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600: Scientific Strategies to Make Learning Stick with Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto

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Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto say: "Be an extreme learner. Treat learning like it's a mountain to climb."

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto share practical insights on how to optimize your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three simple tactics that drastically improve how we learn
  2. Why you want the learning process to be difficult
  3. How to get into the optimal mental state for learning

About Sanjay and Luke

Sanjay Sarma is the head of Open Learning at MIT. A professor of mechanical engineering by training, he has worked in the fields of energy and transportation; computational geometry; computer assisted design; and has been a pioneer in RFID technology. He has an undergraduate degree from IIT Kanpur as well as advanced degrees from Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley.

Luke Yoquinto is a science writer who covers learning and education, as well as aging and demographic change in his role as a researcher at the MIT AgeLab. His work can be found in publications such as The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic. He is a graduate of Boston University’s science journalism program.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Sanjay Sarma and Luke Yoquinto Interview Transcript

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

Sanjay Sarma
Thanks very much.

Luke Yoquinto
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. So, maybe we’ll just go right off the bat. What’s the big idea behind the book Grasp?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, the big idea is that we, today, in learning, need to focus more on access and more on making content cognitively friendly, and we sort of have it backwards. We make stuff cognitively unfriendly, perhaps not intentionally, and then we struggle with access and inclusion, and we end up sort of weeding people out of the system.

Luke Yoquinto
And, in fact, we could go so far as to say all the things we do to “identify talent” sometimes can step on the cognitive process instead of make learning happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, can you share an example in terms of some cognitively unfriendly practices that we may be better off without?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, there’s a myriad. I mean, one very simple one is every lecture is 45 minutes, half an hour, an hour, and we bag our finger at a student who seems to lose interest. But, in fact, the way the brain works, you’re really taught to absorb material for more than 10 minutes or so, right there, right off the bat. And then we, for example, keep forgetting as something this learner, it’s their fault. Whereas, forgetting is very central to all of learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I’m intrigued. So, 10 minutes, already so much I want to dig into. And so, what’s sort of the best practice then? After 10 minutes, is there sort of a break or refresher or a mental pallet cleanser you’d recommend? Or what’s sort of the best practice?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, after 10 minutes, there are so many things you can do, but the first thing is, take a break. But then the other thing you want to do is actually do something called a testing effect. It turns out that if you’ve learned in the last 10 minutes, and if you personalize it a little bit, and say, “Well, now, what did you learn Pete? What is that? What does that promote?” It promotes learning. And then you can start the next chunk. Well, then there’s other stuff. Maybe, Luke, you can talk about that.

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah. The testing effect is sort of a big theme that comes up in the book. There’s something called the effortful retrieval, which is a major boon to long-term remembering. One of the key researchers we talked to for the book are Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, and they have really intriguing set of practices around retrieval and metacognition. And, basically, one of the big ideas is that when you forget an item to be remembered, it’s not just being lost to you. What’s happening is all the competing misconceptions and confusing little ideas around that item are also being forgotten. And then when you re-remember that item, the true memory, without those competing, conflicting, interfering associations comes back, and there’s a much stronger memory.

And so, one thing you can do with the pre-test before your big final exam, for instance, is you can force yourself to have what’s called an effortful retrieval that sort of strips away all these competing memory associations and you get left with a strong long-lasting memory.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, then is that the value in the forgetting there, is that that provides us that opportunity?

Sanjay Sarma
There’s a lot of value in forgetting. There’s value all the way down to the neurons, and all the way up to the things that Luke was talking about. So, the neuron level, what happens is that when you’re about to forget, you get reminded of something, essentially the brain establishes more physical neuronal pathways, which makes the memory firmer. So, that’s one thing. But then if you go up to the higher levels, you get rid of interfering memories, which was what Luke was talking about. So, the integrating memories go away, and you sort of re-establish your memory in a much cleaner way. So, there’s a whole variety of spectrum of benefits to just being able to forget something, and then to re-learn it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’d love to zoom in a little bit in terms of, so you’re playing a big game on a global stage, and when talking about sort of access and all kinds of cool impact there. I think about our listeners, specifically professionals, could you lay out what’s really at stake here for them in terms of if they’re learning optimally or sub-optimally? How significant is that impact?

Sanjay Sarma
Look, 21st century and I like to joke that the 21st century begins in 2021, right? I mean, COVID is this big reset. So, we are going to enter an economy in which learning is central. The half-life of skills is shorter, etc., future work, there’s enough stuff written about it. We are learning animals and we’re going to have to learn for the rest of our lives just to stay abreast. It’s just the way it is.

And so, the ability to learn and to apply these tricks is central. It’s sort of like imagine the way our education system is structured today, it’s sort of like telling someone you can exercise for the first four years of your life and then you’re ready for the rest of your life, as opposed to, you know, going to the gym three times a week. So, learning has got to become that, right? And Luke and I talk about it at some level in the book about how learning is very important.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, I really want to hear, you’ve got a story in the book about a law school in Florida that incorporated some cutting-edge learning strategies, and they saw a dramatic improvement in their bar exam passage rate. Can you share the story?

Luke Yoquinto
So, Pete, talk about the pre-testing effect that we were talking about earlier, that’s sort one-half of these wonderful researchers, the Bjorks, call desirable difficulties and the effortful retrieval that strips away these competing memory associations that lets you form a really long-term memory. The other half is called metacognition which is basically how we think about our own state of knowledge. So, let me just rewind and then we’ll catch it right back up to the law school, FIU Law School in Miami.

Metacognition. So, back in the ‘60s, for instance, researchers thought that what we know about our own thought was sort of a static measure, sort of like an engine oil dip stick, where you just kind of reach and you say, “I’m trying to get a sense of what I know about subject X. Here’s what it is.” But as the Bjorks, especially Robert, showed in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, it’s more like an active measure, it’s more like a speedometer, and how we gauge and how we know, in part, comes from how easy it is to summon that information in the moment.

And that introduces a number of biases. If you have some new fact open in a textbook right in front of you, that can lead you to believe that you’re going to remember that fact come test time. If you are seeing a fact in a true-or-false question, “Is hemoglobin the molecule in red blood cells that delivers oxygen to cells?” you might be able to answer that in a true or false, but then you might not be able to answer a point blank, “What is the molecule?”

And that false sense of knowing, the false sense that your knowledge of a given subject is not going to change, we know that’s not true, right? We know that forgetting happens over a certain curve, it’s called the forgetting curve. It’s one of the most well-known studies or effects in psychology.

And so, when you combine this metacognition stuff with effortful retrieval, you get what’s called desirable difficulties where you have these techniques you can apply while you’re studying that will sort of steel-plate memories for the long term. And one of the things that Louis Schulze, who was the head of sort of reinvigorating this FIU Law School program, did was he just went all in on these, and other really important study techniques, and just instituted a mandatory class for all first year law students at the school to start studying how to study using these techniques.

And so, prior to the beginning of this program, this program started in 2015, it was a respectable middling law school in Florida in terms of bar exam passage rates, kind of bounced around in the middle of the rankings. And they instituted this program where every student is taking this course on how to study as a fresh year law student. And then if you’re sort of in the bottom of your class, it’s mandatory that you continue in these studies in your second year. And then I think there’s another mandatory semester, or effectively mandatory, since everyone takes it because it works so well, in the third year.

But the effect was this program rocketed to the top of its rankings for the state in Florida. Now, it’s always number one and number two in terms of bar passage rates in Florida. And in terms of ultimate bar passage rates, which is the percentage of people who pass the bar within two years of graduation, it’s top 15 in the country. It’s remarkable.

And one of the big takeaways that we found from this story is you have all these students, these law students who, frankly, would’ve flunked out before this. And now with these techniques that are focused on making learning cognitively user-friendly, we’re retaining that talent that would’ve been wasted before.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s very encouraging and quite a testament. So, lay it on us, what are some of the most hard-hitting effective techniques that you think professionals should be using when they’re trying to learn new skills or get that flowing from them?

Sanjay Sarma
Well, here are a few. Do it in short sprints. And, actually, if you go to YouTube, go out to something on YouTube, you’ll find that, naturally, without perhaps understanding the sites, just because of our instincts, people have made their videos very short for a few minutes, 5-10 minutes. The second thing is, at the end of the video, apply the testing effect. So, ask yourself questions about the stuff you learned, right?

So, the third is space it out a little bit, wait some time, ask yourself the next day, do you remember it. Ask yourself a month later. I do this all the time. I’ll watch something, and then like a month later, I’ll try and recall. And rather than blame myself if I forget, I go, “Well, that’s an opportunity because now my brain is going to lit up, cleans the whistles a little bit.”

Here’s another one, very strange. Interleave, that’s part of the effort for learning, the desirable difficulties. What that means is switch. So, let’s say you’re learning two similar things and you’re solving problems or something, if you’re trying to answer questions, just answer questions. Answer questions about the first topic, then the second topic, then the first topic, and second topic, because it forces you to reload.

If you continuously answer questions about the first topic, you’re not reloading that information. You’ve got to sort of reload that program. So, do that. Bottom line is this, at some level, there’s an illusion of learning. We think we’re learning. There’s a lot of biases that Luke talked about, you know, stability, foresight, all that stuff. We won’t bore you with the details, but there’s an illusion of learning.

For example, if you read, read material and with a highlighter you just highlight everything, you feel like you learned because you became familiar with it but it’s an illusion. But when you’re actually learning, it feels effortful, and you go, “Oh, my God, I’m not learning because I’m struggling.” But, actually, you might be learning better. That’s a strange sort of optical illusion related to learning.

Luke, why don’t you add to that?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, that’s right. This applies not only to egghead kind of stuff. You could use this as an athlete. There’s a classic, classic study of, I think, it’s third graders doing the bean bag toss. The goal is to hit a target with a bean bag from three feet away. You have that experimental group throwing two feet away and four feet away but never three feet away. You have a control group throwing from three feet away.

And the experimental group who have never practiced the three-foot throw, on exam day everybody outperformed the kids who have been practicing at three feet. And you can take that to the driving range. This is a classic example that Bob [14:24] talks about. He’s a passionate golfer. If you’re just hitting the same club over and over again at the driving range, you’re not reloading the cognitive program for how to swing a golf club. You’re just kind of re-running the same program.

So, he recommends pull out the driver, hit a few, then switch, aim at a different distance with a different club, switch to a different club, keep switching, keep switching. And that applies whether you’re studying hard facts, whether you’re practicing the piano. The thing that makes it a difficulty is that, initially, you might be discouraged by the progress you make. And, in fact, you might actually make less progress initially than you otherwise would’ve. But in the long term, you’ll see the benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’ve had David Epstein on the show talking about range and sharing some similar takeaways there. And so, what’s interesting is any topic or skill naturally has many sorts of subskills or subtopics under it. So, if I wanted to learn direct response copywriting, that’s of interest to me, there’s many subskills associated with it. Well, there’s the consumer research, and then there’s the intriguing headlines, and then there is trying to pull people in deeper over sort of a longer period of time with paragraphs.

And so, following these best practices, the best move would be to do short spurts of maybe 10 minutes of learning, and then do some effortful retrieval, and then maybe shift gears from one subskill or subtopic to another, and then back and forth.

Sanjay Sarma
That’s exactly right. That’s right you put it well, it’s the reloading. Can you reload that and can you reload this, and can reload that? Not load that and then keep doing the same thing, because it’s a reloading that’s the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Sanjay Sarma
And, yeah, you’re describing it right. By the way, the business of breaking down a complex task into subtasks, that’s something good teachers do, that’s what great coaches do. If you’ve noticed, like in tennis, the great coaches are not necessarily great players. Brad Gilbert coached Andre Agassi sometime but he wasn’t a great player, he was a good player. But because he appreciated what a great player was, he was able to sort of break it down, and there’s techniques for that as well, and then you want to do exactly what you described.

Luke Yoquinto
It’s funny how great players don’t always turn out to be great coaches. It’s often a pretty good player that turns out to be a great coach, which is really interesting.

Sanjay Sarma
In fact, it’s called the expert blind spot because you’ve got to be really, really sympathetic to the learner. But the expert has a blind spot, they go, “Why can’t you get that?” “Geez, because you’re an expert and I don’t, and you need to sort of understand what I don’t get.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And as a learner, that just sort of compounds the frustration in terms of it’s like, “I already know I’m not doing this well, and the fact that I’m apparently displeasing you is just making it worse for me.”

Sanjay Sarma
That’s right. That’s why professors exist, by the way, because parents fall into that trap all the time. I can tell you as a parent.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then I’m curious. I know you’ve done some research on learning styles. But I want to know a bit about to what extent is that off base? And how should we think about sort of different modalities in terms of I’m watching a video, or I’m reading something, or I’m listening to something, or I’m trying it out on myself? How do we think about the styles and the best approach?

Sanjay Sarma
So, the problem with a lot of this learning stuff is that there are very subtle findings, and then sometimes people sort of run with them and turn them into something they’re not. So, the whole learning style things, there’s no basis, there’s no proof. It’s never been proven. If anything, it’s discredited as an approach. It’s not like some people learn better by hearing and some people learn better by video or something like that.

There is research into how to mix modalities. Various research. Myer is a professor who did a lot of work on that, so there is research on that. But the deeper concept, the deeper thought here is that this field that Luke and I talk about in this book has been explored in the past but it’s also led to a lot of faddishness which then falls into convenient buckets. And wouldn’t it be great if some people were just visual and we can just bucket them into visual and put them into visual classroom, and just sort of goes and runs amok a little bit?

So, that’s the whole problem with the learning styles argument. But, really, creating an excellent learning environment takes effort, takes thought, and it’s not that simple that you can just say that a person is a visual learner. And that’s sort of what we talk about in the book. It’s pretty nuanced, it’s pretty subtle, and you’ve got to understand it, and understand as much as possible. And also it’s changing fast. Right, Luke?

Luke Yoquinto
That’s right. Yeah, I would say that people take a lot of comfort in the learning style things sometimes, and that comfort that you think is not misplaced. The origin of that came from some of Howard Gardner’s work where he saw people who had different types of strokes, and a few differences have your language skills impacted but not your numbers skills at all. That helped him formulate his idea of multiple intelligences, which is still a really interesting idea, and it suggests that what might be measured in a standard sit-down IQ test or an SAT in no way encompasses your total powers as a learner.

And when we say learning styles isn’t something that we put much stock in, it’s not to say that you should take your SAT score as your sum total value as a learner. SAT scores and IQ tests capture a very narrow window probably of what people are capable of.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then this is helpful in terms of figuring out some best practices and some sort of mistaken ideas that may not have as robust research base behind. I just want to make sure, we talked about the phrase effortful retrieval a couple times. I’d love it if we could hit a few examples of that. I’ve heard of the Feynman blank page technique in terms of you’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to teach this to someone new,” or, “I’ve got a blank page. I’m just going to write down how this process works, or my true understanding of it.” What are some of the other approaches to do an effortful retrieval?

Luke Yoquinto
The simple answer, honestly, is if you’re in mid-career and you’re thinking about ways to improve, to be really blunt, there are programs online. MITx is the home team program, and we’re a little biased, will build in little quizzes and games and so forth to sort of force that in between video lectures and things like that. So, there are ways you can force that to happen just by choosing a program or choosing approach for your continuing education.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah. For example, you learn something, a book, you read a chapter, there are questions at the end. No one wants to take on these questions because they involve effort. You just skip over them. Answer the questions. Try it. I know it’s effortful but you learn better. So, that’s the testing effect, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Sanjay Sarma
So, it’s strange. The more tests you take, actually, the better you learn. And these are formative tests as opposed to summative. In other words, you’re taking a friendly test. It’s not like someone is grading you on that. So, that’s one very simple example. The other one we talked about is switch topic, switch topic, etc. So, these are examples. But a lot of the systems out there, sort of do it automatically as Luke was talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
And if you don’t have the advantage of some of those systems, or the games built in, or thoughtful questions at the end of the chapter, are there some self-prompts you might recommend for folks to engage with?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, make up a question, for example. Look for ways to break what you just learned, right? Actually, now I’m thinking of this as an academic professor and someone who teaches, and I learn a lot because of my research. There’s always some nagging doubt, and it takes a little bit of introspection to identify that doubt, and you’d rather bury it. But you identify it, you surface it, and you sort of psychoanalyze your doubt. That’s effortful. That actually helps a lot, and that’s something that’s become instinctive for me.

Pete Mockaitis
So, analyze the doubt.

Sanjay Sarma
Don’t bury it. Don’t just whitewash it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great in terms of where might this not work or not apply, or what about this counterexample that doesn’t seem to fit or follow the theory or the principle.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, try and apply it, that’s the other one. Try and apply. If you learned something, apply it. Let’s say it’s a management thing. You learned something in management, well, apply it.

Pete Mockaitis
Porter’s five forces. Okay. Sure.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, exactly. Porter’s five forces.

Pete Mockaitis
Take a look at the mobile phone industry and put those five forces on there. Okay. That’s good. Well, there’s a lot of conversation right now about, hey, in-person versus remote learning. I’m sure we can talk for hours about that alone and how it impacts children and folks in college. What are some key perspectives that we should bear in mind as professionals in this game?

Sanjay Sarma
Look, the elephant in the room is engagement in remote learning, okay? So, let’s leave that elephant out for the time being, let’s kick it out of the room, and come back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
It turns out that, if you look at the learning process, what makes learning work? Curiosity. What you talk about. Curiosity is incredible because if you’re curious, the brain releases dopamine, it’s called the dopaminergic circuit, you learn better. Then there’s the actual content presentation. Then there’s all the fun but effortful parts, like Q&A, discussion, arguments, applying it, doing something with it. All that stuff. Projects. Forgetting and relearning it in a different context. You learned it in a different context but you recall it because, in a project, you need to pull out the stuff you learned.

So, just if you look in a classroom right now, what we do in the classroom is we do lectures. And the lecture is the one thing actually you can do online. And even online you can do it asynchronously, which is what these YouTube videos do, like Khan Academy, etc. And the things that actually we couldn’t do online, we sort of don’t do as much of in the classroom, we ignore it. It’s a tragedy actually. The things we should be doing online, we do in the classroom. And the things we could do in the classroom, we sort of don’t do very much of.

Luke Yoquinto
And we’re talking about discussions, we’re talking about hands-on, contextualization of what you learned, right?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah.

Luke Yoquinto
So, it’s almost as though you have learning as a delivery mechanism where you have lectures that’s introducing knowledge to you for the first time, right? Then you have learning as a steeping mechanism, to steep in the information that you learned after it’s been delivered. And that’s where you’re talking about lab activities, that’s when you’re talking about discussion sessions where the knowledge ping-pongs around the room.

And I think what Sanjay is saying is a really good way to do that initial burst of knowledge is a video lecture. But you really have to do that second part, the ping pong knowledge around the room, and that’s what’s real ideal for in-person learning. And you’ll hear sort of buzzwords like flipped classrooms where you would, for instance, watch your lecture content at home, and then you’re taking part in the discussions, and you’re doing your homework with your teacher at hand to answer questions in the classroom. That’s some of what we’re talking about there.

Sanjay Sarma
And then, so today, during COVID, students are taking stuff remotely. And the problem is what we’ve done is we’ve done something that we shouldn’t be doing which is these lectures where the professors are groaning on, and we put it online. So, of course, students are going to disengage. So, we would say that the right thing to do is use these Zoom to do instructor stuff, get students excited about something, and then use an asynchronous video where they consume the material. Then come back to Zoom and, as best as you can, make up the in-person stuff, discussions, etc. Obviously, you can’t do a chemistry lab over Zoom. You sort of can actually but I wouldn’t recommend it.

So, we sort of have it backwards right now. And, in some ways, the Zoom lecture is exposing the problem and, in fact, when COVID ends, we’re going to go back to the classroom. And what are we going to do? Recreate the Zoom lecture except it runs in the same room. Unfortunately, that’s where we’ll end up, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I want to hit that curiosity point because that is really important. And I guess if you’re not feeling curious, but you got to learn something, how do we stir up some curiosity?

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, there’s some really interesting work there about that. It’s important, first of all, to think of curiosity, it is a drive state in the brain. The sensation of hunger and the sensation of curiosity are not actually that different. They’re both something that the brain experiences as something you really want. In one case, it’s food. The other case it’s information.

Now, how does the brain determine what information is worth wanting? That’s a really interesting and constantly unfolding question. But there are some very fascinating work being done around this where you have a study, for instance, where people are being presented with trivia questions as a means to trigger curiosity. And then they’ll be presented with a completely unrelated set of information to remember.

And if they are in a curious state due to the trivia questions, they’ll remember that unrelated information better. It’s as though curiosity creates this global state of stickiness for information in the brain, and it’s really, really fascinating. So, one thing we have to really take on actively is how to promote that sense in the classroom, or whether you learn it on your own, you try to promote it for yourself. And there’s a lot of interesting discussion about what actually promotes that feeling. Is it just the impression that something new to know is available? No, that’s probably not it. It’s called neophilia, and if that were true, we would always be curious about what’s down in a scary dark basement. And we’re often not curious at all to find out what that is.

But one really interesting theory that comes up in the book is this idea that we have the sense that the information at hand is something that will modify what we know in a meaningful way. That might be something that would trigger curiosity. And teachers have been doing this for a really long time, like that’s what this Socratic method is kind of about. It’s about framing things as questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, I mean, I think the thing about curiosity, I’ll give you some tricks to power curiosity. So, because I have to elicit curiosity in students when I teach, I’ll figure out how to do it to myself. And one technique is, one, wonder about the history. I mean, pick a topic, five forces. How did it happen? Who is Porter? What did he arrive at? What problems did he look at? What are other…? What is a three forces approach that failed because two forces are missing? That’s one technique.

So, you have to sort of figure out what gets you going. Why is it right? Critique it, that’s another one. Why does it work? Let me see if I can break it. So, it’s sort of related to the effortful, but you’ve got to sort of get the juices flowing. And this is equal in saliva for hunger is dopamine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing how with the Socratic method and these questions about the history or why does it work or where it might not work, it’s like the questions alone are getting some drive going. And I found that…and Bob Cialdini has this in his book Pre-Suasion which I think is excellent, is that if we could start with some mystery, like, “How the heck did this come to be?” or, “That doesn’t seem to make sense. What’s really going on here?” is handy.

But even if you can’t summon it for the thing that you need to learn, it sounds like I can just go ahead and get it from somewhere else, and then shift gears quickly into the thing I need to learn, and that’s helpful too right there.

Sanjay Sarma
That’s what Luke just described, the trigger question. If you’re curious about something else, you’ll quickly learn the thing you, well, one particularly, curious about, you learn better. Preferably not the right approach but…

Luke Yoquinto
It’ll be a longer-lasting memory that’s not going to give the context you need but the memory will last longer so, yeah, it’s really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Luke Yoquinto
Just another thing is if you’re encountering a new body of information for the first time, something that can be really helpful is just to look it over, examine it, and it’s really confusing and it’s bothersome. Build in enough time to get a night’s sleep and then come back to it. There’s a lot of reorganization of long-term memory that happens overnight, and you’d be surprised what made sense in the morning. And sleep on it, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Well, I know that, we’re talking about learning and technology, we can sort of go overboard when it comes to tools and platforms and software, but I’ve got to ask the pros here. Are there some really cool tools that you think your typical professional can utilize to give their learning a jolt, maybe it’s an app or software, or even just sort of a low-tech technique?

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, a lot of tools use this stuff. Obviously, the MOOC platforms because they have Q&A built in and most MOOCs have short videos. I’m going to shout out here Quizlet. Quizlet is Andrew Sutherland. He’s an MIT guy. And it’s used by more than 50% of high school students, I believe, in the country now, and it’s flashcards basically. But he’s got built in other things.

But a flashcard works because it forces you to reload. Boom! Reload. Mix it up. Reload. In fact, there’s a version of the flashcard called a Leitner box which is sort of almost like a card game. It forces you to remember the things you’re about to forget. So, there are tools that apply that. And then there are tools that make things more vivid. I mean, for example, it doesn’t happen all the time, but AR/VR, things like that. They make things more vivid, more realistic. If it’s cognitive and motor, then AR/VR is very interesting, very useful.

By the way, very interesting. There’s an entire industry. I’m going to put you on the spot here, Pete, and ask you. Entire industry that is, for almost a hundred years, has been driven by augmented reality, can you guess which one it is? Luke, do you know the answer?

Luke Yoquinto
When was the first flight simulated?

Sanjay Sarma
Exactly. It’s a hundred years. You got it, Luke. Hundred years, right? Because The Link Company, which is an American company, made flight simulators, like the 1930 timeframe. In fact, during World War II, and that’s basically, a simulator is essentially, a flight simulator is actually augmented reality. And during World War II, America was able to produce more pilots. Japan had the planes as well but they couldn’t produce the pilots. Anyway, there’s a range of tools that work on everything from memory, interleaving. Duolingo does it, Rosetta Stone. Rosetta does it. Quizlet does it. It forces you to go through these tricks.

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

Sanjay Sarma
Well, I think the other thing we need to understand is like gaming software. Gaming software sort of uses another part of your brain, sort of joy center, the limbic system, etc. And we haven’t quite figured out how to work that into games, but there’s, in fact, a nice field called Educational Games. It’s not gamification. It’s more where they try and work it into simulation, doing something and learning along the way. That’s another field that’s emerging, and there are some experts at MIT that know this very well, but I think that’ll become important in the years ahead.

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

Luke Yoquinto
Okay. I chose a nerdy one. it’s, “Fear is the mind-killer.” It’s from Dune.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

Luke Yoquinto
Any Dune fans in the house? In terms of this book, I joke, but fear is the mind-killer. Anger is another mind-killer. It can really just take away your ability to process information. And, especially, in the current moment, I like to hold onto that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Sanjay Sarma
Mine is the Eisenhower Principle which is “Sometimes it’s easier to solve the bigger problem than the smaller problem,” because when you’re trying to solve a smaller problem, you get caught in the weeds. So, generalize, I’m trying to solve a bigger problem. And if you look at all the blitz scaling, the Dropboxes and Googles of the world, Google didn’t say, “We’ll search academic documents or we’ll just search the whole web,” because in doing that, they get the experiential benefit upside but they can actually take on a problem and just solve it, indexing site NDC’s, etc. and build several farms.

So, I actually truly believe that sometimes it’s easier to solve the bigger problem than the smaller problem. I believe in generalizing.

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

Luke Yoquinto
So, I chose one that’s apropos of our book, which is Consciousness in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene. We don’t know what makes us tick in our heads and what makes consciousness work exactly, but researchers are picking away at the edges, and there’s some really fascinating research being done about just the edges of what’s perceptible and the pathways that takes in the brain, so I would recommend this book, Consciousness in the Brain.

Sanjay Sarma
For me, I was actually going to go for a consciousness book, but now that Luke stole my thunder, I’m going to have to go in a different direction. I’m going to say Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. And why Is that? Because I believe that some of his absurdist humor, just sort of mind-bending lateral thinking stuff is very essential to creativity.

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

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, they can shoot me an email or get in touch with me on Twitter. My name is Luke Yoquinto, and so my Twitter handle is just that, it’s @lukeyoquinto, and you can shoot me an email too. My Gmail is lyoquinto@gmail.com.

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

Sanjay Sarma
Yeah, my call to action is spend three hours a week learning something new. Learn to learn.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Luke Yoquinto
That’s a good one. And just to pile onto Sanjay, Be an extreme learner. Treat learning like it’s a mountain to climb. It’s a habit of the mind to start doing the ones you do. It can be hard stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Sanjay Sarma
Maybe I’ll leave you with a Dos Equis. You know what a Dos Equis said?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right. Yeah.

Sanjay Sarma
I’m not recommending the actual beer although it’s pretty good, “Be curious, my friend.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Sanjay, Luke, this has been fun. I wish you all the best.

Luke Yoquinto
Thanks.

Sanjay Sarma
Thank you very much.

Luke Yoquinto
Yeah, thank you.

598: How to Remember Names, Faces, and Facts like a Memory Champion with Chester Santos

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Chester Santos says: "Anyone is capable of developing a powerful memory with just the right techniques, a little bit of training and practice."

U.S. Memory Champion Chester Santos shares his expert tricks and techniques for improving your memory.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why good memory still matters in the digital age
  2. The three principles to remembering anything
  3. How to remember anyone’s name in four steps 

About Chester

U.S. Memory Champion, Chester Santos – “The International Man of Memory” is the world’s leading memory skills expert and founder of MemorySchool.NET.  His memory building tips have been featured on CNNABCPBSNBCCBSBBC, and the Science Channel. He has been quoted in the NY TimesWall Street JournalSF ChronicleWashington Post, and TIME Magazine. Chester has presented in over 30 countries with speaking credits that include TEDx, Talks at Google, and the International Festival of Brilliant Minds.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Chester Santos Interview Transcript

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

Chester Santos
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really looking forward to talking with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking forward to talking to you too. And I’ve been so curious to ask you, first of all, you’re sporting one fedora right now. I understand you have a collection of 25. How did this come to be?

Chester Santos
Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I just, at one point, went through a rebranding as the International Man of Memory because I give speeches all over the world. And part of that involved hiring a stylist to come up with a look for the International Man of Memory, and the stylist came up with this fedora hat idea that I incorporate into the outfits. And I just started to really love it and I’ve been collecting hats for six plus years at this point.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it looks great. Imagine your vest, listeners can’t tell but I’ll let them know you look great.

Chester Santos
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
I have one fedora and, you know what, it was a lot of fun. It drew attention to me which sometimes I like and sometimes I didn’t like. So, I just took it off if I didn’t want it. So, International Man of Memory, that is a good branding, not mystery but memory. So, maybe, can you orient us, first of all, what is a memory grand master? Like, maybe people have heard of a chess grandmaster, but what are these competitions like? How is this life?

Chester Santos
Sure, I’ll get into that. So, what I won was the United States National Memory Championship. It’s an annual competition which has been held in various locations each year. Most recently, it’s now held at MIT, the university, the finals.

Pete Mockaitis
It seems fitting.

Chester Santos
Yeah, the finals is held at MIT. It’s one day of just really hardcore memorization. So, some of the events, one is memorizing a deck of cards, a shuffled deck of 52 playing cards, in the fastest time possible with 100% accuracy. I used to be able to do it back when I was competing in a little under 90 seconds, a minute and a half. Nowadays, some people can do it in even less than 30 seconds. I memorized a 132-digit sequence of computer-generated random digits, forwards and backwards, in 5 minutes. We memorized hundreds of names and faces in just minutes. So, those are some of the events in the United States Memory Championship.

I won it way back in 2008, and since then, I’ve gone into training other people around the world in the subset of techniques that I used to win the US Memory Championship that I feel can also benefit people right away in their career, their personal life, and also they can really help out their kids or grandkids that they might have in school.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you can stop if this is too personal, but I’m always fascinated by, like, competitions where people are like the best in the world, like bodybuilding, Mr. Olympia, or if it’s tennis or football or basketball. So, if I may, just sort of is there an associated prize purse, or what is the size of the prize for the top memory grand master?

Chester Santos
Yeah, good question. So, it varies depending on who they have as the sponsors for that particular year. When I won, unfortunately, there wasn’t a cash prize.

Pete Mockaitis
Aww.

Chester Santos
British Airways was the sponsor so I got business class tickets to represent the United States in the World Memory Championship. And even when there is a cash prize, it hasn’t ever been very high, but what you get more is in terms of, you know, after I won, I was on CNN. Over the years, I’ve been asked to appear on a lot of different TV shows, I get interviewed by newspapers, magazines, and things like that. So, it helps in what I’m doing now as far as it helps me to build my brand, build my name recognition in terms of a memory skills expert. So, it helps out there but in terms of a cash prize, not so much, upfront anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
On the backends. And now you’re here with us in How to be Awesome at Your Job, so we’re delighted. And I want to dig into some of these techniques, which I’m excited about. I understand we’re going to do some demos as well, which is always fun. But maybe, first, if you could sort of contextualize for us, could you paint a picture for why, in this age of Google and computers and smartphones and all this info available kind of outside of our brains, why is it beneficial for professionals to have a great memory?

Chester Santos
Yes. So, you hit on something important. We are in an age of, I sometimes call it, dangerous digital dependency, but definitely digital dependency in which we are outsourcing not only our memory but other mental functions to electronic devices. In terms of memory, specifically I’ll give a couple of quick examples. Phone numbers, we all used to be able to remember the phone numbers of so many friends and family members, easily dial those.

I remember growing up, my parents would give me some emergency numbers that they thought were important for me to know. We all used to be able to do that, but nowadays you give someone even one phone number, and they feel paralyzed. They don’t even think that they can remember.

Pete Mockaitis
“Uh, let me…uh.”

Chester Santos
Yeah, exactly. And it’s getting so bad that some people out there can’t even remember their own phone number. So, it’s a really good example.

Pete Mockaitis
Or their wife, or husband, or mom. Like, if something happened, and your phone got stolen, you could be in a tight spot.

Chester Santos
Exactly. So, it’s really a good example of the “use it or lose it” principle as it applies to memory. Another quick example, navigation. So, you might have an Uber of Lyft driver that’s been driving in a city for five plus years, but if something is wrong with the network connection in that particular area, or something is wrong with the app at that time, it’s happened to me many times over the years, they’ll just need to pull over, they’ll restart their phone maybe ten times until whatever issue is happening will resolve itself. They, a lot of times, haven’t even learned a few basic locations or common landmarks in the city. It’s just a very good example of what happens when you completely turn off your brain and you become 100% dependent on technology. So, that’s a little bit of the negatives, and I think that illustrates a little bit of what I mean by digital dependency.

But what this creates on the job and in the business world is actually a business opportunity to, if you will work on developing your memory skills, even to a small degree, there really is an opportunity now to set yourself apart from others, become much more impressive, and much more memorable to people in business when you do have a really good memory. It’s very noticeable and impressive to people nowadays.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think that’s true. It’s funny, I was just chatting with my buddy about a previous podcast guest, Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income, who’s just an authentic, genuine, friendly guy everyone just loves. He walked the talk. And one thing that’s impressed me is I have bumped into him in person, I don’t know, four times at different events, and I don’t expect him to remember me because he’s a celebrity in his niche, but he does. And I always sort of like, “Hey, Pat, I’m Pete. I was at your event six years, blah, blah, blah.” He’s like, “Oh, yeah, of course, yeah, yeah.” And so that just makes me like, respect, appreciate him all the more.

And I think I’ve seen the converse in terms of friends talking about other friends, and they say, “I don’t really like him.” I was like, “Why?” It’s like, “Well, I’ve had to introduce myself to him four times,” and so they feel kind of insulted in terms of, “You don’t remember my face, my name, who I am at all, and this is kind of ridiculous at this point.”

Chester Santos
Yes, absolutely. So, remembering names is huge in the business world. I like to quote a lot of times How to Win Friends and Influence People. To this date, it’s still one of the most popular business and personal success-related books ever written. And in that book, it was written that the sweetest sound to a person in any language is the sound of their own name, and also that everyone’s favorite subject is themselves. So, in fact, by remembering people’s names, other things about them, it helps you to build better business, personal relationships.

When you think about the most popular people on the job and in various organizations that you might be involved with, when you think about those people, you’re going to notice that they tend to know everyone and also their names and other things about them. Remembering people’s names and things about them really increases your likability factor in business, and that is going to be a factor in advancement of your career. Unfortunately, in the business world, it isn’t always 100% based on the numbers and on only the job performance. It would be nice if that’s how it actually worked, but, in fact, your likability in the department is a factor.

I won’t say where I used to work, but I had a career in Silicon Valley, and I had seen this happen on the job. It’s not always necessarily the most brilliant engineer that gets the promotion. Maybe that brilliant engineer, for whatever reason, didn’t get along as well in the department with someone else that just had that likability factor, they might get the promotion. So, it is something to keep in mind as far as how things actually work in the real world. And, definitely, if you know everybody, you know their name, you know things about them, you’re going to be more popular, more likable.

Politicians are some of my clients, have been my clients over the years. They’re very clear on how this helps make you more popular and more likable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into a lot of the specific tactics, and I think names is going to be big. If we’re going to get it, I’d love to hear how we should think about memorizing parts of a presentation, maybe remembering more of what we read, and, hey, whatever else we have time to cover. But, maybe, could you start by sharing sort of what’s the most, I don’t know, surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive thing that we should just know about our memories before we dig into the tactics?

Chester Santos
Yes. So, I’m really looking forward to getting into some specific, first, general strategies and then techniques with you today, Pete. Surprising thing about memory that I think people don’t realize is it isn’t the case that you’re just born with a good memory or a bad memory. That’s a very common belief. People think that if they have a bad memory, that they’re just stuck with that, there’s nothing that they can do about it. Really, anyone is capable of developing a very powerful memory. It’s just about learning the right techniques and putting in a little bit of fun, training, and practice.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m intrigued, I’m game. So, yeah, well, you have some demos in mind, let’s do one. And if it happens to be in the realm of remembering what we read, or names and faces, or presentations, I’d love to steer there if possible.

Chester Santos
Okay. Awesome. So, first, what I’d like to cover, Pete, are three main principles to a powerful memory that will apply no matter what specific memory technique you end up using, and then we’ll start to get into a specific technique and a couple of demos.

So, the three main principles are, one, visualization. So, turn whatever it is that you’re trying to remember somehow into something that you can picture or see in your mind. So, in the case of names, if the name was Mike, sometimes I visualize a microphone to remind me of the name Mike.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m seeing one of those right now.

Chester Santos
Yeah. If the name were, for instance, Alice, sometimes I visualize a white rabbit because that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, right? Now, I realize that sounds maybe a bit silly or unusual, but, in fact, this can be very powerful and effective. I’d like to get into names in much more detail toward the end after we cover some basics, but what I just wanted to introduce there was this concept of creating a picture in your mind to represent the information.

Pete Mockaitis
And to that point about the picture, so Alice and that rabbit, so that’s kind of personal to you, and that’s probably better, I imagine, because it’s more meaningful, I would speculate. Is there any risk? Like, I guess nobody’s really named Rabbit that I’ve ever met. But do you ever kind get your wires crossed or is that pretty safe, “Hey, Alice is rabbit, and rabbit is Alice, and we’re all good”?

Chester Santos
Knock on wood, I haven’t had any issues yet even at a conference that might have a cocktail hour at the end or something like that. I haven’t slipped up. That really isn’t anything to worry about really. These visuals really are just going to help you to better remember the names. The reason why you want to come up with a visual is because we all tend to be very good at remembering things that we see. I’ll give a quick example here.

Let’s say you go to a party, Pete, and you’re meeting a lot of new people, right? Two weeks after that party is over, you’re talking with one of your friends that was there with you, and your friend describes someone to you from the party, your friend says, “Hey, Pete, you remember that attorney that we met at the party a couple of weeks ago? He’s also a member of the tennis club.” As your friend is going through that description, a lot of times you can picture who they are describing. And, of course, your friend can picture who they’re describing. But a lot of times, neither one of you can manage to remember what the person’s name was, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Or even like a setting, like, “Oh, yeah, we were in the hallway, near the door,” but you don’t remember their name.

Chester Santos
Yeah, really good, there, clarification. It’s true. Sometimes you get even more details, like where they were standing in the party, what they were wearing, but that name you can’t get it. And that is because you didn’t see the name, the name is something much more abstract to your brain. And it is very common for people to be good at remembering faces but not names. And it makes sense because when you are interacting with people in various ways, you do see the face, the face is recorded into your visual memory but not the name. So, that’s why one thing you can do is come up with a visual representation of the name. But the principle, in general, is to come up with something that you can picture in your mind to represent the information.

Now, the second principle that will apply, no matter what information type, is, after you come up with a visual, try to involve as many additional senses as you can, because when you do this, you will be activating more and more areas of your brain, and you will be building more and more connections in your mind to the information, making it easier to retrieve it later on.

So, I was, at one point, on an episode of PBS’ Nova Science, I performed what, at first, seemed like some pretty crazy memory feats. They had me train David Pogue on the show as well. And then after that, they had these brain scientists, neuroscientists, come on and explain to everyone at home, watching at home, “Okay. How in the world did Chester do that? How in the world did David Pogue pull that off with just a little bit of training?” And these brain scientists confirmed that it’s because, with these memory techniques that I’ve mastered over the years, and that we’re going to learn a little bit about during the interview today, what’s happening is we are recruiting extra areas of the brain.

So, areas of the brain that most people would never involve when trying to commit things to memory. With these techniques, we are activating more of the brain to help us, and part of this is learning to utilize additional senses. So, the more senses you involve, the easier it becomes to remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, I’m thinking about with the Alice and the rabbit, I mean, maybe you have the scent of the rabbit as opposed to just, “Oh, there’s a white rabbit.”

Chester Santos
You got it. You are exactly right. So, step one, to come up…

Pete Mockaitis
Or maybe it’s like you can feel the nibbles of the rabbit’s teeth on your finger.

Chester Santos
You got it. So, first, the visual, then involve additional senses, exactly as you just described, and then you are activating more of the brain. You’re more powerfully encoding that into your memory.

Third and final principle, while you are seeing and experiencing this with additional senses, try to make the whole scenario crazy, unusual, extraordinary in some way so that you can take advantage of the psychological aspect to human memory, and that is, all of us, we’re putting forth little to no effort at all, we tend to remember things that catch us by surprise, that are strange, unusual, extraordinary in some way.

Pete, if this actually happened at this moment, if an elephant suddenly crashed into the room that you’re in, and people that are listening to the interview, if an elephant suddenly crashed into the room that they’re in and started spraying water all over the place, if that actually happened right now, you would probably remember it for the rest of your life.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Chester Santos
And always tell that story, “You’re never going to believe this, okay? I was interviewing this memory guy, out of nowhere, an elephant just crashed into the room.” That might be stuck in your mind even 30 plus years later without you putting forth any effort at all to remember it. Whereas, other times, we might spend weeks, months, trying to get really important information into our long-term memory. We find it to be very difficult, right?

Although this isn’t fully understood exactly how this works in the brain, we do realize that there is this psychological aspect to human memory. Realizing it, we can harness that and apply it to things that would be useful to remember. Names and faces, presentations, foreign languages, training material, and so on. There are really practical applications for this. Memory is a fundamental part of learning and the acquisition of knowledge. So, when you improve your ability to remember, it’s going to have a really huge positive impact on many different areas of your career and also in your personal life in terms of your lifelong learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. So, okay, it’s visualizable, we bring in the senses, and if you make it somehow extraordinary, unique, kind of wild, or larger than life, those are the principles at work.

Chester Santos
You’ve got it down. So, those are the three main principles. They will apply no matter what specific memory technique you end up using.

I’d like to, now, go into an interactive exercise that you’ll go through, Pete. I’m sorry to put you on the spot here.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it. But if I look dumb, we’ll edit it out. That’s how I roll.

Chester Santos
Just do your best, and I think people listening to the interview today will enjoy just giving this a try and see how they do with it.

So, we’re going to apply those three main principles to try to memorize a really long random list of words. The list will be monkey, iron, rope…

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I shouldn’t write this down, right?

Chester Santos
No, don’t write this down. And people following along with the interview, please don’t write this down. Don’t use any electronic device. So, use nothing but your brain and your memory. I know people aren’t used to doing this nowadays, but we’ll just give it our best shot.

So, the word list is going to be monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, cheese and dollar. Now…

Pete Mockaitis
That’s long.

Chester Santos
Yeah, it’s a really long list of random words. And when I recite that at my live presentations around the world, people in the audition often look at me as if, “Come on, Chester. There’s no way I’m going to be able to remember that, not unless you give me a lot of time to do it.” But, in fact, Pete, you’ll have this down, your listeners will have this down, perfectly forwards and backwards in just about three minutes. That’s all. Three minutes.

And without any further review, after today, even weeks from now, people will still know this, forwards and backwards. I get people even writing me emails months later telling me they’re wanting to demonstrate to me that they still remember this. How you pull it off, just listen to what I describe to you, see and experience it in your mind as best you can, and just really relax, have fun with it.

So, if people ever went to my website, I guess they’ll find it in the show notes later, they’ll see me on CNN. On CNN, I had to memorize a half deck of cards during the commercial break. I only had about two minutes to do it, and then when they came back live on the air, I had to do that perfectly from memory. There was a lot of pressure on me. If people look at that clip, they’re going to notice that I’m smiling, I’m giggling. I think they maybe thought I was a little bit crazy or nutty when I was on the show, but, really, that’s an important key to this. If everyone is smiling and giggling as they’re going through this exercise, it’s a really good sign that they’re going to remember the words. So, just relax, have fun. You’ll have it down.

The first word was monkey. So, just imagine that you see a monkey in your mind. The monkey is dancing around, making monkey noises, “Hoo, hoo, hoo,” whatever a monkey would sound like. I’m working on my monkey impression, but the point here is to see and hear the monkey, right? The monkey, now, picks up a gigantic iron. So, the monkey is dancing around with this giant iron now. Picture that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, for like steaming clothes.

Chester Santos
You got it. Yeah, something like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chester Santos
Picture that iron like for your clothes. The iron now starts to fall but a rope attaches itself to the iron. Maybe even feel the rope, really interact with it, right? Maybe it feels rough. You look up the rope and you see the other end of the rope is attached to a kite. Maybe it’s flying around, and it’s just out your reach, that kite. The kite you see now crashes into the side of a house, really see it smash into the house. Picture that.

The house is completely covered in paper. It’s completely covered in paper. Out of nowhere, a shoe appears and it starts to walk all over the paper. Maybe it’s messing it up as it’s walking on it, that shoe. It smells pretty badly, so you decide to investigate and see why. You look inside of the shoe and you find a little worm crawling around inside of that shoe. Really see the smelly worm.

The worm now jumps out of the show and into an envelope. Maybe it’s going to mail itself or something. I don’t know, but envelope was next. A pencil appears out of thin air and it starts to write all over that envelope. Maybe it’s addressing it, that pencil. The pencil now jumps into a river, and there’s a huge splash, for some reason, when it hits the river.

The river, you notice, is crashing up against a giant rock. That rock flies out of the river, it crashes into a tree. The tree is growing cheese. You probably haven’t seen a tree like that before. This one is growing cheese. And out of nowhere, a dollar starts to shoot out of the cheese, right? Really see that dollar. That was the entire list. I’m going to run through this again very quickly in about 30 seconds, and your job is to simply replay through the story that you’ve created in your mind.

So, we started off with a monkey. The monkey was dancing around, with what? It was an iron. What attached itself? It was a rope. The other end of the rope was attached to what? It was a kite. The kite crashed into what? It was a house. What was the house covered in? It was…

Pete Mockaitis
Paper.

Chester Santos
Paper. What walked on it? It was a shoe. What was crawling in the shoe? It was a worm. The worm jumped into what? An envelope. What wrote on it? A pencil. The pencil jumped into the river. The river was crashing up against the rock, that flew into a tree. It was growing what? Cheese. And what came out? It was a dollar.

So, now, Pete, I’ll have you give it a try. Take your time. And people that are listening can follow along and see how well they do. Try to recite all of those random words for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. We’ve got monkey, iron, rope, kite, house, paper, shoe, worm…oh, no, no. Yeah, yeah, shoe, worm, envelope, pencil, river, rock, tree, dollar.

Chester Santos
Tree? After tree?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, tree. Cheese, dollar, yeah.

Chester Santos
You got it, man. Great job there. Excellent job there. Pete, you did so well, in fact, though that I’m going to have you attempt to do that now backwards. Take your time, and people can also see how they do.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’ve got the dollar, cheese, tree, is it a rock?

Chester Santos
You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
River, pencil, envelope, worm, shoe, paper, house, kite, rope, iron, monkey.

Chester Santos
Perfect. A hundred percent, man. Great job. Really nice. Nice work there.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sweating a little bit, Chester.

Chester Santos
Yeah, I put you under a bit of pressure there, but great job under pressure. You got 100%, and I’m sure that people listening to the interview today probably got, if not 100%, close to it. That technique that we’ve just covered is called the story method. And the story method is just one of many techniques that memory champions, like myself, use to pull off what, at first, might seem like extraordinary memory feats. But, again, there’s nothing different about my brain compared to everyone else’s. It’s just about using the right technique and putting in a little bit of training and practice.

This doesn’t just apply to random words. It can apply to even very much more complex types of information. And later on, in the interview, I had in mind, we’d take it a step further but if you have any other questions, just let me know before we move onto maybe a little bit, I guess, a level two in terms of memory skill exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. That was fun. And I’ve heard, this probably isn’t the place for this, that with numbers, it’s kind of a matter of each one is assigned a letter, which can, thus, become words, which can, thus, become memorize-able. And, it’s funny, I used this, I don’t know, it might’ve been in my honeymoon or maybe it was earlier, with my wife in terms of, she’s like, “Tell me what my phone number is.” Like, okay, and so I really took my time to break it down using that. And sometimes, to this day, I’m still summoning the ridiculous picture story phrase that gets those numbers there, but it works.

So, yeah, okay. Well, yeah, let’s do another one. And if it happens to help us with reading or presentations or names, I would love it.

Chester Santos
Okay. Cool, yeah. So, you hit on numbers there. And, again, no matter the information type, the three main principles will remain the same that we covered earlier – visualization, additional senses, make it all crazy, unusual, extraordinary. But for something more abstract like numbers, there’s a system you need to learn. It only takes about one hour to learn it, that’s it. That allows you to take something abstract like numbers and turn it into a concrete image.

Once you have an image for the abstract piece of information, you could then build a story, and there are many other techniques that you could use from there. That system has been known by many different names. One is Phonetic Alphabet system. Another is major system, that’s covered. Because it’s going to take a minimum of an hour to learn that by itself, it’s covered in my online memory school, and I think you’ll have the link in the show note, but it’s MemorySchool.net.

So, again, the techniques don’t apply to just random words. We’re going to move onto level two in terms of difficulty. We’re going to learn now how to create mental notecards or mental cue cards. This is a concept that I covered in my talks. Over at Harvard University, I gave seminars for their graduate students. I also covered this in my talk for SAG-AFTRA, the actors foundation, to help actors remember their lines. We’re going to build mental cue cards here.

I want for you to just visualize what I describe to you, that’s all. See and experience it happening, as we did earlier, and then I will explain what we ended up, actually what we built mental notecards for. So, Pete, just try to visualize some giant machines, as best you can, some gigantic machines. These gigantic machines are smashing up a huge pile of gold and silver. A huge pile of gold and silver. Rising up out of the gold and silver – vehicles. Okay? Whatever that looks like to you.

Shooting out of the vehicles – medicine. And exploding out of the medicine – oil. Maybe black petroleum oil would be easiest to visualize, okay? That’s it. I’m going to run through that again, just replay through this little story. So, we had the giant machines were smashing up the gold and silver. What rose up? Vehicles. What shot out of the windows? Medicine. And what exploded out of the medicine? It was oil.

So, first, go ahead and try to give those main items back to me from memory.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure thing. So, we started with giant machines that were smashing gold and silver, from which emerged vehicles that had medicine spilling out, and then in the medicine was oil.

Chester Santos
Perfect. So, you got that 100% correct. What you’ve done there, Pete, without realizing it, or maybe you did realize it, I’m not sure, I actually had you there just memorize the top five exports of the UK. So, if you were to look that up right now and see what the top five exports of the UK are, you’ll see listed machinery, precious metals, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and oil. So, you start to see how the image doesn’t need to perfectly match what you’re trying to remember, you’re simply building a mental notecard.

So, can you try to give me now the exports using that little story to guide you?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. So, it’s machinery, precious metals, vehicles, pharmaceuticals, and oil.

Chester Santos
You got it. Perfect. So, Pete, it might not seem like much at first but, again, in today’s world where no one is using their memory very much, when you get into a meeting with maybe it’s clients for your company or potential clients, or it’s a meeting with colleagues or your boss, when you get in there and you’ve prepared for that meeting, you have 5, 10, 15 key things committed to memory, what this does is really better demonstrate your knowledge, right? You’re showing that you actually know something, that you actually know your stuff. You’re better demonstrating your expertise. You’re going to be perceived as more of an expert in your field. People are more impressed with you. People will have more confidence in you and your abilities. And, also, when you have a really good memory, again, you become so much more memorable to people in the business world, on the job.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that. So, I’m eager to get into the names here now and so I went ahead and grabbed the Social Security Administration’s top names over the last hundred years. So, we talked about it being visualizable, and with Alice, you saw a rabbit because that was resonating for you with the story. I’m seeing the top names here. We got James, Mary, John, Patricia. How would I turn some of those into things I can see?

Chester Santos
Well, so my example for…I’d rather actually have people come up with their own image, but my example for John, you can watch that CNN clip, I gave…

Pete Mockaitis
I’m here. Let’s do it.

Chester Santos
Yeah, somehow, I didn’t get in trouble for that. The host, one of the hosts of that show was named John, and, luckily, he wasn’t too upset with me, but I might imagine, you know, a toilet bowl as in going to the John, right? Mary, I might imagine a little lamb because Mary had a little lamb.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Or the Madonna, you know, for a religious perspective.

Chester Santos
James, I might imagine just a famous James. It could be a character from a TV show or movie. It could be simply a friend or a family member that has the same name like your uncle.

Pete Mockaitis
Or Darth Vader.

Chester Santos
It could be that you visualize even just your Uncle James. Patricia, I might think of Patricia Arquette. So, I want to clarify this point a little bit. So, I said come up with a visual. Now, how you come up with that visual can vary. So, it can be a famous person that has the same name, a friend or family member that you’re seeing in your mind that has the same name, or it could be something like a sound alike. So, for the name Jane, I might picture a chain, okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chester Santos
I gave you something more symbolic like a white rabbit for Alice. So, there are various ways as to how the image can remind you of that name, but the best way to describe the concept, in general, is to come up with an image, or series of images, that will some way, anyway, remind you personally of the name, right? And there actually is another step to this.

The next step is to connect that image to something unique about the person’s look. So, if, to you, Jane has really cool-looking hair, you might imagine that chains are going through her hair, clacking together, making a really loud noise. So, how this works in practice is the next time you see her, all you have to do is ask yourself, “Okay, what is noticeable to me about her look?” What you notice, personally, what was noticeable to you before, is very likely will be noticeable to you again. And then the image that you stored there will come right back to you.

So, in this case, the chains might remind you of, again, chain might remind you of Jane. So, that is kind of an overview for how it works. It sounds weird, again, I realize but anyone can become really good at this with a little bit of training and practice, and that’s how I open presentations around the world with naming even hundreds of people in the audience after hearing each name just one time before the presentation starts.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think you said something there, kind of quickly, but it’s important. You hear the name, like you make sure that you get it in the first place, and don’t be shy to ask them to repeat themselves if you need to. Like, if you didn’t hear Jane said Jane, you’re dead in the water.

Chester Santos
Absolutely. Absolutely, Pete. So, let me give you four quick steps that will help you with that because that’s absolutely necessary for this. So, I recommend that you combine that visual-based technique with the following four steps when you’re meeting someone.

Step number one, immediately repeat the name. So, if you’re introduced to someone named Jane, “Nice to meet you, Jane,” or, “Please to meet you, Jane.” That’s it. It seems totally obvious but, as you mentioned, a lot of times we’re not paying that much attention to the name. Our mind might be all over the place. We’re thinking about all sorts of other things.

Pete Mockaitis
“No, I said…” Or you might have gotten it wrong. Like, “No, I said Tane.” “Is it Tane? Oh, okay. I’m glad I clarified with you.”

Chester Santos
Yes. So, repeating the name really gives you the opportunity to clarify the name, as you mentioned, and also make sure that you pay attention for at least one second. That’s the only way you could attempt to repeat the person’s name back to them, right? So, that first step, if you start doing that today, eventually it’s going to become a habit and second nature to you.

Step number two, I recommend that you use the name early on in your interaction with the person. So, simply, “Jane, how do you know Chester?” or, “Jane, how long have you been involved with this organization?” And I want to clarify, I don’t mean use the name over and over again in the conversation to where it starts to seem a little weird. Really, just using it once early on in the interaction will be enough to reinforce the name in your mind.

Step number three, take a few seconds, or less, to think of a connection between the name and, literally, anything at all that you already know. So, Jane, I don’t know, maybe think of Jane Goodall. And, again, as I mentioned, it could be like a character from a TV show or movie. It could be something as simple as you have a friend of family member with that name. Maybe you have an Aunt Jane. And when you’re going through that step, that might also help you come up with your visual, right?

Fourth and final step is to make sure, whenever you leave the meeting, the party, whatever type of function it might be, the conference maybe, make it a point to try and say goodbye to people actually using their name, “I hope to see you again sometime, Jane.” Using the name that last time is going to go a long way toward helping you remember more of those names the next time you see those people. And if at that point you’ve already forgotten the name, I highly recommend that you ask them their name again right then and there because, at that point, they’re less likely, I think, to be offended. At that point, I think they’re more likely to appreciate the fact that you care enough to remember their name for the next time you see them. You’re expressing interest in that person, and they’re really going to appreciate that fact.

So, those four steps, combined with the visuals that I talked about earlier, I think are really going to help you out. You might not be 100%, even I’m not 100%, but if you can remember 80% plus of the people that you’re meeting, this is going to pay huge dividends for you in your career and in your personal life. And in my online school, I actually simulate introducing you to people so that you really develop that skill.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. Well, Chester, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Chester Santos
I think I’ve covered really everything that I had in mind in terms of the main concepts that are always going to be involved when you want to develop a powerful memory no matter what specific technique. We got into a couple of interactive exercises that I think people will enjoy playing around with, and we got into some specific tips on names. Those are some of the most important things that I really wanted to cover that I think people will be able to put to use right away on the job and in their personal lives in terms of lifelong learning. And you can also share what you learned from this interview with your kids or grandkids that might be in school as well.

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

Chester Santos
“You don’t have to be great to get started, but you have to get started to be great.” I like that. I like that quote a lot. And that applies to my area because some people, you know, they’re scared off because maybe they’re not…they don’t currently believe that they have a very good memory. But, really, all you have to do is get started in learning these types of techniques and, before you know it, you will have a very powerful memory. But you do just have to get started.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Chester Santos
How to Win Friends and Influence People that I often quote in my presentations. There’s a lot in that book, not just about names and how important memory is in the business world, but really just a lot of business and personal success-related tips in general. So, that’s one of my favorite books, and I do recommend that people check that one out if they haven’t already, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, it resonates, and folks quote it back to you a lot?

Chester Santos
I think what I’d like people most to note about my message, in general, is that anyone is capable of developing a powerful memory with just the right techniques, a little bit of training and practice, this can be fun to do, and it’s going to benefit you in so many ways because, again, memory is a fundamental part to learning and the acquisition of knowledge. So, I guess that’s the main nugget that I want people to keep I mind.

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

Chester Santos
Yeah, if people are interested into diving into memory skills training deeper and really put this to use in their career, personal life, help their kids in school, MemorySchool.net is my main training website. I would visualize a giant net so you remember that it’s .net. And I setup coupon code AWESOME in honor of being on your podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Chester Santos
So, the first 50 people to use couple code AWESOME at MemorySchool.net will be able to get started with no enrollment fee whatsoever. So, I hope people will be encouraged to check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s going to be a mad dash to put that in there. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Chester Santos
I want to encourage people to just take action. If this is something that…and not only my area, not just memory skills, but, really, anything that they’re hearing about on your podcast, any particular topic that they find very interesting, I really encourage people to take action on it as soon as possible because, once you do take that action, whether it’s signing up for the Memory School, whatever it might be, once you take the action, you are ten times more likely to actually develop that skill.

Whereas, if you don’t take action right away, it could be that I’m on your show again in a year or two, and people will not have developed the new skills. Again, you really just, as I mentioned in my quote, you really just have to get started in order to eventually become great.

Pete Mockaitis
Chester, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in your memory adventures.

Chester Santos
Thank you so much again, Pete, for having me.

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:

Thank you Sponsors!

Fender Play. Learn to play an instrument with your first two weeks FREE at fender.com/AWESOME

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.

543: How to Build Skills Faster and Improve Mental Performance with Britt Andreatta

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Britt Andreatta says: "Our body is built for learning."

Britt Andreatta shares neuroscience insights for boosting your learning, memory, and creativity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make your learning stick
  2. The striking benefits of boredom
  3. How to deal with information overwhelm

About Britt:

Dr. Britt Andreatta is an internationally-recognized thought leader who creates brain science-based solutions for today’s challenges. As CEO of 7th Mind, Inc., Britt Andreatta draws on her unique background in leadership, neuroscience, psychology, and learning to unlock the best in people, helping organizations rise to their potential.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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

Britt Andreatta Interview Transcript

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

Britt Andreatta
Hi, Pete. I’m super excited to talk to you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Me too. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom associated with learning and I understand you’ve been learning some things about fabric art lately. What’s the story here?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’ve discovered a new hobby for myself, which kind of surprised me, but I am just really into it and it takes me to that place of flow where I can do it for hours and not feel like I’m working. And because I’m a researcher, I’m always in my head analyzing stuff and it gets me out of that. And I just get to play with color and textures and build these beautiful fabric murals that I just take great joy from it. But it’s a new hobby so I’m now in that place where you’re trying to feed the flames of a new hobby and investing way too much in it and then figuring out where I’m putting it in the house and have scraps of stuff everywhere, so it’s kind of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a fabric mural, I don’t know if I have seen a fabric mural before. I probably have, I just don’t even realize it. Help me visualize that.

Britt Andreatta
Well, so you can draw something on a piece of fabric, and then instead of using paint to fill it in, you use pieces of fabric to be your paint, and so you’re sewing them on, or stitching them on, or quilting them on, whatever technique you want to use to build the image using fabric.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s interesting. I’ve heard that these kinds of activities, here’s a segue for you, like these sorts of things, kind of like knitting, is something that can sort of put you into a different brain groove. And I imagine you are one of the most qualified people to comment on this. What’s the story there?

Britt Andreatta
Well, whenever we have something that takes our attention but doesn’t require a whole lot of cognitive thought, you know, really concentrating on something or analyzing something, it can just take us to that zone, a little bit of a zone state where you can be really present.

I think we all have something like this. For some people, it’s running. For some people, it’s some kind of knitting or fabric art. For some people, it might be gardening. But there’s real pleasure in it because it acts as a mindfulness practice. It allows you to hit that place of presence and really just being in the here and now, which is, for me, it’s hugely relaxing. I find that I’m so much calmer and happier after I spend a little time doing this thing. The fact that I build things and then that I can give away as gifts is also cool. But even if I couldn’t, just the value of being in that state makes me a happier person to be around.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear that, yes. That’s excellent. Well, so we’re going to talk about brain science and learning and such, so maybe we can go meta for a moment before we do that. Do you have any quick tips for listeners right now because we’re about to learn something? What might they do in this very moment of listening to maximize the learning from the exchange we’re having right here?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, the big myth that we all believe but which is not true is that we can multitask while learning and we just cannot do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Uh-oh. Everyone doing the dishes right now, like, stop. Put the wash down.

Britt Andreatta
Put them down. We can multitask in other parts of our life, like you can cook and listen to something. But when you truly want to learn, and learning requires that you take it in and it gets pushed to your short-term memory and then ultimately your long-term memory, our brain really needs to be able to focus on it and gather all that information so it has a complete set of data to push into memory.

And when we multitask, we kind of flip back and forth, it’s called switch tasking, so if you’re also trying to look at your email and listen to this podcast, what your brain would do is I’d become the Peanuts character in the background, “waah, waah, waah, waah,” as you read the email, or you’re listening to what I say and you’re not really glomming onto what the words in the email are saying.

So, if you really want to learn, just focus on learning. If you’re listening to this for entertainment, it’s okay that you’re doing the dishes at the same time. But if you really want to push it into memory, give it the focus it deserves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the first thing is giving it the focus. But does anything else leap to mind?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, with any kind of learning, learning is stickier, meaning you’ll be able to recall it better in the future if you try to find a way to attach it to something you know. So, as we’re talking today about brain tips and tricks, if you remember a time that works for you in the past, or you imagine a time doing it or it calls up a memory, and each time you can attach it, or it reminds you of something you learned in the class in college, hook it to something you already know and it makes it stickier than if you just let it be kind of a free-floating piece of information.

Now, good teachers will do the work and help you attach it to something you know, but that’s a trick you can also use for yourself, is find a way to connect it to something you’ve already experienced or heard or seen or lived through.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s funny, that really reminds me of when I was in high school in Economics class, I started thinking about the firm and profit maximizing and how, in a way, that’s kind of like life, there’s stuff you like doing, that’s like revenue, stuff you don’t like doing, that’s like cost, and you might try to maximize your profits, or you might say that’s a hedonistic way to live your life, and you shouldn’t. But, anyway, that’s how I was kind of like connecting with things and it makes a world of difference. And then, subsequently, I guess you might call these scaffolding or mental models, or there’s probably a number of terms neuroscientists use for these concepts we have to attach stuff to. What do we call those?

Britt Andreatta
It’s called a schema.

Pete Mockaitis
Schema, there it is.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, so there’s schemas in your brain for all kinds of things, and they’re different for each of us, but the trick to good learning or to putting it to memory is to hook it to a schema you already have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny, as I think about that, I’ve done this kind of naturally with a lot of things and maybe that’s why I got good grades. So, it’s interesting, like anything from a computer game I loved to play, it’s like, “You know what, this is a lot like a missile base, they’re defending a planet.” Tell me, what are some of your go-to schemas you find yourself naturally attaching new learning to frequently?

Britt Andreatta
So, I build learning for other people frequently, so when I’m trying to build an experience for my audience, I try to find something that I know is pretty common knowledge. So, for example, I have a change training and I’ve built it all around this idea of going hiking or mountain climbing, and even if you’ve never done it, you know what it is, right?

So, as I’m playing with the concepts and likening change to different kinds of terrain and journeys, your brain has a place in it because it’s heard of that before. So, if you’re designing learning for other people, this is what great science and math teachers did in high school and college, is they took something that’s fairly abstract and they found a way to attach it to something you already knew about, and how you did that with your own Economics class.

So, if you’re designing learning for others, think about that. And for yourself, whenever you can put yourself through that little pace of, “Huh, what does this sound like? What can I connect this to? Do I have an experience of this?” it just gives your brain something to physically adhere it to in a way that makes the difference in terms of how it is stored in the brain and the ways your brain can call it up in the future.

Because the way our brain calls up a memory is all of our senses are part of when we learn, so we’ve got the visual, the auditory, the taste, and the smell, all of those are like threads, and they get bundled up, these bundled up sensations get kind of packaged as part of the memory. And so, pulling any one of those threads can pull it back.

This is why if you’ve ever traveled in Paris, for example, and you were there and you were feeling the rain, and smelling the croissants or the stinky cheese, or whatever it is, if you ever smell a croissant in the future, it can pop you back to this picture of Paris, “Oh, my gosh, I remember I’ve been there.” So, memory is actually tied through all these senses, and if we’re intentional about that, then we can use those threads to help pull that thing back out of the brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is interesting. And so, while we fast-forwarded right to some immediate tactics, but maybe we can zoom out a little bit in terms of so you’ve got this book Wired to Grow and now a version 2.0 even. Can you tell us, what’s the main thesis and what’s sort of like the hot new discoveries that warranted a second version?

Britt Andreatta
Great questions. So, I wrote the first book five years ago and it came out, honestly, for me, just doing research into neuroscience because I wanted to be better at my craft as a chief learning officer, so I literally did the learning for my own benefit. And then I ended up sharing it as a presentation, and people were like, “Oh, my God, you need to share this with more people.” So, I started doing it as a keynote, and then it turned into a book.

Neuroscience is still a relatively young field. It’s only recently that they’ve even had the technology, and new technologies coming online all the time, to even see inside of us and see what really is happening. So, neuroscience is relatively fresh on the scene in terms of giving us a new way of looking at any behavior. I happen to look at learning but you can apply it to anything.

And so, honestly, I had written two books since the first one. I’d done the one on change, which is Wired to Resist and I had done the one on teams Wired to Connect. And, like anything else, as I wrote books, I got better at it. So, then I kept looking at this first book, and it just looks so sad compared to the others. It wasn’t as well-researched. The graphics were terrible. I was just like, “You know what, it needs a refresh,” and I was really busy. And I thought, “Instead of writing a whole new book, why don’t I just refresh ‘Wired to Grow’? I can update some studies. I can clean up the graphics. It won’t take that much work.” So, I actually took it on as “doable” project.

Well, in five years, so much had change around what we know about learning that I literally had to rewrite the whole thing. I mean, it’s 90% new material and 10% some of the original concepts from the book. So, the reason I did, you know, the real reason I did a second version was to kind of get that up to speed with the other ones. But what was really exciting was seeing just how much more new information we’ve discovered about how we learn, what memories are, how we drive behavior change, what creativity is, like there’s just so many good things that the book ended up being twice as big as it was originally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. So, can you share with us, like what is sort of a new discovery that is sort of mind-blowingly cool?

Britt Andreatta
All right. Well, there’s several of them, but let me give you a couple of them. One of the first is just really understanding what creativity is. They can now see when we have those aha moments, and a lot of our best ideas come from aha moments. Even if you’re trying to solve a problem, usually you don’t solve it in that minute that you’re concentrating on it. It’s usually when you step back and take a break, or you’re in the shower. Oddly enough, showers are one of the number one places people have moments of creativity.

That they can now see the aha moment, and they can see the brain waves change on the MRI machine a few milliseconds before the aha moment actually happens. And they can also see that right before the aha moment happens our visual cortex goes offline. Scientists call it brain blink. But, essentially, it’s all happening in that millisecond before we go, “Eureka!”

And what’s interesting now is, as they’re understanding what creativity is, we can now set ourselves up for having moments of creativity. So, some things to do are the resting neocortex, take a break, give your brain that chance to step back from what it’s concentrating on because that allows more regions of the brain to come online and those connections to happen, those synapses to fire.

The second thing you can do is prepare your brain to have connections. So, this is really about getting outside of your comfort zone, reading sources and topics that seem unrelated or that would not be your normal go-to. So, it’s kind of like walking into a library, and instead of going to your favorite section, you go explore a lot of different sections in the library and expose your brain, let it take in more stuff. You’re preparing it to draw connections that you might not normally see.

And then the third thing that you can do, it’s called sensory gating, which is stuff like taking a shower where we have the white noise and we’re warm and we can kind of setup this place for things. Sitting out in nature is another form of sensory gating. Being near water seems to be particularly effective. And so, you just allow these senses to kind of take a break, and it seems to setup that moment to create more aha moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, you got me wondering about hopping into a sensory deprivation chamber, a.k.a. float tank. Like, is there some science there? You’re gating all kinds of senses there.

Britt Andreatta
I haven’t personally sat in one, and I didn’t remember reading a study specifically about that, but it makes sense to me that that would work, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It’s like, “I need my pen and paper though. Can I get that in here?”

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. This is what’s funny, is that before, I’m sure you’re like this too, like when I’m trying to solve a problem, I just want to keep at it, and I used to get annoyed when I would feel tired, or I just need to have a break. I’d feel like I was slacking. But since I read this research, I’m now like, “Great. Take a break. I’m setting myself up for the aha moment.” So, it gets me more committed to the breaks. And, honestly, it’s made work go better now that I’m kind of working with how the brain creates moments of aha.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciate that explanation associated with sensory gating, like that’s what these things have in common, that’s why showers do that because you are in an environment where some things are shut off, they’re closed, and so there you go. I heard a fun story, I guess I think it might’ve been Aaron Sorkin, got great ideas in the shower, so he just built a shower in his office and took like eight showers a day, which I respect.

Britt Andreatta
When I’m teaching this group to crowds of people, I’ll ask, “Where do you get your best ideas?” and shower is one of the number one reasons. In fact, I encourage people to read a book that’s written, it’s called The Blue Mind and it’s all about the research of why water, being in it, on it, under it, around it, seems to lend itself to both us feeling calmer and having more creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. Well, so I want to talk about some calm for a moment. So, we’re talking about brains and working to process and learn information. It seems like quite an epidemic folks have these days is just information overwhelm, overload, too many emails, too many incoming things, competing priorities, like, “What even do I focus on? I just feel…” maybe like you’re drowning in all this stuff. So, can you tell us, what does that to our brain and what should we do about it?

Britt Andreatta
That’s a great question, and I definitely suffer from this as well. Well, it’s true. Technology has outstripped biology. We now have technology pushing things at us faster, bigger, better than we are biologically designed to consume so we are overwhelmed. And that’s why, I think, we’re seeing stress levels go up, people not taking vacations. Used to be that email was a convenient way to communicate, and now there’s just so much pressure. People want instant communications. There are so many different channels at which we can have information pushed at us, and we are living in the information economy, so everyone is trying to get our attention with, it’s about screen time now, “How long can we keep eyeballs on the screen?”

So, remember there is a capitalistic component of it where people are maximizing that because that’s where their dollars come from. That’s why when you’re on social media, it constantly is loading up more things to click on. You will never get to the bottom of the page or get to the last video because it’s designed to keep taking you down the rabbit hole.

So, with that, and I love technology, it’s beautiful and wonderful, and yet it can really stress us out so we all have to have some agency and some sense of self-control. I think this is why digital detox is really important. Like, giving yourself a day to just not be on any screens, coming home at the end of the day and just setting your devices down and not picking them up for a while, and definitely, so you don’t take your screens to bed. These are all important things to think about.

The other thing, too, is that, remember, we’re a tribal species. We are designed and built to live in tribes of about 150, and that’s what our brain was really built to keep track of, relationships we could manage. And so, now that we’re global, and trust me, I get the beauty of being a globally-connected world. I think it makes us more empathetic to our brothers and sisters of different cultures around the world. It also means, though, that we’re trying to track too many things. And, particularly, because news likes to send us all the negative stories, it can put us into that amygdala, a fight of flight response, of feeling stress all the time.

Because when we look at the news, what we’re hearing about is 10 people drowned in Bangladesh, and so many people this happened to them here, and a plane crash over there, and fires here. Not that we shouldn’t be informed, but if you’re not careful, your brain is literally feeling like you’re under attack all day every day, because your brain, these are all members of your tribe, and you should gear up to fight that foe.

So, I think it’s also a little bit about controlling access to yourself, not letting all these messages come to you. And then also, intentionally finding ways to find good stories and counterbalancing the negative spin that’s designed to sell things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I think that’s well-said, and I feel it in terms of sometimes I’ll hop into an Uber and then they’ll just have sort of some news going, it’s like, “This home was broken into, and this thing burned down.” I kind of go back and forth with this in terms of like, “Just how much do I really need to know this? Like, being informed sounds like a good thing that we want to be, but then, again, how crucial is it?” And sometimes I get a little bit snarky with the newspapers or media, it’s like, “Here’s the news you need to know.” Like, “Do I need to know it today? Really? Is that a need? To what extent do I need it?” And I get all philosophical about the matter.

So, I guess, what I’ve come away with this in terms of, hey, different professionals at different times have different needs for news consumption. So, if you’re running a political campaign, yeah, you’re going to need to know a lot of those things about what’s going there. And if you’re sort of just engineering innovative technological solutions over at XYZ company, you may not need to know what the headlines are all that often.

Britt Andreatta
Exactly. And then it’s just about realizing that your devices and the companies that feed those devices are going to be trying to get your attention. They’re going to use whatever strategy they can to get more of your time. So, at some point, you just have to say, “No, I’m turning it off. I’m having a no-technology window of my day.” And then just pay attention to your body. Our body is really an amazing thing and it will give you information. If you’re getting a knot in your stomach, turn it off. If you’re starting to feel anxious, give yourself a break. Your body is giving you information about how it’s receiving it.

This is why mindfulness is so great. It makes us pay attention to our bodies. And it’s also why fabric arts and knitting and running and all these stuffs is great too because it gets us out of that zone. It gets us more into the here and now where probably we’re okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned mindfulness, and I’m thinking about I was amused in our last interview, I asked you about a favorite book, and you told me, I’m thinking you said, “I haven’t read this book yet but it’s going to be my favorite. It’s Altered Traits,” because this is a topic you love and authors you love, so you know it’s going to be great sight unseen, which I thought was pretty awesome in terms of that’s how closely you’re following this stuff.

So, while we’re talking about mindfulness, maybe you can convince me and many listeners here, what were some of the striking research results coming from that book or elsewhere that you’ve seen to make say, “Pete, I am 100% certain you will see an amazing return on your time and energy invested in mindfulness practice”? Can you lay it on me?

Britt Andreatta
Okay. No tall task, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Britt Andreatta
Well, two things, boredom is a good emotion. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that being bored is bad. And yet, boredom is oftentimes where creativity comes from. Boredom is oftentimes when our brain makes those connections. Boredom is often calming for our system. So, let me just challenge the myth that boredom is a bad emotion. I think we want to cultivate a little bit of boredom in our lives. It’s not a bad thing.

Two, mindfulness looks a lot at different ways. So, for people like you and me, I can tell by just looking at the bookshelf that’s behind you right now that you and I both can, like, live in the world of the mind, and read stuff, and be into the study, and analyzing stat, like we live in the life of the mind. So, classical meditation is actually hard for me because my mind can really just chew on it. Physical mindfulness practices, like yoga, walking meditations, even doing the dishes can be mindful. This is why the fabric arts thing is really working for me because it gets me into my body and out of my head.

For some people, getting into their head and doing the traditional meditation of just kind of watching your thoughts and letting them go, that’s really valuable. So, each of us needs a different type of mindfulness practice. There’s a lot of different ones out there so play with them. Please don’t just give one class a try and say, “That’s not for me.” Try different formats and try a couple of different teachers because you’re going to find the one that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, that feels good. That made me better having done that.”

In terms of mindfulness, why you want to explore it, the research is pretty damn convincing and pretty darn consistent. It really does amazing stuff to us. So, there’s some immediate benefits that you get in terms of lowering your blood pressure, but that’s only if you’re in a mindfulness practice you enjoy. If you’re in one that’s rubbing you the wrong way, your blood pressure is probably going to go up. But, generally, when we find the right one, blood pressure goes down, our body gets into a more relaxed state.

The more we practice mindfulness, the more we can stay at a calm state, and even if we have an upsetting event, we don’t escalate as high as we would have before having that mindfulness practice. So, our highs are not so high. And we come back to stasis faster, being able to achieve that calm state longer.

In addition, it’s doing all kinds of things physically. Like, people who have regular mindfulness practices have lower risks of heart disease, have lower risks of age-related decline, there are just some good stuff that happens. And here’s the kicker, they’re actually showing that you live longer with a mindfulness practice, that the chronological age of your body shifts.

And so, one of my favorite researchers on this, Richard Davidson, one of the co-authors of Altered Traits which did turn out to be my favorite book, I was right. It’s amazing. Anyway, he has put Tibetan monks on MRI machines, like, he’s taken the people who have thousands of hours of meditation under their belt, and then he’s compared them to people who have never meditated. And what was astounding was some of these monks who probably are like world-class champions at meditation, they are many decades physically younger than their actual chronological body.

Pete Mockaitis
Many decades, like three, or four, or five?

Britt Andreatta
Yes, like it helps you live longer. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of this, but our DNA strands have these little things on the end, they’re kind of like the tips of the shoelace.

Pete Mockaitis
Telomeres?

Britt Andreatta
The telomeres, I can’t pronounce it correctly but there’s these telomeres things at the end. And as we live, those get shorter and shorter. And they say that, basically, that they predict how long we live. And when you kind of run out of the ends of those things, you’re ready to die. Well, people who have regular mindfulness practice, those telomeres tips, they slow down, they don’t shorten as fast for those people who don’t have mindfulness practices.

So, literally, the body, the brain was built for a mindfulness practice of some kind which is why you’ll find a form of it in every religion and every culture, it’s just that we’ve all kind of forgotten that, and so we’re kind of having to come back to something our body was built for. And I would just say, Pete, give it a try. Find the right channel. Find the right teacher, but don’t give up till you get one that makes you feel good.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And I’ve gotten into some good grooves from time to time with, well, so, Simple Habit is a sponsor, and I think they’re great and I really enjoyed working through those. And I think it’s almost like any other positive habit like exercise or you name it, in terms of like, “Oh, I get on the wagon, I fall of the wagon,” so there’s that. Okay, cool. Well, go ahead.

Britt Andreatta
Well, I wanted to answer, I wanted to say one more thing when you asked me the question of, “What were like some big key findings?” So, I got into creativity, and there’s one more I wanted to highlight which I think is relevant here, which is our bodies can repair themselves in ways that are just astounding researchers.

And a couple of the things that have really developed just in the last decade is you can take people who are paralyzed and have been paralyzed for years, and using the right kind of neural stimulation, you can regrow the nerves that have been damaged. And so, they’re actually seeing people that have been paralyzed walk again. I have seen videos; the research is outstanding.

And so, there’s some things that we’re learning about our bodies and the ability of our bodies to regrow nerves, and it’s more that we just haven’t had the right knowledge to work with how the body can do it but now researchers are starting to get that ability. So, some of the things that I was seeing in the research was just neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, the ability for our nerves to be flexible and also to grow new ones is truly astounding. And so, yeah, if a paralyzed person can stand up and walk again, I can probably learn a new habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Britt Andreatta
There’s no excuse for any of us to say, “I can’t do it.” It’s really about, “Do you have the right teacher? Do you have the right motivation? And are you willing to put in the time?” But if you get enough habits under your belt, if you get enough repetitions under your belt, you really can rewire most parts of your body in significant ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s exciting. So, whew, boy, we’ve covered a lot of fun territory. Let’s see. Talk about learning again, so let’s hear, we’ve hit a few strategies associated with connecting things to an existing schema if you want to have some creative ideas, having some gating. I’d love to get your take on what are some of the most powerful learning strategies you’ve discovered that just make a world of difference in terms of what you absorb and remember and are able to, in fact, apply in life.

Britt Andreatta
Great question. So, one of the things that came out in my researching the second edition was our understanding of memory has actually changed a lot in the last five, six years. And scientists have actually identified that there’s nine different types of memory, okay? So, there are some memory we know of, like when we are trying to learn something academic and we’re studying facts and figures. That’s one kind of memory. It’s called semantic memory.

There’s a different kind of memory which is embodied memory. It’s called episodic. So, if I was studying about France and studying facts about Paris, that would be semantic. If I went to Paris and was standing at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, about to enter the Louvre, I would now have all these sensory pieces of data that would be part of that memory.

No surprise here. Episodic memory is the most enduring. It’s the one that is the stickiest because it’s tied in our memory banks to a whole bunch of experiences and sensations not just, “Did we memorize it?” right? And then there’s some memory that’s kind of unconscious to us, stuff like the Pavlov dogs thing, right? We can create cues and get somatic responses. Habits, you know, when we do something over and over again, our basal ganglia turns it into a habit. That just becomes something that we can cling to and we don’t really have to think about it.

So, part of when you’re thinking about learning is to think about, “What kind of memory am I working with here?” and then build the learning to align with the right kind of memory as opposed to sticking the same approach. So, with that said, this is really pointing to why virtual reality is a gamechanger, particularly for certain kinds of things to learn, that when we can take something and literally put on a headset and be in the physical space, our brain takes a VR experience and codes it as a lived memory.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome.

Britt Andreatta
And it responds to being in that setting as if we’re really there. So, it’s tricking the biology enough that your brain really feels like it’s in that setting, and so then it’s coding it as a lived memory. So, VR has the potential. You wouldn’t use this for everything but certain things, like when you have people who need to learn a dangerous task, having them build up experiences in a safe environment is really important. Or when people need to learn a physical space and it’s not easy or safe to get them into that physical space, they can build the memories of the space in a virtual environment.

And, certainly, things that are about people, like having empathy or having emotional intelligence. When we are in a headset dealing with another person, that is also lived memory, so we can gain some of those skillsets. So, I would say virtual reality, because of how it’s aligning with our biology, is really worth looking at and, realize, it’s evolving quickly.

So, if you tried a headset a year ago, it was a little wonky back then. It’s already better and it’s going to get better every six months, so just keep trying it. But I think a VR strategy should be part of every organization’s learning plan for the future.

Pete Mockaitis
So, VR, interesting, you know, new tool available. And then let’s say if we don’t have that and we have kind of the basics in terms of audio-visual stuff, PowerPoint, keynote, projector, laptop, videos, audio, flipcharts, whiteboards, talking in person, these things.

Britt Andreatta
You’re going to run through the whole list, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, a few more. So, if you’ve got the traditional tools, and based on how people learn, how might we choose to, say, deliver or structure a presentation or a training differently such that more is absorbed?

Britt Andreatta
Great question. One of the things that I like to say is our body is built for learning. Like, we’ve been learning for hundreds of years before we ever had any of these technologies. So, what’s cool is we’re designed to learn from each other. Mirror neurons are specifically designed for observational learning. So, we’ve been learning each other since we were chasing down the woolly mammoth on the plain, watching each other do it. The original PowerPoint was the cave drawing, where we, “Okay, we all gather over here and we’re going to go do this,” and sitting around the fire and telling stories.

So, learning is innately in our DNA. We learn from each other, we learn through story, narrative. I always say, whatever you’re teaching, build it into a story because the brain is built for story. Whenever you can, show and tell. And then, more importantly, let people do it. This is where people fall down a lot. I’m not kidding, I’ve gone into Silicon Valley and sat through a two full day manager training where they’re spending thousands of dollars to take people “off the job” for manager training. and great visuals, great content, and yet there was no practice. Not one minute of practice.

[39:25]

Pete Mockaitis
Anything.

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, I mean, practice is how we change our behaviors, it’s how we change our habits, so you got to make sure that whatever behavior you’re trying to drive, whatever that looks like, what kinds of words and actions do you want to see out there, have them do it in the room and make it safe to make some mistakes, and do the coaching and the improving in the room. Because once people get strong in the room, they’re much more likely to go do that back out in the fields or on the floor, or wherever they have to go do their jobs. So, make sure that your learning elements have those pieces to it.

Then in terms of what kind of technology you’re doing learning through, it just depends on what you can afford and where your audience is. If they’re working globally, you’re going to need to be leveraging video conferencing and some digital assets. If you’ve got people in the room, then you could be dealing with a whiteboard and some conversation. So, I hesitate to tell people, “Go out and invest in a bunch of stuff,” because good learning can happen anywhere. You can make great learning out of any tools that you have.

And then, because of observational learning, I would say, if you have the ability to use video, it’s great because you can show people stuff and make that scalable because you videotape it once and then a bunch of people can see that. And so, scalability comes down to if you invest in something, then that may be usable by a lot of different learners over time. But all those bells and whistles don’t get you away from building good learning with aha moments and driving behavior change.

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

Britt Andreatta
I would say people learn best when learning is chunked in 15- to 20-minute segments. What we have found is that human attention span really can’t focus for longer than 20 minutes. So, even if I’m running a half-day program, it’s all done in 15-minute content pieces broken up by processing of activities and practice sessions. So, string a bunch of bite-sized stuff together to make a longer learning event, but don’t talk to people for more than 20 minutes because they just can’t retain it, and then they’re not going to have the thing that you want to push into their memory.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say processing activities, I guess I’m thinking of all kinds of interactive exercises that can take a while, but I imagine you’ve got a couple processing activities in mind that might just take a minute or two. What are some of those?

Britt Andreatta
Yeah, absolutely. Literally, it can be as short as take one minute and jot down some notes about how this applies in your own life or memory you’ve had with this, right? So, you’re just asking them to attach it to something. You can give them some kind of reflective questions to answer or a conversation to have with a partner. They could take a quick assessment. I kind of always do like five-minute activities, one- to five-minute activities. They don’t have to be long. But it basically just says, “This thing that you just learned, play with it for a minute.” And when you play with it for a minute, you’re naturally pushing it and attaching it to your schemas, you’re naturally personalizing it a little bit. And then the brain can be ready to learn more.

But if we keep giving people more content, not only does their attention span wane, but then they have more and more and more to try to attach to something, and then they’re going to miss some pieces. So, chunk it. Chunk it into bite-sized experiences. It doesn’t have to be big and showy. Literally, a couple good reflective questions or a dyad conversation and you’re good to go.

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

Britt Andreatta
I love this quote from Robyn Benincasa, she’s a world champion, and she says, “You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Britt Andreatta
You know, I’m still into what’s happening with mindfulness. I think that continues to be a great place for us to explore. But I’m really interested right now in kind of sense of purpose and innovation. So, I’ve been doing a lot of research on what drives innovation and also the brain science behind having a sense of purpose or a meaningful life, so those are some things that I’ve been really digging on right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And we mentioned Altered Traits. Any other favorite books?

Britt Andreatta

I’m really enjoying Bill Bryson’s current book called The Body. It’s just really interesting research about our whole internal working, but he’s also a comedian so he makes it really funny, so I’m enjoying the science behind that.

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

Britt Andreatta
You know, PowerPoint is my go-to thing for everything but I also have been doing a lot of video editing with Camtasia, and so those are two tools I use frequently to do the work that I do.

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

Britt Andreatta
I recently heard from some folks who went through the change training and they just said that they found that they were able to apply it to everything, not only work changes but personal changes. Even just kind of our response to things that are difficult in our life, that that’s a type of change journey as well, and how we resist. So, I oftentimes get people who email me and say, “Hey, thanks for sharing that. I now really see all the ways that I’m resisting or people around me are resisting, and have some new ways to try to help people move through it.”

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

Britt Andreatta
My website is the best place to go BrittAndreatta.com. Everything I’m up to is there. And then I love it when people connect with me on LinkedIn. I really do enjoy my community of folks on LinkedIn, so please connect with me. I’d love to hear from you.

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

Britt Andreatta
I would say give yourself permission to have a break. We need more breaks than we need more to-do lists. So, put down the device, go find your knitting or fabric art or running, or whatever gives your brain a break, and just let all this stew around for a while so that you can have some aha moments tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Britt, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck and fun and all the ways that you’re growing and learning and connecting and doing your thing.

Britt Andreatta
Thank you so much, Pete. I love connecting with you. I love your podcast. I love your audience of learners. We’re all part of the same tribe. And I’m excited to stay in touch.

539: Preparing for the Future of Leadership with Jacob Morgan

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Jacob Morgan discusses what professionals need to succeed in future workplaces.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How professionals must change in the future
  2. The five skills of future leaders
  3. The surprising weakness of present-day leaders

About Jacob:

Jacob Morgan is a 4x best-selling author, speaker, and futurist. His new book, The Future Leader, looks at the skills and mindsets people need to have if they wish to be successful leaders over the next decade and beyond. He is also the founder of The Future Of Work University and can be reached at TheFutureOrganization.com.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Empower. Save more money, effortlessly. Get $5 free at empower.me/awesome with the promo code AWESOME

Jacob Morgan Interview Transcript

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

Jacob Morgan
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so intrigued about much of your work. You studied the future of work a whole lot. And, maybe to kick it off, could you share what do you think is one of the wildest predictions you’ve encountered about the future of work that you think actually might come true?

Jacob Morgan
You know, it’s tough because there’s been a lot of predictions that have been made, and I’m sure some of your listeners have heard of these, right? One of the predictions is that we’re not going to have any jobs in the future, and it’s sort of going to be like an episode from The Walking Dead, we’re all going to walk around with pitchforks and shotguns. I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I’m more of an optimist, so the prediction that I believe is that there will be some disruptions with technology and automation and all these things that we’re starting to see happen, but I think we’re also going to create a lot of new jobs, we’re going to focus more on the creative aspect of work. So, I’m an optimist, that’s kind of the prediction that I believe in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I want to hear a lot about your research. So, you went ahead and interviewed 140 CEOs trying to learn what’s the future leader look, sound, feel like. Can you share with us a bit about your research and some of the most striking discoveries you made there?

Jacob Morgan
Sure. One of the things that I wanted to understand, and why I even wrote this book, is because I started to get a lot of questions from people not on present-day leadership but on what’s coming in the future. To use a famous quote from Wayne Gretzky, he always used to say, “I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”

And so, I kept getting these questions, “Hey, Jacob, you know, we get it. We understand where we are now. What should we be prepared for in the future? What’s coming in the next 10 years? What should we be training our employees on? What kind of leaders should we be focusing on creating?” And I had my ideas, and I’m sure everyone has their ideas on this, but I wasn’t really able to find any concrete data and the research on this. And so, I decided to go out and create it myself.
And it was really cool because, basically, I got to grill all of these people for around 45 to 60 minutes, and I asked them about skills, and mindsets, and challenges, all sorts of different things. And so, that was the first aspect of the research.

The second part of this was I teamed up with LinkedIn, and they were very gracious enough to partner with me on this, and we surveyed almost 14,000 employees around the world to see how the perspectives of the workforce align with the insights that these world’s top CEOs are telling me. And that is, basically, the background about the research. So, let me stop there and see if you have any questions, then I can share some of the things that I learned.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yup. I hear it how you did it. So, what did you learn?

Jacob Morgan
So, there are a couple interesting things that I learned. So, the first is what are the most important skills and mindsets that we need to possess? And, by the way, the focus is all around the future leader, but we need to remember that anybody can be a leader. Even if you’re a leader of yourself, you’re still a leader in some capacity. So, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to be managing people. These are just skills and mindsets that anybody needs to possess.

So, the number one mindset that the CEOs identified as being the most relevant in the future is, well, there were two of them that were very, very close, neck and neck. The first one was the mindset of the explorer. And the explorer includes things like curiosity, it includes things like being a perpetual or lifelong learner, things like being able to be agile and nimble in your thinking.

And the second mindset which was the most crucial was the mindset of the chef. And the mindset of the chef is about balancing ingredients. And the two ingredients that leaders of the future need to balance are being purpose-driven and caring and technology. So, how do you balance these two components of wanting to use technology, automation, artificial intelligence, to be productive and efficient, but at the same time balancing the ingredient of making sure that the organization stays human, that you are still focused on a greater purpose, that you actually care about your people?

So, those were the two biggest mindsets. Now, there were others in there. I talked about the mindset of the servant, the mindset of the global citizen are two others, and just to give one sentence about each one of those. The mindset of the servant is about believing that, as a leader, your job is to help make other people more successful than you. And the mindset of the global citizen is about embracing and actively seeking out diversity, and it is about thinking big picture, thinking globally, not just paying attention to what’s right in front of you.

So, those are some of the most crucial mindsets that future leaders, that we, as individuals, need to have if we want to be successful over the next 10 years and beyond. Then I also talked about skills which we can get into if you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s maybe hear about the opposite of those things because, I mean, that sounds like it’d be great to do some exploring, it’d be great to be mixing some important ingredients. And so, what’s the opposite of that that is destructive and will make us bad leaders in the future?

Jacob Morgan
So, the opposite of having the explorer mindset is consistently believing that what worked in the past will work in the future, it’s consistently just focusing on what’s right in front of you, on doing what  you know, on staying in your comfort zone, on picking a single path and going down that path. It’s what we see in a lot of organizations today. We don’t have that explorer mindset. So, the exact opposite is doing things the way you’ve always been doing them.

And for the mindset of the chef. The opposite of that would be, first of all, not understanding that these are the two main ingredients that you have to play with, being purpose-driven and caring and technology. And the opposite of this would also be just focusing purely on technology because we are all so obsessed with automation, and with technology, and with the pace of change, that we ultimately forget that organizations are still about people.

Business is still done when you go out to lunch with somebody, when you shake somebody’s hand, when you look at them in the eye. Your business exists because of how you treat people, the experiences that you create for your employees. So, as much as we like to think about technology, we need to ultimately remember that business is still about people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Thank you. Well, so then that sets up the mindset piece. And then let’s hear about some of the big skills.

Jacob Morgan
So, the skills I grouped into five categories, and I’ll just go over some of the most popular ones then I can give you a sentence about some of the others. So, interestingly enough, the number one skill that these 140 CEOs told me that’s going to be most relevant for future leaders is the skill of thinking like a futurist. And, basically, thinking like a futurist, so I play a lot of chess. I’m kind of obsessed with chess. And if anybody has ever played a game of chess, you know that what separates high-level players is their ability to think in terms of scenarios and possibilities. In other words, you don’t just make a move on the chessboard and only look at that move. You look at multiple moves. You look at multiple moves that your opponent might make. And you look at how all these things kind of play together.

Thinking like a futurist means that you’re not seeing around the corner but you are thinking in terms of possibilities and scenarios so that when one of these other things happen, you’re going to be prepared for it.

A lot of people think, for example, that the role of a futurist is help to predict the future but that’s not true. A futurist helps make sure that people in organizations are not surprised by what the future might bring. And the only way that you can keep from getting surprised is you constantly look at different options and scenarios and possibilities. And so, that’s the number one skill that CEOs told me is going to be most essential, and it’s because things are changing so quickly that you need to be able to constantly play around with these different scenarios and options in your head.

The second most important skill that came out of this was, well, there was quite a bit that were very close together on this. So, there was the skill of a coach, and the coach is about the motivating, engaging, and inspiring people, about helping create other people who are more successful than you, and those last two words there are very important, more successful than you. There was a skill of Yoda, and Yoda is all about emotional intelligence, specifically empathy and self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Now, Yoda was really pretty hard on Luke at times.

Jacob Morgan
He was.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear more about this empathy and Yoda.

Jacob Morgan
Yes, I mean, as you can probably tell, I’ve tried to create these unique personas for these different mindsets and skills. And so, I was really struggling trying to figure out what represents emotional intelligence, specifically empathy and self-awareness. Ultimately, I thought that Yoda was, I mean, many people consider him to be the most emotionally intelligent character who’s ever been created because he’s always giving advice to Luke about emotions and feelings and getting in touch with himself. And so, I thought that Yoda would be a very good representation of emotional intelligence. And, you know, I had a little bit of fun with it so that’s why I went with Yoda on that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Go ahead.

Jacob Morgan
And then, so the last two are the skill of the technology teenager. And technology teenager just means you’re tech savvy, and that you are digitally fluent. It doesn’t mean you need to be a coder. It doesn’t mean you need to know how to build things. It just means to know, it just means that you, as a leader, need to understand what are these different technologies that are out there, and what are the potential implications they might have on your business and on your company.

And I’m amazed how many times from a lot of these leaders that I’m speaking with, when these technology questions came up, many of them would say, “Oh, you know, IT handles that. I got to talk to my CTO about that.” But in the future, that’s not going to be good enough. You, as a leader, need to be aware of what’s happening in the realm of technology and what these potential implications might have.

And the last skill was the skill of the translator which went down to listening and communication, which have been timeless but at the same time these are also the two skills that are changing more than ever because we have so many different channels at our disposal that allows us to listen and communicate in different ways. I mean, there’s just a lot happening in that space. So, those are some of the most important skills for future leaders.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I’d love to get your view in terms of the translator, the listening and the communicating, so there’s a bunch of channels. What should we do to build those skills and, in specific, the translator skill, and be excellent at that listening and communicating?

Jacob Morgan
So, there had been a lot of really good studies that have been done on this. So, Zenger Folkman is a research firm, and they put together a list of a series of six steps. And I don’t remember all of them off the top of my head in order, but these included things like, first, just paying attention to somebody if you’re listening to them. It looked at things like creating psychological safety, how to create a collaborative conversation with somebody instead of just letting somebody else talk, focusing on your body language, putting away any distractions. So, this is some of the in-person stuff.

But if you think about it, there’s a very big difference between listening and hearing. And I think a lot of us are very used to this very act of hearing. You go into a meeting, you go into a performance review, in fact, somebody very close to me, a couple of years ago, she went to a performance review, and the lady was simultaneously running a meeting while she was trying to give this person a performance review.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

Jacob Morgan
Because we’re very focused on this hearing aspect. And hearing, by the way, is just the unconscious act of letting sound enter your ear. Listening is about really putting the conscious time and effort and attention into something.

And you can imagine, as a leader, if somebody comes to you wanting to have a conversation with you, and the person who comes to you perceives that you are not truly listening to them, the repercussions of that are going to be damaging. So, as a leader, it is essential for you to understand the difference between listening and hearing, and to make sure that when you are having dialogue, when you are engaging with your people, with your coworkers, with your peers, that they genuinely feel like you are putting in the time and effort and attention in trying to understand what it is that they’re telling you.

And same thing for communication. One CEO that I interviewed, he’s the CEO of a company called Tokio Marine. I think he has around 32,000 employees. His name is Nick Nagano. And he was telling me that, on average, an employee might only see or him live 20 minutes a year, okay, because he has a massive workforce. So, during that 20 minutes when he gets to be face to face with a particular employee, he said, “I’d better make sure that whatever I’m trying to get across comes across.” And whether you are texting somebody, emailing somebody, having an in-person conversation, presenting in a meeting, using something like Slack internally, whatever it is, as a leader, and just as an employee, as anybody, you need to make sure that your message gets across regardless of the channel that you’re using.

And we’ve also experienced this, right? I mean, how many times, people listening to this, and you got an email from somebody that looked like a letter that should be written to a therapist? How many times has somebody on your team sent you a text that’s like five-paragraphs long and were asking you for a project update? And then you got to sit there and respond and write a white paper with your thumbs.

You need to understand the channels that you have at your disposal and how to best get your message across during those channels, or on those channels, which means if you’re going to have a serious conversation with somebody about promoting them or firing them, don’t send them like a frowny emoji or a happy face. You need to understand how these different platforms out there can be used to make sure that your message gets across.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, I also want to get a sense of with your LinkedIn study with those 14,000 professionals. What did you discover there?

Jacob Morgan
So, there were a lot of really interesting insights from this. So, from these 14,000 employees, we actually broke things up by seniority level. And so, in the survey, we looked at individual contributors on mid-level leaders and on senior-level leaders.

And what’s really crazy is that when we compared these responses, we found massive, massive gaps.

So, so imagine you’re a mid-level or senior-level leader in your company, and I would ask you, “How well are you practicing these skills and mindsets today?” A lot of leaders would say, “We’re doing pretty good. We’re not amazing but, you know, we’re doing pretty good.” Like, 60%, 70% of them were in the reasonably well or very well category. And so, I thought that, yeah, it’s pretty good, they’re self-assessing themselves on being pretty adept at these things.

And then I would ask the people who work for these leaders. I would say, “How well do you think your leaders are practicing these skills and mindsets?” And they had the exact opposite story. So, if 70% of leaders say that they are doing reasonably well or very well, 70% of people who work for these leaders would say that they’re not doing well or they’re doing just somewhat well. So, it was almost a complete 180 in responses between the leaders versus people who work for these leaders. And this is a bit scary because it speaks to a lot of the common things that we keep hearing about, right?

And, by the way, the more senior you become, I found that the more disconnected you become. In other words, the bigger this gap becomes between you and everybody else.

And perception is reality. So, if you’re a leader, and you’re listening to this, and you’re thinking, “Oh, you know what, I’m practicing the explorer, the futurist, the tech teenager, like I’m good.” If the people who work for you say you’re not, then you’re not. This is one of those things where like, as a leader, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you evaluate yourself, it’s how the people who work for you evaluate you, it’s how your peers evaluate for you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then I guess from all of this, I’d love it if you could share sort of what are some kind of basic, like absolutely critical prescriptions you’d write for us in terms of everyday actions, behaviors that professionals should be taking, and maybe some things that we need to start doing, some things we need to stop doing, some things we need to make sure we continue doing so that we’re in great shape?

Jacob Morgan
Sure. So, for starters, let me ask you this. I’m very curious to hear what you think. What do you think the average age is for somebody who enters a leadership development program in a company?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I think I know that it’s atrociously high because companies under-invest in them.

Jacob Morgan
It is atrociously high. You are correct.

Pete Mockaitis
So, well let’s just say 46.

Jacob Morgan
You’re actually very close. It is in the mid-40s in a lot of organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
For 46 years old, I’m not saying you’re atrociously old. I’m just saying that, you know…

Jacob Morgan
Yeah, good disclaimer.

Pete Mockaitis
We should start developing leaders earlier than halfway into their career.

Jacob Morgan
Yup. And so, if you think about that, that number is just mindbogglingly insane, because most people inside of organizations actually become leaders in their 20s in some form, in some capacity. And so, what this means is that a lot of people inside of organizations go almost 20 years, right, two decades without having any formal leadership training or development, yet they are responsible for others.

And the reason why we don’t do this is because we all subscribe to the traditional climbing the corporate ladder mentality. In other words, “We will teach you how to become a leader after you’re at the company for 10 years, 15 years, after you’ve ascended the ranks.” And that is a completely outdated way of thinking about leadership inside of an organization. I mean, everybody needs to know these skills and mindsets whether you’ve been at the company for three days or 30 years. So, that’s the first thing we need to do is start these things early.

The second thing that we need to do, and I was also very surprised to learn this, the hardest question for CEOs to answer, was, “How do you define leader and leadership?” And if you think about it, and for those of you listening, think about how you would define that. Imagine somebody comes from another planet and they have no idea about the concept of leader or leadership. How would you explain it to them?

And what I realized, it’s sort of like trying to explain and define water to somebody who’s never seen it. I mean, you can’t say it’s a clear tasteless liquid because lots of liquids fall into that category. We don’t define water because, well, we all know what water is, we all know what air is, so we don’t actually really have to explain it. And so, what I realized is that we are surrounded by leadership in some capacity every day many times a day, you see and experience leadership in some form everywhere you go.

And because of that, we all assume that we know what good leadership is and what bad leadership is. But the problem is that because we, as leaders, don’t actually define this, it means our organizations don’t define this. and if our organizations don’t define this, then we don’t have the right filters in place that we use to promote leaders.

So, this is why it’s so crucial for leaders to really take a step back and to, first, define and explain what is leadership and who is a leader at your company. Because once you do that, then you’re going to have the filters in place so that only people who match those filters and those criteria will get into those leadership positions. So, that’s another thing that I think we need to do is to really take a step back and just define those things.

Another important aspect, and something that we don’t do enough of, is we need to look at ourselves today. And I was trying to figure out how to actually do this, and so I created an assessment, and it’s in the book, and it’s online. People can go to Future Leaders Survey if you’re interested in taking it, and it basically looks at, “How well are you practicing these skills and mindsets today?” And as bonus points, send this to your team members and ask them to evaluate you. So, really take a step back and ask yourself, “How well are you practicing these skills and mindsets today?”

Another crucial aspect of this is we actually need to practice these things. And unless we practice these things, if you do, if you improve 1% a day, by the end of the year, you will be 37 times better. So, 1% a day, these are small things. This means next time somebody comes into your office and they’re panicking and freaking out, and they want to have a conversation with you, instead of just responding, take a deep breath for 10 seconds, try to put yourself in their perspective, in their shoes, practice empathy, that emotional intelligence component, and then respond.

These aren’t complicated insane things that I’m asking people to do. I just want everybody to improve 1% a day, and by the end of the year, you will be 37 times more effective, 37 times better. And maybe one more piece of advice I’ll give, the visual, the image that I give in the book, and this is what’s on the cover of The Future Leader is an image of a lighthouse.

And the whole purpose of a lighthouse is to guide mariners and explorers to help them find their way home, and to help make sure that they can reach their destination safely. A lighthouse is useless if there are no ships in the water. So, as a leader, you need to build yourself up to become this lighthouse but you also need to remember that you have to shine your light onto others and onto this sea of uncertainty that we’re all a part of, because if you just do this for yourself and you’re not guiding the ships then, ultimately, a lot of the work that you’re doing has no meaning, so you have to remember to guide others. So, I’d say those are some of the best of pieces of advices I can give.

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

Jacob Morgan
Oh, man. I think that there is tremendous opportunity. And from the research, from all of the work that was done for this, it’s very clear that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And I don’t want to make it sound like there are no good leaders out there. There are a lot. There are a lot of wonderful leaders out there. The problem is we don’t have enough of them.

And so, I don’t want this to sound like it’s doom and gloom, “We don’t have any good leaders out there. Everything is terrible.” That’s not the case. I want to paint this as a picture of opportunity. I think there is so much potential for us as individuals, for leaders out there to do better. And I want people to just visualize and understand the impact that it would have if leaders around the world practiced these skills and mindsets.

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

Jacob Morgan
When I was younger, my dad always used to say, “Be a leader, not a follower.”

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

Jacob Morgan
I’m probably going to be selfish on this and I’m going to go with the one that I did for this book just because I’m very proud of it and it was probably the hardest piece of research that I’ve ever done.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jacob Morgan
A favorite book. I’m a big fan of science fiction, so one of my favorite books is actually a series of books by Isaac Asimov, it’s the Foundation Series and also I, Robot.” I also really like Ender’s Game, and Ready, Player One was a good book but a terrible movie.

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

Jacob Morgan
It’s not a tool in the sense of like a piece of software or an actual tool, but one of the things that I always try to do with my team, is I always ask them what I could do better. I always ask them to be very transparent and open with me. And so, I think that’s a very, very useful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jacob Morgan
I play a lot of chess. So, I’m always doing chess puzzles and watching chess games and stuff like that. That’s something a favorite of mine.

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

Jacob Morgan
I always say that, “If you don’t think about and plan for the future of work, then you and your organization are not going to have a future.” So, really, what that means is you have to take things into your own hands, don’t wait for the future to happen to you, the future is something that you build and shape and create and design, and you got to be a more active participant in it.

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

Jacob Morgan
So, I’m pretty easy to find. My website is TheFutureOrganization.com. and for anybody interested in the book, you can just go to GetFutureLeaderBook.com.

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

Jacob Morgan
Yeah, it’s to be 1% better a day. Ask yourself, “What can you do to be just 1% better a day? What small improvement and tweak can you make?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jacob, thank you and I wish you lots of luck as you become a future leader.

Jacob Morgan
Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.