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820: How to Embrace Tensions for Better Decision-Making with Marianne Lewis

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Marianne Lewis shows how to turn tensions into opportunities for growth.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why to never ask yourself “Should I…?” 
  2. How to find and benefit from the yin and yang of everything
  3. The three steps for better decision-making 

About Marianne

Marianne W. Lewis is dean and professor of management at the Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati. She previously served as dean of Cass (recently renamed Bayes) Business School at City, University of London, and as a Fulbright scholar. A thought leader in organizational paradoxes, she explores tensions and competing demands surrounding leadership and innovation.

Lewis has been recognized among the world’s most-cited researchers in her field (Web of Science) and received the Paper of the Year award (2000) and Decade Award (2021) from the Academy of Management Review. She enjoys her three children and two grandchildren from her home base in Cincinnati. 

Resources Mentioned

Marianne Lewis Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Marianne, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Marianne Lewis
Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. We’re talking about Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. I like so much those words. So, can you kick us off with maybe a particularly surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about problem-solving from all of your research and teaching here?

Marianne Lewis
Pete, I’ve been studying tensions, competing demands, that tug-of-war we feel in our hearts, whether it’s dealing with strategy, dealing with our lives, dealing with teams, for about 25 years. And I think the big aha and the reason I spent two-plus decades doing this was early in my career when I realized that our default is to this either/or thinking, that we get into this challenge, and we say, “Geez, do I spend my energy on work or life? Do I think about my performing and hitting my current targets or do I need to step back and learn and look around?”

And in this either/or approach, we weigh the pros and cons of these two sides and we make a choice and we think we can move on. Sometimes that can work if these are really simplistic issues but most times, either/or thinking is really limiting. It’s, “Are we really limited to only two?” Or, worse, when you start to kind of play that out, you go down this rabbit hole of saying, “Well, wait a minute, if I put all my energy into hitting my current targets, that would be great. I would excel, I would have lots to show on my resume, I would’ve proven my worth. But then life could change around me and I wouldn’t be ready. I’d be flatfooted.”

“But if all I did was…” So, let’s go to the other one, “If I really focus on learning, and I’m in higher-ed and I love learning, but if that was all I did, would I really make an impact? Would I make sure I’m applying what I’m learning in process?” And so, you get into this, you get stuck because what you really need is you need both. And so, what my work originally kind of focused on and the aha was we’re limited in our thinking, in our default. The good news is there’s a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is good news. And so, if that is our default, I imagine it’d be quite possible that we’re doing it and we don’t even notice that we’re doing it. That’s what often happens with defaults.

Marianne Lewis
That it’s really automatic.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you maybe give us a few rapid-fire examples to shake us out of it a little bit? It’s like, “Here’s what I mean by both/and versus either/or, and just notice that there might be more to things than first meets the eye.”

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, I’ll give you a classic example. We talked to people who’ll say, “Boy, I’m not crazy about the work I’m doing right now. So, do I stay or do I go?” And you’re kind of seeing a little clash as you’re thinking about that. But, again, you don’t really have to decide black and white, “Do I stay or do I leave this job?” You could also say, the both/and approach is, “Well, what do I like about what I do? What do I not like about what I do? Are there ways that I could either, personally and/or with my supervisor, talk about I need more of this and less of this? And how do I have those kinds of conversations?”

Or, vice versa, if I say, “Boy, what I don’t have this in job is what I’m starting to realize is what I truly want in life.” Well, it’s not just then going. It’s getting much sharper about what you want. If not, you’ll be in this grass-is-always-greener. You’ll get there and go, “How did I get…? Wait, this isn’t it either.”
And it’s kind of a constant flipping.

So, to us, both/and is about really diving into both sides of the equation, and saying, “At its best, what does each side bring? And at its worst, if that was all I did, what’s the problem there?” Because it’s through that kind of thinking you realize, “Okay, I could get more creative here.” And now it’s not a stay or go. It’s, “Let’s really dig into what do I want in my work.”

So, I use that example, Pete, because I think we’ve had, in some ways, kind of a global existential crisis during the pandemic. We’ve got a lot of people thinking, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” and questioning, and sometimes questioning in two simplified a way of, “Do I just leave?” you know, the Great Resignation. And then you find, I mean, we’re seeing this already in research that the Great Resignation has a lot of people not any happier in their second one because they haven’t thought through that fully what they want and what they don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you, that’s powerful, Marianne. And I was just about to challenge a little bit in terms of, “Well, ultimately, aren’t you either staying or going?” I mean, you could, of course, optimize, and finetune, and change, and have some good conversations about how to improve where you are, although that’s sort of a subset, I would say, if we’re going to nitpick about definitions of staying. But I guess what you’re putting forward here is, just by framing it that way, you’re missing out.

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, I think framing, that’s what…Wendy Smith is my co-author in the book and long-time research colleague. We think framing is hugely important, and it starts with really both/and thinking, starts with changing the kinds of questions we ask. That classic either/or question starts with, typically, a word like “do,” “Do I…?” “Do I stay or go?” versus a more typical both/and question that starts with “how,” “How would I make the most of what I like and where I am? And what am I missing? And how would I find a new combination?” because there are lots of combinations possible.

And you’re right, it still could sound like stay or go, but let me give you a couple of examples because Wendy and I worked with a variety of people who have gone through this one. It could also decide, “Well, maybe what I’m going to do is I’m going to stay for now, and I’m going to build a three- to six-month plan so that leaving means a much better view of what do I really need. And how do I leave in a way that doesn’t leave my team in a lurch or feel like I’ve been disloyal?”

If you unpack that stay-or-go challenge, you find that there are lots of other challenges within it that are going to make us lean towards one side or the other, and we’re going to have to deal with those if we’re going to really make a decision that has some lasting power and some creativity to it, for that matter.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really powerful because I think we could really feel the urgency and the, well, tension associated with, “Oh, well, I need to reach a decision, and, ultimately, these are the only categories that we could fall into.” And, yet, by taking that pathway of either/or, we miss out on surfacing what’s really most important, what are some cool options beyond that, and then how do we get there.

So, I really like that notion of just check yourself if you’re asking a question “Do I…?” as opposed to “How…” that puts you down some different pathway. So, can you expand upon those in terms of what are some either/or-style questions or things to be on the lookout for and their both/and counterparts?

Marianne Lewis
Well, I’ll give you an interesting version of this. Sometimes people can ask, “Do I focus on the financial benefits of my job or the work that I’m doing, like grow the money, grow the profit, grow the margins, or do I focus on the social responsibility, my impact, how do I better the world?” Do you have a business school? I can’t stand that question because they should be synergistic and we’ve seen amazing leaders learn how to do both. But they changed that question to, “How can I grow my profits through social responsibility?”

That was a question posed by Paul Polman when he was turning around Unilever, and his goals were to double the profits while having their environmental footprint, and people said, “You’re crazy. That’s not how it works. The bigger you are the more damage you do.” And he said, “No, we touch two billion consumers a day at Unilever. We can’t afford that.”

And I actually just had an executive in my office who ran Gerber clothing, for children’s clothes, and he said, “Clothing is notorious for being unsustainable. We throw away billions of pounds, let alone tons of wasted clothing.” Unilever and Paul, who’s such a both/and thinker we study and write about him in the book, but this leader was talking about at Gerber, too, is you start to realize, actually, by being sustainable, you reduce wastes, you’re more efficient. By the way, that means you reduce costs which increases profit.

And, by being socially responsible, you have a whole host of customers who say, “I have choices,” and you will have customers say, “I’m going to choose, I would rather choose a firm that’s sustainable.” And, by the way, as we’ve seen from lots of these same firms, we actually have investors who will eventually, and this is happening increasingly, say, “I actually want to invest in more sustainable firms.”

And so, here are these questions of, “Do I focus on the financial and my social responsibilities?” and maybe not as quickly as we like, but it is becoming a moot point. The leaders of Toyota were saying this with quality and costs. In the ‘80s, they practically put the American auto manufacturers out of business because we were sitting there, going, “Oh, no, it doesn’t work that way. The higher the quality, the higher the costs.” And they said, “No, the higher the quality, the lower the rework, the more efficient,” right? And then you see Toyota and Honda take off.

I just gave you two strategic examples but we ask those similar types of questions in our lives, both in our work and our decisions about the work that we do in our own values. And I’d like us to open our minds a bit and reframe, as you said.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, when it comes to our minds, you’ve got an interesting term – the paradox mindset. What is that and how can it help us?

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, a paradox mindset. So, when we think about either/or, we think about tradeoffs. Picture, like, a scale, and you’re doing this weighing between the sides. When we think about a both/and thinking, we put those opposing decisions into a Yin-Yang, which is such a beautiful symbol of paradox. So, if you can picture the Yin-Yang, you have kind of a black-and-white sliver, and so you’ve got two sides to this. But there’s also this dynamic flow between them where you see that they actually define each other. It’s only together that you see this whole of the circle.

And if you can kind of picture the Yin-Yang in your mind, as you move higher into, say, the dark, there’s actually a pin prick of white. And the view is, as you get higher and higher into one side, you actually feel more pull in this ebb and flow into the other. This is night and day. It’s love and hate. It’s trust and distrust, self and other. I’m being more philosophical here, but those play into the way we think about challenges.

Why is a financial responsibility and social responsibility opposites on a scale versus Yin and Yang? And how could they work together more synergistically? So, that was a way of sharing. The reason we use the term paradox is to start to change our views from a tradeoff to this Yin-Yang mindset. And a paradox mindset means two things, we have two dimensions, and we’ve measured this now over thousands of people. It’s in multiple languages.

We started in three. We started in Chinese, Israeli, and then in the US, an American. I guess I did geography. This is where we did the study. But what we found is there are two dimensions. One is some people are more sensitized to see and feel tensions. Now, that could be because you’re in a particularly stressful conflict-laden time so there are a lot of tensions around you, and it can be you’re somebody like me who sees them in their sleep. I pick them out very quickly. And the more you practice paradox thinking, actually, the more sensitized you become regardless of your work.

So, there’s the, “How much do you experience and see tensions.” And then the other side is, “How much, when you see them, do you see tensions as just a problem to either ignore, work through, and move quickly? Or, do you see them as an opportunity that in that tension there is this creative friction and an opportunity to learn, innovate, grow?”

What we found is people who have this paradox mindset, they see tensions as opportunities, they think about them as this Yin-Yang, are much more likely, according to their supervisors, to be more productive and more creative, and, according to themselves, to be more happy, to be more satisfied. So, what we’re finding with the paradox mindset is, especially if you’re dealing with tensions, that ability to move into them, seeing opportunity, benefits for learning, and working toward a both/and, will pay off in really powerful ways for you as an individual and probably for your organization given those benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you give us several examples of individuals who, they saw some tensions and then they considered them with a both/and perspective, or paradox mindset, and cool things emerged as a result?

Marianne Lewis
Yeah, I’ll give you a few of some leaders that I’ve enjoyed studying over the years. Muhtar Kent is fascinating. He was the CEO and chairman of Coca-Cola, which is an interesting example because one of the tensions we see quite a bit is global versus local. And you could think about this also as kind of centralized/decentralized is another way to think about it. But Coca-Cola is actually the best-known image in the world, even better than Mickey Mouse. People just know the red can anywhere.

So, you have this huge global reach and scale. Scale provides you incredible opportunities, really well-coordinated impact, reach, etc., and you’re talking about Coca-Cola. You’re talking about something you drink, taste, as differentiated locally as imaginable. And so, Coca-Cola, and particularly Muhtar, would always say, “Look, we have to be the best-known global brand, and leverage that scale, and have this tremendous value appreciation tapping into those local differences as possible. We have to be both if we are truly going to be a global brand.”

And if you go to the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, you will see they have lots of variations based on local differentiation of taste. So, even as a global brand, it also has local differences. Even that it has a global reach and scale of like the Walmarts and Amazons of the world, they also are really good at tapping into very local supply chains, retailers, because, depending on where you’re going, sometimes big boxes, let alone Amazon, they’re not there. So, that’s just a different kind of view of the global/local.

Another one I would share is a fun discussion I’ve had recently with Rocketbook. We wrote about it in Fast Company. But Rocketbook is dealing, like everybody else, with hybrid work, what do you do home versus away. And one of the reasons we started working on this with Fast Company, and we ended up going at Rocketbook, is that people might think that hybrid work is a win-win, but most often, it’s actually experienced as a lose-lose because you’ve lost the boundaries between work and home.

So, you go into work and you’re sitting on Zoom calls. That doesn’t exactly feel like a value to me. You’ve just on the commute and everything else. Or, you’re at home and you still got all of life and home, family, other things distracting and challenge around you, and you’re feeling like you’re really not at your best in either location.

So, talking with Jake and Joe, the co-founders of Rocketbook, Rocketbook does sustainable notebooks. They do reusable notebooks. It’s a really cool technology. I highly recommend it. They said, “Pre-pandemic, we were already hybrid.” And I said, “Well, why?” And they said, “Because we believe in the power of work-at-home, or work-non-office, as deep work, that work that you really need solitude, focus.” And they have a lot of designers, engineers, and they said, “We want them to have that opportunity to be at their best selves.”

And, on the other hand, we knew, and we still believe this wholly, that the best creativity will always happen around a table with a whiteboard, with all these, and that takes in the office. And so, because they had already believed in the power of hybrid work, they came out of COVID really strong because they kind of perfected why you come in, when you come in, how you come in, and when you would work at home.

And they learned this creative way to be both/and, to think about those synergies in ways that made people keep the differences, value separation, they used lots of cool ways to use technologies that we all use, like Outlook and other platforms, to respect people’s deep-work time and, while they’re at home, also have times that you say, “Now, I’m going grocery shopping.” They really got creative in how they use both.

But I think that’s a very different way than a lot of firms saying, “Is it three days or two days?” There’s a very basic approach to hybrid that isn’t how are you deeply making the most of the time together and the time apart. So, I would note those two because I love both options, and I think we’ve lived them in our lives, not just at an organization level.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, the Rocketbook parameters then, for whether you work from home or from the office on a given day, is not just blanket two days, three days, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, but rather, “What is the nature of what you’re working on, and then, please, freely come into the office so we can do that better, or stay at home so you can do that better?”

Marianne Lewis
Yeah. And the other way I would say that, Pete, is we talk about in the book one of the key assumptions to moving to the both/and mindset is moving from thinking about your resources as scarce to abundant, and that an abundant mindset matters. And so, it was interesting talking to the folks at Rocketbook because time is a classic resource.

And so, you could say, “Well, yeah, but there are only 24 hours in the day, or eight hours in a workday,” whatever. And what Jake and Joe would say is, “Yeah, but every hour isn’t created equally.” Like, I’m a morning person, I like it super early, okay, then I’m going to work from 5:00 till 10:00. It’s going to be my deep-work time. I don’t want to be bothered from 5:00 till 10:00. But I want you to know I’m on it. And, by the way, I’m then going to take a break because I’m going to be really low, and then I’m going to come in for a few hours.

And so, they figured out ways to make that, and then, at the same time, they have people who are super late-night owls and they’ll even have office times, like at 11:00 o’clock. But my point with the abundance mindset is it’s not that they’re using more time or less time. They’re using time better, and they’re using it in a way, to your point about, yes, it’s the home versus work, but it’s also time that they’re playing with, to say, “What is the kind of work you’re trying to do? When are you at your best?” versus, “When do we get people together, whether it’s on Zoom or in the office?”

It’s a more nuanced approach than the, “Is it three days or two days? And, by the way, is it 8:00 to 5:00?” And I like that. I think that really is empowering to people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, tell me, Marianne, anything else you want to make sure to mention, any top do’s or don’ts about both/and thinking or embracing creative tensions we should cover before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Marianne Lewis
I think I would just, as a key takeaway, and, obviously you can do dive deeper in the book, we talk about kind of three key steps. You need to change the question you ask from this either/or to an “and,” “How do I accommodate my opposing, my competing demands?” The second piece is, instead of just weighing the pros and cons, and we say, “You need to separate and connect. You need to pull apart that Yin-Yang, think about really what you value on both sides, and then think about how you’re going to hold it together with a higher vision and some key guides.”

And then the third piece is you start to change the way you think about your solutions. Because, again, with either/or, the end result is a single choice. But with a paradox, when you’re dealing with these kinds of tensions, they don’t really go away. I might decide today between work and home, but I’ll have to decide again tomorrow, or I may have to decide between, “Am I really going to focus on current targets or learning for the future? But I’ll have to make that decision again.”

So, we think about one of the most kind of key decision-making modes that we see of people who are really good at both/and thinking, is think about it as tight-rope walking. You’re continuing to move forward but you’re making these kinds of micro decisions on an ongoing basis between challenges, between work or home, between social and financial, between learning and performing, between self and others, where your focus is.

But you don’t let yourself lean so far to one side that you fall because that’s really hard to get back up, and it takes some intention to know that you are holding them together. You need both elements and you’re moving forward. So, I do think that’s key to think about kind of three steps, in some ways.

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

Marianne Lewis
A quote that Wendy and I often return to was by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues at Stanford, they’re psychologists. And the quote is, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is the way we think about the problem.” And, to me, that’s key to this decision-making. It’s actually the way we thought about the problem has limited our solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Marianne Lewis
I think my favorite study was by Rothenberg. It was in 1979, I think, and Rothenberg was studying creative geniuses. He was studying Picasso, Mozart, Einstein, Virginia Woolf, and he was reading all their journals and different things. And what he’s finding was that the genius of these creative individuals came from valuing tensions, seeing them as opportunities; Picasso seeing light and dark; Einstein seeing things in movement and in rest; Virginia Woolf, it was life and death; Mozart was harmony and discord. He called it Janusian Thinking.

That was Rothenberg’s kind of finding. Janus was this two-faced god, looking in two directions simultaneously. But his point was that these creative geniuses found real value in the tensions. They sought conflicts for their greatest works, and I think that is a huge takeaway of instead of viewing these as problems, as in things that we want to avoid, work through as fast as possible, we should seek them out because they have potential, fodder, fuel, for really great creative opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Marianne Lewis
I think my favorite book is probably The Tao of Physics by Frank Capra. This is just a fascinating book. It goes back to Einstein. I really think Einstein and all the individuals that developed quantum physics were in this paradox mindset in a way that was really cool. But The Tao of Physics basically talked about how they turn to Taoism and insights from the Yin-Yang and ancient philosophy because they were literally thinking, “I’m going to go crazy because I don’t understand how something can be a particle and a wave. Which one is it? How can something be in motion or at rest?”

It was just one of those books. I kind of like a book that makes my head hurt sometimes because it’s really straining, and, at the same time, it’s kind of beautiful. And you realize, “Well, yeah, it was rocket science, it was quantum physics.” They went through some very simple powerful philosophy to get through it, keep themselves sane, but also get to a solution that was really remarkable with quantum physics.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Marianne Lewis
Probably my favorite tool is the Polarity Map by Barry Johnson. It’s this really cool, simple approach to when you have a tension, a conflict, competing demands. You put it on this two-by-two grid. And on the one side, you put the highs and lows of that side, like, say, “I love a leadership. I’m a leader and I love to be innovative but I also like to be really disciplined.” Well, at your best, what does your innovative self look like? At its worst, if that’s all you did, like you’re really risky. And then, at the same time, you do, “At my disciplined best, and my disciplined worst, am I a real pain?”

And the point of Barry’s Polarity Map is, “How do you stay in the top two quadrants? How do you let the tight-rope walking? You’re probably not disciplined and innovative at the same time but you’re iterating between the two. And how do you avoid going down into the depths of the negative?” But I love the Polarity Map. It’s just a great tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Marianne Lewis
I’m not always good at this but I think meditation is a really powerful habit because I think our minds can get in our way, and meditation is just a powerful practice to just kind of clear out the mess and have some calm so that we might not jump so automatically to a place that isn’t always in our best interest, and listen to the voices that might be taking us the wrong direction in our heads.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Marianne Lewis
I think a key nugget is probably just the power of a paradox mindset, to say, at our best, let’s not get stuck in these vicious cycles of either/or thinking, which we think of as rabbit holes, wrecking balls, interfere, and really look for more creative lasting solutions. And that’s what I’m hoping our work is doing, taking it out of a more academic realm and thinking more about people’s lives and how do you deal with the tensions because they are human. That is what the world we live in, and it’s natural. But I also think tensions are beneficial.

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

Marianne Lewis
I’d point them to BothAndThinking.net. They can find out more about the work we’ve done in media, more about the book, other places to hear and see us, but, also, there are lots of places you can buy it, and so we just try to put it at one-stop-shop over there.

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

Marianne Lewis
Boy, I think this is a challenging time. I think a lot of people are stepping back and kind of saying, “What do I want?” I hope people use both/and thinking to make those decisions because I know we can feel we want impact. We want meaning. We also want flexibility and finances. We want a lot of things from our jobs that can feel like they’re pulling in us in opposite directions. I think this is the time to be more creative and think differently about what we really want and need out of our jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you, Marianne. I wish you much luck and cool results from both/and thinking.

Marianne Lewis
Thank you. I wish you all the best, Pete. Thank you for this podcast.

817: How to Navigate Complexity and Win with Jennifer Garvey Berger

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Jennifer Garvey Berger shares how we can all tap into our natural capabilities to overcome the challenges of complexity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How uncertainty affects your nervous system
  2. The secret to boosting your nervous system
  3. How laughter helps you be more awesome 

About Jennifer

Jennifer Garvey Berger is Chief Cultivating Officer and Founder of Cultivating Leadership, a consultancy that serves executives and executive teams in the private, non-profit, and government sectors. Her clients include Google, Microsoft, Novartis, Wikipedia, and Oxfam International. She is the author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World. 

Resources Mentioned

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Jennifer Garvey Berger Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jennifer, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s great to have you and I appreciate you being up and with us in France. It’s a bit of a different time zone situation. And I understand you’ve lived in New Zealand, England, and France. I’m curious if you’ve picked up any wisdom having lived in different places around the world that us, Yankees, who have not lived outside the US might appreciate.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
You know, we moved to New Zealand in 2006, and one of the first things I noticed is that when you move from a country like the US, where I was born and grew up, to a tiny country in the corner of the world, if you can imagine a world having a corner, New Zealand would be in it, it was just amazing how much New Zealanders were engaged with the whole world because New Zealand itself was a little bit too small to be just engaged with New Zealand. And I found that curiosity about the whole world is very interesting in such a small country so far from everybody else. It taught me to be a little bit more curious, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And I’ve been surprised at how, when I talk to people from other countries, they have a knowledge and interest in some of the happenings in sort of in the United States politics, it’s like, “Boy, I don’t think I can name your president or king or prime minister. I don’t think I even know,” shamefully, “what head of state title that you use over there. Excuse me.” And so, yeah, I do feel a little bit sheepish or embarrassed at how there does seem to be an awareness and engagement in a broader circle than just a narrow view of that country itself.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
It was amazing. I used to get into taxicabs and say where I wanted to go, and they would pick my accent, and then they would start asking me detailed questions about American politics. And I’d be like, “Wow, I don’t know the answer to that question. I haven’t even had that question myself. That’s amazing.” That’s amazing. So, yes, the kind of open curiosity about how the rest of the world works is, I think, it’s easier to attain when you’re not the big guy.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense. Well, let’s talk about attaining some complexity genius-ness. Your book is called Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead. That sounds like a handy thing to have. But before we get into the depths, could you first share, precisely what do you mean by complexity?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, so complexity is, for many of us, it’s what makes our lives so tiring right now. Complexity is that which has so many intersecting parts, so many interactions from so many places that you can’t figure out what’s going to happen next, no one person can control anything, and the outcomes that come out of it are, they call them, emergent. They can’t be predicted and they are a feature of all of those intersecting lines and relationships and conversations, and all those sorts of things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, I think a lot of larger organizations seem to have that going for them, or against them, as the case may be in terms of intersecting departments, and responsibilities, and stakeholders, and decision matrices, or processes, and things to be followed. It certainly can be overwhelming, so becoming a genius in this domain sounds very handy.

Could you kick us off by sharing a particularly surprising, or counterintuitive, or extra fascinating discovery you’ve made about this stuff while researching the topic and working with folks in this zone?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The first idea that I found amazing was that we do have the genius for it. The book I wrote before this one is called Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, and that book, I researched all the ways we stink at complexity, to be honest, the way our bodies and our brains work against our ability to handle complexity well.

And you talk about the complexity of an office. There’s also the complexity of COVID, there’s the complexity of relationships, there’s the complexity of living in a city right now. Life is really uncertain, unpredictable, and it has lots of these intersecting pieces. And my last book was to try and figure out how are we not good at that. Like, what are the patterns of our not-goodness?

And so, the first question I took on when we were researching this book is “Are there ways we’re really good at this? Are there ways we actually do have a genius for it?” So, the first aha I had was, “Wow, we have so much in us that’s great at handling complexity.” We have so many natural human attributes that when we rely on them, when we lean into them, we can handle complexity with grace and style and creativity and awesomeness.

And the kicker is, it turns out, when we are in a complex situation, our body understands that as a threat and all the awesomeness goes away. So, we’re great at handling complexity until it gets complex, and then we’re not good at it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the body, is that sort of like a stress response-type situation going on there, cortisol, etc.?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The classic stress response.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And just to triple check that we’re on the same page, we and us in this context just means humanity, human beings?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s what I mean.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
All of us. As far as we can tell from the research, this is like a natural thing. My guess is it’s different across populations, but in the research that I came to, uncertainty is actually metabolized by the body as threat. And your body doesn’t know whether you’re feeling uncertain about what the stock market is going to do, or whether you feel uncertain about whether something is going to jump out and eat you. And so, what your body does is it prepares you to be narrowed, to be self-protective, and to run like crazy. None of these things are that useful in complexity.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so could you give us an example of how, there’s some complexity that shows up, and then we have a stress response that is suboptimal that professionals could relate to?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think we kind of know this when we walk into a meeting and we think we know exactly what the agenda is and what our role is in it, and, suddenly, there are different people in the room or on the teams or Zoom, or whatever, than we expected, and it looks like our job is going to be different than we thought it was going to be in that meeting, and we don’t know what it is.

I’m guessing everybody has some experience of sweaty palms, and shallow breath, and wide eyes trying to figure out, “What am I supposed to do here? How am I supposed to show up here?” And that kind of narrow-minded focus that might actually take us out of the meeting, it might be like people are talking and we hear, “Waah, waah, waah” in the background. We don’t even know what’s going on particularly because we are so…what our body is saying is run. That’s our body’s main message.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Well, Jennifer, I’m encouraged by what you say there with regard to the stress response is natural for all of us when there’s a switcheroo going on, because I’m thinking about the CliftonStrengths assessment, puts adaptability for me, personally, as one of my very bottommost strengths. They don’t use the word weaknesses but I know, like bottommost strengths is adaptability.

And so, when I encounter a switcheroo, I do feel something like, “Huh? What? What’s going on? I thought we were doing this. Well, this is the time that we establish for that, but, apparently, we’re not doing that.” And so, I can get there, I can calm down. I just merely need a moment to process, reassess, like, “Okay, before we were going to do this. However, the contexts have shifted in this way, and now we’re doing that. Okay, kind reorienting, reprogramming, repositioning. All right. So, now, let’s talk about this new thing.”

And sometimes it feels like other people are just like rolling with it, and I’m a little late to the party. But it sounds reassuring that everybody has some kind of a feeling of this when there’s a shift-up going on.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Oh, I think so. I think so. And whatever the size shift is that changes our reactions, there’s research that shows that people are generally more satisfied with their life conditions if they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness than if they’re diagnosed with something that may or may not be terminal. This is like mindblowing for me.

So, that if you know that your illness is terminal, it calms you down, “I know what’s going to happen next. I can predict this thing. I know where we’re going.” But if you don’t know, your nervous system is activated, “I don’t know where this is going. Is it going to be diagnosed as terminal? What’s going to happen to me?” Living in that uncertainty is harder than even living in the ultimate certainty of your own demise.

For me, this is like an example of the ways uncertainty is really not that friendly to our bodies. We just do not like this thing unless we go to a movie, in which case, then we like it. We like it in the movies. We don’t like it in our real lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s just really striking and I’m chewing on that right now. And I guess I’m thinking, if that’s true, then it seems the natural implication to me is maybe our best strategy is to assume that it is a terminal illness, and then you have that certainty for now, and then maybe you’ll, I don’t know, have a second…well, sometimes, when people discover this tragic news, they really do live life to the full, sometimes, and that could be inspiring.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s absolutely true.

Pete Mockaitis
And then you may have a pleasant surprise, “Actually, you’re going to live longer.” It’s like, “Oh, cool.” So, anyway, I might be way oversimplifying things here, Jennifer, but that’s what sort of what I’m thinking. It’s like, if that’s how we work, maybe we’re better off just assuming the worst and being delightfully surprised if our assumptions are incorrect. Is that one useful strategy?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I’m guessing, in some situations that is a useful strategy, but we’ve all been thrown by COVID, and we all know that our travel plans for a business trip or a holiday might be upended at the last minute. We can’t plan for the worst all the time, and not make plans or else we wouldn’t go anywhere. And so, we do sometimes have to throw ourselves into the game, and, in the game, we know that there are things we’re going to be able to predict, and then there’s just a ton we’re not going to be able to predict.

And getting our bodies able to handle that and you did it just a minute ago when you were talking about the great switch-up, and you became frazzled for a moment, and then you realized, I mean, you were fake-frazzled, but you realized you were fake-frazzled, and you breathed and you noticed and you calmed yourself down.

And this is the first thing for us to do is to notice, “Oh, I feel frazzled now. How do I return to my body? How do I return to my breath?” because it turns out, we can, in fact, switch on the part of the nervous system that is helpful for us in complexity and that it brings online all the things we want. We can actually switch it on on purpose.

It switches off when we face into complexity, but there are all these moves we can make, short-term and longer-term moves that mean we get to be the boss of our nervous system, to a certain extent. And that is amazing. To be able to hack into this thing that humans have just been able to just run in the background, now we need to hack into it, and there are ways to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing, and I’m just imagining the nervous system saying, “You’re not the boss of me.” You’re saying, “Yes, I am.” So, lay it on us, how do we become the boss of our nervous system?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, the first thing is we need to notice it. I think everything starts with noticing, which is why having this conversation is great because before I did the research for this book, I’m not sure how much I noticed my nervous system, to be honest. I think it just ran, right? And, now, after having done the research that we did and really thinking about it, there are all kinds of ways we can notice.

We can notice our breathing, we can notice our heart rate, we can notice the way we’re sitting or standing or moving, how fast we’re talking. We can notice all these things, and you’ll have some constellation of things that can alert you all. My sympathetic nervous system, my stress bone, my fight or flight often people call it, nervous system is running the show right now. It’s not a help in this situation. I don’t need to fight or flee from anybody right now. It’s a meeting. I need to be here.

And once we notice that we’re in this place, the next thing we can do is change our breathing, just as you did in your example. Just like your mama told you, to take three deep breaths before going any further. Actually, your mama was right, because deep breaths that push out the diaphragm, and that have a slower exhale, those actually activate this complexity-friendly nervous system. They switch our nervous systems. We have the switch at hand all the time.

And I think we could use that switch all the time. We could use it 80 times a day. And most of the folks I work with need to be reminded that they have this thing right with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when it comes to deep breathing, any pro tips, do’s or don’ts to make that work for you? This has come up before, but I’ve got the Breathwork app in my phone. I think it’s fun and there are so many varieties in terms of, “And for these many times, for that, through the nose, through the mouth, through alternating nostrils.” Like, “Oh, okay, that’s fancy.” So, any pro tips on is there a deep-breathing approach that maximally helps us here?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
As far as I can tell, the deep breathing approach that helps you the most is the one you can learn to use in your meeting, where alternating nostril breathing is harder when the accounting team is looking at you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the people is like, “What are you doing over there?”

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, something that you can remember. I’ve talked to many people about this. Sometimes people find that counting your breath is super helpful, and other people find, “When I count my breath, it makes me stress out.” You do you and figure out what’s the good thing. The thing that we know helps the nervous system.

Slower exhales than inhales and your diaphragm moving. Both of those things are important. If you can tick those two boxes, all the others, yes, they’re incredibly varied states that you can get into with your breath. I’m just trying to get us prepared to handle complexity, and those two boxes will do.

Pete Mockaitis
So, slower exhales than inhales means it might be like inhaling for a count of four-ish, and exhaling for a count of eight-ish, for example.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Exactly. That’s exactly right. It turns out that when you inhale, an inhale activates your fight or flight nervous system, and an exhale activates your complexity-friendly nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. And so, if you can activate one more than the other, that’s a win.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then how much how long would we need to do this breathing? Can I see results in 10 seconds? Or, is three minutes a super sweet spot? Or, what do you recommend?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think you can start to see results in three breaths.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think it’s best.

Pete Mockaitis
So, three breaths will do something. And would 30 breaths do more?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Again, if you have time and space to drop into some meditative state, maybe. The thing I like about breath work is it’s so fast. And so, dropping into a meditative state is always good. If you can do it, that’s excellent. Again, hard to do in a meeting without people thinking you’re odd or not present or whatever. Unless you all do it together, then that’s fun. But if you’re just trying to manage your own nervous system, watching your breath is helpful.

By the way, if you have a team of people and everybody in the meeting is agitated, having your breath be a little bit audible, slowing down your breath, and having it be audible just for one or two breaths will actually make others in the meeting also slow their breathing, and you’ll hear other people also kind of sigh. And then you are not just deactivating your stress response. You’re beginning to deactivate the stress responses of the people around you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I’m curious if you have any nifty research or numbers which suggests, “Hey, this is just how much smarter you’re going to be simply by taking three-ish breaths.”

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I don’t have any research about breath. There’s really good research about sleep, which is another genius that’s really good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about sleep.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Let’s talk about sleep. I happen to know you recently had a bay.

Pete Mockaitis
I sure did.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
And so, my guess is you know a lot more about sleep deprivation than most humans right now from the experiment you’re running in your own life. But sleep is I always have to figure out how to phrase this because it’s the least helpful thing in the world for people who aren’t getting enough sleep to find out how stress-inducing it is for them to need to get more sleep.

So, I want to say we could all do just a little bit better. By and large, the modern life we live interrupts our sleep in a way that’s not very helpful. And if we begin to work on it a little bit more and a little bit more, then we can actually take sleep as a piece of our job. How to be awesome at your job? You prioritize sleep. It turns out that the sleep you get early in the night helps you code the things that you did yesterday into your long-term memory and transfers them to long-term memory. That’s helpful.

The sleep you get later in the night, like the early morning sleep, that helps you code people’s faces as less threatening. So, if you cut off the sleep in the early part of the night and the early part of the morning, you go to bed late and you wake up early, then you’re going to go to bed not remembering quite what happened yesterday, and also thinking everybody’s out to get you, which these are not helpful. These are not helpful ways of connecting with your world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, sleep, one key thing is to just get in bed, turn off the lights, at a reasonable hour. Do the math associated with when you got to wake up and then when you got to go to bed. Any other pro tips on sleeping that is novel for folks?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think, for me, the most novel thing is, and it sounds boring, I know it sounds boring, is that we have to think about our sleep during the day. We have to actually plan our night sleep the way we would plan our workout, or our dinner, or whatever else we do that’s good for us. And I believe that sleep is a part of our job.

And I used to treat it as like sleep was the inconvenient thing that happened when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. And I did it until I could stand to wake up. Like, this was how I treated sleep. And now I understand that treating sleep that way, as if it’s kind of an annoyance, really reduced my commitment to creating the conditions in my life to get good sleep.

And now, I prioritize, I really prioritize, “What does it mean for what hours I’ll take phone calls? What does it mean for what hours I’ll have caffeine? What does it mean for what hours I’ll have alcohol?” I really prioritize sleep because I understand that it creates the conditions for my nervous system to be smooth and happy, as well as there’s awful lot of other stuff it does, but that’s what I lean into.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you said you have some hot numbers associated with just how much dumber sleep deprivation is making us.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Numbers are not exactly my thing. I can point you in the direction of numbers. I’m good with metaphors. If you’re looking at my StrengthsFinder, you would find me with in the strengths in the metaphors, and the numbers would be my lower strengths, or weaknesses we might even say.

The thing that they attached it to that really makes sense to me is alcohol. Every hour you don’t sleep is the equivalent of a drink or two, depending on your stature, a drink or two, and that means that if you lose three hours of sleep at a night, you’re walking around drunk, basically. You have as much of a chance as getting into a car accident as somebody who’s been drinking. You have as much of a chance as doing or saying something you’ll regret later as somebody who’s been drinking. That’s the cognitive equivalent of alcohol.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there’s…

Jennifer Garvey Berger
But less fun.

Pete Mockaitis
But less fun. Okay. And then how about the moving?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The moving really matters. We know that our bodies were meant to move, and we spend most of our time moving our mouths and maybe our fingers on the keyboard. But actually, when we get this burst of stress hormones in our bodies, really helps to move them off. They exist in order to be run off. And unless we do something, we don’t have to work out 30 minutes a day to get our nervous system in line.

There are these ideas about, like, micro bursts of, literally, ten seconds of exercise. They’re studying amounts of exercise as small as ten seconds, and getting breathless for ten seconds running up the stairs instead of walking up the stairs, for example, changes your nervous system.

Pete Mockaitis
In a good way.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
In a great way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m thinking, if I’m doing a sprint, if we’re talking about stress, that seems like that would make my body stress systems more stressed, like, “Whoa, this is intense,” but that’s a positive?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
It turns out you’re exactly right. During the sprint, your body experiences stress. After the sprint, your body experiences release from stress. So, if you’re having a heavy day, it’s a bad meeting, and then you have to get to the next bad meeting, and you can run up your stairs in between them, yeah, you’ll be stressed for those ten seconds that you’re running up the stairs. But, actually, the rebound, they call it the parasympathetic rebound, the rebound after that is super beneficial and it lasts a while.

So, this is another thing to do even if you’re just clicking at home from one Zoom line into a team’s meeting, if you run down the stairs and get yourself a cup of tea, and run back to your office, you’ll be in better shape for your next meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Hopefully, if the tea is hot, you have a lid for your mug or beverage holster of choice.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Good plan. Maybe just run in one direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Just really visualizing that scene.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
This is probably a good idea. Yeah, that’s a pro tip.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when do I get that rebound? Is it immediately or as soon as I catch my breath again? Like, when can I start reaping what I have sown?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think it’s right away, yeah. As soon as you start to breathe normally, your body is like, “Oh, I feel refreshed. I feel clean.” And sometimes, I just have people stand up at their desk and kind of move their bodies. There’s some research that moving your hand across the midline of your body changes your brain functioning. So, if you can kind of stand up and swing your arms around, it actually…this possibility exists that makes your brain more flexible. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
It seems like this is something a clown does in performing for children.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
And just imagine how stressful that job is.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the takeaway, Jennifer. How clowns get through their workday, you’ll learn that at Awesome at Your Job. Okay. Well, we’re doing some laughing, that’s also in your list. Tell us about that.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Laughing is great for our bodies, and it’s also great for our communities. The thing that surprised me in my research about laughing, I thought, maybe you think, we laugh at something that’s funny. We think that it’s the funny thing out there that causes laughter in here. But actually, it turns out that laughter isn’t that much about what’s funny out there. Laughter is a social cuing more than it is about our response to laughter.

We all actually know this because we’ve all watched something that we thought was hilarious, and then we showed that hilarious thing to somebody who’s like, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever see in our lives.” And when we showed it to them, it wasn’t funny anymore, you’re like, “Oh, this is embarrassing that I’m showing you this right now.”

So, everybody who’s had that experience understands that laughter is more about the relationships than it is about the actual funny thing. And so, it turns out that our willingness to laugh together, it’s really important to things like team cohesion, the ability of teams to be creative together, the ability of people to feel psychologically safe together. All these things that we want, laughter opens up a door to that.

And as I read across the research, the kind of pro tip here is not that you have to be funnier, but it’s that you have to just be more frequent a laugher, more gracious with your giving of laughter. And if you think of your laughter as a gift that makes social situations easier, suddenly, it becomes easier to laugh. People laugh more around you. They feel more comfortable around you.

My co-author, Carolyn Coughlin, who’s my friend and colleague, as well as the co-author of this book, she laughs so easily, more easily than just about anybody I’ve ever known. And when people describe her, they say, “Carolyn is hilarious.” I’ve been friend with Carolyn for 20 years, she’s not hilarious.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, on the record, disagree.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
She just laughs a lot. On the record. She doesn’t very often say things that are funny, but she participates in laughing so much that everybody gets funnier when Carolyn is around. She makes you feel funnier, and she makes you feel connected to her. It’s not being funny; it’s being generous with your laughter.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, and it’s true. When I’m saying things that are even mildly amusing, and the person I’m talking to is laughing, I feel good, I like them more.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s it. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
And all sorts of good things are flowing there. So, I’ve actually tried to get myself to laugh on command, and pulled up some random YouTube videos to help facilitate that. I didn’t have the best of luck pulling that off, Jennifer. So, how can I just get better at laughing if I’m not just getting exposed to more hilarious stimuli?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, laughing, because it’s a social phenomenon, there is this whole thing, which I’ve not found research on but I’m curious about, like, the things we only laugh at when we’re alone, like, whatever stupid cat videos, or whatever it might be. But, by and large, laughter is much easier to find in social situations, which is why early sitcoms have laugh tracks because they cue us, “Oh, it’s time for me to laugh now. That must be funny.”

And it’s actually, like many complex phenomena, it’s actually hearing other people laugh that signals to you that you find it funny, which is why we have so much more laughter in groups than we do by ourselves, and it’s why, in our hybrid world when we’re alone in a room and on mute and everybody else is on mute, we just laugh a whole lot less because we hear other people’s laughter less.

So, the thing that shaped it, for me, is to be able to notice myself, again, it starts with noticing, to be able to notice myself and to begin to turn, like the idea, I think sometimes I would have had kind of like the Mona Lisa smile, like, “Oh, you said something amusing,” I will kind of smile in your direction. And now that I understand what laughter actually is for my nervous system, for your nervous system, and for our relationship, now that I know, it’s like, “Oh, I can actually laugh.”

I think there’s a way I was actually holding myself back from laughing. And the thing I’m doing now is doing that less. And by doing that less, I laugh more. And when I laugh more, the other person laughs more, and it becomes just hilarious. It becomes much, much funnier a world. And we need that. Our nervous systems need that, our relationships need that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And you’ve got also the recommendation that we should do some more wondering.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, I love the word wonder because it let me get two geniuses in one, because wonder has both the idea of like awe. And there’s a lot of research on awe, on the sense of majesty, the sense of being connected to and part of something so much bigger than us. And we tend to find this sense of awe at the Grand Canyon, or when a choir is singing very beautifully at church, or wherever that might be for you.

And it turns out that we can go looking for that. I’ve sent hundreds of leaders out into their neighborhoods, their city neighborhoods, and said, “Go find something that fills you with awe,” and they’re like, “I’m not going to find something that fills me with awe.” And they come back, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, there’s so much there that fills me with awe.”

The intention of finding awe actually activates our capacity to find it. So, another thing you can do on your lunchbreak, if you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, you can wander around and see whether you can find something that strikes you as awesome. Grass is awesome. Trees are unbelievably awesome. The way that we’ve been able to build buildings, make neighborhoods, there’s a lot in the world that is filled with wonder.

And then the second thing wonder leads us to is curiosity. When we are wondering, then this question about, “How can we be curious about things?” Certainty is unhelpful in complexity because it’s a narrowing emotion. What we want is curiosity. And so, again, the question is, “How do we inject more curiosity into our lives? How do we shift some of the certainty, which just arises for all kinds of reasons? How do we shift that into some kind of wondering, some kind of musing, some kind of ‘I wonder if I could connect to some new idea, new possibility’?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, now, tell us, Jennifer, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The last thing I’ll say is the thing this book has convinced me is that we can create the conditions in our lives for complexity to be more manageable, more fun, and for us to stay connected to ourselves and to other people as we face into it. And I’ve found that knowing that I can create the conditions in my life for that has made every day better.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, I’m hoping that your listeners get to connect to that idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now can you tell us about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think the quote that has moved me the most is attributed to a whole bunch of different people, but I tend to attribute it to the Talbot, and it says, “We do not see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” And I find that idea magical.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
My favorite research is research on willpower and how we use willpower. And they took, scientists, diabolical scientists, gave people a really difficult task and then they had them walk down a hall to another room and past somebody who had a plate of hot chocolate chip cookies. And people were offered the hot chocolate chip cookies.

And those people who declined the chocolate chip cookies did less well on the cognitive test after declining the chocolate chip cookies. It turns out that the act of willpower actually uses up some of our cognitive possibility, and it’s depleting. And so, if you’re relying on willpower to make a change, it actually makes you stupider.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay, good to know. And a favorite book?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
My favorite book in this field is called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. I think it is laugh-out-loud funny. You’ll learn everything, everything about stress and the body, and have fun doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
What helps me be awesome at my job. I am very grateful for the microphone you sent me because that shows that you are awesome at your job, and you are going to help me be more awesome at my job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And a favorite habit?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I have all these sleep habits that are super important to me right now. Really, this idea of “Can I plan my day so that I can get more sleep? And can I shift to…?” So, here’s what I do. I shift to my favorite herbal tea at noon, so I shift away from coffee and, too, with caffeine. And I love this habit. It’s delicious.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Asking the question, “How can I be wrong?” People love this question. When you are feeling certain about something, and you are feeling closed, and you are just trying to hammer your way through, asking the question of yourself, “How can I be wrong here?” actually opens you up to new possibilities.

And even though this is the simplest question in the world, I swear, and I obviously didn’t come up with it, like I didn’t make it up, if you look me up, you’ll find this quote. People quote me about this all the time, “How can I be wrong about this?” When you’re feeling too certain and dug in, it’s like punching a skylight and letting new possibilities stream through the roof.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I have a great website CultivatingLeadership.com. And there’s just a ton of we believe in sharing everything we know with anybody who cares, so papers, articles, videos, podcasts like this one. My colleagues and I are constantly trying to figure out how to make the world better, and how to help us all be awesome at our jobs and at our lives. And you’ll see lots of good stuff there.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think the question is, “Can you bring the fullness of you to work? Can you find a way to cultivate the you that you feel the most proud of?” We are often at work trying to be the thing that we think other people want us to be. And the work I do is to help people find what’s the greatness that’s theirs, and then how do they create the conditions, like unleashing their complexity genius and other things that help them bring that greatness to the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jennifer, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in the midst of complexity.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Thank you so much. That’ll be great. I hope the complexity of you and your new growing family, I hope you get some sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

813: How to Make Time for the Things that Matter with Laura Vanderkam

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Laura Vanderkam reveals the secret to carving out time for what’s truly important.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The right way to do leisure time 
  2. The perfect day to do your planning
  3. How to make your schedule more flexible 

About Laura

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including The New Corner Office, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Fortune. She is the host of the podcast Before Breakfast and the co-host, with Sarah Hart-Unger, of the podcast Best of Both Worlds.   

Resources Mentioned

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Laura Vanderkam Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Laura, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you for having me back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so good to be chatting again, and I’m excited to dig into some of the wisdom of your latest, Tranquility by Tuesday. But, first, could you share with us maybe your most favorite-st discovery over the last year or two?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I’ve had a lot of discoveries in the last year or two. Among other things, we moved into a very old home, which is new to us but we did a lot of renovations to it. So, I’ve discovered new things about, like, slate shingles. Who knew that what anyone says to you? I’m sure I’m supposed to come up with some great job tip or productivity-type thing, and I’m about to say slate shingles. You know? There’s a whole artform to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is there any particular benefit to them being made of slate?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, it’s just that that’s how many used to be in very old houses. So, if you have a historic commission who is monitoring your renovation moves, then you need to replicate what is there. But it turns out that when you see a grey roof, that’s like a slate roof, often it’s a mix of different colors. So, it’s like a mix of purple and green and darker grey and lighter grey. It’s really kind of cool how they create the effect. But, anyway, I’ve learned a lot of other things but that was just on my mind because we’ve been doing a lot of renovations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s fun. Well, also fun is your book Tranquility by Tuesday. What’s the story here?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes, so with Tranquility by Tuesday, I realized, I’ve given a lot of time management advice over the years. Thousands of people, at this point, who sent me their schedules, and I’d weigh in. And, at some point, I realized I was giving a lot of the same advice, that many of the things I was telling people to do were very similar, even though people’s lives look very different.

So, I honed this down into nine of my favorite time management rules, and then decided to test them out. So, I had 150 people learn each of these nine rules, one week at a time. They would answer questions about how they planned to implement it in their lives. They would then answer questions a week later about how it went. I could measure them on various dimensions over the course of the project. And I’m happy to report that when people followed these nine time-management rules, they did, in fact, feel more satisfied with their time.

So, much of Tranquility by Tuesday is out-there observations, what they saw as they were trying to use these rules in their lives and the successes they had, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame these.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Laura, I love that so much. Getting real in terms of, okay, real people doing real stuff on a real program, measuring some things before and after, as opposed to simply pontificating, “So, this is what I think is cool about time management.”

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I read self-help for busy people, and I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, so there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so tell us, what were the dimensions you measured and what are some of the results? So, if listeners, I’m hoping, are already salivating, like, “Okay, Laura, what’s the size of this prize? And I’ll be all ears for the nine rules once I know just how much more awesome my life and job will be.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, I had this whole time-satisfaction scale which is 13 questions, and in order to turn a qualitative measurement, subjective measurements into some sort of data, I had these 13 statements, and people would say how much they disagreed or agreed with them. So, as an example, one statement might be, “I regularly have time just for me,” or, “Yesterday, I didn’t waste time on things that weren’t important to me,” “Generally, I get enough sleep to feel well-rested,” “Yesterday, I made progress on my professional goals,” things like that.

And you could strongly disagree, in which case you’d put one, or you could strongly agree, that was a seven, or various dimensions in between, sort of disagree, sort of agree, that sort of thing. And so, I could measure how people’s answers to these questions and several others change over the course of the nine weeks.

And on the full scale, so combining all 13 questions, people’s time satisfaction scores rose by 16% over the course of the nine weeks. So, 16% looking at 150 people, that’s a very statistically significant result. Maybe 16% doesn’t sound huge to some people, who are like, “No, no, I want to be twice as satisfied.” But it’s like if you’re getting 16% returns on anything in nine weeks, I think that’s pretty good.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And if it sticks, I’m thinking, “Well, if you’re 16% more satisfied with your time,” and your time is basically your life. Was it Benjamin Franklin? It’s not what your live is made up of days and hours and minutes and seconds. They all come together, and that’s a life. So, if people are 16% more satisfied, that’s like a sixth of them, life or death. You know what I’m saying?

Laura Vanderkam
We didn’t do that math. Well, I did check in with people a month later and three months later. And, in fact, the scores were still elevated, so they were maintaining their increased satisfaction with their time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, 16%, I think that’s a huge lift. Nine rules, that sounds pretty manageable and sensible. Lay it on us. What are these nine rules?

Laura Vanderkam
Well, I can go straight through them if you would like.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Vanderkam
The first one, rule one, give yourself a bedtime. Rule two, plan on Fridays. Rule three, move by 3:00 p.m. Rule four, three times a week is a habit. Rule five, create a backup slot. Rule six, one big adventure, one little adventure. Rule seven, take one night for you. Rule eight, batch the little things. And rule nine, effortful before effortless. Let me know which ones you want explanations for.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so give yourself a bedtime, I think I’m a believer. I’ve had a couple of sleep doctors, and so, yeah, that’s huge. I think do it, I’m on board. I think there’s a clear why. Are there any tips, tricks, tactics that make that easier or more effective?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, the reason I chose that as rule number one is because, yes, it is obvious, and also, it’s amazing how many people don’t do it, right? I saw a funny social media post today that somebody said, “I would do anything to get eight hours of sleep, except go to bed eight hours before I need to get up.” Right? And it’s so true.

People have all sorts of reasons of why they don’t get to bed on time. But it just a math problem. You need to figure out what time you wake up in the morning. Many adults, this is a set number, right? You have to get up for work, you have to get up for your family responsibilities. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of give there.

So, if that is set, the only variable that can move is the time you go to bed the night before. So, figure out how much sleep you need, count back from when you wake up, you’ve got your bedtime. Like, really, it’s just a math problem. But in order to make it stick a little bit better, there’s a couple things you can do.

One, most practically, set some sort of alarm for 30 to 45 minutes before your bedtime. So, you remind yourself to wind down. You need to brush your teeth, you need to lock your doors, so whatever it is you need to do so that you’re not remembering all those things right at your bedtime, and then having to push forward when you go to sleep by quite a bit.

But I think the key thing, one of the reasons people don’t go to bed on time is because that’s the time we have for ourselves, right? Like, that’s when your kids are in bed, or you’ve done your chores, or you’ve finished your work, you’re like, “Ah, now I can relax. Now, the world is mine. I can do whatever I want.” And who wants to cut that short and go to bed?

And so, what you need to do is make sure that you are having adequate leisure time, adequate me-time at other points in your life. And a lot of the Tranquility by Tuesday rules are aimed at doing just that, making sure that you have other cool stuff going on in your life, that you have other spots where you are doing things that you’re looking forward to so that you’re not getting to 11:00 p.m., or whatever your bedtime is, and thinking, “Oh, but I haven’t really had any time to relax. I haven’t had any time to do fun stuff. Let me just stay up a little bit later.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, I think that’s so dead-on. You’ve nailed it. And I’m thinking about when my wife had COVID, and I had full-time kid duty as well as trying to keep the business, at least, limping along a little bit, like, “Team, do everything. I’ll try to answer a few questions on email” kind of a situation. I remember it was jampacked.

And when those kids went to bed, it was like, “Man, I should go to bed now,” and yet I had, in that time of like zero me-time, I had the most overwhelming desire to play video games at 10:00 p.m. of my whole life, which was odd for me. I was like, “What is going on?” And that is what’s going on, Laura. Thank you for that.

Laura Vanderkam
You needed that time for yourself. You needed the me-time, I know. And so, and maybe that made sense and it could work for a week while she was recuperating, but if you find yourself doing that long term, well, it’s time to find some time for the video games at some other point in your life so that you feel like you get some fun.

That’s why we stay up late. We want our fun and we don’t want to be denied our fun, and the bedtime is what keeps us from doing it. We don’t do the bedtime, but future us will be so much happier if we do get to bed on time.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And what’s funny, when it comes to leisure, it’s almost like video games are almost like a junk food version of leisure, because I don’t really crave video games much, but then I was. It’s like I want to do the most, I don’t know, pointless, self-indulgent, low effort required of me, kind of enjoyable thing there is, as opposed to, “Let’s have a singing lesson right now.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, or let’s read Tolstoy. That was the other option.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. So, okay. All right. So, that’s exactly what’s going on. Give yourself a bedtime. And in order to pull that off, make sure you’re building in quality leisure time and me-time. Tell us about that. When it comes to making that happen, any parameters in terms of how we schedule that and select what the activity is?

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. So, there’s two of the rules that I think are really getting at this idea. One is rule number seven, which is to take one night for you. And this can be such a transformative rule for people who are in the busy years of having young kids at home, building a career. Take one night, or the equivalent number of hours on a weekend, whatever you want, to do something that is not work and is not caring for family members. It is enjoyable just for you.

And, ideally, you would make a commitment to something that meets at the same time, every week it gets you out of the house. Because it’s a commitment, you will do it. You will do it even if life is busy. You will do it even if you’re tired. You will do it even if somebody else would prefer you be doing something else.

And so, I’m talking about things like singing in a choir, playing in a softball league, volunteering somewhere regularly, joining a regular social group, bowling league, whatever it is, but something that you are going to go to every single week, that you genuinely enjoy. And when you have this in your life, it can honestly, it can be, like, the structure of the whole week is now around this. It’s something you wind up looking forward to the whole time.

And many people are like, “Well, I want to take one night for me but I’m going to do something flexible. I’m going to do something…like, I’ll just read, or I will take a bubble bath, or something.” But the problem with those is that they can be done whenever. And so, if your boss wants you to work late on Tuesday night, well, you’re not going to be like, “Well, I have an appointment with my bubble bath.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I have my bubble bath schedule, sorry.”

Laura Vanderkam
“The bubble bath is waiting for me.” Or, your kid wants you to drive them to the mall, or you’re tired, or you just seem too busy and too much work, like you won’t do it. Whereas, if you are playing on a softball team, they need a second baseman, like you’re going to show up. And so, because of the commitment, you do this active form of self-care and you wind up so much happier afterwards. So, that’s the first one.

The second one that really helps with this is rule number nine – effortful before effortless. And this is about leisure time. Even the busiest people have some leisure time in their life. The problem is a lot of it occurs in either short spurts, or it is unexpected, it is uncertain in duration, and it may come at low-energy time.

So, at night after the kids go to bed, or you’re waiting for a phone call to start, you could be on Twitter for two minutes or 20 minutes. You can be watching Netflix even if you haven’t planned ahead and don’t have a babysitter. Like, these screen times fits all these constraints incredibly well, and so it winds up consuming the bulk of our leisure time, which is fine. There is nothing wrong with screen time.

The problem is in the abstract, many people they would prefer other forms of leisure, things like reading or hobbies or connecting with friends, and you don’t remember a lot of your screen time, like it doesn’t register that you are getting free time, and so you don’t count it, it doesn’t become part of your narrative, and you don’t really feel rejuvenated afterwards.

So, you want to choose leisure that looks like leisure. Like, you can’t be doing a Lego set and not tell yourself it’s leisure. Whereas, if you are on social media, in your mind you’re like, “Well, I’m only one app away from my email, so, really, I’m working.” That’s the kind of thing that goes through our brains. So, effortful before effortless means when a spot of leisure appears, challenge yourself to do just a few minutes of these more effortful forms of fun before you switch over to the effortless.

So, you’re picking up your phone, read an e-book for two minutes before you open Facebook. Kids go to bed. Do a puzzle for 10 minutes before you start watching Netflix. And one of two things happens. Either you get so into your effortful fun, you just keep going, like you just keep reading the book, and that’s great. But even if you don’t, like at least you would’ve gotten to do both. You will be more aware that you had this leisure time, and that can help you feel like you have a lot more time for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great theme associated with being in your own narrative inside your head when stresses besiege you, and it feels like you don’t have the time, the energy, the resources, the emotional presence, the wherewithal, the oomph necessary to meet the demands of life and stuff, and then you have an extra level of layer of maybe resentment or irritability, like, “I don’t have any time for myself.” You have sort of an inoculation or a thread of hope to hold on to, which is like, “Well, you know what, I did six minutes of puzzle on Thursday, and I’m going to do it again this Thursday.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah, “I have some time, it may not be as much as I want.” But there’s a very big difference between none and not as much as I want, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Laura Vanderkam
None is just defeatist. Like, you can’t do anything with that. That’s when we get into those spiraling thoughts of martyrdom or despair or burnout, all those things. But if it’s “Not as much as I want,” that suggests great questions right there that inspires some problem-solving. Like, “Well, if it’s not as much as I want, how can I make it more? How can I make good choices within the limited leisure time I do have so that I’m doing things that are the most rejuvenating?”

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m also thinking about, when you talked about one night for you, it can be the night, it could also be, as you said, a certain committed hours recurring on weekends. There seems to be a lot of emotional juice associated with the ritual itself, even if it’s tiny, like, “I’m going to drink this amazing coffee and do the, I don’t know, New York Times Wordle, or the Chess.com puzzle of the day, or whatever,” I don’t know.

Like, that in and of itself seems like it we would have a lot of inoculating benefit as opposed to, I guess, what I’m trying to say is the vibe inside is more like, “Ahh, this is the thing I’m doing for me, and it’s rejuvenating,” tranquil, if you will, as opposed to, “Aargh, here’s my four minutes of Facebook. I’m binging on it while the getting is good.” Do you know what I’m saying in terms of like the mindset and the vibe?

Laura Vanderkam
It just feels more chosen, more mindful, more intentional, and that’s really what we’re always getting at here, like making time more intentional, because when it is, you’re more likely to spend it on things that are meaningful or enjoyable. Whereas, when time is not intentional, then you spend it on whatever is right in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis
And there could be, I think, a little bit of, especially for people who like being awesome at their jobs, a little bit of a guilt factor in terms of, “I’m stealing this time for social media or whatever my low-quality effortless recreation, leisure is when I should be doing other stuff,” as opposed to, “I know this is what we’ve intentionally scheduled, and this is the time for my puzzle, or whatever, and it is right and just and proper that I engage in it. And I’m winning by doing so.”

Laura Vanderkam
Yeah. Well, I think people would be so much better off scheduling conscious breaks during the day where they do things that are truly breaks. So, let’s say you’ve got an eight-hour day, you can take a 30, 40-minute lunch, two 15-minute other breaks, go for a walk on one of them. Take the other one to do a puzzle or something. Take your lunch break to call a friend, whatever it happens to be.

But those things are things that are truly leisure, like they are, in fact, leisure. Whereas, people spend all kinds of time on stuff online that they didn’t really mean to but it’s just that it wasn’t necessarily actively chosen and it doesn’t look as much like leisure. And so, we have this thing, this hang-up about putting a flag on the ground, “I’m claiming this time for leisure” because when we’re doing things on our friends, we can even claim, like, “Oh, I have no time because it still looks like it’s something else. Like, we might be being productive,” I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s hear a few of these other things. Plan on Fridays. What’s the story here?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, planning on Fridays is really, honestly, one of my favorite rules. It’s something I’ve been doing for years. It’s really two points. The first and the most important point is to plan. I think everybody needs a designated weekly planning time. And this is a time where you look forward to the next week, ask yourself what is most important to you in three categories: career, relationships, and self. These are, hopefully, steps for your long-term goals, things you want to focus on in the next week. Ask where they can go. Figure that out.

Look at what else you have to do over the course of the week. Figure out any logistics that need to happen. Figure out any tough spots. See if there’s anything that you are genuinely looking forward to in the next week. But we do that, and look at the week as a whole so we can make broader, more holistic choices as we figure out how to use time mindfully. And doing this week after week, you can really make a complex life go fairly smoothly.

Why Fridays? So, a lot of people plan on Mondays, they plan on Sundays. These are all very popular time for planning. Friday has a couple things going for it. One, Friday afternoon is just often wasted time. Many people who work Monday through Friday jobs are kind of sliding into the weekend by Friday afternoon. It’s really hard to start anything new but you might be willing to think about what future you should be doing.

And by taking a few minutes to plan the upcoming week, you can choose what might be wasted, turn what might be wasted time into some of your most productive minutes. It’s also business hours. So, unlike planning on the weekend, for instance, if you need to make an appointment, if you need to set up a meeting, people are more likely to respond to you on Friday than they are on Sunday, most of the time. If you are managing people, they will probably respond to you on Sunday but you should ask yourself if you really want them doing that.

And then, it’s also, I think, the biggest reason though, some people plan their weeks on Sunday nights or Monday mornings, but even people who like their jobs can wind up with a little bit of trepidation on Sunday afternoon as they think about the upcoming week. And a lot of that trepidation is this anxiety over knowing there’s so much waiting for you but you don’t know how you’re going to deal with it. Like, you haven’t formulated a plan for getting done what you need to do. You don’t have a good grasp on what you do have to do.

If you end Friday with a plan for Monday, you can actually enjoy your days off quite a bit more because you’re not leaving yourself hanging, saying, “Oh, I have to figure that out in the future now.” No. You know. And so, you can relax.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And talk about batching.

Laura Vanderkam
Batching. Yeah, so I think a lot of us feel like we are sometimes drowning in small details of our lives. And, certainly, you can have these at work. There are those random forms from HR, responding to all those invitations, sending a few emails that aren’t urgent, aren’t that important but still have to be done, paying bills, things like that.

We can also wind up with tons of these in our personal lives, and the more people you have in your family that you’re responsible for, the more of these that wind up beating you: filling out that permission slip, signing the kids up for X, Y, or Z, or texting a babysitter for something two weeks from now, all these things we have to do. And it can feel like it will take over your life. Like, you’re never doing anything important but you’re always busy.

And the solution to this is to learn to recognize these not terribly important, not terribly urgent matters and to batch them into small chunks of time so that you can leave the rest of your schedule open for deeper work or for relaxation. So, at work, for instance, maybe you designate a small window in the afternoon when you don’t have a ton of energy to plow through all these tasks. Maybe on the home front, you can look at chores and things like that this way. Give yourself a two-hour window on Saturday where you’re going to get through all those tasks that you’re assigning yourself for the weekend.

And the upside of doing this is that, one, you get some efficiencies. Like, if you’ve got 30 minutes to deal with all these not terribly important, not terribly urgent little things on a workday, you’re not going to belabor that response to somebody, that you’ve only got 30 minutes for all of it. You’re not going to sit there and perseverate over it, like it’s going to get done, so you’re going to be more efficient.

But it also allows you, if you start thinking at some other point on the weekend, like, “Oh, I’ve got to clean my floors. I’ve got to clean my floors.” Like, no, no, there is a time for that. Saturday morning, we’ve got our chore window. That’s when we do it. The rest of the time is not that time. So, you can actually relax and have guilt-free leisure time, which I think is very elusive for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. And then, I’m curious about the backup time.

Laura Vanderkam
So, the backup slot, the best way to think of this is if people had been invited to any sort of outdoor event, like summer weddings, or maybe not weddings, or graduation ceremonies, or picnics, often on the invitation, they will have one of the most brilliant scheduling concepts ever invented. And I’m talking about the rain date, okay?

And a rain date, what’s going on here is that the organizers are acknowledging that much can go predictably wrong outside. It is right there in the rain date name, but there is no question whether the event will be rescheduled or for when. Like, it will be on the rain date. And so, if you want to go to this event, you’re not going to put anything unmovable in the second slot.

And by having a rain date, you vastly increase the chances of the original event happening even if not at the original time. And I think, in life, we need a lot more rain dates. When people get incredibly frustrated about wanting to do something, you’ve scheduled special one-on-one time with, say, one of your kids. Like, you’re going to go to this amusement park together on a Saturday, and then it’s like pouring down rain on that Saturday, or the kid is sick on that Saturday, or your spouse is unexpectedly called away to another town and you can’t leave all the other kids to go do this. It gets very frustrating.

These things happen at work, too. You set up a meeting with an employee that you’re going to give that celebratory feedback, tell him he’s working really hard, you’re so proud of him, and this is great, you’ve got his back, and people are quitting left and right. Very important to do that. And then, right before it is scheduled to happen, you have a major client emergency, and, of course, it gets bumped. That seems like the responsible thing to do, but we feel very frustrated.

So, if something is important to you, it doesn’t just need one spot. It needs a rain date. It needs a backup slot. And I know people say, “Well, that sounds incredibly unwieldy. Like, it’s hard enough to carve out one slot for stuff that I want to do, let alone two slots.” But, on some level, if it is truly important to you, then that’s what you need to do. But you can also approximate this by building more open space into your life in general.

So, one solution, many people try not to schedule too much other than they’re planning on Fridays because then they’ve got space for any emergencies that come up. If it bumps something from earlier in the week, it can get rescheduled to Friday. If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s like two afternoons a week that you try to leave mostly open, or an hour and a half every day that is mostly open.

But the idea is that if something gets bumped, it has a spot to go. Or, if something amazing comes up that you didn’t anticipate, some massive opportunity, you have the space to take it. You don’t have to shuffle everything else around or push this opportunity forward multiple weeks, in which case it might be gone. Like, you can actually seize it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very nice. And how about the one big adventure, one little adventure?

Laura Vanderkam
So, I have to say this is probably one of my favorite rules. I don’t really have a favorite rule, I like all of them, but this is probably a special one for me because I do think it is lifechanging to be in this mindset, which is that much of adult life becomes very much the same day to day after a while. Like, you get up, get everyone ready, you work, you collect everyone, go to dinner. If you’ve got kids, it’s like homework and bath and put them to bed, and then TV. You do this over and over again, and every day seems the same.

And there’s nothing wrong with routines. Like, routines make good choices automatic. But when too much sameness stacks up, whole years can just disappear into memory sinkholes, like, “I don’t even remember where the time went.” And you don’t remember where the time went because you have no good memories of it. Like, we don’t say, “Where did the time go?” when we remember where the time went.

So, one big adventure, one little adventure is about making memories. Every week, you want to do two things that are out of the ordinary. One big adventure means something that takes three to four hours, think like half a weekend day. One little adventure is something that takes less than an hour, it can be on a lunch break, weekday evening, just as long as it’s different, memorable.

And this rate of adventure is not going to exhaust or bankrupt anyone. It’s not going to upset the routines that exists but it is going to make life a lot more interesting. You’re not going to be like, “Ah, another week. Where did the week go?” You’re like, “No, no, that was the week we went mini-golfing. That was the week we tried out the new gelato place. That was the week we drove to see the colorful fall leaves at the beach.” Just something that would make it a little bit more different, enjoyable, memorable, and then time doesn’t feel like it’s slipping through your fingers.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, Laura, tell us, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Laura Vanderkam
Yes. So, I think these Tranquility by Tuesday rules are all designed to be very practical. They’re not rocket science. They are not difficult to do or get your head around it. It’s more about really trying them and seeing what happens as a result. And the way people did this project in my research is that they learned a new rule each week, and I think that’s a good idea. If somebody is going to read through the book, try each rule one at a time. Try to make it a habit, and then you can add the next one, and see how they sort of build on each other.

But the upside of doing this project is I am pretty sure that when you do these rules, you will, in fact, feel more satisfied with your time. That was the results of these 150 people I measured on these various dimensions of my time-satisfaction scale over nine weeks. Like, they do feel better. The rules helped. So, I’m pretty sure that they will for other busy folks as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Laura Vanderkam
So, one of my favorite quotes is actually very, very short. It’s attributed to Ovid. I don’t know how you say it, but he said, “Dripping water hollows out stone.” And there’s a lot of variations of that “Dripping water hollows out stone, not by force but by persistence.”

But the idea being that when you do small things repeatedly, it does add up. And I’ve been seeing that a lot. I’ve been doing a couple of long-term reading projects since I talked to you last. Last year, I decided to read through War and Peace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Laura Vanderkam
So, one of my favorites, just because it’s so practical, it fits with what I think many of us have experienced, and I wound up citing this in rule number three, move by 3:00 p.m., is how much people’s energy jumps when they get tiny bits of physical activity. So, this one particular study, they had, when somebody is…a group of people, they rated their energy as three on a ten-point scale, so they’re feeling really weary and not very energetic when their levels were at a three.

They said, “Go do a couple minutes of physical activity.” So, they could go up and down the stairs in their office building, run around, whatever it was. And after a couple minutes of this, they basically gave themselves like a nine on a ten-point scale. And an hour later, they were still at six. So, five minutes, that’s all it takes.

People spend so much effort, money, unhealthy habits, trying to make ourselves have more energy, like, think of the number of people who reach for coffee or candy or cigarettes at 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon because that’s how they’re going to get through the rest of the day. It’s like, well, going for a ten-minute walk is not only free. It’s healthy and it is pretty close to guaranteed to work.

I love that. Just one of those little miracles that’s available to us all the time, and yet we don’t necessarily avail ourselves of it as much as we should.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Laura Vanderkam
I have to say War and Peace. It really is a good one. I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a tool?

Laura Vanderkam
And a tool. I am loving right now the fact that my phone works as a scanner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool.

Laura Vanderkam
In case anyone here has not discovered this yet, if I’m the last person on the planet to figure this out, but maybe I’m not, I’ll share this. When you open the Notes app in an Apple phone, you can click on the picture and then one of the options is scan documents. And you hold up the phone, and it basically takes a scan of the document, and you can do multiple documents at the same time, and then email them automatically to people because it’s right on your phone.

That was such a wonderful time saver. When we were buying and selling our house over the past year because, of course, you have like a thousand documents involved in this that all have to get to the bank and get recorded and such, and I was like just scanning it with my phone, and it was wonderful. It was so much easier than in the old days.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. And a favorite habit?

Laura Vanderkam
So, I also, in addition to my reading projects, do a tiny bit of writing every day, my free writing. And I’ve done this in the past and have been a little bit free-form about it, so every day I write 100 to 200 words of something. And I’m always trying out ideas, thinking what might be interesting. This year, I decided to do it a little bit more focused and intensely.

So, I, every day, write 100 to 200 words about a character in the course of one day. So, it’ll be 365 little vignettes about a person over the course of one day. And I’m just seeing what I’d do with it. It’s been kind of fun. So, that’s one of my favorite habits right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Laura Vanderkam
“People are a good use of time.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Laura Vanderkam
So, we worry about how productive we are, how efficient we are with our time, and all that is great, but, ultimately, what we have is the people who go through life with us. And sometimes they are slightly less efficient than we would wish them to be, but, generally, if you are investing in a relationship and you feel that you are both growing closer as a result of the time you’re spending, then probably that was a wise use of those hours.

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

Laura Vanderkam
You can come visit my website LauraVanderkam.com, which I have everything about my books there, my podcast, and I’m blogging usually three to four times a week, so you can read my observations on life, productivity, and everything else.

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

Laura Vanderkam
I think anyone can benefit from tracking their time, ideally, for a week, even a couple days is good. Many people have to bill time for their jobs or they get paid by the hours, so you’re somewhat familiar with how you’re spending your work hours. But try tracking all your time because, partly, it helps to see that there is time outside of work. Usually, even the people who are working very long hours have some amount of time, and that can kind of change your narrative of time that is available to you.

But if you aren’t really sure what your work weeks look like, this is helpful, too, because it allows you to say, “Well, how many hours do I tend to work?” And if you know the denominator then you can decide what proportion you want to devote to different things. But if you don’t know that number, it’s a little bit harder to make those choices in a smart manner. So, knowing where the time goes is really the first step to spending it better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and lots of tranquility.

Laura Vanderkam
Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me back.

803: How to Write Like the Greatest Masters of Persuasion with Carmine Gallo

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Carmine Gallo uncovers the communication secrets of masters like Jeff Bezos that help you write more clearly and concisely.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The basic grammar lesson that makes all the difference
  2. The easiest way to simplify complexity
  3. How a single sentence makes your data more impactful

About Carmine

Carmine Gallo is a Harvard instructor and program leader in executive education at the prestigious Harvard Graduate School of Design. A “communications guru,” according to Publishers Weekly, Carmine coaches CEOs and leaders for the world’s most admired brands.

Carmine’s bestselling books, including Talk Like TED, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, and The Bezos Blueprint, have been translated into more than 40 languages. 

His latest, The Bezos Blueprint reveals the communication strategies that fueled Amazon’s success and that help people build their careers.

Carmine is one of the most influential voices in communication, business, and leadership and has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Success Magazine and on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, and ABC’s 20/20. He has built a global reputation for transforming leaders into powerful storytellers and communicators.

 Resources Mentioned

Carmine Gallo Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Carmine, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Carmine Gallo
Thanks, Pete. Nice to see you again and thank you for inviting me back. Now, did I read or hear that you have now recorded over 800 episodes?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Carmine Gallo
That couldn’t be right. I thought that was a typo. I thought somebody had said maybe 80 and had accidentally added a zero.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, 800. It adds up.

Carmine Gallo
Congratulations.

Pete Mockaitis
We had three a week then two a week for six plus years. Mathematically, that’ll get you there.

Carmine Gallo
Congratulations. That’s excellent.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Carmine Gallo
Good to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, I’m stoked to talk about your latest The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman. And what I’m intrigued, Carmine, hey, we love lifelong learning here at How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Carmine Gallo
I know you do.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve written some books and you’re an expert at communication but my understanding is you went back to writing class prior to writing this book despite having written other books already. What’s the story here?

Carmine Gallo
I’ve written books on how to deliver better presentations, like Talk Like TED, which was a book about how to deliver TED-style presentations, one of my earlier books was The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. A lot of what I’ve written is on communication with a lens on presenting. So, this was the first time that I took a deep dive into the art of writing because Amazon, one of the big things I learned, is that Amazon and Jeff Bezos have created a real writing culture. In order to advance at Amazon as a professional in your career, you have to be a good writer.

Well, in order for me to write about the art of writing, I’d better learn a little bit more about this frustrating art that just scares so many people, and it scares me when I’m looking at an empty page in trying to start a book, and I know it scares a lot of other people. So, I did kind of go back to class. I not only took writing classes again, I’ve been working on this for about three years, but I also interviewed a lot of experts and professionals who have written some of the best writing books so that I can just not write a writing book but distill the essence of what you need to know to be a better writer and a better communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. And so, I’m curious, if some of us want to sharpen those skills, any particular books, courses, resources, that were really awesome for you?

Carmine Gallo
Believe it or not, there is a YouTube sensation, her name is Gill, “English with Gill.” And Gill is a British grandmother who has like a million subscribers on YouTube, which is just unbelievable to me, and she teaches English as a second language but she takes a deep dive into why some words are more powerful than others or why some writing is more effective than others. So, if you just look at Gill, Gill teaches English on YouTube, you’ll be able to find her.

So, I went back to school and I talked to her and I’ve talked to other language and English experts, and it’s interesting because they do tend to come back to the same strategies, and they’re strategies that we’ve all heard before and maybe it brings back some bad memories of English grammar class, but they’re very effective when it comes to writing and communicating in the workplace.

And one of those in particular, if you don’t mind, I’ll dive right into something actionable that people can take away, and that is the focusing on the active voice versus passive. Almost every single – even Stephen King – every single great communication writer, everyone who writes about communication, always goes back to this idea of writing in the active voice, and it makes sense from a business perspective as well.

So, just to remind people, subject-verb-object is the active voice. “The girl kicked the ball,” that’s active where the subject performs the action, not “The ball was kicked by the girl.” So, now, if you look at…start looking at headlines. Look at, like, newspaper headlines in print where they only have a certain amount of space, it’s all active voice.

“Last week, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.” The subject is the Fed, and what did they do? They raised interest rates. That is so much more simple, understandable, concise than saying, “Interest rates went up today because of action taken by the Fed in yesterday’s meeting.” There’s not enough space for that.

So, if you just think about writing more in the active voice than in the passive, your writing will improve substantially in emails, in memos. And when I reviewed 24 years of Jeff Bezos’ shareholder letters, which are apparently, among business professionals’ models of clarity, 94% of the writing and the sentences fell into the active voice. Out of 50,000 words, 94% are active, “Amazon achieves record revenue,” “AWS does this.” So, if you just stick to the active voice, it’ll make writing a lot easier, and your reader will find it more understandable.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I totally agree that active voice is strong. And I recall an assignment I had in high school in which we – I always use the passive voice right there – we were forbidden, our teacher, Judy Feddemeier, forbade us, not we were forbidden, there is a subject. Judy Feddemeier forbade us to use any form of to be verb. No is, are, was, were.Just none. It was hard. It stretched your brain. It’s not like, “The glass was on the table”; “The glass sat on the table.”

Carmine Gallo
But, Pete, we forget these things because I remember that as well from the classes that I took. But we forget that these are basic writing strategies and tools that will make us far more persuasive as communicators in the workplace. Imagine if your emails stuck to a more active type of sentence, everything would be so much more clear and understandable, and people appreciate it when you get to the point.

I was just thinking of some examples the other day when it comes to emails. I would rather see an email with a subject line, if I’m an employee, that says, “New hybrid work policy requires three days in the office.” In one sentence, I get it. I may not even have to read the rest of the email or I can file it away for later. I know that the subject of this email is the new hybrid work policy and what does it require.

So, at Amazon, they call it BLOT, which is bottom line on top, which they sort of copied from the US military. The US military has a writing code called BLUF, bottom line up front. The point is, and I think this applies to every business professional listening, is that if you want to come across as more understandable and concise and clear when you’re writing emails especially, start with the bottom line.

Give me the big picture, like you always ask. Give me the big idea, you ask guests all the time. Give me the big idea. Give me the big picture up front and then fill in the details. That’s called bottom line on top at Amazon. Again, they’re teaching people how to be more effective communicators through the written word.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And it’s funny, as I think about the copy I see on Amazon pages, copy meaning the words for sales, they’re excellent and it really stands out when you’ve got some sketchy overseas supplier of a thing and their English isn’t on point, like it stands out even more against the backdrop of other Amazon writing, and it’s tricky.

And, for me, it’s like, “Well, if I can’t trust your writing to be good, and you’re highly financially motivated to have the writing on your sales page be as excellent as possible, I don’t know how much I can trust that you’ve gone through other quality control steps in producing your product.”

Carmine Gallo
Good point.

Pete Mockaitis
But, then, I think, “Well, Pete, maybe it’s just not fair. Like, English is not their first language but maybe engineering is, and so it’s just fine.” But it does, emotionally, make me a little skeptical, like, “I don’t know if I can trust this product if their English is askew here.”

Carmine Gallo
Pete, you brought up a good point, and this is not necessarily something I was going to mention but it really was a catalyst for the book. I wrote an article about three years ago for Forbes, which is one of the platforms I write for, and it had to do with Jeff Bezos banning PowerPoint, and that turned out to be a very popular article, and now a lot of people, some of your listeners may already know or have heard that, that he banned PowerPoint within Amazon.

He replaced PowerPoint with the written word. In other words, when he has a meeting, now he’s no longer at Amazon, but let’s say he’s at Blue Origin, his space company, when he has a meeting, he doesn’t want people to come in with a PowerPoint because he says, “PowerPoint doesn’t really teach me anything. It doesn’t tell me that you’ve really thought through this idea. Anyone can throw bullet points on a slide. I want to see full-written narratives that have sentences with nouns and verbs and subjects and paragraphs.”

And when I talked to a few people, one person in particular who had to tell the team that they no longer can use PowerPoint in the next meeting, and he said a lot of the engineers came back to him and they were very frustrated and upset, they said, “Well, I’m an engineer, that’s what we know is PowerPoint, and now you expect me to be a writer?” And Jeff Bezos said, “Yes, I expect you to be a writer. And if you want to succeed in this company, don’t pitch me with PowerPoint, pitch me with the written word,” a writing narrative is what he called it.

So, again, it kind of comes back to this idea, Pete, that people are not necessarily going to tell you that your writing needs improvement – I don’t think a lot of people will say that – but it makes an impression, and it leaves an impression. Every time you send an email or write a memo, anything in the written word, if it’s not clear and concise and understandable and gets to the point quickly and is easy to read, it leaves an impression, and it’s not always a positive impression.

Pete Mockaitis
It absolutely does. Well, it’s funny, and I come from a strategy consulting background so PowerPoint really is like our means of expressing ourselves. And I think it’s true that it’s easier to…well, I guess both artforms or communication media can be done well and they can be done poorly, but I think it’s more glaringly obvious to people if the written words alone are bad than the PowerPoint is bad because I think a lot of people don’t even know what a good PowerPoint looks like in terms of, “I have an action headline that says what the slide says.”

Instead of saying, “Sales over time,” it says, “Sales have declined dramatically since we introduced this product.” It’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s the point. And then I see a picture of data which shows me that point,” as opposed to, “Here’s a bunch of data pictures. Yup, that’s my business update.” It’s easier to maybe, I don’t know, stay by there.

Carmine Gallo
I would also argue that everything starts with the written word even when you’re creating a PowerPoint slide. I write my texts into the note section of PowerPoint and then I practice it, and I reduce it, and I cut it down, but almost everything is going to start from the written word somewhere. So, if you can be a stronger writer, it’s going to dramatically improve everything you do when it comes to communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Carmine Gallo
But writing is hard. Writing is hard. I’ve written ten books, and you’re staring at these blank pages, I know it’s tough, I know it’s hard, and I think people are intimidated by it as well. That’s why I try to make it understandable and, at least, approachable.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you did mention that I do ask for the big idea. So, lay it on us, what is the big idea for The Bezos Blueprint: Communication Secrets of the World’s Greatest Salesman?

Carmine Gallo
Well, Jeff Bezos turned an idea that most people said could not be done. People forget that. But in 1994, most people said, “What’s the internet? Oh, and you’re not going to be able to sell books on it.” So, he turned this bold idea into one of the world’s most influential companies. And we could argue, I can make the point that it touches your life each and every day.

So, the big idea, Pete, is that the communication and leadership strategies that Bezos pioneered at Amazon to turn that vision into a reality is something that any one of our listeners can adopt today in their career to move from where they are today to that next level or that next step in their career, the step that they imagine themselves to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, that’s clearly stated, and it’s like you’ve been practicing, Carmine.

Carmine Gallo
You know where that came from, Pete? I’ll be honest with you. I’ll tell you exactly where that came from. I like to read The New York Times’ book reviews, and when they talk to an author, there’s a great exercise. This is a fantastic exercise. They want that author to be able to identify the book’s big idea, like you say, in 50 words or less, and that’s one of their first questions, “Tell us about this book in 50 words or less.” So, they place a limit on it.

And I have found that what a great exercise that people can do even in a professional setting. Before you walk into your CEO’s office to talk about this idea, before you send out that next email, can you express your idea in 50 words or less? That’s hard to do so you have to think through this. What is the most important element of that idea that you need to get across?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun. Arbitrary limits and constraints certainly can help with clarity and concision.

Carmine Gallo
Hey, with TED Talks, 18 minutes. That’s an arbitrary limit. 18 minutes. When I wrote my book Talk Like TED, the most common question I get is, “Well, how can anyone say everything they know in 18 minutes?” And the answer is exactly what the TED conference organizers tell people, “You don’t. You can’t. You have to select.” So, good communication is an act of selecting your best ideas and not compressing everything you know in a short amount of time.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely agree there. Well, so we’re going to talk a lot about great things that Jeff Bezos did in terms of strategy, tactics, principles, processes, practices that cascaded on through the organization. But just in case we got some Jeff Bezos haters amongst the listeners, I’ve got Marshall Goldsmith in my ear right now. I’m thinking everyone who’s successful, they succeed because of something, and they succeed in spite of some things.

So, I’m just curious, before we jump to conclusion that everything Jeff Bezos said or did was brilliantly perfect, are there any things that we should watch out for and not be so keen to model?

Carmine Gallo
That is a good question. When I decided to focus on Bezos, it wasn’t so much everything he did, every perspective from a management perspective, it wasn’t that at all. It was actually something that Walter Isaacson had said a few years ago. And Walter Isaacson, the great biographer, was asked, “Who of today’s contemporary leaders would you put in the same category as some of the people who you’ve profiled, whether it’s Ada Lovelace or Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs?”

And without hesitation, he said, “Well, Jeff Bezos. He’s like the visionary of all time.” And it’s interesting, when you ask people, if you ask ten people about their opinion on Jeff Bezos, you will get ten very different reactions. Some people are very critical, some people want to learn more about him, some people are fascinated by him, but you get ten very different reactions.

When you speak to people who works side by side with Jeff Bezos, I believe you had somebody on your show, Ann Hiatt. When you talk to people who actually worked side by side with Bezos, they all say exactly the same thing, they use almost the same words, which is demanding, yes.

but also someone who raised the bar on excellence. So, he had a commitment to excellence, demanding excellence. And almost every single person I spoke to ended with the same thing, “I never would’ve traded it for the world.” And those people took what they learned from Bezos and started their own companies using many of those methods, especially when it comes to communication, that they took away from Bezos and Amazon. That’s what I’m focused on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, Carmine. So, lay it on us, what are some of the most killer practices that we should adopt or abandon when it comes to our communication? And I’d say, ideally, I’d love things that are surprising, lesser known, counterintuitive, and generate a huge return on our investment in terms of, with a little bit of effort, we have huge impact. So, no pressure, Carmine, but give me your greatest hits, succinctly.

Carmine Gallo
Yeah. The first part, and we’ve already touched on it, so I won’t go further into depth, but that’s the writing. Because Amazon is a writing culture, go back to class, understand that the written word is foundational to your success and to your career’s success. Communication itself is foundational, and that’s a big lesson that we learned from Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, when he first started Amazon, before he had hired one employee, put out a job posting ad, and it was for a coder. He needed a software coder, which would make sense, he’s starting an e-commerce startup. And in that ad, he said one of the most required skills, other than the basic coding knowledge, is top-notch communication because he understood early on that in order to communicate something that had never been done, or something that people felt uncomfortable with, that it would have to be communicated simply, very simply.

So, this whole idea, my first chapter in the book is “Simple is the new superpower.” I’m fascinated by people, not just Bezos, but a lot of other professionals as well, who can simplify complexity. Bezos did it well, and I think that it is a foundational skill now for anybody, how to get your point across in a complex environment in a way that is clear but also understandable.

If can give you one example, Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, is now on the board of Amazon, and she said that her ability to simplify complexity was her go-to skill, which is really interesting to me because she’s crediting communication skills as one of the foundations and the pillars for her success, of rising through her career at PepsiCo, because people would say, “Wow, this is really complex and it’s really hard to explain and understand. Oh, send it to Indra. She’ll be able to analyze it and then explain it to us.”

And she said, “Be known for a go-to skill. Find that ability to communicate things in a way that is simple and understandable.” So, the biggest takeaway, I’ll give you one huge takeaway from the book and from the research that I think is counterintuitive, that the more complex information that you have to get across, use simpler words. Remember, I mentioned Gill teaches English? She took me back to 1066 when, during the Norman invasion, when the English language began to change from simple words to more complex Latin-based words.

When you want to get your point across, you have to go back to the ancient words, which are simple, one-syllable words for the most part. The more complex your topic, the simpler you need to keep your word choice. To me, that was so fascinating, and once I heard that, it made sense. And I was writing part of this book during the COVID pandemic, during the shutdowns, and I’ll never forget reading about healthcare communication.

Healthcare communicators learned that when there’s an urgent message to get out, you go back to simpler words. So, for example, “Wear a mask.” One syllable, “Wear. A. Mask.” Three words, all one syllable. Not, “In order to increase protection against COVID, the recommendation is that you wear appropriate facial coverings to reduce the transmission or airborne viruses.” No, it’s, “Wear a mask.” And what I learned is that, in healthcare communication, that’s what they’re taught.

Now, of course, there’s endless debates on that, but the point is when you have an urgent message to get across, simplify the message. And you simplify it by using simple, short words. And Grammarly is a perfect example of this. I’m sure a lot of your listeners, maybe you, have used Grammarly.

Grammarly will study your writing and make it better. That’s the whole point of the software, they make it better. And they try to strip out words, or they rearrange sentences, that’s what the software tells you to do, but it also gives you a rating. And that rating is based on what level or grade level that language is appropriate for. So, what do you think is the ideal grade level for good writing?

Pete Mockaitis
If we mean good, like it’s understandable such that folks can take action on it, it’s pretty low as a whole. And salespeople see this all the time with copywriting, like straight up, easier words make more sales. So, it might be like seventh grade or even easier, you tell me.

Carmine Gallo
It’s eighth grade.

Pete Mockaitis
Eighth grade, okay.

Carmine Gallo
It’s eighth-grade language. And here’s something fascinating that I learned. I was analyzing all of Jeff Bezos’ 24 shareholder letters. The first ones had a lot of great wisdom in them but they were…they didn’t register an eighth-grade level. They were a little higher than that, some were even college level. As he wrote more complex information in the years that followed, the grade level got lower. It got lower.

So, pretty soon, in the last part of his tenure as CEO, they were most eighth and ninth-grade level language if you run it through a software program like Grammarly. And that, from what I learned, was intentional. He got better over time. He was aware that the more complex and bigger Amazon got, he had to become a better writer and simplify it more for the audience.

So, the conclusion I came away with is that by simplifying language, you’re not exposing yourself as someone who’s not competent. It’s actually just the opposite. You’re not dumbing down the content, you’re outsmarting your competition. Simple. That’s why I call it simple is the new superpower, and that’s very counterintuitive, but I think it’s an important concept to get across.

Pete Mockaitis
I totally connect and resonate with that. That’s huge. And Grammarly is a cool tool for that as well as Hemingway. I also like the writing.

Carmine Gallo
I use Hemingway as well.

Pete Mockaitis
To me, interrupting phrases or too long the sentence length, that’s tricky. So, those are some easy ways we can get some more simplicity. Any other pro tips for boosting our simplicity?

Carmine Gallo
Speak in metaphors. Use metaphorical language and analogies as much as possible. Two people in particular, Jeff Bezos uses metaphors constantly, as does Warren Buffett use metaphors. So, when you have complex information or information that’s new or maybe unfamiliar to your audience, great communicators tend to rely on metaphorical language more often than not, and that’s an advanced skill.

You really have to think through the metaphors that you use. But what I’ve noticed is that I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are in the startup community or in Silicon Valley where I live, and they use a lot of, in conversation, they use a lot of metaphors that they don’t even realize came from Jeff Bezos and Amazon. One in particular is called two-pizza teams. And you may have heard of that, the two-pizza team.

The two-pizza team means, “Let’s break down these projects into smaller teams of people who can…” And they say, “Well, how big should a team be?” Jeff, many years ago, and he said, “Well, when we started at Amazon, we could feed an entire team on two large pizzas, so let’s call them two-pizza teams.” And that stuck, it stuck and it pervaded the organization, so there’s two-pizza teams. And people who I’ve talked to who have left Amazon, who now are in higher positions or even CEOs of other companies, still use those. They use the metaphors that they learned from Bezos and other communicators.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sixteen tiny people are two large pizza is what I’m getting. Is that right?

Carmine Gallo
The other one is day one, the day-one mentality. Jeff Bezos is famous for calling everything day one, which is simply a metaphor, it’s a shortcut, which is exactly what metaphors are. And it’s a shortcut for thinking like an entrepreneur, “If this were day one of the startup, how would we be looking at this project?”

You can write an entire book on what it means to have a day-one mindset, that’s kind of a growth mindset, well, there’s a whole book written, like Carol Dweck on the growth mindset. But this whole idea of just day one, have a day-one mindset kind of took hold, and people understood intuitively what it meant.

And then it became a symbol, and that’s another fascinating area that I studied as well – symbolism as communication. So, day one not only became a mantra but it became a symbol. So, now there’s the Day 1 building, or the Day One Awards at places like Amazon. So, you can turn metaphors into symbols as well, again, which I think is a very fascinating aspect of communication, but those are advanced skills.

You really have to think through metaphors and the stories you use ahead of time. It’s not as easy as just putting up a slide and throwing up some bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. These are advanced skills but it makes a difference if you want to advance and flourish in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
And I hear you that a metaphor can simplify something complex. Although, if what you’re saying is already simple, metaphor might actually get in your way, “Customers are mad because they have to wait too long to get stuff.”

Carmine Gallo
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
“The customer is a pot on the oven, boiling over.”

Carmine Gallo
The kind of metaphors, though, has got to be Warren Buffett. Jeff Bezos is good, he’s pretty good, but Warren Buffett is the king of metaphors because I watch CNBC, like in the background. Every single day, I hear a stock analyst say, “Well, we like this company because it has a moat around it.” Yeah, where did they get that?

Well, that was years ago, about 40 years ago, Warren Buffett said, “I look at investments as economic castles. And if they have a moat around them, which means it’s hard for competitors to enter the industry, that’s a great investment.” So, this whole idea of, “Oh, yeah, economic moat. Does it have a moat?” it catches on.

Pete Mockaitis
It does.

Carmine Gallo
So, that’s the fascinating thing about metaphors is you start looking at language and what catches on and what resonates with people, more often than not, it’s a metaphor or it’s some kind of an analogy that allows people to think very differently about a particular topic but it also cuts through everything and gets right to the point.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. A moat is much clearer to internalize than a proprietary competitive differentiator that gives us a strategic advantage likely to preserve long-term profitability.

Carmine Gallo
Did you just come up with that because that sounds like pretty much every press release I hear?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I mean, that’s what a moat is. It’s like you’ve got a patent, you’ve got huge market share, you’ve got screaming loyal fans, you’ve got a novel design that you just can’t copy, you’ve got the best lawyers who are going to sit in defense of, there’s something but moat sort of captures all that, like, “Yeah, it’d be harder to take over a castle if there’s a big body of water around them,” and so that’s cool. So, metaphors, simplify, low-grade levels. Beautiful. Tell me, any other top takeaways you want to make sure to gather here?

Carmine Gallo
Humanize data. Again, I spent years getting into data. Your listeners probably know about data visualization. They’ve heard of data visualization before. But this whole idea of taking data and making it simple to understand, how do you do that? Not just in the animation, but how do you do that when you explain it? And it’s actually a very easy technique, which is simply add one sentence that puts the data into context. People will remember you for it.

But let me give you a very quick example. True story, I was working with a country manager, this was several years ago before I started researching this book. But I was working with a country manager for a big company that every one of our listeners knows and probably consumes their products daily. Big company, one of the biggest in the world.

So, he’s in the middle of the totem pole, maybe upper level, and he had aspirations to grow within the company. He was preparing a yearly presentation to the rest of the managers, which was simply an update. They’re just a simple update, “Here’s what we’ve been doing this year.” One of the big things was they launched a big tree-planting campaign for environmental reasons. Obviously, everyone has to talk about, “What role are you taking to solve environmental issues?”

So, on a bullet point on one of his slides, like the last slide, “And we launched a tree-planting campaign this year, and our employees loved it. They found it very satisfying.” A little bullet point, I said, “Wow, okay, that must not have been much but you probably just threw that in.” And he goes, “Oh, no, no. This was a major thing. We planted like 200,000 trees.” I’m like, “Well, hold on. That sounds like a lot. Now, I don’t know. Is that a seed? Is that a seedling? Maybe it’s more than I think but it sounds like a lot. How can we put that in perspective?”

So, we started brainstorming, we started being a little bit more creative rather than just putting up a bullet point, and we came up with a solution that, or the idea, because the presentation was being given in New York near Central Park, we did some quick calculation, and he said, “We planted the equivalent of one Central Park every month in my region. That was all because of the employees. Because Central Park is 18,000 trees, we did the math.”

“Hey, take a look outside. After you leave the conference, after you leave the event, take a look at Central Park when you walk back to the hotel. We planted the equivalent of one Central Park every month this last year, and we’re really proud of that,” and then show a PowerPoint. Then you can show a PowerPoint with faces and people planting trees.

That particular country manager was recognized for delivering a great presentation. He is now second in line to become the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world, and I’ve kept in touch with him for years. So, he gives me some credit, which is interesting, because he realizes that you can be really good at your job, and this is the big takeaway for everybody now, you could be really good at your job, you can be very competent, but it’s your communication and your presentation and your storytelling skills that will get you noticed. That’s the takeaway.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now let’s hear about a few of your favorite things. Can we hear a favorite quote?

Carmine Gallo
I’m going to go to a Daniel Kahneman quote and one that I used in this book that applies completely to what we’ve been talking about. So, Daniel Kahneman, a great behavioral psychologist, Nobel Prize winner, “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Got it. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Carmine Gallo
Anything Daniel Kahneman. Go back to the book Thinking, Fast and Slow which is the great behavioral psychology book. But one piece of research that I think really applies today, you can look this up, it’s a scholarly research paper, and it’s got a fun title called “Bad is Stronger than Good.” And it’s one of the most quoted and cited research papers of the last decade.

And “Bad is Stronger than Good,” by a guy named Baumeister – Baumeister is an Australian scholar – explains almost everything that’s going on today. And it simply talks about the negativity bias that we all have. So, we do tend to skew toward the negative, which explains why, in our social media feeds, we tend to get things that make us angry or frustrated or anxious. It explains why, before you give a presentation, you get nervous because you’re focusing on the bad outcome rather than the good, because, as we evolved, it was more important for us to focus on threats than the positive, as a species, so it makes sense.

But now, those very same things are used by social media companies to keep us in a constant state of anger. They put a lot of pressure on you, they make you nervous when it’s public speaking. So, just understanding that bias that we have toward the negative is actually very empowering if you can learn to kind of reverse-engineer that and start focusing on positive. It’s hard to do but you got to start somewhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Carmine Gallo
My favorite book. The other day I did a TikTok. Believe it or not, Pete, I’m doing TikToks. I love TikTok. I’ve become a monster on it. I love it. But I talked about a book, I love history books. So, this is called Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And the reason why I like it, it’s one of my favorite public-speaking books, and it doesn’t have public speaking in the title.

Because she looks at great leaders throughout history, obviously, it’s a US history book, but she looks at all these great leaders, mostly US presidents, and she talks about them through the lens of mostly communication and leadership. So, you learn why Lincoln was a great storyteller, or why Franklin Roosevelt was a great simplifier. So, it’s my favorite public speaking book that’s not a public speaking book, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. I got you. And a favorite tool?

Carmine Gallo
I’ve got several but, recently…I love Canva now. Canva makes design so much simpler. And I’ve interviewed Melanie Perkins. She has an amazing story, an entrepreneur behind Canva. So, I like Canva. And, recently, I’ve been using Vid Studio which kind of makes video editing easy. It’s kind of like the Canva of video editing. It makes it very easy for anybody to quickly edit things that then you can send out via email or other platforms.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Carmine Gallo
Because I have ADHD, diagnosed ADHD, which is a blessing and a curse. Blessing because I have so many ideas. Curse because it’s hard for me to stay focused, even during these interviews, you probably have noticed. But the habit is a lot of ADHD people know the Pomodoro technique, and I found that, I think, a lot of business professionals use it, which is if you’re having a hard time getting started on something, set aside 20 or 25 minutes. Pomodoro technique, technically, is 25 minutes which is too long for me, so I start with 20 because you can do anything for 20 minutes.

And, as a writer, when you’re staring at a blank sheet of paper, that really helped. I’m just going to set aside 20 minutes today as that task. And before you know it, you’re writing for more than 20 minutes. But if that’s all you do is just write 20 minutes that day, that’s success. So, it kind of breaks down bigger projects into these smaller timeframes.

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

Carmine Gallo
There is. I wrote a line in a previous book called Talk Like TED, and I started that book by saying ideas are the currency of the 21st century. And I get that requoted a lot, and I think it’s more relevant now than ever because you’re only as valuable as your ideas. So, you need to become the best and the most persuasive person you can because you can have a great idea, but if you can’t get it across in a way that’s actionable and convinces people to join you on whatever your initiative is, then it doesn’t really matter that much that you have a great idea.

You have to be able to communicate it as well. And so, I think this whole idea of ideas are the currency of the 21st century, use that currency and become a more powerful communicator, I think, it’s an important subject.

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

Carmine Gallo
CarmineGallo.com. Just go to my website. But if you’re on LinkedIn, look for a good Italian name, like Carmine Gallo. I think I might be the only one in California. So, LinkedIn has been a very engaging platform, and if you contact me, connect with me and send me a message. I get back to everybody. I like LinkedIn. But CarmineGallo.com if you’d like to learn more about my books or get in touch with me.

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

Carmine Gallo
Communication, public speaking is a skill. And like any skill, you can get better at it if you apply yourself to it and you practice it. So, I get a little frustrated when I hear, especially clients say, “Well, I’m not good at public speaking.” Okay. Well, I can show you people like I’ve written about – Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and many others – who, early in their career, were not very good at public speaking either.

Public speaking is a skill, and like any skill, you can improve, and you can become one of the top speakers in your company and in your field if you apply yourself to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you, Carmine. This is good stuff. I wish you much luck in all your communications.

Carmine Gallo
Thank you. Thanks for inviting me back, Pete. Appreciate it.

736: The Surprising Problem-Solving Insights from Art with Amy Herman

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Amy Herman reveals the surprising framework agencies like the FBI, NATO, and Interpol have used to solve their most intricate problems.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What to do when you don’t know what to do 
  2. Three simple steps for smarter problem solving
  3. The top two do’s and don’ts of problem solving 

About Amy

Amy Herman is the founder and president of The Art of Perception, Inc., a New York–based organization that conducts professional development courses for leaders around the world, from Secret Service agents to prison wardens. Herman was the head of education at the Frick Collection for over ten years.

An art historian and an attorney, Herman holds a BA in international affairs from Lafayette College, a JD from the National Law Center at George Washington University, and an MA in art history from Hunter College. A world-renowned speaker, Herman has been featured on the CBS Evening News, the BBC, and in countless print publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Daily NewsSmithsonian Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Resources Mentioned

Amy Herman Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Amy, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Amy Herman
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get your perspectives on art and problem-solving and more. Could we start with maybe hearing what’s been one of the most influential pieces of art in your life? Like, what is a piece that has stuck with you and made an impact, and tell us that story?

Amy Herman
Well, that changes almost every day because every time I see a work of art that takes my breath away, I think, “Oh, that’s it. That’s lifechanging.” And luckily for me, that happens quite often. But the work of art that really got me thinking so much about this book and about the work that I do is a painting from 1819 by Gericault, and it’s called “The Raft of the Medusa.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, yes.

Amy Herman
And the reason I talk about this work so much, it’s a really horrific painting. It shows the worst of humanity but just the tiniest bit of hope. And it’s a huge painting, it’s 23 feet by 16 feet.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Amy Herman
It takes the whole wall at the Louvre. And it shows the absolute worst that can result from incompetence and from power, and yet there is this slightest bit of hope in retelling the story of how the painting came to be and how this people survived, really, has been inspirational, and I’ve been able to apply it in so many different situations. So, I’ve been thinking a lot and I open my new book with “The Raft of the Medusa” and I close with it as well, so I think a lot about that work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ll certainly link to an image of that for the visual side of things in a podcast interview. And the sliver of hope, so there’s the story, in reading your introduction, I gazed upon it, I confess, well, in a much smaller amount of real estate on my screen.

Amy Herman
Uh-huh, than the Louvre offers.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe only for about 20 seconds, which I imagine you would say is not nearly enough to take in the depths, but I was just like, “Oh, man, that’s a real cluster.”

Amy Herman
That’s exactly what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, was there hope depicted in that image that I overlooked?

Amy Herman
Believe it or not, and you’re not alone in overlooking the hope because very, very faintly on the horizon line, if you really, really squint your eyes, the rescue ship can be seen.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, okay.

Amy Herman
Yes, the rescue ship is there. And what I love is the painting also does away with discrimination, and there is black man at the top of the pyramid who’s flagging down the rescue ship, and that was a real scandal back in the 19th century to have a black man was the one who rescued everybody because he was the one who’s able to flag down the ship. But the ship is not apparent.

Don’t feel bad for not seeing it. It’s so small and it’s on the horizon, and it reminds us all that sometimes hope is just out of our grasp and we have to look a little bit harder and really try to find it. And it really is within our grasp, and that’s what I hope that readers of the book will be able to understand, and be able to apply in their own lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that. Hope may be just beyond my immediately obvious perception, just as it was in that image, and I’ll chew on that. Thank you. Well, let’s talk about problem-solving here. You spent a lot of time thinking about this, training people in this, learning and researching on this. Can you share maybe one of the most strikingly maybe surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about problem-solving over the course of your career?

Amy Herman
I have. And I’d love to share one of the things because it’s almost counterintuitive but I’m going to start by telling you about a process in Japan when ceramicists and potters, when they make bowls and vases and cups, it’s inevitable that some of those vases and cups are going to come out broken or asymmetrical or imperfect. And instead of throwing that flawed pottery away, what these Japanese ceramicists do is they fill the cracks in with gold and silver and platinum lacquer. And the process is called kintsugi, and it means to repair with gold, to fill in the cracks with gold.

And what happens to each of those objects is they become more precious and more valuable than had they been perfect in the first place. And what I take away from the process of kintsugi is none of the people that I work with are potters or ceramicists, but I ask them the question, “How are you practicing kintsugi? How are you fixing what’s broken with resources that you already have?”

And the beautiful thing about kintsugi is it honors the struggle; it brings the mistakes to the fore. So, rather than walking away from our mistakes, and saying, “I’m going to do better next time and I’m going to make it perfect,” we’re not striving for perfection. I want to bring our mistakes to the fore. So, not only can we honor the struggle that we went through to solve a problem, but others can see our mistakes and see how we got there, because I hate to break it to you, nobody is perfect and there is no perfect solution.

So, the idea of kintsugi, it’s such a beautiful concept and it allows us to make our mistakes and to honor those mistakes in trying to fix them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you
So, kintsugi really is a beautiful visual representation of that very process, that notion of we have some mistakes and we’re going to fill them in and make it all the more useful in terms of maybe sharing the mistakes and lessons learned with others so that that wisdom can proliferate. That’s really cool. Can you share a cool example of this in practice?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. In the field of medicine, doctors sometimes, this takes place in hospitals all across the country, and sometimes it’s done weekly, sometimes it’s done every two weeks or every month. Doctors go behind closed doors and they have something called M&M. And M&M stands for morbidity and mortality, kind of a downer of a title.

But what they do is they go around the table and they talk about what went wrong, who misread the MRI, who got the wrong prescription, who died, and what went wrong. And by sharing all their mistakes, not only does it alleviate the guilt of the individual person and recognize that we all make mistakes but, also, we can learn from each other’s mistakes because we’re human and things will go wrong.

And so, just the idea of M&M, the doctors are willing to go behind the door and talk about what went wrong, I wish we had M&M in every profession. The way kintsugi enables us to visualize what went wrong and actually honor that struggle, medicine says, “Okay, we’re not perfect. Things go wrong. Lives are lost. We gave the wrong medicines. Let’s all learn from it collectively and keep moving.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a powerful example because that says that’s about as high stakes as it gets, “Lives were lost because of a mistake I made,” and that happens in law enforcement and military and many of your clients and medicine, certainly. And I was just thinking, one my very first thoughts was this litigious age, it’s like behind closed doors is right.

Amy Herman
I can give you one more example that’s not so high stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, maybe first with that practice, which indeed I agree with you, there are many other fields where that could be applied excellently. I’m curious, how do folks get past some of the hang-ups associated with like the vulnerability, and trying to cover your rear end, and liability? We’ve had Amy Edmondson on, talking about psychological safety, and other guests. And that’s often hard to get to, but as you described it, it sounds like this is just par for the course in most hospital environments.

Amy Herman
It’s a recognition of the fact that we are all human. One of the things that I talk about across the professional spectrum is that when you are missing a critical piece of information, and it can happen whether you are a postal worker, a prison warden, a beekeeper, a doctor, or a Navy Seal, you’re missing a piece of information, and in the intelligence world, they call it an intel gap.

And I tell all the people that I work with that no matter how big the intel gap is, you have one more source of information that you can rely on. You can default to your humanity. And if you default, because before we’re doctors and patients and lawyers and clients and police officers and suspects, we are all human.

And if you don’t know what to do next because of an intel gap, ask yourself, and say, “You know what, if I was this guy’s father or uncle or friend, what would I do?” and default to your humanity, and you have this whole rich source of information that you can really rely on, and very rarely will it let you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really beautiful because in those instances, humanity, that really strikes…it can automatically stir up sort of virtuous stuff, like humility, like compassion, like, “Hey, man, we don’t quite know what’s going on here. But you know what, if it were my kid, I’d want to test X, Y, and Z. So, what do you say?” and we keep it moving.

Amy Herman
That’s exactly right. And what’s so interesting, sometimes it comes down to the smallest of human interactions. I had a group, they were a group of Army officers on the ground in a foreign country, and it was a hostile country, but they were at the local village and they were looking for help in the local village, and none of the women would talk to the Army officers.

They weren’t forceful, and they defaulted to their humanity. And, finally, one of them asked in the other language, “Why are you not speaking with us?” And you know what it was? It was because the Army officers were wearing reflective sunglasses, and women in this village can’t make eye contact with men. And if they didn’t know if they were making eye contact or not, they wouldn’t talk to them. So, it all came down to sunglasses.

But I find what’s universal is sometimes we have to ask hard questions, “Why isn’t this working? Why can’t I fix this?” to find the solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. It is a hard question in that there is, again, some vulnerability in terms of, “Well, you know, you smell, you’ve been very rude to us, you were involved in an accident that harmed a family member of mine a couple weeks ago.” It is a hard question, like, “Why aren’t you talking to us?” and, yeah, that can surface some surprisingly simple solutions. Okay, sure, taking off sunglasses can do.

Awesome. Well, so we’ve already gone deep into kintsugi. Can you tell us then, your book Fixed.: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving, what’s sort of the main idea or thesis here?

Amy Herman
The main idea of the book is to take the artists’ creative process, how artists create works of art, and use that as a template to solve problems from minor annoyances to intractable dilemmas. Let’s face it, everything is broken right now. Everything. When I started writing this book, we weren’t even under the crunch of pandemic. I had no idea what we were going to be facing. And in so many cases, solutions from the past, yesterday’s solutions are not going to solve tomorrow’s problems.

And so, I wanted to create this template that everybody could use regardless of their profession, regardless of their educational level. How can we make problems more approachable? And what’s a template everybody can solve? And I use the artists’ process to create a work of art because I’m a lawyer and an art historian, and I like to think I have a logical mind but I also wanted to tap into the creative process.

So, I broke the book down into three sections, three really easy sections – prep, draft, and exhibit. How do we prep the problem? How do we draft our solutions? And how do we bring them into the world? And each of those sections is broken down into subsections, but it all goes back to prep, draft, and exhibit. And I wanted the process to be simple. We all have enough on our plates. I don’t need to give people fancy acronyms and things to remember, “Oh, Amy said in her book we have to do A, B, C, and D.” Nobody has time for that.

How can we break problems into digestible pieces? And how can we not be afraid to engage in conversation the way artists, for millennia, have been creating works of art? This is not the time to fool with that success. Let’s leverage it. Let’s use that approach to try to solve our own problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, that’s fun. And a lot of your clients are, I don’t know what the word is, hardcore.

Amy Herman
That’s a good way to put it, they’re hardcore.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know, secret service, NATO, FBI, Interpol. In terms of not having time, I imagine their patience for “out there” or frilly or soft tools might be limited. I’m purely speculating. You can confirm or deny.

Amy Herman
You’re speculating correctly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, given that, I’m curious, could you maybe walk us through an example of what’s called hardcore clients applying some of this prep, draft, exhibit problem-solving process used from the artistic approach to solve something?

Amy Herman
Absolutely, and I’ll tell you about one of my favorite clients. One of my favorite clients is the NBA, National Basketball Association, and they brought me to Las Vegas, and I was going to lead a session in my program for about 250 heads of security for the NBA. Picture these guys. They’re the ones on the court, they’ve got an earpiece in their ear, they’re dressed in a suit, they’re watching the players, the GM, the audience, they’re making sure everybody is safe, there’s no violence, and that game is going to go forward. Can you picture the scene?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Amy Herman
So, the woman who introduces me gets up on the stage and she reads from a piece of paper, and says, “Amy Herman is here from New York, and she’s going to teach us how to look at works of art so you can do your job more effectively.” Every head went down to their phone. That was like the trigger to go start scrolling on your phone.

So, I get up on the stage and I say, “You know what, we’re going to have an instant replay. You’re going to be looking at art for the next two hours, I’m in charge, and you’re going to leave here thinking about your job differently than you came in.” And I broke them into pairs and I said, “One of you, close your eyes, one of you, keep your eyes open,” and I put a work of art up, and they had 45 seconds to describe it to their partner so that they could get the best visual image of what it was they were looking at.

They had to look at a work of art, they had to decide, they had to prep, “What am I going to say?” then they had to run it through their mind, and then they had to exhibit, they had to tell their partner the best possible version of something they had never seen before, and for the next two hours, flew, because I brought them new data. I brought them works of art. Nobody trained the NBA to look at works of art to think about how they do their job.

But to think about the creative process, every single basketball game, no two games are ever the same, no two teams are the same, no two securities concerns are the same, no two cities, and the game always changes from painting to painting to painting. And how do you assess that work of art you’re looking at? How do you re-draft it in your head? And how do you articulate it on that little microphone in your ear because the safety and the success of that game is in your hands?

And at the end of the session, I said to them, “You know, the NBA brought a copy of my book for each of you. Before you go to your cocktail party, I’ll be at the back signing your books.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be all alone back there.” Every single one of them stopped to sign a book and there were hugs all around because so many of them were NYPD officers from back home.

And it made me realize, it doesn’t matter what you do, whether you’re on the basketball court, or you are in hostile territory, or you are the night nurse, you’re going to face problems that are unforeseen, and I want to be able to help you solve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing because, at first, you might say, “I don’t see the connection at all between looking at art and security,” but then this is, “Oh, yes. Sure enough, very often in that job, you could look at something and you had to describe that something well to collaborators or you might have a bit of a stickier situation if you did not describe it as well in terms of misunderstandings and over or under reactions and all that sort of thing.”

Amy Herman
I can bring in a quote that applies to everybody, and it’s a quote from the 19th century from Henry James, but it’s a quote that I give to every single one of my sessions, and I say, “Try to be that person on whom nothing is lost.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Amy Herman
“Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.” So, when you look at a work of art, I want you to tell me not only what you see but what are you missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Say more about that. Tell you not only what I see but what’s missing. Like, what I am missing from the art?

Amy Herman
Not only what you’re missing, what you expected to be there, assumptions you had that aren’t there. This is a concept that I stole from emergency medicine. It’s called the pertinent negative. It means articulating what’s not there in addition to what is there to actually give a more accurate picture of what you’re looking at.

So, here’s the example. If a patient comes in to the emergency room, and, let’s say, the attending physician thinks the patient has pneumonia. Pneumonia has three symptoms. Symptom one is present, symptom two is present, but if symptom three is absent, it’s the pertinent negative you need to say that it’s not there because then you know it’s not pneumonia.

So, when you arrive at a crime scene, and you hear on the radio all the details, well, you expected there to be blood. Well, there’s not blood everywhere. You need to say, “There isn’t blood everywhere. It’s not just that I see disarray and I see shell casings. There is no blood.” Because when you say what you see, you’re only giving half the picture.

So, art gives us this perfect vehicle, “Well, I notice all these blues and yellows, and trees in the picture, but I noticed there were no humans in the picture. There was no sunshine in the picture.” We’re actually getting to the other side of the issue to tell people not only what we see but what we don’t see. The pertinent negative is a really powerful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy. I guess I’m thinking about all sorts of conversations in terms of we had a guest who talked about not just being provided an explanation, but are you being provided evidence. And there’s quite a difference.

Amy Herman
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, often, we make do with an explanation, like, “Oh, okay, I guess that makes some sense, so I can move along,” versus if you really got your antenna up and you’re thinking critically and alertly, you can say, “Okay, so that might be a plausible story but do we have the evidence that that is, in fact, what did occur? That’d be great to see.” Or, in a conversation, in terms of maybe what I didn’t hear was an apology, what I didn’t hear was a commitment to do something differently.

And so, that’s a cool tool, the pertinent negative from ER folk. If I could, well, say, have you borrowed some nifty things from law enforcement in terms of a ready-to-go tool like that you could share?

Amy Herman
I have. Actually, I have two tools that I wanted to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Amy Herman
One of them, just to build on the pertinent negative, is in warfare, in modern warfare.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the video game.

Amy Herman
Nope, not the video game.

Pete Mockaitis
Modern Warfare, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah, I didn’t even know there was such a thing, so I’m learning from you.

Pete Mockaitis
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Amy Herman
No, my son would know that. In World War II, the Royal Air Force sent their planes out, their fighter planes out, and they suffered heavily at the hands of German anti-aircraft fire. And when the planes came back, the Royal Air Force didn’t have enough armor to reinforce the whole plane before they sent them out again to fight.

So, the decision was made by the Royal Air Force, “Let’s just fix the planes where they were damaged,” but it was a mathematician, a single mathematician who was dissenting, and said, “You’re looking at this the wrong way.” He said, “You need to look at these planes to see where they weren’t damaged, and that’s where you need to reinforce them because the planes that were damaged in those areas didn’t come back.”

Pete Mockaitis
Zing, yeah.

Amy Herman
See how the pertinent negative works. So, you get on the other side of the issue. And just today, I was talking with one of my colleagues in the NYPD and we were talking about different applications of the program, and he said, “You know, one of the things that you taught us is that when we get to the crime scene, we hear about the crime scene, we hear it on the radio, we get there, we know what we’re expecting.”

“Not only do we have to overcome confirmation bias, thinking, ‘Been there, done that. I know what I’m going to find,’ but you’ve instilled in us that we need to go back, retrace our steps, and walk into the crime scene again to notice what we didn’t see the first time. What’s on the staircase? What’s on the landing? What’s in the garbage can?” He said, “How many times have I found a weapon that’s been thrown outside the crime scene, and is never within the confines of where we’re looking.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, the retracing the steps, I’m thinking how does that work mentally? So, okay, I go to the crime scene once, I take a good look around, and then I just pretend that I didn’t do that or what are we thinking?

Amy Herman
I think the whole thing in reverse, and I enter again because your eyes, you’re already planning on what you’re going to see. And what confirmation bias is, is you have an idea in your head of what you’re going to see and your brain will seek out those things to confirm what’s already in your brain. But when you make it a practice to say, “Okay, I’m here. I’m going to step out and walk again, and try to notice what I didn’t see before.”

So, one of the assignments that I give to my classes, if I see them over a course of two days, their assignment is, when they leave, to come back and tell me something that they noticed that night on the way home that they wouldn’t have seen before. And it forces you to look outside of your comfort zone because we’re all trying to get from point A to point B, and we forget that there are points C through Z out there.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s funny. When I think about that challenge, “Notice something you haven’t noticed before,” I guess I’m thinking in a professional career context, like a document. You want a spreadsheet or a report or a bunch of words to be free of errors and really compelling, persuasive, well-researched and all that good stuff.

And so, it’s tricky when you’re reviewing your own writing in terms of being like kind of catching the stuff. But then when you put that challenge in there, in terms of notice what you haven’t noticed before, in a way it’s sort of puts your brain in a funky little loop, it’s like, “Well, how am I supposed to do that? I didn’t notice it before. How am I going to notice it?”

But then it’s just like look specifically for that which you haven’t looked before, I guess my mind is thinking, well, the first thing you might notice might be somewhat inconsequential, like, “I’m using this font, is actually mismatched in some places. Okay, quick fix, doesn’t matter a lot, but a little more consistency, professionalism.”

And then you might notice any number of things like, “I’m using the word indeed a lot. That might be kind of annoying,” or if you say, “Hey, if I’m not going to notice something that I haven’t noticed before, maybe I need to get a fresh lens on this, maybe get some AI tools to look at my writing, and tell me some things. Like, hotdog.” I’m actually kind of impressed with what those can do right now.

Amy Herman
And think about how effective this can be in problem-solving. You do the same thing over and over again, you say, “Well, how are we going to get out of this rut?” And you say to yourself, “All right, I’m going to look for something that I haven’t seen before that’s intrinsic to this problem. What happens before the problem occurs? What happens immediately after?” And if you make it a practice to look for things that you didn’t see before, you’d be amazed what drops into your lap.

And you know what, this all calls upon another concept that I learned from one of my colleagues at the FBI, and I use it every single day. It’s a Latin phrase, “Festina lente.” Festina lente. It means to make haste slowly. We all have deadlines, we all need to get to the finish line, but if you don’t make that haste purposefully and slowly and look around, you’re going to have to start all over again.

And it brings me back to one of my favorite books, it’s called The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, it’s a book from 2013. And it’s about the eight-oared boat from the University of Washington that won the gold at the 1936 Olympics. They beat Hitler’s boat. It was, really, quite the upset. It’s a great book. It’s about our strengths and weaknesses, and that we’re all part of a team. The boat is just as good as its weakest rower.

But the reason I bring in festina lente is what could be a better example of having to row. Of course, you want to row quickly, you want to win the race, but if you’re not in sync with all the other rowers and you’re not communicating with them, you’re going to lose. And so, it means taking the time to communicate about how quickly you’re going so that you can make haste slowly.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Lovely. Okay. Well, so we talked about the prep, draft, exhibit. Could you maybe walk us through, in terms of step by step, how do I apply this process when I’m trying to solve a problem?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. There are some steps within each of those, and the table of contents is broken down. I’m going to give you one section from each of them that I think is most important, and it’s going to sound blatantly obvious. But under prep, you need to define the problem, you need to say it out loud. Because if you assume that everybody knows what the problem is, you’re all gathered, how many times have you been at a meeting and everybody says, “Okay, we’re here to discuss X.” How come we never say what X is?

We need to go around the table, and ask, “What is everybody’s perception of the problem?” to make sure we’re all starting on the same page. That’s part of the prep. And part of the draft, I think, the two most important parts of draft are breaking the problem into bite-size pieces. When little kids, toddlers, are learning to eat, you cut their food up into small pieces. Well, at some point, they have to learn to eat themselves. We need to break it into bite-size pieces so that we can digest the problem, and then we need to set deadlines.

There’s this negative association with the deadline. It’s not such a bad thing. It forces us to be creative. It forces us to find a solution. And, finally, under exhibit, the two most important things are to manage contradictions. We’re going to find contradictions all the time, “It can’t be fixed. Can’t do it. This doesn’t match.” Manage those contradictions. Articulate them.

And the second one is what I started this discussion with was kintsugi, repairing your mistakes with gold because there are going to be mistakes the whole way but I think it’s so important to incorporate those mistakes into your solution because you’re going to have to solve problems over and over and over again, and recognizing the mistakes and honoring those struggles is a great way to start to get to the solution.

So, within prep, draft, and exhibit, there are bite-size pieces that you can take. And I really believe, working across the professional spectrum, almost any problem can be solved this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s grab one, let’s grab a problem and sort of move step by step here.

Amy Herman
Sure. So, let’s think about… I worked with a group of nurses in the hospital after there was a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Do you remember?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah. And so, I had a session with the shock and trauma nurses. And one of the reasons I love working with them, there’s no mincing of words. They are negotiating on the frontlines, they are processing the trauma that’s coming through the doors, they’re dealing with family members, they’re dealing with medical personnel, and there is no time. You can’t mince words. Every word matters.

And one of them said to me, she raised her hand, and she said, “You know the night of that shooting, we ran out of gurneys, Amy. We ran out of gurneys and we had to put the patients over our shoulders to bring them into the emergency room.” And she said, “I lost it as a human being.” She said, “We were out of resources and I couldn’t articulate anymore.” And I said, “Well, what did you do then?” She said, “I had to pull it together because I can’t be an effective nurse until I can communicate not just with my colleagues but with colleagues, patients, and families.”

And so, without that communication, we just have to learn to pull it together, and, of course, not everybody is in a shock-and-trauma setting. As you said before, so many of the people I work with are in life and death situations. Most of us don’t work in those situations. But it’s still so important to regroup, and to say, “Okay, what’s the immediate problem here?” She lost it as a human being, she couldn’t communicate, and if you can’t communicate and you’re in the shock and trauma ward, you need to fix that problem immediately.

But, yet, another shock and trauma nurse who doesn’t have the same reaction is going to be dealing with families, and they’re going to see people in panic mode, so they’re going to have different perceptions of the problem and how they’re going to solve a problem, so articulating, “You do A, I’m going to do B, and you do C.” Sometimes there are time constraints, sometimes there aren’t, but we have many, many different facets to deal with. And, again, this book is not about art. It’s using art as a template that different people can use in a whole host of scenarios to prep, draft, and exhibit to solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And could you share with us maybe one more top do and top don’t when it comes to problem-solving and how art can help us?

Amy Herman
Sure. So, the first top do is to recognize that you need to say what you see before you say what you think. People confuse them all the time. So, when we’re looking at a work of art, people will say, “Well, I don’t like that. And I hate modern art.” That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, what do you see? And so, to think about the firm line of delineation between saying what you see and saying what you think. What you think is very, very important but you need to lay the groundwork first.

And I would say the top don’t, don’t speak without thinking. Do the prep and draft in your head before you send an email, before you press send, before you pick up the phone, or so many of my clients are on the radio. Think before you speak. And I will say this, communication is a two-way street. It’s not just what you have to say, it’s how it’s being heard. To whom are you speaking? And who is listening to you? And the prep and the draft and the exhibit are all tailored and according to whom you are working with and to whom are you communicating.

Think before you speak. The top don’t is don’t speak without thinking. And the top do is say what you see before you say what you think.

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

Amy Herman
I‘m going to repeat the quote that I said before about Henry James, at the risk of saying it twice, because it is so fundamental to me, to my work, and the way I try to live my life from walking to the corner to go get a quart of milk, to helping someone in distress. It’s what Henry James said, “Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.”

And just in parenthesis, that also enhances your own engagement in the world. Nothing is lost. I know you can engage with people and the places and appreciate so much more where you are by trying to be that person on whom nothing is lost.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Amy Herman
Yeah, a bit of research that was just mind boggling to me was a study done in 2009 in Jerusalem, and it was a study of radiologists. And what they did is they showed a group of radiologists MRIs and X-rays and scans, but for a controlled group, they also showed a photograph of the patient. So, it wasn’t just the X-ray of the lungs or the ribs or the hips, there was also an actual photograph of the person.

And for those radiologists who had the photograph of the person, they found 80% more findings. Their reports were more in depth, and they also found ancillary findings. And when they asked the physicians, “What could account for this 80% difference?” they said, “You know, it took no extra time to have a picture of the patient next to a picture of the lung, and it gave us a broader picture of the whole person.”

And I think about that study because sometimes we just see a cross-section of a person, we have an email, we have an X-ray, we have an MRI, and by thinking of that person, by thinking of that X-ray as in a whole person, it’s going to broaden your own view of them and help them solve their problems.

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

Amy Herman
My favorite book, again, to repeat what I talked about before, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown from 2013. It’s about individuals and teamwork, and just cheering on the underdog. I’m a huge champion of the underdog.

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

Amy Herman
When I’m completely overwhelmed and my brain is foggy, I sit back and, because of the pandemic, I go to a museum online, and I look at works of art, some that I know and some that I don’t, and I just take a deep breath, and it allows my eyes to relax, and it allows my brain to simmer down and remind me to see things with refreshed eyes whenever possible.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients; they quote it back to you often?

Amy Herman
Think about what you’re not seeing, that pertinent negative. More often than not, when I ask, “What’s the key takeaway from the art of perception?” people say, “To think about what I’m not seeing and to know that it’s right in front of me, and to really gear our vision and our looking and our sense of critical inquiry, to think about not just what we see but what we don’t see.”

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

Amy Herman
I would point them to my website, ArtfulPerception.com, and my books are at ArtfulBooks.com, and I’m on social media @AmyHermanAOP.

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

Amy Herman
Every day that you go to work or you sit down at your desk, prepare to have your eyes opened when you don’t even realize that they’re closed. Every day, I want you to end the day having your eyes opened in a way that you didn’t even know they were closed. And it can be the smallest thing that you notice, just so when we talked about what you didn’t see before, but know that your eyes are closed and make the effort to open them. And use art to do that when you can.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and fun in all your problem-solving.

Amy Herman
Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.