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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.

696: How to Separate Truth from Bullsh*t for Smarter Decisions with John V. Petrocelli

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John V. Petrocelli discusses the communicative perils of bullsh*t—and what you can do to stop it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why BS is more damaging than you think 
  2. Three ways to sharpen your BS detector
  3. Six clarifying questions to help you call out BS 

About John

John V. Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of bullshit and bullshitting in the way of better understanding and improving bullshit detection and disposal. He is the author of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Petrocelli also serves as an Associate Editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Resources Mentioned

John V. Petrocelli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll get a few seconds of silence for the audio engineers and away we’ll go. John, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

John Petrocelli
Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into the wisdom of your book The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullsh*t and we’re going to be ducking the S word a bit just so that the podcast will not be censored and unavailable in certain countries. So, BS or bullsh*t, that’s what we’re talking about. And you say you’ve come from a long line of bullsh*tters. What’s sort of your backstory here?

John Petrocelli
Well, I think everybody does actually. When I tell people what I do and my work, most people have readily available examples of how their friend or their colleague or their Uncle Larry is the world’s greatest bull artist, or half the time it’s Maurice on the second floor in marketing in their company, and people usually have these ready-made examples, and they’re convinced they all seem to know the same person.

So, I’m convinced that we are constantly surrounded by BS artists and, in general, I think most people are, I wouldn’t call most people BS artists, but the average individual, I think, generates their fair share of BS themselves. So, it’s everywhere, it’s in every walk of life, and it’s something that I think is not as harmless as we like to think. Usually, we kind of say, “Oh, Pete’s just BS-ing us,” or, “We’re just sitting out here on the porch BS-ing.”

But we often think that it doesn’t have the devastating effect that it can actually have for our wallets, or for our career decisions, for our interpersonal decisions. Really, all over the place, you’re going to find this insidious communicative substance that we often refer to as BS.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to definitely hear about the impact and the damage and what’s at stake here. But, first, you’ve got a bit more of a precise definition than I think most of us do. So, how precisely do you define what is bull? And how is it distinctive from just straight up lying or fraud?

John Petrocelli
Yeah. So, I use Harry Frankfurt’s original definition. He was a philosopher at Princeton University. And, in 1986, he wrote a book, or actually in 1986 he wrote a small article-turned-book 15 years later, and the title of the book was called On Bullshit, and that’s where he defined BS and the definition that I use, which is simply a communicative substance that emerges when people communicate about things that they know little to nothing about, and in which they have no regard or concern for what we would call truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge.

And so, the behavior of BS-ing is often characterized by a wide range of rhetorical strategies designed to communicate without any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that might come out in the form of exaggerating one’s competence or their knowledge or their skills in a domain, or it may come out in the form of trying to impress others, fit in with others, influence or persuade them, or to embellish, or to confuse, or to simply hide the fact that they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that’s a pretty broad definition but the core of it, again, is simply talking about things that one really doesn’t know much about, and doesn’t have any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that’s very different from lying because, when we lie, to do it successfully, we have to know what the truth is. If I wanted to detract you from the truth, it’s a good idea to know what the facts are. So, the liar is usually concerned about the truth or they know the truth, whereas the BS-er doesn’t care. They pay no attention to truth and they could care less.

And, in fact, by definition, what the liar says is categorically false to the extent that they do know the truth, and they successfully tell us something that’s false. But if the BS-er is truly BS-ing, they may, by chance, accidentally say something that is correct. But even the BS-er wouldn’t know it because they’re not paying any attention to truth, established knowledge, or evidence.

And the social reaction, too. The social reaction that people have towards BS-ing and lying is completely different. So, usually, if a friend or a colleague lies to us, and we find out that they’ve lied, we respond with anger or great disdain, and they’re going to have to tell quite a few truths in the future to gain our trust back. But, with BS-ing, often we let it slide. We give the BS-er a social pass of acceptance because we often think it’s harmless.

Rarely do we say, “Oh, we’re out here sitting on the porch lying to one another,” or that Pete is lying. Because lying oftentimes is associated with fighting words, but BS-ing is we assume that it doesn’t have the same kind of negative effect.

But not only my own research but certainly lots and lots of examples where people have lost money, they’ve made very poor decisions in their life, in their work, in their interpersonal relationships, that are truly grounded in BS. And I’m convinced, I’ve got treasure troves of data now, Pete, in my experiments from thousands of participants, and looking at what they write about no matter what types of events I ask them to write about and explain why they have the opinions and attitudes that they have.

I’m convinced that the personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal problems that we have are often rooted in indirectly or directly in mindless BS reasoning and communication, and being so closely married to BS preferences and so adverse to truth comes at a great consequence to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s hear it then if lies or fraud really does sound a lot worse than BS, but you’re saying there’s a lot at stake. Can you share with us some of the most hard-hitting data points of studies that show, “Hey, this is actually really damaging”?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. So, what I’ve focused on in my own research is what people believe to be true because truth, what you believe to be true, is fundamental to the decisions that you make. So, in my experiments, I’ve used very simple statements that can be readily recognized as true or false, and demonstrated as true or false. And I give people false statements like, “Sydney is the capital city of Australia. How interesting is that?” “Steinbeck is the author of The Agony and the Ecstasy. How interesting is that to you?”

Now, both of those statements are false. And when you mix those with a lot of other statements, what you will find is what we call an illusory truth effect. So, people will overestimate how true something is just because it sounds familiar.

And what we find is when we say that, “Well, the author of those statements that you read, the author was told to lie on some of them. They were told to write half of them that are true, and half of them that are false. All right? Now, we want you to determine whether or not these statements are true or false.”

And another condition, what we do is we say, “Well, the author of these statements, they were asked to write half of the statements that are true, and then the other half not to really worry about truth and not to worry about fact-checking, how true these things are. You can really just write whatever comes to mind.” And then we looked at the illusory truth effect in that case.

And what we find is that when the author is BS-ing, you get a stronger illusory truth effect, so people are much more likely to tag things as false if they’re told, “Well, some of these things are lies.” But they do treat the BS differently. It’s tagged as potentially true or potentially false. It’s not categorically tagged mentally as false as we do lies. Like, if I tell you, “Hey, I just lied to you about a fact,” well, then you know that it’s false. But if I said, “Hey, I just BS-ed you on that,” it’s possible, to the extent that it sounds feasible and plausible, it could be true. So, people treat those things differently.

Then we also find that in some cases the conditions are right, that BS can be quite persuasive even in comparison to strong arguments for an issue. So, we have compared what we call evidence-based communication with BS communication. So, evidence-based communication is the exact opposite of BS. It is grounded in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge.

Now, if I give you two arguments that are strong, and in one case I tell you, “I’m concerned with the evidence. I’ve actually looked this up. I’ve actually considered what the data looked like, what the readily available data looked like.” That’s the strongest strong arguments that you can produce. But if I said, “I don’t care what the research suggests. I don’t care what the data is on this issue. This is what I believe,” and I say the same exact thing. Now, I’ve weakened the strong arguments, so that makes sense.

But with weak arguments, I could say, “Yeah, I think we should have comprehensive exams at our university as a requirement for graduation for these reasons. And one of the reasons is, well, Duke University is doing it.” That’s a weak argument. Now, if I give you evidence-based cues to that same argument in comparison to BS-based cues of the same arguments, there’s no difference. There’s no difference in evidence-based and BS-based cues and the potency that it has on your attitudes.

So, BS tends to weaken strong arguments, but if anything, it strengthens weak arguments. And we think that this happens because people tend to shut down. When you know that someone is BS-ing you, they’ve given you enough cues that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and they really don’t have any interest in the truth, people tend to shut down. And, if anything, they will change, their attitudes will be influenced by what we call peripheral cues, how attractive someone is, maybe how tall they are, how quickly they talk, what their authority position is, their perceived credibility.

That’s not where people recognize the difference between strong and weak arguments. So, BS tends to get people in a perspective or in a mode of thinking in which they’re really not thinking very well, and they’re not thinking very clearly about the strengths of arguments, and they don’t even recognize the difference between the strengths of arguments. So, those are really big problems.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess therein lies the danger, is that because we’re susceptible to this, weak arguments plus a lot of BS, results in many, many suboptimal decisions being made everywhere and at all times that discourses is occurring and, thusly, it’s a whole lot of damage accumulatively. Is that kind of your take?

John Petrocelli
Yeah, and we’ve studied this also in a procedure that we call the sleeper effect. So, if I tell you really great things about an attitude, what we call an attitude object, in our studies we’ve used a pizza, a gluten-free pizza, and we tell you all these great things about this gluten-free pizza and how great it tastes and how healthy it is.

And then we tell you, “We want to know what your attitude is.” Well, we’ll see that people have attitudes about Ciao’s pizza that’s rather positive. But then we say, “Oh, you know, there’s a consumer protection agency that did a study and they found out that Ciao’s pizza marketing team, well, they lied. They lied on three things, and here they are.”

Now, over time, you have two pieces of information now. So, initially, the attitude was positive but then you’ve been given a discounting cue. They tell you’ve been lied to. So, immediately people reduce their attitude, they say, “All right. Well, Ciao’s pizza is not so great then.” But, two weeks later, when we survey people’s attitudes about Ciao’s pizza again, what we find is sort of a rebounding effect, which is the attitude becomes more positive, closer to the positivity that it initially was. And the idea is that people forget the discounting cue faster than they forget the initial information that was positive.

So, now, if I tell you, in the same paradigm, “Oh, consumer protection agency found that Ciao’s pizza marketing team was bull*, and they don’t even know if it’s true that most people loved this pizza and has all of these great qualities.” Again, the attitudes are reduced, but two weeks later it’s even stronger and actually at the same level than a control condition who had never gotten the discounting cue in the first place.

So, here now, we have a case where what discounted the initial information is completely forgotten and it’s no longer worked into the attitude. So, people will say to you, “Well, you’ve got to hear these false things maybe 16 times,” I used to believe that. Well, it’s not true that you have to hear it 16 times to believe it. You only have to hear it one time.

The same thing happens in the illusory truth paradigm. You only have to present these falsities one time for people then to confuse them, either confuse them as true because they sound familiar or they forget the false piece of the information, and the part that sounds true remains. And it comes back to shaped attitudes. And, again, what we think is true would be devastating to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, so that paints a really clear picture then in terms of just given how we interact with information and conversation, how we can form perspectives on what is true that are not at all appropriate or actually true, and that can sort of have all kinds of cascade negative impacts. So, then what do you recommend we do in terms of as we’re navigating life, doing research, making decisions, to as much as possible become immune to the negative effects of this BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, one of the first things I think that is critical to that is accepting the possibility that we are susceptible to BS and the unwanted effects of BS. So, that’s one of the biggest problems with BS is that people feel, one, that they can detect it, and that, two, it really isn’t harmful and it doesn’t affect them very much. But my research suggests they couldn’t be more wrong.

So, the first step would be accepting some susceptibility to it. And, in fact, there’s a lot of research, we call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect that has been studied for over 20 years now, that suggest that the people who are most confident in their abilities in a particular cognitive domain are oftentimes the most susceptible not only to BS but, also, they’re most likely to overestimate their actual skills. So, the cognitive skills that you need to be competent in a domain are the same cognitive skills that you need to recognize competence.

So, often the most confident people, sort of they think that they’re protected against BS and deception, often those are the easiest people to dupe with the BS. So, that would be the first thing. The second thing, I think, is recognizing the difference between explanation and evidence. Explanation and evidence are two totally different things. If you asked people why they believe what they believe, oftentimes they will go into explanation. They’ll give you reasons why they believe what they do. They’ll talk about values, they’ll talk about things that are rather abstract, and sort of the heady things. They’ll talk conceptually.

They won’t give you boots-on-the-ground hard evidence demonstrating the process as to how they came to the conclusions that they’ve come to. So, evidence is something that verifies or demonstrates or supports a claim or an assertion. And people often treat the two things very similarly but they are very different. So, recognizing the difference between those two things.

And then I think the third thing would be to ask questions, to simply just ask questions. I cannot tell you how much money I’ve actually saved myself showing that asking these basic questions actually work. And they’re really basic critical-thinking 101 skills. And the first question that I would ask, when you suspect, “Well, I may have just been exposed to some BS,” is to ask the communicator, “What? What exactly is the claim?” to clarify the claim.

And what you’ll often find, and my research shows this and my own personal experience, I can tell you that people will often take a couple of backpedal steps, and they’ll start to clean the bull up immediately because they see, “All right. Someone is interested in my claim, and maybe they kind of want to hedge it, they want to qualify it in some ways.” So, clarification is a strong antidote to bullshit, so just ask, “What?”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you clarify the claim, can you give us an example? Is that as simple as saying, “Wait a second, John. So, were you claiming…?” precise sentence. And then they say, “Well…” You’re saying that’s all it takes?

John Petrocelli
Well, oftentimes, that’s all it takes. If they tell you, “Well, there’s going to be some changes in this company but no jobs will be lost.” “Well, what do you mean? At what level? What exactly are you talking about? Are you talking about this month or this year or what?” And just to ask clarification, “What?” questions just to get people to talk about it, to clarify the claim.

And once you get through “What?” which is nice because you can immediately expose yourself to less BS if they are willing to clean that up for you, then you’d ask, “How? How is it that you have come to this conclusion? I’m really interested in your claim or your assertion. How do you know?” So, if you ask, “How?” what people will usually do is they will provide for you a more concrete level of abstraction, and they will talk about actual evidence if it is readily available, or if they can recall some from memory, or if they can access it.

Now, a lot of times they’re not able to do that. If they’re truly BS-ing, they probably haven’t really thought through or gone through a logical rational process to come to their conclusion. So, you just ask “How? How do you know this?” or, “How is it that you know this?” And then the third question would be to ask, “Well, have you considered any other alternatives? I hear you saying X, Pete, but what about Y? Don’t this conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?”

And all three of these questions are essentially designed to diagnose the communicator’s actual interest in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge. If they’re unable to answer these questions, people are very reasonable when they’ve got enough information. Now, if they rely on what they usually rely on, which is just their own personal or professional experience, they’ll often ignore the fact that personal experience is often very, very messy. It’s a very, very messy data collection method. It provides data that’s random, that is unrepresentative. It’s ambiguous. Oftentimes, it’s incomplete or inconsistent, indirect, and often surprising or counter-attitudinal, not something that we necessarily want to think or want to believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

John Petrocelli
And that’s not a good way to collect data.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And I love that example associated with, “Hey, there’s going to be some changes. No jobs will be lost.” The distinction between BS-ing and a lie, it’s a lie if he knows darn well that dozens of people are going to get laid off within a few months, versus BS-ing which is like, “Hey, he’s got a general sense that we’re probably going to be okay.” But if you’re considering your own job opportunities and economic situation, that’s not good enough.

And so, with those questions, the “What?” and the “How?” and “Have you considered?” I could really just kind of imagine what a great answer versus a poor answer. It’s like, “Are you saying that no jobs will be lost over the next year?” He’s like, “Well, yeah, we’re pretty sure there probably shouldn’t be any.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s a bad answer,” versus, “Yes, we’re absolutely certain that there’ll be zero jobs.” “Okay, that’s a commitment.”

And then, “How have you come to know this?” This is like, “Well, hey, we’ve taken a look at our cashflows, with our reduced revenue situation that we’re at from the pandemic or whatever, a negative event, and we’re still cashflow positive, so we have no trouble making our payroll over the course of the next year.” And then, “Have you considered, well, hey, what happens if it gets a little bit worse?” Like, “Yes. Well, we have a couple years of reserves in savings to work with so even if it gets a little worse, we should be okay.” Now, those are great answers versus, “Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about this. Hey, this thing should turn around any week now, really.” Like, “Oh, okay. You don’t actually know.”

And then, yeah, that kind of makes it all clear for me, the distinction between the lying and the BS-ing is that’s where it is. And then, in some ways though, John, what would be your take on this? If someone sort of acknowledged upfront, like, “Hey, I’m just speculating about this but here’s my read on things right now,” it seems like that could diffuse a good amount of the dangers of BS. Is that fair to say?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. I’m totally agreeing with you, Pete, because in that case, you have communicated that you are actually interested in the truth and in reality but you don’t actually know for sure. You haven’t given this vague, ambiguous, pseudo-profound kind of answer that everyone is hoping to hear, and you’ve been specific about your interest in the truth. And so, exactly, if you say it, if you qualify, “I’m only speculating. I don’t actually have the data. I haven’t consulted other available sources yet and I don’t know this for sure, but here’s my sense, here’s my opinion so far but it’s not well-informed.”

That’s one of the problems with BS is that the people are often so ready to offer BS because our communicative culture, there’s an underlying implicit assumption that we are supposed to have opinions about everything but it’s impossible to have a well-informed opinion about everything, and everything is so large now, especially since the dawn of the internet. We’re supposed to have opinions about seemingly countless things now or, otherwise, we don’t sound interesting, we are non-factors in conversations, and that doesn’t bode very well especially with people with a high need to belong to the various groups that they do belong to.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the need to belong, to appear competent, and like you must have an opinion on these things. It’s funny, as I’m imagining if someone asked me…you’re changing my worldviews, John. Good work. If someone asked me a question, I don’t really know the answer to, I think it might be refreshing if I were to say, “You know, I can only offer you speculation on that. Would you like to hear it or not?” And then it’s like, “I’m not going to be offended if you say, ‘You know, no, I don’t want to hear your speculation.’” And I’d probably appreciate being asked if I’m on the receiving end of that.

John Petrocelli
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, tell me, any other? I love those three, they’re very prescriptive questions, the “What?” the “How have you come to know this?” and the “Have you considered?” Any other key words, phrases, questions, scripts that you find super helpful as you navigate this, both as the BS-er or the recipient of the BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes, I gave you examples of when you can communicate directly with the potential BS-er but there’s lots of cases where we’re exposed to BS where we can’t communicate directly with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just on the internet.

John Petrocelli
And there’s another basic critical-thinking skills, 101s, three-point question, and that is, “Well, who? Who am I getting this information? Who is telling me this? Or, who is the claim coming from? What is their expertise? What is their credibility?” So, you start with “Who?” Well, then the next question is now, you’re back, “Well, how? How do they know? How is it that they possibly came to this conclusion? Is there anything in their presentation or their assertion, their claim, that they have communicated that would hint at how it is they would know this given their credibility, their level of expertise?

And “What?” back to “What?” But this time it’s “What agenda might they have? What are they trying to sell me? What are they trying to sell us?” So, now, instead of “What?” “How?” and “Have you considered?” you can sort of just mentally go through, “Well, who’s telling this? How do they know? And what are they trying to sell me? What’s their agenda?”

And it’s also useful to turn these kinds of questions onto ourselves because one of the most potent BS-ers that we’ll ever meet in our lives is ourselves, it’s the BS that often goes unchallenged, it’s the BS that we tell ourselves things that we would like to believe, that just ain’t so half the time, probably half the time.

So, it’s good to turn these questions onto the self, and say, “What level of evidence do I actually have? And do I have any? What am I basing this on? Do I have anything conclusive that actually leads me to this conclusion? And what about other people? What about my friends and colleagues? Do they have the same beliefs? They have an important perspective too. What about asking them?” Collecting more data instead of just remaining in one’s box and one’s head can do wonders for the types of data collection that are needed to combat the BS that we hand ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
What this brings back for me is I remember I needed to get a new roof and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was having trouble getting someone to show up, so it’s like, “To heck with it. I’m calling every roofer that I can.” So, I called like 20 and, sure enough, I had like five show up, so I was like, “Hey, that worked. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

But then they were telling me contradictory things, like, “Oh, you got to tear this off,” “No, you don’t need to tear it off. You can put another layer.” And then it’s like, “Oh, you can just put a coating on the top. You don’t need to do more material at all than a coating.” And so, I was like, “Well, how the heck am I…? I don’t know anything about roofing. You’re the roofing masters and you’re telling me completely different things. How do I get to the heart of this?”

It was tricky, it’s sort of like…but I guess I followed your principles in terms of what was their agenda. And so, when someone told me, like, “Hey, I can’t work on your roof until you’ve fixed this masonry situation over there because you’re just going to have leaking.” I was like, “Okay. Well, this guy is walking away from perfectly good money, so I think that’s probably true.” So, looking at the agenda part of the story.

And then someone else actually offered evidence, like, “Hey, do you see how this is sagging and do you see from this side angle there’s already three layers? Well, the Chicago building code only allows for this thing.” I was like, “Okay, now that’s some evidence.” And it was funny how in hindsight…

John Petrocelli
It’s a picture of your roof not someone else’s roof.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny how, in hindsight, like that’s what cuts through the clutter, but because I felt overwhelmed and it was a large expense and these are the experts who are contradicting each other, I find it very stressful. But by following your guiding lights there, I probably could’ve been like, “Okay, I’m disregarding what you say, and you say, and getting the mason and we’re tearing it off and, hey, that was easy. Could’ve been a lot quicker.”

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, I would say, Pete, you did 100% exactly the right thing in that situation. And it sounds like you asked a lot of follow-up questions, and that is another antidote to BS, because only through follow-up questions are you going to reveal the inconsistencies and are you going to reveal other things about a person’s personality and their agenda that will come through if you follow up with as many follow-up questions as you can.

I had a similar instance recently where I had to have a breaker box to our AC unit switch, and I had two separate electricians come out. The first one said it was basically a $2,000 repair, so they wanted to replace the entire two-breaker panel, and I thought, “Wow, gee, that’s really expensive. I’m going to have to definitely get a second opinion on that.” But I went out with him and we looked at it, he explained everything, and I asked him so many questions, Pete, by the time he left, he was coaching me on how to speak with the home warranty representative on the phone on what to say and what not to say because it ended up being really a minor repair that cost $80 with the second.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay

John Petrocelli
There was no damage. The breakers were actually a mismatch. They were sort of apples and oranges and we discovered this, but there hadn’t been any damage to the box itself. So, I could suspect that with something that I thought, “Well, this probably won’t be more than a couple hundred dollars of repair,” and, all of a sudden, it’s 2,000. My detector went off and I just asked questions. Again, I said, “Well, show me what that looks like,” because he said there was damage.

But when he pulled them out, they looked brand new to me so it was harder for him to then kind of continue following down that path because there didn’t appear to be any burning or there didn’t appear to be any kind of any marks. They looked brand new. And so, just asking questions. We did the same thing with what I’ve called the masters, the well-trained artists, the BS artists of all time must be people who sell timeshare agreements for vacations, hotels.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s a marriage insurance, John. Can you put a price on that?”

John Petrocelli
So, these people are highly-trained BS artists. So, they will bring you in to maybe Myrtle Beach for two nights, they give you free two nights to stay, and they’ll say, “All right. Well, on Saturday, all you have to do is agree to watch a one-hour presentation that we’ll give you. It’s a marketing presentation and dinner is on us and all of this stuff.”

Well, what they do is they’ll bring you in at 10:30 a.m. because they know you’re not going to have lunch before 10:30 a.m. and they sit you in the waiting room until about 12:30 so now you are starting to get hungry for lunch, and then the presentation starts at 12:30, and then that takes an hour, and then they want to show you some of the properties. And then they want to BS you on how great all this whole package is going to be. Before you know it, it’s 5:00 p.m. and then they want you to make a decision. So, you’re exhausted.

And people, we know, are less likely to detect BS if they are fatigued, if their what we call the self-regulatory resources that are the resource, the mental resources that you use to maintain, to change and maintain your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And when people are depleted of those basic psychological resources, they don’t always make the best decisions, they don’t always behave in the ways that they normally would if they are full of these resources. And detecting BS, and even producing BS, are affected by these resources.

And what they do is they drain them, and then they ask you to make a decision.

But even in those cases, if you ask enough follow-up questions, people will usually come to reasonable decisions if they’ve got good information. When they don’t have good information, or incomplete information, they often make very poor decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, John, this is a lot of great stuff. I want to shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things. Could you now tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

John Petrocelli
Yes, my favorite quote actually is by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he says, “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

John Petrocelli
It’s got to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Bull, but I think a close second would have to be anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Just beautiful. The writing is just beautiful and that’d have to be a close second.

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

John Petrocelli
Well, I would say that what I’ve been trying to do with the book, too, is just to normalize calling BS. And when I think people have commented that, well, some of the things I’ve talked about in earlier talks, and in my research that they’ve read, they said, “You know, this actually works,” and you don’t have to use the word BS.

You can do it in a very considerate way and maybe even in a private way such that people don’t feel uncomfortable being called on their BS because, as you probably know, that calling BS can be a serious conversation-killer, and perhaps fighting words in some parts. So, I would think that doing it in a considerate way works best and maybe even in private.

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

John Petrocelli
Yeah, I’m available on Twitter as @JohnVPetro or you can look me up at Wake Forest University Psychology, you’ll find me there.

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

John Petrocelli
I’d say call to action would be to, I think, this would be for leaders and for managers especially, to try to create a communicative culture that is open to asking questions, one that is open even to possibly challenging. One of the most frequently used BS words in all of the workplace is best practice, to challenge things like that, and to just create the sort of atmosphere to make that kind of thing okay. And I think decision-making will be much more optimal in that type of communicative culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. John, this has been a pleasure. I wish you much success and BS-free exchanges.

John Petrocelli
All right. Well, thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Pete.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Ozan:

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ozan Varol Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Chicago. That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had her on the show.

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

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

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

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

Ozan Varol
Totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a bummer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozan Varol
Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozan Varol
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Doesn’t the paper get wet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozan Varol
Thanks so much, Pete.

460: The Fastest Way to Solve Complex Challenges with David Komlos

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David Komlos says: "It's not the problem you're solving; it's how you're solving the problem."

David Komlos teaches ways to dramatically shorten the process of solving your organization’s most complex challenges.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 3 types of challenges and how to approach them
  2. The 10-step process to tackle challenges faster and more effectively
  3. How to structure a problem-solving meeting to get the best results

About David 

David Komlos, CEO of Syntegrity, is an entrepreneur, early-stage investor, and speaker who has helped change the way many global leaders approach their top challenges. From Fortune 100 transformation to international aid, content creation in sports and entertainment to improving access to life-saving products, David advises top leaders and enterprises on how to dramatically accelerate solutions and execution on their defining challenges. He frequently speaks on topics related to complexity, fast problem-solving and mobilization, and scaling talent. He lives with his family in Toronto.

Resources Mentioned in this Show:

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David Komlos Interview Transcript

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

David Komlos

Such a pleasure, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
You’ve got a book Cracking Complexity. What’s the story here?

David Komlos
Cracking Complexity is basically a book about 18 years of experience on how to get after big challenges quickly, whether you’re a manager, a director, a vice president, somebody who’s writing policy, someone who’s an analyst, someone who’s an up and comer, a high potential. There’s ways in which to get after the defining challenges that move you forward in your career, that make you a big contributor, that make you a great leader. And there’s actually a formula for how to get after big challenges. This book chronicles the formula and gives examples and cases along the way to make it interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’m thinking back to my strategy consulting days, complexity was almost like a dirty word for us in terms of if a business has a lot of complexity, that usually meant that a lot of mistakes and suboptimal resource allocations were happening. So, when you use the word “complexity” what do you mean by it?

David Komlos
We mean something specific. We mean a multidimensional, lots of moving parts, human challenge. We, actually, borrowed from Dave Snowden from his Cynefin framework where he says there’s a difference between complicated challenges and complex challenges. So, simple challenges, people solve on their own every day by connecting the dots, whether they’ve seen the challenge or not. When you’re dealing with a complicated challenge, it might be new to you, but it’s a solved challenge. It’s challenge that’s been solved many times before.

For example, a simple challenge is driving a car. A complicated challenge is fixing a broken car. You may not know how to do it, but there’s lots of mechanics out there that’s all they do 24/7, 365, right? So, the right approach is to take your broken car to the expert, the mechanic. Same thing when you’re also implementing an accounting software system. Don’t try to figure that yourself, bring in the experts who do that for a living.

Complex challenges are always the defining challenges, whether it’s turning around a product, or saving money, or figuring out a new policy for government, or figuring out how to grow faster as an organization, or gel better as a team, or understand your customers better and deliver a great customer experience. All of those are complex challenges which if there was a playbook, if there was a recipe, if there was a mechanic, so to speak, that you could just take this challenge to, he or she could just fix it like they fix all those other situations, that’d be great, but that doesn’t exist.

So, complex challenges are typically the headscratchers, the ones that you have to figure out fresh each time, and where it’s not just enough to solve with a really good solution, a really good plan, you really need a big group of people bought into the solution if you’re going to see sustainable execution happen, if you’re going to see people change their behavior, do what they’re supposed to do, you need them bought in. You can’t just tell them what to do. You need them bought in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure. Well, could you maybe rattle off three or four or five examples of a complex challenge for us just so we’re really thinking about the same thing here?

David Komlos
Sure. You might be trying to figure out how to stem the opioid epidemic in your state, or you might be trying to figure out how to deal with mental health challenges in your hospital, or you might be trying to figure out how to grow your product faster, capture more market share, or what will customers notice in the customer experience, and how do you get your company or your team to deliver a unified customer experience. Those are examples of complex challenges that are really common whether you’re in a small company, a medium-sized company, a large company, whether you’re in the government. You’re always trying to figure out how to do better more effectively, more efficiently.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good deal. Thank you. Well, so then, you say that leaders often handle complexity the wrong way, or the linear way. So, could you kind of orient us to what would sort of the linear approach look, sound, feel like versus a non-linear way?

David Komlos
Yes. Well, I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you’re a car company, and you decide that you are going to stand out from all the other car companies by delivering an exceptional experience for people who are buying cars, people who are coming into the store to get their cars maintained or serviced, and that’s the way you’re going to stand out from the crowd, because quality is not necessarily that big a difference these days, right? Many cars are made well.

The linear way to approach this would be to do a lot of research first, and maybe strike a taskforce and have them do research, or call in a market research firm to figure out, like, “What do customers care about in the car-buying process? Or what do customers care about when they walk into a dealership to have their cars serviced?”

You would interview a lot of people. You might take different approaches to interview young people who are buying cars, older people who are buying cars, people who’ve never bought a car, and just ask them to think about how they’d buy a car. You might do a lot of synthesis around what’s going on out there, who the competition is, what kind of new car companies are coming out, what kind of new car companies are allowing you to test cars differently, buy them online, etc.

And then you’d start to get to the point where you’re making recommendations, and level setting other people in your organizations on what you’ve discovered, and then going back to the drawing board to make better recommendations, and doing readouts, and more interviews, and then postulating like, “Well, here’s what I think we should do.”

And then, when you’re done, you would have a persuasion campaign on your hands. Basically, now it’s time to convince everybody who wasn’t involved in my research and interviews and synthesis and thinking, and recommending, and going back to the drawing board. Now, I’ve got to get people on board with what my recommendations are, what my taskforce recommendations are, what my consulting companies’ recommendations are.

And those recommendations would’ve taken a long time to get to, and they may be excellent recommendations. They probably are excellent recommendations but the linear approach to solving basically takes a long while, places the onus on a small group of people, whether it’s an internal group of people or an external group of people, your team or your consulting firm. And by the time you get to the brass tacks, “What should we do to drive a better customer experience?” you have to persuade a lot of people who are not brought along for the ride.

The more novel way to do things, the better way to do things in the face of complex challenges, the non-linear way, is to involve all those people who you would contact for the research, involve all those people you would interview, involve the people who are going to make the decisions, involve the people who are going to make the recommendations, and so on and so forth, all together, all at once.

And by involving them all together all at once, you would basically help them get to a shared understanding of what really matters, what’s really going on, what doesn’t matter so much about customers and what they care about in the car-buying experience, the car-service experience. You’d have a lot of people challenge their assumptions together all in the same room, eyeball to eyeball.

And it would take a fraction of the time where people could collide with one another, if you will, interact with one another, so that by the time they finish coming up with what they think will really move the needle on the car-purchasing and car-servicing customer experience in a way to help your company stand out from the pack, they would not only have cracked the nut, but actually have bought into what they’ve solved, the solution they put in forth.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now, you say all the people, all together, all at once. Now, could that be hundreds or thousands of people?

David Komlos
It could be. Generally speaking, though, from my experience, you want to be working in groups of 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 people all together all at once, and sometimes you have to work with several groups of that size to spread. But, generally speaking, when you bring together a cross section of the organization, and experts, and advisors, and stakeholders from around the organization all together, it takes 30, 40 people to really be representative of the culture and of the system that you’re trying to solve for.

And so, you can actually get to a solution with far fewer people. Then the challenge is, “How do you get all those other people aligned?” And there’s ways to do that that are also faster than what we’re accustomed to by having people interact together in smaller groups but spread across your organization.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess I’m thinking, in this car example, so there could be multiple customers and multiple dealers and multiple sales staff at headquarters and multiple marketing people and then so…

David Komlos
And then people like yourself who used to work at management consulting firms or who are in management consulting firms, people who work for car research companies, you might bring someone in from Google, you might bring someone in from a completely different industry who has also shaped a specific customer experience and learned along the way what could work and to spur the innovative thinking.

There’s actually an important concept for your listeners called requisite variety. And what requisite variety says, “Only variety can destroy variety.” That’s really, really important and it’s not buzzword yet. It’s really important, something for the rest of your careers. When you’re dealing with a big challenge, it’s typically a multidimensional, lots of moving parts, kind of challenge. Like this car company trying to improve the consumer experience. You have to be as multidimensional as that challenge if you’re trying to really crack the nut on that challenge. And the way you do that is by tapping into the right variety of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. I guess what I’m just sort of imagining here is I think that we could have 20 to 60 dealers alone, or 20 to 60 customers alone. But you’re proposing in this world that we get 20 to 60 people which is everybody across all stakeholders.

David Komlos
Yup, you could. And, again, you don’t have to look at this as something exotic, right? “I’m going to bring together 60 people once and never again.” You could bring together 60 dealers; they want to do better. You can bring together 30 dealers and 30 company people. You can bring together 20 dealers. You know, the nice thing here is that when you’re solving for something important and complex, typically people have a stake in the outcomes, right?

They may see things differently. People may see the car-buying and car-servicing experience and what to do about it differently, whether they’re an owner of a dealership, or the car company, or the sales force, or what have you. But they all share a stake in getting it right. And when you bring a group of people together, they can determine what are the things they have to do together to make a change. They can also determine what are the things they should try.

And when you try different things, when you commit to trying new things, and actually tracking how those new experiments are doing, you can actually double down on the ones that are working, and get rid of the ones that aren’t. And when you double down on the ones that are working, you can spread them to other people who didn’t necessarily have a hand in coming up with that experiment in the first place, you only brought together 50 or 60 people, or 20 or 30 people, or on small teams 10 people. But now that the 10 people have solved for something, and tried something, and it’s worked, that’ll spread much faster.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m still just visualizing the room. I have 20 to 60 people in this room all together all at once, but I could also have 20 to 60 people who are all the same, like all dealers or all customers. So, how is this working?

David Komlos
Yeah, you would want to have, again, the right variety of people. You’d want to have a diverse group of people. So, as a manager, or as a leader, trying to get after a challenge, or if you’re the car company leader who’s tasked with figuring out, “What should the customer experience be?” you should be looking at, “Who are some of the dealers I’m going to bring together? Who are some of the sales folks, some of the marketing folks, some of the folks who’ve done research on buying patterns, and so on and so forth, all together?”

You wouldn’t want to just keep it at just dealers, or just company people, or just sales folks. You’d want to have a diverse group of people who can see the challenge of delivering a better customer experience from every angle.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I’m imagining here is if I have a dozen different kinds of stakeholders, then I might only have one, two, three, four of each. And that’s fine?

David Komlos
That is fine. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

David Komlos
Absolutely, Pete, because to solve the challenge, you don’t need 30, 40, 50 people of each particular constituents. You need a handful of individuals. In our book Cracking Complexity we talk about the 12 zones of variety, and all the different characteristics that inform those 12 zones. And when you go through the 12 zones, whether I’m bringing people together from functions, or geographies, or business units, people from the board, or strategy folks, or operational folks, or outside folks, folks like consultants, advisors and so forth, it allows you to think through, “Who should I be bringing into my meetings?” Even in small settings. And you don’t need, as you say, 15, 20, 30. You can have a handful of each constituency to really get after the challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, maybe let’s zoom out a little bit. So, you got a 10-step process here. Could you kind of give us the one or two sentences per step overview of how this goes down? And then we’ll dig into some more.

David Komlos
The first step is to acknowledge the complexity. So, a lot of people would rather not acknowledge that something is multidimensional, is a human challenge, it’s going to be a difficult one. It can’t just be solved the normal way. And so, they go down the wrong path in the approach they take. One thing that we like to say is it’s not the problem you’re solving, it’s how you’re solving the problem.

And so, you have to know what kind of challenge are you up against. And when it’s a complicated challenge, you should bring in the experts. When it’s a complex challenge, you have to take a different approach. That’s the approach that I’ll talk through now. But the first step is to acknowledge that you are dealing with a complex challenge. Same old, same old won’t work on it. You need a different approach.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

David Komlos
The next step, once you know it’s a complex challenge, let’s say it’s about growing faster. You’d want to construct a really, really good question. That’s the second step in the formula. And so, your question could be, “What must we do, starting now and over the next six months, to grow by 15% over the next two years?” Or you could have a different question but it would be a growth-oriented question. And the question serves as the invitation and as the guideline to the people that you’ve invited who we spoke of just previously, those different constituencies.

The third step is to say, “Well, if this is the question that I’m trying to answer, ‘What do have to do over the next three months to grow by 10% or 15% over the next 18 months?’ who are all the right people, who are all the right solvers, what’s the right variety of solvers that I need to target?” And so, when you think through, “Who are all the people I need to target?” you want to think about the usual suspects.

But you also want to think about the non-usual suspects, those people who are inside your organization who don’t necessarily get called into these conversations, like people from the field, for example, or someone who worked for a competitor, or people from outside your organization, like a futurist, or a consultant who may not necessarily have been in that conversation with you had you not thought about targeting all the right variety of people.

The next step is to localize the solvers. So, localize them, bring them together. There’s a lot of really good technology out there to have conversations in small groups, but what we find is face to face on the really important challenges is really important.

And then, the fifth step, is to eliminate the noise. Before you bring people together, you’ve got make sure that you circulate some sort of a fact base, some sort of level-setting language to get people as far as possible even before they get together. You can do that with pre-reads, you can do that with videos, you can have a conference call to level-set folks, you can send out a glossary of terms, you can do all of the above, you can do none of the above. It’s really important though to think about, “How can I get a diverse group of people who don’t necessarily see things the same way, who speak different languages? How can I eliminate some of that noise before we get together knowing that I won’t be able to eliminate all the noise?”

Now, the next step is, once people are together and they know what the question is, they know they’re going to talk about, “What can we do over the next three months to grow faster?” the next step is really important. Don’t pre-determine the agenda. Let your team, whether it’s 6 people, 16 people, 26, 36, 56 people, agree on the topics they think they need to talk about, they think they need to explore in order to answer your question about growing faster.

When you let the people themselves, having brought the right group of people together, when you let them determine what they have to explore, the ownership starts right away, and the engagement starts right away in contrast to pre-determined agendas, which can often bias the outcomes. Then we say, “Put people on a collision course.” What that means is when you bring 20 people together, Pete, or 60 people, or even 10 people, you really have to make sure all of those people are going to interact with each other many times.

So, if you bring together 20 people, you don’t want five people who are really keen on figuring out how to grow faster or how to deliver a better customer experience. You don’t want the five keen people to be talking to each other constantly with the rest of the others checked out pretty much, whether it’s because they’re just not engaged, they may be introverted, not feeling very comfortable contributing in that particular way, for whatever reasons, hierarchy may be dominating, the loudest voices may be dominating.

To put people on a collision course means to make sure that everyone is bumping into everyone many times in conversations. Because if you take a few steps back in the formula, you targeted the right group of people for a specific purpose. You said, “I need these people, the usual suspects and the non-usual suspects if I’m going to solve this fast.” And if you brought them together, if you went to lengths to bring them face to face, make sure that they’re all engaging with each other many times.

Now, another step in the formula is once they’re engaging with each other many times, you want to make sure that you are giving them a kick at the can a variety of times on the same subject. So, if Dave said, “We got to talk about X. We got to talk about Y. We got to talk about Z,” make sure they’re talking about those topics three, four times. Not just one kick at the can, many kicks at the can.

And then we don’t just make sure that people are bumping into each other many times, we don’t just make sure that we’ve got the right group of people talking about the right topics that they’ve identified as the right topics to discuss on a question they all care about, you want to make sure that they’re having really, really candid dialogue. So, what we do and what you can do very easily, whether you’re doing it this way or in small meetings, we assign people to teams on topics as members and critics and observers. And those people play those roles an equal number of times so it’s a fair approach on a variety of topics.

Members, their job is to really advance the topic as far as they can. Critics are in the room. You can think about it as a round table where the members are at the table, there’s a panel of critics sitting right behind them, listening very carefully, and then giving them critique, helping them to do better. And then you can imagine a group of observers at the back of the room just listening, not being able to contribute.

And what we’re really trying to create is a purposeful deliberate controlled explosion amongst all these people, an explosion of brain power. People listening differently, people contributing differently, people hearing each other differently, learning differently, and much more efficiently and effectively having very transparent dialogue, very candid conversation about the things that matter.

So, when you acknowledge the complexity and you form it in the form of a question, and you bring together the right people, you bring them together, you eliminate the noise, you get them telling you what they need to discuss to answer the question, you put them in meetings where they can collide with each other many times, and you have really good dialogue amongst them while they’re colliding, you get clarity and insights and action basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s good stuff. Now, let’s see, there’s a few things I want to follow up here now. So, we say construct a really, really good question. What makes a question really, really good? And what are some things to watch out for in that are kind of inadequate when it comes to your questions?

David Komlos
That in itself is a great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

David Komlos
Yes. So, you want your questions to embed one or more goals, so, “What do we have to do to hit 20% growth?” It could be, “What do we have to do to hit 30% growth profitably?” It could be, “What do we have to do to double the business while remaining a great place to work or a top employer of choice?” It could be, “How do we ensure all Americans have access to safe and affordable healthcare?” The adjectives that you use have to be very deliberate when you talk about the “we” in the question, “What must we do?” You have to be very specific about who the “we” is. Is it the team? Is it the business unit? Is it the enterprise? Is it the society? You want to be very specific about that.

A good question has a well thought-through time horizon. Is it, “What do we need to do now and over the next 18 months”? Is it, “What do we have to do now and over the next 90 days to get the full benefit out of the merger”? The time horizon is really important because the recommendations that you get is going to be geared towards the time horizon.

And then a good question has stretch goals but not unreasonable goals. A good question has stretch goals that make people feel that they can hit those goals when things have changed in contrast to unreasonable goals which just sort of deter people from wanting to even start to answer the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, when it comes to the you’ve got the member, the observer, and the critic, so how does that kind of play out with regard to, okay, you have a sub-topic, sub-committee? Like, could you sort of spell out just sort of how many people are talking about something? And how do you divide those numbers and people into those roles?

David Komlos
Yeah, let’s say you’re in a meeting, you’re having a meeting with 10 people. I would say, “Assign five of them as members, assign three of them as critics, and then assign two of them as observers.” And, of course, those people will change roles when you go to your next topic, right? But on this topic, talking about cost structure, or brand, or message, or segment, or whatever you’re talking about, have five members at the round table, three critics sitting just behind them, listening intently, and two observers near the back, not saying a word, listening very, very carefully.

Let the members have a 15-, 20-minute conversation really digging into the topic, whatever they’re talking about, and then ask them to pause, and then invite the critics for a minute or two each to provide their critique, and they can critique the process, “John seems to be dominating,” or, “I’d like to hear more from Jerry or Mary,” or, “I disagree with that recommendation,” or, “Did you know that?” or, “This worked really well in…” That’s the kind of critique you’re looking for. And make sure you’re not letting the critics become members. You just want them to give the members what they need to hear in order to advance their own conversation when they take the conversation back.

And you want the observers taking notes in the back because they will be given speaking roles, they will be members or critics of other topics as the day progresses, or as your next meeting progresses. And what you’ll find is that the members really, really dig in, they listen really well to what the critics have to say. The critic role is always a very powerful role to really sway the way a team is going always to the positive. It allows the team to sort of step back. It allows people to say, “You know, you’re at 100,000 feet. You need to get down to the ground.” Or it allows people to say, “You went right to detail before stepping back and really understanding the full breadth and depth of the challenge.” The critic role is really important.

And one thing I want your listeners to know is that when you start to assign people as members, critics, and observers, organizations get used to this, you’ll run much more effective meetings, and they’ll become very self-managing. The members are going to want to hear from the critics. The observers at the back will be bursting, waiting for their turn to get to be a member or a critic. It’s a very, very effective way to structure a half-hour meeting, a two-hour meeting, a two-day meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
And when we get the collision course going, I’m curious, people have a natural tendency to sort of just talk to people that they know and they are sort of affiliated with already. What are the means by which you get the collisions to happen?

David Komlos
Okay. So, Pete, I will say at the commercial level, so to speak, the most sophisticated version of the formula, we use algorithms. So, we literally use algorithms to solve for N times, N minus 1 connection points, where N is the number of people. So, if there’s 20 people, there’s 20 times 19 connection points, and we let an algorithm assign people to teams in a way that makes sure that not only are they on the right teams, but they’re going to bump into other people on the other teams as they iterate.

When you don’t have an algorithm, you want to pay attention to who’s on which team as best as you can, and you want to rotate people through a variety of topics during a three-hour meeting, and you want to have a variety of meetings on those same topics. So, I would recommend to your listeners that, let’s say you have a five-point agenda to talk about a specific challenge that you’re trying to address or seize a big opportunity, if you have five topics, cycle through those topics at least twice. And feel free to cycle through those topics three times.

So, you should meet on them one through five, one topic through five, and then do that again, and do that again. And with different people playing member, critic, observer roles on the different teams and rotating, you will have people bumping into each other in the right way, or approximating that as best as possible. And you’ll see a real lift on the cross-pollination and the learning that’s happening from one discussion to the next.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so, understood. Now, there’s a few approaches here that are different from the norm. Could you share a word for the skeptic in terms of some of the eye-popping results that have come about in terms of getting the job done well and more efficiently than traditional approaches?

David Komlos
Yes. So, skeptics deserve to be skeptical.

Pete Mockaitis
And the observers are observing, the skeptics are skepticking.

David Komlos
Yes, exactly, and they deserve to be. I mean, there’s a lot of different mouse traps out there that profess to have solved, you know, for how to go about solving things and just don’t live up to that. Speaking from experience, I would say the good news here is you can try this yourself. So, the next time you’re planning to solve something, you’re planning a meeting, start by inviting some of the non-usual suspects. And, of course, the other people will say, “Why is Bob, or why is Terry being invited to this meeting? They have nothing to do with what we’re talking about.” Invite them nonetheless and be open about that.

Take an iterative approach to the agenda items in your meeting, even if you’ve pre-determined the agenda. If you don’t feel comfortable leading the agenda up to the group, pre-determine the agenda, have a finite number of topics, five, six, seven topics that you want to discuss to get after a challenge, and go through two cycles of meetings, and assign a portion of your people as members, and a portion of them as critics, and judge for yourself. And that’s doing it in a very sort of grassroots brass tacks way.

It only takes two hours or an hour of meeting to see the difference between your normal meetings. And then you will have experimented with something that’s not costing you money to do that you can decide to amplify and do more of if it works. And then if you’re really, really interested, read more about the formula and use it on a larger scale. The only way to get skeptics to not be skeptical is to try something on a small scale and then scale it up.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you’re in the midst of some of these conversations, do you have any favorite prompts or questions or scripts that you find yourself kind of reaching for again and again and again?

David Komlos
Yeah, we counsel people in a few ways. I like that question about prompts. And so, if you don’t have customers in the room, what would your customers say? If you don’t have the regulator in the room, what would the regulator be saying? If you don’t have any naysayers in the room, what would the naysayers and cynics would say? If you don’t, for some reason, have the implementation angle or the PMO in the room, what would they be concerned about, or what would they be saying?

And then one other prompt that we give all the sponsors of the sessions that we do which are usually a day and a half minimum, we say, “It’s okay. It’s totally okay and very, very welcome, in fact, the job of the people who have been convened here is to speak their minds and open their hearts and say everything that needs to be said. The only thing that will be looked down upon is if you don’t say something here, and say at the water cooler two weeks later. Put everything on the table here, not in two weeks. We’re all here. We’re all here together to solve something and get after it, say what has to be said here not later.”

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

David Komlos
Just that for your listeners, many of us have been conditioned that solving big challenges, whether at the team level, the business unit level, higher up, and getting people to change, that’s an arduous, long life cycle, long task. And what I want people to know is that solving and change can be incredibly fast when you’re approaching the challenge the right way.

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

David Komlos
Well, I love the movie The Matrix and I like it when Morpheus says to Neo, “There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

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

David Komlos
I really love two books, and I don’t know if you’d put them under the guise of research. But I do love Crossing the Chasm and learned a tremendous amount from that book, Geoffrey Moore, the author. And then Jim Collins’ Good to Great is also one that I refer and reflect back on regularly.

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

David Komlos
Something that helps me be awesome at my job is a full floor-to-ceiling whiteboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. And how about a favorite habit?

David Komlos
Intermittent fasting.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I’ve done that before. Tell me about it.

David Komlos
Well, basically, I eat between noon and 8:00 at night, usually finish around 7:00, and then I don’t eat. I just drink water. And I find that that gets me up in a really good place. The body gets used to it. I’ve got the right level of energy in the morning. I can get a lot of great work done. I’m not wondering about what I’m going to eat. Not even thinking about it. I get right to work or focus on my family. And then when noon hits, I eat.

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

David Komlos
Yes, requisite variety. Only variety can destroy variety. That really resonates with people.

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

David Komlos
I’d point them to CrackingComplexity.com.

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

David Komlos
Bucket your challenges for the rest of your career. For the rest of your career, look through the lens of requisite variety, “Who are all the right people that I need to bring to something, not just the usual suspects?” And when you look through the lens of the right variety of people, you will more often than not bring the right people to the challenge. And that’s half the battle.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, David, thank you for this. I wish you lots of luck with all the complexity you’re cracking, and have a good one.

David Komlos
Thank you, Pete. You, too.

416: How to Find Insights Others Miss with Steven Landsburg

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Steven Landsburg says: "The world is full of people doing things that I don't understand... train yourself to stop and ask yourself why they're doing those things."

Economist Steven Landsburg offers key questions to push your thinking beyond the obvious to generate helpful insights.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to jog your brain out of complacent thinking
  2. A common assumption that often leads people to make poor decisions
  3. Two exercises to help expand your thinking beyond the obvious

About Steven

Steven E. Landsburg is a Professor of Economics at the University of Rochester, where students recently elected him Professor of the Year. He is the author of The Armchair EconomistFair PlayThe Big Questions, two textbooks in economics, and much more. His current research is in the area of quantum game theory. He writes the monthly “Everyday Economics” column in Slate magazine, and has written regularly for Forbes and occasionally for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He appeared as a commentator on the PBS/Turner Broadcasting series “Damn Right”, and has made over 200 appearances on radio and television broadcasts over the past few years.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Steven Landsburg Interview Transcript

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

Steven Landsburg
Thank you so much for having me here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and to learn about your skills with aerial silks. What’s this about?

Steven Landsburg
Well, that’s a little bit off the topic I thought we’d be talking about, but I’m happy to talk about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, let’s warm it up a little.

Steven Landsburg
Aerial silks is like what you see in Cirque du Soleil where you’ve got a long piece of fabric hanging typically 24 feet from the ceiling, and a performer will climb on the fabric, and you wrap your body in various ways so that when you let go you fall almost to the floor, but the fabric catches you before you actually land.

Pete Mockaitis
And the crowd gasps.

Steven Landsburg
And the crowd gasps. I’m not quite as good at it as those performers you see in Cirque du Soleil, but I’ve been doing it for some years. It’s my hobby. It’s what I do in the evenings. I enjoy it a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
That is so fascinating. You’re an economics professor, and this is what you do for kicks.

Steven Landsburg
It’s a good workout. It’s less boring than most of the other things I used to do to workout, and it’s fun.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I just wonder like where do you sign up for that? Do you see a flyer, you’re like, “Oh, cool. I’ll give this a shot.” How does one begin?

Steven Landsburg
I got into it because I’ve got a lot of friends, as it happens in Boston, who all simultaneously got excited about this at the same time, and there was a place for them to go take lessons in Boston. I live in Rochester, New York. There was no place here, so I used to do it from time to time when I visited my Boston friends. But then I was very excited after a couple of years of that when the studio finally opened up in Rochester, and I went and took a lesson. It turned out the instructors were fantastic, so I’ve been going ever since.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. I can’t come up with a brilliant segue way on the spot. We’re going to talk about mental acrobatics now. In your book, Can You Outsmart an Economist, you lay out a 100 puzzles, not just for funsies, but rather with the particular goal of training the brain to think and operate better. That sounds so cool. I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing maybe one of the most surprising and fascinating insights you’ve gleaned from us humans and our thought processes from this puzzle creation and working process.

Steven Landsburg
Well, it’s all about thinking beyond the obvious, and it’s all about looking at human behavior that you might be inclined to dismiss as just irrational or pointless and thinking a little deeper and asking yourself, “Why are people behaving the way they’re behaving?” Try to put yourself in those shoes, try to see what kind of incentives they were facing, and try to figure out what’s really going on.

Steven Landsburg
Here’s an example. I’m a college teacher. At the end of every semester my students fill out these evaluation forms to say how they liked me, and every college teacher in the country faces the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And every year you nail it.

Steven Landsburg
I do pretty well actually. I’m happy to say I do pretty well. But there is very strong statistical evidence that physically beautiful teachers do better on those forms than other teachers who appear to be equally well-qualified, equally good. Systematically, the most beautiful teachers do best on these things.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now we see why you do pretty well on these. Steven, huh?

Steven Landsburg
I’m afraid I do well on these despite [crosstalk 00:03:38]. But the question is, why are students so consistently favoring the most physically beautiful professors? Now, the simple, straightforward, obvious answer is that students are a little bit shallow, and like everybody else, they are swayed by things that aren’t actually relevant, and so they’re making evaluations that are not really accurate evaluations of the teaching quality. They’re letting all sorts of other things influence them.

That’s the obvious explanation, but I think it’s the wrong explanation. I believe what’s really going in is this. Beautiful people have a lot of job opportunities that other people don’t have. Not just in modeling, not just in the movies, but in retail, in sales beauty helps in anything where you have to deal with the public. A beautiful person who chose to be a college teacher, on average, is going to be a person who gave up a lot of other opportunities in order to be a college teacher. On average, that’s going to be somebody who’s enthusiastic about college teaching and is probably pretty good at it.

On the other hand, and again speaking about broad averages here, people who are less attractive had fewer other opportunities. Maybe some of them went into college teaching because it was the only thing available to them. You would expect in any occupation, even an occupation where physical beauty doesn’t matter—especially in an occupation where physical beauty doesn’t matter—if beautiful people go into that occupation, on average they’re going to be the best because they’re the ones who gave up the most in order to go there.

As I say in the book, if you show me a lighthouse keeper with movie star good looks, I’m going to show you the world’s best lighthouse keeper because if he gave up a career in Hollywood to keep that lighthouse, he must really love lighthouse keeping. The whole idea of the book, Can You Outsmart an Economist, is to think one step deeper like that about all of the various little and big mysterious things that we see as we go through life.

Pete Mockaitis
Steven, you’ve really got me hooked and intrigued by the particular example with the beautiful professors. I think it was the Rate My Professor with the chili peppers, you know, the chili pepper havers. That seems like a very plausible hypothesis.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
That could add up and explain things and make some sense. Now I’m wondering, “Hey, is it true?” I guess the way we’d maybe test that would be you have to have almost actors with the same mannerisms and vocal inflection, maybe even lip-syncing an audio.

Steven Landsburg
I cannot prove to you that this is true. As I say in the book, there are a number of puzzles here where I don’t know for sure that I have the right answer, but I think I have an answer that’s got a pretty good chance of being right and a good reason why it’s got a pretty good chance of being right. For goodness’ sake, the message is not that you should just believe me. The message is that you should try to think the same way and try to find some other explanations. Can I give you another example of the same sort of thing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Yes. Maybe just one more tidbit on that first.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. What’s fun about it is, you’re right, we may not know it to be true, but it is teeing up a great extra question or piece of research, and I think it’s just keeping me a little bit more just mentally limber in the sense of now I’m a lot more fascinated by this question than I was beforehand, and I figure we’ve got one fine hypothesis which can very well spark additional hypotheses and in so doing, I’m just doing better thinking.

Steven Landsburg
Yes, absolutely. But there is evidence for very similar phenomena. For example, barbers. Barbers today are about exactly as productive as they were 200 years ago. It takes just as long to cut somebody’s hair now as it did 200 years ago. The equipment hasn’t gotten all that better. Nothing has changed in terms of the productivity, and yet the wages of a barber today compared to 200 years ago are 25-35 times as much. Why did that happen?

Pete Mockaitis
This is adjusted for inflation?

Steven Landsburg
After adjusting for inflation. Yes, of course. The real purchasing power of the wages is 30-35 times as much as it used to be. Why did that happen? The answer most economists believe, and we do have a lot of evidence on this, is that 200 years ago, a lot of people became barbers because there was nothing else to do. Today, people who become barbers have a lot of alternative, possible occupations. There are so many other things you can do which have gotten more productive: factory work, being a tailor, anything like that.

Steven Landsburg
The machines are so much better now. Everybody is so much more productive, and so those occupations have drawn a lot of barbers away into those other fields where there’s greater opportunity. The remaining barbers face less competition and therefore command higher wages. So as long as wages go up in some industries, that pulls up wages in the other industries even where no productivity change has happened. It does it by pulling people out of that occupation, making less competition and driving the wages up.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s also interesting that I think of barbers nowadays as like a specialty like, “If you just need your haircut, you go over to Great Clips or wherever and fork over just a few bucks.” Whereas a barber, oh boy, they’re going to get a fancy brush, and they’re going to put some foamy gel or foamy shave cream on your neck and use a straight blade. That’s the barbers I love to go to. I don’t know if barbers back in the day were more sort of commonplace with regard to, “Yeah, this is where you go for your haircut.”

Steven Landsburg
But even the guy at Great Clips today is earning 35 times what [crosstalk 00:10:05] 200 years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
No offense to the Great Clips listeners out there. But there’s the branding. It’s kind of value-oriented. It’s there. Intriguing. We’re looking beyond the obvious and practice how do we get into that habit? Are there key questions that you ask yourself? One of them was just about thinking about the incentives or underlying things. How else do you kind of jog the brain out of just complacently taking the obvious approach?

Steven Landsburg
A lot of it is thinking about incentives. A lot of it, of course, is just practice. You train yourself to think this way all the time. The world is full of little mysteries. You look around, and you train, analyze. The world is full of people doing things that I don’t understand and you train yourself to stop and ask yourself why they’re doing those things.

I’ll have more examples of that sort of thing for you later on if you want them. But in another direction, another thing I touch on a lot in the book is not taking statistics at face value but looking a little bit deeper, looking at what underlies the numbers that seem to tell a story sometimes, but when you look a little deeper they’re telling a very different story.

For example, at the University of California at Berkeley some years ago somebody noticed that the admission rate for graduate programs for male applicants was about three times as great as for female applicants even when they were equally qualified. A man applying to graduate school at Berkeley and an equally qualified woman applying to graduate school at Berkeley, the man had three times greater chance of being accepted.

You look at that statistic and you say, “Wow, that looks like discrimination.” A lot of lawyers took that seriously. They took it so seriously that the university ended up being sued for discrimination. This case ended up in court. The case fell apart when somebody noticed that the discrepancy was entirely accounted for by the fact that for some reason, at that time and place, women were consistently applying to the most selective programs and men to the least selective programs.

I’m making this up. I don’t know that it was the law school and the medical school. But the law school, let’s say, accepts almost everyone who applies, male or female. The medical school takes a tiny fraction of those who apply, male or female. They both treat everybody equally, but for some reason, men tend to apply to the law school, women tend to apply to the medical school. That’s going to cause men to be mostly accepted and women to be mostly rejected even though there is absolutely no discrimination going on.

Sometimes there is real discrimination, but in the case of Berkeley there was clearly not. Once you look at the numbers carefully, there was clearly not. The case was thrown out of court as soon as somebody realized this. However, before, a lot of lawyers made a lot of money.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That is intriguing. I find that’s often the case with … Hey, I’ve just done this recently with my podcast data. I’ve got some Apple engagement data which will tell me what is the average proportion of an episode that gets listened to. But that is by no means a fair indicator of which episodes are the most engaging because some of my episodes are much longer than others.

Steven Landsburg
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I actually went to great lengths to come up with a fairer comparison point, which was, what percentage of listeners got to minute 25? It’s kind of what I’m using, so it’s like whether the episode was 33 minutes or 54 minutes. It’s fair enough to see was it interesting enough for you to hang out for 25 minutes?

Steven Landsburg
That sounds just right to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Steven Landsburg
I’m glad you’re doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Likewise, with download numbers with regard to, “Hey, what are the most downloaded episodes ever?” It’s like, “Well, some of the episodes have been around longer.” They’ve had more opportunity to be downloaded, and some of them appeared during hotter streaks in which there were more total listeners listening to everything. I’ve chosen to index them to the recent episodes. But anyway, I’m right with you. Sometimes you got to dig deeper than the data on the surface.

Steven Landsburg
I won’t go into the details because I think you need a piece of paper in front of you with some numbers on it. But equally well, there are cases where you can look at statistics that seem to be clearly showing that there is no discrimination whereas, in fact, there is a lot of discrimination underlying the numbers. Again, I’ll give you some examples in the book. The numbers can fool you in either direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s interesting. Could you maybe walk us through some particular categories of bias or things that you’re seeing again, and again and again that can lead us to some optimal decisions?

Again, there’s the statistical stuff. There is a chapter. Again, I would hesitate to try and give these examples on the air because they involve a few numbers, and I think it helps a lot to see the numbers on the page in front of you. But there are examples in the book of simple little games that you can play where you’ve got a choice of what kind of prizes you want to be eligible for, and you can decide whether you want to play for these prizes, or decide whether you want to play for those prizes, play the game, see how things turn out.

Consistently, people prefer certain sets of prizes to others in these games. They prefer playing certain ways to playing other ways. If you allow them to play the way that the majority of people choose to play, the combination of games that they’re playing guarantees, absolutely guarantees, that at the end of the day they will lose money. They are making choices that guarantees that they will lose more money in the games they lose than they will in the games they win.

Those are the choices people instinctively make. Clearly, those are not good choices to be making. I think we can learn a little from that about how we should be more careful about the choices that we instinctively make.

Pete Mockaitis
You say we prefer certain ways. Are there a couple of summary principles that point to the nature of our instinctive preferences that can serve optimally?

Steven Landsburg
For one thing, we’re often too quick to suppose that other people are behaving irrationality when in fact they’re behaving very purposefully in ways that we don’t understand. I recently bought a Sony television set. I was surprised to discover that it’s absolutely exactly the same price no matter where I shop. I can go to Best Buy, I can go to a discounter, I can go to the internet. It’s exactly the same price everywhere except from a couple of places on the internet that are pretty skeevy-looking and where it’s pretty clear you’re never going to get your television set.

But it’s the exact same price everywhere and it turns out that the reason for that is that Sony requires all of their retailers to charge the same price. At first that might look like Sony is trying to keep the price up, but you think about that and it doesn’t actually make any sense because Sony doesn’t care about the retail price. They care about the wholesale price, and they have total control over the wholesale price. They sell the television set for $1,000 to the retailers. Why should they care whether the retailer resells it for 1,200, or 1,500, or 2,000?

It looks like Sony is just being irrational there. A person might be tempted to say, “Boy, Sony hasn’t really thought this through.” But, you know, Sony is in this business. They thought it through. You’ve got assume that they’ve thought this through, and there is a good reason for it. It turns out that the good reason is this: what they’re trying to combat is people like me, who, if the price were different at different places, I would go to Best Buy where they’ve got fantastic customer service, they’ve got all the models on the wall, they’ll talk to me for two hours about the pros and cons of the different models, and then I’ll go across town to the discounter and buy it cheaper.

The problem with that is if enough people do that, Best Buy will stop carrying the television sets, and Sony does not want that. So they’re requiring the discounter to keep the price up not because they care about the retail price, but because they care about the discounter stealing customers from Best Buy and giving Best Buy an incentive to stop offering that customer service. They care about the customer service because that makes people more likely to buy Sony.

Again, if you look at something somebody is doing, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Sometimes we have an instinct to say, “Wow, they never thought that through,” but usually, they have thought it through if it’s something that’s important to them, and then you can learn something by thinking a little deeper about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s interesting. To go maybe meta there for a moment, we’re too quick to assume and suppose that others are behaving irrationally. I suppose that is adaptive for us because it’s just easier. There’s less energy required from our brains to be like, “Huh, that was stupid of them,” as opposed to really thinking, “Hmm, what was behind that? What could they be benefiting? What are the implications?” That’s a lot more work.

Steven Landsburg
Sure. Part of my message is that that work can be a lot of fun. People like solving puzzles. People enjoy crossword puzzles, they enjoy Sudokus, they enjoy brain teasers. You can harness that love of doing puzzles to doing this kind of puzzle. I think it does make you a little more insightful. It is a little more work, but there’s no reason that that work can’t be a lot fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say that you’re at work and a puzzle presents itself. I guess I have to make an example, so we can get kind of concrete. But I want to hear your steps, or approaches or what you do for a second and a third. So let’s just say we are thinking, “You know, we’re having all of these dissatisfied customer service calls. They call and they’re not pleased with what has happened on the other end of the line. We want to fix that.” How would you begin to disentangle this and solve the puzzle?

Steven Landsburg
That’s such a broad question. It’s a little hard to answer without knowing more about the nature of the business and exactly what’s coming in on the calls. I guess I would start with listen to what they’re saying, and engage with them, ask some follow-up questions, and don’t jump to the conclusion that you understand exactly what they’re upset about. Sometimes, especially when people are upset, they’re not so good at articulating what the problem is, and so you got to slow them down and try to pin them down on the details of exactly what has made them unhappy and what could have made them happier.

Beyond that, I think so much depends on exactly all of the details that you didn’t give me in this hypothetical story, but starting by listening to people is probably always the right place.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take when it comes to the asking and the listening. You’re right. Sometimes you don’t quite get what you want. I’m thinking about entrepreneurs who ask, “Hey, would you buy this at $20 a unit?” And people say, “Absolutely.” They say, “Well, great. I’ve got some in my car right now.” He’s like, “Oh, never mind.” What we ask of people is often not reflective of their true behaviors. Any ways around that?

Steven Landsburg
Always be trying to look beyond the obvious. What are the incentives that are driving the way people are behaving? In your case, of course, people are saying yes probably because it’s the easiest to get you to shut up.

If you stop and think about what they’re trying to accomplish, what you’re hoping they’re trying to accomplish is to give you accurate information, but they’re not interested in whether you have accurate information. They’re interested in moving onto something they find a little more interesting. Just having that level of insight into what other people are trying to accomplish will help you interpret what they’re telling you.

Pete Mockaitis
Very much. I think about that with regard to surveys where your answer could make you look bad in terms of, “Yes, of course, I recycle always,” because to admit aloud is probably even harder to do than, say, an anonymous survey that you don’t recycle, or you recycle very rarely when it’s only super convenient for you or whatever the thing may be. The incentive at play here is just not feeling like a jerk or a loser.

Steven Landsburg
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So—
Go ahead.

Steven Landsburg
No, go on.

Pete Mockaitis
So then you got a bunch of puzzles in your book. I’d love it if you were so kind as to spare us from those. That would be kind of too complex without the visual aid to work with, but could you perhaps share one that we can work with auditorily alone that you think offers some pretty substantial mental expansion when you work through it?

Steven Landsburg
Okay, here’s one from the political world. Coal miners get a lot of attention from politicians. There’s a lot of pressure to make life better for coal miners to keep their wages up, to keep their working conditions better. Fast food cooks are far more numerous than coal miners. You don’t see any of that with the fast food cooks. Politicians they campaign in West Virginia, they make promises for what they’re going to do for the coal miners. We don’t see any of that for so many other unskilled occupations, which have many, many more people in them.

What is it about the coal miners that causes them to get all this attention that the other people don’t get? The answer to that question-

Pete Mockaitis
Can I try?

Steven Landsburg
Go ahead. Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
My guess is that if you think about incentives, the politicians are receiving some election campaign money from energy companies that have a vested interest in coal being alive and well and flourishing.

Steven Landsburg
Why do they get that from the coal companies and not, say, from the restaurants?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s another layer.

Steven Landsburg
Why are the coal companies putting all that pressure on them to say, “Take care of our employees,” and the restaurants not putting all that pressure on them?

Pete Mockaitis
My knee-jerk reaction is that the fast food companies have plans to automate away many of their workers as soon as possible as I’m seeing with the McDonald’s order kiosk, but there could be any number of factors.

Steven Landsburg
This has been going on for decades, and decades and decades. The answer that most economists will give you and that I absolutely believe is the correct one is this. If politicians respond to the needs of coal companies, coal companies will benefit. If politicians help fulfill the needs of the restaurants, what will happen is new restaurants will open to take advantage of that. It’s much easier to open a new restaurant than to open a new coal mine. There’s a limited amount of places where you can open a coal mine. The coal mines are already there.

If we make life better for the coal miners and the people who employ the coal miners, the people in the coal mines will benefit. If we make life better for the restaurants and the people who are employed by the restaurants, new restaurants will spring up to take advantage of that and the benefits will be dissipated. They will spread out until the new restaurants will drive down prices of the old restaurants to the point where the old restaurants don’t benefit much anyway and therefore they don’t bother lobbying for these favors. They don’t bother lobbying for things that new entrants can come along and take a share of.

This is the same reason why all around the world, farmers get all kinds of largess from government whereas, motels, for example, do not. Farmers find it worthwhile to lobby for government favors because there’s a limited amount of farm land. They don’t have to worry about new farms cropping up in the middle of New York City. If you treat the motels well politically, new motels will open up. The old motels will suffer from the new competition almost as much as they benefit from the government benefits.

All around the world in all times what we see is that government largess is directed towards those industries that it is difficult to enter and not to the industries that it’s easy to enter. There are strong patterns of that all over the place. What we see follows those patterns just as theory predicts that it would.

Pete Mockaitis
That is thought-provoking. Hopefully, not disheartening.
I was listening to this podcast which was just an audiobook called The United States is Lesterland. It was all about the people who donate to campaigns. Apparently, there’s approximate the same number of people who donate to campaigns as there are people named Lester in the US. That was the analogy, and it kind of got you thinking about the incentives and how they’re aligned. It did make you feel so great in terms of government “by the people, for the people” kind of a way.

Steven Landsburg
Shall I go onto another example?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. That’s good.

Steven Landsburg
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
We were thinking about incentives and the next layers of incentives. Let’s do it.

Steven Landsburg
Let’s move away from politics and go to something much more within the family. All over the world there are cultures where for one reason or another we have a lot of evidence parents prefer sons to daughters overwhelmingly in some places.

Pete Mockaitis
We just had a daughter, and we think she’s wonderful for the record.

Steven Landsburg
I have got my one child as a daughter. I always wanted a daughter. It was perfect. But there are many places around the world where there is an overwhelming preference for sons. What would you expect then at the adoption agencies in those places if you go to those places where people are striving for sons? When you go to the adoption agencies, who do you think gets adopted more easily, the boys or the girls?

If you didn’t think very deeply, you would expect it to be the boys. That’s what people want. They’ll go to the adoption agencies, they’ll ask for boys. The opposite is true. At the adoption agencies and those places they ask for girls. The more the boys are preferred in those cultures, the more it’s the girls who are most easily placed by the adoption agencies. What’s the reason for that?

Again, it kind of looks crazy on the surface, but if you think about the incentives people are facing, it’s pretty clear in a place where people really want boys, they will sometimes take a perfectly healthy, perfectly functioning, intelligent, cheerful girl-child, and put her up for adoption just because they don’t want a girl. It’s a very sad thing, but it happens.

Boys tend to get sent to the adoption agency only if there’s something really wrong with them behaviorally, or if they’ve got an illness or something like that. When you go to that adoption agency, you look at the kids and maybe you can’t see for sure, but if you live in that culture, you’re pretty aware going in that a lot of the boys in that agency are going to be there because they were problem children. A lot of the girls in that agency are going to be there just because they’re girls.

Even if you prefer a boy, you don’t want a problem child. You may prefer a healthy well-behaved girl to an unhealthy ill-behaved boy, even if you prefer boys. Going into the agency, you know statistically what you’re most likely to find there, and so you turn immediately to the girls.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a name for that phenomenon? There’s a reversal based upon the reaction to the incentives. There’s got to be [crosstalk 00:32:52] name for that.

Steven Landsburg
There ought to be a name for that, isn’t there? I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I’ve heard this sort of a thing in a number of different scenarios. Well, maybe that will be your legacy, Steven.

Steven Landsburg
I’ll work on it. I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
No pressure.

Steven Landsburg
But again, the idea is that you see people behaving in a way you don’t quite understand, and you think a little deeper about it, and then you do understand it. It’s fun to understand things. It works not just for people but for animals. What happens if you take a big strong pig and a little weak pig and you put them in a box and you make them compete for food?

Now, economists thought about this question and made a prediction, and then the biologists did us the favor of actually taking a big strong pig and a little weak pig and putting them in a box and letting them compete for food.

Pete Mockaitis
Because they’re macabre, these biologists.

Steven Landsburg
The pigs behave exactly as the economists would predict, which might not be the way that everyone would predict. In fact, it’s the little pig who eats better, and here’s why. The little pig gets most of the food. The box is set up so there’s a food bowl at one end and a lever at the other. You got to push the lever to make the bowl fill up with food.

The little pig has absolutely no incentive to push that lever because if the little pig pushes the lever the big pig will grab all of the food. He’ll push the little pig. The little pig will come down to the bowl. The big pig will already be there and will push him aside. He will eat 100% of the food. Because of that, the little pig quickly figures out there’s no point in pushing that lever.

If the big pig pushes the lever, here’s what happens. The little pig waits by the bowl and eats most of the food before the big pig can get down there. The big pig pushes the lever and then comes running the length of the box. Once the big pig gets there, he pushes the little pig out of the way and gets the dregs, gets the little bit of food that’s left just enough to give him an incentive to keep pushing that lever.

The little pig eats most of the food. The big pig does all the work, and again, it’s perhaps the opposite of what you would have expected at first, but it’s exactly what you would expect if you took the time to think through the incentives, and it’s also exactly what actually happens in the real world.

Pete Mockaitis
That set up that totally makes sense. I guess if there was just food in the middle and there’s a free-for-all, then—

Steven Landsburg
Then the big pig would get it all.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s just sort of simple kind of pushing around factors. Steven, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear some of your favorite things?

Steven Landsburg
Well, I certainly want to mention that if anybody is intrigued by some of these examples and wants to see more, they can go to outsmartaneconomist.com. It’s all one word, outsmartaneconomist.com. They can read the first chapter of this book for free, read some reviews, and get some information on how to order the book. If you are intrigued or think you might be intrigued, go to outsmartaneconomist.com and read the first chapter and see if you like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. Now could you share with us a favorite quote that you find inspiring?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite quote. I’m going to go with ‘Look beyond the obvious.’ I think that’s the quote that is most appropriate to what we’ve been talking about here. Always look beyond the obvious.

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

Steven Landsburg
All these little stories you can tell about the way people behave and the studies that point to intriguing unusual little bits of behavior that then we can try to explain. Again, I like to look at those many, many small things rather than trying to point to one big thing.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, and how about a favorite book?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite book in any area?

Pete Mockaitis
Right?

Steven Landsburg
Let’s see. Well, I’ve just finished reading a couple of these books by Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist and linguist. I find them very insightful. He thinks a lot about human behavior. He thinks a lot about what’s going on a little deeper than many people do. He’s not an economist, but he is looking at the same kinds of questions people look at; why do people behave the way they do? What underlies a lot of apparently irrational behavior? How do we explain that behavior as actually being in the best interests of the people who are behaving that way?

Steven Landsburg
The one book of his that stands out to me is called The Blank Slate. I certainly recommend that one. There are so many good books in economics. There’s a textbook by Armen Alchian and William Allen called Exchange and Production. I expect that title sounds pretty boring, but it’s actually an extremely lively book and a wonderful book to learn fantastic amounts of economics with very little formalism, very little mathematics. Just a lot of storytelling but wonderful stories. That’s another book I would encourage everyone to get a hold of.

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

Steven Landsburg
My computer, without a doubt. I’m never without it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Steven Landsburg
A favorite habit. I guess I have a favorite/unfavorite habit of doing that half-hour on the treadmill every morning no matter what. I hate it, but I am very happy with the fact that I have cultivated that habit. I don’t let myself miss it. I hope it’s doing some good for my health. God knows there could be a study coming out tomorrow showing just the opposite, but as far as I know it’s good.

Steven Landsburg
I think cultivating the habit of doing things that are really good for you, even when you don’t want to do them, is probably a good amount of habit.

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

Steven Landsburg
That thinking is fun. Thinking a little more deeply about things not only does it make you more able to cope with the world, not only does it make you more able to make decisions better and understand other people’s decisions and interact with other people in politics, in markets, in the family, but the main the reason to think deeply about things is that you have a lot of fun along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
And your final challenge or call-to-action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Steven Landsburg
Buy my book.
Pete Mockaitis
Okay, right on. Steven, thanks so much and good luck to you.

Steven Landsburg
Thank you very much.