you say, “Hey, grand weather we’re having today, isn’t it?” Well, you’ve just lost an opportunity.

So, one of the things that I’m about, and I do promote this in the book, you have to be continuously working these, you have to be continuously thinking these things, and you should always have one ready, I’m not joking, rehearsal ready, that you can say, “Hey, Mr. CEO, it’s really nice to see you. How are you today?” “Great. What’s going on?” “Well, I’d like you to know about this commercial-lease document I just created that saved the company, I think, on the order of several million dollars.” When you tell somebody that, first of all, they have been in your place, they do appreciate it. I maintain strongly that supervision, your immediate boss maybe not so much, but above and beyond that, really likes to hear wins, and that’s a fair thing that you can have something available that you could share with the CEO or somebody else.

Once again, I’m going to go back to the same place where this is for the motivated individual who’s going to study this, watch it, because one of the things that is going on, and as a salesperson, a sales professional is always doing this and always thinking about, “If I close this deal, if I close that deal, if I close this other deal, these create different revenue  streams, and etc.” But the person who is working the regular job, who’s only focused on that one thing, does other things and they really need to be thinking about the possibility that there could be quotients for their regular work, and there could be more than one or two or three of those, plus there can be those quotients for any value they create above and beyond what is requested of them to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, maybe can you share with us one of your Q studies, sort of a fun story of a professional who used this concept, ran with it, and found themselves with a whole lot more money as a result?

Rick Gillis
So, the Q studies come out of real people I have worked with in the past who landed very good jobs as a result of my helping them in their job search, but I went back to them, after the fact, in other words, I went through my files and I found, “Here’s Jeff, and here’s Hannah, and here’s whoever,” and I called them up and I said, “Hey, I’d like to use your story in this new book. Can you tell me what you were making at that time when you achieved this?”

See, where this came from, Pete, the secret sauce in my working with job seekers is, it was not negotiable, I required them to put together an accomplishments inventory. This requirement of providing me eight to ten very best accomplishments, I didn’t need to know the who, what, where, when, why and how behind each one, and so these people would prepare me 8, 10, 12, 15 pages of these things.

And I remember one chemical engineer, this woman I worked with, she handed me 18 pages, handwritten, of accomplishments, and she handed me this whole pile, and I glanced at the first one, I handed it to her, and I glanced at the next one, I handed it to her, and she got upset with me, she said, “You mean you’re not going to read those?” And I said, “No, that wasn’t for me. I don’t even speak chemical engineering. That was for you to prepare you for the interview, and now we have the information, the ammunition to create your resume, now we’re ready to set you out and get you working.”

And so, I did this with everybody, and anybody would not accept that they had to put together an accomplishments inventory for me, I didn’t accept them as a client. So, that has always been my secret sauce, and when these people get to interview, they’re absolutely ready. So, I went back and I took some of those accomplishment statements from different people, and I called them up and I said, “What were you making at that time?” And I was able to, and once again, this is really important to the Q studies, I had to use workarounds.

For instance, I had to use the dollar amount for this one guy who’s a construction supervisor, where he was able to build a bridge. It was a gigantic piece of cement they had laid for a construction, and he found that he was losing, literally at the rate of five to seven minutes a day, some 1200 workers having to walk all around this big monolith they had built.

So, he took it upon himself to build a bridge. He just had a bunch of aluminum and steel, and he fabricated a bridge that took these people straight across instead of going around, saved five, six, seven minutes, but these people were making on the order of $40+ an hour. And when you multiply that $40 times take out to get the minute rate, multiply that times how many dollars are out there or how many people were working, and all of a sudden, this guy was starting to save some real money.

And, at the time, he was making, I don’t remember exactly right now, but he was making on the order of $48 to $50 an hour, so I can take his hourly rate and see that he saved all these minutes when we divide that by 60 minutes, we get lots of hours, and then we’re able to divide that by that total by what he was making, and we do come up with good, reasonable, defensible quotient for my client.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And so then, he got a promotion or a raise as a result of this?

Rick Gillis
Actually, he left and he’s now reporting to the CEO with one of the biggest energy…one of the biggest electric-generating companies in the United States. And, yeah, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to slap myself on the back for this one because he actually took my accomplishments kind of concept and he’s now the director of best practices for this very, very large utility in the United States. And so, he took what I showed him, what I taught him, and took it and made it even better for himself. So, yeah, I’m really proud of him.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Okay. So, then a real part of that is making sure that when you do that great stuff, you take a moment to capture it and quantify it. And then when it comes to conveying it, do you have any pro tips and do’s and don’ts for asking for some of that value you created to come back to you?

Rick Gillis
Yeah, and I tell you what, I think this really comes down to the annual performance review. I think one of the things that I want for performance reviews to become, and, by the way, I do have a model for a quotient-based performance review in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so once you’ve identified this value, how do you go and ask for it?

Rick Gillis
The fact is I think that annual reviews should be more objective than subjective. What that does, that puts the onus on the worker, the person who’s reporting, to walk in with this information and be able to share it and show it. And so, once again, I go back to the place where this has to be the motivated worker.

And, by the way, this keeping, having a source of keeping your accomplishments in front of you, it’s called your calendar. I can go back and look in my daily calendar, and go back several months, and I can see where I started working with X client who is now a senior vice president at such and such. And those are a value to me because I don’t have a hard dollar value because I don’t claim their salary. They pay me but I am very proud of the fact that that person back in the workforce is now buying a home and buying cars and sending their kids to school and spending that income to the good of the economy.

The annual performance review is when you need to go in and it needs to be a two-way conversation as opposed to the set your goals at the beginning of the year, review your goals in the middle of the year, and at the end of the year, take what your boss is going to tell you. One of the things that I say is do not assume that your immediate supervisor knows exactly what you do. I consider that tragic career mistake number one, and that’s also why I say don’t ever be afraid or ashamed of sharing your wins with your immediate supervisor and her boss and his boss and her boss, because up and down the line protects you in the sense that, number one, your boss may be very, very subjective and really run you into the ground and maybe you’re that quiet person that’s not good at defending themselves. Or the other side of that is when his or her supervisors know about you, and they turn in a subpar appraisal, maybe they’re going to modify some things
So, yes, there’s a little bit of politics in here but, mostly, I think it’s about being appropriate, and that’s a very big term for me, is being appropriate, no bragging, no boasting. And for the person who does not know how to do this, you can practice with your friends, practice with your coworkers. And let me say something about coworkers while I’m there. This is not about team. This is about I, me, and mine. This is always about yourself, because if you were part of a team, just like you would in a resume, bring out what your contribution was to the group. Don’t focus on what the big win was for the team.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like the example you made with the CEO in the elevator. It’s less like, “Oh, aren’t I amazing because of all of these things?” It’s just sort of like when that question naturally comes up, “Hey, what have you been up to? What have you been working on? What’s new?” you can tell them, and you maybe have some enthusiasm, and not so much that you’re awesome, but rather that this was kind of exciting that you captured an opportunity. It’s like, “Well, one interesting thing was, in reviewing our leases, we discovered this which can result in just about $26 million.” And then they go, “Oh, cool. Duly noted.”

Rick Gillis
You know, Pete, what I call this is the what and wow. I have a formula that is when you give me a list of your accomplishments, and I take one of them, I reduce each accomplishment down to “Responsible for blank that resulted in blank” and I call that the what and the wow, “Responsible for what that resulted in wow.” So, for instance, for me to tell you, to go back to my real estate win, is to say, “I was responsible for creating a commercial-lease document that resulted in the savings of the company of about $26 million.” The person hearing this, in their head they’re going, “Whoa! Wow!”

So, what they really are thinking though is, “If you did that for them, can you do that for me?” And that’s when you need to be able to discuss the who, what, where, when, how and why because they’re going to ask you, “How did you do that?” And when somebody says, “How did you do that?” they really don’t care about so much how you did it, but, “Can you do it for me?” And that also applies within companies, within branches, within departments within companies, hey, people are rating employees all the time within companies. So, they’re responsible for what that resulted in wow, that is a formula, and that’s very apparent in the quotient.

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

Rick Gillis
No. I’ll tell you what, that’s funny you say that because, and I hold on, and I even did homework for you, buddy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. So, tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring.

Rick Gillis
Well, I’ll tell you what, my favorite quote comes from movie. And I don’t know if you know the movie. It’s about Alan Turing, World War II.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, I did see that.

Rick Gillis
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine who do the things no one can imagine.” I use that in my presentations because I want everybody to know that they do have value and they are special. Now, one thing about that quote, I was so taken with it that I actually Googled it and I found that this guy who wrote the book about Alan Turing, I reached out to him in England, and he was just cranky as hell. He said, “I didn’t write that. Some scriptwriter wrote it.” And I went, “Okay, then I won’t give you credit.” And that’s why I tell people it’s from “The Imagination Game” movie, Alan Turing did not say that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s funny.

Rick Gillis
Yeah, but it’s a great quote.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay. And a favorite book?

Rick Gillis
But I’ll tell you one of my favorites, by Lou Adler. He wrote a book called “The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired,” and it’s a really smart book for job seekers. And the reason is he wrote it for staffing companies, recruiters, how to hire. And then, after each chapter, he tells the job seeker how to use that same information to their benefit. And Lou Adler, he’s a great guy, very smart.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Rick Gillis
My favorite habit would be on LinkedIn, and this is LinkedIn-specific, I try to respond to every request to connect with a personal note. And it doesn’t always generate a conversation, but quite often it does, so that’s my personal practice because I’m very aggressive.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a favorite nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate, and is quoted back to you often?

Rick Gillis
Yeah. Well, it’s the subtitle. It kind of became the subtitle to the book, and that’s “The proper pay for the best performance.” Equal pay for equal work, I just don’t agree with that anymore, now that I’ve really thought it through. So, the proper pay for the best performance.

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

Rick Gillis
RickGillis.com, and if they want to either connect with me or follow me on LinkedIn.

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

Rick Gillis
Yes. Your work does not speak for itself. You do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Rick, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck with your motorcycle adventures, and working with folks, and making the biggest impact you’re making.

Rick Gillis
Pete, thank you very much for having me. I appreciate your questions and I can tell you could go a lot deeper on this than I can. You’re the bomb, dude.

547: Finding Greater Success and Fulfillment with an Infinite Mindset with Simon Sinek

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Simon Sinek says: "There's no such thing as winning or losing in the infitine game, there's only ahead and behind."

Simon Sinek discusses the crucial pivot in thinking that professionals need to thrive in their careers.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What most professionals get wrong about work
  2. The five key practices for thriving in an infinite game
  3. How to keep your confidence during setbacks

About Simon:

Simon is an unshakable optimist who believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together.

Described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect,” Simon teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people. With a bold goal to help build a world in which the vast majority of people wake up every single day feeling inspired, feel safe at work, and feel fulfilled at the end of the day, Simon is leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.

Simon is the author of multiple best-selling books including Start With WhyLeaders Eat LastTogether is Better, and The Infinite Game.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Empower. Save more money, effortlessly. Get $5 free when you reach your savings goal at empower.me/awesome with the promo code AWESOME
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Simon Sinek Interview Transcript

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

Simon Sinek
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into so much of your wisdom. You’re known a lot for talking about your why and starting with why. So, just some folks can orient to you, if they’re not as familiar, can you share what’s your why?

Simon Sinek
To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so each of us can change our world for the better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m all about that, so we got a good fit here. And so, I also want to talk about your latest book. It’s been a couple months, but still new, The Infinite Game. Can you share, what’s the big idea here?

Simon Sinek
So, in the mid-1980s, a philosopher by the name of James Carse theorized that if you had at least one competitor, a game exists, and there are two types of games: finite games and infinite games. A finite game is defined as known players, fixed rules, and an agreed upon objective – baseball, football – there’s always a beginning, middle, and end. And if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser.

Then there are infinite games. Infinite games are defined as known and unknown players, the rules are changeable, and the objective is to perpetuate the game. This means new players can join in at any time, it means we can play however we want, but there is no finish line so there’s no such thing as winning or losing.

And if you think about it, we are players in infinite games every day of our lives. There’s no such thing as winning in your career, no one’s declared the winner of careers. There’s no such thing as winning business or winning global politics. And, yet, when we listen to so many of our leaders, they talk about being number one, being the best, and beating their competition. Based on what? Based on what agreed upon objectives? Based upon what agreed upon timeframes? There’s no such thing. There’s no finish line.

And the problem is when we play in an infinite game with a finite mindset, in other words we play to win or be number one in a game that has no finish line, there’s some predictable and consistent outcomes: the decline of trust, the decline of cooperation, and the decline of innovation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s dig into a lot of that. So, in the infinite game, the goal is to continue playing, so I guess then the infinite game would need to be fun or worthwhile, just kind of basically if that’s something worth perpetuating.

Simon Sinek
It has to be worthwhile. I think that’s a good way of putting it. Yeah, it has to exist and that’s something bigger than each of us so that we want to contribute something that will outlive us. We also play for the good of the game. And you can see this in business all the time. Finite-minded companies, if they have anything that works, any system that works, they hoard it like it’s a trade secret because they don’t want anyone else to know about it because it should only benefit them.

Some of the more infinite-minded companies, companies like Costco or The Container Store, if they figure out different systems and better ways of doing anything, they talk about it. They talk about it out loud. They share their systems so that other companies may benefit. In other words, it’s for the good of the game.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I love that. When I was consulting with the Bridgespan Group, that was a paradigm shift for me, doing for-profit consulting then nonprofit consulting, it’s like, “Oh, wait. We want the insights we come up with to be known by everyone in the social sector so that more people can do the good thing to bring about benefits for everyone.” So, it was night and day from, “Ooh, we got some competitive insight. Don’t share that because we need to keep our edge.” But your point is some for-profit entities are doing that. What’s their thinking?

Simon Sinek
Oh, the infinite-minded companies are trying to protect capitalism and advance capitalism and take care of the economy, and they want other companies to do well because they want other companies to protect and look after their employees. It’s not just a short-term finite game where maybe we win and everybody else loses. There’s no losers in this game. There’s no winners in this game. That’s the point. There’s no such thing because the game has no agreed upon metrics, timeframes, or objectives. So, we play to advance our cause and, of course, we want to build healthier, stronger companies, but two companies can do well at the same time because it’s not a winner-take-all model.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. Okay. So, well, then you mentioned that there are some particular outcomes associated with trust, cooperation, and innovation when you’re working things in an infinite-game mindset, you get more of those good things than when you have a finite mindset, you have less of it. Can you give us a couple powerful examples of folks who were reaping those really cool benefits, kind of what they did, and the results they saw versus those who were not because they were thinking about things too finitely and suffering the consequences?

Simon Sinek
Well, if you take trusting teams, one of the things that infinite-minded organizations do is they strive to build trusting teams. And every single one of us knows what it’s like to be in a trusting team. It means that we can raise our hands and say that we made a mistake, or that we don’t fully understand the job that we’ve been given and we need more training, or that we need help, without any fear of humiliation or retribution. We don’t fear that we’ll be in some shortlist at the end of the year, but rather we say these things with confidence, that our boss or our colleagues will rush in to support us and help us.

Unfortunately, too many of us know what it feels like not to be in a trusting team, where admitting a mistake could get you in trouble or get you fired, where if maybe you don’t know something, it would be a sign of weakness, it will restrict your ability to get promoted or, worse, get laid off at the end of the year, and so we keep these things for ourselves. We never, never say these things out loud and, eventually, mistakes compound, and people who don’t know what they’re doing, things start to break and, in the extreme, it can collapse or end up in scandal.

And so, what you find is that those infinite-minded companies, they believe desperately in building trusting teams, and so the people who benefit are the ones who love working there. And you look at the best companies to work for, WD-40, The Container Store. You talk to people who work there, they love working there. They love their jobs, and it doesn’t matter if their product isn’t glamorous. Well, WD-40 makes lubricants, so basically a one-product company. How can you love working in a company that makes lubricant? Well, the people do, not because of the product, but because of the company, because of their colleagues, because of the leadership, because they have an infinite mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you said the word scandal, and that’s triggering for me. I stalked all the reviews of your book before this interview, and someone said, “You did the best job of actually describing what went down with the Wells Fargo fake accounts than anybody, and I work there.” So, can you kind of draw that connection there between the story of that scandal and how finite thinking is part of the key cause there?

Simon Sinek
Sure. I mean, many of us know what happened to Wells Fargo, about 5,000 employers were held responsible for opening 3.5 million fake bank accounts, and they did so because the pressure on them to meet their sales goals was so extreme that you could get fired if you didn’t play by the rules and you could get big bonuses if you did, that it led something called ethical fading where good people started to do things that were highly unethical believing that they were well under their own ethical frameworks and they were rationalized, “I got to put food on the table. This is what my boss wants. Everybody is doing it.”

And the amazing thing was they fired 5,000 people for doing it, but they didn’t hold the senior people accountable at all. The CEO eventually lost his job not because the company decided to fire him, but because of public pressure, because of Congressional pressure, and still walked away with multi, multi, tens of millions of dollars in pay. I mean, these are backward systems. These are backward systems. At the end of the day, they created a culture that was more obsessed with making money than doing the right thing. So, guess what happened? Everybody works to make money in the short term and it came at the great expense of knowing our ethical standards, but at the end of the day, it actually hurt the company more than all the money they were making. This is the irony of the finite game. The benefits actually only benefit you in the short term.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, well-said and well-illustrated. So, then let’s maybe zoom into the realm of an individual professional, and you say that the mindset and thinking can really vary day by day, it’s like you’re not 100% infinite mindset or 100% finite mindset, but it’s, in a way, a choice that you make with how you choose to put your thoughts day after day. So, can you maybe give us some examples of typical maybe mental reactions or self-talk, and what sort of finite-thinking self-talk versus infinite-thinking self-talk sounds like?

Simon Sinek
these are not either/or, it’s both. maintaining an infinite mindset is not the rejection of finite, it’s the context within in which the finite exists. So, the problem is we all use sports analogies. We treat business or careers and politics like it’s a finite game, like there’s a finish line. We talk about winning at the end except there is no winning. We just keep going and going and going. We need to change the mindset to think more of it like a lifestyle.

Think of it more like an exercise. There’s nothing wrong with having a finite goal if you want to do exercise. You want to lose X amount of weight by X date, that’s fantastic. Goals are motivating, they’re easy to measure, we feel good when we make progress, and if we hit the goal, we feel amazing. The problem is if we hit the goal, we have to keep exercising for the rest of our lives. We can’t stop. It’s a context. Again, there’s a broader context.

But, at the same time, if we miss our goal, nothing happens. Nothing happens. And we might make the goal a month or two later, but the most important thing is we’re way healthier now than we were before we started working out, and we just keep at it. So, the goals are motivating, finite is good, but we have to remember that if we miss some of these goals, literally nothing happens and we may be better off simply because we tried. So, that’s a better way to think about approaching anything in the infinite game. Think of it more like a lifestyle rather than a game.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that is quite a turn-of-a-phrase, literally nothing happens. I think that could bring a lot of peace to me.

Simon Sinek
You want to lose 10 pounds in five months, and if you lose 8 pounds, you know what happens? I mean, you set the arbitrary goal and you set the arbitrary date. It’s the same in business. We set the arbitrary goals and we set the arbitrary dates, and we create incentive structures to drive people to hit a number on a certain date, but the reality is nothing happens if we miss those numbers. Nothing.

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, boy, that is getting my wheels turning. I mean, in a way it’s like, “Well, hey, what happened,” past tense, “is you lost 8 pounds instead of 10.” But in terms of, like, you’re not dead, you’re still…

Simon Sinek
People, organization, won’t collapse, you know.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m with you. Well, that’s fun. That’s fun to chew on a bit. Okay. So, that’s the view in terms of so you mentioned sometimes that you can think about things not so much in terms of “I’ve won” or “I’ve lost,” but maybe “I’m ahead” or “I’m behind.” Can you talk about some of that language?

Simon Sinek
That’s 100% correct. There’s no such thing as winning or losing in the infinite game, there’s only ahead and behind. So, I’ll give you a great example. My nephew is eight years old, super competitive little kid, and does not like to lose, gets very, very angry when he loses. He played a football game and his team lost. And because my poor sister is subjected to all of my ideas as I’m writing them, she knew about this idea of being ahead or behind rather than winning or losing.

So, my nephew was very upset, and my sister didn’t dispense the standard parenting advice, “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. What matters is how you played the game.” That’s usually what we tell our kids. My sister said, “It’s okay. Today, you had a behind day. On another day, you’ll have an ahead day.” And she asked him, she said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “I want to be a professional football player.” And she said, “Okay. Well, there’s going to be a lot of ahead days and a lot of behind days, and you want to work hard to have more ahead days, but you’re going to have behind days.” So, he didn’t think of these things as final. He started to learn that it’s a journey.

And so, he lost another game recently, and my sister asked him, “How did today go?” And he said, “I had a behind day.” And so, he’s learning that the short-term wins and losses we have in our lives, they’re just part of the journey. They’re not final. And I thought that was such a healthy way of looking at the world.

Pete Mockaitis
That is handy and it’s a nice little nudge that ahead or behind is relative to a bigger scale in terms of, “It’s not over. Here’s one snapshot in time and we’re going to have another one the next day, and we’ll see how that one looks.”

Simon Sinek
Exactly. And, remember, there are still finite games. You can still go out to play baseball, you can still go bowling. But we have to ask ourselves what we’re there to play to do as well. It’s okay to be competitive but we just have to remember the larger context.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, when it comes to leading an infinite game, you’ve spelled out five key ingredients that have got to be there. Can you give us a bit of a walkthrough of those?

Simon Sinek
Sure. The first one is you got to have a just cause. You have to believe in a vision that’s bigger than yourself, something you want to work to advance, an idealized thing in the world. The founding fathers in the United States imagined an idealized future, a world in which all men are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights, which is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And America will never get there. We will never get to the point where all people are equal but we will die trying. And that’s the point, to commit our lives to advancing towards the cause, and some of the finite victories we have rule us towards that ideal.

And when we have a sense of just cause, when we have a sense that our work, and the energy we invest, is contributing to something bigger, it’s what gives our lives and our work meaning. So many people work simply for short-term numbers and after a bunch of years and a bunch of bonuses, you start asking yourself, “What’s this all for?” We need to have a just cause. We need to have a clear idealized vision for the future that we can help build.

We also need to build trusting teams, I talked about that one already, and we need to change our mindset away from seeing the other players as competitors, because competitors are people you want to beat, but rather to see them as worthy rivals. Some others players, whether individuals or other companies, do things better than we do. Well, we can learn about them. Instead of getting angry or insecure, we need to look at ourselves and say, “Where can we improve?”

We’ve all had the experience at work where someone we work with gets a promotion and we got angry. Think about that for a second. We got angry at someone else’s good fortune. Well, that’s because their strengths are revealing some sort of weakness in us. And instead of getting angrier and competitive with them, we can look at ourselves and say, “Where can I improve? What nerve are they touching?” That’s really important in the infinite game.

And then the ability to completely change the strategic course to advance that cause, and, most importantly, the courage to do all these things. Because the pressures on us from almost every direction are overwhelmingly finite. The incentive structures in companies are usually finite-driven, the pressures we get put on by our parents or our guidance counselors are always pushing us to be the best, to be number one, but there’s no such thing really. Nobody wins education. And so, we have to have the courage to build and maintain this at the onset. It’s very hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Boy, there’s a lot here. Can you share with us what have you found, as you researched and worked with folks, are some of just really top do’s and don’ts, best practices and worst practices, associated with each of these things that professionals should start doing or stop doing right away to bring them about?

Simon Sinek
Well, as I said, the easiest one to do is stop seeing the people we work with as competitors, like age-old competition is unhealthy, but internal rivalries are very healthy. You don’t have to like the people, you don’t have to agree with them, but we do have to respect people who are better at things than we are, and we can learn about ourselves and we can learn from them. That, I think, is the easiest one and one of the best things we can do. And also just appreciate that there are these different types of people, that not everything fits the same rule, not everything is about winning or losing when there’s no finish line. So, just to appreciate the fact that the way we think the world works is actually not the way the world works.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. And let’s talk about existential flexibility a bit. I think that one might be harder to conceptually grasp. Can you expand on that a smidge?

Simon Sinek
So, existential flexibility is a capacity to make a profound strategic shift in order to advance a just cause. This is not the daily flexibility that’s required but rather the profound strategic shift. My favorite example happened to Apple. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, they had a just cause. They want to empower individuals to stand up to Big Brother, they were revolutionaries. And so, this is the reason they found appeal in the personal computer. It was always a tool that could empower individuals to do just that. They imagined a world where one day an individual could actually compete with corporations.

Apple had already had success with the Apple I and the Apple II, those were already in big companies, Steve Jobs is already, then, a CEO, and they go off, Jobs and a few of his senior executives, go off for tour a of Xerox PARC, this was Xerox’s internal R&D department. And Xerox showed them something they invented called the graphic user interface which allowed computer users to use the computer by clicking a mouse and moving a cursor to work the computer rather than having to learn code. This was a profound innovation. Jobs saw this as way more powerful to help individuals learn and take advantage of computer technology.

He left that tour and said to his senior executives, “We have to invest in this graphic user interface thing.” One of those executives, the voice of reason, said, “Steve, we can’t. We’ve already invested millions of dollars and countless man hours in a completely different strategic direction. If we walk away from that, we’ll blow up our own company,” to which Jobs actually said, “Better we should blow it up than someone else.”

That decision led to the Macintosh, a computer operating system so profound that it really changed the way computers exist in our lives today. The entire software of Windows is designed to act like a Macintosh. The reason that computers are a household appliance and on every single desk was because of Jobs’ willingness to make this existential flex, to walk away from the money they invested and the time they invested because he found a better way to advance his cause.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, existential, I’m hearing you there. It’s like we’re saying the very stuff that you have held, like, practically as sacred, as core to who we are, what we’re about, and what we fundamentally do, it’s like, “Well, we can be flexible with that and go in a totally different way.”

Simon Sinek
Exactly. And what a lot of companies do in the face of cultural change, or technological change, or political change, is, because they fear having to completely change the way they view things, they double-down. We’ve seen this happen over and over again. Why is it that Netflix invented itself and not the television and movies? Why is it that iTunes was invented by a computer company and not the music industry? How is it that Amazon invented itself and the e-reader and not the publishing industry? It’s because they were so short-sighted and so preoccupied with maintaining their finite game that they literally missed the opportunity to advance any kind of cause because of the technological change that they were facing. Now, they’re all playing defense.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. That’s good. Well, so let’s see, I’ve got a couple other things I want to touch on beyond the infinite game. Tell me, any kind of critical things you want to make sure that we get out there so that this part of the conversation feels complete?

Simon Sinek
No.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. That feels good. So, a friend of mine told me that I must ask you, because I first saw you do this spiel on Tom Bilyeu’s show Impact Theory about millennials, I don’t know if that was the first or just sort of what seem to go viral in my feeds but it was quite thought-provoking so we’ll definitely link to that. And so, I had a friend who said, “You have to ask Simon, ‘Do you have any key solutions for folks who are trying to facilitate the development of emotional maturity in millennials?’” So, you got solutions, tips, tricks, tactics? Lay them on us.

Simon Sinek
Well, number one, have empathy. Every single generation is formed by the experiences they had when they came of age. If you have grandparents who lived through the Great Depression or the Second World War, very many of them are a miser, they’re frugal. There’s nothing wrong with them because they lived through the Depression or the War.

Well, every generation is the same way, and the millennial generation was the first generation to come of age where cellphones and social media were ubiquitous because that’s their worldview. They also came of age in a time where mass layoffs at companies had become completely embraced and normalized. When you talk about getting a gold watch after devoting your entire career to one company, there’s an entire generation that has no idea what I’m talking about when I talk about the gold watch.

And so, when we complain that they have no loyalty, we have to consider how they grew up. They grew up in a world where they watched their parents getting laid off because of nothing that their parents did. The company happened to miss its arbitrary projections at the end of a year. And so they’re cynical. They don’t trust companies because companies have never shown them loyalty. So, we have to have empathy, that’s number one.

And, number two, we have to teach people the skill they’re missing, and that goes to the leaders as well. Do leaders that are overseeing millennials, do they even have the ability to listen? Are we teaching people listening skills? Are we teaching people how to give and receive feedback? Are we teaching people how to come to terms with their own limiting narratives? Are we teaching them about effective confrontation? These are the basics of leadership. If we don’t teach the basics of leadership, we don’t get leaders, we get managers. So, I think we need to teach leaders how to lead, and we need to help all generations to learn these skill sets

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s handy. And then I also want to get your view, when it comes to this why stuff, you’ve been playing that game for a while. So, I’d love to hear, have you noticed any patterns or insights in terms of, “Boy, it really seems that when folks engage in these questions of reflection, or these processes of introspection, it really seems to be delivering insights with a high probability and reliability”? So, what’s the latest greatest in how to come up with your why effectively?

Simon Sinek
Well, first, we have to ask for help. None of us is objective about our own lives and our own careers. We need somebody who has an impartial outside point of view. But there’s a fun way to do it that gets you in the ballpark. I call it the friend’s test. Basically, what you do is you go find a friend you love, someone whom you can call at 3:00 o’clock in the morning and you know they would take your call, and vice versa, you would take theirs. Don’t do this with a spouse, don’t do this with a sibling, don’t do this with a parent. Those relationships are too close. Do it with a close friend and ask them the simple question, “Why are we friends?” And they’re going to look at you like you’re crazy they’ll say things to you like, “I don’t know. Why are you asking me this?”

And so, you have to keep peppering them, but you should, ironically, stop asking why because it’s an emotional question, and you switch to, “What?” which is a rational question, “What is it about me that I know you would be there for me no matter what?” And they’ll start describing you, “I don’t know. You’re funny. I can trust you. You’re loyal,” and you have to play devil’s advocate, you kind of help them, you kind of let everybody else help them. You have to go through the process. You say things like, “Well, that’s the definition of a friend. That’s generic. What is it specifically about me that I know you’re there for me no matter what?”

And, again, they’re going to go through this process, it might be multiple times, it might be torture, but at some point they’re going to give up and they’re going to start describing themselves not you, and you’re going to get goosebumps, you’re going to have some sort of emotional reaction, you’re going to well up. My friend said to me, “Simon, I don’t even need to talk to you. I can just sit in a room with you and I feel inspired,” and I got goosebumps. In other words, what they’re finally able to articulate is the value you have in their lives, and that value you have in their lives is your why, the thing you give to the world, the reason people want you in their lives.

And, by the way, if you do it with multiple friends, they’ll tell you the same thing. If not the exact same words, they’ll tell you very, very similar words. It’s kind of amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
That is awesome and sounds like fun. I’m looking forward to doing exactly that. Well, Simon, tell me, anything you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Simon Sinek
No.

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

Simon Sinek
There is a great quote by Henry Ford that I love, that goes, “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Simon Sinek
I think the Whitehall Studies are pretty amazing, that I wrote about in Leaders Eat Last, where, basically, we believe that people who go higher up in a company, the more stress you have because you have more responsibilities, etc. And what the Whitehall Studies revealed is actually the stress levels go down as you get more senior, and stress levels are actually the highest on the front lines because the more control and discretion you have, the higher you go up, it actually reduces stress. When you move control away from people, or you don’t give them discretion, it actually increases stress to a very, very high degree. So, one of the best ways to keep people healthy, you give them choices on how to do their jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Simon Sinek
Well, Finite and Infinite Games is pretty amazing by James Carse, and, also, I’m a big fan of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

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

Simon Sinek
Maintain friendships. Look after your friends. Look after the people you work with because when stress is high and the chips are down, you get many people in your corner who rush to your aid without being asked. So, the way that that happens is you’ve got to be a good friend to other people too.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate, and they quote it back to you often?

Simon Sinek
I think the quote that people say back to me most often is when I said, “Working hard for something you don’t believe in is called stress. Working hard for something you love is called passion.” And I think when you think passion as an input. It’s not. It’s an output. People say, “I only hire passionate people.” The problem is passion is not an input. We’re all passionate for something but we’re not passionate for the same thing. Passion can be amplified if we’re working for something that we believe is bigger than ourselves. So, I think that’s a big one.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with your organization, with what you’re up to, where would you point them?

Simon Sinek
So, we’re in all the usual places, SimonSinek.com, and LinkedIn, and Twitter, and Instagram, and Facebook. Not TikTok. We don’t do TikTok channels.

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

Simon Sinek
Be the leader you wish you had. So many people complain that they work in companies that have bad leadership and that their bosses or their boss’ boss doesn’t get it. Well, we don’t have to quit, we don’t have to complain, and we can be the leaders we wish we had. We can show up every day and work hard to ensure that the people we work with, including our own boss, feel inspired when they come to work in the morning

Pete Mockaitis
Simon, thank you. This has been a joy and keep up the great work.

Simon Sinek
Thanks very much and thanks for giving me a place to help share my ideas.