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962: Marshall Goldsmith Giving Away All His Knowledge through AI

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Marshall Goldsmith unveils his latest (free!) innovation in the field of artificial intelligence: MarshallGoldsmith.Ai.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why Marshall put all of his leadership knowledge inside a bot
  2. Where AI excels and where it falls short 
  3. Crucial considerations before using–and making–AI bots 

 About Marshall

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith is the only two time Thinkers50 #1 leadership thinker in the world. He has been recognized as the #1 executive coach in the world for over a decade. He is the #1 New York Times best selling author of books that have sold over 3 million copies including What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, MOJO, Triggers and The Earned Life. He is the only living author that has 2 books recognized by Amazon.com as the Best Leader and Success books of all time. He has over 1.5 million followers on LinkedIn alone.

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Marshall Goldsmith Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Marshall, welcome back.

Marshall Goldsmith

Very good to see you again. Thank you for inviting me.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, it’s good to see you again. I’m seeing a familiar backdrop. I remember you invited me to your home last time, and that was super cool. But I think this joke maybe has already been done before, Marshall, but if you’ll forgive me, I have to ask. Is it actually you, the human being Marshall Goldsmith, I’m speaking to?

Marshall Goldsmith

This is indeed me, the human Marshall version.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Okay. Because I’ve used the Marshall Bot, the AI situation that we’re talking about, and I didn’t think it could do a video of your face yet. Is that accurate?

Marshall Goldsmith

That is coming.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay.

Marshall Goldsmith

Now, the sequence of events is text first, then voice, then video, then video and multi languages, and then, ultimately, the metaverse.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, yeah. You have a very clear pathway but let’s back way up to the beginning. So, all right, Marshall, we got a MarshallGoldsmith.ai. What’s the story here? What’s that about? Why? Tell us everything.

Marshall Goldsmith

I’ve always wanted to give away all that I know to as many people as I can. And I’ve done a pretty good job of it, yet I’ve tried to figure out some technology to make this work. I have pretty much 20 years of abject failures to my credit. I tried things like interactive videos, you know, $3,000 clunky boxes that weighed a ton and didn’t work. I mean, I have tried so many things with nothing but failure until the last year.

So, just in the last year, in hindsight, by the way, we had a whole group of people trying to figure out how to do this. It was really like having a hundred monkeys in a room waiting to type the Gettysburg Address. It wasn’t going to happen. We tried and failed. It wasn’t going to happen. So, what happened is now, after the advent of this new technology, it is mind-blowing. And not only is what I thought it would be, it’s about a hundred times better than I thought it would be.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, cool. Well, so the technology to, as I’ve experienced it, I go to MarshallGoldsmith.ai, which all listeners can do right now. I can type in some questions or things and it will give me a response. And I can even play your voice, to hear your voice doing that response. So, that’s kind of fun. And so, tell me, how does this differ from, say, ChatGPT?

Marshall Goldsmith

Well, a couple of ways. First, everything that is a computer bot is biased. Let me give you what I mean by that. Let’s say you ask a question, “What is leadership?” A simple question, but there are 30 different definitions. My old mentor, Dr. Paul Hersey taught me, he said, “Look, always use an operational definition. Never say it’s the right definition. Just say it’s your definition. There are many ways you can find words. Don’t get into semantic contests.”

Well, when you use Marshall Bot, it’s my definition, so at least you know whose opinion you’re getting.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. So, duly noted, fair enough. Every AI bot will be biased in one way or another. With the Marshall Goldsmith.ai, we know it is biased in all the ways Marshall Goldsmith is biased.

Marshall Goldsmith

And my bot has no political opinions. No political opinion, no medical advice, and no financial advice. So, mine is programmed just to give you advice about people issues or things I may know something about. Anything else that’s outside of my bailiwick, boom, it doesn’t talk about.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I actually really appreciated that. I’ve asked it several questions and it says, “I apologize, apologize.” It double apologizes. Maybe that’s a quirk or a bug, “But this question is outside of my expertise. As an executive coach, I am only able to answer questions related to my life teachings and books.”

I was really having fun with it. It was like, “Hey, who calls you every day with those questions? And what are they?” It’s like, “My friend Jim Moore asked me these daily questions.” Okay, cool. It’s like, “Hey, did your daughter win Survivor?” “Well, my daughter, Dr. Kelly Goldsmith, was a contestant. She got far but didn’t quite win.” It was like, “Okay. All right. This is sure enough.”

Marshall Goldsmith

Ask it. Ask it why I wear a green T-shirt every day.

Pete Mockaitis

You know, I remember looking at your closet, there’s like a dozen green shirts.

Marshall Goldsmith

“Why do you wear a green polo shirt every day?” ask it that, “Why do you wear a green polo shirt?”

Pete Mockaitis

Let’s do it. Let’s do it. And, guys, you can have the same fun at home at MarshallGoldsmith.ai. Marshall Bot is thinking, ellipsis, “The New Yorker Magazine wrote a story. Larissa MacFarquhar noted you always wear a green polo shirt. You didn’t do that, but that’s what you remembered. Now they expect it from you.” Okay, that’s fun. Well, so we got a thing. Maybe we got a thing, it’s different in that the training dataset is not the whole internet, it’s just your stuff, like your books, your blogs, your articles. This is what it was built off of. I don’t know, am I in there? Is the interview? Like, I interviewed you, would our source material be there?

Marshall Goldsmith

Answer is I don’t know. Let me tell you, though, what it does do that I had not planned and only started doing like a month or two ago. My daughter wanted to trick it, so she said, “Aha, how is utilitarian philosophy related to your coaching?” I don’t know what utilitarian philosophy is. It gave this brilliant answer.

You can ask it, “How is Islamic philosophy, Buddhist philosophy anything related to my coaching?” it’ll answer it. So, what it does is it actually does peruse the internet, yet it puts everything through the filter of what it knows about me. Then it answers it in my voice in a way that is pretty much 100% what I would say. And, by the way, in about five seconds. This is mind blowing. This is not, by the way, what I expected. It’s way better than what I expected.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Cool. And I see that the tech platform underlying this is from a company Fractal.ai. Do we know, what are they working with? Do they have their own model? Or is it Gemini? Or is it…?

Marshall Goldsmith

I don’t know. Let me tell you, I’ve been a very unusual sequence of characteristics that makes this possible. Not too many people have their own sophisticated AI computer bots. So, this is reasonably unusual, number one. Why? For four reasons. One, I got a lot of followers. So, I’ve got 1.5 million followers on LinkedIn. Well, you give away everything you know, if you don’t have any followers, guess what? No one cares. You give away. Nobody cares.

Number two, I’ve got a lot of content. You really need a lot of content to make this work. If you have a tiny amount of content, it’s not really worth it. Number three, I’m willing to give it away. So, not too many people have a lot of followers, a lot of content and want to give it away. And then, number four, I’ve got some nice people at Fractal that are writing big checks to pay for it.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, okay. Cool. So, you part with zero dollars in order to have this capability.

Marshall Goldsmith

Zero.

Pete Mockaitis

There you go. Cool.

Marshall Goldsmith

On the other hand, I don’t charge anything. And they don’t charge anything. Now, let me tell you another thing I love about this. There isn’t some trick door. See, normally when you get something for free, it’s like, “Well, yes, you can get this for free. Yeah, if you spend just a little bit more, you go through the magic door and you get…” you know, there’s always upsell. What I love about this is there is no upsell. The only trick is there isn’t a trick. It’s actually free. You’ve been using it, right? It’s free.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, so then tell me, in terms of if a person just wants to get some value from this, and it’s just, “Hey, I got a question about leadership, whatever. I’m just going to drop by MarshallGoldsmith.ai, and then just ask it.” And that’s sort of how you envision it being used? That’s that.

Marshall Goldsmith

Anyone in the world that wants to. Ultimately, by the way, ultimately in multiple languages.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah. Okay. Cool. All right.

Marshall Goldsmith

It’s not there yet, but ultimately the goal is video and multiple languages.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, so now as compared to, if someone were to straight up hire you as a client, you are their executive coach, and so you’ve got many famous CEOs from across the years who have been your clients.

Marshall Goldsmith

Either, number one, they’ve got to be running a huge nonprofit that does good or, number two, they’re writing a nasty check.

Pete Mockaitis

Certainly. So, right there, we got some savings and better access, so there’s some advantages. But how would you compare/contrast the experience one would have, having you, the human being, coach extraordinaire, Marshall Goldsmith, versus MarshallGoldsmith.ai?

Marshall Goldsmith

MarshallGoldsmith.ai is an information and knowledge bot. It’s not really a coaching bot as such. It’s information and it’s knowledge through the prism of me. That’s really what it is. Now, when I coach people, yeah, you’ve seen me, I just give people crap all the time, you know, I make fun, I’m a terrible coach. Although I get ranked number one coach in the world, God knows why.

But anyway, I always give people a hard time, joking around with them, having fun. I mean, the bot is a bot. It doesn’t tell jokes too much and it doesn’t have some wacky personality, and so it’s probably not as funny as me, and it also doesn’t ask questions as much as me. What it does is it’s not really designed to be a coaching bot. It’s designed to be an information and knowledge sharing bot.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Understood. So, in a way, it’s going to give me something that’s a little bit more customized and on target above and beyond to, say, a Google search, better than Google searching your archives of stuff. I’m getting better…

Marshall Goldsmith

And better. Number one, better, and, two, it’s a pain in the butt. Let me give you some real examples. And as, you know, I can always mention names of my clients. One of my clients is Dr. Patrick Friis. Now, Dr. Patrick, I am a volunteer for him because he’s running the Rady Children’s Hospital. I don’t charge him lots of money, so little kids get…little kids don’t get health care. That’s kind of tacky. So, his is all free, but he’s merging with another children’s hospital, so they can have one of America’s largest children’s hospitals, right?

He asked me, “What’s it like to be a co-CEO? What’s good about it? What’s challenging about it? What ideas do you have?” But that’s a hard question. There really aren’t many co-CEOs. Now I’ve met a few. Some are very successful, like KKR. Most aren’t, right? Most aren’t. And I asked Marshall Bot. The thing had a brilliant answer. No offense to me, it was a much…I agreed with it all, but it was more detailed and thoughtful than my answer.

Then he said, “Well, that’s really good. How about this issue of setting boundaries? That seems very important with the other co-CEO.” Boom! He goes into great detail about that. It was amazing. Then he asked me anything I’d like to add to it. Well, I kind of threw in a little something. I think he tried to make me feel good, “Oh, Marshall, your comment is good. Your comment is good.” I don’t think I added very much. I mean, I think, really, if you had a contest, it versus me, it wasn’t close. Its answer was way better than my answer.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, when it comes to digging up relevant information, it can do that way quickly and way thoughtfully. When it comes to having a rich two-way back-and-forth question dialogue leading somewhere, it just doesn’t have that capability.

Marshall Goldsmith

That’s not what it does. For example, it’s not going to look at you and say, “Okay, why are you sending that for? You know, why are you trying to show off?” I fine my clients $20 every time they start a sentence with no, but, or however, right? So, I talk to them, and my client said, “But, Marshall…” I said, “That’s free. If I ever talk to you again, you say no, but, or however, I’ll fine you $20.” He said, “But, Marshall, 20.” “No, 40. No, no, no, 60, 80, 100. We lost $420 an hour and a half. At the end of the hour and a half, we said, thank you. I had no idea.

I was talking with another client who’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars, right? Hundreds of millions. He’s 53 years old. He’s good-looking, healthy, got a nice wife and three good kids. He’s not happy. You know what I told him? “Raise your right hand, repeat after me. My name is Joe and I’m an idiot.” I said, “You’re an idiot. What is wrong with you? If 99% of the world were listening, they’d be like, ‘What a fool!’ And they’re exactly right. You’re an idiot.” You know what he said? “Thank you.” Marshall Bot is not going to do that.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Understood. So, we got a clear distinction there. So, then, well, I’m curious, thinking broadly about this AI stuff, do you imagine there will be other bot implementations of knowledge bases kind of on the scene emerging in the future?

Marshall Goldsmith

Oh, yeah. I would imagine pretty much everybody’s going to have to do this. I mean, every corporation is going to have to do this. They’re going to have to have their own AI bot of sorts. And I’ll tell you one thing I know that they don’t know. They don’t know how hard it is. I’ve put hundreds of hours into this thing already. This is a lot of work. And it’s easy to do. It’s hard to do right.

Pete Mockaitis

Now the hundreds of hours, I mean, are we counting the time, like writing all those books that you wrote that go into it? Or are we talking about on top of that?

Marshall Goldsmith

On top of that.

Pete Mockaitis

What does that consist of? Like, what were you doing to make that come to fruition?

Marshall Goldsmith

Give it feedback.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. You’re like, “No.”

Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall Bot, I can change the answers. I ask it a question; it gives an answer. Parts I like, I keep; the parts I don’t like, I get rid of. Now, let’s say, if you ask it a question, but maybe it doesn’t have an answer, like somebody asked me, “How is your coaching related to, oh, I think Nietzsche’s philosophy or something?” Well, it didn’t know.

All I have to do then is go to ChatGPT, and say, “How’s my coaching philosophy related to that?” and then it gives an answer because it knows who I am, “How’s Marshall Goldsmith’s coaching philosophy related to that?” It’ll give an answer. On the other hand, I don’t always like all the answer. So, the part I like, I use that to teach my bot. The part I don’t like, I just get rid of. So, I’m using the other bots to train my bot.

Pete Mockaitis

Alrighty. And so, now that you’ve been through hundreds of hours of this, it sounds like you’re pleased with what it’s outputting. Do you still have to say, “Hmm, not quite right? I got to tweak this some more” from time to time?

Marshall Goldsmith

I would see this as a never-ending project. This is legacy for me. I’m 75. I’m going to be dead anyway. I’m just giving everything away. What am I saving it up for, right? I’m just giving everything away to people. My goal is just do a little good here. So, this, to me is, as long as they’re willing to support this, I plan on doing this as long as I can.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, do you have any pro tips on asking questions effectively? Or, I guess, the kids might call it prompt engineering to get excellent output.

Marshall Goldsmith

That is hugely important, because, for example, you might ask it a question, and you think, “Well, gee, I really wish it elaborated on point B.” You just need to learn to ask it to elaborate on point B.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay, sure.

Marshall Goldsmith

But if you don’t know that, you don’t know it. So, prompt engineering is very important. and sometimes you do need to be patient. Like, I recently did a test, and somebody did it and they didn’t get exactly what they wanted. I just re-did the wording just a little bit, they got exactly what they wanted. So, sometimes you do, it’s like anything else that’s new, you have to tinker around with it a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And tell me more, any other top best practices, worst practices, do’s and don’ts for asking bots questions well?

Marshall Goldsmith

Here’s the problem. Let’s say, “Why don’t people do what they know they should do?” Well, often the idea is they don’t understand it. That’s seldom the case.

If you look at my research, I did a research study called “Leadership is a Contact Sport” with 86,000 people. Anyone’s interested, send me an email, Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com and I’ll send it to you.

Eighty-six thousand people. The problem is the theory. They all went to exactly the same course. And then I measured, “How much follow-up did you do after the course?” The people that did no follow-up might as well have been watching sitcoms. It was a total and complete waste of time. And the people that did lots of follow-up got a lot better, “Well, you know, I learned.” No one got better because they went to the course. You got to do something.

Well, the advantage the coach has is the coach reminds you to actually do something, follows up with you, and make sure you’re doing something as opposed to just knowing a theory. From a theory point of view, I can tell you, in terms of if you’re a coach or advisor, do not compete with Marshall Bot. You’re not going to win. Look, I got to rank number one coach and number one leadership thinker in the world. I can tell you. I cannot even get close to competing with this thing. Well, no offense to the rest of the world, if I can’t get close, you can’t either.

Pete Mockaitis

Got you. You can’t come close to competing with it in terms of offering good content answers.

Marshall Goldsmith

Exactly, knowledge. I mean, you can’t get into a knowledge contest with this thing, you’re not going to win.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s got to like the AIs who can crush it in chess or Jeopardy, the knowledge contests. Well said.

Marshall Goldsmith

You can’t beat it.

Pete Mockaitis

As opposed to the accountability emotion stuff because a lot of times, in my experience, a great coach, part of what they bring to the table is just their observation. It’s like, “Hey, I see that you seem to like your energy just kind of dropped there. What’s going on there?” And then you surface something.

Marshall Goldsmith

I’ll give you another one. One person, the first time I met him, he’s introducing himself, so I’m taking notes. After an hour, I said, “Well, I’m now going to read you six times, in the past hour, when you pointed out to me how smart you were. Six.” I read them all back to him, and he was so embarrassed, he goes, “Oh.” I said, “Oh, you’re really not an ass. You’re a really nice guy. You just spend a lot of time proving how smart you are.” This guy had an MD and a PhD. His whole life was proving how smart he is. So, it’s just hard to stop. Well, the computer bot can’t do that.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, I’m curious, so if listeners are thinking, “Wow, I or my team or my organization needs to make our own bot,” can you offer some pro tips, some do’s and don’ts for the creation of your own bot?

Marshall Goldsmith

First, don’t. Don’t assume that technology people can do this for you. It doesn’t matter how good they are. They cannot do this for you. I’ve learned as human beings ask questions in a thousand different ways, and you got to sit there and give this thing feedback. And if your customers are asking it a question, you got to make sure that it’s a good answer.

Let’s say you go to ChatGPT, you say, “All right, what awards have Marshall Goldsmith won?” A simple question. I’ll say, “Give me 20.” Well, 10 of them, I’ve actually won. Five of them are awards I didn’t win. And then the next five, they’re not even awards. It just makes it up. Then I say, “Okay, give me 20 more.” Then it makes everything up. It just starts making stuff up.

Well, you can’t have a business, say you’re in a hospital, you can’t have something representing you making up stuff. You got to have somebody check to make sure this stuff, is it sane here, so it’s not giving you crazy advice. Well, I mean, it might be mildly humorous if ChatGPT or Gemini does that crazy stuff. It’s not mildly humorous if it’s your hospital.

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. And so, it seems like, in certain contexts, you might just have to have a human right there intercepting everything. It’s like, “Ooh, that sounds good. That sounds not good.”

Marshall Goldsmith

Well, you need to train it.

Pete Mockaitis

Right. Well, upfront training, and then maybe even real-time interposition.

Marshall Goldsmith

Oh, yeah. You’ve got to ask it question after question. I would say after X number of months, you probably don’t have to have a human there because after, say, six months, most of the questions that are going to be asked have been asked I’ll give an example, “How is humor related to your coaching?” Okay, I never wrote about that. It gave a great answer. The potential of this is amazing.

On the other hand, it’s hard work to do right because humans do not ask questions as you want them to. They kind of ask whatever question they feel like asking.

And also, you got to watch it because people will try to trick the bot, just like you did. They’ll try to get it to talk about politics, or controversial things, or stuff it shouldn’t talk about. Well, you can’t do that in a hospital setting. You just can’t do that, or in a medical setting, or in a corporate setting. You can’t have this thing making mistakes.

From my experience, you got to have to have real content experts do the training, not technology people. Because if you get technology people only, that’s when it goes off the rails because they don’t understand the customer.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s good. All right. Well, Marshall, let’s have some fun with this. I was going to ask about your favorite things, but I might ask Marshall Bot each of the favorite-things questions, and then have you comment on the extent to whether that was accurate.

Marshall Goldsmith

It may or may not have any idea how to answer these questions.

Pete Mockaitis

We’ll say, “Can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?” I’ll give you the Marshall Bot answer and then you can give me your answer.

Marshall Goldsmith

Okay, I’ll be curious. Yeah, mine would be “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Marshall Bot says, “Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.”

Marshall Goldsmith

By the way, equally good.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And can you tell us about a favorite book?

Marshall Goldsmith

Favorite book, yes. Favorite book, “Old Path, White Clouds” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Second favorite book, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Pete Mockaitis

“Old Path, White Clouds” it is. All right. Okay. Let’s say, can you share with me a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Marshall Goldsmith

Well, I don’t know if I’d call it a favorite, but one I quote all the time is the marshmallow research. And I quote that, talking about what you should and shouldn’t do. I’m not sure Marshall Bot would interpret the same question as the way I did, but see what it says.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s right.

Marshall Goldsmith

It might say “Leadership is a Contact Sport,” by the way.

Pete Mockaitis

It said you used a series of six active questions that participants answered every day for 10 working days.

Marshall Goldsmith

Yeah, that one. That’s a good study, too. Yeah, it’s from the magazine Dialogue.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, now I got to know. What were those questions or what happened?

Marshall Goldsmith

Oh, well, here’s what happened. Every day, I have people answer six active questions. My daughter, Kelly, taught me about active questions. They all begin with the phrase, “Did I do my best today?” So, everything, like employee engagement is a passive question, “Do you have clear goals? Do you have meaningful work?” Nothing wrong with it. But then it gets people talking what’s wrong with them. Nobody says, “What’s wrong with me?”

The active questions say, “Did I do my best?” so you can’t blame someone else. So, the six questions are, number one, “Every day, did I do my best to set clear goals?” Number two, “Every day, did I do my best to make progress or achieving the goals I set?” Number three, “Every day, did I do my best to be happy?” Number four, “Every day, did I do my best to find meaning?” Number five, “Did I do my best to build positive relationships? And did I do my best to be fully engaged?”

So, rather than blame everybody else for your lack of engagement and meaning in life, you start blaming yourself. You take some responsibility. People that ask themselves these questions every day, huge, get better at almost everything.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Thank you. And now can you name a favorite tool you use that helps you be awesome at your job?

Marshall Goldsmith

I would guess if you have to say something, it would be customized 360 feedback.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Marshall Bot says, “Feed forward.”

Marshall Goldsmith

There you go. Even better. I told you Marshall Bot is better than me. That was a better answer than my answer.

Pete Mockaitis

And how about a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Marshall Goldsmith

Daily questions.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Marshall Bot said feed forward again. All right, sure. And then I ask about a resonant nugget, a quote of yours that really connects, resonates with folks, and they repeat it back often, Kindle book highlight it, retweet it, etc. What’s a Marshall original gem that you’re known for?

Marshall Goldsmith

“To help others get better, start with yourself,” or, “What got you here won’t get you there,” of course.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Yeah. We’ve got something similar, “One of the most important actions or things that a leader can do is lead by example. If you want everyone else to be passionate, committed, dedicated and motivated, you go first.”

Marshall Goldsmith

Very similar principle.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where should they find you?

Marshall Goldsmith

Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com. And to get to Marshall Bot, it’s all free. Just MarshallGoldsmith.ai.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Cool. And then I would say, do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at the job?

Marshall Goldsmith

If anybody asked Marshall Bot 500 questions within the next five days, send me an email and I’ll personally spend a half hour time coaching you.

Pete Mockaitis
Now there is a challenge.

Marshall Goldsmith

Now the record so far on that challenge, one person did ask a thousand questions. But whatever date you air, five days after that, if somebody sends me a note, say, at Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com, and says, “I asked Marshall Bot 500 questions within the five days,” I’ll spend an hour just talking with him.

Pete Mockaitis

All right.

Marshall Goldsmith

That way, it’s also great for me because I learn out their experience. See, that’s another way I’m learning. I challenge people to do this, and the ones that ask a lot of questions, and we talk. And, obviously, they’re very serious, they want put in that much time.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, beautiful. All right. Well, Marshall, this has been fun. Thank you. And I look forward to having more enjoyable conversations with Marshall Bot.

Marshall Goldsmith

Thank you so much. Greatly appreciate you inviting me to talk with you.

961: How to Get Better at Anything Faster with Scott H. Young

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Scott H. Young shows how to get better at getting better.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The promise and pitfalls of copying the pros
  2. The See-Do-Feedback model of learning 
  3. How to build the perfect environment for learning 

About Scott

Scott H. Young is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Ultralearning, a podcast host, computer programmer, and an avid reader. Since 2006, he has published weekly essays to help people learn and think better. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Pocket, and Business Insider, on the BBC, and at TEDx among other outlets. He doesn’t promise to have all the answers, just a place to start. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Resources Mentioned

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Scott H. Young Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Scott, welcome back.

Scott Young

Oh, thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, I am excited to hear wisdom from your book, Get Better at Anything. Tell us, any particularly surprising or fascinating discoveries you made as you’re putting this together? You’ve been in the learning game for a while. So, tell us what’s new and fresh and interesting for you in terms of learning about learning?

Scott Young

Well, I mean, it’s funny because I wrote a book and I talked to you about it probably about five years ago, Ultralearning. And after I wrote that book, I’m like, “Well, I’m not going to need to write another book about learning.” And as I started digging deeper and deeper, and more and more into the research, I was like, you know, there’s a whole new book here, there’s a whole new set of ideas. And so, basically, this entire book was me including things where I was like, “Oh, that’s neat, I didn’t know that,” or, “Oh, that’s surprising,” or, “That’s useful and no one had ever explained that to me before.”

So, I think when you write these books, you’re also writing for yourself, in a way. You’re writing kind of like, “What did I wish I knew before I read hundreds of books and hundreds and hundreds of papers and this kind of stuff?” Like, what would have been nice for someone to be like, “Oh, here’s a summary of what you need to know.” And so, I mean, that was the starting point for writing this.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, with that, let us know something particularly surprising, useful, and never before explained to you.

Scott Young

Well, so I think one idea, and this is one that I opened the book with and I think is very important, is the idea that how we learn from other people is an extremely important component, not just in our own individual ability to improve, but the ability for entire groups of people, communities, even fields to improve.

So, the story that kind of captured my interest and got me started writing this book was actually about Tetris. Now, Tetris is a game that came out a little over three decades ago and when it came out it was a sensation. People are obsessed with it. They’re playing it hundreds of hours a week. They’re hallucinating falling blocks. But if you look at the people’s scores by the best people who are playing the game, the people who were playing back then are nowhere near as good as like 12- and 13- year-old kids are today.

And the reason why is because back in the day, if you were learning how to play Tetris and you were trying to figure it out yourself, maybe your brother’s older friend knew a technique and you could learn and copy from them but, otherwise, all the players were essentially disconnected. And now we live in the internet age, and you can see live stream videos of exactly how people are doing it, detailed explanations of the strategies, how you move your fingers, everything like this. And the result has been sort of an explosion in performance.

And I was really sort of drawn to this story, not only because Tetris is kind of a funny out of the box example, but also because of how clearly relevant that is for how we learn things in the workplace, and how we learn things in our professional lives. It’s so much of the knowledge that is needed to perform well is locked inside the heads of a few experts. And if you don’t have access to it, if you don’t have the ability to learn from other people, that can really delay and stall your own progress.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Scott, yes, I love that part of the book about Tetris, because I have in fact watched the Tetris Classic World Championships a few times and am really fascinated by how, yes, the young folks today in Tetris are heads and shoulders above previous champions in terms of their skill. And your point about how, with YouTube and streaming and such, we can really see what are the best folks in the world doing. And as a result, they are advancing much more quickly.

And by contrast, I would say at the very highest level of, say, chess, that has not been as much of a phenomenon, from what I can gather with Magnus Carlsen arguably being better than Bobby Fisher and others of the world champions historically. But, in a way, chess was well documented for centuries in terms of, “Here are the best games of the best players and they’ve been around for quite a long time.” Whereas Tetris and other domains of knowledge, it’s more of a recent phenomenon that, “Oh, hey, we can all see what the best players are doing in great detail all the time.”

Scott Young

Yeah, I think for chess, part of the thing is that it really lends itself to being documented through text. And I think that’s why you have such a rich history of, like, famous games were played 200 years ago and this kind of stuff. I think the technology needed to document elite-level chess play has existed for a really long time. So, of course, there is performance improvements. And I do think that the arrival of like really good computer chess has changed the game too, because there’s just things.

So that’s, like, not a technological innovation that I’m talking about here, but it is an area that I think explains why some of the better players maybe are better than a generation or two ago is that you can have Stockfish search through the space of possible moves and do research on opening positions and stuff in a way that you had to use the human brain to do until very recently.

So, I do think that there are some innovations there, but obviously a major difference between Tetris and chess is chess is like a discreet game where you move each piece, and you can just write it down and that’s all you need to know about the game. You can do it by correspondence via letters. Whereas Tetris, because it is this human software interaction, you need to know tons of details that are not just about, like, this is where this block went, but the exact timing of certain button presses and these kinds of things.

And that, I think, the ability to witness that, the ability to document those aspects of play, they just weren’t around in the early ‘90s. It was very hard. So, you had people like Thor Aackerlund, who figured out a really good way to press the buttons, but he was the only one who knew it, and so everyone else was doing something else, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well said. And it’s funny, I have heard murmurs that amongst, say, unrated players at chess tournaments, they say, “Oh, watch out, the unrated players showing up at chess tournaments are now phenomenal because they’ve been using Stockfish to analyze their games and say, ‘Oh no, see that game you just played? These are actually the very best moves you could have played.’” And so, they’re learning faster.

So, by the time they actually show up on a measured event, it’s like, watch out, unrated players of today are just obliterating unrated players of yesteryear. So that’s, in a way, intriguing, maybe not the very highest championship levels, but at the, in many ways, advances in technology are improving the ability of folks to learn because they could readily see what is optimal.

Scott Young

Yeah, and I think it’s easier to sort of document these phenomena in areas like chess and Tetris where performance is quite objective, it’s measurable, and we have details on, like, what the best people are doing. But I think for that reason, it’s very important to think about these in the kind of softer, squishier context that we usually live in, like, writing a book, for instance.

I was just reflecting on the fact that when I got into writing my first book, that, essentially, if you don’t have a bunch of friends who’ve already published books, the world of traditional book publishing is just completely opaque. It’s just something that very few people understand, people don’t understand how it works, and there’s lots of people that’ll waste years of their life going down a path in writing a book or trying to pursue that as a career, that it’s just a total dead end without realizing it.

And so, I think this is the sort of phenomenon of how can you get access to, “Well, this is what the best practices are. This is how you perform this skill. This is sort of the template,” so that it doesn’t necessarily make you the best Tetris chess player author in the world, but it gets you so much faster up to that frontier. And I think that is just a huge factor in whether or not you’re able to get better, whether you have to reinvent the wheel or whether you’re getting the blueprint given to you.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, I love that notion there, “Are we getting the blueprint from the best performers in the world? Or are we wasting years of our life pursuing dead ends to really polarize and extremify the ends of it.” And I remember when I was in the early days of podcasting, I went to the Podcast Movement Conference, which is awesome. And folks were like, “How do I grow my podcast? How do I grow my podcast?” And I too wonder that.

And then it became very clear, the answer, according to all the best podcasters in the world, to grow a podcast is to be a guest on other podcasts. Like, that’s the thing you do. Like, it’s not about Facebook ads or tweeting really clever things. It’s be a guest on a lot of other large podcasts and be amazing, so people say, “Wow, I should check that person out.”

And I remember it was kind of an eye-opener for me. It’s like, “Huh, all these top people just keep saying the same thing. Whereas I thought out here, a variety of answers.” And then I shared that with a couple other people, they said, “Yeah, that is the thing I keep hearing.” And it makes sense in hindsight, and I’ve seen success with it myself, but if you’re just sort of taking your best guess or Googling something, you are very likely to end up with dozens of paths when, apparently, one is the very best.

Scott Young

It’s funny, I just want to like to keep pulling on this game analogy that we’ve been using, which maybe I’m stretching it too far. But the basic idea in a lot of games that are played competitively is that there’s this idea of a meta. And the meta is not really like the game itself, but sort of the higher-level understanding of what’s the best practice.

So, in chess that would be like, “What are the openings that are popular? What are the responses that are popular?” So, if you’re a good chess player, you’re going to know, “Oh, that kind of thing was something people did 40 years ago, but most people do this now.” And pretty much any game you can think of has this kind of meta layer.

But the truth is that the same is true in your career, the same is true in your professional life, that there is a kind of meta, there is a sort of, like, what you were saying is that the meta, at least at that point in time of how do you grow a big podcast was, well, you got to be a guest on other people’s podcasts. And I have been doing this sort of, you know, I started out blogging, I have a newsletter, I’ve been doing this for like almost two decades.

And the amounts of changes to the meta as like, “This is the way you build an audience. This is what you do to build a business, this kind of thing.” They’ve turned over, like, five or six times and you always spot people who are very good at picking up this meta. Now, maybe they’re not like the smartest person in the world.

Maybe they don’t even have like, you know, it’s not like this person just has really high raw intellect or this person is the best possible writer, the best possible content creator, but they have a really good understanding of the meta. They have a really good understanding of what is the best practice, what’s working right now, and they’re able to just leapfrog other people in their field because they have that understanding.

And so, that’s something that I’ve really taken to heart in thinking of a lot of skills, because often we take this kind of academic model where we think about like, “Well, the main thing for succeeding in school or for learning is your raw brain power,” but it may be the case that it’s more your ability to connect with other people and to sort of figure out what this sort of best practices is for a field that maybe the smartest people in the room, if they don’t have those connections, maybe they don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis

Yeah, that’s super. And so, you’ve laid out three key factors, the See-Do-Feedback. Can you unpack a little bit of this broadly?

Scott Young

Yeah, so the See is kind of what we’ve already been talking about, “How do you learn from other people?” And the book kind of documents both sort of how enabling this is, like a lot of the cognitive science showing why this matters so much, as well as some of the obstacles, like, “What makes it difficult sometimes to learn from other people?”

Do is obviously practice matters to get good at anything. You don’t just get good at something by watching someone. You don’t get good at podcasting by reading how to make a great podcast online or just listening to podcasts. You have to do it a lot, and same with all skills. But importantly, the kind of practice matters.

And so, there’s a lot of research showing what practice does and what it doesn’t do. And the thing is, is that, a lot of times you can spend years, maybe even decades, working on a skill, continuing to do the same things, and you don’t get that much better at it. You don’t actually improve that much. So, I think a firmer understanding of what practice is actually doing, what it helps with, and what it doesn’t help with is very important if you want to make progress and not waste a lot of effort.

And then, finally, Feedback is important because it’s not enough. We don’t just get things perfectly the first time. We need corrective information from the environment, from coaches, from our own performance, our own interactions with the environment that we care about. And so, there’s a lot of information about how you can finetune feedback to accelerate your growth.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, so let’s hit this mystery. What does practice do for us? What does it not do for us?

Scott Young

So, the basic idea, and I mean, there’s a lot of things to unpack here, but when we practice something over and over again, one of the things that’s going on is that we are making the skill more automatic. To use an example, let’s say we’re typing on a computer. And if you start typing and you decide you don’t get a proper instruction, you’re doing the hunting and pecking, you’re using the two fingers, you’re looking at the keyboard.

If you keep doing that, it will become more automatic, more effortless, a little bit faster. So, you will be on some kind of practice curve where you’ll be getting slowly, slowly better over time. There’s lots of studies showing exactly the shape of that curve, and you do continue to get better, but it gets slower and slower and slower over time. So, in the beginning you show this sort of steep part of the learning curve and then it flattens out and flattens out and flattens out.

So, if you’ve been doing it for 10 years, you may not even notice getting much better at it, even if you keep doing it, but, and this is really important, the hunting and pecking strategy never just spontaneously evolves into touch typing without deliberate effort. So, what the practice is doing is it’s kind of ingraining a habit. It’s ingraining a way of doing things deeper and deeper.

Now, in reality, we often, when we’re doing things, we don’t do things perfectly consistently all the time, so there is a chance to improve, to try new methods and work things out. But it shows how, what we were talking about with the learning the best practices, that if you don’t kind of get in the right ballpark, someone doesn’t teach you, “Okay, this is the home row, put your fingers on here. This is how you move to hit the keys,” then all the practice in the world may not transform you into using the right proper technique.

And so, I think that a lot of what we’re doing when we’re practicing is this sort of dialogue between like, “Am I using the right method? Am I using the best practices? And am I getting enough repetitions? Am I getting enough, like, realistic feedback in order to actually ingrain this skill and make it automatic for me?”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And what’s intriguing is that some activities, feedback is really built in. And I think if we’re playing a game, for example, it’s like, “Oh, hey, I won. Oh, hey, I got more lines than I got before. That’s great.” Or, I’m thinking about, one of my favorite podcasts is Darknet Diaries, and so we talk about hackers. And so, it seems like they kind of get obsessed with the thing, like, “Huh, I wonder if there’s an exploit here? Let me try it. No, it didn’t work. Let me try again. Let me try.”

And so, in some activities, there’s automatic feedback built right in, and in others, I think about podcasts, they’re not. Like, you could go hundreds of episodes and not hear much, or that would tell you to, “Ooh, do what you did last time. That’s amazing,” or, “Stop doing what you did. That wasn’t working so well.” So, how do you think about means by which we get that feedback integrated well?

Scott Young

I think I would even add to that point, because even when you are getting feedback in that kind of environment, it’s not always helpful. I had a conversation with someone about standup comedy and they were talking about, “Well, you’re getting all this feedback from the audience.” Like, why do some comics, they’ve been around for, like, 10 years and they’re just not getting funnier?

And it’s because, well, whether someone doesn’t laugh or laughs at your joke, that can kind of tell you, “Okay, say it this way and not this way.” But again, it’s not going to give you the full space of possibility. If you’re just not funny, if none of the things you’re saying are funny, it’s not going to give you, like, “Well, this is the joke you should have said,” right? You’re just going to be like, “Well, I guess they don’t like me.”

And so, I think that’s true of a lot of creative professions. Like, you write the book and it doesn’t sell, I mean, that is feedback, but, like, what does it tell you? Like, it could tell you, there’s like a million things that could be wrong, right? You don’t actually know. And so, I think for these kinds of complicated domains, this is one reason why we want to try to enhance the feedback that we get.

So, one of the chapters in the book, I talk about how in a more narrow context, this is the context of making judgments. This is not a complicated skill, like writing a book or producing a podcast, but something where you are just making a judgment, like, “Do I hire this person or not hire them? Are they going to turn out or they’re not going to turn out?” Or, if I’m a parole officer, “Will this person commit another crime? Or are they going to behave themselves when they’re out on bail?” and these kinds of things, these kinds of decisions.

And they find that people who have extensive experience have lots and lots of confidence, which is consistent with their idea that their decisions become more and more automatic. They don’t hum and haw over them. They get more and more confident, but they don’t actually get that accurate. And you can make like fairly simple models using spreadsheets that reliably outperform them.

So, in these cases, I think some of the ways that you can augment your feedback is, well, if it’s a kind of creative profession, it’s something where you are, there is some sort of practice, it’s good to have a coach. It’s good to have someone who can look at what you’re doing and offer advice. I would much rather have a good editor read my book and offer feedback than, like, a hundred random readers. I would much rather have a good business coach tell me what I should be doing with my company rather than just 15 product complaints.

I also think that having a brain trust or having a group of people where you can do work, share it with each other, and then offer feedback, advice together can often be very helpful, not because any one of those people knows more than you do, but because they’re better able to integrate information. So, if there was some glaring flaw with what you did and you missed it, it would be much less likely that a group of, like, five or six people would miss it. And so, that’s another way that you can enhance that kind of feedback for those sorts of pursuits.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, I’d love to dig into a couple of particular examples for putting these principles into action for learning different things. But, first, could we have maybe your four-minute-ish version of a rundown of your 12 maxims of mastery?

Scott Young

So, the 12 maxims is “problem-solving is search.” I cover the basic theory of like how people solve problems. And this is this idea that we solve problems by searching for a solution in a space, like going from a start to the end point in a maze. And we do that using methods and knowledge that we’ve built up from experience.

The second chapter is “creativity begins with copying.” This is the idea that creative progress is not opposed to copying. It’s not like originality and copying are the antitheses of each other, but that creativity builds from acquiring past knowledge, from mastering methods from the past. “Success is the best teacher” is the idea that the way we build motivation and interest in a subject is by building up successes and having the right foundation of skills so we know the building blocks of how it works.

“Experience makes knowledge invisible” is the next one, and this one is about how, as you gain more experience in a subject, your own explicit understanding of how it works often recedes into the background. And so, this means that when we’re learning from other people, often we have that kind of tension of, like, “How do we learn from this person when, for them, it’s just obvious?” And so, we have to try to use techniques to surface what is obvious to them, but is not obvious to us. That’s the See chapters.

Do, “I have difficulty” has a sweet spot. This is about finetuning the right level of difficulty and finding a practice loop where you go between seeing examples, doing your own practice, and getting feedback. “The mind is not a muscle.” This is based on a lot of research showing what exactly improves with practice and sort of contrary to the assumption that a lot of people have that, if you just do practice, it’s going to make your mental muscles broadly stronger. That’s probably the wrong way to think about how the mind works. A better way to think of the mind is that it’s like a collection of tools built out of knowledge. And so, you need a lot of different gadgets, a lot of different tools to get the job done.

The next one is “variability over repetition.” This is an idea about variable practice, about how practicing with variations in terms of what you’re doing. So, mixing up what you’re practicing, practicing different concepts, putting things side by side, tends to make our learning more robust and our skills more proficient. And then I have “quality comes from quantity,” which is covering Dean Simonton’s work on creativity, showing that as creators reach the sort of frontier of their field, they tend to have about an equal ratio of hits to misses for their creative work, which shows that if you want to have more hits, then you need to make more work.

And so, this has, I think, profound implications for once we get to sort of the edge of doing our field where we’re regularly producing work, finding ways that we can kind of consistently focus on creative output can make a bigger difference than trying other kinds of strategies. I talk about “experience doesn’t reliably lead to expertise,” which is what we talked about before about this idea that with judgments, lots of experts of different stripes show kind of poor predictive ability, and it’s because they don’t get reliable feedback.

“Improvement is not a straight line” is about unlearning and about fixing bad habits and the sort of necessary work of correcting mistakes that inevitably arise in our early performance. And then I have “practice must meet reality,” which is about the idea of engaging in the situation that you’re working in, so not just practicing in the classroom, but getting out in the real world and doing it.

And then, finally, “fear fades with exposure,” where I cover a lot of the research on the neuroscience of anxiety and how exposure to situations that give us anxiety that we’re afraid of, that have not strong danger, we’re not very likely to get supremely hurt, actually cause the fear response to subside. And this is a very important factor if we want to tackle skills that maybe are a little daunting for us.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, thank you for that rundown, Scott. So, I’d love to get your view when it comes to finding these super experts. It seems that having lots of years of experience isn’t necessarily the top credential or qualifier to say, “Oh, this is the expert, the master I should be seeing, learning from.” How do you recommend we determine who are the true exemplars, the providers of best practices that we ought to emulate?

Scott Young

Well, so I tend to view it a little differently. So, my thinking is not so much that we want to find that one perfect paragon of virtue that we want to follow, but that we want to look at the community that’s at the frontier. So, if I were looking at embarking on a new field, I want to switch into academia and start publishing. I’m not going to just like find, well, who’s the superstar academic and what they’re doing? Rather, I’m going to find people who are sort of broadly successful in this field, and I’m going to want to meet and interview with a lot of them and see what they’re doing.

Because I think the communal understanding of how a field works, this kind of meta, is often surpassing any individual person. And so, I think that’s one of the real lessons of the examples, like Tetris and these other environments, that the sort of the group can be smarter than the individual. And so, if I wanted to become, you know, I use the example of Octavia Butler, science fiction writing, and how attending workshops was really, really pivotal for her becoming successful professionally, it wasn’t so much that, “Oh, there’s just one person who knows what it is.”

But when you’re in an environment where you’re with a bunch of other people finally who are all doing the same kind of thing, you can learn from each other and you can stitch together an understanding of that field that maybe any individual person doesn’t have all the pieces, all the answers.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s good. And I think that’s kind of exciting or fun for your own learning process as well. It’s, like, if you interview five people, it’s like, “Well, holy smokes, they have their own eccentricities, idiosyncrasies, unique little things, like rare talents that I could ever hope to emulate maybe here or there. But these five people are all kind of saying three of the same things. Like, here’s a theme, a pattern that’s popping up again and again and again. Okay. Do we know it?”

Scott Young

Well, kind of a weird analogy, but the thing that I think about is that they did these studies with overlaying transparencies of people’s faces. And if you overlay a bunch of people’s faces, the net result is a more attractive face than any individual person’s face. This is just averaging out all the features. And I kind of think the same way about understanding a field, is that any individual person is going to know some of the things that are important, but they’re also going to have weird pet theories and idiosyncrasies that just don’t matter at all.

And so, if you just interview that one person, you’re going to be like, “Oh, well, the key to being a successful writer is to, like, work in a basement and, like, not have any light, or the light is bad.” Or, I’m trying to remember which author it was, but she like would lock herself in a hotel room naked or something like that. It’s just like, “Okay, that’s how I’m going to write.”

Pete Mockaitis

That’s the top takeaway from this interview.

Scott Young

Yeah. Now, those little details are going to average out over time as you talk to more people. And especially if you’re in this sort of group environment, and what’s going to emerge is like the things you talked about where it’s like, “Oh, yeah, the strategy for building your podcast is going on other people’s podcasts.” And it’s like, “Oh, okay, that’s the thing that I need to be focusing on.” So, I think we’re talking about this in this kind of, like, professional context, this meta of the profession, but, I mean, this is true even of particular skills, particular subjects.

If you’re learning a language, for instance, and you just talk to one speaker, maybe they have little like quirks in the way they talk that are not very generalized. But if you talk to a dozen people, that kind of broader overlapping imitation, you’re going to average out at, like, “This is how people from this area talk.”

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, so let’s put it to practice, let’s say a couple of learning scenarios. Let’s say I want to learn how to generate more great leads for a service business. I’ve got a sales person who’s rocking and rolling, who when we talk to people, boy, the close rate is phenomenal, but we want more people to be booking those meetings with him, and I want to learn, “How do I make leads rain forth? What is the better approach?”

Scott Young

Yeah, the first place for starting with that would be, like, find kind of people who have similar service businesses and what are they doing to get leads because, again, there’s going to be some kind of, among the business community, among the industry, there’s going to be some kind of meta understanding of, like, “What are people doing to generate leads? What are the strategies that are working? What things don’t work?” And chances are there are some things that you’re doing right and some things that you’re missing out on, that other people are doing this and you’re not doing it. And so, getting to that frontier is the sort of first step.

And so, if you’ve already spent a lot of time in a field, you know lots of people, again, maybe that gap is, like, there’s only 10% of the things you’re not doing. But if you’re new to an industry, or if you are shifting into field, or the field’s rapidly changing because of technology or new opportunities, maybe there’s lots of things that you’re missing out on. So, that’s the see part and that’s very important.

The next part is doing the practice. So, you have to make those calls, you have to make those efforts, you have to learn from those attempts that you’re doing to generate leads. So, I think often being able to document what you’re doing and making sure that you’re making enough efforts in that regard. And then getting feedback, obviously, seeing what works, what doesn’t work, and being able to measure that precisely often makes a big difference.

Especially in business domains, that’s one of the big things is that people have gut feelings about what works and what doesn’t work. And then you show them the numbers and then you’re like, “Oh, okay. I actually have a bit of a different picture now because I have data on it and not just feelings.”

Pete Mockaitis

And that’s great. What I find interesting is maybe in all fields, I think overconfidence is a general human bias, which is just fascinating me lately. But let’s just say you may very well talk to some experts in marketing who will tell you, with great confidence, conviction, certainty that, “Oh, this ad is garbage. This is the way to go. Forget that platform. This is the thing.” And what really is the ultimate arbiter of truth in this domain is the results generated as opposed to the guesses of the results that will be generated.

Scott Young

Well, I think when you are in, like a direct marketing kind of business or any place where you’re fairly close to the feedback, like your efforts, the things you’re doing fairly directly lead to some kind of material consequence, I think that kind of keeping that tight practice loop with the feedback is so important. And I think pretty much anyone who’s quite successful in that business is very data driven. They’re very much driven based on like, run a lot of tests, see what works, run a lot of tests, see what works.

I think where you get into trouble is when there’s a much longer lead time between your taking action X and you’re getting some results, and maybe there’s all these complex intervening factors and so you can’t do that. Like, we were talking about publishing a book for instance, you don’t get to iterate as fast, maybe publishing a book. And so, that’s when you’re sort of maybe relying a little bit more on what is best practice, what are some of these things as opposed to just getting that direct feedback and learning directly from your mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Well, let’s say we got a professional and they are noticing this frustrating trend. They’ll say something in a meeting and there’s not much of a response. And then someone else will say almost the same darn thing, Scott, and folks are like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s move on this.” Like, what’s going on here? And they would like to be the person who, when they say things, it is listened to, it has weight, gravitas, it is acted upon instead of brushed aside or ignored. How might we learn such a thing, Scott?

Scott Young

Well, I think it also depends on what the skill is that you’re trying to learn because why are you being dismissed? Why are you being overlooked in the meeting? I know that some of that can just break down to, like, raw communication skills. Like, if you’re whispering, “Maybe we should do this, this kind of thing.” Or, if you’re saying it confidently, those things can make a difference.

But I would say, from my personal experience, being in meetings and doing some of these things, some of the things that are even more important is not only the stature of the person who’s giving the thing, if someone is widely seen as being like the expert on X and they give advice. Like, if I go to a doctor and they tell me, “Oh, you need to be doing this, taking this medicine,” versus my buddy, Steve, or something like that, who read some websites, I’m going to listen to the doctor and not Steve.

And so, sometimes the thing that you’re trying to improve is not even a skill at all. It’s just trying to, like, “How do I position myself so that I can be seen as credible when I’m offering advice here? What is my track record, what’s this? Or what’s the sort of evidence I’m bringing up? What’s the kind of like things that I’m using to argue my favor?”

So, if maybe I don’t have that, “I’m the Wizard of X, and I have all this great track record so everyone listens to me on this,” do you have the data? Like, if you’re trying to make a proposal for it and you’re like, “You know what, we’ve shown that it’s going to improve efficiency by this amount, and this is how we know this,” it’s like, “Oh, this person did their homework.” That can make a big difference too.

So, I think anytime you’re encountering difficulties, anytime you’re encountering kind of roadblocks, it’s very important that you have the right mental model for what the problem actually is because if you think the problem is you’re not being confident enough, but everyone else thinks the problem is, “Well, you’ve only been at this firm for one year, and I don’t trust what you have to say,” then it’s a different kind of problem, right?

Pete Mockaitis

Absolutely. I think that’s, in many ways, perhaps a step zero. It’s, like, before we go off on a quest to learn a thing, let’s make sure that the thing we’re learning will lead us to the result that we’re after.

Scott Young

Yeah, like the way that I opened the book is talking about problem solving, and like the big thing about solving a problem is that you have to be working in the right problem representation. There’s the famous nine dots puzzle, which is like a grid of nine dots. And the question is, like, “Can you draw four lines without lifting up your pencil to do it?”

Now, I know if you haven’t done it before, you can Google it and see what it is and take a look at it. But the reason that people fail the problem is not because the solution is, like, impossible or it’s really hard. It’s because you and your head eliminate the possibility that would allow you to solve it. So, it seems impossible until someone shows to you, like, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.”

And so, a lot of the problems that we face in our work and our lives, we fail because we set up the problem the wrong way, we use the wrong language, we use the wrong mental model to describe the problem, and then we get into an impasse. So, like, as I was saying, you always have to sort of interrogate those assumptions you have. If the assumption you have is that, “Well, people aren’t listening to me at the office because of X,” it could be true, it could be the right answer, but if that assumption is wrong and then you spend a lot of time working on it, you might not see results.

And so, with any kind of business problem, any kind of professional problem you have, that’s the first thing is to just be like, “What are the assumptions that I already have? What are the ways I have of representing the problem that maybe exclude the real solution?”

Pete Mockaitis

Scott, what are your pro tips for when we’re learning a thing and we’re feeling frustrated, irritated, annoyed that it doesn’t seem to be going well? It’s like, “I keep producing junk, failing, messing up, and it’s an unpleasant sensation.” How do you think about that process?

Scott Young

So, I like to think about every emotion that we experience has been something that has been evolved in our brain to send us some kind of message. And so, frustration, this experience that you have when you’re learning things and it’s not working, is really we’re kind of banging our head against the wall. We’re trying something and it’s not working.

And when we’re trying something that’s not working, we’re kind of resorting to this process of, like, assuming we’re continuing to work on it, this kind of like trial and error, figuring things out. And depending on the problem, depending on how many possible combinations of things we could do are, this can lead to just us getting stuck. And this feeling of frustration is like, “Okay, you could waste a lot of time here before you get it, maybe you should give up, maybe you should try something else.”

And so, my feeling of whenever I encounter something which is really frustrating, the first thing I ask myself is, “Do I have the prerequisites? Like, do I have the background knowledge that I should have in order to get to this?” So, if I’m struggling with sort of a programming problem, I would look at like, “Well, do I actually have the fundamental skills to solve this problem? And can I sort of go back a step and learn those and then go back and tackle it?” That kind of stepping back and figuring out what’s missing, I think, is a very important prerequisite for a lot of skills.

The second thing is “How do I finetune the difficulty?” So, if we’re doing practice, if we’re doing efforts where we’re trying to learn from our mistakes and work on things, there are so many little levers, so many little knobs that we can make it a bit easier. And if we’re feeling, “This is extremely frustrating, we’re not making much progress,” dialing those knobs back, kind of hitting that difficulty sweet spot is going to be more productive.

So, again, if we’re like really struggling with writing a novel, maybe we should write a short story. If we’re struggling with writing a short story, maybe we should write like the outline, or maybe we should just write the introduction. And these kinds of little tweaks that you can make can all be ways to change the difficulty of your practice so you’re not feeling like you’re overwhelmed and frustrated.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Scott Young

So, I like this quote, even though when I was doing the research for it, it’s like possibly apocryphal. So, if we can just take that in mind, and this is possibly apocryphal quote, but it’s from Ernest Hemingway, where he said, “We are all apprentices at a craft which no one will ever master.” And I like that idea. I like that idea of, that we are sort of always working and striving towards getting better at something, but never quite reaching it, never quite feeling like we’ve just got it under our grasp.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite study, experiment, or bit of research?

Scott Young

I think one of my favorite that I covered in the book was John Sweller working on some research showing that people could solve problems without learning how they solve the problem. And that one I talk about in the chapter on the copy leading to creativity and just how there is a benefit of seeing examples, seeing how other people do it. And in some circumstances, it’s more beneficial than trying to solve the problem yourself.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And a favorite book?

Scott Young

The one that I think stood out to me most, that I enjoyed most, while I was doing the research for this book was Stanley Rachman’s Fear and Courage, where he talks a lot about the research on fear and anxiety and things that I think are very important for our own psychological well-being but are often not well understood.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Scott Young

Honestly, I really like just using Word documents and writing things out. I think writing is an extremely powerful tool that is underused. We try to keep too much in our heads.

Pete Mockaitis

And a favorite habit?

Scott Young

I think writing daily is very important. I think if you’re in any kind of creative pursuit, doing some amount daily is helpful for continuing to keep that axe sharp.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Scott Young

I think maybe the main thing that people take from my work is the idea that anyone can learn anything if they go about it the right way. And I think that’s something that is sort of a central ide a in my work and something that people talk about.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Scott Young

Yeah, so they can check out my website at ScottHYoung.com, and they can get the book, “Get Better at Anything,” wherever they want to get their books, Amazon, Audible, any of those places.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Scott Young

Yeah, so I think I would ask people to figure out what’s something that you’re really interested in getting better at, and try to find one thing that you could do to make it better, whether that’s seeing from other people, seeing something that they’re doing that you could try to incorporate into your practice, or some way you could tweak how you’re performing it to get a little bit better.

Pete Mockaitis

Lovely. Well, Scott, this is fun. I wish you many fun learning adventures.

Scott Young

Oh, yeah, thank you for having me back.

897: Jon Acuff: The Three Steps to Achieving Any Goal

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Jon Acuff reveals why we often struggle to meet our goals—and shares practical advice for achieving results.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make your loftiest goals more reachable
  2. The “right” amount of goals to pursue
  3. How to stay motivated when things get tough

About Jon

Jon Acuff is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including Soundtracks, Your New Playlist, and the Wall Street Journal #1 bestseller Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. When he’s not writing or recording his popular podcast, All It Takes Is a Goal, Acuff can be found on a stage as one of INC’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers. He’s spoken to hundreds of thousands of people at conferences, colleges, and companies around the world, including FedEx, Range Rover, Microsoft, Nokia, and Comedy Central. He lives outside of Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and two daughters.

Resources Mentioned

Jon Acuff Interview Transcript

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

Jon Acuff
Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking forward to it, too. I’m excited to get your latest hot takes on goal-setting, goal-achieving from your latest All It Takes Is a Goal: The 3-Step Plan to Ditch Regret and Tap Into Your Massive Potential. But first, I think we need to hear a little bit about you and tap dancing. What’s the scoop here?

Jon Acuff
Oh, yeah, I was super popular in high school. I took tap dancing. You knew you were cool and popular if you were also into tap dancing in high school. So, I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, and we would have a musical review where we would partner with other schools that only had girls. So, it was only time to ever, like, dance with a girl. So, I was like, “I’ll do that if it requires tap dancing, let’s go.” And I genuinely enjoyed tap dancing. And I don’t tap anymore, I’ve kind of retired, but, yeah, I love tap dancing. I was a big tap dancer.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you only did the tap dancing in high school or did it carry on over?

Jon Acuff
Only in high school. No, I live in nowhere, you would, in college. Imagine you’re some roommate and I bring tap shoes to college, like in my dorm room, and in the hallway just like working on routines. Yeah, no, it began and ended in high school, 100%.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think it looks and sounds really cool whenever I’m beholding it.

Jon Acuff
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you don’t want to see a lot of it. It’s like four hours of it is too much.

Pete Mockaitis
That it is. Well, I’m excited, you’ve got so much wisdom when it comes to goals. And you’ve got a fresh book here All It Takes Is a Goal. Can you tell us, anything novel, surprising, counterintuitive that you discovered while putting this one together?

Jon Acuff
Well, I always try to write books that start with a challenge I’m having in my own life, and something I’m trying to figure out, and then I see, “Do other people have the same challenge? Like, is it worth turning into a book?” And we asked 3,000 people, there’s this PhD guy, Mike Peasley, he’s a professor at MTSU here in town, if they feel like they’re living up to their potential. And 96% of people said no.

So, I was surprised at the size of that, like, that there’s a general sense that people feel like they could do more with their lives but don’t know how to. So, that kind of, I would say, that surprised me, the size of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s intriguing. Do you think it’s that they don’t know how to or they think, “That just seems like a lot of work, I don’t feel like it”? What’s your vibe there?

Jon Acuff
I think it’s a variety of things. I think it feels complicated. I think we have broken soundtracks. Like, I wrote this book called Soundtracks about mindset, soundtrack being like a repetitive thought. And one of my broken soundtracks is “Mo money, mo problems.” Like, if you build a successful life, more problems, more money. Like, success comes with so many complications. It’s going to be so difficult. And then you end up playing smaller because you’re afraid of these fictional complications.

So, I think some people go, “I could if I wanted to but it sounds like it’d be stressful.” I think a lot of people just don’t know if it’s even possible. They live in a town where nobody wrote a book, so they don’t even have a concept in their head that you could be an author if you wanted to be. Like, you could just do that. And so, I think people pull back from their goals and their opportunities for a variety of reasons.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so then, what’s the big idea or main thesis behind your book there All It Takes Is a Goal?

Jon Acuff
Well, the main thesis is essentially if you have this big desire and you want to accomplish it, all you have to do is turn it into a goal. And you can turn anything into a goal, and there’s practical steps to do it. So, one of the surprises, this wasn’t a surprise of writing the book, but because you asked that question about, like, what surprised me, I’ve been surprised how many podcast interviews have pushed back against the idea of guaranteed goals.

So, in the book, I talk about there’s three different types of goals. There’s easy goals, there’s middle goals, there’s guaranteed goals. And so, I’ve had a bunch of people say, “Well, what do you mean, how can you guarantee a goal? There’s no such thing as a guaranteed goal.” But, for me, I always respond, “I couldn’t have written about that idea in book one because I hadn’t done it. I didn’t know this idea was possible. But this is book nine, and they haven’t happened because of magic. They’ve happened because I took this desire to write books, and I turned it into a goal.

And, like, when this book came out, I turned in a tenth book in the same week. And so, there’s going to be an eleventh book, there’s going to be a twelfth book, not because it’s magic or I’m extra creative but I turn something I really wanted to do, which is write books, into a goal, and I was able to execute it. So, I think that’s one of the core ideas in the book, is you can accomplish almost anything with the right steps and really enjoy it along the way.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just to be fully clear, what is it that you mean by a guaranteed goal?

Jon Acuff
So, here’s the metaphor that I’ve been using. Most people, when they think about a goal, imagine a ladder, and it’s only got two rungs. So, they go, “I want to start a podcast,” “I want to run a marathon,” “I want to write a book.” And you have a 12-foot-tall ladder, there’s one rung at the bottom that says, “Day one,” and there’s one rung at the top that says, “Publish the book,” or, “Grow a million-listener podcast.”

And if I said to you, “Okay, Pete, you have to get to the top of that ladder,” you’d go, “This is going to be…goals are really hard. I guess I just have to jump and try to grab it.” And what my approach is: what if you had rungs that were six inches apart all the way up the ladder? Like, would that be an easier ladder to climb? Do you think you can accomplish that?” And people go, “Yeah.” And then I say, “Okay. Well, great. Well, let’s take this massive thing and then find out how to make the steps easy. Let’s do some easy goals.”

So, an easy goal has a one to seven-day timeframe. You do an experiment. You’re not going all in. People tend to go, like, “I got to go all in. I got to do it all.” Like, you’ll see people buy expensive YouTube cameras without figuring out what they want their channel to be. So, they’ll go, “I’m going to buy, I’m going to go all in,” but they don’t do the easy things first, so they lose momentum.

So, my plan is, “What’s an easy goal? How do we succeed? How do we get some proof that it’s worth turning into a middle goal?” A little more time. A little more investment. A little more effort. And then, eventually, you get to where it’s a guaranteed goal where it’s going to happen. So, an example of that would be I have a friend who wants to have a million subscribers on YouTube. He’s got about 800,000 right now.

There’s no planet where he doesn’t end up getting with a million subscribers. Like, he’s in motion. Like, there’s no, “I’m going to sell a million books in my career.” I have sold 860,000-ish books. That’s going to happen because I’m in the middle of the ladder. I didn’t say at the very bottom, “I’m going to sell a million books.” That would’ve been egotistical and silly. But I’m on the middle of this journey. I’ve done a lot of easy goals. I wrote a lot of small blogs. I’ve done a lot of small writing. And then I turn them into middle goals.

I wrote some short books, and then I wrote some longer books, and then I sold some other books. So, now I’m in the middle of the ladder. I know that’s going to happen. That’s what I mean by a guaranteed goal. It’s got factors like the results are in your control. A bad guaranteed goal would be me saying, “Pete, I’m going to hit the New York Times’ bestseller’s list.” That’s a terrible goal. Anytime an offer tells me that’s their goal, I go, “I get it. I get it. I’m so glad I hit it but you don’t control that. You have zero control over that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the competitors and what do people buy.

Jon Acuff
No, it’s a formula. Like, it’s a formula you don’t have access to. Like, you could sell more than 10 people on the list but if you don’t hit the formula, it doesn’t matter. So, not even just the competitors. You could sell more than every competitor but if you haven’t hit the formula that they keep private, it doesn’t matter. So, you don’t control that.

So, a guaranteed goal is you control it, it’s measurable so you’ve got some…you can measure what you’re doing. You’ve got proof of middle goals and easy goals that have succeeded. So, that’s what I mean by a guaranteed goal where your effort ensures the results.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you, yeah. Well, that’s clear, the effort ensures the results. Got it. All right. Well, could you maybe share an inspiring story of some folks who weren’t making much progress, they felt like they weren’t hitting their potential, their goals were stalled, and they saw things transformed?

Jon Acuff
Yeah, so one of my favorite stories in the book, this woman named Susan Robertson. She got her Bachelor’s Degree in the Car Rider pickup line. And what I mean by that is she’s a super busy mom like a lot of moms are super busy. And she found 10-minute, 15-minute, 20-minute segments of time where she could figure out, over a period of time, how to spend that time towards a bachelor’s degree. She finished a bachelor degree in the car rider pickup line.

And I love her story because it pushes back against the excuse we all have of, “I’m too busy. I’ve got…I’m too busy. I’m too busy. I’m too busy.” So, she’s probably one of my favorite stories.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so then, tell us, we have goals, or we don’t yet have goals, or we feel the sense that we’re fallen short of potential, what are the fundamental drivers or reasons behind this?

Jon Acuff
Yeah, one reason would be you’re chasing fake goals. So, you’re chasing things you think you want to do but you don’t really want to do them. So, you’ve told people for years you want to write a book but it’s been 10 years and you haven’t written a book. Maybe you don’t want to write a book, and that’s okay. Like, that’s perfectly fine.

Maybe you inherited a goal. I meet people at times, especially college students, that’ll say, “I’m a senior about to go to law school. My mom told me I’d be a good lawyer. I don’t want to be a lawyer. Like, what do I do?” They inherited that goal from their mom, and they’re not going to really enjoy that goal. Another is impostor syndrome. That’s a really common thing. You start to work on something, and impostor syndrome goes, “You’re not a real entrepreneur,” “You’re not a real writer,” “You’re not a real runner.” “Like, you can’t go lose weight. You’re not an athlete. You have to be an athlete.”

Another one would be perfectionism. You’re trying to do it perfectly, which is impossible. And so, anytime you make a misstep, you feel like, “Okay, this isn’t the right goal for me, or I’m not the right person.” Overthinking is another one, you end up overthinking what you really want to do. I would say there’s any number of villains that get in the way, and a lot of them do boil down to you’ve got fear about the process, you’ve got fear that it’s going to hurt, you’ve got fear about the result, you self-sabotage. There are so many things get in people’s way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, having identified these, what are some of the solutions?

Jon Acuff
So, my favorite solution, let’s just take impostor syndrome. The only instant cure to impostor syndrome is to do the work. It’s the only thing that cures impostor syndrome. And an example of that would be when I first started writing, impostor syndrome said, “Ahh, you’re not a real writer. Like, you’re not a writer. Who are you to share ideas? You’re not a writer.” And it said that. And then I wrote and it got a little quieter.

And then the second day, I wrote, and it was still there, and the third day, and the fourth day, but, eventually, I looked up and I had published a book. So, when impostor syndrome came in, it was like, “Hey, you’re not a writer,” I was like, “This is awkward because I’m holding a book. It’s got my picture on it. It’s got my name right on the cover. I think I might be a writer.”

At this point, on book nine, it can’t whisper that to me because I say, “Well, there’s a stack of them. They’re in 20 languages. Like, I think I might actually be a writer.” Like, the work generates results, and results are impostor syndrome’s Kryptonite. I didn’t get over impostor syndrome and then write. I wrote until I got over that form of impostor syndrome. So, that’s a really easy example. And the fun thing is the work is available always. And the second you do even a little of it, impostor syndrome gets a little quieter.

You go to your first gym class; impostor syndrome gets a little quieter. You launch your first podcast episode; it gets a little quieter. So, that one, to me, feels really, really solvable in a really, really simple way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And what if the hangup is just like, “Ugh, I’m just kind of comfortable. That seems like a lot of work. I don’t know about all that”?

Jon Acuff
I agree, dude. I agree. Here’s what I’d say, Pete. The only thing easier than doing a goal is not doing the goal. Like, it’s really the only thing easier. The only thing easier than writing a book is not writing a book. Or, the only thing easier than going to the gym is not going to the gym. So, I think the trick here is that nobody just decides to have willpower. Nobody wakes up and goes, “Today, I have grit. Today, I’m going to be disciplined.” Nobody just wakes up and changes their life that way.

What usually happens is one of two things. You get out of a comfort zone either from an involuntary crisis, something happens outside of your control, like a parent gets sick, you lose your job, and, “Oh, I got to find another job,” or a voluntary trick, like you figure out, “I want this thing more than staying the same. I’m going to trick myself into changing. Like, I’m going to find a way to actually change.”

So, for me, when I was 34 years old, I had two kids under the age of four, a full-time job at Auto Trader, Atlanta commute, an hour and a half each way, I had freelance clients, a bunch of responsibilities, but I started a blog, and I really liked it, and I was like, “Wait a second. This seems kind of neat. Like, I wish I could do more of this.” Like, I got this small little desire.

And then I started to look at each hour of my day like a log, and I wanted to throw more of them into this burning fire, this blaze. And so, I didn’t stop watching TV as much because I was disciplined. I just wanted that time to go to this thing I absolutely loved, and I couldn’t find enough time to throw at it, so I started to get up early in the morning, I started practicing speeches in the drive to work. Like, I started throwing as much time as I could into it.

So, a lot of times, if somebody goes, “Ahh, it seems like a lot of work,” I agree. It just means you don’t have a thing you really desire yet. Like, if you had something you really desired, it would woo you into changing. It would make you want to change, not, “I have to figure out how I make myself change.”

Pete Mockaitis
And for those whose passion, desire, is at a low ebb, any pro tips for surfacing? Where is that thing?

Jon Acuff
Well, I think part of it is you might…it depends on if you’re practicing being low. And what I mean by that is nothing happens awesome accidentally. Like, nobody accidentally gets in shape. I’ve never met a single person that goes, “Yeah, I was just binge-watch Netflix, I look up and I was doing burpees. I don’t even remember getting off the couch.” Like, everything that’s awesome takes work.

An awesome marriage takes work. The default of marriage is to be pulled apart in separate directions and get a divorce. That’s the default. You have to work to have a good marriage. There’s no such thing as an accidentally awesome marriage. It takes work. Same with positivity. Same with negativity. So, an example of that is if somebody said to me, “Jon, I feel really low, I feel really down,” I’d go, “Well, tell me about what you’re practicing? Like, what are you practicing? Like, are you practicing positivity? Are you practicing negativity? Like, where are you making choices that feed one or the other?”

So, for me, I’m a very naturally negative person. Like, I’m super pessimistic, I’m very low naturally. I always joke like I have a counting crows-like temperament, like just very moppy, very jaded, cynical. But I’ve tested positivity, and I’ve tested negativity, and the ROI of positivity is so much better. Again, it’s so much more productive, like I get books written, I get to accomplish goals. Negativity never dreams. It can’t dream. It only sees the negative side of things.

So, when somebody says to me they’re low, it’s often like they’re saying, “Jon, I feel really hungry,” and I go, “Well, did you eat anything today?” and they go, “No, I haven’t eaten anything in three days.” And I go, “What? I’m going to blow your mind. I know why you’re hungry. You’re hungry because you haven’t eaten anything.”

So, if you say to me, “Jon, I feel low, I feel negative,” and I go, “Tell me about how you spent your day.” “Well, I hate my job. I was on social media arguing with strangers about politics. I listen to murder podcast episodes to work and back from work. And then at night, I watch documentaries about murders.” And then you’re like, “I don’t know why I feel negative.” I’d be like, “I know in my shirt, the clothes I wear say ‘Namaste in bed.’ Or, ‘I can’t adult’ today.”

You wore a reminder limiting yourself for an entire day, and you’re like, “I don’t know why I feel low.” I know why. You practiced that for an entire day, maybe even an entire year. What if we started practicing some other things? What if we just start, not massive things all at once, But if you have something, if this isn’t working for you, let’s practice something else? If it is working for you, like keep getting those results. That’s fine.

Like, sometimes people say to me, “This stuff is common sense. It’s common sense,” which I always push back, and go, “If you’re doing those things, it’s common sense. If you’re in the best shape of your life right now, it’s common sense. If you have more money in your 401k and retirement, if you love your job, all of these things are common sense. If you don’t have that type of life right now, this is extraordinary because you’re not doing any of it.” So, like, engage in it if you want to, or just stick with the results you have, that’s your choice. You get to choose that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, let’s say we do have the desire, we got something going, and we’re like, “All right, Jon, I got a goal. Tell me, what is this three-step plan? How do I get after it and maximize the odds that I will achieve it?”

Jon Acuff
Well, the first thing we do is we would break it down into small actions so that we could actually practice it. So, we would probably do a 10-hour test. I’d say, “Okay, here’s your massive goal. You want to find a different job. We would go what are some easy ways to start with that? Like, not find a different job tomorrow, not become a different person next week?”

What’s funny with goals, we understand some goals take time and other goals we want fast results. So, nobody ever says, “I’m going to learn Italian this week. Or, I’m going to learn Italian this month.” They know that takes time but find a new job, they go, “I got to find a new job this week. Like, an amazing new job. I got to find it this month.”

So, the first thing I do is say, “Okay, what are some actions we can actually do? How do we make it some easy goals that you can accomplish?” That’s step one. We’re going to escape the comfort zone. Step two would be, “Okay, how do we avoid the chaos zone?” Because what happens is people, when they start a goal, they get a little bit of momentum, and they want to do it all at once.

So, they go from not trying anything to, “I’m going to do everything,” they get inspired, and they land right in the chaos zone, which is too much action, too many goals. It’s why we have the phrase yoyo diet in our country because people yoyo back and forth. What happens with people is they don’t do any goals, they get a little inspired, and they try to do everything.

Like, I meet people at times with a podcast, and they’re like, “I’m going to do a daily podcast. I’m going to go all in like John Lee Dumas. I’m going to do a daily podcast.” And I go, “Have you ever done, like, a weekly? Have you ever done like a bi-weekly?” And they go, “No, I’m going for it. I’m inspired.” And I know you’re going to do seven episodes and realize podcasting is challenging, but you’re in the chaos zone, and so how do I help you get out of that chaos zone?

And then the third thing is, “How do we live in the potential zone?” which is the right amount of goals, the right amount of actions. That’s the three-step, is you escape that comfort zone, you avoid the chaos zone, and you live in the potential zone.

Pete Mockaitis
And how do we know the right amount of goals, the right amount of actions?

Jon Acuff
So, people want me to say a number. Like, people go, “How many goals should I chase?” and they want me to say, “Seven point eight. Pete, you need to do 9.3.” That’s not the answer. The answer is as many as you can do successfully. So, it’s an individual answer. So, there are some times where I’ll meet people that’ll go, “I’ve got a full-time job, I’ve got two kids under the age of five, I’ve got all these commitments.” I’ll go, “Cool. How many hours do you have to invest in your goals?”

The problem, Pete, is people go, “I got these 10 goals I want to do,” and I’ll say, “Okay, how many hours do you think it would take a week to, like, do those well?” And they’ll go, “Well, I don’t know,” and they’ll come up with a list, “It’ll take 20 hours.” And I go, “Cool. Cool. Cool. Right now, on your average week, how many hours of free time do you have? Like, right now, like is it are you dealing with too much time, like you don’t have enough things?” And they’ll go, “No, I don’t have any time.”

And I’ll go, “Okay, so you have 20 hours of goals you want to do. You have a two-hour slot every week. Which one is going into it? Like, which one?” Often, the goal is divorced from the calendar and it never happens. So, you have to say, “Here’s how much time I have, and if you’re not happy with that, here’s where I’m going to go find more time.” But that’s one of the most honest metrics. I think time is probably the most honest metric because it tells you the truth, and it’ll tell you pretty quickly what you actually have time for.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And speaking of time, before, you mentioned the ten-hour, what was your term, the ten-hour…?

Jon Acuff
I said a ten-hour experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
So, what is…is it just we go after some actions over the course of ten hours and then we reflect? Or what do you mean by the ten-hour experiment?

Jon Acuff
So, I’m constantly trying to help people limit the number of goals they’re working on so they can be successful, and then build more into their life. So, again, what happens is people go, I got to do the survey, and the people that read my books, nobody who reads my books comes to me with zero goals. That never happens. The people who don’t have goals don’t read a book called All It Takes Is a Goal. They don’t even know that section of the bookstore exists. They don’t listen to podcasts like yours.

It’s like no one who’s not engaged in getting better and learning and growing is listening to podcasts like this. They don’t even know these kinds of…like, they don’t come to this category of podcasts. What happens is they tend to have lots and lots of things they’re excited about. So, part of my job is to go, “Okay, you got 22 things you’re interested in. Let’s figure out how to narrow that down a little bit so we can actually get some wins and accomplish some of these.”

So, there’s two ways you can do this, there’s probably 50 ways you can do this, but the two that I like are one I’d go, “I want you to write down a list of all the things you’ll get if you accomplish that goal.” “So, write a book.” “Okay, tell me the things you’ll get.” “Start a business.” “Tell me the things you’ll get.” Because I’m trying to get a sense of their real desire because, again, nobody changes just because. They change because the desire makes the thing worth it.

I don’t like delayed flights. I don’t like missing flights. I don’t like airports or hotel travel, but I love being on stage. I love being a public speaker. I do my entire year to be on stage 50 times a year. That’s the trade I’d make because I love it that much. I don’t even care about a delayed flight. I’ll sleep wherever in the Baltimore airport because I love doing that.

If I hated my job, the littlest inconvenience would set me off. I’d go, “Aargh, I can’t…aargh, it’s not worth the commute.” So, I initially try to get a sense of somebody’s desire. So, if I say to you, Pete, “Write down 10 things you’ll get if you do this goal,” and you go, “Ah, I can’t do it.” Great, we can cross it off the list. Like, if you can’t even to that part, you’re going to hate the rest of it. This is the easy part.

So, I do a desire check, and go, “Okay, what do you really care about?” And then I’ll do a 10-hour check, “If you want to invest 10 hours into it, you’re not going to invest the thousand it takes.” Like, if it takes me 500 to a thousand hours to write a book, that’s a pretty big investment. But I can test at the beginning, “Am I willing to even try 10 hours?” And if the 10 hours takes you three months to find, you really don’t want to do the goal. Awesome. Let’s clear that one out. I want you to have a short list that you can actually do, and actually win at, and get some momentum, and then add a bunch to your life.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the 10-hour experiment, the thing we’re testing to see if it’s present is desire. And so, we’ll know, “Hey, we did 10 hours,” or you didn’t do 10 hours. That’s telling in and of itself. Or, you did 10 hours, like, “You know what, actually I hated that.” “Oh, okay.”

Jon Acuff
Yeah, and you might know two hours in. You might know automatically, like, “No, this isn’t the thing.” Like, one of the things I say is, “I want you to find a desire you love so much that it makes Netflix boring.” Like, that’s the thing. You asked me why don’t people accomplish goals. Part of it is we haven’t given companies enough credit.

There are 50,000 people at Facebook right now, and their goal is Pete’s time. Like, that is their goal, it’s, “How do I get more of their time?” Like, the distraction industry has scaled much faster and bigger than our ability to focus. So, we don’t give companies enough credit that you go, “Man, why is it hard to do goals?” Because Netflix and Instagram are very easy. It’s not accidental that you go to look at one photo, and an hour later you’re like, “What just happened? Like, why am I on YouTube looking at, watching a video that had nothing to do?” That’s not accidental.

So, some of the reason it’s hard to accomplish goals is that there’s an entire industry working against you. Netflix doesn’t want you to have a good podcast, Pete. No, they want you to watch more Netflix, and they should. That’s their company mission. Like, Instagram doesn’t want you to get in shape. Like, that’s not their goal. Their goal is you spend 10 hours.

Like, the average American right now watches 34 hours of TV a week according to Nielsen. So, the Nielsen rating is 34 hours of TV a week. So, when somebody says, “Man, I just don’t have enough time for my goals,” I can usually help them find some time, but that’s part of why it’s challenging. That’s part of why it’s difficult.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so then, we are pursuing the dream, we said, “All right, we’re past the 10-hour experiment. Okay, cool, cool, cool. We’re after it.” Give us some perspective on how we go about translating things into micro actions? Like, just how micro are we talking? And can you give us some examples of breaking things down that way?

Jon Acuff
Yes. So, one of my goals was I wanted to be a better friend. I realized during COVID, I was kind of isolated, I worked at home, I want to be a better friend. I want better connection. I always joke that I know I’m isolated when I over-talk the UPS guy. Like, he’s, “I just want to drop off a box,” and I’m like, “How’s your family? How’s Pam and the kids?”

So, I want to be a better friend. That’s a fuzzy goal. I can’t really operate on that one. It’s not measurable. I can’t really do anything with it. So, then I was like, “Okay, what if I can make that into a daily goal, like a small daily goal?” So, I thought about it, I worked on it a little bit, and I said, “Okay, I’m going to text one person an encouragement every day for 30 days in a row, 30 different people, 30 different encouragements.”

So, okay, now I have a measurable goal. So, then what’s a small action related to that one? Well, what if I made a list of my friends I’m going to text because I know if I get on day four, and I have to go, “Okay, okay, who am I…? Who am I…?” I’m going to quit. I’m going to get distracted by something else. So, I said, “Okay, one of the small actions is I’d make a list of 30 people I want to connect with. And that wasn’t hard, I went through my contacts, and said, “Okay, here’s 30 people I haven’t connected with lately.”

So, then I did that. So, then I made a little chart, I’ve got a little checkbox that says, “For 30 days. I would write a short text to people.” And I made it easy on myself. I didn’t say I’d write 30 handwritten notes. That’s not an easy goal. I got to find stamps and mail and addresses. So, I did that for 30 days in a row, and there wasn’t a single person that responded back, and said, “I wish you hadn’t said that today. Like, today is the worst day for you to tell me that encouragement.” Ninety percent said, “You don’t know how much I needed that today. That was really encouraging.”

So, at the end of the 30 days, it had become a guaranteed goal because, Pete, if I encouraged 30 people for 30 days in a row, I’m guaranteed to be a better friend. Like, 30 interactions with 30 different people, like I am a better friend at the end of the 30 days. That’s not a mystery to me. So, then I go, “I want to be a better dad.” Like, I’ve got two teenage daughters. I want to be a better dad. It’s not easy to raise teenagers.

So, I’m like, “What if I took that principle and I made it apply to just my kids?” So, for 30 days in a row, I encouraged my kids, and I made a list of things that I think are really special about them. So, then I make a list, and I go, “You know, McRae was really brave about this. L.E. was really funny about this,” and then I’m like, “What about actions? What if I helped them in some small ways?”

So, then I come up with a list of that. I’m like, “I could clean McRae’s…” she’s got a small fish, she’s got a betta fish, “I’ll clean the fish bowl once a week.” Like, it takes me 10 minutes but it’s one of those things that a teenage daughter doesn’t want to do. She’s busy. She’s like, “Ugh, that stupid fish,” I’m like, “Oh, I could do a list of actions.

At the end of the 30 days, we have a better relationship. Like, that’s not…again, it’s not complicated. It’s just I went out of my way and spent some time as a dad to think about things that are special about them, to remind them of those things, to do kind things for them. I’m a better dad at the end of that experience than when I was before the experience. So, that’s an example of taking something super fuzzy, like be a better dad. What does that even mean? And making it practical and actionable, and it changed our interactions.

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

Jon Acuff
No, no, I have a podcast where I talk about a lot about this, called All It Takes Is a Goal. So, if you’re a podcast person, and you are because you’re listening to one, check out All It Takes Is a Goal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, maybe before I do that, I’d also want to get your take on with regard to keeping the motivation going, celebration, rewards, not celebrating, not doing rewards, pushing through the moments when you’re just not feeling it. How do you think about the motivational arc over the long term? And what can be done there?

Jon Acuff
Well, motivation is the flightiest thing in the world. Motivation tends to disappear on day two of a goal because that’s when the work shows up. So, I always tell people, “You have to bring your own motivation.” What I teach is you need a motivation portfolio. People tend to think they’re going to find their one why or their vision quest, their reason, their true north and that’ll be enough.

What I found is you need lots and lots and lots of sources of motivation, so a portfolio of motivation. So, when I work with people, I say, “Okay, what are 10 things that you’re going to enjoy about this? What are 10 forms of motivation? What are 20 forms of motivation?” Because some days, one through five won’t even move the needle.

Like, there are some days where it all takes, like, “I’m so close to the motivation, like a song gets me. Like, all right, let’s go. I listened to this song, it’s motivation.” There are some days I can listen to 10 songs and be like, “This is dumb anyway,” and I need a different form of motivation. So, I practice motivation. I don’t see motivation as a checkbox. I expect it to dissipate, I expect it to disappear at times, and I work against that, and I’m deliberate about that, and say, “Okay, I have to practice it. I have to have lots of forms of motivation.”

And the other thing is that I remind myself that excellence is boring. Like, real excellence is boring at plenty of times. So, writing thank you notes to people that nobody sees, that you’re doing all the little things, following up with people, the emails, the details, like people get to see the 30 minutes on stage but there’s 50 other things I’ve done to make that moment happen. And those things are often, like, I just have to do them. They’re small and sometimes annoying.

So, for me, I remind myself of that, and I plan a ton of motivation. I don’t expect motivation to stay long. I know it’s going to leave, and so I always say BYOH, you’ve got to bring your own hype. And so, I work at motivation pretty aggressively.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, let’s dig into that. The working on motivation. Having a portfolio. One thing might be the songs. So, you actually have documented, listed somewhere, “These are my pump-up jams.”

Jon Acuff
Yeah, totally. But, like, I’ll have a list where it’s okay. Like, I made a list the other day. Let me just…I’ll just turn to it. I’ll just tell you what’s on this list. So, I went through, and you can tell I’m a big list guy, I’m a fan of the list. I just love to kind of get ideas out of my head and onto a piece of paper. So, the other day I was, like, “Okay, if I work on building an excellent business, what will I get? What will keep me motivated? What are my forms of motivation?”

So, one of them is I can pay for my daughter to go to London. My oldest daughter got accepted to study abroad for a semester in London, and that’s awesome. And if I do my business well, I get to pay for stuff like that. Like, that’s super cool. I control my calendar. If I run my business well, I have a lot more control over my calendar. I love that.

I get to spend time with team members like Jean and Caleb. I can afford to have team members. I love that. I get to plan vacation days. I get to spend time with clients I love if I’m deliberate. So, in addition to things that are traditional, like, “Okay, this music encourages me. A walk around the block encourages me. This person encourages me. Like, a friend that I text with encourages me,” I’ll be really deliberate and go, “Man, if I work hard, I get to afford a personal assistant.” Like, that changed my life.

Seven years ago, like hiring a personal assistant, game changing for me, but I had to learn how to pay for that person, and how to help lead that person. And so, the little things like that, I go out of my way to go, “What happens if I do this well? How do I stay motivated to this?” Because, again, some of those items aren’t going to move me some days. Like, there are some times where the goal is really challenging and I have to go, “No, I’ve already committed, and I committed to somebody that I want to honor the commitment to them.”

Because if you have an accountability coach that you don’t care about, you’ll break that all day. So, you have to have some degree of, “I want to be held accountable to this person. This person matters to me.” So, yeah, I have a pretty robust list of motivation because I’ve just seen it time and time again, if you think it’ll be there, it never grows during a goal, it only shrinks. I have to be the one that grows it.

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

Jon Acuff
So, one of mine is from Brad Montague. Brad Montague is the creator of this Kid President campaign, really fun, blew up online. I asked him, “How do you do that creative endeavor with Beyonce, Obama – it was huge – and then do your next one, because there are some times, there’s a creative letdown from the next one?”

And he said, “I have to know whether I’m creating from love or for love.” He said, “When I have an idea, am I sharing it from this amazing amount of love I have for this idea? Or, am I trying to get people to love me via this idea? Am I looking for adoration? Am I looking for attention? Because that’s not going to be a very good idea. I’m not going to feel very good. Or, am I creating something because it’s so big inside me, if I don’t create it, I’m going to burst?”

And so, that’s one of the ways I look at my projects, is like, “Is this from love or for love?” And so, that’s always been a quote that’s been helpful.

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

Jon Acuff
NYU, Daniel Kahneman talked about this in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow where they took two groups of college students and gave them a word bank, and said, “Create some sentences.” The second group, they had hidden words, trigger words related to being old, like retired and slow and bald and Florida.

And so then, they say, after 20 or 30 minutes, “The second part of the test is down the hall. That’s where the real test started.” They secretly timed the students walking, and the students who had read the word about being old physically acted old just reading those words. So, I put that study in my book “Soundtracks” because it’s a great reminder how powerful your thoughts are, that your thoughts can change your physical actions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Jon Acuff
The War of Art Steven Pressfield. That’s the one. I love that book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, I listened to the audio version. The title is perfect, it’s like, “The war of art. Like, you really, really, really will feel resistance to doing the thing, and you have to declare war upon that.”

Jon Acuff
Yeah, it was one of those books that got me through my first book. Somebody gave it to me. And so, it’s one that I’ve come back to a few times. And Seth Godin The Dip. I really like The Dip. It was a short book that had a big message for me.

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

Jon Acuff
Notebooks. I’m a big notebook guy. I’ve read you a list from an actual notebook. There’s a brand called Leuchtturm. They’re better than Moleskine, in my opinion. And so, I love notebooks.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jon Acuff
Exercise. I need endorphins. My wife will sometimes say, “You need to go for a run,” and that’s her way of being like, “You’re kind of being a huge jerk.” So, yeah, exercise, for me, if I don’t exercise for a few days, I get super low. So, I would say exercise is a habit I use.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they Kindle book highlight it, they retweet it at your speeches and such?

Jon Acuff
Yeah, two would be “Never compare your beginning to somebody else’s middle.” So, when you start your thing, like, when you start a podcast, don’t go look at like Joe Rogan’s podcast, and be like, “Man, my podcast isn’t big enough.” And then another one would be, “Leaders who can’t be questioned end up doing questionable things.” So, if you surround yourself with yes people, you eventually implode.

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

Jon Acuff
JonAcuff.com and then All It Takes Is a Goal is the book. It’s sold anywhere books are sold. And I read the audiobook and there’s 10 bonus chapters in it. So, if you’re into audio, and if you listen to a podcast, you probably are, check that out.

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

Jon Acuff
Yeah, here’s what I’d say. You can’t half-do your day job and then think you’ll hustle in your dream job. You’re one person. If you practice being lazy all week, you won’t turn it on on a weekend. So, when I was jumping from jobs, back and forth, back and forth, I think that I had eight jobs in 12 years. And when I finally realized, “Oh, wait, if I actually perform well at this day job, I’ll also perform well at my dream job. Awesome.” And when I kind of connected those things, my job changed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, Jon. Thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and goal-dream achievement.

Jon Acuff
Thanks. I had a blast doing it, Pete.

895: The Keys to Continual Growth and Improvement with Eduardo Briceño

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Eduardo Briceño reveals the fundamental factors that accelerate your growth and improvement.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How focusing on performance actually hurts results
  2. The one feedback method that always tells the truth
  3. The five key elements that drive growth

About Eduardo

Eduardo Briceño is a global keynote speaker and facilitator who guides many of the world’s leading companies in developing cultures of learning and high performance. Earlier in his career, he was the co-founder and CEO of Mindset Works, the first company to offer growth mindset development services. Previously, he was a venture capital investor with the Sprout Group.

His TED Talk, How to Get Better at the Things You Care About, and his prior TEDx Talk, The Power of Belief, have been viewed more than nine million times. He is a Pahara-Aspen Fellow, a member of the Aspen Institute’s Global Leadership Network, and an inductee in the Happiness Hall of Fame.

Resources Mentioned

Eduardo Briceño Interview Transcript

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

Eduardo Briceño
Great to be here, Pete. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear some of your insights and wisdom that you’ve captured in your book, The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action. But, first, I want to hear, talking about growth mindsets, wow, is it, in fact, true that you did not have any prior public speaking experience before you did your TEDx Talk?

Eduardo Briceño
That is true. And I would have never thought, I mean, becoming a public speaker, which I do now, it just didn’t even cross my mind growing up or in my young adult life, but I had started an organization, MindsetWorks with Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell, and a board member encouraged me to go out and have people get to know me and know who I was.

We were evangelizing growth mindset, and she thought that as part of that, I needed to kind of become a leader in the industry, and people needed to know who I was. So, I actually thought, “Hey, I don’t have time. I have so much work to do. I agree with you,” but when Carol Dweck was asked to do a TEDx Talk, she couldn’t do it.

So, then we decided, and I thought, “That would be a good opportunity to put a lot of work into 10 minutes. I can do 10 minutes. I can work really hard to prepare a great script and deliver it.” And so, I worked really hard with Carol and with others, and I was so nervous during those 10 minutes. I, the whole time, looked at the back wall and the lights and not at people’s eyes because I thought that I would just blank out if I tried to figure out what people were thinking.

So, that was my first public speaking experience was that TEDx Talk. And then that became pretty popular. It’s being over 4 million times now.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Yes, far more than the most TEDx Talks, and it’s featured prominently on the TED proper website. Well, it’s funny, I just rewatched that, and you didn’t look that nervous.

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah, I don’t know, that was surprising to me. I went on the stage, and I thought, “Okay, I’m prepared. I’ve done everything I can. And now, what’s going to help my performance is to relax. I know I’m not going to look at people, so I had a plan.” And that helped me be relaxed, and I was more relaxed than I would have thought.

And then, a few years later, four years later, I did another TEDx Talk that became a TED Talk, and that also has been viewed over 4 million times. And that was the basis for the book that I wrote, The Performance Paradox.

Pete Mockaitis
So, tell us, what’s the big idea in the The Performance Paradox?

Eduardo Briceño
The performance paradox is the counterintuitive fact that if we fixate solely on performing, our performance suffers. So often we’re really encouraging ourselves and others to just focus on executing, doing the best we know how, trying to minimize mistakes, and that hurts our performance. That is the counterintuitive fact, that is chapter one, is the problem, and the rest of the book is about the solution, how to overcome that problem.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you elaborate on the pathway? How is it that doing the same thing and trying not to make mistakes makes our performance worse?

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah. So, the best way to understand this is if we kind of step out of our everyday context and look at people who are fantastic at what they do, in domains where performance can be objectively measured, so sports, chess, performing arts, incredible acrobats. If you think about how an acrobat, for an example, what they do, when we see them perform, they do these incredible acrobatic things, they do it beautifully, and they rarely make mistakes.

And we tend to kind of have this vague idea that the way they became so good is by spending a lot of hours doing that thing that we are seeing. But actually, the way they become so good is by doing something very different from what we’re seeing. When they are behind curtains, at the gym or at the studio, they are making a lot of mistakes, they’re missing the timing a lot because they’re focused on what they haven’t mastered yet, they’re focused on the next level of challenge, and the show is always evolving.

And so, it’s the time they spend in what I call the learning zone, which is when they’re focused on improvement that allows them to build their skills and to be so excellent in the performance zone. Same thing in sports, if you’re playing a championship final, you’re having trouble with a move, you’re going to avoid that move during the match. But after the match, you go to your coach, you say, “Coach, I have to work on this move,” that’s a very different activity and area of attention than what we do during the match.

And what often happens for a lot of us is that we spend most of our time, if not all of our time, in the performance zone, just trying to get things done as best as we can, trying to minimize mistakes, and that works okay when we’re novices because we’re so bad, we don’t need great learning strategies to get better. But once we become proficient, we stagnate, we don’t continue to improve, and we think the reason is we can’t improve, that’s a fixed mindset, but the reason really is that we’re not engaging the learning zone.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a really great distinction because I think some of the folks would say, “Well, of course, I’ve seen myself get better the more I do a thing. That’s sort of self-evident in my own experience.” And I love what you had to say there, like, “Well, yes, that works just fine when you are really clueless.”

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah, and it is amazing that we do learn that by experience. If I want to start to play tennis, I could go into the court and just play tennis with a friend, then I will get better. And so, we learn by experience that that’s the way to improve but then we stagnate once we become proficient, and then we conclude that we can’t get better. We develop a fixed mindset when we haven’t developed the skills and the habits in order to continue to improve and become excellent.

Like, if you look at an Olympic gold medalist, they’re the best in the world but they will then engage in deliberate practice to go beyond what they can do to continue to get even better. They don’t just play games and matches.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Eduardo, in a way, this is really haunting, as I think from a meta perspective of just podcasting. I think that was accurate for, maybe, I don’t know, several hundred, I don’t know, 300, 600, some number of hundreds of episodes, I think I got better just by doing more episodes and talking to folks. And then I have had a little bit of a sense of stagnation here.

And I thought it was just in my head, and I’ve heard people say, it’s like, “Oh, wow, you were pretty good when we started, and now you’re amazing.” I say, “Well, thank you. I appreciate that.” But I have felt like, “I don’t think I’m actually getting better at this,” and that just makes sense. Like, “Well, before, just doing it more times was sufficient to help me get better. And now, that is no longer sufficient to help me get better.”

And so, to use your terminology, if I were to enter the learning zone as a podcaster host, interviewer, what might be some activities I do other than just simply do one more episode?

Eduardo Briceño
Well, I have some ideas I can share but you know a whole lot about learning. So, tell me, what do you think you might do to get better?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think it’d be closely listening to some episodes and making some notes in terms of what I might have done differently. I think it could be closely observing some of the finest interviewers around to see what they’re doing. Ask for feedback and perspective from either coaches or masters of the craft, or listeners, it’s like, “Hey, Pete, I’ve heard you hundreds of times, and I have some thoughts.” But pete@awesomeatyourjob.com, lay them on me. Lay them on me, I’m listening. Thank you.

So, those are some things that leap to mind there.

Eduardo Briceño
Absolutely. Those are great ideas, and they are different than just doing episodes, and they don’t take a lot of time. And so, the great performers, whether athletes or others, they do watch their videos. Like, Beyonce watches videos of her performances after she performs, and identifies what to change and shares notes of that with her colleagues.

At ClearChoice Dental Systems, they do dental implants. They have video cameras in their consult rooms so that the people who work there, when they’re interacting with patients, after their consult, for the patients that agree to this, that agree to be recorded for this purpose, they can watch the videos afterwards and go to a particular part of the conversation that they were working on and watch themselves, and kind of think about what they can do differently and how what they tried work or didn’t work.

And one thing that they say that I love is that…sometimes when we receive feedback, feedback is amazing, feedback, I think is the most powerful learning-zone strategy in the workplace but, sometimes, especially for some people, when we receive feedback, we might reactive defensively and think, “This person doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or they didn’t really see what I saw,” but what they say is that video always tells the truth.

So, if you listen to your recording and reflect on it, and it doesn’t have to be the whole thing, it can be just how you started the recording, or how you end it, or a particular part of it, then that’s a fantastic way to think about, “Okay, like what can I do differently next time?” And one key thing, when we’re going about our work, is in order to improve, we have to change. Like, we can’t improve and not change.

So, if we do the same thing today than we did yesterday, we’re not going to get better, so we have to always be thinking about, “What is something that I can try differently?” And for that, like you said, we can observe experts, whether they are other podcasters, or we can read books, or listen to podcasts to get ideas, and identify, “Okay, what can I try differently?” and then feedbacking whatever form, like you said, is a fantastic, fantastic powerful strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
Another fun thing about that, the notion of that distinction there, is that when you’re new doing anything helps you get better, then you have to get precise. It seems like that’s analogous to what happens in physical training as well. It’s like when you’re out of shape, walking anywhere, lifting anything improves your fitness but then, at some point, that’s just not going to cut it.

Bringing the groceries from your trunk to the kitchen isn’t going do, and we need to get sort of more precise with a deliberate practice and learning in terms of, “I’m going to need to lift this level of weight this many times, in this kind of emotion in order to get an adaptation because the easy gains have already been grabbed.”

Eduardo Briceño
Absolutely. And there’s another benefit to that, which is that when we are kind of just doing and exploring an idea, an activity, and tinkering with it, just kind of doing it, we can play with it, we can try it out, we can see if we would enjoy it. And that is really important because it kind of doesn’t make sense to engage in deliberate practice and put a lot of effort into improving into something that we are not going to enjoy and that is not important to us.

So, early in our process, kind of trying an activity, playing with it, tinkering with it, is a way to improve but also it’s a way to explore whether it’s something we want to do and get better at.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I already love this stuff in terms of, “Yeah, ooh, what are some fun ways I could spend some more time in the learning zone? And what might I be doing while I’m there?” I suppose, fundamentally, in order for anyone to have any motivation whatsoever to spend some time in the learning zone, they have to believe that learning and growth is possible, and so you spend much time sharing the wisdom of the growth versus fixed mindset. For folks who are not as familiar with that, could you give us, like, the super quick crash course?

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah, absolutely. So, for those who have heard of the term growth mindset, I ask you to think about what it means to you. What do you think it means? Because when we ask what it means, even for people who have kind of been tinkering with it for a long time, people often say things, like, “It’s working hard or it’s persevering, or even is having a positive attitude, or is being open-minded.” And a growth mindset is none of those things.

A growth mindset is a perspective about the nature of human beings, specifically it’s the belief that people can change, that we can change and that other people can change, that our abilities or our qualities are malleable, that we can develop them. And the reason that’s important is that lots of research has shown that when we believe that we can change and that others can change, then we do the things that are necessary in the learning zone in order to improve, if we know how the learning zone works, which is another key component.

But if we don’t believe that we can change, then we’re never going to do anything to change, we won’t change, and we will confirm our fixed mindset. Similarly, if we believe that somebody else can’t change, we’re not going to share any information with them that they can learn from, so they won’t know to do anything, they won’t change, and that will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and confirm our starting belief.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, to believe that rather than things being changeable and growable, that, “Hey, you’re either good at this or you’re bad at this.” Like, “I’m just not a math person,” whatever. I’d love to get your perspective. Sometimes maybe I’m a little sleep-deprived, maybe a little stressed, and I’m interacting with something that’s tricky. I’m thinking like assembling furniture, and I get frustrated, and I feel like I’m stupid, or like I’m a loser, and I don’t like feeling that way.

And I know from all this stuff, like, “Oh, Pete, it sounds like you’re engaging in fixed mindset-type thinking, a type evaluation of this stuff,” and I’d rather not. I guess I’m curious, if we’re generally on board, like, “Yeah, growth mindset, that’s real. I generally believe that,” and yet we find ourselves drifting into thought patterns that sound more fixed mindset-y, any pro tips for how we can, I don’t know, install the growth mindset all the more deep down in our operating system so it’s alive and well and kicking and dominating?

Eduardo Briceño
So, the first thing is to acknowledge that we all experience a fixed mindset some of the time, just like you described, and a fixed mindset is part of being human. We see sometimes some abilities as fixed, or some people as fixed, and that is normal. And the really important thing to do is to notice it, like you are, and saying, “Oh, I am thinking that I can’t get better at this right now.”

And we might react with an emotional response right away, but we can observe it, let it kind of put a little bit of distance, pause a little bit, and think about, “Can I get better at this?” or, “Can I examine my mistake, to learn from my mistake?” or, “What different strategy can I use? What learning-zone strategy can I use to get better at this?”

And so, pausing, noticing our fixed mindset, and thinking about, “What can I do in the learning zone in order to improve if that’s something that I want to do?” It doesn’t mean that we should try to get better at everything. It means that whatever we do want to get better at, we can figure out what strategies are effective for that and engage in those strategies.

Pete Mockaitis
So, if I’m assembling furniture and it’s not going well, I can choose to be, like, “This is not an area, an endeavor of activity or skill that I am going to choose to really invest big in and master. I can just let that go, and that’s fine.” And, at the same time, if it’s like, “If I feel…” Well, maybe this is a broader question for all sorts of learning activities. When you’re in the midst of doing something that is hard and not going well, and you’re screwing up, and you’re frustrated, and you feel dumb, what should we do?

Eduardo Briceño
Well, say that you’re in the situation you described, that you’re trying to assemble furniture, you’re getting frustrated. You said you’re sleep-deprived, you’re tired. You can think about that maybe in the moment, if you can, maybe pause. But, at some point, when we reflect, we can think about, “First of all, what is most important to me? Why am I assembling furniture? Is that important to me? Like, is it that I want to have a beautiful home? Or, is it that I want to kind of update my couch? And why am I trying to do that? Am I trying to foster a feeling of kind of calm in my home? And how can I get better at that?”

So, sometimes what happens is that we get frustrated with mid-level goals or low-level goals, like assembling furniture, that might or might not be important to you. Sometimes we can quit at those things if that’s a better way to achieve a higher-level goal, like achieving calm, or achieving an uncluttered space, if that’s important to you.

Or, sometimes that might be the right way. It might be, “I can get better at assembling furniture, and that’s something that I want to do. It’s going to make me feel good.” But part of the answer might be, “Okay, I am sleep-deprived. Like, should I be changing my sleeping habits? Should I be going to bed earlier? Should I approach my mornings differently?” So, what is leading to my challenge right now rather than only focusing on the immediate challenge, thinking about, “What’s most important to me and what are different ways that I could get better at that most important goal?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, in so doing, you’re learning about something. You’re making some learnings and improvements on a thing that’s even more important and broader-reaching.

Eduardo Briceño
Yes, sometimes people associate growth mindset with grit or being persistent, which there’s definitely a close association, but it doesn’t mean that we need to be gritty around everything we’re doing. It means we want to be gritty and most growth-minded about the goals that we most care about, and so we need to identify what are those goals.

There’s something in psychology called the hierarchy of goals, which is like a pyramid. And at the top is what we care most about, and at the bottom is our low-level strategies around the things we do. And so, to go up the pyramid, we ask why we care. And to go down the pyramid, we ask how. And we want to be most gritty and most growth-minded about the highest-level goals because, then, our answer and how we get better at those things might be different than what we’re currently attempting.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool to get a broad perspective and not get too fixated on something that maybe doesn’t matter all that much. Okay. Well, when it comes to mistakes, you say these can really propel our growth, and you’ve categorized four kinds of mistakes. Could you lay these out for us?

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah. So, I think most of us have a sense that we can learn from mistakes but, first, most of us don’t realize how important mistakes are. So, when we are in our mid-20s, the way the neuroplasticity in our brain works changes. Before our 20s, our brain changes based on experience. We walk around the street, we observe things, and our brain is reconfiguring.

In our 20s, the brain doesn’t do that as much from then but the main way that we can drive our neuroplasticity and become smarter and more capable is actually by making mistakes, is by when the brain makes a prediction, and that prediction turns out to be wrong, that’s the main way that we can proactively elicit our own neuroplasticity. That’s how important mistakes are.

But, on the other hand, so mistakes are really important, but also, mistakes lower performance. Great performances are performances where we don’t make a lot of mistakes. Like, right now, you and I are having a conversation, it’s a conversation about learning so I’d be comfortable making mistakes but, in general, like we want to not say things that are not true and not make mistakes if we are performing for others, to try to add value to others.

And so, how do we reconcile that, that mistakes are valuable but, also, they lower performance? And so, I unpack four different kinds of mistakes. That’s what chapter five is about. And so, the first, there’s the stretch mistakes, which are the mistakes that we make when we are trying to do things we haven’t mastered yet, when we are in our learning zone. And those are mistakes that are super valuable, we want to be doing a lot of those mistakes. We want to elicit those mistakes, not by trying to do things incorrectly but by trying to do things that are challenging.

But we want to try those things when mistakes are not going to create a lot of damage. So, the second type of mistake is the high-stakes mistakes, which are the mistakes that would create a lot of damage. So, if we are driving a school bus, we don’t want to make a mistake. If we’re in charge of a nuclear plant, or if we’re packing a parachute, we want to do what we know works and minimize mistakes. And that’s when we’re in the high-stakes mistakes, we want to get into our performance zone and sometimes not worry about learning at all because the stakes are too high.

The third type of mistake is the sloppy mistakes, which are when we do things that we already know how to do, and we should’ve known better. And often when we make these mistakes, first of all, often they’re not that important or they might not be important at all, and I think these mistakes can bring kind of joy and humor to our lives. Like, if I spill a smoothie all over my shirt, and I’m home, I can either choose to get upset or I can laugh about it, and I can take a picture of it and send it to my family and friends, which is what I often do.

And so, I think mistakes can bring joy and humor to our lives, but sometimes sloppy mistakes do cause damage. And so, we can reflect on, “How can I avoid the sloppy mistake in the future?” And often, when we reflect on that, the answer is there are ways to foster more focus or to change our systems and tools in order to avoid those mistakes. I could change where in my desk I put the smoothie so that I don’t spill it, for example.

And the final kind of mistakes is the aha-moment mistake, which is when we do something as we intended but we then realize it was the wrong thing to do because we have an aha moment. So, for example, my wife might be upset about something, I might calm and try to console her, and problem-solve with her, and then I might learn that she didn’t want me to problem-solve. She just wanted me to empathize and to be there with her.

And so, I did what I meant to do but I realized it was the wrong thing to do. And aha-moment mistakes are precious. When they happen, we need to just learn from them, reflect on them, and extract their precious gifts, but we can’t proactively elicit aha-moment mistakes so much, although we can, by soliciting more feedback, but the stretch mistakes are really what we can proactively drive by doing things that are challenging and changing the way we do things.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. And it is so true that the sloppy mistakes can bring joy and humor to our lives. In fact, I don’t think this Twitter exists anymore, which is a darn shame. But this theme exists, like, on Reddit and some places, that you had one job. And it’s just all about just ridiculous mistakes. Like, one of my favorites was the SpongeBob SquarePants episode description, like on Netflix or something, but they had this really dark murder mystery description, and then the caption is like, “Oh, I must’ve missed that SpongeBob episode.” And it just tickles me something special.

And, yes, that is fun, and we can celebrate that. And, particularly, I think that learning zone/performing zone distinction is so handy there in terms of, “Oh, yes, we’re learning now. and, boy, that is goofy and hilarious.” Well, you and I, we’re both friends and fans of Mawi Asgedom. Shoutout, episode number one. And I remember we were trying to name a company that we had started together by just combining words. And I think one of them was so just goofy, Dolphin Secrets, so I just made these memes out of that because it’s goofy, and that’s okay.

And I think, well, you lay it on me, is it fair to say that when we can laugh and be relaxed, and take joy and humor and lightheartedness about mistakes, will that actually help us learn faster and better?

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah, because we can observe them better, we can talk about them better, we can also avoid kind of getting triggered and having, like, a fear, an away-reaction from them. So, absolutely, in general, positive emotions help us learn. Like, sometimes, stress can be helpful, too, especially if it’s not chronic or like super high, but positive emotions can help us engage in the learning process.

And, at the end of the day, again, what is the highest goal? I think, for me, a highest goal is, like, happiness, fulfillment, and appreciation. I want to appreciate life. I want to enjoy life. So, not only is laughing about mistakes helping me learn, it’s also helping me enjoy life, which is even more important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, anything else when it comes to learning that you want to help distinguish, clarify, myth-debunk, things that we should know when we’re in the learning zone to get the most out of it?

Eduardo Briceño
Well, there are a lot of things we could talk about. One is that sometimes we think about growth mindset or learning zone as something that is about the individual quality, is about us fostering the beliefs and the habits in our brain and in our bodies to be motivated and effective learners.

And there’s a lot of truth to that but we are social beings, and so we need to build cultures and teams and relationships where we can engage in the learning zone together because, at the end of the day, these beliefs about whether people can change are highly influenced by each other, by the people who are around me. What messages are they sending? What behaviors? Are they acting like lifelong learners or are they acting like know-it-alls? That affects my beliefs and it affects my habits.

And so, we need to kind of talk about these things with our colleagues, and think about, “Is the learning zone something that we’re doing well or not doing well? Can we get better? What do we want to work on?” and do it in collaboration because, at the end of the day, we learn a lot better in collaboration with others than on our own. More brains think better than one brain. We have different experiences, different skills, different tactics, different tools, different perspectives, we can see things from different angles, we can give and receive feedback.

And so, what I would encourage people to think about is what habits can you work on as you’re on your own, but also can you bring others into your process and build relationships that are going to lead to better learning and better performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Fantastic. And can you walk us through the growth propeller concept?

Eduardo Briceño
Sure. The growth propeller are the five elements that each of us can think about continuing to develop in order to become fantastic learners and performers. So, picture a propeller with three blades, and in the center of the propeller, the axis, there are two components: our identity and our purpose.

And in terms of our identity, sometimes in terms of a fixed mindset, we might see ourselves as fixed in a particular way, like, “I’m just a natural parent,” for example, “And that’s part of my identity,” “I’m a flawless athlete,” or, “I’m a natural athlete.” And that can get in the way of learning. But what we can do, and what’s most important around the identity, is to develop the identity of being a learner, being somebody who evolves over our lives, and it’s always continuing to change. So, once we can incorporate that into our identity, we’re a lot more effective as learners.

In terms of purpose, having a reason why we do things, why we care about improvement and performance, is really important because both learning and performing involve effort. And so, why are we going to spend that effort? Why do we care? So, developing that purpose as an individual and with our colleagues is something that is necessary in order for us to become great learners and performers.

The three blades are, one is our beliefs, the other ones are habits, and the other one is our community. So, in terms of beliefs, a really important belief that we’ve talked about is growth mindset versus fixed mindset. Another belief is transparency. We learn and perform a lot better when we make our thinking transparent to others because, then, they can give us feedback, they can learn from what we’re thinking.

And so, the fact that transparency is something we want more of, and we want to share more of ourselves, is something we can kind of think about. Also, agency, “To what extent do we have influence over our world rather than are we victims of the world?” is something else to think about in terms of beliefs.

In terms of habits, sometimes we think about growth mindset as something that is about learning from mistakes. So, when we make a mistake, “Do we learn from them?” That’s a very reactive or responsive habit. What I would encourage people to think about is, “Can you develop more proactive habits where changing is the default?” So, what are you doing every day in order to drive your own change and your own evolution?

And, for me, an example, a very simple example that is really powerful for me is, every morning, I remind myself of what it is that I’m working to improve, and that just primes the growth mindset. I am looking for opportunities to do that throughout the day, and it’s super powerful. And then, in terms of community, we need to build trust, we need to build a sense of belonging, and we need to work on collaboration rather than competition in order to both kind of learn and perform.

And so, the growth propeller is chapter seven, and it talks about those five components. And so, the part of the community blade is about the relationships we have with others. So, part two of the book, chapters eight through twelve, is about how we do that in our workplaces, how we build teams in organizations, that make learning the easy default.

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

Eduardo Briceño
Well, I would just mention I really appreciate your podcast, Pete, and just your focus on learning, the workplace, makes the world a better place. It’s awesome to be on the podcast a second time. So, thanks for all you do.

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

Eduardo Briceño
Yeah, the quote I have at the bottom of my email is, “The self is not something one finds. It’s something one creates,” by Thomas Szasz.

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

Eduardo Briceño
Sure. There are many. One is, there’s a meta-analysis from Harvard that looked at 62 research studies that looked into, “How much medical doctors improve in their patient outcomes the more years of experience they have in the profession?” And what they found is that, on average, medical doctors got worse over time. Their patient outcomes became worse because they were so busy in the performance zone, seeing patients, diagnosing, prescribing, and most of them, on average, don’t engage in the learning zone on a regular basis.

And so, as a result, they forget information that’s relevant to infrequent diagnoses, for example, and that decreases their performance. But, of course, there are some doctors that do get better over time. But this points to the difference between experience and expertise. Experience is something we just get by doing an activity a lot. And expertise is something that we build through the learning zone, and that can happen at any age.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Eduardo Briceño
Favorite book, Mindset by Carol Dweck really changed my life. The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama changed my life as well. I’m reading a wonderful book right now, it’s called The Clan of the Cave Bear, which is about prehistoric humans. It’s super interesting.

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

Eduardo Briceño
I love Roam Research. It’s a second-brain tool, whereas my knowledge management system tool, there’s a lot of other second-brain tools now. And I also love Otter. When I listen to podcasts, I download the MP3 and I upload it to Otter which transcribes it, and I listen to it through there. And what I love about that is that I can highlight kind of gems in the conversation. And after I listen to the episode, I can kind of do something with that. Either put it in my knowledge management system or send it to somebody else who would appreciate it, for example.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Eduardo, that is walking the talk. That is hardcore and I love it. Thank you. And a favorite habit?

Eduardo Briceño
Well, I mentioned one of reminding myself every morning of what I’m working to improve. Before that, the first thing that I do every day is my most treasured habit, and it is just expressing gratitude for the things that I deem most important, which is life, health, love, and peace. Noticing one of those things that are in my life and in the world just puts me in a great emotional state and makes me grateful to be alive and for what is.

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

Eduardo Briceño
If we fixate on performance, our performance suffers. That’s the performance paradox.

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

Eduardo Briceño
So, my monthly newsletter is on my website, which is at Briceño.com, my last name, dotcom. I’m also active on LinkedIn. And my book is called The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action. I worked really hard the last three years to write all the things that we talked about today. So, that’s another way to learn more about my work.

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

Eduardo Briceño
My challenge would be to, “Can you engage in the learning zone a little bit more with others? Could you start a conversation with your colleagues about whether you want to continue to progress in your learning zone habits together and what you want to work on next, that you can bring other people into collaboration with you to learn and perform and accelerate that over time together?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Eduardo, this has been a treat. I wish you much good learning and performing.

Eduardo Briceño
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been great to speak with you.

854: Mastering Your Surprise Career Super Power: Notetaking with Anh Dao Pham

By | Podcasts | 3 Comments

 

Anh Dao Pham shares pro tips on developing the most underrated skill that makes a world of difference: note-taking.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why note-taking is a powerful differentiator
  2. The four-hour investment that ends up saving hundreds of hours
  3. How to synthesize your notes for maximum impact

About Anh

Anh Dao Pham, VP of Product & Program Management at Edmunds.com, has successfully led technical projects for two decades at start-ups and major corporations. In her book Glue: How Project Leaders Create Cohesive, Engaged, High-Performing Teams, Anh vividly brings compassionate, positive, nimble leadership to life, demonstrating with actionable guidance, the power of caring and connection to inspire outstanding results.

Anh lives with her husband and two children in Los Angeles, California.

Resources Mentioned

Anh Dao Pham Interview Transcript

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

Anh Dao Pham
Thank you so much for having me back, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat, and I think this may be the shortest follow-up interview we’ve ever had with a guest because you teased note-taking. I asked, listeners said, “Yes, yes, yes” numerous times, so we’re back, we’re talking note-taking, and I’m excited.

Anh Dao Pham
I’m excited, too. I’m always thrilled when people tell me they’re excited about note-taking because I always feel like I’m such a geek when I talk about it, but it is such an important skill so I’m so delighted that some of your listeners were interested in this topic, and I’m hoping that we give them what they want.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. And I thought we might start with, I know you use jingles to celebrate and commemorate things, any recent jingles that have tickled you and/or your teammates?

Anh Dao Pham
I haven’t written a jingle recently but I did write a very short “Roses are red, violets are blue” for you here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy.

Anh Dao Pham
Just two, just so that…a couple here. First,

“Roses are red, violets are blue
Hello there, Pete,
I’m happy to see you.”

I thought it was nice for us to be together again, so thank you for that. And then the second for your note-taking crew,

“Roses are red, violets are blue
note-taking is awesome
And so are you.”

So, hopefully, everybody gets excited at this point about note-taking.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. And heartwarming. All right. Okay, Anh, you mentioned in the last conversation that note-taking is your superpower. Can you tell us what’s super about it and why should professionals spend time working on this skill?

Anh Dao Pham
Well, note-taking has a ton of advantages. I feel like it’s one of the most underrated skills that we just don’t ever think about investing in. And, for me, it’s been so important to my career that I’d call it the cornerstone of my career. It’s like that one skill that, whenever I talk to people, I say, “You really have to think about note-taking,” and they’re always like, “Yeah, yeah, Anh, that sounds great but I may be not that interested.” But, to me, there’s really a few different benefits.

The first is people’s perception of you, and this is something that I don’t think people think about, but if you’ve, in particular, been in any sort of leadership position where you’re facilitating a meeting or having a discussion with people, and they see you taking notes and you’re typing, and you type slowly, their perception of you is not that you’re necessarily the smartest person.

And this is something that I feel like goes unspoken, but if you watch somebody typing, and they’re like pecking at the keyboard, you might perceive that they’re not as intelligent as they actually are. And that’s, I don’t think, an accurate representation in any way but it does affect people’s perception, in particular, if you’re facilitating a meeting and you’re taking notes slowly, and you’re slowing down the entire meeting.

Their perception of you is not that great. And so, I think mastering good note-taking is important just to make sure that people have a certain amount of respect for you when you’re doing your job if you’re taking notes.

The second is, at least for me, note-taking has been something that’s really made my learning process efficient. So, one of the things that I do, I do religiously in all of my meetings, is take notes. Whether or not I’m going to publish them or not, I take notes. And, for me, it just crystallizes my learning on things so it’s a part of my learning process.

And I started taking notes when I was in college. I was a math major and I was pretty lazy in summary cards. You don’t think of mathematicians as lazy but we kind of are. We’re looking for the most efficient way to do things, or maybe we’re advocates of efficiency is a better way to put it. But I was also a very slow reader. I just couldn’t go through textbooks. And anytime I was studying for a course and you had to read multiple chapters in the textbook, I just couldn’t get through that material.

And I had stumbled upon an article about note-taking, and they said, basically, if you take notes in some sort of structured format, then it improves your recall ability dramatically. And so, what I did was I just started taking notes in outline format, which is like a really traditional way to do it, in all of my lectures, and it was so effective when I was in college that I actually stopped buying the textbooks, like I didn’t read them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I went to lectures, I took good notes, and then I reviewed the notes, and most of the time, the professors would cover the material that was needed from the textbook in their lectures. And so, if I took good notes, I didn’t actually need to purchase the textbook anymore. So, after a couple of quarters, I just stopped altogether, so it saved me a ton of money, and I did well in those courses. I did pretty well.

I was at UCLA, and I got a pretty decent GPA coming out of college. So, it was really, really effective for me and has, to this day, been one of the reasons why people often compliment me on my memory. They’re always like, “You have such a great memory.” It’s like, “No, actually, I just spend a lot of time processing the information through note-taking, and that crystallizes my learning in a way that I feel like other people who were not participating as much, will have that as an advantage.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And in your book Glue, on the chapter about note-taking, you mentioned that when you are consistently taking notes and sending them out, you’re really effectively cementing the impression of being a subject matter expert to those that you’re sending the notes to. Can you tell us about that?

Anh Dao Pham
That’s right. Absolutely. I see note-taking as a way to actually get informal power, and so I tell people that information is power. And when you capture information and you send it out and distribute it, you start to become seen as a subject matter expert on the information that you’re putting out there. There’s a misconception that you capture information and some people will capture information and hoard it as a source of power, but to me it’s actually the opposite.

If you think about, let’s say, reputable newspapers or content sites, the reason that people see them as an expert is because they put their content out there. And then when people think of a topic or a question, they know where to go for that information, and note-taking happens in the same way. So, if you’re the person who consistently is taking notes and then sending them out, and they’re good notes, then the people will start to see you as that person who knew this information, publishes information, and a place that they can go to get the information.

And that shifts the dynamic from somebody who’s just sort of a bystander in a meeting to somebody who actually holds information and is somebody who has a certain amount of power and influence in the situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now my brain is going to Bob Cialdini who endorsed your book. Kudos.

Anh Dao Pham
He’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s one of my favorites. We were delighted to have him on the show when we finally got him. So, anyways, I’m thinking about the tools or principles of influence – reciprocity. I’m just thinking about how many times folks have been able to miss meetings either because they just want to save some time, or they really had some other obligations going on, and they were able to look to your notes to really save the day.

And so, I’m thinking, over your career, you’ve done that for many people many times, and I would hope that that gives you a little bit of sway when it’s time for you to ask for some help or some favors or some assistance.

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I would agree with that a hundred percent. The principle of reciprocity, I cannot even say that word, reciprocity is another thing that I talk about in the book, and also think a lot about in my career. And the interesting thing about that principle is that it’s not about giving something to get in that specific moment. It’s about establishing a pattern of giving and giving that benefit to other people so that at the time that you go to them at a later date, they actually are able to reciprocate and to provide something back to you because they’ve had that good feeling from you if you’re giving them something.

And I get this all the time, “Oh, I miss the meeting. Thank you so much for the recap. I was able to catch up.” In fact, oftentimes, the notes are way more efficient than being in the meeting. In particular, if you don’t need to be an active participant in the meeting to have the discussion but you need to understand what the outcome is, the notes are tremendously helpful.

I’ve had times before where, as an example most recently, one of our legal team members was asked a question, and he was searching through all of his documentation for anything about a particular discussion, and he said, “The most helpful information I found was actually from this recap that Anh took.” And I went back and looked at the notes, I was like, “I don’t remember this discussion at all. I’m so glad that we wrote it all down.”

And office settings often, in particular when you’re moving very fast, there isn’t a lot of things, there aren’t a lot of people who actually document things. And so, when you start doing that, it becomes often the system of record for whatever the discussion was that happened, and it helps all the people thereafter, either in the moment because they missed it, in some sort of a reminder capacity, like, “I can’t remember exactly what we talked about. I remember we covered this at some point.” Or, even very much later, like through this legal inquiry, some indicator of what was actually discussed and why we did it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, shifting gears now into the how, you mentioned that in some ways, just your sheer typing speed is foundational. Can you speak to that?

Anh Dao Pham
Yes, typing speed is extremely important. Actually, out there, there are studies that talk about note-taking and how taking notes with a pen and pencil is actually more effective in terms of your ability to remember things. I actually believe that that’s kind of bunk but there are studies about that. I think the active, actually, taking information and then participating in it, that actually crystallizes things.

If you’re in an office setting, I would argue that typing is the equivalent of doing that pen and paper activity as long as you’re actually participating. But in order to be able to participate, you can’t be slowed down by your own skill to capture the information, so typing speed is extremely important. And I always tell people, if I notice them not typing as fast as I think that they can, to spend some time investing in themselves in that typing speed.

We always have people complain about how they don’t have enough time in their day, and if you spend a lot of time actually responding to emails or reading things or writing memos, this is a place where you can actually improve your efficiency significantly, and it doesn’t actually take that much investment. When I actually started typing, I was in high school, actually my transition from high school to college, and I attempted to go and get a job at a temp agency.

And at the time, I think I was around 18 or so. I got tested for my typing speed, and I came in at something like 40 words per minute. I’d never actually put in a concerted effort to improve my typing speed. And the people who were helping with the hiring said frankly to me, “Hey, this is just not going to cut it. Nobody is going to hire you for a temp position if you don’t get this typing speed up.”

And at the time I went home, and I happen to find a really old spiral-bound typing speed book that my mom had used when she was younger. And I picked it up, and I did a handful of drills, and I think I spent maybe three or four hours or so just doing a handful of drills. And then a couple days later, I went back and took the test again, and my typing speed was up to 60 words per minute.

So, it wasn’t actually that big of an investment. And if you think, if you currently type 45 words per minute and you can increase your typing speed to 60 words per minute, that’s like a pretty significant improvement in your efficiency, and it doesn’t take that much to invest in yourself to get that typing speed up. So, I feel like everybody should take a moment to do that if they haven’t already.

It’s funny, because when I say this or when people read the book, they’re like, “I went and tested myself, like right after I read that chapter.” And they’re always reporting their typing speed to me, I was like, “Great. Great. Do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
“Thank you.” You’ve seen a lot of these unsolicited reports. Well, you’re bringing some fond memories back. I remember I found a transcriptionist and he was so gung-ho. I think it was in one of those contractor platforms, like Fiverr or Upwork or something, and he said, “I’ve already started on it, and you can see.” And then he showed the Google Document which he was transcribing quickly, I was like, “Okay, there you go. That’s impressive.”

As well as he had a video in his portfolio, he was like, “Look at me on TypeRacer.com,” which is a website I’ve been to, to see, “Sure enough, you can type very fast.” And that’s impressive, and not just when you’re hiring a transcriptionist but for any number of roles. And I think there was an episode of “The Apprentice” back in the day.

I think maybe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, why I remember this, maybe because it left an impression. He was typing so slowly, I was shocked.

Anh Dao Pham
And didn’t it affect your perception of him?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it did, and I already knew, like he’s a fraudster criminal, and it made it worse, and he can’t type fast. So, it makes an impression. I just want to mention, so right now, AI is so hot right now, and the ability for automated transcription to occur. What are your thoughts on that? Does that make it less important to be able to type quickly?

Anh Dao Pham
No, I think that, at the end of the day, typing is a way of processing information, so it depends on what you’re trying to use it for. Like, as an example, if you’re going to transcribe a podcast and you’re putting it out there because you want the content out there, then I think there’s absolutely no harm in doing some sort of automated transcription. You’re not actually trying to learn the material or do something with it. You’re just trying to make it available.

But, for me, the main reason I like to do note-taking or that I practice it religiously is because it does help me learn. And so, if you’re taking advantage of a tool to do that work for you, you actually lose out on the benefit of processing the information. When I think about typing and taking notes, the reason that it helps improve your memory is that you’re processing information multiple ways.

So, let’s say you’re in a meeting and you’re taking good notes, you’re listening to the information that’s coming in, and then you’re participating in the meeting, so, obviously, you’re likely there because you have some role to play. So, you’re participating in having some discussion, that’s like two ways, “I’m listening. I’m talking.” That’s another way to process the information.

And then if I actually write it down, I’m processing it a third way. So, all in the span of a one-hour meeting, I’ve now triple-processed the information. And it’s not just about writing the information down, but if you actually take the time to reorganize the information or write it in your own words, then you’re processing it another time. So, you’re like taking in the information and then outputting it in a way that is in your own words so that you can confirm that understanding.

So, all in that span of time, if you’re using your fast note-taking abilities and processing all this information, that information is going to get crystallized in your brain in a way that other people who are just listening or just speaking and not taking in all those different activities at the same time are not going to have to their advantage. So, that’s why you’ll come out of the meeting and learn this information so much more quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s say we have invested just a few hours in our typing speed, and it’s gone way up. Cool. Tremendous return on investment there. So, then let’s zoom in. We’re in an actual meeting, we’ve got our laptop, and our fast typing skills. I’m wondering if folks, right from the get-go, are thinking, “Is this even appropriate for me to whip out the laptop and be clanking away? Is this something that’s going to be distracting, annoying? Is this just more for junior people?” Can you talk to us about any resistance folks might have in the moment?

Anh Dao Pham
It’s really funny because I used to work in a startup called Opower, and at the time, I was the first person there who was a program manager. I was director of program management, and I was in charge of hiring other people for my team. And when I put out the job description, we put out an exercise. And in the exercise, it was just a handful of questions that the job applicants had to answer in advance. And one of the questions I’d put on there was, “How fast do you type?”

And the funniest thing about that question was it was the most controversial and telling question on the pre-application. Some people would write back, and the answers were so funny.

Pete Mockaitis
“It shouldn’t matter how fast I type.”

Anh Dao Pham
Exactly. Like, we did. We actually got responses like that, like, “This is not an admin job” was one of the responses, or, “I’m a hunt and pecker,” which was so funny to respond that way, but people were actually offended about this question, that they felt like it was beneath them. And, to me, that’s really telling when it’s like you should have the humility to do this work if it needs to be done on your project. So, if you’re thinking you’re above that, in any job, in anything that makes you better at your job, you should be willing and want to do.

And so, I feel like if there’s an ego there about it, you’re just shooting yourself on the foot by not taking advantage of this particular skill or this opportunity to do that. But I do see resistance because there is a certain amount of ego with it. Now, I would say, though, that most of the time the ego is coupled with a lack of skill. So, it’s like, “Why would you push back on it if you could do it?” It just seems like an odd combination. So, we do see some of that resistance.

Now, in the scope of actual meetings, and I come from a project management background but now I also do product management work, and I’m on the executive team, and I still go into meetings and take notes. And you would think, like, “Hey, as Anh moves up in her career, she’s going to do this less.” It’s like, no, actually, I’m not because, again, I think it becomes a very valuable resource, it’s important for my learning process, and people really appreciate it. So, why wouldn’t I continue to do that?

And people have come to know that I do this. They will rely on this skill, sometimes maybe too much, but they’ll rely on this skill, and this is something they can count on with me if they’re not able to attend a meeting, it’s like, “Hey, are you attending? Could you share your notes with me?” That’s like a huge benefit for them and it’s something that I think I’m always going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. And no one has ever said, “Hey, cut it out,” or looked annoyed, like, “Ugh, your keyboard noise is such a distraction and annoying us, Anh.”

Anh Dao Pham
No, actually. And I do have long nails so I do clank a little bit on the keyboard. Now, if I’m in a meeting or on a Zoom or something, and you can hear the clanking, then I’ll mute myself so that it doesn’t happen. The only thing I would say is if you’re maybe on a one-on-one situation, and you’re sitting there, staring at your computer while you’re taking notes, or you’re concentrating so much on that, that’s not a great situation.

Some of those smaller form meetings, you might want to pay more attention to the conversation, or you might at least give a prerequisite or preamble before you actually start taking notes, like, “Hey, I’m going to be taking notes, but the reason I’m taking notes is because I’m listening to you so intently, and I want to make sure that I’m capturing this information.”

So, you can give that up front so that people know that that’s important to you for the purposes of this meeting. I’ve actually participated in interviews with companies before where the interviewer, it was just me and him, and he said, “Hey, this is a part of my process, so just know when I’m staring intently into the camera, I’m taking notes and it’s not you. It’s because I’m really trying to listen and make sure that I captured everything.”

So, I think you can phrase it in such a way, with whoever you’re meeting with, to let them know that this is an important part of the process, and that’s why you’re doing it, and that should cut out any hesitation for you taking on that task.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the typing speed up, hesitations are behind us, we’re in the moment, what do we actually do?

Anh Dao Pham
So, there’s a couple phases in the book I break this down on note-taking. In the very beginning of a project, oftentimes, you’ll start a project and not actually know what’s going on. And so, if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to facilitate and you’re trying to take notes, sometimes that’s very difficult. And so, I call this phase the fake-it-till-you-make-it phase.

And the idea here is you’re listening intently, you’re asking questions when you don’t understand things, but you’re trying not to slow down the discussion or the meeting. And so, one thing you can do is if there are things that you really need clarification on, you can sort of jot them down. Sometimes I’ll create my own private note section, like, “Note to myself: Ask about this later because I don’t want to slow this down.”

But in the span of the meeting, what you want to do is try to capture the most salient points, the most important things, and there’s really only a couple of categories. One is, “What are the key decisions that are being made?” And then, two is, “Are there any sort of follow-up items or action items? And who’s going to be responsible for those?”

And in a meeting where you don’t exactly know what’s going on, and sometimes maybe they’re even using jargon that you don’t fully understand, the most important thing is to write down accurately what is being stated. And if you’re unsure, you can always prompt somebody, like, “Hey, I heard this word. It sounds like a decision was made. Is that true? If so, can somebody just restate the decision for clarity?”

And when you do that, it actually helps the meeting because, oftentimes, people will say, “Okay, great.” They’ll have a discussion and they’ll seem to have come to some sort of consensus, and then they’ll move on, but nobody actually stated the decision at the very end. And sometimes when you do that, and prompt, like, “Hey, I heard a decision or I think we made a decision. Can somebody state that?” It will actually clarify that maybe something was missed or maybe somebody had a slightly different understanding of the decision, so you’re actually helping the process by asking that question.

And then once it gets stated in a clear enough way, you can say, “Okay, so I heard this is the decision,” state the decision, and then write it down. So, you’re sort of capturing the most important things. And that, to me, is sort of the fake-it-till-you-make-it stage. And if there is jargon that is being used in that state where you don’t fully understand what they’re saying, you just make sure to repeat back, “This is what I heard you say. Is that right?” And then write that down in the way that they said it.

It’s not as important in this phase that you understand the notes as it is that the people who are in the meeting understand the notes and what’s next. And so, there you just want to capture exactly what they said, and a note to yourself to learn and understand it later. And then you can follow up with the person, ask those questions to make sure that you fully understand what you’re sending out. Don’t send out things that you don’t understand. Capture them and then make sure you understand them before you send it out because that’s how you’re going to get the benefit, ultimately.

So, that, to me, is like really the first phase. And then, over time, what you want to do is sort of graduate to a more, I’d say, mature note-taking phase where you’re then sort of going through the process, participating in the meeting, and then taking notes but organizing the information as you’re going along. And when we talk about note-taking, people ask me all the time, like, “Well, what’s the secret?” I was like, “Well, I don’t just take notes. I’m actually participating and then I’m summarizing the information in my own words.” And there’s a lot of benefits to that.

The first is really that when people speak, it doesn’t always make for good notes. If you capture everything verbatim, there’s uhms and ahhs, there’s pauses, there’s twists and turns, they might repeat themselves five times. It doesn’t make sense for you to write everything that everybody is saying. What you want to do is capture what the point of that discussion was. So, take a moment to sort of rephrase it for yourself in the most concise way, and then type that down.

And then, as you’re going through the meeting, you’re participating. And if you have read my book Glue, there’s actually two chapters next to each other. It’s the note-taking chapter, and then the next chapter is about synthesis. And I think, when you’re doing really successful note-taking or good note-taking, you’re actually practicing both skills at the same time. And so, note-taking is sort of the act of writing down the information and organizing it, but how do you actually organize the information? And there’s a few different ways to do it, through different techniques of synthesis.

And the simplest way of synthesis is to actually just try to sequence things. So, if somebody’s describing a process or a plan to do something, you’re kind of like sitting there and trying to write these things down in order. So, as people are talking through it, it’s like, “Okay, we needed to do step one.” “Okay, great. I captured that.” Then, suddenly, they’re talking about step two, and then it’s like, “Oh, well, actually, there’s something that needs to happen before that.” So, then you sort of reorganize that information and sequence it in a way.

Think of it as like I talk to my mom about recipes that she cooks for Vietnamese food, and sometimes she gives those steps in all different orders. Like, she doesn’t have anything written down because a lot of Asian cooks don’t. They don’t have recipes. They just kind of feel their way through. And when she conveys the information to me for how to cook something, I step back and go, “Okay, I heard you said this, this, and this,” and I’m like writing those down as if they were instructions that I could follow later. And that is a way to sort of synthesize the information.

So, when you’re taking good notes, you’re doing that. You’re not sort of just capturing anything as it comes along because then your steps may not be all out of order. You’re actually synthesizing them into something that’s useful and structured. And that, to me, is sometimes hard to do, but if you practice it over time, you get really good at it.

And when you’re doing it as well, it also helps you identify if there are gaps. So, in the book, I give an example about cooking chicken pho. It’s a recipe, and my mom’s giving me these instructions, and she says, like, “Hey, you’ve got these vegetables, you need to chop them up. And then you need to do X, Y, and Z.” And at the end, after I write it all down, I realize, “I didn’t do anything with these vegetables that I chopped up. What do I do with them?”

But if I didn’t sequence the information out, I wouldn’t necessarily realize that the vegetables didn’t go anywhere. And so then, it’s like, “Hey, mom, I missed the vegetables. Where do they go?” It’s like, “Okay, well, you add them at this point in time.” It’s like, “Okay, let me slot that in where it needs to happen.” And so, that active synthesis really helps you make sure that you fully understand the information.

So, when you’re capturing the information and then, ultimately, sending out, that it’s like 100% accurate, and you’ve helped identify potentially gaps in the information that you’ve plugged in as a part of that discussion.

Pete Mockaitis
So, sequence is fantastic in terms of, “How do I do this thing?” and in the course of a meeting, we say, “Oh, we should do this.” “Oh, but first I guess we got to do that.” “Oh, but that’s really going be contingent on this.” And so then, that really is super value added in terms of we had a jumble of discussion, and then what’s coming out the other side is, “Oh, here are the six steps. One, two, three, four, five, six. You made it look easy, Anh. Cool.”

So, that’s one style or approach of synthesis is sequence, chronology. Are there any other key frameworks or schemas that are handy when it comes to synthesizing?

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, another active synthesis that I describe in the book is I call it inference. And so, this is like a really simple technique where you try to collect multiple pieces of information, and then you try to extrapolate another piece of information out of that. So, one of the mistakes that you’ll make maybe early on when you’re even participating in meetings, regardless of whether or not you’re taking notes, is you just take statements at face value.

So, it’s like, “Anh’s going to go on vacation this week. Pete has Anh scheduled for a podcast this week.” Those are two pieces of information. Now, if you’re not thinking about them, you just write those two pieces of information down, but if you’re thinking about them, you realize, “Anh’s on vacation this week, and Pete’s got a podcast. Well, Anh’s not going to make that podcast and we need to reschedule it.” There’s an extrapolation that happens.

And sometime those seems super obvious but, when you’re in a meeting, and when you’re in a lot of meetings throughout the day, oftentimes people are only participating and thinking about their one piece of it. So, I might only think about my thing, you might only think about your thing, and nobody’s connecting the two dots together.

And so, the act of inferences take those pieces of information, and then if you dare extrapolate and make another statement, a conclusion based off of that, just to make sure that you understand what the result is. So, maybe in this specific example, we say, “Oh, Anh is not going to be there for the podcast so we’ve got to reschedule it.” And I might say, “Oh, no, no, no, Pete is so special that I’m going to come out of my vacation and I’m going to take this call with him so that I can be on this podcast.” And you’re like, “Okay,” and all worked out.

So, the extrapolation was incorrect in that statement, but we clarified something that was really important that everybody missed and nobody said it out loud.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun.

Anh Dao Pham
And so, to me, that’s a great skill and it’s really simple. The one thing on that skill that you have to be okay with is getting things wrong. And I think in note-taking, in general, or any sort of synthesis, you have to be okay with getting things wrong and having people correct you, and it’s not until people have corrected you enough and you got it right in the way that you’ve written it down, that you know that you understand the material, so you have to get pass that, but I think the benefits are huge.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I think that can, over time, expose some themes and patterns in terms of, “Oh, okay, this person will make vacation exceptions for super important things,” or, “Does not ever want to be interrupted on their vacation.” And so, that’s a very narrow extrapolation or theme or pattern recognition.

And then, in a way, it’s even helpful for the individuals in terms of, “Oh, here’s how I’m communicating, and here’s what’s often missed. Okay.” And you mentioned that when you are taking your notes, what you want to record, the most critical things such as the decisions made and the action items, who will do what by when. To what extent do we want to share the key considerations of those decisions?

Because sometimes those conversations are quite meandering, and then they landed on a decision. And sometimes they’re quite clear, “Oh, this critically hinges upon four key inputs.” So, how do you think about note-taking in these environments?

Anh Dao Pham
Yeah, I’d say it’s kind of an elevation of note-taking. So, if you’re in the beginning, and you’re still just trying to keep up with the Joneses in your note-taking, then it’s fine to capture just the most salient points, meaning the key decisions and the action items. I think that’s like the minimum that you really want to capture in order for your notes to be useful to others.

But once you progress to being able to extrapolate and organize information in your note-taking, and, ideally, doing that in real time because you’re participating, then you do want to be capturing the why. And I think that is one of the biggest things that helps you actually remember the material, is understanding the why.

It’s very difficult to just understand or remember words verbatim unless they’re maybe in a song, or the alphabet, or you have some sort of moniker for them. But when you actually understand the underlying reason, you don’t actually have to necessarily understand or remember the outcome. You can kind of reason your way there, if that makes sense.

A similar example from memory was when I was in high school, I took the Calc BC test to see if I could get credit for my Calculus course. And our teacher had covered this concept called the trapezoid rule, which is a way to calculate the area of a particular shape through an integration, or through an integral, and he explained how it was actually put together.

So, when you actually do the trapezoid rule, basically what you do is you take a line of the curve, and then you split it into trapezoids, and then you add all the trapezoids together, and that’s how you actually come up with the total are below the curve. This is like me super geeking out on the math side of things. But when I got to the AP test for this calculus exam, the first thing on the test was this trapezoid rule, and I remembered coming out of it, and everybody was, like, “Oh, my gosh, does anybody here remember the trapezoid rule? Like, how could you possibly remember that?”

And it’s like, “Well, I remembered how he explained it to me. I remember that you had to actually create trapezoids, and I know how to calculate the area of a trapezoid so I just kind of was able to derive the formula as I was going through.” And I know that was such a geek example but it stuck with me so much because I remember, like, “Well, because he explained the why, and I understood how it worked, I didn’t actually have to remember the formula at the very end.”

And so, to your point, if you’re going through and you’re having these conversations, if you can capture the why, participate in the why, then you may not even need to remember the outcome because if somebody is asking, you can say, “Oh, well, I remember we talked about this and that, and this was good. And so, the conclusion must’ve been this.” And I think that that’s very powerful as well to have that information so that you can reason through those things.

Pete Mockaitis
That is really good. And I find that when I don’t have an understanding of a why, or the why is just nonsense to me, I have a hard time remembering anything associated with the conversation or anything there. So, that’s really insightful.

Anh Dao Pham
It’s like your brain almost discards the information. It’s like a superfluous piece of information, you’re like, “That didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit into the puzzle pieces of my brain, so I’m just going to kind toss it out.” And then once you truly understand that, whether or not you agree with it is a different question, but if you at least understand the reason that got you there, then, typically, you’re going to remember the answer.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then any tips when it comes to shorthand, organization, or sending them out, or platforms?

Anh Dao Pham
I mostly advise people to use the tools that are most easy for them to use. You want to use what’s most comfortable for you. So, this is like a really simple example but at my office, we used to have computers in the room, in the conference rooms, for our meetings, and then you could also bring your laptop and plug it in.

And one of the things that I would do pretty regularly is I would bring up the conference room with a computer, and then put my notes documents up on the screen so that people could see it, but then I would actually take notes from my laptop. So, it was just projecting the information through one mechanism and taking notes from my laptop.

One time a person asked me, “Why do you do that?” I was like, “Well, I type much faster on my laptop because the keyboard is the keyboard that I practice on. The keys are a certain height. I’m just more comfortable there.” And it’s such a small tip but if you are much faster on your laptop, then go ahead and use that as advice.

And, similarly, if you’re very familiar with a particular word processing program, if you much prefer Word or Google Docs or something like that, use the mechanism that you think is going to be the fastest and easiest for you to use. Then if you send them out, you might want to translate them or post them somewhere in a shared document, depending on what your company uses, but I’d say when you’re at least capturing the information, use the device and tools that are most comfortable for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when you mentioned your book, when you send them out, you want to do so as promptly as possible.

Anh Dao Pham
Yes, you do because, honestly, things move so fast that the information may be invalid or have changed over time. So, if I sit too long sometimes on a recap, sometimes people have completed the action items and they’ve already come to slightly different conclusions. So, you want the information to go out as timely as possible, and you want it to be timely and accurate and concise if possible, and to get them to the broadest population that you can that’s relevant to them.

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

Anh Dao Pham
I’d say the only thing that I wanted to reiterate is I think that, again, note-taking is a very learnable skill, and it’s one of the things that people don’t pay attention to, they don’t think about investing in, and I think that there are so many different benefits if you just invest a little bit more in yourself, that you’ll have. This is in your arsenal for the rest of your career, and reap those benefits.

And I feel like the only thing you need to get over is, if you don’t type very fast, and don’t practice this skill often, just to let your ego get out of the way, and spend a little bit of time, and know that it’s going to benefit you over the course of your career.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Anh, we spoke pretty recently but you mentioned that you did prepare some additional favorite things. So, lay it on us, how about another favorite quote?

Anh Dao Pham
So, recently, I was reading a book called Be Water, My Friend by Shannon Lee. It’s a book about the philosophies of Bruce Lee. And my favorite quote from the book is “The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.” And maybe this goes along with that sort of theme of getting out of your own way. One of the things that they talk about in the book is there’s a proverb about a person who is meeting a Zen master, and he’s talking about something, and his Zen master is trying to give him feedback but he’s not listening to anything.

And so, the Zen master takes tea and starts pouring it into a cup, and then the cup starts overflowing, and the person says, “The cup is overflowing. It can’t hold any more tea.” He’s like, “Well, how can you learn anything if your mind is already full.” And I love that quote because it reminds me, if I’m sort of struggling with something, maybe it’s because I have a preconceived notion or something, my mind is too full that it can’t receive the information to understand the truth.

And I feel like when I get stuck, I’ll often think about that, like, “Is there a way that I, again, could be looking at this differently or sort of letting go of some particular assumption or reservation that I have in order to get out of my own way?”

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

Anh Dao Pham
Have you seen the TED Talk by Derek Sivers: How to start a movement?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think I have long ago.

Anh Dao Pham
It’s one of my favorites. I think it’s a two-minute TED Talk, really, really short. And what I love about it is it’s entertaining as well as it packs a punch of a message. And, basically, he shows a video of a person who’s sort of like dancing like a crazy person on a hill. It’s a hill with a bunch of people who were sort of sitting, maybe it’s like a picnic or a show or something.

And there’s one person who gets up, and he starts dancing. And then after he’s dancing for a period of time, then one second person gets up and starts dancing. And then just a few minutes later, all of a sudden, people swarm together and start dancing together. And he says, “Hey, we’ve started a movement.”

And the interesting thing about this is he says people think about leadership as the first person who actually started the movement, but, actually, it was the first follower who was the most impactful because the first follower joins that leader, and the quote is, “Without the first follower, the leader is just a lone nut.”

And I love that because it stresses the importance of being not necessarily the person who’s typically designated as leader, but a leader in a different capacity. And, in a way, I think note-taking is kind of similar to that. Sometimes you’re offering support in your role, and when you offer support, it offers a different kind of leadership. And the first follower is actually the person who helps create the movement. Without the second person, there never would’ve been a swarm of other people.

So, if you haven’t seen the TED Talk, I highly recommend it. It’s not exactly a study but the message packs a powerful punch.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Anh Dao Pham
I was thinking about different books. I read books in all different genres. And kind of in the note-taking theme, I actually have two favorite books on the topics of writing, and these were books that I read when I was writing Glue. The first is On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and it’s a book about writing nonfiction. He actually talks, too, about if you’re writing in business but you’re not a person who’s aspiring to be an author, how important it is to be able to express your words concisely. And I found that it was just such an impactful book, not long at all, but just packed a great message.

The second book on writing is Stephen King, an author that I’m sure everybody is familiar with, called On Writing. It’s more about writing fiction, but I think both of them just teach you that there are so much more to learn in the craft of writing. And while note-taking isn’t the same as writing a book, I think it just reminds you that there are ways that you can always improve on what you’re doing, and something that you’re doing every day on a daily basis in your jobs.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Anh Dao Pham
It’s funny because I’ve been saying, “I really like typing so I like to do everything electronically,” but my favorite tool is actually Post-Its, Post-it notes. I love Post-it notes. When I have lots of tasks that I needed to do, I’ve got lots of Post-it notes all over my desk. In fact, you can see when I’m really busy because I’ll  have lots of Post-it notes everywhere.

But I use them for facilitating meetings. If you’re doing sort of any in-person discussion, or any sort of brainstorming, or clustering exercises. I love all of that. If you’re doing timelines, it’s easy to plot things out in a timeline. Or, in a case where you maybe don’t want to take notes or you have the luxury of having people in person, and you want to sequence information. This is great. You can write a Post-it, you can move them around. It’s wonderful. I love them so much that people will joke sometimes that I must’ve invested in 3M.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Anh Dao Pham
I read a lot. And I feel like people forget that they can read to get information. Probably not your listeners. I think maybe they do like to read, and you have a lot of guests who are authors, but one of the things I find so beautiful about today is that you can learn about almost anything you want to learn about because there are so many resources out there through videos, through blogs, etc. But I love reading books. I feel people gravitate now to online content for a lot of things, or short-term content, but I feel there’s nothing better than a really well-put together book.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you’re known for?

Anh Dao Pham
Outside of being a lover of note-taking and a lover of Post-its, in the book and the other things that we had talked about in the last podcast I did, people do talk to me a lot about this idea of not having to have a project plan when you’re a project manager. The other thing that I often get asked about is this methodology I introduced in the book about project management called CALM. And it means closely aligned, loosely managed.

And it’s a way of managing projects without managing them as hands-on, as typical project managers might. Through alignment and setting clear goals, and then giving people ownership over their respective tasks rather than trying to dictate and control everything. So, I get asked about that a lot.

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

Anh Dao Pham
I’d love it if folks could contact me through my website. It’s www.GlueLeaders.com. In there, you can find, again, all the links to any information about my book, this podcast when it’s available, as well as the last podcast that you had me on, Pete. So, thank you so much for the opportunity. And, yeah, if you’d like to reach out or have any other questions about note-taking or anything else in the book, I’d love to hear from you.

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

Anh Dao Pham
I’d say, at least with respect to note-taking, just try it. Just try it and, again, practice. It takes a lot of practice, and practice doesn’t actually make perfect. I feel like, as a person in my career, I’m almost looking for a way to progress, and I never have finished progressing. And so, I’d say practice and continue to strive to make yourself better because I think everybody has the capacity to do more and better as long as they put their minds to it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anh, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and many good notes.

Anh Dao Pham
Thank you. I hope your listeners really enjoy this note-taking, and I’d love to hear from them. Thank you again for the opportunity, Pete.