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KF #30. Self-Development Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

462: Increasing Your Self-Awareness to Improve Your Leadership with Pamela McLean

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Pam McLean says: "Our presence is an intervention."

Pamela McLean reveals how your inner landscape helps and hinders your leadership capabilities.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The most common obstacle to developing your leadership potential
  2. How to address self-limiting beliefs
  3. The most critical internal areas to develop

About Pamela 

Pamela McLean is the CEO and cofounder of the Hudson Institute of Coaching, which provides consulting to organizations worldwide. Working in the arenas of clinical and organizational psychology, and leadership coaching and development, Pam has worked with hundreds of organizational leaders and seasoned professionals inside organizations and in solo practice to deepen and strengthen their coaching skills. Pam is the author and co-author of several books, articles and whitepapers focused on coaching, human development and transformational learning. Her titles include: The Completely Revised Handbook of Coaching and LifeForward, Charting the Journey Ahead.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Pamela McLean Interview Transcript

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

Pam McLean
So happy to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. And I, first, want to hear a little bit about your fondness for birdwatching.

Pam McLean
That’s great. Well, I’ve been a birdwatcher for a long time and it is interesting that there are a lot of birdwatchers in the world. It turns out, I grew up on the prairie right on the border of Manitoba up in the corner of North Dakota, Minnesota, and when one grows up on a farm on a prairie, the appreciation for wildlife is accentuated. And I’ve just carried that through all of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And so, can you identify the birds then readily, “That’s a yellowtail, blue belly…”?

Pam McLean
There’s always room for improvement, but I do have a repertoire that I can identify, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, birdwatching, it seems like a relaxing hobby as opposed to, I don’t know, bungee jumping.

Pam McLean
Much more relaxing and it’s everywhere. You don’t have to go find a bungee jump. There are birds everywhere so it’s a wonderful thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. So, you’ve also done a lot of human watching and observing and coaching and training of coaches. Boy, there are so many things I want to dig into but I’m just going to start to dig and ask. Coaches really have a privileged way of a view, I’d say, of the human condition and how we really operate deep down. So, I’d love to know what have you found is the most surprising, or striking, or reliable insight into how we humans tick that you’ve discovered from all your decades of coaching and coach training?

Pam McLean
Great question. Definitely a broad one. There are several things that come to my mind. One is in the world of coaching, especially leadership coaching, which is really what I have spent the last 30 years in here at Hudson, one theme is that almost all leaders want to do their best work. They want to be at their best. So, that’s quite something to work with people who are willing to continue to grow and develop. That is, I think, one of the unique features of leadership coaching.

Another one that is interesting, Pete, and I spent my first half of my career as a clinical psychologist and then now as a leadership coach, or running a leadership coaching organization. One of the other things that I see as a theme is that change is hard for all of us. That to make a change, even what might seem like a small change, takes a lot of conscious effort, and that is part of what makes coaching valuable, to have someone walking alongside you and helping to look at how you can build some practices and continue to make some shifts that are really going to matter for you.
But it strikes me,

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’m reminded of the oddest things sometimes in the podcast interviews, and now I’m thinking about an old Dane Cook, a comedian, joke about someone in the bad romantic relationship, and her friends are saying, “You should just get out. You should just get out of there. You just get out. Just go.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s not that simple, Karen. My CDs are in his truck.” And I just think there’s so much truth to that. Like, “Yeah, there’s a few changes that have to happen, and that’s hard to do.”

Pam McLean
Yeah, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, yet I find that reassuring. So, my last person I interviewed was a Navy Seal, and so he’s sort of speaking likewise about how, yeah, that’s a scary thing to do, standup comedy for the first time as he was venturing into this or that. And so, it’s reassuring that even sort of like the toughest and most elite among us also struggle with doing change. And I guess I might want to get your take on why do you suppose that is? Is it just habit and comfort just…has a pull on us?

Pam McLean
Well, yeah, I think that’s right, that it does have a pull on us, and we know from the neuroscience as well that we build these, we could almost think of them as like grooves in our brain that we’re on autopilot when we’re in habit. And so, if I’m going to shift my way of being, here’s a kind of common one that might come up in coaching. I’m just thinking of those.

You know, as an early manager, here’s one that can be common, that someone goes, “Oh, gosh, I don’t really want to get my person feedback because it makes me kind of uncomfortable. I’d like to be liked. I haven’t really done much of it before.” And so, to rewire to see that providing feedback to someone that you’re managing is actually an important part of developing them, and everybody wants to grow. That’s quite different then, the mindset that, “I might make them feel badly,” or, “That would be uncomfortable for me to do.”

So, it takes us quite a bit of time to deconstruct what gets in the way, to really look at what the underlying obstacles are, and to pay attention to them. There’s this tendency that we have when we want to change something, and we look at, “What do I need to do? What do I need to do? Just give me the answers. Tell me what to do.” And what we know in coaching is that what we need first is to notice how we are now, “How I’m showing up now, and to really develop a heightened awareness for the habit that I’m

Here’s one that I hear often, is people talk about how often they say yes before even thinking. And we often talk about, in working with coaches and development, that when we learn to say no, we know how to set a boundary and that becomes important for us in our work with others. But it’s not as simple as, “Boy, I say yes all the time, so let me just start saying no.” First, we have to notice, “How many times in a day do I say yes? And what happens? What’s the cost of that? What triggers that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, it really is because, I think, it’s dead on in terms of, “Okay, what do I need to do?” is a natural question and, particularly for me, one of my top strengths is Activator, it’s like, “Let’s go do it. Make it happen.” And so, but that awareness strikes me as really a potent means of accelerating change because you start to get emotional and visceral and real about it. It’s not like, “Yes, I say yes too much and that’s bad and I should say no more.”

That’s one thing intellectually, as opposed to, “Oh, my gosh, I have taken stock at how this is devastating my life.” And, not to be overdramatic, it really can. It’s like, “I have no time to rest, to do what’s important to me. I’m always serving everybody in every way and urgently and frantically and distractedly with mediocre quality because I haven’t said no enough to prioritize and focus and deliver excellence on those things that really matter there.”

So, I really like that because some might say awareness, they can sort of brush it aside, like, “Yadda, yadda, yadda, those coaches would say that. They can book some more hours and they drudge up your past and the awareness.” But, really, I see it as a bridge to getting that emotional stuff going.

Pam McLean
Well, you make such great point because we can’t think ourselves through change and we have to have the head and heart connected to make those connections, so we have to be in the moment with ourselves, paying attention to ourselves, noticing what triggers us, so you’re spot on there, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really want to dig in. So, in your book Self as Coach, Self as Leader, you sort of lay out six key dimensions to think through with regard to yourself and how that shows up as a leader and enriches folks. So, I’d love it if maybe you could talk us through a little bit of each of the dimensions, like what is it, why is it important, and how do we get better at that?

Pam McLean
Yeah, happy to. And I might start by giving it a little bit of context to say that, in the life of a leader or a coach, we know we have skill-based competencies that are must-haves. It’s kind of like our IQ is the cost of admission, that’s just a must-have. But often, most often,  And I use this phrase, “Our use of  We do many things at Hudson, working inside organizations, providing coaching services, and we also have a yearlong program where leaders come and go through this process of developing coaching skills.

Often, leaders will say, “Oh, I just want the tools. I just want the tools and I think I’ll be good.” And we go, “Oh, here’s the deal. ” So, our ability to use our self…

Pete Mockaitis
How dare you?

Pam McLean
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
You want to be a tool?

Pam McLean
It requires that we cultivate our internal landscape. And some of us are more inclined to do this, some fields of study bring us into this territory more than others, but it is in that cultivation of our internal landscape, whether we’re a coach or a leader, that really allows us to show up in a way that maximizes our ability to work with others, to inspire others, to lead others, to develop others.

So, one of the things I start with in the book is I talk a bit about this notion that, well, in coaching our work is not the same as in psychology or psychotherapy where we might naturally go back and take a look at the family of origin and do some deconstruction and some reconstructing. And, yet, what is true is that all of us human beings have some kind of a family of origin, and that who we are is so significantly impacted by our early years.

And so, it’s helpful for us, as leaders and coaches, to understand what has shaped us into our adult years. And that, of course, parallels some of what we do, certainly what we do as a coach when we’re working with someone. If you just imagine that some people might call our ways being, we have self-limiting beliefs. You hear this, right? And others might say that we have narratives that we live in. Or I often talk about stories that we have. And I talk in the book about how a story that I have, that is a lifelong story, I grew up on a cattle ranch in a very rural area. There was a lot of positive strokes for being strong and absolutely, extra credit, for never asking for help.

And so, that was a story. It worked so well as I was growing up. And that’s how we develop these. We’re smart, resourceful, little people, and we figure out, “What do I need to do? Maybe if I go small, it’ll work better in my family. Or, maybe if I talk a lot, it’ll work better. Or, maybe if I cry.” We figure out what ways of being we need to develop in order to, “Make life work as best it can in my family,” because all families have some level of dysfunction, right?

So, my “be strong and extra credit for not asking for help” was clever when I was growing up, but as a leader of an organization, which is a role I’ve been in for over a couple of decades now, it’s not an effective strategy. And so, it has required me to really be attuned to that old story and to do my work noticing how often that can show up in order that I can expand my capacity, in order that I can see the value of asking for input, asking for help, and I can see the cost of going it alone.

And so, that is a starting point for the  And in those six dimensions that I write about, they are really lenses into our internal landscape. We’ve talked for a long time, in the earlier book I wrote, I talked about this notion of self as coach, but I really dig into it in this book. And so, these are dimensions of self. It’s more than EQ. EQ is about knowing our emotions, managing our emotions. But these are dimensions that include our presence.

I have this colleague that says this wonderful phrase, “Our presence is an intervention.” Now, imagine that as a leader or as a coach. The very way I show up in the first moments with you is an intervention. And so, to hone my presence, for most of us, and certainly in the world we’re living in today, requires a lot of practice. And it’s not just closing the screen, putting your cellphone away, it’s paying attention to the chatter that’s in my head, the biases or the assumptions that I might bring with me into a particular conversation as a leader or as a coach.

And so, it has many layers to it and it requires for us practices that allow us to strengthen our presence. And it’s not surprising that neuroscience has taught us that mindfulness practice helps us tune in to the internal chatter, helps us learn how to settle and to be in the moment, and to be  And I don’t know, Pete, if you have a mindfulness practice, but every time I’m with a group of people, and I ask, “How many of you have a mindfulness practice?”

First of all, the number of people in any number of settings has grown so much over the past several years. Then, when you ask the next question, “How has that changed you?” It’s quite compelling to listen to people talk about how a practice that might only take 5 or 10 minutes a day, you don’t have to sit on a pillow, you don’t have to have your meditation room, or a candle burning. You can do it at your desk with the door closed. You can do it as you walk if you’re able to do that. That it changes our attention to self and our ability to be there more fully for another. So, that’s one area, is

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. Thank you. And with the mindfulness practice, I mean, there’s many such practices. But if you were to make a recommendation for folks who have none, by the way, what percentages are you seeing these days? What proportion of folks are you saying that have a mindfulness practice?

Pam McLean
So, I may be working with many people who are quite invested in their own development. So, when I say 40%, that’s probably higher than the average, but I’m always impressed by how many people are taking this on. And there are some really great apps on the phone that are helpful for those who want to just dip into it. And I don’t have my phone sitting right here or I would tell you a couple. I think one is Calm, but there are three or four that are quite well known, quite effective. Some of them cost absolutely nothing. Insight is the one that I think I like, but they are a great support.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. So, that’s the presence side of things, just how you show up can impact folks, be an intervention, whether you’re frenetic and frenzied or calm and listening and that sort of thing. So, let’s shift over from presence to empathy now.

Pam McLean
Yeah, so empathy is such an important one, and in coaching it’s our glue. In the field of psychology, you often hear about the term, “a working alliance.” We have to have this connection with the person that we’re working with in order for anything to happen, for conversations that matter to unfold. It provides that safety, it provides that sense of being seen, and it is bedrock in our work.

And what I talk about in the book is that we could imagine there’s a continuum. And on the one end of the continuum, I am almost disconnected from the human being in front of me. I don’t see, when you’re having a difficult moment, or maybe tearing up, or getting frustrated, I just don’t clock that, I don’t connect in that way. The far end, the other end of the continuum, when you feel badly, I feel badly. When you’re upset, I’m upset.

And so, this empathy requires a calibration because neither end of that continuum allows us to be at our best with another. But I use this phrase, “The ability to walk in someone’s shoes without wearing them.” So, the ability to imagine what this experience is like for you without taking it on, without taking it home, and at the end of the day continuing to think about it, worry about it, wonder about it.

And so, to take another’s perspective, to walk in their shoes without lacing them up and staying there, that is where we want to be, calibrating our  And it’s so interesting for people to explore this, and to notice where they might be, and where the recalibration might be. And there’s, for some, a natural inclination to want to take care of others.

I, sometimes, say it’s like handing someone the box of Kleenex, and you start to feel badly, or you’re upset. And if I hand you, metaphorically, a box of Kleenex, I really am now drawn into your story, and you’re not able to fully share all that you might want to share.

Pete Mockaitis
You say the handing of the box of Kleenex, is it like a distancing?

Pam McLean
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “You take care of yourself now. Tidy up.”

Pam McLean
“That’s enough. That’s enough. That’s enough,” right? “Now, get yourself together,” or, “Everything is going to be okay.” We’ve all been in those situations where we’re going through something that’s hard, and even good friends will say, “You know, you’re really strong. You’re going to be fine. Oh, I know that you’re going to get through this.” And it’s a conversation stopper because that’s not where I am at that time.

And so, having that ability to stay with, to connect with, and be with someone wherever they are, in many ways, is a bit of an art for us and certainly requires that presence, that mindfulness to maximize

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really helpful there in terms of don’t say, “Everything’s okay. You’re going to be super strong,” or hand them a box of Kleenex in terms of sort of shutting it down. But do kind of imagine what it’s like to experience that and to be there but without taking it home or to own those shoes. So, I get what we’re going for here in terms of, okay, avoid those extremes, utterly disconnected, and complete unity of feeling. But how do you recommend one adjusts? Like, if we need to notch it up because we’re heavily disconnected, or we need to notch it down because we’re crying and wrecked for the rest of the day because we’ve had such a conversation with someone, how do we do that?

Pam McLean
Well, I think we need input from others. So, getting feedback and perspectives from others is always helpful. But there’s a very interesting bit of work that is useful in empathy, and that is the notion that when we are able to take good care of ourselves, it increases our ability to be empathic. And it makes sense when you think about it.

So, as I’m more mindful of my, and connected to myself, able to pay attention to what my needs are, it seems to impact our empathic

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that makes sense both in terms of, okay, you’re exercising empathy to yourself and to another, as well as just the actual results of your self-care.

Pam McLean
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
One of my favorite studies is about the seminarians who were learning about the good Samaritan bible story, and then they placed a Confederate person who was coughing and in need of help. The seminarists didn’t too well with regard to helping out this person like you might hope even though that’s going to be their jobs.

And the main variable they’re testing was those who were told they were behind schedule had to rush and hurry up and get their assignment turned in, helped far less than those who were in a calmer place and felt less stressed, and more resourced to help out when someone was in need. And so, I think that’s sort of a double whammy with regard to that self-care.

Pam McLean
Yeah, and it’s a great comment because you’re really connecting presence and empathy in that story. I often say there are 5 minutes and there are 5 minutes. It’s just a matter of the way that we show up and get present and connected, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s so good. Those who are reading the transcripts are not going to capture the power of what you just said, but it’s hitting home for me. Thank you.

Pam McLean
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, awesome. So, we talked about presence and empathy. How about range of feelings?

Pam McLean
Yes, range of feelings is an interesting one that connects back to how our early years were. And this notion that most of us—here’s a story I tell in the book about, I have a colleague whose early years, she’s Italian, her parents were immigrants, they came to this country, opened a café in an urban area, an Italian restaurant, and a large family, a lot of yelling and screaming and getting angry and getting happy. And these emotions just came and went, and it was all part of the general course of any day.

And I grew up in a northern European family. My grandparents came from Scotland. They were pretty buttoned down, never too happy, never too angry. And so, these ways of being, the way that we grow up impacts our repertoire of feelings and the way that we judge some feelings.

I like to say . And, as a coach, and as a leader perhaps as well, in order to work with a broad range of people, we need to be at ease with a broad range of feelings. If I am uncomfortable with anger, and I am working with a client who’s angry, I will not give much space for that to show up or I’ll be very uncomfortable when it

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Pam McLean
And the same can be said for tears, or whatever it might be. So, the work of a coach is so different than the work of a dentist or an accountant. We have to have this work invested in expanding our repertoire so that we can work with as many different sorts of people as possible.

Pete Mockaitis
That totally makes sense. And I guess I’m just thinking about all kinds of situations where usually I’m visualizing, stereotypically, I guess, a man who’s strong and quiet, and then they encounter crying, it’s like, “There’s no crying in baseball.” Or, it’s sort of like there’s no internal comfort with the feeling and, thusly, when an outside person is emoting in that, it’s just uneasy, like, “Uggghh, I want to get out of here immediately.” So, yeah, how do you work on that?

Pam McLean
One thing I think is helpful is, again, back to self-awareness, is to do some monitoring around what my go-to feelings are, those ones I’m naturally at ease with and those that are on my no-go list that I just don’t like to go to. I think, first, building awareness of what my range of feelings is and where I might extend myself, and then finding those safe, small, little steps to step into that territory is at least a good

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I’d love to get your quick take on the menu of feelings so that we might do a little bit of a checklist inventory there. I’m thinking about the movie Inside Out now. But how would you lay out the array of feelings to see how our repertoire is?

Pam McLean
Yes, so here’s a general way. I think of it as, again, a continuum where perhaps at the lowest level of feelings, or near that edge, I might be working in that sphere of, you know how people used to talk about mad, sad, glad? And as we go along that continuum, I’m really able to build a repertoire that’s much broader than that. And, more importantly, I’m able to understand and experience the reality that I can have two almost diametrically opposed feelings simultaneously, that it is possible for me to feel deep grief and joy at the same time. We’re able to do this.

And, as well, as I build my repertoire, I’m able to see and experience the reality that there are different levels of intensity of any one feeling. So, when someone says, “I’m angry,” that will mean something for you that might be different then for me. So, we have to know, “What does that mean? On a scale of 1 to 5, how strong is that anger, or that sadness, or whatever it might be?”

So, I think that in the world of coaching, and certainly in leadership as well, for us to have a depth of understanding about the range of feelings, the intensity of feelings, the possibility that feelings that seem contradictory can actually be overlapping and simultaneously experienced, that ability to really have a rich collection of accessible feelings

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, just for kicks, could you name a few?

Pam McLean
Well, I think that on the list of feelings that we feel comfortable with, it’s all of the – I’m speaking cultural-specific perhaps here – it’s happy, it’s joyful, gleeful, all of those kinds of things. And that feelings that’s so often we don’t like to go to are the anger, the rage, the grief, and the ones in between, are the frustration, annoyance, right? The vocabulary is expansive in this area.

I think what is most helpful for us, if we want to take this on, is to pay attention to, “What my repertoire is, what my go-to feelings are in my day and day out life.” And that helps us see, “Where might I expand? Where might I grow more

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And so, thinking about the fourth area there, the boundaries and systems, how should we think about that?

Pam McLean
Perhaps I’ll just talk a little about systems, and we can have some fun with that. The notion that in the work of coaching and leading, to have a sense of our boundaries, how permeable our boundaries are, what happens when they’re too tight or when they’re too porous? I have a wonderful friend, Pat Adson, who talks about this metaphor that goes like this. Imagine that we both have a garden, and your garden has a fence around it and a gate, as does mine. Yours has weeds, flowers, vegetables, as does mine. And that I look at your garden, without asking permission, I walk in your garden and I start doing your weeding for you. I have now lost my boundary, and I’m lost in your story.

So, imagine as a coach, you come to me and say, “Oh, my gosh, I’m just up against the wall. I just found out that my whole department is being eliminated. I don’t even have enough money for rent for next month. What am I going to do?” And I go, “Oh, let me just think about this. I think I know someone who can do…” I’m doing your weeding for you as opposed to being able to step back and go, “So, let’s just stop for a minute and see what’s most important in this,” and be able to see this experience through the other’s eyes, and help them see it, as opposed to getting in and rescuing or colluding, or whatever we might do when we walk in someone else’s garden without permission.

And this area is very subtle for a coach. For a leader, I think it so often comes in the form of hearing about a situation and, instead of stepping back and asking some questions and thinking alongside someone, you move into telling someone what to do, just giving them your answer, and without any regard for what’s unique about this for them. So, this notion of boundaries turns out to be really critical in our ability to help someone do their own growing as opposed to wanting to do it for

Pete Mockaitis
So, many of these boundaries are just for your own behavior.

Pam McLean
They are. They are. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “I’m not going to allow you to cross this boundary.” It’s like, “I’m not going to cross this boundary.”

Pam McLean
Yes. Yes, that’s right. Yeah, that’s right. You know, I was talking to someone the other day in the field of drug and alcohol, and we were having this great conversation about it. It’s so glaring in this that so often what becomes the biggest hurdle is in the family system, that collusion, that continually rescuing someone. And if someone can hold from a boundary and resist doing that, it allows the other to take the steps that are either going to lead to growth, or maybe take them to where they need to go, before they decide that they’re ready to make a

So, yeah, it’s powerful territory for us. And some of us are more inclined than others to want to help, to want to rescue. Some of us are very uncomfortable when we see someone suffering, and in order to manage ourselves, or to help ourselves feel better, we run in with our cape, and rescue instead of stepping back and helping someone see themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in that alcohol context, what are some of the behaviors of family members that are counterproductive even though they think they’re helping out?

Pam McLean
Well, I suppose it can take many, many forms. Coming to the rescue, often I think coming to the rescue with a financial aid, or any number of things, that simply facilitate through that kind of collusion, no

Pete Mockaitis
Right. So, you sort of prevent the feeling of consequences, ramifications, rock bottom, unpleasantness that can be the force for change.

Pam McLean
Yeah. And so, we could go all the way back to that story I told earlier about the early manager who has a hard time giving feedback, that because their boundary is not yet developed, and they’re worried they’re going to hurt their feelings, or something. So, when one’s boundaries gets stronger, we have the ability to stay in our own garden and help someone observe themselves, or share observations, or offer feedback knowing that this is a part of how we help people

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Then how about embodiment?

Pam McLean
Yes, so this wonderful woman, Wendy Palmer, who wrote a book called Leadership Embodiment, and she says, “The way we sit and stand changes the way we think and feel.” And I love that. The notion that, back to our earlier stories, that if living in my family was smartest for me to play it small, and I bring this all the way into my adult years, and I want to have, people often talking leadership development, about executive presence, and yet my chest is a little caved in, and I’m just not showing up as fully there, and strong, and standing tall, and taking up all of my space. They are embodiment, our ability to embody that which we are as coach or leader is a powerful source of strength for us and a way to center ourselves.

We’re not living, although many of us try from the neck up, right, we have an entire body. And so, to be able to fully experience our body, to pay attention to the somatic triggers that show up, that help inform what might happen next, and to center ourselves fully in the moment. It helps us in every way that we’ve just talked about, it helps us be more present, it helps us connect with the other, it helps us tune into our own feelings, and it helps us hold boundaries that are going to be more helpful in our

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if maybe you could lay out, again, a couple menu options, if you will, in terms of, boy, embodiment A, B, C, D each create dramatically different yet helpful emotional states from which to operate.

Pam McLean
Yes, and I think that one can have a lot of fun experimenting in this area, so certainly even some of the martial arts can be a great way to explore your body and to learn how to live in your body from the head down to your feet, or yoga might, or a regular even a breathing exercise that we engage in. Three deep breaths that go all the way down to the belly, and that you slowly exhale is a way to get closer to what’s happening with all of us, and to get out of that tendency to be in our head. So, the wonderful thing is that our body is always here, right? And so, to be able to really center ourselves fully is at our disposal every

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, courage, we’ve talked with a few guests recently about courage, but I want to go six for six. What do you have to say about courage?

Pam McLean
Well, I think that in the work of a coach or a leader, courage is one of the big differentiators and it connects to, in many ways, it’s the culmination of everything we’ve talked about. So, in coaching, it might be the courage to share an observation that is a little bit uncomfortable but that you know the other cannot see. In leadership, it’s certainly back to that early manager and all the way to a senior leader, the ability to share feedback, to share observations that are going to help somebody grow.

So often we live in a world that shrinks away from being courageous. And people often say, “Well, how do I build my courage?” And I think we look at what are small acts of courage that we can engage in in our everyday life. Pick two or three and build a practice around  The people that come to leaders, who come to coaches, come to coaches because there’s something that they know is not working as well as they wanted to, or there’s something that is important for them to shift that they haven’t been able to do on their own.

And the reality for all of us is we can only see, we only have this, the view of ourselves is a limited one. And in our work with another, what a coach can bring to that work is that which I can see. And when I am willing to share that, then something of meaning happens in this relationship. So, if, for example, I’m coaching someone who wants to be recognized, who feels that every time they sit down at a senior team meeting, they’re not taken seriously as they want to be taken, or they’re not listened to, or that when it’s their idea, nobody says anything, but when somebody else does, they’re, “Oh, fantastic

And what you notice in the coaching, in the dynamics of the relationship is that this person is, at every turn and every conversation, highly deferential, “Well, I’m not sure this might be…” And so, for the coach to be able to say, “Oh, I want to stop for a minute and share an observation. What I notice is how often blah, blah, blah,” right? And so, that takes some courage for us. And that is one of the ways, as coaches, that we can really provide value for that leader.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Pam, this is so much good stuff. I want to make sure that we don’t have an uber long episode in responding to my listener feedback. So, tell me, is there anything else you really think is important for professionals to know about your world of coaching expertise before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Pam McLean
No, I think maybe in my final comment might be that what we’re really talking about here are kind of meta skills that have an enormous impact on how we are able to effectively show up in our roles as a leader or coach, and there is no destination. This is a journey. We’re always in development.

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

Pam McLean
Well, here’s one. I have a colleague in the U.K., Edna Murdoch, who has a quote, she says, “Who you are is how you coach.” And that just speaks so much, gets to the heart of this work on self as coach. Who we are is how we coach, it’s how we lead, it’s how we show up. And so, we need to know who we are.

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

Pam McLean
Well, so many different areas. I think that in the world we’re living in today, the work that’s happening in neuroscience is particularly relevant for us to understand that the science of the brain, the science of the body, is more important than ever. And so, I definitely dip into that regularly.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Pam McLean
A couple that I’m crazy about recently, there’s a book Tasha Eurich wrote, INSIGHT—

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, we had her on the show.

Pam McLean
It’s fantastic. I think she just hits it on the nail that we have to have this input from others to see all of our self. Another one—who would be great on your show—is James Hollis who wrote his most recent book Living an Examined Life. Fantastic, a short read,

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

Pam McLean
Oh, my goodness. I don’t know that I have a favorite that comes to mind, but I am pretty disciplined, and anything that holds me accountable is helpful in the area of tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And what does hold you accountable?

Pam McLean
I have a practice, at the beginning of each week, and I do a sort of an uber practice at the beginning of each month, to really spend time getting focused on what is most important, high level, and kind of medium level, and then in the weeds. And I stay attuned to that as I go through my week to make sure that I accomplish what’s most important.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Pam McLean
My favorite habit these days is I’m a very early riser. Of course, the sun is coming out earlier this time of the year. I love to go for a walk. I live at the kind of peak of a canyon, and so I go up to the very top and get to look out on the Pacific Ocean, and walk all the way down. And that’s just a beautiful habit.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audiences?

Pam McLean
I mentioned before this nugget that a colleague, Dorothy Siminovich, gave me years ago, and that is that  I do think that people resonate with that, and that it reminds us that the way we show up in the first few seconds is that is how we’re seen by others. So, that one is one of my favorites.
Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Pam McLean
Our website is www.HudsonInstitute.com. There is, as well, when you go to that website, there is a special resource center for Self as Coach, Self as Leader that has videos and worksheets and all sorts of resources.

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

Pam McLean

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Pam, this has been so much fun. Thank you for sharing this and bringing yourself. It’s just been a lot of fun, a lot of enrichment, and I appreciate the time.

Pam McLean
Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

459: How to Make Work More Sustainable Through Reinvention with Diana Wu David

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Diana Wu David says: "We really have to take agency over our own careers and our own job, and think about how to constantly improve it... the value it provides to us."

Diana Wu David shares how to future-proof your work-life with approaches for reinvention and re-framing.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Approaches for taking agency over your own career
  2. How to recognize the “treadmill of self-sacrifice” and get off it
  3. The right way to ask for what you want at work

About Diana 

Diana Wu David is a strategist, innovator, entrepreneur, and the founder of Sarana Capital and Sarana Labs. Her companies transform how executives work and prepare companies for the future of work, invest in Edtech and HRtech, and support innovative education initiatives across public and private sectors. Her diverse, global career includes assisting Henry Kissinger and leading executive education initiatives for Financial Times. A superconnector of people and a sought-after speaker, Diana lives in Hong Kong with her husband and their three children.  

Resources Mentioned in this Show:

Thank you sponsors!

Diana Wu David Interview Transcript

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

Diana Wu David
Thank you, Peter.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ve done a lot of research on you and I’ve seen you’ve had a cool variety of experiences. But I want to go way back to your youth where you did some barrel racing and rodeo parading. What’s the story here?

Diana Wu David
So, it’s not an interesting story for where I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, but now that I’ve spent 20 years living abroad, most people can’t believe that I was in the rodeo parade and I used to ride horses and do barrel racing. In Hong Kong here, now, I’m surrounded by a lot of people who like horses but are very much into dressage and show horses, so it’s a very unusual thing to be a rodeo queen in Hong Kong.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is funny to just imagine. And just so we’re on the same page, what precisely does barrel racing refer to?

Diana Wu David
You get on your horse and they have actual barrels, and it’s like a slalom. You race around the barrels as fast as you can on horseback.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds a lot of fun to me.

Diana Wu David
It is. It’s very fast, and I have had some brush ups against the fence and so it’s dangerous, but it was super fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds like a good time. I grew up in Danville, Illinois, which is the central part of the state, and it was quite common that I would have friends showing cattle for these kinds of things, a fair, so respect.

Diana Wu David
I’m glad I have your respect. It’s a good way to start the podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so we’ve reminisced about our past, so let’s segue into the future. Your book Future Proof has a lot of good stuff in there. Maybe, could you start us off to get the intrigue flowing? What was, maybe your most surprising and fascinating discovery as you were researching and putting this together?

Diana Wu David
I think that the most surprising discovery is that I was thinking people who I interviewed were looking for some kind of work-life balance, but instead what I found is that they were incredibly ambitious to live life on their terms. So, many of them went off to do something a little bit offbeat or entrepreneurial. Many of them started side hustles. A lot of them are still in their jobs but just approaching things a bit differently. So, they’re super ambitious, they’re not taking a step down, or really focused on balance so much as living life on their own terms.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, it sounds like if they weren’t pursuing balance, then they were going after something with gusto and experiencing some imbalance and being fine with it.

Diana Wu David
Oh, they were just so excited to be successful on a broad basis, and oftentimes that meant learning, that’s sort of insatiable curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so that’s surprising. And what would you say is sort of like the main theme or big idea within the book Future Proof?

Diana Wu David
I think the main idea is that we really have to take agency over our own careers and our own job, and think about how to constantly improve it, not just the job as it relates to the value it provides to the company, of course that’s important, but even the value it provides to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. And so then, what are some things that we tend to overlook when we’re not looking at things that way?

Diana Wu David
Well, I think there’s a sense that we’re sort of narrowly-focused, so we’re looking for companies or positions to provide for us and we’re dumbing from one to the other, looking for things, but just re-focusing on yourself as a person. One of the huge drivers of this has been the idea of disruption but also longevity.

So, if you’re looking at a career over a hundred-year life, you’re definitely going to outlast your job function. You’re probably going to have multiple careers. And based on the SMP lifespan of a company now being 12 years, you’ll probably outlast your own company. So, it’s about looking at yourself and thinking about, “What are the narratives? What do I need to learn next? What do I need to do to be flexible to build my skills? How can I frame this in a way to learn from it and still be super excited and add value?”

That’s something that I think has been lost a little bit. There’s a sense of going to a company, “Oh, we give them our blood, sweat, and tears. And they give us money and they should be giving us more.”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So then, it sounds like there’s a little bit more kind of onus and responsibility upon the individual worker to really take stock of what’s most important and to proactively assess and evaluate whether a given opportunity is going to deliver on those means and with an eye toward the future as well.

Diana Wu David
Absolutely. And those change all time. I think sometimes it will be balanced. And I remember in my own life when I had super little kids, I wasn’t insanely ambitious to spend all my time at work and progressing, but as that changed, my priorities changed. So, it’s a longer life, pace yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And so, you got a great turn of a phrase, which I guess would be the counterpoint to that, you say we’re pacing. You used the phrase, “The treadmill of self-sacrifice.” Can you unpack that a little bit in terms of what does that look like in practice and how do you know when you’re on it and it’s a problem?

Diana Wu David
That’s a great question. I think that you can feel it when you’re treading along. And it was the basis of my TED Talk, and also a sort of personal genesis for the book that after many years at my company I just felt like I wasn’t learning, and just going in every day, and you just feel that weighty sense of burden. And I think it was a turning point for me when it was maybe the third restructure at my company, and I just felt a little bit lost and sort of a “What’s the point?” feeling.

And I remember also that the HR director had said after we had to let some people go, I had to let some people go, and she said, “Well, you know, it’s really up to you.” And I was incredibly offended that this family feeling in our company had been disrupted by somebody telling me I needed to sort of pull my pants up and take care of myself.

And she got me a coach and I told my coach about all the injustices that had been foisted upon me, and how much I had invested, and how I just needed to have her help me find a new job. And the coach said…

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m being paid by the company.”

Diana Wu David
Well, you know, that’s in a separate conversation. I do think that the coaches, who are really good, can help you find a different way and help you be happy and awesome at your job. And this coach did that. She was like, “Look, you’re not going to quit, and I’m not going to help you. You’re going to turn this situation around.”

And I hated her. I’m still not sure I like her to this day. But she said, “If you’re really at that point, if you’re ready to just quit,” she said, “A, you have an opportunity to turn this around, to really learn from this, to figure out what you want and advocate for it. And the reality is, if you still want to quit, you’re still in the same place. Nothing to lose.”

She said, “And, furthermore, you’ve got such a bad attitude that nobody is going to hire you anyway. They’re going to see it. They’re going to smell it.” So, I think, you know, you see engagement scores at companies, I think people get that, and it’s not just the sort of bad day that everybody has at work. It’s that sense of just, “Ugh.” So, that’s a treadmill of self-sacrifice.

And the reality is that, oftentimes, it’s just about a manner of re-framing and also learning, which I think, as women, we’re particularly bad at learning what we are, one, advocating. And the company doesn’t foist things upon you so much. It’s a negotiation. And if you’ve never had the conversation, then it’s really, you know, the onus is on you to figure out what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful in so many ways. Like, when you said, “Ugh,” like I really know exactly what you mean. And I’m thinking about our transcriptionist, Jane, how she’s going to handle that one because it’s such an important word that we’re sharing here that makes all the difference. Because I know that sensation and I think that’s wise. It’s almost like, I guess I’m wondering, why do we put up with that? Why do we get there?

It’s almost like you’re making some assumptions that this is just what’s necessary, or, “I just have to,” or, “It’s right,” or, “It’s appropriate in order to be hard worker.” Could you go there for us maybe? Like, what are the assumptions or the inaccurate self-talk that’s going on that get us to assume, like, “Oh, this is just how it is and what I have to deal with”?

Diana Wu David
Well, I think in the case of a lot of the people I spoke to, they were very successful and we’ve done a lot of the right things, managed to get into a position. And, oftentimes, things start out well, but then they start to, I guess, misalign. So, I do know, for instance, that when I was growing up that my father used to say, in the very early years, “You can work harder than anybody else. Like, that’ll be the way you get ahead.”

And, often, there is that sense of status almost, we’re busy, “Oh, my job is so intense. Oh, I have to do all these calls.” There is definitely an aspect to that which, if you can let go is fantastic because you can actually put some boundaries in that make your life livable. I think that some of it is that aspect.

There is a story in the book, though, of Lale Kesebi who was a Globalcom’s head for a company called Li & Fung. They basically started out as a sourcing company and probably sourced, at one point, 80% of the things in your house for huge brands in the U.S. And she loved her job, as did I after the coach beat me up a little bit, and she said, “I love it. I definitely have so much that I put into it. It’s been great for experimenting, but I just feel like I have so much more to give.” And I think that’s sort of a better way to think of it. And figuring out for yourself how you can give all that you can, and also be recognized for it.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. I have so much more to give. And then that notion of, “Oh, boy, I’m really swamped. I’m working. I’m doing all this stuff.” It reminds me we had a previous conversation with Rahaf Harfoush who termed this kind of umbrella of statements, “performative suffering,” which I thought was a good turn of a phrase.

Diana Wu David
Oh, I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of, it’s like, “Oh, boy, I’m really swamped. Oh, I’m going to burn the midnight oil again.” And like that sort of a badge of honor or something that you should be praised and rewarded for, where there’s some sort of camaraderie effect, I don’t know, “Hey, we’re all doing this suffering together.”

So, I like what you’ve shared there with regard to just really having some thought to the situation and identifying what’s really important to you and taking a stand. So, could you maybe give us some examples of particular things that people that they need, and they kind of forget to ask for, and how they ask for them with great results?

Diana Wu David
So, yes, absolutely. After my coach told me that I was being a big, fat baby about my situation, she, herself, said, “Okay, write down all the things you want and what title do you want. Obviously, there’s a lot of volatility in the company. What kind of things would make your life more palatable? Is it less travel? Is it more? Is it a seat at the strategy table? Is it new projects? Within reason, I mean, start with the big brainstorm and then go from there, and think about how you can frame them in a way that’s attractive to the company.”

And that’s something that I did, and I was so surprised by how willing they were to negotiate and to open-minded it and think about those things. And I positioned it all from the benefits that they would get, but I completely transformed my position, did some of the things I knew needed to be done as well, and left thinking that it was the best job ever, and I still work there part-time. So, it really does come down to the individual.

I think that time boundaries are one. I think we foist that on ourselves, “Oh, I just have to do it.” You never say no. For example, me living in Asia, you never say, “Gee, I have three kids and I like to put them to bed at night. Can we do the call in a slightly different time?” And sometimes you can’t, but if you never ask, you’ll never get it.

So, Lale Kesebi, likewise, she was working in this huge position, and she decided that she would ask for a couple of interesting projects. And so, she had started to work on a case with a business school on some of their innovations, and that opened up all kinds of interesting opportunities to speak about the innovation they were doing across the world. And those are some of the little things that, they either allow you to set some boundaries, or allow you to continue learning and progressing, and just experiment a little bit so that you can, in that longer life and longer career, find what’s interesting, what inspires you, and new ways to progress.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s a lot of good stuff there. And I really like how you won’t get it if you don’t ask for it. And when you ask for it, you did so wisely and strategically with regard to framing it in the benefits for the organization. So, could you give us a couple of examples of, “Okay, here’s a need, and here’s how you ask for it with the frame of how that would be beneficial for the organization”?

Diana Wu David
Well, I don’t want to talk all about myself, so let me talk about one of the folks in the book. Steve Stine was a very senior executive search person. And, likewise, he was doing an executive search. He really wanted to have his girls go to a place in Bali, which is in Indonesia, called the Green School. So, he and his wife decided that’s what they wanted. He was living in Singapore, which is maybe four hours away, and Bali is kind of like moving to a fabulous resort that is not particularly your any executives.

And so, it was an ask, but he basically said, “Look, this is important to me, and I will do the travel to ensure there is no problem. I will ensure the Wi-Fi is fantastic.” And they said, “Sure. You’ve put in some time. Your relationships are great. And we’ll try it for a six-month period, and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll have to find something else, or you’ll have to live in Singapore, and your family can live there, and you can commute, or whatever it is.”

So, now, you really can be creative about it. He also later decided that his love for storytelling would be well-served by doing a podcast. So, he went off, A, did a course in mythology and storytelling, and then, B, launched an Asia Inside podcast based on all of his incredibly senior relationships, and it was great because he’s an executive recruiter, and he could have conversations with people that he wanted to keep in touch within his network without necessarily there being an active search going on. So, he also negotiated to have that with his company so that they understood the benefit it had both to him personally but also to the job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool, and I like that notion of, “Hey, we’re going to try it out for six months and see how it goes,” and you’ve actually delineated a few particular tools of experimentation, collaboration, reinvention and recalibrating success to improve careers. Could you maybe give us an example or a pro tip for each of these tools?

Diana Wu David
So, experiment is really about learning, and I think that people find themselves kind of locked into whatever they’re doing and feel like an experiment is either, “I have to quit my job,” or, “Move to a new town.” But I think that working the muscle of experimentation, on taking small bets, and understanding the feedback that you get, and using it to learn, is really an important thing for future of work. You have to be constantly trying things out.

And as a corporate entrepreneur, and somebody who’s been doing disruption work since 1995, it’s an innovation tool. It’s sort of taking the small bet, seeing where it goes, pivoting, going on. And you can do that in your own career like Steve did and like Lale did.

And reinventing is really about thinking about what your story is and what kind of adjacencies you can have. So, if you look at companies, Netflix started as a company where you would have a VHS tape, and it would be sort of mailed to you, or a DVD mailed to you through the mail. And now, look at them, they’re a content producer, they’re streaming.

So, thinking about how you can take all of your core assets, and skills, and talents, and character, and think about adjacencies, “How could I reinvent? What if my job changes or my company changes, what else could I do?” And this is very much about also thinking, “I am not an accountant. I am Diana, and I’m good with numbers, but I’m good with people. And what else could I do with those unique things? I live in Asia, so I have Asia experience.” It’s sort of collecting all of your assets, and thinking about how you can package them for new things.

Collaboration is something I feel strongly about because I think that people are not trained in this, and we’re all about our network now, being strategic, being culturally sensitive. And I say that from outside of America where I have spent the last 20 years running teams of people with two people in Singapore, and somebody in China, and somebody in Japan, and different countries, and my boss in the U.K., and my other boss in the U.S., so virtual cultural networks and working.

And, finally, focus, which is sort of the fourth key in terms of the actions in the book “Future Proof” is just, what’s your story? What’s your priority? And really making time for that.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to hear a little bit more about collaboration. You say we’re not really trained in it, but it’s really important. What are some of the key things when it comes to collaborating that most of us could do better?

Diana Wu David
Well, I think that many of the people on your podcast are in the U.S., and I think that a lot of times it’s an assumption that everybody on is sort of coming from the same place. And I found over the years that that can be very different. And so, a lot of it is taking our social graces and applying them online, or on teleconference, you know, conference calls, or Zoom, or video conference, so part of it is just getting to know people.

I’ve studied a lot of teams and companies, and many of them have tried to make time for watercooler chat, or one-on-one getting to know you, or “What’s the rhythm of your life?” And that’s something that’s becoming ever more present. And I find, as an American living abroad and working abroad, that we tend to be very efficient and very direct.

And so, in my early years, not to apply my foibles to my entire nation, but this drive for efficiency was always about, “Okay, who’s next and what do we do? And, okay, are we done? Can we check that off?” And I do a lot of work with boards now, and I see the same thing where we’re just rushed and we don’t make time to form some of those personal relationships with our teammates, think about walking a mile in their shoes, setting clear expectations, and really putting effort into bringing everyone together in a team to get something done.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Well, do you have any particular, I don’t know, icebreaker questions? But are there any kind of particular questions or conversations or activities or things that just are really great for getting to know people in that way to boost collaboration down the line?

Diana Wu David
I think asking, “What are you excited about right now?” is a good one. Because, at this point, for instance, if you’re calling a business process outsource center in India, and you ask somebody, “So, I just went to Hawaii, I had this great trip. Where is your next vacation?” Maybe they don’t have a vacation. There’s sort of a lot of things that take a step away from your own experience.

And so, that one I feel like allows people to really talk about what their passion is, and it could be anything. And I use that in person as well because I think that the perpetual networking, “What do you do?” which implies work is all.

Pete Mockaitis
Are you useful to me?

Diana Wu David
“How can you be useful to me?” is maybe less interesting than what people are excited about.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. What are you excited about right now, Diana?

Diana Wu David
Turning the tables! I am really excited about the course that we’re about to pilot. A lot of people, I mean, this book is me having 80 coffees with people saying, “What should I do, Diana?” And me thinking, “I don’t know. Let me ask some other people, and I’ll put it in a book, and I’ll send it to you.” And the next one is people saying, “Okay, so I see the book, but I don’t know how to get started. Can we sort of get online together and really go forward, and work some of these things through in a collaborative manner?” And so, we have a beta course for future proofing coming up soon. And I’m having a great time putting things together and working with people to find out what’s useful to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Thank you.

Diana Wu David
Yeah. What are you excited about?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny. I guess I’m just thinking about the short term. As we speak, I’ve got a Sufi steak going right now. My wife and I, we’re going to celebrate that we found a great nanny when my wife returns to work after her maternity leave period, and that was quite a search. And we’re thrilled and we have chosen to celebrate in this way. So, we’re going to, short term, that’s what I’m excited about.

Diana Wu David
So, you can smell the steak you’re cooking.

Pete Mockaitis
So, there’s that, you know, and I’m excited about just the growth of the podcast in terms of it’s really going places. And we’ve got a survey going out at AwesomeAtYourJob.com/advice to get all the more useful feedback on who would be the best guest in episodes to be even more on target for people. And I’m excited to reach out to former guests, so you’ll be getting an email from me, Diana. Like, “Hey, who’s really a great person to interview?” I’m excited about we have more staff to be able to process all the thousands of incoming pitches and really find the true and the best fits.

Diana Wu David
I think what you’re doing is amazing. I wish you started this earlier.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too.

Diana Wu David
It’s great. I mean, really, nobody teaches you in school, and I think that’s part of the issue is sort of they teach you how to be awesome at specific tasks, math or even coding. But nobody teaches you how to be awesome at your job, and that is a totally different thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. Well, thank you. I’m honored and I appreciate it. So, yeah. Well, another great thing about that question is it just puts me in a great mood, right, because I’m thinking about those things. And then you can relate to some of those things and so we are more bonded as a result. And it’s a heck a lot more fun than, “What do you do?” It’s like, “I run a small research training company called How to be Awesome at Your Job that helps develop the universal skills required to flourish at work.” It’s like, “Okay, that’s cool. We might talk about that a little bit.”

Diana Wu David
Cool.

Pete Mockaitis
But there’s more of an emotional visceral stuff going on with like the steak and the nanny and the growth trajectory.

Diana Wu David
And it’s like the exchange.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Fun. Well, thank you for that. Well, let’s see, so you have a boatload of tools and suggestions for transforming your career for the better and being future proof. But if you haven’t already covered, I’d love to make sure that we do get your take on what do you think are some of the actions, the practices, the tactics that really offer the greatest bang for your buck in terms of career satisfaction and future proofing per, I guess, minute of thought, attention, and effort?

Diana Wu David
I think that most of what I have distilled I put into a checklist from the book. So, I think that that gives you a huge amount because thinking about all the things you could do can be quite daunting, and this allows you to focus. So, I have that on my website at DianaWuDavid.com.

And going in to ask yourself questions about, “Now, where am I lacking? And what do I already have? And what are some of the things that I could do to kind of close that gap?” I think is probably the best bang for the buck. So, it really does go through and talk about your family life, and your relationships, and what kind of professional relationships you have that you could either go to in a crisis or with a problem, or to celebrate. I think that that kind of audit is just quite useful to take on a yearly or a quarterly basis, and then the tools that you might use can follow.

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

Diana Wu David
I think that people can really change the way that they approach work by just reframing what the opportunity is, and by really finding the things in their job that may not be part of the job description, but that really jazz them, and that may change over time. So, even though the strategic part of my job had changed and become little bit old, before, I remember one of the evolutions was realizing, “What is it?”

Ask yourself, “What is it that gets me out of bed in the morning?” And for this particular moment in time, it was my team. And even though my big job description said, you know, X15% growth, topline operations, etc. for the P&L, I thought, “Yeah, the team is it. Making sure they progress in their lives and professionally for the next 12 months, or six months even, that’s going to be my focus. And the other stuff I know I can do, but my job now is to help them grow.”

And then when that is something that’s sort of taken care of, or we’ve progressed enough, maybe it’ll be something else. So, I think that reframing can allow you to perpetually reinvent within the same function, or same team, or same job. It’s not always about progress up a ladder.

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

Diana Wu David
So, this was from one of the interviewees, Emma Sherrard, who is CEO of Quintessentially Lifestyle concierge, and now has progressed into being the global chair person. And she said, “Yeah, all you’re saying is about don’t settle for the life you’ve been given. Work hard for the life you want.” And that’s like a motto now for me. It’s a mantra when I think, “Oh, I’m working so hard.” And I’ll go back and say, “Yeah, this is what you wanted. You got to work hard for it.”

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

Diana Wu David
One of the books that had the most impact on my thinking was The 100-Year Life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we interviewed Lynda on the show.

Diana Wu David
Yeah, I thought that totally changed the way I viewed my career, what I did, in what time sequence, etc. It really changed. And I referenced it quite a bit in my book Future Proof.

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

Diana Wu David
My favorite tool is SaneLater. I believe deeply in sanity and SaneLater basically delivers all of your emails at a preset time so that you don’t spend your entire day checking your email. So, at 3:00 p.m. every day, I get all my emails delivered, I go through them, and there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I also use the SaneBox and I am an enthusiast just because there are so many newsletters that though they’re genuinely interesting and like I would enjoy reading them, but in a way that’s too tempting. I don’t want them popping up into my inbox because then I’m going to jump in and take a read, and then, it’s like, “Oh, shoot, I meant to be doing something totally different during this moment.” And so, now they’re kind boxed over to the side. Much appreciated.

Diana Wu David
It’s like having a giant bowl of M&Ms on your desk, all those emails.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And, now, instead I have a butler bring me the M&Ms at the appointed time.

Diana Wu David
There you go. In a small bowl.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And how about a favorite habit?

Diana Wu David
My favorite habit is writing. I think the good, the bad, and the ugly, it all gets resolved with a few minutes with pen and paper or on the keyboard. It’s just been throughout my life every morning.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers, listeners, folks you’re working with?

Diana Wu David
Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of fear about the future. And so, one of the quotes in the book that seems to get highlighted a bit is “The future of work is not a clarion call for our demise. It’s a magic portal to more balance and rhythm in our lives.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Diana Wu David
People like magic portals, what can I say?

Pete Mockaitis
You’re bringing back a lot of video game memories for me when you shared those. And, Diana, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Diana Wu David
On my website, DianaWuDavid.com, and they have the checklist up there, and also Future Proof, /futureproof has the information on the book, and two chapters that people can download for free.

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

Diana Wu David
Yeah. Based on that, conquer your fear of the future, be awesome at your job, and live your dreams.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Diana, this has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you tons of luck with the book, Future Proof, and all of your globetrotting adventures.

Diana Wu David
Well, Pete, it’s I think 13 hours ahead, so I’m already in the future. It’s already Friday morning. So, thank you. And I wish you a fabulous dinner, steak dinner, with your wife and a wonderful celebration.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Diana Wu David
You’re welcome.

453: Why Generalists Succeed and How to Learn Like One with David Epstein

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David Epstein says: "Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer."

David Epstein explains why and how generalists tend to achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How focusing on short-term improvement can undermine long-term development
  2. Pro-tips for breaking through your learning plateaus
  3. The benefits of becoming a jack-of-all-trade

About David

David Epstein is the author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His writing has been honored widely.

David has his master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

David Epstein Interview Transcript

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

David Epstein
Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the stuff but, first, I want to hear about your work as an ecology researcher in the Arctic.

David Epstein
So, I studied geology and astronomy in college and, afterward, I worked in a plant physiology lab and that led me living in the Artic in the far north of Alaska, a place called Toolik Lake, where I was basically studying the radiation that plants give off in an effort to sort of help try to understand how the carbon cycle might change as that area warms and the permafrost melts a little because most of the ground is frozen there, so when there’s melt, a lot of nutrients are liberated and they can cause like major changes to the plant life which can cause changes to the carbon cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, how long were you there and what was life like up there?

David Epstein
Yeah, I was basically there for, well, you couldn’t be there a lot of the year because you couldn’t get supplies, so you can only really be there for like half the year basically. I loved it actually. So, it’s technically a desert and I love deserts because even though it’s lush on the ground and the air is cool enough year-round that there’s not much atmosphere and demand for water so you don’t get much rain even though there’s a lot of fog and slush on the ground.

And so, all the plant life is really low to the ground, and so in the middle of summer, when it’s basically light all day and you’re sort of seeing this, the sun go down and just come right back up and all the plant life is low, you can see really far and make for some great hiking. I thought it was beautiful. Some people felt it was desolate who were up there but I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious if that isolation can serve as just amazing, creative, energizing time, or like, “I am going insane.”

David Epstein
Yeah, I’m more on the creative, energizing side, and I think like when I asked, after my first book, people would often ask, “How did you write it?” and I really don’t know how to answer that question because I’m not really sure. Every project is kind of different. And I asked my wife once, I asked her, “How did I write it?” and she said, “You went upstairs and came back down two years later.” And so, I’m pretty good at spending time on my own for projects and being quiet out in the expanse of nature. It’s definitely more creative and invigorating for me than a feeling of isolation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And you’ve recently channeled your creative energies into another opus, a grand tome, I’m excited to talk to you about. So, maybe why don’t we start with some of the most fun tidbits in terms of what would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made while you’re putting together your book Range?

David Epstein
For me, it was this idea that there are things that you can do that cause really rapid short-term improvement that can systematically undermine your long-term development. So, to that point about surprising, I’ll mention the single study that was probably it’s certainly one of the most surprising in the book to me was this one that was done at the U.S. Airforce Academy where they had a setup that you would never be able to recreate in a lab because basically they would get in a freshman class of, whatever, a thousand students, or several hundreds of students, and those students all had to take a sequence of three math courses: Calculus 1, Calculus 2, and then a third course.

And they were randomized to Calculus 1 to a professor, and then re-randomized for the second course, and then re-randomized for the third course, and they all take the same tests. So, these researchers recognized that this was an excellent natural setup for studying the impact of teacher quality, or teaching. And so, the finding of this study was that the professors who were the best at promoting contemporaneous achievement, that is whose students overperformed on the Calculus 1 test the most compared to the baseline characteristics they came in with, those students, then, systematically underperformed in all the follow-up courses.

So, the professors whose students did the best in Calculus 1, they rated those professors the highest, then went on to underperform in future classes. And what the researchers concluded was that the way to get the best results on the Calculus 1 test was to teach a more narrow curriculum that involved a lot more what’s called using procedures knowledge where you learn how to execute certain procedures and algorithms and you don’t learn more of what’s called making connections knowledge where the curriculum is broadened and you’re forced to kind of connect types of concepts and learn how to match strategies to types of problems as opposed to just execute procedures.

And so, when they’ve moved on into these other courses, those students who had the more narrow curriculum were systematically undermined. And that’s sort of one of the themes that runs through Range are the things you can do that seem the best in the short term sometimes undermine long-term development, and I thought that was just an amazing display of that and an amazing study.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. It’s sort of like the items that were being covered on the final test is sort of like, “Yeah, he drilled on real good over and over and over again and thoroughly,” but sort of at the expense of getting some broader conceptual understanding of how the math number, calculus, stuff is working I guess more globally.

David Epstein
Right. And that’s what they, then, would need, that’s what then would help them kind of scaffold later knowledge, so they didn’t do as well in those other classes. First of all, that was just deeply counterintuitive finding to me, but also, so I remember, for example, the professor, out of a hundred, whose students I think did fifth best on the Calculus 1 exam, and he got the sixth best student ratings overall, was dead last in what the research called deep learning, that is how his students then did in the follow-on courses.

And so, that’s really kind of worrisome. The fact that a lot of these strategies, and that chapter four of Range is about these learning strategies, and a lot of those strategies cause the learner to be more frustrated, to not do as well in the short term, and to rate the person teaching them worst. So, that’s kind of worrisome because these professor ratings may not be a good indication of what someone is learning. Their own assessment of their own learning in the short term may not be a good indication either. So, that’s, I think, something that’s important to be aware of.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d be intrigued then to correlate that, if you were to sort of draw some parallels into the professional working world, in terms of how might we be shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re trying to master a certain narrow domain of work.

David Epstein
Yes, so let me give another example that came out of the research that I think relates to this. So, in this one study, people who were playing the role of, basically, simulations of naval officers, essentially, and they were being trained to respond to types of threats based on cues. And one group would practice threats where they would see a certain type of threat again and again and again and again, and they would improve and learn how to respond to it. And then they would see the next type of threat again and again and again, and so on.

The other group would get all these different types of situations all mixed up, and that’s called interleaving, and that kind of training is often more frustrating, it slows down initial progress, the learner will say that they didn’t learn as much, and all those things. And then both groups were brought back later and tested on situations they hadn’t seen before. And in that scenario, the interleave group performs much better than the other group because, again, they’re being trained to sort of match strategies to problems as opposed to just how to execute procedures.

And I think that goes for anything we’re trying to learn. I think our inclination is usually to pick up a new skill and do it over and over and over, when, really, we want to vary the challenge a lot early on so that you’re building these broader conceptual skills. And not only do you want to vary the challenge, but I think when we think about, at least in my life, the sort of formal professional development that I’ve been exposed to as opposed to kind of the informal professional development that I do on my own, is always coming away where it’s like, “Okay, here’s the topic, you’re going to learn this topic, and then you move on from it forever.”

And, in fact, the best way, we should actually use what’s called the spacing effect where you learn a topic and then you come back to it later, and that sort of helps you solidify it. So, one of the famous studies here is two groups of Spanish vocabulary learners who one group was given eight hours of intensive study on one day, and the other group was given four hours on one day, and then four hours again a month later. So, they all had the same total study.
Eight years later, when they were brought back, the group that had the space practice remembered 250% more with no practice in the interim. And so, I think we should apply that to anything we want to learn instead of just doing a topic and moving on from it. You don’t have to do it as intensively but you should wait until actually you’ve kind of forgotten it and then come back to it and do it again. And that’s how you like move it into your long-term memory basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. And it seems like this is drawing some connections for me with regard to, we had the Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on and we were talking about their top competency that maps to all sorts of career successes, what they’re calling learning agility which is sort of the notion of sort of knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

David Epstein
That’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that would make great sense because as you sort of rise in the ranks and you encounter more and more ambiguous and puzzle-some and, “I have no idea what’s going on” types of issues, the more that you struggle those things the more you’re raring to say, “All right. Well, let’s see how we go about figuring this out.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that gets at sort of a link between the two things we’re both talking about in this classic research finding that can be summarized as breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer means taking your skills and knowledge and attempting to apply it into a totally new situation that you haven’t seen before. And breadth of training breeding breadth of transfer basically means the broader your early training was, the diversity of the situations you’re forced to face, the more likely that when you’re in a totally new situation, you’ll be able to will that knowledge and transfer that knowledge to that new situation.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. So, now, would you say that’s sort of the main idea or thesis behind Range or how would you articulate it?

David Epstein
No, I think that’s just part of this, the theme of Range that is, I mean, the overall theme is sort of that society may overvalue specialists and undervalue generalists. But the theme beneath that, to me, is again that these things that are the most efficient ways to get the quickest improvement, whether that’s telling someone to specialize right away, or practicing in this repetitive specialized way, is often not the way to get the best long-term improvement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, there’s just so much, so many implications to that in terms of if you think about sort of what you’re measuring and if you think about training or learning or development things. It’s sort of like you often don’t have the luxury of checking in sort of months or years later to see how we did. And so, there’s all kinds of systematic forces that would point us to doing just the opposite of that.

David Epstein
Yeah, totally. This project, in some ways, started in the sports world for me and only the introduction of Range is in the sports world but one of the things that got me interested there is that there’s this incredible drive to early specialization in youth sports. And then I went and looked at what the research says about optimal development, and it says that athletes who want to become elite, typically, have what’s called the sampling period where they play a variety of sports to gain these broader physical skills, scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests, they learn about their abilities, and they delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.

And I was looking at that, and then you see what was actually going on, and sort of saying, “Gosh, all these forces are pushing the opposite direction of that in the United States.” In Norway, which is like is, for me, probably the best sports country in the world per capita right now. There’s an HBO real sports on that’s showing they have embraced this stuff and changed their sports development pipelines.

But when I was living in New York until recently, there was a U7 travel soccer team that met near me, and I don’t think that anybody thinks that six-year-olds can’t find good enough competition in a city of nine million people to travel, right? It’s just that there’s these other forces at work, like those kids are customers for whoever’s running that league. And so, all these other forces militate against what we know about optimal development.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then what do you think is to be done in terms of if you’re a professional in a workplace and you want to develop well and over the long haul such that you have a fruitful career and rise and achieve all of your career dreams? What are some of the key things you recommend folks do?

David Epstein
Yeah, so let’s say you want to be an executive, which I think a lot of people would like to be at some point. LinkedIn recently did some research at looking at what were the best predictors of who would become an executive, and they have these incredible sample silos so they did this in a half a million members. And one of the best predictors was the number of different job functions that an individual had worked across in an industry.

And so, I think our intuition is to say, “Pick a job function and stick with it and drill into it and carve your niche and get specialized.” But, in fact, these people who sort of probably developed a more holistic view of their industry and how to integrate different types of skills are the ones who go on to become executives. And so, they are getting that breadth of training. And so, when it comes to having to do these more complex problems, they’re probably better equipped.

So, LinkedIn’s chief economist’s main advice was, “If you want to be an executive, work across more job functions.” And I think that’s good advice but I think you can do things short of that in a lot of ways. Like, learn what your colleagues do, learn more functions at your own work, because our natural inclination is to settle into our competencies. And as we settle into a rut and we get competent enough, I was talking to the economist Russ Roberts, he said it’s a hammock because it’s comfortable that’s why we don’t get out of it. And I was thinking, I want to make a weird analogy here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

David Epstein
When I was getting into my last book, I didn’t write about this, but I was reading some scientific literature on speed typing, okay? How fast is speed typing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been looking into speed typing. Continue.

David Epstein
Really?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I had a recent guest talk about how that’s one of the top skills you can use to sort of accelerate your performance in all kinds of things because a lot of typing that’s going on. And I’m a fan of the website Keybr I think it is, which sort of helps you get fast at typing fast. So, anyhow, my interest is piqued. Please continue.

David Epstein
Okay. So, yeah, so the idea is we all, like at first when you’re learning typing you make a lot of improvement and you get to whatever you get to, 60, 70, 80 words a minute, whatever you get to. And then you plateau and we pretty much all stay there at very good but not great. And it turns out there’s all these strategies that you can use to get like twice as fast, and they’re not even that complicated. Things as simple as you’d use a metronome, you take it up a little bit, and keep up with it even if you make mistakes, whatever.

There’s a bunch of strategies to get like twice as fast. But what it suggested to me is that our natural inclination that just experience will get us to a certain point but then we stop naturally improving just with experience. We sort of settle into that level of performance. And I think that’s kind of true of everything.

And so, we’re in danger as we get more experience and get more comfortable of not developing new skills anymore. We have to try new things. And I think that’s good both because it can get you off a plateau. When I was on a plateau stuff at writing this book, I decided to take an online fiction-writing course and it worked beautifully to help with the problem I was stuck with.

And so, I think it works because it can help get you off a plateau, but also one of the other main ideas in Range is this idea of match quality, which is the degree of fit between an individual, their abilities, their interests, and the work that they do. And good match quality turns out to be very important for your motivation, your performance, and the only way to improve your match quality, it turns out, is to try some things and then reflect on those experiences and keep sort of pinballing, doing that, and with an eye toward improving that match quality.

So, like the Army, for example, has created a system called talent-based branching where they were kind of hemorrhaging their highest potential officers since basically the start of the knowledge economy where those young officers could learn skills that they could laterally transfer into other types of work. And, at first, they just threw money at those officers to try to keep them, and that didn’t work at all. The people who were going to stay took the money, and the people who were going to go left anyway. That has a half a million dollars.

And then they started this thing called talent-based branching where instead of saying, “Here’s your career track. Go upper out,” they say, “We’re pairing you with this coach-type figure and here’s a bunch of career tracks, and just start dabbling in them, and your coach will help you reflect on how did this fit with your talents and your interests. And we’ll do that so we can get you better match quality.” And that’s actually turned out to work better for retention because when people have high match quality, they want to stay. There’s a saying that I quote a research in the book, saying, “When you get fit it will look like grit because if you get a good fit, people will work harder.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad you brought up grit because that’s something I want to talk about. You say that there could be a problem with too much grit. What’s that about?

David Epstein
So, I think for listeners who maybe have probably heard the concept of grit, I’m guessing. But the psychological construct came out of this survey where it started as a 12-question survey where half the questions were points for resilience basically and the other half for consistency of interest. And so, you lose points if you sometimes abandon a project for another one or I think you change interest, and things like that.

And the most famous study, what was actually done on cadets going into West Point, so future Army officers. They were trying to get through what’s called east barracks, that’s the U.S. military Academy’s six-week orientation where it’s physically and emotionally rigorous. And grit, that survey turned out to be a better predictor of who would make it through these than more traditional measures that the Army used. And although most people make it through, which is great, but in the study. I feel like Angela Duckworth and her colleagues, I’d give them a ton of credit because some of the critique I write about in the book comes like directly out of their own papers and it’s kind of like lost in translation, I think, where those people in that study were highly pre-selected for a number of qualities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Got to get that Senate recommendation, Congressional letter. That ain’t easy.

David Epstein
That is what statisticians call restriction of rank problem. So, if you’ve truncated a lot of variables by selecting a small group out of humanity, so it makes the other variables exacerbated. But they were also pre-selected for this very short-term six-week goal, right? And life isn’t a six-week goal. So, when we looked at the longer timeline, again, like half of these people basically leave the Army almost the day that they’re allowed.

And so, high-ranking Army officials said, “We should defund West Point because ‘it’s an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.’” And that’s not the case, right? And those people didn’t just lose their grit. It’s that they learned some things about themselves, which tends to happen in that time period, the fastest time a personality change in your life is 18 to your late 20s, but it continues changing faster than people think over your life, and they decided they wanted to go do something else.

That’s why throwing money at them didn’t work where talent-based branching did because it’s giving them some control over their career path and their match quality, and trying things and then changing direction is basically essential to improving your match quality. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just hoping for luck in your match quality. And I think if we thought of our careers the way we thought of dating, right, we would never tell people to settle down so quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Just stick with that gal. She’s great.”

David Epstein
For some people that might be a good idea.

Pete Mockaitis
“You have four dates. Don’t quit.”

David Epstein
I thought I was going to marry my high school girlfriend and at the time that seemed like a good idea. And then I had more experience in the world, in retrospect that wouldn’t have been a good idea. And I felt the same way in my approach to jobs. Some jobs I thought I was going to stick with, I thought I was going to be a scientist. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea for me, but I didn’t know that until I tried that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then when it comes to sampling, I’d love it if you could share some of your favorite kind of tactical tips with regard to, “How can I get a lot of sampling going?” So, you talked about, “Hey, talk to work colleagues who are in a completely different functional area. Maybe check out an online course.” What are some other means of sampling?

David Epstein
Yeah, I kind of take this approach from someone’s work I love that resonated with me because I had career change, or changed directions several times, from a London business school professor named Herminia Ibarra. And she has this quote I love, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” Basically, what she means is this psychological research shows that we’re not like so great at intuiting our own talents and interests before we have a chance to try stuff, we actually have to try the things, and then learn about ourselves. Act and then think, instead of think and then act, as she says.

And so, for me, I kind of started a book of experiments where just like when I was a science grad student, I’ll say, “Here are my skills now. Here’s some things I want to learn. Here are things, some weaknesses. Here’s my hypothesis about how I might be able to work on this.” And then I’ll go try something and see if that works.

So, again, I mentioned this online fiction-writing class I took, right? So, I got stuck in structuring my book, and I needed to do something different. And so, I go take this class, and among the things I was made to do was write with only dialogue, and write with no dialogue at all. And after doing the no dialogue at all, I went back to my manuscript and stripped a ton of quotes and replaced them with my description because I realized I was unconsciously coming from usually doing shorter-form types of things. I was leaning on quotes to convey information in a way that is not really good writing. And that’s not even the improvement I was looking for. But just getting out of my normal mode of doing things gave me this huge advantage.

And so, I try to do that regularly. Like, people might be familiar with this research “The Strength of Weak Ties” like your new job usually comes not from the people core in your network because they’re kind of doing this, you know those options already, and a lot of them are doing things similar to you. It comes from these people that you are several degrees away from but you can get connected to.

And that’s what Herminia Ibarra’s work shows, that when people find better career fits, it always comes from some key whole view, like they take some class, or they go to some event, or they meet someone at a dinner party and sort of ignites an interest, and then they start testing it little by little, getting in a little more and a little more until sometimes they make a full transition.

And so, I’m constantly doing those experiments with my book of experiments. So, I think everybody should constantly be doing this, “What do I want to work on? Here’s my hypothesis for how I could do that. I’m going to go try that thing.” Then reflect on it and put it in your notebook and keep going forward. And I think even keeping that, what I call that book of experiments, prompts me to constantly be doing that in a proactive way, whereas there was a period when I was at Sports Illustrated, for example, where I very much settled into something I felt come to that and just did over and over for a while, and took a while till I realized, “Gosh, I’m actually not adding to my skills here.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I really like that just sort of the fun exercise you mentioned with the writing, with regard to all dialogue and no dialogue, and then how that filters in forever. And that reminds me, boy, back in my AP, I guess, English composition or rhetoric course in high school, our dear teacher Judy Feddermier, that was sort of like each week that was the challenge. It was a different kind of a challenge associated with the writing, like, “Okay, this time you are not to allow to use any to be verbs. No is, no are, no was, no were.” I’m like, “This is crazy.” And I just used one, “This is crazy.”

And so, but sure enough, I was like, “Yeah, this writing is a little awkward,” but it’s what you sort of kind of back to being able to use some. You realize, “Oh, boy, having fewer of them sure sounds better in terms of more active and exciting and lively than a bunch of is’s and are’s.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think it sort of just gets you out of that. Because the interesting thing is and sort of almost like troubling thing to me when I did that with the no dialogue, and went and changed my manuscript, was that until then I didn’t realize that I had been kind of unconsciously doing something I’d gotten used to. And it took doing something different for me to think about that which is annoying. I wish I were just like perceptive enough to realize that without having to get kind of knocked out of my normal mode but, really, I wasn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m wondering then, in the whole universe of essential skills you might choose to start experimenting and dabbling in to add to your repertoire, is there a means by which you think about prioritizing them? Or is there just sort of, “Hey, there’s a glimmer of interest here. Let’s see what happens”?

David Epstein
Yeah, that’s a good question. Usually, I kind of always have some project or other that’s either in some stage of development, and my projects tend to be quite different. And so, there’s usually something related to my project that’s either like an area of knowledge maybe that where the project is kind of driving those in some way, where it’s I know I need to, that this book is going to be the biggest structural writing challenge I’ve ever had, therefore like I need to improve my skills. So, usually it comes out of something that I’m otherwise doing, and realizing what’s the new part of that challenge.

So, I will say, when I’ve taken on these bigger projects, like my first book was the hardest structurally to organize all the information writing challenge I ever had, and this book was much harder than that one. And so, I think the one thing I’ve done a pretty good job of is taking on these projects that are kind of in the optimal push zone where they’re not so over my head that I simply can’t do it, but they are definitely stretching me to the point where I have to think about learning new things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I’m also wondering about sort of things that you hate. So, one approach is there’s a glimmer of interest or sort of what skill is necessary to develop there. And I’m wondering about because when you’re talking about in terms of sort of this inefficiency or doing a wide breadth of things such that it’s more frustrating and less fun sort of the in the early stages, but then you have some cool capabilities later on as a result of doing it.

I guess I’m wondering to what extent would a chasing after skills that I’m just currently very bad at, I’m thinking about sort of home improvement and being handy type skills right now, so kind of the opposite of intellectual, “Hey, we’re having rich conversations and thinking about the themes and summarizing them well, and marketing and reaching audiences,” like all that stuff is like very different than, “Okay, I got to drill and I’m trying to make this thing go there and not make a huge mess.” Is there a particular value in doing stuff you hate?

David Epstein
I don’t think you should necessarily do it over and over if you hate it unless it’s really essential to something you’re doing. So, when I first started doing some lab work en route to what I thought I was being a scientist, my expectation was that I would love it and this was what I would do for the rest of my life. And what I found out was that was not necessarily the case, and that was an important thing to learn.

And, conversely, I’m a fairly new homeowner, and the last thing I would’ve thought I would ever be interested in was plumbing, for goodness’ sake. And, it turns out, it’s kind of interesting actually. Like, we had some stuff we had to fix and I started to find this sort of interesting. So, I don’t think you should do anything with plumbing if you hate it, but I do think you might find things that you a priori would think you wouldn’t really like, then when you actually try them might be more interesting than you thought. And, vice versa, things that you expected to love that maybe not so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, it sounds like it’s worth at least an hour or two to see what happens.

David Epstein
One of the things I write about in Range is a so-called end of history illusion. This is psychology of finding that we all realize that we, based on our experiences and everything, we have changed a lot in the past, but then think we will change very little in the future. And we do this at every time point in life, if we say we change a lot in the past, and then proceed to underestimate how much we’ll change in the future. So, it leads to all these kinds of funny findings.

So, one just sort of humorous one is, because people underestimate how much their taste will change, if you ask people how much they would pay for a ticket to see their favorite band, their today favorite band to 10 years from now, the average answer is $129. And if you ask how much they would pay to see today their favorite band from 10 years ago, the average answer is $80, because we underestimate how much our taste will change.

And the thing is personality actually changes over the entire course of your life, and one of the predictable changes is as you become older, your openness to experience, which is one of the big five personality traits, declines. But doing new stuff that you’re not used to can actually stop that. So, there are these studies where older people are in that decline phase, and this is a trait that we know is very much correlated with creativity. And these old people were trained on things like certain types of puzzles, okay? And even if they didn’t get better at the puzzles, they became more open to experience. And so, I think there’s also these personality reasons that are associated with creativity to do stuff that is just outside of anything else you’re doing if you want to stem that decline of openness to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think what’s interesting about that is it might be hard to even dream up or conceive like what is that thing because it’s so not in your current world. Do you have any tips on how to kind of spark that prompt or stimulus in the first place?

David Epstein
For me, and this has been a long-running thing is I go to libraries and bookstores because those are places where I find interests that I didn’t know I had. And that’s why I value those places so much because, nothing against Amazon, but, yet, the algorithm works in a way that it sends me things I’m interested in and that I think I’m interested in, and it doesn’t send me the things that I don’t know I’m interested in basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

David Epstein
And so, when I do this more natural browsing which, by the way, I consider the willingness to go to libraries now like a competitive advantage for me because I think people don’t do it anymore. But those are the places where I find these things that I did not know I was interested in, and that’s why I really value them. That’s why I make sure I go to those places instead of just only ordering my reading material, and I’m a big reader on Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of libraries and, boy, now, you’ve got me kind of excited just to see what would happen if you just went kind of blind into a stack, grabbed a book, and say, “I’m going to read six pages and see what happens.”

David Epstein
When I go into like a local bookstore or something like that, I don’t go, like if I really need a book right away and I know what it is, I will order on Amazon, and if I really need it quick, I’ll have it on my Kindle. But when I’m going into like bookstores, I’m not going for a particular thing. I’m going to look around and I always end up with something that I didn’t really expect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, can you tell me, if folks are inspired, they’re thinking, “Yes, David’s Range that’s what’s up, I’m all about it. I want to get some more skills, be more interdisciplinary,” are there any kind of watch-outs or warnings or mistakes that are associated with this endeavor?

David Epstein
Well, I think people are probably pretty aware of the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none sort of syndrome. Like, you don’t want to get cast as someone who doesn’t know anything. And I think it’s actually pretty culturally telling that the end of that phrase, that adage, jack of all trades master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one, but we’ve totally dropped that part and I don’t think we even know it. And I think that’s because there’s sort of this bias against breadth. And so, I do think there’s that danger of signaling to other people that you don’t really know anything about anything.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds dangerous.

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that’s actually one reason why. So, I was just at…maybe a lot of people have heard of Motley Fool. You know Motley Fool? I was just at an event of theirs, and there was a survey on a video screen and the audience could vote with their phones. And the survey was, “What do you think is the average age of a founder of a breakout startup on the day of founding, not when it becomes a breakout?” The choices were 25, 35, 45, 55, and the overwhelming favorite was 25.

And the answer is actually based on research from MIT and the Census Bureau is 45 and a half. But we sort of think of this, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, when he was 22 and famous, he said, “Young people are just smarter.” Like we think of Tiger Woods, even though that’s not the normal typical model, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s these very dramatic stories of youthful precocity that we think of as the norm, but actually the people who become these really successful entrepreneurs usually bounce around a fair bit first.

And I think what a lot of them end up doing, I describe people like this in Range, is they get this mix of skills that maybe other people sort of look down upon, but it leaves them with this intersection of skills that creates new ground where they’re not in direct competition with someone. They’re trying to do something new, and they have to create their own ground, and they often become entrepreneurs, sometimes because they have to. And that can be really good but it can also be really challenging because you can kind of end up, and I think especially so, in this year of LinkedIn, which I think is a great tool, but also allows HR people to make a much more narrowly-defined job and still have a ton of candidates.

And so, in Range I talk about the work of Abbie Griffin who studies so-called serial innovators who make these repeated major contributions to their companies. And her advice to HR people is basically, “Don’t define your job too narrowly because you’re going to accidentally screen these people out because their traits are like they’ve often worked across domains, they have a wide range of interests, they read more widely than other colleagues, they have a need to talk to more people in other disciplines, they like to use analogies from other disciplines, they often have hobbies that seem like they might be distracting,” but that those are the traits of those people, and her concern is that HR people will see them as scattered and not as focused on any particular area.

So, I think the real concern is of the signal that might be sent to people who are in a position of making personnel decisions.

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

David Epstein
I think specialization made a ton of sense when we were in more of an industrial economy, when people were facing similar challenges repeatedly and that was when those Army officers did not move outside of the Army with nearly as much frequency because other companies, specialists were facing the same challenge, and they were ahead, and you can’t catch up. But in the knowledge economy, some of the patent research I looked at in Range shows that it’s basically just since like the late ‘80s forward where the contributions of more generalists inventors.

So, in this research, the generalists are defined as people, their work is spread across a larger number of technology classes, as class is a patent office, whereas the specialists drill more into a small number or a single technology class. And both of these types of people make contributions, but the contributions of those people who are broader have been increasing with the knowledge economy.

And so, I don’t think this has always been true that generalists have these special, or broader people have these special contributions to make, but I think it’s sort of a function of the fact that with our communication technology, information is rapidly and thoroughly disseminated. And there are many more opportunities, for combining knowledge in new ways as opposed to just creating some totally new piece of knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Epstein
I love that quote from Herminia Ibarra, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” That’s one that’s like really stuck in my head because I don’t totally know what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking about things. And so, that’s really affected the approach that I’m going to take.

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

David Epstein
Right now, I would say that my favorite book, gosh, I read a lot so this changes from time to time, but right now, I would say my favorite book is probably War and Peace, the Anthony Briggs translation, so I read multiple translations when I got really into it. And I didn’t realize, I was just reading it because like I was going through this website that aggregates all great book list, and I was trying to just like go down some of the greatest books.

And it is a novel, in the form of a novel, it’s actually Tolstoy’s refutation of the great man theory of history, and he uses Napoleon as the main character, and argues, and he does like some journalistic reporting on those events, and argues that, well, Napoleon was really an effect not a cause of these larger forces basically.

And so, he had these historical essays. And the story, his writing is amazing. But I also found that argument really interesting, and that led me to read this essay about a philosopher Isaiah Berlin based on War and Peace where Isaiah Berlin used these two types of characters he analyzes in War and Peace the foxes and the hedgehogs. The hedgehogs know one big thing, and the foxes know many little things.

And those hedgehog and fox constructs were then borrowed by Philip Tetlock, the psychologist, to do the work that’s featured in my chapter 10 of people who develop the best judgment about the world and about political and economic trends, who know many little things instead of one big thing. And so, it was really cool, you know, that research I was already interested in, to see in War and Peace sort of where those ideas of the fox and the hedgehog via Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy as it where it came from. So, not only did I enjoy the book for its own right, but it really made me think about some modern research in an interesting way.

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

David Epstein
Oh, my goodness. I would die if I didn’t have Searchlight on. That’s why I have to be a Mac user because I basically, the organization system I use is writing lots of words in various things that I think I would search if I wanted to find it. And so, I’d probably use Searchlight 500 times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Epstein
Running, if you count that. I’m a very avid runner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And is there a key nugget that you share often that tends to get sort of quoted back to you frequently?

David Epstein
In my first book, The Sports Gene there’s like I did some data analysis of body types, and this one part that mentions that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40, who’s at least 7 feet tall, then there’s a 17% chance he’s a current NBA player. And, yeah, people mention that to me a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think it’s funny that a very specific numerical tidbit is what people are sticking with.

David Epstein
Yeah, I tell you, I’m really bad at predicting at things for my own books that people are going to latch onto versus the things that I latch onto the most. It’s kind of an interesting experience.

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

David Epstein
DavidEpstein.com is my website, and I’m davidepstein on Twitter.

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

David Epstein
Yeah, I think if I can really talk to someone it would be managers, and say, “Do your own form of talent-based branching where you allow people to explore some of their other interest and talents, and help them reflect on those experiences.” I was on the podcast for The Ringer, Bill Simmons. He runs probably the most popular sports podcast in the world, and he used to be ESPN’s most popular writer, then he did something on HBO and that kind of failed. And now he started his own company, and it’s one of the happiest workplaces I have ever been in.

And one of the interesting things was people who were hired to edit like online articles, some of them have become like seriously famous in the sports world podcast personalities with huge followings, and that’s because once they’re in that company, he’ll say like, “Okay, come try on a podcast for a little bit and see how it goes.” And it seems like people have an opportunity to basically try their hand at whatever the company has to offer. And a couple of the people who came in, in these more kind of quotidian jobs have become like famous, and it was a happy workplace. So, I think he’s really onto something with sort of letting people try their hand at things in a way that like doesn’t really damage anything too much if it doesn’t go well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, David, thanks for this. I wish you tons of luck with Range and all your adventures.

David Epstein
Thank you very much.

452: Adopting the Habits of Elite Performers with Nick Hays

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Nick Hays says: "If you are intimidated by something, that is an excellent indicator that it's exactly what you should be doing."

Former Navy SEAL Nick Hays shares practical advice on how to elevate your performance and push yourself to unlock your maximum potential.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to conquer large goals by celebrating the tiniest of victories
  2. How to find gratitude in the most unpleasant circumstances
  3. How to tune out the “yeah, but…” voice in your head

About Nick

Nick Hays is former a Navy SEAL. His operating days came to an end when he ruptured a disk while preparing for an operation in Afghanistan. Disillusioned, broken, and without means to provide for his family, Nick was left without a purpose in life. After recovery, his training kicked in, and he remembered the lessons learned from the SEAL teams and put them to the test with professional athletes. He’s helped train the Miami Heat and helped the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl. Nick holds a BA from the University of Maryland, a Masters in Business from the University of San Diego, and a post-graduate degree from Harvard Business School. He now resides in California with his wife, Ivy, and their three children.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Nick Hays Interview Transcript

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

Nick Hays
Pete, thanks for having me, man. I’m excited.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I’m excited too. Well, could we get started, perhaps, with a thrilling tale of your adventures in the Navy SEALS? And feel free to anonymize anything you need to.

Nick Hays
Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that happened, some high points and some low points, I think. One of the most impactful things that happened while I was in the SEAL teams was—and it was in my first platoon—I was one of those guys that needed an extra little bit of love, right? I don’t think that a young frogman is anywhere as cocky as he is right after he’s gotten out of training, and has done nothing yet. It’s the most cocky you’ll ever be, and I was no exception.

It’s a funny story. But I showed up to a morning meeting one time, we’re training for this mission, and everything is pretty locked tight as far as the schedule, and I show up a couple of minutes late. It didn’t sound like a big deal, but when you’re a new guy in the teams, if you’re 15 minutes early, you’re late, that’s kind of the rule, and I had broken that.

So, my platoon chief at the time, now a platoon chief is somebody who has the most experience in the group, he’s the person everybody listens to. Well, he told me, “Hey, stick around after this. It’s not a big deal, but I need to talk to you.” So, we wrapped up the morning meeting, it’s like 9:00 o’clock in the morning, and he tells me, “Hey, man, it’s not a big deal but, obviously, you’ve got to pay the man, a little bit of a punishment.” He goes, “I’m not mad but just make sure that you make up for it by grabbing a rucksack,” which is military speak for backpack, right, “and fill it full at 50 pounds, and run up the paraloft tower,” which is a five-story building. And he says, “Do that one time for every guy in the platoon because you made them late, so I think it’s just a good way to pay it back.”

Now, I’m thinking about this, I’m like, “There’s no way this guy is being real with me. That’s a tremendous amount of work. Punishment doesn’t really fit the crime.” I was angry. But kept my mouth shut, and I went downstairs and grabbed a rucksack, and put 50 pounds in it. And he knew I was doing it, he followed me down, and he was like, “Nick, you can’t do that right now, man, in place of your workout. You’ve got to do it after work. It’s not even a punishment.” And he was like, “Come on, let’s go hit chest.”

So, we actually went to worked out together, never brought it up again. The day goes on. At the time I was working with the SDV, it’s a miniature submarine so it’s incredibly technical work. There’s a lot to do before you ever even do your training mission, so it’s a full day of dive rigs and technical stuff. We, finally splashed in the water, the sun is going down, it’s like 7:00 or 8:00 o’clock at night because we’re training for a night dive. I’m piloting the SDV, cold, wet, miserable, all that stuff, thinking about this punishment that I have in front of me the entire time.

It was similar to like when your child gets in trouble and you tell him, “Hey, go wait in your room.” That was me waiting in the room just thinking about it. So, we recover, it’s probably midnight. Insult to injury, it’s raining. Just miserable. Now, I have to get all my gear ready to go, I have to freshwater rinse the dive rigs. We’re talking about another hour of work. Finally, I go and I grab my rucksack and I’m walking over to the paraloft tower, steaming mad. I could not have been more angry than I was in that moment.

And I saw something that I didn’t know what to take. I saw my chief, Jim, sitting over there by the door of the tower. So, now, I’m thinking, “Okay, does he not trust me? Is this an integrity thing? Is he going to be sitting here with a stopwatch, saying, ‘Hey, go faster’? Is this a beat session? What’s about to happen?” and I was livid, man. But as I got closer, I saw that he actually had a rucksack sitting next to him.

When I walked up to him, he throws the rucksack on his back, and he was like, “All right, man, are you ready to hit this thing?” And I said, “Jim, what are you doing, man?” And he said, “Oh, dude, we’re in this together. I’m your leader. Like, we’re in it together. Your successes are my successes, your failures are my failures, so let’s get this done.” And he takes off up the tower.

Now, I’m sprinting to catch up to him, mind completely blown about what had just happened. He never brought it up again. That was the only thing he said about it, and he ran every single flight of stairs with me that night. It took a very long time. When we were done with it, I gave him a hug, and I just told him how much he meant to me.

And, for me, that was the course correction that I needed. And what he did in that moment was he grabbed a hold of me. It wasn’t about being two minutes late, it wasn’t about some operational military plus or minus a minute, on time every time kind of stuff, that’s not what he was doing. He grabbed a hold of me and he said, “Nick, your mine. I’m going to mentor you.”

For the rest of that platoon, I made my gear look exactly like his gear. I kept my magazines in the same place. I kept my medical equipment in the same place. I emulated everything about him because I figured, “Hey, this guy has like seven deployments. Maybe I can save some time if I just listened to him.” And I had the value of a mentor moving forward.

Now, we went onto get medals together to do some pretty amazing stuff, like even before going up to doing a mission, he and I just kind of stepped aside, said a quick prayer, and we were still in it together that entire time. To me, that was the difference between being a good SEAL or a bad SEAL. Like, I needed a mentor to grab a hold of me, and say, “Hey, we’re running full speed and we’re doing it together.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s amazing because, well, one, just sort of makes a self-sacrifice and like on top of all the stuff to do that and, two, to sort of the intuition. Like, he clearly figured out that’s what you needed, and delivered in a powerful way.

Nick Hays
A hundred percent. Yeah, a hundred percent. We’re still close friends to this day. I still run stuff past him. And, you know, what I learned in that moment wasn’t necessarily… it was bigger than needing a mentor then. It was a process that I knew I needed in my life. I knew that I was going to need a mentor moving forward. So, when I separated from the military, I was looking at this new mission, this new thing, I’m looking at business, I’m looking at all this stuff that’s coming my way. And I thought to myself, I was like, “You know what, I need a mentor.”

So, the first thing I did was reach out to as many people as I could. And I had some criteria. I wanted people that didn’t mind having hard conversations, people that would keep me in check. I knew what I liked about a mentor. I like someone that can push back and isn’t going to tell me, “Atta boy,” but instead is going to tell me how to be better. Like, it’s something I get from the special operations mindset, but you don’t want to be right, you want to be better.

It’s not, “Hey, this is the way we’ve always done it.” It’s, “How can we do it better?” So, I needed that in my life as I made that transition. And because of that, man, I have the same story, I saved a lot of learning curve costs, I had support when I needed it, there were multiple times when something that now in hindsight looks like I must’ve done something right, but really it was just my mentor, or somebody who loves me and cares about me, opening doors and making something happen, right?

I think it convicts me. Like, at any given point, you have to have a mentor and you have to be a mentor. You have to be a mentor at the same time, you have to give it back. And a lot of people say, “Hey, no, I’m too young. I don’t know enough,” all these disqualifying statements. But, man, I see my seven-year old daughter mentor my five-year old son all the time. All the time. And he needs it. It helps me out.

So, it might be somebody who’s just behind you. You might be in high school, in college, you might be a project manager on the job, or you might be C-suite. It doesn’t matter. You need to be mentoring people, and you need a mentor in your life. It’s a valuable lesson that I learned early, and I’m so thankful for that, man, because it’s helped me out tremendously.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in your book Elite: High Performance Lessons and Habits from a Former Navy SEAL it sounds like you share a number of these high-performance lessons. And I’d love to hear kind of is there a central theme or thesis that ties them all together?

Nick Hays
Right. Like, “What is it to be elite?” I named the book after a reason. We think about the SEAL teams and we think elite. It’s synonymous with it. We think about Harvard Business School, we think elite. We think about some of these professional sports teams, we think elite. So, what are some of the things that I’ve seen at all of those venues that everybody has in common?

And I think the central theme is this, like when you look up and out your window right now, every organism that you’re looking at, in fact, every organism on this planet is either growing or dying. There is no status quo. There is no staying the same. It can’t be done in nature. You’re either growing or dying. And the people who are committed to growing, to being better tomorrow than they are today, are the elite.

It’s not about having arrived, it’s about the process. It’s about the desire to be uncomfortable, to try new things, to push yourself, right? We consider ourselves kind of rock, we’re like the stone, and the only way that we’re going to become a statue, something that we would call elite, is to allow the hammer and chisel to strip away the rough edges, to strip away the stuff that doesn’t matter.

Now, that can come in the form of efficiency. It can come in the form of structure in your life and how you structure your relationships. It can come through being thankful instead of afraid. All these concepts are certainly within the book, but it all ties back to that central theme which is you must be committed to growing. And it’s going to be painful. Growing is always painful but it is better than dying.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an interesting turn of a phrase there – growing is painful, but it’s better than dying. And that’s the only alternative. So, then I’d love to get your take on this. So, our natural inclination is to avoid discomfort, that discomfort is not something we desire, naturally speaking, for the most part. So, how does one make that shift, either globally or in one particular context or project?

Nick Hays
Right. That’s a great way to say it. You can’t play guitar without callouses on your fingers, right? If you want to get strong, you go to the gym. If you want to learn how to play a guitar, you need to build the callouses because that’s the only way that your fingers can withstand the pressure of the strings. It always starts with something small, but the small things lead to something big.

Kind of a common buzzword phrase out there is that thoughts become beliefs, beliefs become actions, and then actions become habits. So, we can’t start by looking at the habits. Yes, we want these things to be imprinted in our life, right? We want to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but the only way to get there is to start with a thought. You got to be thinking it. You got be looking for ways to challenge yourself.

Now, I tell you right now, man, if you’re intimidated by something, that is an excellent indicator that it’s exactly what you should be doing. If you’re a little bit scared, if you’re a little bit intimidated, that’s a great indicator that that’s something that’s going to lead to personal growth. That thought is going to become a belief, and that belief will eventually become actions. It’s something that I am constantly trying to push myself with every day. It’s never over. And I’m a young guy. I’ve accomplished a few things at this stage of life but, man, I’m young. I’m just getting started. So, when I look at them, I go, “Okay, what’s intimidating me right now?”

So, here’s me putting my money where my mouth is. The book is obviously an example of this, and I could speak to that as well coming out with the book and what that means, how challenging that is, especially coming from a special operations background, and it definitely makes you uncomfortable. But, now, the book is out, everything is fun, it’s good doing podcasts, I’m like, “I’m comfortable. I’m good. So, I’m like check. What can I do right now? What can I do today that’s going to make me better tomorrow?”

One thing that I started thinking, with the help of a buddy, he was walking me through this, he’s like, “Why do you like doing what you’re doing? What do you enjoy about being a public speaker?” And I said, “Two things. One, getting on stage is a way for me to kind of supplement the feeling I used to have when I was jumping out of airplanes, so I like that. It’s exciting. It gives me purpose and passion and all that. But, man, I always gauge the audience by how much I can make them laugh. It’s like the only feedback that you can get when you’re speaking, right? You can’t see the impact on someone’s face but you can definitely get their laughter.”

Pete Mockaitis
Especially if the bright stage light is going.

Nick Hays
Yes, exactly, and you can’t see anything and you’re hot. So, I’m looking at this, and he goes, “Dude, why don’t you do a standup comedy set? You like making people laugh.” When he said that, I got so scared, just the mere mention of that, grabbing a microphone, getting up in front of people with the sole purpose of being funny. Because I can fall back to motivation and structure and practices, and the fact that I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know the material, right? But this is something entirely different. And it set me off kilter, I was intimidated. And I said, “You know what, that’s a great indicator that this is exactly what I should do.”

So, I reached out to a buddy of mine who’s connected with a comedy club, and a really prestigious comedy club too, actually The Comedy Store in Beverly Hills. It’s like top notch, right? And this guy is a young comic, he’s just getting started, really great guy, and I hit him up on direct message, and I was like, “Hey, man, I want to do a set. What do I need to do here?” And he goes, “Oh, meet my buddy. He does the booking for the store.” I was like, “Okay. Well, I was expecting Poughkeepsie, not L.A.” But I reached out to the guy, and he was like, “Yeah, we’d love to have you on, this and that,” so I went ahead and booked my first standup comedy special, not special, like I’m going to get up there for 10 minutes.

But I had it booked within like 15 minutes of coming up with the idea, and now I’m on the hook. Now, I have to prepare, now I have to get out there and perform, and now I’m excited again. It just injects passion back into the routine. So, that’s me putting my money where my mouth is right there. And it’s tough, man. I’m nervous. I’m scared of it but, like I said, it’s an indicator that it’s exactly what I need to be doing for personal growth. I’m going to grow as a speaker. I’m going to grow as a person. I could bomb. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because my thoughts are becoming beliefs, and those beliefs are becoming actions.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s an interesting point you brought up there with regard to if you’re scared it’s a good indicator that it’s something worth doing because the scariness, the discomfort is associated with that growth territory unfolding. So, I’m wondering, is there any distinction between the type of fear or scary sensation that means, “Oh, yes, let’s do that,” versus, “No, this is wise, prudent, show caution, that you should not do that”?

Nick Hays
I love that. Yeah, you have to say it, right, because I always ask people, like, “Is fear good or bad? Is fear a good thing or a bad thing?” And most people will say, “Well, it depends,” and that’s the only appropriate answer. It depends. You consider the cavemen back in the day, and they’re looking around, like if you’re not afraid of the saber-toothed tiger—now, I don’t know if there’s saber-toothed back then—but, you know, the threat. If you’re not afraid of that, then maybe you’re not going to sleep in the cave, maybe you’re not going to roll a rock in front of it, maybe you’re not going to take precautions in your life and contingencies in your plan that are going to keep you from being destroyed.

Fear is good when it leads to positive action. But what if that same caveman was so petrified from the fear of outside that he stays in the cave and refuses to eat? Now, you have 30 days to live. Fear is bad when it leads to you being stagnant, stale, and immobilized. That’s when fear is a bad thing. Fear is a good thing when it causes you to build contingencies into your plan, and to hedge against possible threats. There’s a duality to it. It is both good and bad. And that’s something that you should always weigh when you’re trying to make these decisions, right?

“Am I improving my situation, or is my situation in decline? Am I growing or dying? Is this going to lead to an improvement or not?” And it’s that simple. So, when you’re afraid of something, ask yourself that, “Am I afraid of having this hard conversation with someone at work simply because I don’t like conflict? Or is there another implication here, something I need to be concerned of? Is there more to the story? What is the source of that fear?” And it’s simply because you don’t want conflict. Guess what? You got to do it. You have to have that conversation. The person is going to thank you for it. The relationship is going to grow. The company is going to benefit, right?

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you, yes. So, I dig what you had to say with regard to the thoughts become actions, become habits, become character, become destiny, or maybe I’m mixing from other sources. So, you’ve got a couple of little teasers in your book about how we can take control of our thoughts, become and to be tough, guard our mind. So, let’s just focus in on that. So, you’ve shared a couple tips there with regard to just one, recognizing and reinterpreting fear and being scared, so that’s great. What are some of your other best practices that you suggest for professionals who are looking to gain some additional control over their thoughts?

Nick Hays
Yeah, that’s really good. Intimidation, I think, can be a bad deal. Sometimes we want something professionally that we’re not quite there. Like, if I want to be a powerlifter and I want to jump under 300 pounds on the bench press, and I haven’t trained for it, I will be crushed by the 300 pounds. That’s the business professional who wants to be CEO, like, dude, you’ve got a long way to go. Don’t focus on the end, right?

One thing that helped me get through some of our training, SEAL training, there’s this portion of it, the selection process, it’s called Hell Week. So, in Hell Week, it’s a tremendous goal. You want to get through this week, it’s by far the biggest crucible on the road to becoming a Navy SEAL. And during that week, you don’t sleep for like five and a half days, you’re putting on somewhere close to 200 miles, you’re lifting logs with your buddies, running with boats on your head, getting like close to hypothermia by sitting in the water until you’re just freezing cold, and people quit all the time. People quit all the time.

And sometimes I’ll ask people, “Hey, what day do you think? If it starts on Sunday and ends on Friday, what day do you think they’re going to quit?” And a lot of people say, “Oh, like Thursday.” But, no, man, I mean, it’s upfront. On Monday, when you’re looking at Friday, that’s too far away. You’re already too miserable. You’re going to start telling yourself that you can’t make it. If you focus on the end, the outcome, instead of the process of how you’re going to get there, it will undermine you.

So, one of the tricks that they actually taught us while we were there, they actually gave us the answers, which was cool, was to make bigger things small, right? So, if I’m looking at the end of the week, it’s not going to work for me, but how can I break that down into smaller more attainable segments that I can actually deal with mentally? One of those tricks was, “Hey, think about your next hot meal.” They feed you really well in that program. They feed you really well because you’re burning so many calories. So, if I can just think, “Hey, I just got to the next meal.” Now, it’s going to be nice and warm in there, I’m with my buddies, we’re telling jokes, get a little bit of reprieve from the action, right?

But there’s times when that next meal is too far away. It’s too far away. I need something better. Like, if I’m sitting there in the water and I’m just feel like I’m dying in the water, I could tell myself, “Hey, I just have to get to the next evolution. If I can just get to back on land when we’re running around and everything else, then I’ll warm up. My body is going to warm up.” And it works.

But sometimes, still, it’s just not enough. Like, log PT is a portion where you’re lifting telephone poles up over your head and stuff and it’s pretty crazy. Well, at times, your shoulders are so full of lactic acid and you’re just dying, and you’re thinking, “Man, I can’t lift this thing one other time.” Well, you can break it down even smaller, and say, “Hey, they can’t work shoulders forever. They’re going to have to work legs soon or we’re going to experience casualties, right? All I have to do is get to legs. Get to legs.”

You could break that all the way down to, if you’ve ever done an intense mountain climb, like one more step, one more step. Break it down to a level that you can actually accomplish than what you’re trying to accomplish, because then, mentally, you get a win, and then you get a win, and then you get a win, and now you’re a winner.

It doesn’t matter how far away this goal is anymore. Man, you’re a winner and you’re crushing this thing, right? I think that’s one of the best things that you can do. So, how do you apply that to your professional life, right? Kind of like, okay, you’re writing a book, “I want to be a published author, so how do I accomplish that?” It’s too much. It’s too much to look at. If you look at the end, at the outcome, instead of the process, it’s going to lead to fear and you’re never going to put pen to paper. You can’t do it. You have to break that down, and say, “Hey, here’s what I can do today that’s going to ultimately get me to my goal.” Break it down in smaller and more attainable goals.

Like, “Hey, all I need today is to write for an hour. That’s all I have to do.” That’s like taking one more step, right? And then you get a win. You made a mental contract with yourself, and you kept it. If I said, “Hey, I’m going to write for eight hours a day,” and then I learn a thing or two, and I’m like, “That’s not how inspiration works,” I can readjust. It’s important. Stay there for eight hours, don’t lie to yourself. But once you check that box, say, “Okay, I’ve got to reassess. I think at three hours I felt pretty good, so I think I can accomplish three hours.” So, you adjust that goal. But now you’re still moving towards…

Like, I didn’t know how painful it would be to go through a developmental editor during the writing process when I started writing, and I’m glad that I didn’t know that because that was, by far, the most painful part of the process. When you develop this baby, and then hand it over to someone, and their entire job is to rip it apart, it’s painful. It hurts your pride. You’re going to try to get the person fired. It’s rough, man, but that’s exactly what the book needs. That’s taking the stone, putting hammer to chisel to the stone and removing the rough edges. That’s exactly what’s going to create the statue that you’re looking for, the elite image that you’re looking for.

But you can’t think about that when you’re freewriting. You just have to free-write. And then once you’re in the developmental editing process, check, I can break that down into smaller and more attainable goals and just chuck up a win after win after win. We could apply that to any scenario in business or in your home life, in your professional development, in your personal development, in your physical development. It just works.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s really inspiring and transformational, I think, if you can really digest and internalize that. And so, I guess what I’m thinking, in order to make that really count such that, okay, you took one more step, therefore you are a winner, like you have accomplished the goal of one more step. I think that there’s also a mental thing that can occur, it’s like, “Well, yeah, but that wasn’t really much of anything. It was just one more step.” So, how do you like genuinely, I guess, celebrate, or commemorate, or make real and present to yourself on the inside that, “Yeah, that was a real victory and it’s worth something, and I’m more of a winner as a result of that even though it was tiny”?

Nick Hays
I’m so glad that you said that, that is the perfect question, especially for me because that’s something I struggle with daily. I don’t have that figured out. I do it to myself all the time and here’s kind of how that thought process works for me. I’ll be like, “Yeah, I made it through SEAL training but I got rolled back. I couldn’t even swim. Yeah, I became a Navy SEAL, but I didn’t really get to do exactly what I wanted to do, so I ended up contracting and doing more of that.”

“Yeah, I contract but then I got hurt pretty quick, ended up busting my back up and had to get a surgery. But, yeah, I went to business school, but at the same time it was kind of a hybrid, didn’t even have to take my GMATH, no big deal. Yeah, I worked with a professional sports team, they went to the Super Bowl, but they didn’t even win. I mean, they didn’t, you know. Yeah, I went to Harvard but, I mean, really, come on, you know. I don’t even know how they let me in there. Yeah, I wrote a book.”

And by the end of it, and you start looking at it, like, “Dude, I did a lot of amazing things. Why am I disqualifying everything that I’ve done mentally? Like, how do I just sit back and resonate in the fact that none of those things came easy between every bullet point on that resume. The resume looks sick, right? But I just know myself so well, and between every single one of those bold bullet points came a thousand failures, a thousand setbacks, me talking trash to myself and listening to that little demon sitting on my shoulder, right? All these things.”

And I can take joy and pride in the fact that I didn’t let that stop me, and I just kept moving forward. See, that’s taking a process that resulted in the success and celebrating the process. And, now, I can apply that process further in my life. I’m pretty much quoting Carol Dweck right now in that book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I know I’m not supposed to talk about other people’s books when I’m talking about mine, but I’m a reader and so I do it all the time.

But, yeah, she’s talking about the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. When you can celebrate a process instead of the outcome, then your identity is built around finding new ways to do things, not having done everything a certain way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really dig that. And I think what’s so fun for listeners, if they’re hearing the, “Yeah, but…” and just laughing at how absurd it sounds, it’s great because I recognize some of myself in that. I remember I did a triathlon and, first, it was like, “Yeah, but it’s just a sprint, it’s not a triathlon. It’s not a real triathlon.” And then I did a full Olympic distance triathlon, I was like, “Yeah, but my ITB Band was hurting so I was walking during part of the run, so I didn’t really do a triathlon if a part of it was walking.” And it’s just like, “Well, time out, like that’s nuts.”

Nick Hays
It is nuts.

Pete Mockaitis
I did all that prep, or it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I wrote two books but I self-published them, so that doesn’t really count,” and all these things, “Yeah, my podcast has 7 million downloads, but I just had lucky break randomly getting some iTunes rankings for no discernible reason early on.” And it’s sort of like it’s nuts, and I’m trying to kind of pinpoint the specific absurdity or fallaciousness, if that’s a word, of it. And I think it’s kind of like it sort of discounts all of your efforts and attention and labor and gives 100% of the credit to the opportunity or the exception, like you didn’t have to take the GMATH, whatever. I’m sure that the program that you did assumed that you were super awesome already and, thus, the GMATH was unnecessary, so it still counts. So, I don’t know, I’m just thinking real time here, how’s that rubbing you?

Nick Hays
Yeah, I’m thinking about it too, and I think it’s important to recognize that any given moment in time, we kind of have two selves, there’s two selves. There’s your experiencing self and your remembering self. The experiencing self is always reading and reacting and moving forward. That’s the person that’s looking out the windshield, driving the vehicle, “I see red lights in front of me, I break.” It’s constantly reading, reacting, and moving forward. And then you have your remembering self, essentially the rear-view mirror, right?

For some reason, when we’re experiencing something, we’re constantly taking information on board because it’s necessary for survival, and then we put it into action immediately. But then, when that moment gets categorized into the remembering self, we go back and we pull out the information again that’s going to lead to our ultimate survival.

So, for some reason, that can lean us to go negative with some things because we want to learn, we want to grow, we want to challenge ourselves. And I think, one, knowing that that’s what’s happening I think can set you free, and then, two, figuring out how to combat the specific enemy there and that little disqualifier that says, “Yeah, but, yeah, but.” If you know that that’s coming, you can take proactive stance in your mind, like, “No, I refuse that. This was something that worked out well.” And say it to yourself and practice it, right? Practice that and, eventually, that thought will become a habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that, “No, I refuse that.” That’s a good one. And we also had a great tip from this Stanford psychologist, BJ Fogg, who was talking about tiny habits, and how it’s so important when you’re doing little something to celebrate. One way or another, you’d just be like it could be dorky, or cheesy, or corny, give yourself a high five. Sometimes I will say, “Flawless victory” like on a Mortal Kombat video game,” and to just take a moment to feel good about what happened, just reinforces that so you’re all the more likely to do it as opposed to beating  yourself up for, “I said I was going to write for an hour, but it’s really only 56 minutes because I had an urgent phone call.” It’s like, I don’t know, to whoever beats himself up, I encourage you to be forgiving. The science is there that you’re better off that way.

Nick Hays
Yeah, the world’s mean enough, you don’t have to be mean to yourself. Like, you deserve better. You deserve better. And I think thankfulness is really, really the key. Like, going back to when I was in Hell Week, I remember using that as a tool to where the sun is going down, and you’re sitting there in the cold water, knowing it’s going to be a long night, well, I wanted to be a SEAL my entire life. And I remember smelling the air and feeling the wind and just thinking, “Man, I’m finally here. I’ve been trying to get here for so long, I’m so thankful, man.”

I was so thankful that I didn’t have room for the negativity to creep in. It made me resilient. And I think that’s something that we can practice for the rest of our lives, is when you start feeling those disqualifiers, instead maybe look at it through a different lens, and say, “Man, I’m so thankful that I have that experience. I’m thankful that that person stood up for me when I needed it. I’m thankful that my body didn’t fail me and I was able to get that done. I’m thankful that my ITB Band gave me some trouble because now I can adjust my training and be better. Like, good, I’m glad that happened. Let’s move on.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, I’m particularly struck by your ability to summon the gratitude and thankfulness right there in the moment. That’s pretty cool in terms of you saying, “I’m finally here.” And so, that’s really nifty to hit that, and I wonder how you can sort of systematize that. I’ve heard one person suggest you ask the question, “What’s great about this?” when you’re in a pickle, and that can sort of reorient your attention to things that you can be grateful for like “You’re finally there.”

And I guess you could say that even if, geez, I’m imagining terrible scenarios, like what if my kids were in the hospital like fighting for their lives, right? I guess you could be grateful that you have those children, that you have formed such a loving bond, that this matters a lot to you. And I guess it also speaks to the power of the imagination and visualization right now because I’m kind of tearing up because this is completely fictitious scenario that I am dreaming up. But you can find that gratitude just about anywhere.

Nick Hays
Well, I love your level of empathy there to where you put a face on it, and there’s someone out there who’s going through exactly that, and who needs to hear it. So, yeah, it’s good to understand the gravity of a situation, and, “Hey, if this works.” We’re talking about beating ourselves up even when things are going good. But, yeah, what if legitimately life happens to you? What if you’re on your back and you don’t know how to get up? What works then? If it’s this hard when everything is good when you’re in the meadow, how do you handle the mountain top? How do you handle the climb? How do you handle the brutality of the environment?

And I went through a situation that made me really think about some stuff, man. When I was contracting, working overseas, I loved it. I loved it. I was having a great time with it. I was exactly where I wanted to be. My schedule was pretty ridiculous. I was doing my two months on, two months off. So, me and my wife bought a 35-foot RV and we started cruising around, just everything was good, man. And then life happened to me, and I hurt my back. I ended up having to get a L5S1 fusion and I would never work in that capacity again.

I came home, the doctor told me that things were changing, and I had to go into surgery, and it took a solid two years to recover. They advertised six months; they’re lying to you. I lost my physicality. I didn’t want to be addicted to opioids so I got off those within a few weeks. But then I started drinking, so I was masking it with drinking. Now, nothing bad happened, I was able to pull away from that too, but, still, I’m sitting here. I lost my physicality. I looked terrible. I lost my purpose in life. I lost my passion. I had no vision moving forward, and I had to completely redefine myself.

Life gave me a couple of heavies. And there were some other stuff, that I won’t get into, at the time that fortunately didn’t involve my family. That probably would’ve been the kick to the groin that could’ve taken me to the floor, but my wife was there for me, and there with me, and we kind of suffered together. And I didn’t know what to do, and that’s kind of the best thing that ever happened to me.

Like, now when I’m looking back, it’s kind of like when I talk a lot about mountain climbing obviously. But when you’re climbing up a trail and there’s all these switchbacks, sometimes you can talk trash that you won’t make it. Like, “What are you doing? It’s right there. Why don’t we just go right there?” And you’re following these bends and switchbacks, you’re like, “Man, I don’t get it.” And then you get to the top, and you look back, and you see where the trail had made mud, you see that that switchback kept you from that chasm, you’re about to walk off a cliff, and it saved you time and pain.

That’s how it is for me looking back at that scenario specifically because there’s a saying, right, like, “That which I love will destroy me.” I think it applies really well to veterans because it’s a lot of fun belonging to a tribe, having a brotherhood, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. It goes a long way. And I don’t think that I would’ve seen it. I think I would’ve stayed with it. But because it was taken away from me, I have a better relationship with my wife, around more for my kids, enable to imprint on them. I’ve started going a different direction professionally that is really next level. I’m starting to see, like, “What can I actually accomplish? What can I do even if my identity has changed?” It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

And I was fortunate that I was able to redefine that purpose, and said, “Okay, what was it that kept me going? What was it that I enjoyed about what I was doing?” And it always came back to this, to empathy, the desire to help others be better, the desire to teach. I actually loved being an instructor. When I was an instructor for a little while in the military, I always really enjoyed that stuff, and I said, “Okay, well, that’s something that I can look forward with. How do I develop that?” And then a buddy of mine actually reached out to me and was like, “Hey, do you want to join me on this? Let’s go talk to a company.”

So, I went and talked to a company. Like, four weeks later, I was working with the Miami Heat basketball team. And I was like, “Wow, I can actually do this. This is something.” And it injected me with that passion, with that fire. I was able to redefine my identity but stayed true to the purpose that had been consistent the whole time. Life happened to me, and I said, “You know what, I’m done with that. I’m going to start happening to life. This is my turn now.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Nick, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear about your favorite things?

Nick Hays
Man, I don’t know, I feel good. This is fun. I like the authenticity. This is great.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Nick Hays
Let’s see. Speaking of authenticity, I love John Madden, a great coach, John Madden. He used to say that “If you want longevity in this league, first you have to be authentic.” Now, he was talking about football but I think that works in any context. If you want longevity, if you want to play the long game, you have to be authentic. That’s where you need to start. Man, there’s more to it, right? But that’s where you need to start is that authenticity.

And, for me, I’ve really taken that to heart because now that I’m kind of getting more in public and stuff, keep in mind, my job used to be the silent professional. I used to lie to my neighbors about what I do for a living and now, all of a sudden, I’m in the public eye, doing talks, like writing books, and all the stuff. It’s weird for me. And that’s my commitment is to be authentic and to tell the truth, to be myself, and not try to paint up an image that I should do because it worked for somebody else. I think that’s something that we can all take and put into our lives. Like, “How do I discover my authentic self and then how do I unleash that out in the world?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And how about a favorite book?

Nick Hays
I have a lot of favorite books. That’s probably the hardest question you could’ve asked me. I think one of the books that’s had the most impact in my life was Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. He writes about the Spartans at the hot gates of Thermopylae, and how the 300 Spartans and their support were able to stop a Persian army of about two million for long enough for the country to unite. Obviously, spoiler alert here, but we’ve all seen “300.” Leonidas actually, the king, gave his life and that rallied the rest of the city states to join up and go to war together, and they crippled one of the most powerful empires in all of history.

And the way that Steven Pressfield writes it, it really shows what brotherhood looks like. It shows what a team should be. The fact that when you’re sitting there in the failings, which was their alignment when they would meet the enemy, the shield of the person next to you is what’s protecting you. Your shield is protecting the person next to you. Your shield isn’t for you. Your shield is for your brothers and sisters, for your teammates. That’s such an impactful lesson that you see time and time in that book. I highly recommend that read.

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

Nick Hays
My AirPods.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good.

Nick Hays
Seriously, I’ve been plagued by wires. I spend a majority of my time, professionally communicating, and so a lot of it is on the phone and having the ability to be somewhat mobile with that. We’re so lucky to live in a time that you and I can connect from other sides of the world. You can keep people close to you regardless of the proximity, and I take full advantage of that. I’m one of those people where you can text me, sure, but I’m probably going to call you back. I like discussing. I like speaking.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audiences?

Nick Hays
You know, going back to the mentorship piece, I think that’s something that everyone can see upfront. The story opens them up and they see it and practice at the highest level, and this is a great opportunity for me to kind of hit that again, and say like mentorship, you’ve got to find one, you’ve got to be one. In addition to that, I’ll take it even one step further, but the way you organize your relationships and your friends really does matter.

And one thing that I highly recommend is, yes, you have your close circle of friends, right? That group needs to be small. It’s a small group. But then, of course, you have your network, your expanding circle, right? But there’s this circle in between, that somewhere in between, or I like to call that as my personal board of advisors.

So, what I’ve done is I’ve looked for people that are as different than me as possible, and then a few people that are very similar to me, different sexes, races, anything that could be a potential silo, international, whatever it is. Like, people that I really trust and connect with that are operating at a really high level, and I ask them, I make it formal, and I’ve built this cabinet. If the president needs one, then maybe I should be doing it, too, right?

And I built this cabinet so when I’m working through something, I can bounce ideas off of people that’s going to give me a 360-degree approach to it, and it always illuminates stuff that I don’t see. Different than mentorship, but having a cabinet, having a personal board of advisors that is as diverse as possible in every sense of the word takes your game to the next level, a hundred percent.

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

Nick Hays
Yes, so on all social media, I’m NickHaysLife, EliteTeams.com that’s my company, I’m available for speaking and all that stuff. So, yeah, feel free to reach out. You can DM me too, I’ll get back to you.

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

Nick Hays
Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Right now, in this moment, there’s something that you could do that’s going to make you a little bit more resilient. I don’t know what that looks like, but whatever is intimidating you, whatever you’ve been holding back from, embrace that truth today. Get out there and make that happen so that you can celebrate a win. And then move into tomorrow looking for another win.

Pete Mockaitis
Nick, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing the good word and good luck on your adventures.

Nick Hays
Pete, thank you so much, man. This is fun.

451: Deploying Your Mental Energy Brilliantly with Dr. Art Markman

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Art Markman says: "You have to generate a certain amount of dissatisfaction in order to do something different."

Professor Art Markman shares insights from cognitive science research for us to be smarter every day at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to making a great first impression
  2. The pros and cons of high energy
  3. The role of dissatisfaction in motivating yourself

About Art

Art Markman is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He got his ScB from Brown University and his PhD from the University of Illinois.  Before coming to the University of Texas, Art taught at Northwestern University and Columbia University.

Art’s research explores thinking. Art is also the executive editor of the journal of Cognitive Science and is a former executive officer of the Cognitive Science Society. Art has always been interested in bringing insights from Cognitive Science to a broader audience. To that end, he writes blogs for many sites including Psychology Today and Fast Company. He consults for companies interested in using Cognitive Science in their businesses.  Art is also on the scientific advisory boards for the Dr. Phil Show and the Dr. Oz Show.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Art Markman Interview Transcript

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

Art Markman
Oh, it’s great to be talking to you today. Thanks so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’d have a ton of fun. And I think, first things first. I got to say I-L-L.

Art Markman
I-N-I.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. It’s great to have a fellow alum in the house. And I also understand that you play sax for a blues band. What’s the story here?

Art Markman
Yes, so, in my mid-30s I decided to take up the saxophone.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Art Markman
And I’d played the piano as a kid, and realized I’d never played another instrument, because when I was 5th grade, and they demonstrated band instruments, I asked my mom if I could play the French horn, and she said, “No, we have a piano. You play the piano.” And I realized in my mid-30s it was no longer her fault. So, I took up the sax and then started playing in bands after I’d been practicing for about 10 years. And it’s great fun. It gets me out of the house in a healthy way.

Pete Mockaitis
And what are the names of the bands? I love band names.

Art Markman
So, right now, I actually transitioned to playing with a ska band, and we’re called Phineas Gage who was a 19th century railroad worker who had a spike blown through his head and lived.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. I don’t know why I know that.

Art Markman
Well, it’s just one of those random facts that once you hear it once, it tends to stick with you.

Pete Mockaitis
But didn’t he have some sort of a condition as a result of it that was studied by a lot of folks?

Art Markman
Yes. So, one of the things, so Antonio Damasio makes a lot out of this because if Phineas Gage seemed to have trouble actually connecting the emotional experience of his life with the cognitive experience. And so, it was easy to take advantage of him because that little spidey sense that goes off in most of us when we’re dealing with somebody who’s a little shady didn’t seem to affect him.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, cognitive science is your cup of tea, and you, indeed, like to talk about applying it, too, in your latest book, Career Advancement. Could you maybe orient us a little bit to what exactly does the term cognitive science mean, and what are some kind of key concepts that make a world of difference in career advancement?

Art Markman
Yeah. So, cognitive science, it goes beyond mere psychology to say that if we’re going to understand something as complex as a mind, we need to understand the science of behavior, that’s where psychology comes in, but also how brains work, so neuroscience. It’s useful to have some computation to think through how we might build an intelligent machine, and so robotics and computer science come in, as well as culture so you get some anthropology, and linguistics to understand how language functions.

And so, when you take that much broader-based perspective, you get all of these different insights into the way the mind works. And I’m sort of a native-born cognitive scientist. My undergraduate major was actually cognitive science. And one of the things that that does is it allows you to get more perspective on why you think the way you do.

I like to point out that almost everybody I know has a mind and almost nobody knows how that mind works. And, yet, if you learn about the way your mind works, it can help you to do the things that you do more effectively. For example, one of the things that I talk about in the new book is it has to do with the way that you present yourself in a resume, that you might think, “Well, I should jam every conceivable positive thing into my resume that I can find,” under the assumption that people are adding together the total amount of goodness about you. But it turns out that when people actually look at a resume, they are averaging.

And so, if you put on something that’s good but not great, you could actually lower your average a little bit. And so, if you’ve got that honorable mention for a prize, yeah, you might want to think twice about whether you want to include that because it might actually bring down people’s overall evaluation of you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And I think, in particular, when you’re trying to customize a resume to tell a story in terms of that’s really going to resonate for the recipient, as opposed to like, “This guy is all over the place,” versus, “Oh, this guy is a real pro and exactly the things I want him or her to be a pro at.”

Art Markman
Exactly right. So, you really want to understand the mind, not only your own mind, but the minds of the people who are going to be evaluating you so that you can be as effective as possible at impressing them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s handy, yes. So, we’re going to talk about a lot of stuff. But I’d love to kick it off by hearing what’s perhaps the most fascinating and surprising discovery you’ve made when it comes to deploying some of these cognitive science insights for career advancement?

Art Markman
So, I would say that one of the more surprising elements of this has to do, for me, with understanding values and value systems. That one of the things that you find, particularly when you start to talk to people who’ve been in the workplace for a little while, is they get dissatisfied with their careers because they realize that the things that they thought they wanted when they were 20 are not actually the things that they wanted.

And it becomes useful to begin to think about, “Well, what kinds of things do I value? Am I the sort of person who actually cares about prestige? Or do I really care about helping others and being part of my community? And am I on a track to be able to do that?” Because you may not be able to reach all of your goals and achieve all of the things that meet your values in your first job, but, at some point, you’ve got to feel like you’re making progress towards it.

And I think that a lot of people don’t take that into account until too late, and then you experience that mid-life crisis, or you think, “I’ve just wasted all of my time.” When, in fact, you can begin to do that much earlier in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating. Could you share what are some key values that folks think they want and realize that they don’t kind of often?

Art Markman
Well, so, I have a number of stories in the book because I was happy enough to be able to enlist the help of people on social media. So, as I was writing the book and had all these concepts, I would just ask people questions and they would tell me their stories. And I’ll tell you two that were kind of fun.

One is a guy named Brian. He finished college and, really, took a job that was going to pay well and give him some prestige, and he actually realized that was not what he wanted at all. He left his job, went to do the Peace Corps for a while, and came back, and really focused on jobs that were going to help others. That was actually something that he ended up being passionate about.

But there are other kinds of values. There’s another story in the book about a guy who went into a session to talk about State Department jobs, and walked out of a test that they took, and other folks were laughing at this one question about, “Who would enjoy being in a warzone?” And he realized, actually, he wanted that. He responded positively to that question. He realized that adventure was a very important value for him, and he ended up fashioning a career that put him in a lot of dangerous places, but it was utterly exhilarating to him.

So, some of us want enjoyment and adventure, and some people want stability and they want to know where their next paycheck is coming from. Some people want to be helpful, and some people really want to look out for themselves. And all of those things across the population are values that people hold. We get some of those from the culture around us, but, particularly in the United States, we’re given a lot of opportunity to really decide for ourselves how we want to live our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And so, you lay out Shalom Schwartz who crafted a set of values with 10 universal values there from power, and achievement, and hedonism, and stimulation, self-direction, universalism, benevolence, conformity, tradition, security. That was fast.

Art Markman
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
No need to dig into every one of them. But it’s intriguing, you say that there’s a couple of ways you can go about clarifying your own values and what’s most potent for you. And what are those?

Art Markman
Well, the very first thing you want to do is actually to be aware of them, to be aware that there are these values, and to begin to ask, to what degree do these resonate with you. And there are scales that you can take. I’m actually going to be putting one up online for people who read the book if they want to actually test themselves against these values.

But one of the things I think is important is periodically, throughout your career, not every week by any means, but maybe on that yearly basis, to ask yourself, “Well, how am I doing? Do I feel like I am doing the kinds of things in my work life often enough that I am making progress towards those kinds of goals? Or do I feel like my values are not being reflected at all in the work that I’m doing?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really resonating for me as I’m thinking about my first job that resembled a professional job. There was an internship at Eaton Corporation, which I’ve not heard of but is a Fortune 500 company, it’s a diversified industrial manufacturer. And I remember, as I wrapped up that internship, I thought, “You know what? This was pretty cool in terms of I learned some things, my brain got tickled and challenged a little bit, there were some great people I enjoyed sort of seeing regularly, and I got home at a decent hour. And, yeah, option was there to return.”

But I remember walking away, thinking, “You know, I think that this company could provide me a satisfying stable kind of a career,” but I really wanted a thrilling one. And so, I went with strategy consulting after graduation. And then after some years of that, I thought, “You know what? I want more autonomy. And I want maybe in-between 40 hours and 65 hours, somewhere in that zone would probably be better at that phase.”

And so, it definitely connects that both of those opportunities were great, and it’s just about seeing what’s the best fit for you and life, and what’s going on.

Art Markman
And it can change over time as well. Later in the book, I talk a little bit about another guy who, early on, was focused on developing that career and having that very stable career, but also one that had a certain amount of achievement in it. Then, in the middle of his career, his wife got sick, and he needed to really back off and put his value on his family and on taking care of his wife and his kids.

And then, later in his career, after he went back to work, after she got healthy again, and had some success, and engaged those values again, and then decided he wanted to really help others, and actually left the practice of law and ended up running a non-profit for a while. And so, you get these shifts over time sometimes as a result of life circumstances, and sometimes just as a result of changes in perspective as you see more things in your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, we’ve already kind of gotten into some of the meat of it, but maybe to zoom out for a moment, what would you say is kind of the main thesis or big idea behind this book you got here, “Bring Your Brain to Work”?

Art Markman
Yeah, so the idea is that if you think about your career, which is bigger than any individual job, it’s that collection of things that you truly contribute as a result of the work that you do, and has this cycle of looking for a job and getting it, then succeeding at it while you’ve got it, and then considering whether to move on or move up. That that cycle can be really informed, no matter where you are in your career, can be informed by understanding more about your mind and the minds of other people.

And that this is stuff that we don’t really ever learn in class. And most people, when they hit mid-career, realize that very little of what allowed them to succeed at work was something that they learned in a class in school. And so, part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to bring more of the research around cognitive science to help people to learn some of those things that are critical for career success that they probably didn’t get in a class.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, excellent. Well, thank you. We appreciate that effort in the world. And so, let’s dig into some of the stuff then. We talked a bit about zeroing in on what you value and figuring out how a job might align to that. But you’ve also got some pro tips in terms of acquiring the job using cognitive science insights. Like in the midst of an interview, how do you figure out kind of where the interviewer’s head is at, and what they might love?

Art Markman
Yeah. So, one of the things that fascinate me about interviews is a lot of people walk into that interview focused almost exclusively on, “I have to impress the interviewer. I need this job, and I want them to think great thoughts about me at the end.” And, of course, that’s not irrelevant. You want to go into the interview well-prepared so that you’re able to really talk authoritatively about yourself and about the way that you would fit with the company, which means you need to know something about the company.

But what a lot of people don’t do effectively is to realize how much they can learn about the organization that they’re interviewing with as a result of that interview process. So, if you get totally stumped on a question, you might think to yourself, “Well, that’s it. I’ve screwed this up completely.” But, actually, it gives you this opportunity to engage in a conversation with the interviewer and to get a real sense of, “Is this a company that actually wants to support me, that wants me to learn, that wants me to help, to think the way that they think?”

And to the extent that the interviewer actually digs in and works with you to walk your way through an interview question, they may be telling you something about their willingness to help to mentor you and to train you, and for you to understand that this is a company that doesn’t necessarily think you need to be fully formed on day one in order to succeed. On the other hand, if the company just brushes you off for not knowing the answer to a question, then, well, their communicating something completely different, right?

And so, you should be paying attention to that from the beginning to really understand, “What am I learning about this organization?” through the interview process, frankly, through the negotiation process as well, where they’re communicating a lot about what they value in the way that they treat you when you are trying to negotiate salary and benefits and things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Well, that’s a great point there, is to, first of all, to broaden my question a bit. It’s not just about impress, impress, impress. It’s a two-way street. You’re picking up intelligence on their side, like, “Is this a good fit? Do you like the way they work it?” But then back to the wowing side of things, when you are putting half of the attention on that side of the equation, what are some things that do some of the wowing or help you sense what they’re really feeling?

Art Markman
Yeah, so one of the fascinating things about the interview is, more than anything else, companies are trying to figure out whether they want to work with you, because they’ve already brought you in, which means they’ve looked at your materials, they feel like you have potential qualifications for the job. And so, now, they’re trying to envision how you fit in.

And so, part of what you want to do is to really engage. So, yes, you need to be prepared but, at some point, you need to really have a conversation. Give those interviewers a chance to have a sense of what it would be like to have you as a colleague. But to do it by putting that best foot forward, every once in a while, you think to yourself, “Well, do I really have to put on an act for them? Do I have to be really my best self?” And the answer is yes. You don’t want necessarily need to show every single quirk in the interview. Right, exactly. Those things that people will find charming eventually. Maybe get them to learn to love you first.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve got plenty of quirks, Art, that’s why I’m laughing over here.

Art Markman
And so do I, right? And it’s fine. I think quirks are part of what makes us interesting in the long run. But in the short term, you want to put that best foot forward. And I think, really, believe in what’s called the halo effect. So, the better the first impression that someone gets of you, the more charitably that they interpret every other thing that you do, because every behavior that you exhibit in the world is ambiguous, right?

Are you brash and arrogant? Or are you confident and assertive, right? Well, those could manifest themselves with almost identical behaviors. But if I like you already, I’m going to think of you as confident. And if I don’t like you from the beginning, I’m going to think that you are kind of an arrogant jerk. And so, you really want to come out initially with creating the best possible impressions socially that you can in order to get people to feel like you’d be somebody that they really want to work with.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, in terms of some of the details for how that’s done, I imagine there are some basic fundamentals, like smile, make eye contact, engage, listen, shower.

Art Markman
Shower is good, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Put on some clothes that aren’t stained and wrinkled. But are there any sort of like cognitive science secrets that are some huge do’s or don’ts when it comes to making a great impression?

Art Markman
Yeah, one of them is it’s not just smile. It’s, bring the amount of energy and enthusiasm that you want that person to feel later. So, one of the things we know about conversation is that people tune to each other, even down to the level of the pitch of your voice.

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

Art Markman
Yeah, absolutely. Really, yes, they do. And if people are laughing, right, or smiling, then if one person is doing it, the other person is doing it. They will even mimic facial expressions, and if one person crosses their arms, eventually the other one is going to do it.

And so, if you’re trying to generate energy and enthusiasm, because that will ultimately be interpreted by the interviewer as enjoyment. The fact is that the higher your degree of energy, the more invested you are motivationally in something.

And so, if you come in really flat, then you’re going to get a flat evaluation later because the interviewer is going to mimic your flatness, and you’re going to end up just it’s going to be a mediocre evaluation at the end. But if you come in with energy and enthusiasm, you will create energy. And that energy actually now feeds back into the evaluation that you get.

So, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And so, you need to bring the energy that you want the interviewer to have, particularly because many times you’re working with somebody who may be a recruiter, or a hiring manager, who might be doing 15 interviews. And so, if you don’t bring it, well, they don’t need it, right? They’re doing a ton of these all day. So, you’ve got to make sure that you create the atmosphere that you want.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, Art, I think that I am one of those people, I don’t know how if I’m in the majority or the minority here, that could overdo it with regard to the energy, like, “Whoa, that’s a little too much. Like, are you, I don’t know, a clown, or a motivational speaker?” Like, how do we think about when is it too much?

Art Markman
Well, honestly, I don’t think that the energy level can be too much. But I do think that you have to be careful when you’re energetic to still stay on topic. So, one of the things that a high level of energy can do is to allow you to overcome your filter, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Oh, certainly.

Art Markman
One of the things that we know motivationally is that we have in our motivational system what you can think of as a go system that drives you to do things, and then a stop system that gets you to inhibit things that your go system says you should do that on sober reflection might not be such a good idea. And the more that you overload that go system, which is something you can do when you give yourself a tremendous amount of energy, the more you can override the breaks which can potentially cause you to say something that you probably shouldn’t have said in an interview.

And so, the danger with too much energy is not so much the impact that it’s likely to have on the interviewer, so much as the likelihood that it’s going to cause you to do or say something that probably was not a great idea.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good thought there, certainly. So, I imagine, so long as you’re keeping like your volume and gestures like within a normal reasonable human dimension, and you’re not just disclosing crazy things. I heard a story of a person who interviewed someone who said, “Hey, how are you doing?” He said, “Not well.” And then he went on to share quite the story of how his girlfriend threw him out of their apartment, and his clothes were thrown out of the window, and he was trying to figure out a place to, I don’t know, get a suit cleaned or something in the middle of the night. And he was like, “Okay, this is uncomfortable now.”

Art Markman
Right. I think the correct answer there would’ve been, “Fine.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Exactly. Okay. So, that’s handy. So, great energy but not so much that you      are doing unwise things and short-circuiting the stop system there. Well, now, let’s say you got the job, and you want to apply some of these cognitive science insights to, let’s say, communicate, collaborate, interact with your colleagues and clients better. What are some of your favorite do’s and don’ts there?

Art Markman
Yeah, so one of the things to watch out for in the modern environment is that we do so much discussion with our colleagues that is mediated by text, whether it’s email, or instant messages, or Slack, or any one of these ways of communicating just through the words alone being sent through the ether.

And the problem is, human communication is really optimized because of our evolutionary history for a small number of people interacting face to face in real time. And the further away that we get from that ideal, the harder it is for us to communicate effectively with our colleagues. And that means that if you’re going to do most of your communication with your colleagues via text, you need to go out of your way to create a certain amount of facetime with them in order to establish a relationship so that they can read the tone of what you say more effectively.

Because if I need your help with something, and I poked my head into your office, or over your cubicle wall, or whatever it is, and I say, “Listen, man, would it be all right, could you possibly make some copies for me right now? I’m running late, I’d really appreciate it.” You can make a request of someone that imposes on their time and still demonstrates to them through the words that you use and your tone of voice and the look on your face that you understand what a big imposition it is, and that you deeply appreciate what they’re doing.

When you say the same thing over text, it comes across as cold and as demanding. And so, unless they can hear your voice in their head, then you’re actually going to end up sabotaging some number of your relationships just because of the overuse of this kind of text. So, we have to find ways to create that kind of facetime.

And, as it turns out, that is often more efficient because things that can take you 10 minutes going back and forth by email or instant message, can actually often be resolved in about four seconds of real conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
And I love what you had to say there with regard to give them lots of experiences of the facetime, and then they can imagine in their own mind’s eye and ear what your facial expressions are looking like and what your voice is sounding like. This reminds me when I was consulting. We had this client and we kept getting these emails back. We asked about, “Hey, we want some data like this.” And then the client sent back some things. And we’re like, “Oh, actually, hey, thank you. But we’d really kind of want it like this.”

And then she sent something back and had some red-letters in it, like, “Oh, man, she’s angry.” And then we thought, “Why don’t we just pay her a visit?” And it was like, “Hey, what’s going on? We really appreciate you taking the time to help us, think through it, share these things. We’re trying to accomplish this and it’d be really awesome if it’s possible to do that.” She’s like, “Oh, yes, absolutely. Certainly, I can get that to you this afternoon.” Just like the sweetest thing.

Art Markman
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And like, “Oh, thank you.” And then it’s like it just sort of reinterpreted every email that we were like sweating over. It’s like, “Oh, I guess maybe red is just a clear means of delineating and separating that text from the original email text in black or blue, as opposed to, “I’m furious at you.” And it was quite the lesson. Yeah, eyes opened.

Art Markman
Yeah, and we’ve gotten out of the habit of doing that. We think, somehow, it’s easier to be doing everything mediated by text. So, I really think that making sure that you create that relationship, I think, is just critical for success.

Pete Mockaitis
And we had Dr. Nick Morgan, a famed communications consultant, on the show earlier. He said one great phrase used often in like a phone call or sort of less rich exchange is, “How do you feel about what I’ve just said?” You know, just to get real explicit, like it may not have been conveyed so let’s figure it out. It seemed pretty brilliant to me.

Art Markman
Oh, yeah. And if I could add to that, one of the places where it’s really brilliant in the modern environment is when you’re dealing with people who have a different cultural background than you do. So, we live in a world in which we may not just be working with people in another state, but they might be halfway around the world. And there are big cultural differences in what people will generally say to each other and what kinds of things they give voice to.

And sometimes you just need to be really explicit with people, including, “I need to know exactly what you think of this,” and to summarize your interpretation of a conversation just to make sure that you actually really are on the same page. Where, if you were talking to somebody you’d known for years or grew up in exactly the same culture, you might share more of the biases and the way you think about things that would allow you to communicate effectively.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is so good. Even just the words, phrases, idioms. I was working with someone in the Philippines, and she says, “Hey, can we meet up at this time?” I was like, “Oh, yeah, sure thing.” And she emailed back, “Thanks for giving me the time of day.” I was like, “Oh, dang, I know. I know I’ve been absent. I’ve got a new baby. I’m really sorry. I mean to be more there, and available, and guiding, and developing, and coaching.” I’m really stewing it. She’s like, “Oh, no, I just meant thank you for that time.” “Yeah, oh, okay.”

Art Markman
Oh, yeah, “I do not think this means what you think it means,” yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally.

Art Markman
Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, handy communication tips. And how about for just productivity, getting the job done, motivation, distraction avoidance, what are your cognitive science insights there?

Art Markman
Well, so one of the things that I think is really important is to recognize that the best way to motivate yourself is to create a gap between where you are right now and where you’d like to be in the future, that that gap is what creates energy. And I think it’s really important for people to recognize that there are days when they feel somewhat unmotivated. And part of that lack of motivation is that they’re just not dissatisfied enough with the way things are right now. And that you can actually, by focusing on how the world could be better, you can actually create that kind of energy and get yourself to stick with something.

But another piece to this that’s really important is you got to learn about what the Yearkes-Dodson curve. And I love the fact that these two guys, Yearkes and Dodson, wrote a paper in 1905 that is still relevant today. And the idea behind the Yearkes-Dodson curve is that the more energy you give to a particular goal, the better your performance up to a point. And you hit a sweet spot where you have the right level of energy, or what psychologists call arousal. And that when you’re in that sweet spot, you work really effectively.

But if you get hyper aroused, or you get more and more arousal, say, the deadline is creeping ever closer, then you may find yourself slipping over the edge of this Yearkes-Dodson curve, where now additional energy actually lowers your performance because you have so much energy you can’t think straight, you’re pacing, you’re panicking.

And so, what everyone needs to learn is, “Where is my sweet spot?” because that’s what helps us to figure out, “Will I get stuff done ahead of time? Do I need to have a small thermonuclear device detonated beneath my chair before I can get anything done?” And figure out where that sweet spot is and learn to live there with your project so that you find the right level of engagement and arousal to allow you to work consistently without getting so over-aroused that you find yourself unable to make progress on important things.

Pete Mockaitis
And you know that’s interesting as you talk about the curve, and I’m imagining, “Okay, X and Y axis here, and we got more and more energy, that’s good.” And then I guess you have two much energy, it’s bad in the sense you’re panicking and, I don’t know. I guess, we had Tony Schwartz on the show earlier. We talked about energy stuff, and it almost sounds like more energy there is equating to anxiety and panic, but I guess you just call that negative, high energy but a negative type of energy. Can you have too much what he might call high positive energy in terms of, “I’m really, really, really excited about this?” Can you be too much of that?

Art Markman
Yup, you absolutely can, because even with too much positive energy, you end up pacing, right? That energy creates actual energy for you that needs to dissipate. And if you’re sitting there trying to work at your desk, and you have much bubbling positive energy that you need to pace around, you’re not being particularly productive in that moment.

And so, you find sometimes people so excited about something that they need to get up, walk around, get it out of themselves so that they can calm down and actually get work done, even when that energy is really positive.

I know, over the course of my career, I’ve had times where I felt like I had just figured something out, and in that moment when I figured it out, I couldn’t write it. I had to like quickly say it into a recorder or something, and then walk around for a while, like calm down, and then I was in a place where I could actually write about it. So, yeah, it’s overall energy level, even if it’s positive.

So, panic, obviously, it can be negative energy, but just being hyper-aroused in general creates terrible performance. And you can even see this in athletes, right? When they’re so jazzed up about something that they actually can’t coordinate their motions.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, then, with the Yearkes-Dodson curve then, is that kind of like different activities or tasks that have different curves where some things are better-suited to lower energy states and others high energy states?

Art Markman
You know, it seems to be that everyone has got a sweet spot, and that sweet spot seems to be pretty similar across tasks but different people will differ in their resting levels of arousal. So, some people are naturally very high arousal people, and so they are the ones who’d start a project six weeks before it’s due. And then there are the people who are very low arousal, who really need to have a cattle prod taken to them before they start getting anything done.

And what’s really tough is when you have a high-arousal person working with a low-arousal person, because a high-arousal person gets a whole bunch of stuff done ahead of time, and then they hand it off to the other person who does nothing with it till the last moment, sends that back to the other person 10 minutes before it needs to be submitted. And that person is a pool of jello on the floor at that point because they’re just so over-aroused by the deadline. So, you have to find ways for people to work effectively together when they have different resting levels of arousal.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have any pro tips in terms of you would like to amp up or amp down your arousal in a given moment for a task at hand? How might you do that?

Art Markman
So, to amp it up, one of the things that’s useful is to create things like false deadlines for yourself, and to do things that really say, “There’s a reason why this has to get done right now,” or, really amp up your sense of how important this is to get right.

When you’re trying, though, to calm yourself down, it really is doing the kinds of things that help you to dissipate energy, which could be going out for a walk, or it could be deep breathing exercises, right, because those are the kinds of things that will actually calm you down. And, really, what you’re doing is trying to create some sense of distance between yourself and the goal that you’re engaged with so that it feels mentally further away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I want to talk about that next is that point you made about creating a gap between where you are and where you want to be. How is that done in practice? I imagine it boils down to, you know, how you set a goal, and maybe some of this is visualization stuff, it really is worthwhile. How do you think about creating that gap and that energy?

Art Markman
Yeah, so there’s a lot of really nice work in psychology, some of it done by Gabriele Oettingen that talks about, essentially, the role of creating fantasies, and not in the kind of parlance that we often think about, “Oh, I’m fantasizing about this.” But, really, in the sense of creating that vision of the future, of, “Here’s what I could accomplish.” Or, frankly, sometimes, “Here’s what will go wrong if nobody does anything.”

And to really elaborate on that mentally, to think about how much better or worse the world could be, and then to explicitly contrast that with the present. So, you develop this vision of the future, and then you compare it to where you are right now. And it is that act of creating that contrast that actually generates that sense of the gap and that energy that comes along with it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Could you maybe walk us through an example there?

Art Markman
Yeah. So, for example, think about supposed you’ve kind of stagnated in your job, but you can’t really motivate yourself to go look for another one, right? Now, so what could you do? Well, one of the things you could do is to begin to think about, “Well, let me imagine a little bit more about what my ideal job would be. What are some of the tasks that I would be doing in my day-to-day life that I’m not currently able to do?” and to really envision that clearly, and then contrast that with the job I have right now, and to really begin to compare that, say, “Whoa, here are all the ways in which my current job is not ideal.”

And what that does is it generates dissatisfaction. And that dissatisfaction is motivating. So, it turns out that when you’re utterly satisfied in life, what you tend to do is fall asleep. And so, you have to generate a certain amount of dissatisfaction in order to be motivated to do something different.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you overdo it in terms of like you’re suddenly zapped of gratitude and bitter and anxious about how crappy everything is right now?

Art Markman
Well, you can overdo it but mostly the way that you overdo it is by creating gaps that are not bridgeable. So, I’m a big believer in what I call the bridgeable gap which means not only do you need a sense of the gap between present and future. You need to believe that there is a plan, a set of actions that you’re capable of performing that will get you from here to there.

And as long as you feel like you’re on a path that will help you to narrow the gap, then focusing on that gap is not a bad thing because you have agency. You believe that you are the author of your future. But when you believe that there’s no path from the present to the future, well, then, creating that gap creates that sense of bitterness and resentment because now you feel like, “Well, I’m stuck here. I have no control over the circumstance.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. Art, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Art Markman
You know what? Let’s take it where you want to go. Oh, I will say one thing, which is one of my favorite things that I got to do in the book, because I play the saxophone, I added a bunch of sections in the book that I called “The Jazz Brain,” which is basically focused on that ability you have to improvise. And I think it’s really important for people to understand that in order to improvise effectively, you need to know a lot.

I think a lot of times people feel like, “No, no, there’s the curse of knowledge. If I know too much I’m going to be constrained.” But the people I know in any field, whether it’s music or anything else, the people who are best able to adapt to a circumstance on the fly are actually the ones who know a ton of stuff, but are willing to apply lots of different knowledge to a situation.

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

Art Markman
I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, and that’s the place where he strung up lightbulbs. His lab was actually not in Edison or what became Edison. But Edison once said that, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” And while we could probably quibble about the percentages a little bit, I think there’s something important about this idea that a lot of our success is about the work we do.

Yeah, some people are more talented in something than somebody else is, but most of the difference in performance between people comes down to doing the right kind of work. And the reason that I’ve spent so much time in my life over the last 15 years, really trying to bring more cognitive science to other people is because I believe that the more you understand about minds, the more you can put in the right kind of work that can help you to be successful into things you want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And how about a favorite study or piece of research?

Art Markman
Let’s see, one of my favorite pieces of research that I talk about a lot comes from a buddy of mine named Frank Keil at Yale. He and one of his students, Leonid Rozebilt, did this set of studies on what’s called the illusion of explanatory depth, which is this idea that you believe you understand the world better than you actually understand the world. And so, they did this by having people describe various household devices that they thought they completely understood, and only to have people discover that there were significant gaps in their understanding about the way the world works.

And it turns out that this kind of knowledge about the way the way the world works, what psychologists a causal knowledge, is the stuff that allows you to do new things in new ways. And so, when you lack that knowledge, then all you can do is execute procedures in your work. You can’t really try a new thing. And if you’re unaware of what you don’t know, then it means you can’t work to improve the quality of your knowledge. So, I really find that study to have a profound impact on the way people should treat their knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Art Markman
Gosh, I love books, and there’s so many. But, lately, I’ve been reading quite a bit about small towns of different kinds. I’m just fascinated by it. I grew up, I’m an urban kid, born and raised, and I’m living in Austin, Texas right now. It’s a beautiful city. But, lately, I’ve been reading books like Our Towns, and Hillbilly Elegy, and things like that, just trying to wrap my head around what it’s like to grow up in a place very different than the one that I grew up in.

And I think that’s important, right? I think so much of the way we understand the world is by filtering it through our own experience, that it’s really important to find people who’ve characterized the world that’s different from the one that you grew up in, and whether it’s different within the country you grew up, or outside of it, as a way of helping you to recognize that not everything that you do is a human universal.

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

Art Markman
Gosh, I love word processors. And it’s a funny thing, right? I think we don’t appreciate some of the simple tools that are in front of us. But if my 7th grade teacher knew that I wrote for a living, I think she’d be in hysterics because of how much I hated writing as a kid.

But just having that ability to put stuff down, and then edit it easily, is such an important thing. I think very few people value the editing process enough. And having just a tool, whatever your word processor is, to have that in front of you to be able to edit is such an amazing thing. Because most of us look at good writing, and we think, “Wow, I could never write like that.” And what we really mean is, “I could never write like that the first time that something comes out.”

And what we don’t realize is nobody writes well when something just pops out of them. What you’re seeing is the result of getting something out, crafting it, polishing it, re-arranging it, deleting, starting over, and then you only get to see the final product. So, yeah, to me, it’s just what we’re able to do with a simple word processor is just, to me, absolutely amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Art Markman
Favorite habit in the workplace. It would have to be that when I come into work, I triage my email. I answer the three emails that absolutely have to be answered, and then I shut my email off for a half hour and do something else that matters. Because I do believe that people take a tremendous amount of pride in their work, but I don’t think anyone looks back over the last year, and says, “The most important thing I did was to send these 18,471 emails.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and students?

Art Markman
Obviously, I think a lot of things are a matter of personal taste. But I think this recognition that we have a go system that drives us to act, and then a fallible stop system that prevents us from doing things effectively, because we are not good at stopping something that that go system has engaged. And that when you want to be productive, your job in life is to reprogram that go system towards habits whose accumulated impact will create the contribution you want.

To me, understanding that and living your life knowing that the best way to be effective is to reprogram that go system, is something that I think when people internalize, that changes the way that they go about their work.

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

Art Markman
So, you can find me pretty easily on social media. I love to have people finding the stuff that I write. I try to give away as much as I can. So, I write for Psychology Today, for Fast Company, for Harvard Business Review. I certainly would love for people to pick up my books. But you can find out all of the stuff that I’m writing on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have an author page on Facebook. I have a website smartthinkingbook.com that has information about all of my books, and I also post a few blog entries and things up there. So, all of those are places where people can find me.

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

Art Markman
Yeah, I think that the most important thing that you can do is to recognize that it is always about what you’re going to learn next, that no one is completely ready for the job that they have. And as I said to my oldest son when he was first going out on the job market, I said, “If you’re completely prepared for the job you applied for, you aimed too low.”

And so, we should think about our work lives as a constant opportunity for growth and challenge. And that when you do that, when you look for the next thing that you can learn, then it continues to open up new worlds and new possibilities. Because, as I say at the very end of the book, bumper sticker wisdom tells us that no one on their deathbed says that they wish that they’d spent another day at the office.

But, honestly, the people I know who look back on their careers with fondness are the ones who feel like they’ve really accomplished something over the course of their years, and they are justifiably proud of the work that they did.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you for that. That’s nice. Nice thought. Nice final words. Art, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you and the book “Bring Your Brain to Work” lots of luck and keep on doing the good stuff.

Art Markman
Well, thanks, Pete. It’s a pleasure talking with you today.