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779: How to Unlock Greater Potential through Unlearning with Barry O’Reilly

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Barry O’Reilly shares his strategies on how to unlearn the mindsets and behaviors that hold us back.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key to breakthrough improvement 
  2. How to identify what you need to unlearn
  3. How to overcome the fear of change 

About Barry

Barry O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of ExecCamp, an entrepreneurial experience for executives, and the management consultancy Antennae. A business advisor, entrepreneur, and sought-after speaker, O’Reilly has pioneered the intersection of business model innovation, product development, organizational design, and culture transformation. He works with the world’s leading innovators, from disruptive startups to Fortune 500 companies.

He is a frequent writer and contributor to The Economist, Strategy+Business, and MIT Sloan Management Review, as well as a coauthor of the international bestseller Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scaleincluded in the Eric Ries Lean series and a Harvard Business Review “must-read” for would-be CEOs and business leaders. He is also an executive advisor and faculty member at Singularity University.

Resources Mentioned

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Barry O'Reilly Interview Transcript

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

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, no, it’s a pleasure to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom about your book Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results. Could you kick us off by sharing a key thing that you’ve unlearned that has proven quite valuable in your own career?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah. Well, even writing the book is probably one of the best examples. I have a solid history of D minuses in English literature through school. I’m dyslexic. I think if I told my teacher that I managed to write one book, never mind two, that they wouldn’t actually believe me. So, it was kind of, for me, one of the big unlearning I had to have is actually how to write a book.

And as conventional wisdom, I always say that writers sort of sit there by a roaring fire with a perfect velvet jacket on and a glass of wine, and just like tearing out pages and pages of content. Believe me, I tried that but it didn’t work for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Too hot?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, not too good. And, yeah, I would sit there for hours just with writer’s block and I couldn’t quite get the words on the page, and it was really frustrating because I felt like I was doing everything, the tips that people told me. And it’s a real challenge. So, then I started to think about, for me, “Well, how can I sort of reframe what I’m looking at? My existing behavior is not working, so, therefore, I need to unlearn. I’m not getting the outcomes that I’m aiming for writing whatever it is, 10,000 words, 10,000 words a day. Whatever I’d set myself.”

So, I started to actually think about, well, reframe my thinking away from just typing as the only way to create content, and I actually started thinking about content. It’s actually really like creating a book is content. And there were suddenly many ways to create content. Typing is just one of them. So, I started to think about other ways to create content. I could record it. I could speak it. I could interview. I could have someone help me.

So, I landed on the idea of actually talking because that was the most natural way for me to share my stories. And what I did is I got a journalist to interview me. So, we would write down, like some bullet points that I wanted to cover in each chapter, and a journalist would interview me, and I would just tell stories about what the chapter would be about. And we would record it and transcribe it using an AI transcription service.

So, we’d speak for 45 minutes, and I’d get in the region of 20,000 words, record it and get a copy of it in text very, very quickly. And the journalist would then sort of go through that copy, edit it really fast, and send me like this sort of early version of a chapter that was sort of relatively raw but it was edited. And it gave me something to react to. It’s like an MVP or minimal viable product or chapter.

And, suddenly, as I would read through it, then I’d be like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t need to go here,” and I’d remember things I’d forgotten to say. So, we got into this iteration really fast. And that literally got me there. I actually unlearned how to write a book by learning how to speak about the ideas that I wanted to talk about.

And the product of that is Unlearn. And then, yeah, many people are often surprised when they realize when I say I didn’t write hardly any of it. I spoke most of it and I got somebody to work with me, and an AI to transcribe it, edit it, and ship it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. So, you unlearned the notion of what writing a book looks like. And in so doing, you found an approach that worked for you, and that’s beautiful. Well, tell us, when it comes to zooming out a little bit and broadly speaking about people and unlearning, any other big surprises or aha discoveries you’ve made while researching and putting together Unlearn?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, the notion of unlearning was the thing that probably struck me the most. So, the first book I wrote was Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. It was part of our recent series, or the lean series, and it was more successful than I could’ve imagined, to be honest. And when we released that book, a lot of, sort of medium to large scale enterprises or scale of startups were sort of saying, “We’re not a startup. We’re actually scaling our business, so what do we need to put in place to make us successful?”

And, suddenly, I was in the room with like Fortune 500 executives or startups in Silicon Valley that was scaling rapidly to work with them, to help them grow and innovate their businesses. And I was fortunate to spend time with these people, some of the most competent talented people you could ever hope to meet. And what I kept discovering was that while learning new things was hard, what was even harder was letting go of their existing behavior, especially if it had made them successful in the past.

So, the unlearning even in itself was a big aha moment for me, is that the real skill is not learning new things; it’s actually recognizing when your existing behavior and thinking is actually limiting your success, and then how do you find ways to adapt or innovate yourself to meet the sort of changing market or situation that you’re in.

And that was really my big inspiration for sort of writing Unlearn and the stories and the examples and so forth that are captured sort of within it, and have just sort of been really the things that have driven me on continuously to sort of do this. And for many people, it’s interesting because unlearning is sort of an act of, if you will, sort of vulnerability. You have to sort of say that, “What I know is actually limiting my success, and, really, I have to sort of shift out of it.”

And for many people, that’s very difficult because their success is tied to their behavior. Their behavior and actions are tied to their identity. You’re asking someone to change their identity, in a way, and that is extremely difficult for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you maybe walk us through an example that illustrates the unlearning process that would be helpful for professionals looking to become all the more awesome at their jobs?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, probably sort of one of the classic examples that I cover in the book is working with a senior executive from a Fortune 100 bank, and she took over the role or went into the role, and everywhere she went, first day, people just kept asking her to make decisions, everything from what direction should the company go in, right down to what paperclips they should order. Every single person was just turning to her to say, “What do we need to do here? What do we need to do here?”

And, for her, that was a signal. She was like, “There’s a decision-making problem here. I shouldn’t be worried about what paperclips we’re ordering. That should be people are confident and inspired enough to do that. Like, why is everything from paperclips right through the company direction landing on my desk and everyone freezing?”

Now, the process for unlearning is it’s a three-step process. It’s first about this recognition to unlearn, identifying or diagnosing where your existing behaviors are not working. In fact, the way I defined unlearning is it’s a process of letting go, reframing or moving away from one’s useful mindset and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past but now limit our success. So, it’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding your knowledge or experience. It’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and making space for new information to come in to inform your decision-making and action. So, the first step is a diagnosis.

So, straight away, this executive could diagnose that nobody was making decisions, and that is not the outcome that she was aiming for. She wanted to have a high-performing organization where people could take responsibility and have an accountability to make decisions at the appropriate level, depending on the decision to be made. So, that was a signal for her.

And so, I sat down with her, and I got her to say, “Well, let’s describe it. Let’s describe what success would be. If this is the behavior that needs to be unlearned, how could we talk about division or the objective or the outcome you’re aiming for the people would be achieving?” And I got her to sort of write a story about it, write a vision statement for what would be true in the world if they had unlearned this challenge.

So, she wrote down things like people would be making safe-to-fail decisions, that they’d make small decisions to understand. If they had to make a big decision, they’d break it into smaller parts and learn along the way what works and what doesn’t. And this sort of learned helplessness to make decisions would be removed, and all of her direction would be what success is and why it matters. None of her direction would be how to achieve it. The teams would offer opportunities on how to do that.

So, writing this sort of story, it gave her these sorts of outcomes that she talked about, the learned helplessness disappears, her direction of what success is and why it matters. She wouldn’t be saying how to achieve it. And, straight away, we wrote those down in an unlearning statement that would basically say, “The company would’ve unlearned when 100% of her direction is what success is and why it matters. Zero percent of her direction is how to achieve it. Zero percent of people displayed this learned helplessness when making decisions.”

So, suddenly, she had sort of had this statement that would encapsulate this unlearning of decision-making as a problem within that company, and she actually shared this with a bunch of her team to sort of for them to understand as like what would be success criteria for unlearning it. And then the next step is to sort of re-learn. It’s like getting people to try new behaviors to try and move towards these objectives or outcomes that we’ve described.

And so, I always get her to sort of like pick one of these outcomes that she originally had described to sort of focus on. So, there was the learned helplessness, how to achieve a decision, or what success is and why it matters. And we picked actually that this one, zero percent of her decisions would include how to get there.

So, she took this sort of very bold sort of stance. And I often say to people, “If you want to re-learn, it actually means you have to do something uncomfortable,” and people mostly write down like simple things that they would try that they’re used to, like just be quiet for a moment, or don’t be the first to speak when someone offers a problem, or let all the team speak before she did.

But the one she chose was even more uncomfortable. She said she wasn’t going to make any more decisions. So, if someone came to her and asked her to make a decision, her immediate reaction would be, “What do you think?” So, introduce this tiny little new behavior. Now, you can imagine when you’re a Fortune 100 executive, and you sort of announced that you’re not going to make any more decisions. It would cause panic across the company.

But the way that we made it sort of safer, rather than just sort of never make a decision again, she was just going to try it for one day. So, for one day, make it sort of safe-to-fail, she’d think big but start small about trying to conduct this new behavior of not making decisions, and asking people what do they think.

And this is sort of the moment that we call a breakthrough. So, a breakthrough is literally when you start to get this new information, new behavior, new action, and the results that actually give you a feedback statement that you should keep doing what you’re doing or do something different. So, literally, she went into work, I think it was on a Tuesday. I think it was a Tuesday. And every time one of her team came in to ask or to make another decision on something, she sat there and said, “That’s interesting. What do you think?”

And what that did was something really magical. It allowed her to learn. It allowed her to learn about the people and what help they might need. Because some people, when she asked somebody, “What do you think?” would freeze, would be sort of “Ah, I don’t know. I really need you to make this decision. I don’t have enough confidence or control to do it.” So, she could realize straight away that person would need coaching.

But other people, when she asked, “What do you think?” would say, “Well, we’ve got three options. We can do option A, and here’s the pros and cons of that. We could do option B, here’s the pros and cons. Here’s C and pros and cons. I think we should do C, and here’s why.” So, instantly, she could go, “Great. Let’s do C,” because she could see the rigor and the thinking that her team had actually performed, and it gave her confidence to say, “Right, that’s the direction we should try. Let’s do it.”

So, this simple act of just not making a decision and asking people to sort of say what they think sort of revealed all these insights about who is able to make decisions and should be encouraged to make more, versus who was hesitant to make them and needed coaching and support to sort of get there. And instantly then, she just gets this uplift in performance because once she starts doing that, all her teams start replicating that. And then, suddenly, you’ve got this big performance improvement where you can start to eradicate decision-making problems.

So, that’s an example of a sort of unlearning statement and going through the diagnosis of decision-making, the re-learning of actually thinking big and starting small, defining outcomes, and taking a small new behavior, which was not to make decisions, and ask people what they think. And then the breakthrough was seeing this insight or learning from the team about who could respond well and who needed help. And that sort of informed her to keep doing, and that’s literally the cycle of unlearning.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you for that story. That’s really cool. And I’m curious, as we zoom into individuals listening here, are there any key questions or prompts you find super useful to surface, to highlight, to assess, to diagnose, “Aha, I may have an outdated or suboptimal belief or practice or mentality that I would do well to unlearn”? Like, what’s sort of the canary and the coal miner, some key indicators that I should be on the lookout for?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. And the simple question many people that ask is, “How do I know what I need to unlearn?” And to diagnose, there’s a set of questions that I ask people. It’s basically getting you to think, “Is there a situation where you’re not living up to the expectations of yourself? Maybe there’s somewhere you’re not achieving just sort of outcomes that you desire. Maybe you sort of tried all the things that you can think of and you’re not getting a breakthrough. Or, maybe there’s a situation that you’re avoiding altogether because you just can’t think, ‘How am I going to tackle that?’”

These are all the sort of signals that your existing behavior is not working. So, not living up to your expectations, not achieving the outcomes you’re aiming for, situations you’re avoiding or struggling with, or maybe you’ve tried everything that you can think and you’re still not getting a breakthrough. I’d even ask you that, Pete, and you probably can come up with four or five answers straight away. And these are all signals that our behavior is not actually helping us achieve the outcomes that we’re aiming for. And, therefore, we have to unlearn, we have to try something different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And as you’ve seen a lot of workplaces, are there some common examples that pop up again and again and again in terms of, “Oh, these are some things that would be great to unlearn”?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, I think like risk-taking is always a big one, like people’s risk aversion, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, trying new things, being willing to fail. These are all decision-making. It actually comes up quite a lot. These are sort of like the commonalities, I guess, that I hear from a lot of people, is how to help them sort of get those breakthroughs, is trying new things that they’ve never done before.

A lot of it is about, I think, when people perceive that there’s risks for both personal and perception, that if they try something and it doesn’t work, how they’d be perceived. That one really comes up a lot, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s juicy. And so then, if I was working on that, how might you help coach me through that emotional stuff?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah. Well, first of all, it’s just a recognition, people diagnosing that that’s the heart of the issue. Most people sort of write it up as, “My boss won’t let me do something,” or, “We’re stuck in the status quo. We’re struggling to do new things. We don’t innovate in my business.” Like, a lot of people would sort of deflect it off to company not allowing them to do things.

And a lot of it is sort of then helping people recognize, well, first of all, you have agency and you can try. So, how do we make it safer for you to try? Or, you feel safer that if you fail, how you’ll be perceived? And one of the mantras in the book was this notion of thinking big, start small and learn fast. So, it’s important to have a big aspiration or big outcome that you’re aiming for because that allows you to sort of shift your thinking and your behavior, potentially, to get there.

But the way when you’re trying to make big changes is you don’t take big leaps. You take small steps and learn your way through. So, when somebody has a big idea to change their business, what I often say to them is, “Right. Well, write down that big idea.” Amazon has a famous practice where they get people to write press releases to describe what the world would be like if their product was in the market in two to three years’ time, what would be fantastic about it.

Now, with the way that they start is they don’t do a huge big project. They start small. They run some experiments with small customer bases to see what works and what doesn’t, and then sort of grow it from there. So, what I often say to people is if you have a big idea to change the way your company works, don’t expect that you can walk up to the CEO and get millions of dollars of funding and a new team, and then just sort of start working on it.

Do something small to start testing if that idea is going to work. Pick maybe one or two customers and sort of show them a very naïve version of the product that could work or could not, and get feedback and show that it’s working or not. And even if it doesn’t work, it’s okay. You will have learned something from those one or two customers about what success could be or what’s the right product that they’re looking for and iterate it.

So, these are the ways that you can think big and start small, to start tackling uncertainty and be successful as you try new ways of working new products, etc. And so, that’s what we do most of the time is just coaching people how to think bigger but start smaller so they can learn what works and what doesn’t in a safe-to-fail manner. And once they sort of get into that habit, then they’re able to take on these more audacious goals as they sort of see success moving towards it.

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

Barry O’Reilly
No, I think, like the message from me always with this is, like I experienced that I’ve got to unlearn stuff all the time. It’s tough sometimes to recognize the actual reason you’re not being successful is yourself, that you can’t get out of your own way. So, I think a bit of humility, a bit of not trying to beat yourself up too much when you’re not getting the success, I think, is quite important, and recognize that a lot of this is a sort of journey, a learning journey, if anything, a constant iteration and experimentation on yourself. And if you see it like that, it can be a fun journey to go on rather than beating yourself up along the way when things don’t work.

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

Barry O’Reilly
One of my favorite ones, and people will have to buy the book maybe to find out what chapter was this one, is that something always gives up. Either the problem gives up or the person gives up. But if the person doesn’t give up, ultimately, you’ll get the breakthrough that you’re looking for.

And that was really interesting for me as a notion to sort of think about. It is a little bit of a battle of wits between the problem you’re trying to tackle and the person, or yourself, trying to tackle it. And, really, half of the way to succeed is to keep showing up. If you just keep showing up, something will give. Either the problem will sort of give and you’ll get past it, and, hopefully, before the person gives up because then the problem wins. So, that’s always motivated me to keep being persistent and to keep showing up, and I really enjoyed that quote.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Well, I think my favorite example in the book is Serena Williams, and her story is just purely phenomenal. She’s sort of an against-the-odds story. And also, the success that she had and continues to have is sort of totally unheard of and a total outlier for the sport that she plays in. She actually is getting better as she gets older, which is sort of unheard of. Most tennis players retire at the age of 27. She’s 40 and she’s still competing at the highest level, getting to finals and being successful. So, yeah, really a fantastic story that I open the book with, and would highly recommend people check her out.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Barry O’Reilly
It’s called Maverick, and it was basically written about a small little factory in Brazil where the CEO, who took over, whose son who took over from his father, started using all these contrary methods to manage people that were much more about empowering people rather than the typical, let’s say, corporate institutional management techniques, and they had massive success. So, I highly recommend people check out that book. It’s one of my favorites.

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

Barry O’Reilly
I like the Shure SMB mic. Sounding good when we’re on podcasts, I think that’s one. One thing I learned, I think, through the pandemic especially, is that it’s really important to have good sound when you’re communicating because when the sound is bad, it makes it harder for people to listen. When you’ve got good sound, it makes it easier for people to listen and more of the information goes in. So, yeah, get a great mic. That would be my tip for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Agreed. And a favorite habit?

Barry O’Reilly
At the moment, well, there’s two. One is making a really nice coffee in the morning when I wake up. That’s definitely, that’s my special time. And then exercising as much as possible. I think one of the things I really learned as well, especially as I work in a venture studio called Nobody Studios, and I work with a bunch of biohackers. And this idea of like persistently improving your whole, both like mental activity, like doing exercises like this, reading, writing, etc. but also the physical aspect of how important it is to exercise and sleep.

We’re actually working on a sleep company at the moment, and it’s just been fascinating to me to realize and learn how important sleep is to our actual performance, in general. So, now I’m somebody who…I used to stay up and think I could get by on six hours of sleep at night, but now if I don’t get eight, I get angry at myself. So, it’s been really interesting to learn some of these habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Barry, now you got me curious about, if you’re allowed to disclose, what’s the sleep company and what transformational insights have you gleaned thus far?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, the first one is how important sleep is. I think most people sort of undervalue how important it is. It’s the most restorative process that we have, so no surgery or amounts of vitamins or supplements are going to improve your wellbeing as much as sleep. So, it’s actually one of the most important things that we have to do.

So, yeah, some of the habits that I have had to unlearn was like going to bed late, or a routine to actually optimize when you do go to lie down to sleep, that you get the maximum sleep, that you can get a high-quality sleep at that. And it’s everything from the triggers, simple things that people might say to you, like don’t drink coffee, or don’t have high amounts of sugar, or don’t let your body be in a stress state when you go to sleep because you actually can have negative sleep, which hurts you more.

So, all of these things have been really fascinating to sort of learn and discover. And, yeah, if you follow our venture studio, Nobody Studios, you’ll see the sleep company when we launch it to the public in the next couple of weeks. I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to do.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Well, I think just even the word unlearn. It seems to be one of these provocative words that people go, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly what we need to do. We don’t need to learn more things. We need to unlearn some things.” And I think it’s been a fascinating way to connect with people in terms of the interest area, or a way to describe something, or a notion that many people have felt but weren’t able to put word on it. So, yeah, I think unlearn, that’s it. It’s a fun one. Let go of past success to achieve extraordinary results. It’s all in the title.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, I’m pretty much Barry O’Reilly on every social platform you can imagine, or BarryOReilly.com. And if you’re interested to follow our studio, we’re at NobodyStudios.com. Go check us out on the web and similarly on most social media platforms.

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

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, just think big, have a big bold aspiration that you’re aiming for, that something you think could change, but start small. What’s the first small step you can do to start moving towards it? And you’ll learn fast what works and what doesn’t. So, that’s my message to everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Barry, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with Unlearn and all your adventures.

Barry O’Reilly
Thanks very much. Thanks for having me, Pete.

733: How to Keep Growing Over Your Whole Career with Whitney Johnson

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Whitney Johnson shares key science behind learning and growth so you can continue growing your skills smartly over the long haul.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 3 phases of growth–and how to master them 
  2. How to get your brain to learn faster
  3. The tremendous power of ridiculously small goals 

About Whitney

Whitney Johnson is CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company Disruption Advisors, an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private company in America and one of the 50 leading business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50. She is an award-winning author, a regular keynote speaker, and a frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Learning.  

A frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review, Johnson is author of several top-selling books including Disrupt Yourself and Build an A Team. Her latest book is Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company. She is also the host of the popular Disrupt Yourself podcast, with guests including Brené Brown, Simon Sinek, Susan Cain, and General Stanley McChrystal. 

 

Resources Mentioned

Whitney Johnson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Whitney, thanks for joining us again on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Whitney Johnson
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your latest book here Smart Growth. Can you tell us, you’ve been researching growth for a while, what’s an interesting maybe surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about that in the maybe years now since we spoke last?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, that’s an interesting question. The counterintuitive discovery that I’ve made, here’s what I would say. I think that this book is important right now because of what’s happening in the world, and so let me talk about that briefly, and then I can talk to about the discovery I’ve made. So, as we both know, we are coming out of the pandemic, we hope, and psychologists have said that when you come through a period of severe stress, which, of course, has been a very stressful period, there is this opportunity for people to undergo transformation, to do what’s called post-traumatic growth.

And so, I think we’re in this period right now where people are ready to grow, they want to grow, they aren’t always sure exactly how to grow. And so, this book that I’ve written, Smart Growth, is really addressing that question of, “Here’s a template, here’s a simple visual model for you to think about what growth looks like.”

Now, to your specific question, yes, I’ve been thinking about growth for a while. I’ve talked about the S Curve, and we can talk more about this in detail, but the S Curve of learning in my other two books, but it was always in the background, kind of this supporting actor. And what I discovered is that as I taught people about this S Curve of learning, it was very sticky. They said, “Oh, this makes sense. This helps me explain what’s happening in my career, what’s happening in my life.”

And so, I wanted to do a very deep dive in this book on what this framework is and how you can use it, how you can apply it, both as an individual for personal growth, to demystify the process, to help you decode talent development if you’re a manager, and then, from an organizational perspective, just think about this notion of if you can grow your people, then you can grow your company. So, that’s what we do in this book, is a deep, deep dive on what growth looks like using the S Curve of learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. Well, tell us then, sort of what is the core thesis here or how you would go about defining smart growth?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, the core thesis is that growth is our default setting, as I just mentioned a moment ago, is that people very much want to grow. And then the question is, “Well, what does growth look like?” What I have studied and researched is that the S Curve, and this is something that was popularized by Everett Rogers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that he used to figure out how quickly social change might happen, and then we use it at our disruptive innovation fund to help us figure out how quickly an innovation would be adopted.

I realized I have this aha that this S Curve that we were using to look at social change, to look at how groups change, could also help us understand how people change. So, every time you start something new, you are at the base of an S, and if everybody who’s listening wants to take their finger and draw a picture from the left to right with your finger, of just left to right, a line, a straight line, that’s the base of the S.

And whenever you start something new, the S Curve math tells you that it’s going to feel like a slog. It’s going to feel like it’s going very, very slowly, and so you can get discouraged, overwhelmed, impatient, frustrated, all sorts of emotions that you will have. But what’s helpful about that is you now know, “Oh, this is very normal. I’m supposed to feel this way. I’m supposed to feel like I’m not making any progress.” It’s not that growth isn’t happening. It’s just that it’s not yet obvious or apparent, and so it feels slow.

And so, that’s the first thing that you want to think about from this model perspective. Then take your finger, and I want you to draw from the left to right but I want you to do this swooping line like a wave, and this is the steep slick back of that S Curve. And what happens here, and we call this the sweet spot, this is that place where you’ve now put in the effort and the growth is starting to become apparent. And what took a lot of time to seem like anything was happening, now, in a little time, a lot happens. This is where it’s hard but not too hard. It’s definitely easy but it’s not too easy. And so, this is the sweet spot where you’re exhilarated, all your neurons are firing, growth feels fast and it is actually fast.

And then what’s going to happen for you, and I want you to draw again, because now you’re at the top of the curve, and I want you to draw a straight line, again from left to right. This is that top. This is that mastery portion of the curve. And what’s happened here is that you have gotten very good at what you’re doing, you’re very capable, you’re very competent, but because you’re no longer learning, you’re no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning, you can get bored. And so, growth now is, in fact, slow.

So, you’ve got slow at the launch point, you’ve got fast in the sweet spot, you’ve got slow in mastery; so slow-fast-slow is how you grow. And now you’ve got this mental model, the simple visual model for you to think about your career, for you to think about any role or project that you’re on, and, frankly, for you to think about your life. And so, I wanted to give people this simple template to think about growth because when you know where you are in your growth, then you know what’s next.

Pete Mockaitis
And I appreciate the finger movement since we’re in an auditory medium here, and I drew it. And so, just to remove any potential confusion, so this is sort of like a graph with the X-axis being time and the Y-axis being like skill or capability or how good you are at a thing.

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, I love that, how good you are at a thing. Well-said.

Pete Mockaitis
And we might define that in any number of ways, like from pumping iron to making slides, to building models, to recruiting people, to sales, or any number of skills or things one might master.

Whitney Johnson
Exactly. Exactly correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when we say S, again, not to get into the weeds here, I think of my S as kind of has a curve, but I guess that doesn’t quite happen. It might look more like a slanted Z. Is that okay to say?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, you could also think of it as almost like a rollercoaster ride. So, you’ve got the base of that rollercoaster and then you’ve got the steep part, but in this case, you’re going up the rollercoaster, not down, and then you’ve got the flat part before you go onto another rollercoaster.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so then, I think that sounds right from my own experience. Could you share with us a couple cool experiments or bits of research or measurement that reveals this like pretty compellingly and quantitatively?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, absolutely. So, when we do our research, we’re always looking at both the qualitative and the quantitative, but from a more quantitative research-based, one of the things that I did is looked at both biology and this idea of carrying capacity, but then also looked at the neuroscience around this. And so, basically, what’s happening is that your brain is running a predictive model. So, every time you start something new, pumping iron, like you said, learning how to build slides, or give a presentation, your brain is at the launch point of that S Curve.

And what’s happening is it’s running this model, it’s making lots and lots of predictions, many of which are inaccurate. And because those predictions are inaccurate, your dopamine is going to drop, which is why when you start something new, it’s hard to start because your dopamine is dropping, and we like that chemical messenger of delight. We like to get that and we’re not getting that, that’s why it’s hard to start at the launch point.

But then what happens is you continue to run that model and you continue to make predictions, and your predictions will get increasingly accurate. And as your predictions get more accurate, what’s happening is that you’re getting more dopamine, you’re having these upside emotional surprises, lots and lots of dopamine, which feels good, “This is fun. This is exhilarating. Oh, I love being on this S Curve,” going up the rollercoaster, if you will.

And then at a mastery, what’s going on in your brain is you’ve figured it out, the model is complete. It’s like playing middle C on the piano, or major C core for those of you who are musicians, you’re like, “Got it.” And so, what’s happening now is that your brain is saying, “Well, I get a little bit of dopamine but not very much. I’m a little bit bored. I need more dopamine,” for these thrill-seeking species. And so, that’s when you need to jump to the bottom of a new curve or find a way to push yourself back down into the sweet spot so you can continue to get that dopamine.

So, that’s one of the things I really looked at, is I had looked at the work of Rogers, all the diffusion theory that really backs this up, but I wanted to look at, “What’s going with the neuroscience? What’s going on with biology?” And then, of course, I’ve got all the anecdotal qualitative stories but the neuroscience very much backs up this idea of what growth looks like and what’s happening in our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, is there, for quantitative neuroscience, I don’t even know what the units are, but like synapse connections, or FMRI activation of, I don’t even know what units we’re talking about.

Whitney Johnson
Yeah, it’s a great question. So, one of the things that’s happening is that, first of all, when you start something new, you don’t necessarily have a neural pathway for it. So, you’ve got what you’re doing today, so whatever it is you’re doing today, you’re basically at the top of an S Curve, and it’s sort of like this super highway of habits, like you’ve got this very thick neural pathway and it’s just super comfortable. It’s like going down the road that you always go down every day.

And when you get to the launch point of a new curve, whatever it is you’re trying to do is basically like a cow path, there isn’t anything there, and so there isn’t a neural pathway, so you’re going to do something but it’s certainly not a habit, it’s not who you are, it’s sort of out here separate from you. But as you start to do that more and more, and you get the dopamine, it’s forming those neural connections and creating those neural pathways so that it starts to become automatic and habitual.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then in practice, let’s say, let’s look at these phases. We’re at the beginning, or launch point as you call it, and we are frustrated, I guess I’d love to get your thoughts on what we should do. We’ve had a couple researchers talking about motivation on the show, and there are some research suggesting that adherents to stuff is most linked to that stuff being enjoyable as oppose to it being important, which is kind of intuitive, even like, hey, we do stuff we like doing and we don’t do stuff that we don’t like doing as much, even though the unenjoyable thing that might be pretty darn important.

So, if we’ve decided, “Yeah, this is an important thing I want to learn, I want to master, I want to get good at, but I am frustrated and overwhelmed and discouraged and not having fun,” well, one thing, as we know, that that’s normal, that’s nice. What else should we do when we’re in those unpleasant moments?

Whitney Johnson
So, are you talking about BJ Fogg’s research?

Pete Mockaitis
So, we had Katy Milkman and Ayelet Fishbach, their research.

Whitney Johnson
Okay. Yes. So, I love that idea of celebration and being able to. So, the research of BJ Fogg, I think, is really interesting. And building on the two recent guests you’ve had, including Katy, who, I love her work, is this idea of whenever emotions create habits. And so, if you can enjoy something then you’re more likely to make it habitual.

So, one of the things you can do is, when you’re at the launch point, whenever you actually do the thing that you set out to do, you can celebrate, “Good job. You did it.” When you’re in the sweet spot, you’re doing the thing that you set out to do, you’re pumping iron, you’re lifting weights, you can say, “Good job. I’m doing what I said I was going to do.” And then in mastery, you can say, “I did it. Good job.” And so, you can use celebration at all different parts or points along that curve in order to cement or make that habit that you’re trying to adopt concrete, or whatever it is you’re trying to learn that is new.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, celebration. Any pro tips on celebrating well?

Whitney Johnson
Huh, that’s a great question. I think, yeah, my pro tip is to write it in your journal, so write it down. Like I did this today. So, something that we do every week in our family is at the end of…well, actually, we do it every week but then I try to do it every day, is we go through the sweet, the sour, the spiritual, and the surprise for the week. And I think one of the things that happens is that our brains tend to focus on the things that did not work because that’s what makes us feel safer from an evolutionary perspective.

So, the pro tip is a very simple tip, which is focus on what worked, what went right. If you remembered to take out the trash because you have a goal to take out the trash every day, then say, “Hey, I did this thing that I said I was going to do today.” Acknowledge it, anchor it, be aware of it, because then you’re more likely to do it in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, there is celebration. Any other? Does that work for all three of those phases? Anything else you’d recommend, particularly for the early not-so-fun part?

Whitney Johnson
Yes, absolutely. So, I would say in the early not-so-fun part two things. Number one is sometimes we can get very impatient because it is so uncomfortable, we can just like, “I just want to get through this. I just want to figure this out. I just want to close this open loop. This is so uncomfortable.” And it’s really important that we’re patient in that stage because sometimes we make hasty decisions.

We start to do something new, like we take a job that really wasn’t the right job for us, or we take on a project that really wasn’t the right project for us, because we just wanted a job, any job will do, as opposed to spending that time to do the work, to figure out, and be uncomfortable with not having a job for a little while. And so, I would say, in that launch point, is recognize the importance of patience.

The other thing that I would say is, this goes to James Clear’s work of the idea of Atomic Habits, is when you’re at the launch point, if you think about what’s going on in your brain, you’re running these predictive models, as I said, and a lot of your predictions are going to be incorrect. But if you can make predictions that you know will be accurate, then you’re going to be able to speed yourself along that launch point faster. And the way you do that is you set small, ridiculously small goals.

And when I say ridiculously small, I mean I had set a goal, for example, that I wanted to start playing the piano again. I didn’t set a goal to play for 30 minutes a day, I didn’t set a goal to play for 15 minutes a day. I set a goal to make sure I sat down at the piano for at least 10 seconds a day for 30 days. And guess what? I did it, because 10 seconds is so ridiculously small you can’t not do it, and then you build in those neural pathways, and you start that cow path slowly, then quickly, can become a neural super highway.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that ridiculously small bit, and I think it took me a while to rightfully believe, it’s like, “Oh, well, 10 seconds sitting at the piano doesn’t mean anything.” But I guess, as I just think about, it’s like, “Hey, you know what, one is infinitely more than none.” And you could say, “Well, hey, you know what, that might be nothing. But you know what, it is more than what I did before, and it’s more than I’ve done for months even though I’ve been wanting and telling myself I should do this,” and that gets you going.

And I think BJ Fogg, again, we had him on the show, and he said some great things associated about, like celebrating an infant to toddler’s first steps, it’s like, “Oh, you barely moved anywhere and you fell down after less than two feet. That’s lame. You didn’t cover much ground.” But nobody says that about a kid learning how to walk. We celebrate, like, “Yay! Those are your first steps. It’s a big deal. It’s special.” And that really resonates in terms of so it is when we’re starting something new.

Give us some more examples of ridiculously small and worth celebrating in a variety of domains. I’m sure you’ve got boatloads of stories so maybe let’s hear a couple of those, from the launch point and the ridiculously small, through the sweet spot to mastery of folks learning, growing, tackling something new, that made an impact in their career.

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, one of them that I think is really relevant right now is health, taking care of yourself. And I was actually just on a call this morning with one of my coaching clients who is in this place where she is realizing, “Okay, I work very hard, I work lots and lots of hours. My steps on my Apple Watch are probably a thousand a day. I need more steps on my watch.” And she said, “But I don’t really want to. Like, I know that I should, but I don’t really want to. I don’t feel motivated to do it.”

And so, we had this conversation about, “All right. Let’s talk about ridiculously small goals. It might be that you literally look at your tennis shoes every day, like something that small. But I want you to come up with a goal that you can do every day no matter what for 30 days so that you can start to build that pathway.”

Now, why is that relevant to your career? Well, we all know that if we are exercising and our bodies are working, then we’re able to get rid of the cortisol and the stress that comes with work. And if we’re able to feel a greater sense of wellbeing, then we’re going to be able to think more clearly. And if we can think more clearly, then we’re going to be more productive. And if we’re more productive, we are much more likely to get that promotion and progress along the S Curve of our current role and of our career. So, that’s something very, very simple that I would say really illustrates that idea for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s fun, “Look at your shoes for 10 seconds.” I like that. If you really want to challenge yourself, you can touch the shoes for five seconds, or you can arrange those laces so they’re closer to getting your feet into them. That’s cool in the fitness zone. How about some more in the career zone?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, in the career zone, I would say one simple thing could be is that, for example, maybe you need to give presentations. And if you want to be successful, not even maybe, if you want to be successful in your career, you will need to be able to give presentations and do that well. And so, one of the things that you can do is you can say, “All right. Well, I get kind of uncomfortable when I need to give presentations so I find myself avoiding those.”

And so, a very simple thing that you can do is you can say, “I’m going to practice sitting at my chair, standing up, as if I own the room. In my brain, I’m going to think there is three feet in front of me, three feet to the side, three feet to the back, and I own the room and I’m going to stand there for five seconds, and I’m going to do that every day for 30 days,” and that will start to change how you feel about yourself and your ability to have that presence that you need in order to give a presentation.

Another simple thing that you can do, and this is going to sound very Stewart Smalley and from Saturday Night Live, is you can say, “I am successful in my role, in my job. I am successful,” every day for 30 days, and that will allow your brain, your identity, to start to shift. And as your identity starts to shift, because your subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between a truth and a lie, if you tell yourself every day for 30 days, “I am successful in this role. I have completed everything that I needed to complete in this role,” or that presentation that you’re giving tomorrow, you’re acting as if it were two days ago, “I nailed that presentation,” and you say that every day for 30 days, “I nailed that presentation,” your brain will start to believe that it’s true and it will make it true.

Something you can say, takes you, what, two seconds, every day for 30 days, that is going to allow you to start to be successful in your career. You’ve got a presentation that you’ve got to do that you’ve been procrastinating, and it’s six weeks out. Well, for the first week, you don’t have to work on it at all, but what I want you to do is I want you to open up your PowerPoint and look at the main slide on it every day for the first seven days, just look at the main slide for the presentation. That’s all you need to do. So, you’re priming your brain to start to make progress.

So, small, ridiculously small goals that you can do every single day, and you have no excuse whatsoever. Anyway, those are a number of suggestions for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. And it’s fun to do something ridiculously small and to celebrate it in terms of, “Hey, I looked at that slide for 10 seconds and I checked that off the box or the list, I win.” And it sort of feels good to have wins that are that quick and yet really are meaningful. I’d love to get your take on some of the affirmation-type stuff that you shared there, experientially and anecdotally. I’ve seen those are helpful. Can you share with us some of the coolest research you’re aware of when it comes to that kind of affirmation stuff?

Whitney Johnson
I would be delighted to. So, this is research I actually cite in “Smart Growth,” our next book, and it is research from psychologist Gregory Walton out of Stanford. And he describes these as psychologically precise interventions, and it’s, basically, using your words to change how you think or feel. And what found is that if you say something like, “I am a voter,” there is an 11-percentage point increase in voter turnout versus saying, ‘I vote,” which is so powerful.

So, for example, there is this one wonderful story that we tell in the book, a fellow by name of Marcus Whitney who, he had dropped out of college and had now two young children, he was living in an efficiency motel, he’s working as a waiter for 12 hours a day, and, basically, just scraping by, and he’s like, “I got to change. This is not working.” And so, he, fortunately, when he was about 10 years old, his uncle had given him a computer, he’d learned a little bit of programming, he said, “I’m going to figure out how to program again.”

And so, he would work for 11 hours or 12 hours, and he would spend four or five hours programming. He wants to get a job, he applies for hundreds of jobs, doesn’t get them, finally gets them. But what he says that I think is so important, he says, “It wasn’t just about hard work.” He said, “I had to believe that I was a programmer because there wasn’t a lot of evidence around me that this was, in fact, possible.” So, he did not say to himself, “I am becoming a programmer.” He said, “I am a programmer.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the word you said, so identity, that’s huge and I’m totally going to look at that study. That’s so good. Thank you.

Whitney Johnson
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
The word evidence is resonating because, I don’t know, it might’ve been like Tony Robbins, when I was a teenager, he was my idol when I was a teenager. What a weird fellow I was. And he talked about we have beliefs, when you sort of list out reasons or evidence for them, that could be powerful and cement them. And I’ve actually done this exercise in different shapes and flavors over the years as I find, “Ooh, here’s a little zone of self-consciousness or lack of confidence. Let’s take a look at some beliefs here. And then what is my evidence?”

And then, sure enough, as I sort of assemble it with examples in terms of it’s like, “Oh, I accomplished this. I did that. And I got praised for this. Even if it was three years ago, I got a compliment about this thing from someone for that.” And then, all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh, okay. Okay, I’m not just deluding myself, like saying nonsense things, like, ‘I can fly.’” I’m thinking about Key & Peele sketch, “You can literally fly.” You can’t. But so you’ve collected that evidence, and as it grows, that gets pretty cool and exciting.

As I’m thinking about the programmer example, I don’t know if you did this, but right there is like, “Well, hey, I programmed this thing. Nobody asked for it, nobody paid for it. but, by golly, it works and it does what it’s supposed to go, ergo, I am a programmer.” And then that evidence just sort of mounts over time, it’s like, “I’ve programmed a dozen things.”

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. And you know what, as you’re saying that, I think it also makes a case for, I think, another important hack for us as we’re trying to move along that S Curve, is that when we’re starting something new, we tend to make this list of, “I’ve got to get these 50,000 things done on any given day,” and we start to get frustrated that we’re not getting those 50,000 things done to move along the S Curve. But if we’re willing to write down, “What have I…?” Make as I do it.

So, for example, I don’t write down that I’m going to do a podcast episode, I write down, once we’re finished, like, “We did this. We had this conversation. I prepared for it. It went well.” And so then, your brain starts to feel this sense of efficacy. So, again, this evidence of “I can make a list of what I’m going to get done today,” and I think this applies for anybody in their career, “I have this list of what I want to get done and/or I also did these things that I wasn’t expecting to do. I’m still going to check those off because those are evidence,” that, in fact, you are being effective in your work.

And oftentimes, as you’re moving along an S Curve, it’s not just about subject matter expertise. If you want to be successful in a role, it’s all those things that you do along the curve that seem like they’re interruptions – someone wants to talk about this, someone wants to collaborate on this, someone need your advice about that – all those things are what make you a leader and what make you successful in the role that you didn’t plan for.

But if you write them down, “Oh, I did this and then this and then this,” then you can put together the subject matter, that quantitative piece, if you will, the qualitative piece of that leadership, you put those together and you look at your list for the day, and you realize, “Oh, I actually really am making progress along this S Curve in this particular role.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Beautiful. Well, we talked a lot about the first part, just because it’s hard and difficult. Can you give us your top do’s and don’ts for making the most of the sweet spot and the mastery stages along the journey?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, the sweet spot is that part where things are hard but not too hard anymore, and they’re definitely easy but not too easy. And you’ve got, again, all this exhilaration and so, now that you’ve started, so it was hard, but now you’ve got this momentum, and, in fact, it’s almost impossible to stop. You’ve reached that tipping point and things are moving along really well.

What’s happening for you when you’re in the sweet spot is that you’re feeling this sense of competence, so self-determination theory. You’re feeling this sense of autonomy, like, “I’ve got this. I’ve got control over my destiny.” And you’re also feeling related to the people around you and to what it is you’re trying to get done.

What I would advise people, when you’re in the sweet spot, for as an individual, is the importance of being focused. So, on the job, as you get very capable and get very competent, people are like, “Oh, I’ll have Pete do this, I’ll have Pete do that, I’ll have Pete do this other thing, etc.” And so, it’s important to learn to say no so that you can focus and still build that momentum along the curve.

And I would say, for a manager who’s looking at this, is when you have people on the sweet spot who are very effective, it’s easy to say, “They’re doing great. I’ll leave them be,” and we don’t take the time to say, “Thank you. I acknowledge you. I see you. Thank you for the work that you’re doing.” So, those are some things that I would think about in that sweet spot is the importance of focusing so that you don’t get derailed, you can continue up that curve, as well as making sure you focus on the people who are being effective in that role.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about mastery?

Whitney Johnson
So, in mastery, what’s happening, again, in your brain, is your brain has figured out that predictive model and no longer getting a lot of dopamine. And so, there are two things that you want to do when you’re in mastery. Number one is you want to celebrate – we’ve got a theme going here, celebration – of saying, “I did it. I completed this,” and acknowledge the fact that you did it, and be at the top of that mountain, and observe all that you’ve been able to achieve, and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. It’s the end of the year and so I think this is a good time to do that.

The thing, though, about that place is it’s also this place of poignance because, on the one hand, mountain climbers know that you get to the top of a mountain but any altitude above 26,000 feet is known as the death zone so you’re so high up, your brain and body start to die, and it’s also true for an individual. When you get to the top of that S-curve, if you stay there too long, your brain and body will literally start to die. So, there’s this moment of celebration that you’re here but also realizing that you can’t stay here too long.

And so, the advice for people, when they are in mastery, is that you hit the top of that mountain, you have to keep climbing. And keep climbing may mean you jump to an entirely new S Curve, it may mean you find a new assignment or challenge that pushes you back down in the sweet spot, but that plateau can become a precipice if you aren’t willing to continue to find ways to grow and develop.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so now I’m thinking about that a lot folks feel that in their career. It’s like, whatever you’re doing – sales, project management, product development – in some ways there are endless intricacies and nuances to these domains that you could work on and become ever greater forever. But other ways, there’s a point of diminishing returns, like, “Well, yeah, I pretty much nailed all the basics and now it’s really just like super finer points.”

So, it’s tricky to navigate in a career because, in some ways, when you’ve mastered something, you can become very well compensated for that thing. It’s like, “Oh, you’re really excellent at this, so please do more of that and we’ll pay you plenty because we need someone who’s great at that, and the value created economically is big as a result.” And that can put you in a top spot, it’s like, “Well, yeah, I know but this isn’t really fun for me.”

So, yeah, you sort of mentioned that our choices are to find something else to conquer. Or, what are some other options here?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. Well, how about if I give you a couple of real-life examples that will help illustrate this?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

Whitney Johnson
So, one is a company called Chatbooks. You may have heard of them. They turn Instagram photos into picture books. And it’s a company where people like to work, it’s got a really strong culture, they work very hard to build that culture, but because people like to work there, a lot of them were approaching mastery on the curve and sort of saying, “What’s next?”

And so, what we did is we went into the company, we administered our S Curve Insight tool that allows you to see where you are in the curve, but what that does is not only show you where you are in the curve but it now opens up a conversation. It gives you that vocabulary, that framework to talk about growth and opportunities. So, three conversations took place as a consequence, and I think this gives people some script and some idea of what that can look like.

So, one conversation was the chief marketing officer now said, “Okay, I have this language.” She was able to talk to the CEO and say, “It’s not that I don’t love working at Chatbooks, it’s not that I don’t love working with you, it’s just that in terms of what I set out to accomplish here as chief marketing officer, I’m at the top of my curve.” And so, they were able to, because they have that framework, because they have that vocabulary, it wasn’t personal, and she made the decision, they collectively made the decision that she would go to a new curve as a chief marketing officer at another organization. So, that’s one potential outcome.

Another potential outcome was the president of the organization, his roles and responsibilities were bumping up against the CEO’s roles and responsibilities, kind of crowding him out on that curve, and so he felt like he was in mastery. This allowed them to have that conversation of, “Hey, if you could kind of move on, CEO, to other roles and responsibilities, that will clear the pathway for me so I feel like I’ve got more headroom on this current curve. I don’t want to change curves. I like being on this curve but I need more headroom. So, can we rescope roles and responsibilities?”

And then the third potential outcome is the chief technical officer, where he was at the top of the curve, likes it, wants to stay there, “But let’s give you some new projects that will effectively put you on the launch point of that curve so that, by putting together the portfolio of projects that you’re on, it pushes you back down into the sweet spot.” So, those are three different things that can happen as you figure out you’re in mastery, and you’re trying to figure out paths forward.

I’ll give you one other example because I think this will be very useful to your listeners. A few years ago, we interviewed Patrick Pichette, who was formerly the CFO of Google. And so, when he was interviewed, he’d already been in an operations role, he’d been the CFO at Bell Canada, and so was like, “I don’t really want to do this. When it comes to doing this, I’m at the top of my curve.”

So, what he agreed with Eric Schmidt, who was the CEO at the time, was, “All right, we’re going to take this job, you’re going to be the CFO, and you’ll do this for about 18 months, but, at any moment, when you feel like you’re at the top of your curve and you start to feel like you’re bored, you come talk to me and I’ll put something more on your plate.”

And so, that’s how he went from being just a CFO to managing real estate, to managing people, to managing Google Fiber, etc., is knowing, having that conversation, that vocabulary, to say, “I’m at the top of my curve. I need something new because I want to work here and I want to work for you but I need to stay challenged.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Whitney, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Whitney Johnson
No, I think that’s good.

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

Whitney Johnson
It’s a quote from Brandon Sanderson, who’s a fantasy author, who I love, and he said, “We each live thousands of lives; for each day, we become someone slightly different.” And I love that idea of how every single day, we become a new person. We live many, many lives. We’re on many different S Curves. So, I think that’s a very powerful idea that every day we can become someone slightly different.

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

Whitney Johnson
So, I shared with you already the favorite study, the Gregory Walton, psychologically precise interventions. But there’s another one that I think is really powerful, and I find myself recommending it a lot. Her name is Emma McAdam. We recently had her on the podcast. She’s a psychologist. And she did a YouTube video that talks about anxiety, and really does a great job of explaining how we can get into these anxiety loops, and how when we think, “Oh, I’ve got to do this thing, and I’m really scared about it and nervous about it,” we think, “Okay, I just got to not do it because then I know I’ll feel better.”

She talks about how that’s like basically a bear, and every time we avoid the bear, the bear is going to get bigger. So, the thing that we feel like we can’t do, we must do. And I think that’s a very powerful research. I’ve recommended it. Well, I’ve certainly ingested it but recommended it to family members, to clients, and it really is something that is resonating for people very powerfully because there’s a lot of anxiety. I think there always was but I think there’s even more as a consequence of the pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Whitney Johnson
So, obviously The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen because that has inspired all my work. Another book that’s really influenced me recently is Suneel Gupta’s Backable. So, we had them on the podcast, and maybe you have as well. It really influenced me, and I think from the standpoint of your listeners, is he talks about when you have an idea, you have to have conviction around your idea in order for you to be able to…like you have to believe it.

And I think that that is true for anybody who’s on a job, wants to be better on their job, whether it’s an idea, whether it’s a promotion, you have to believe in it. And I think that was really powerful for me to read, and I think it’s very useful for anybody who’s listening and wants to make progress. Like, you have to believe in you first if you want anybody else to believe in it – you and your ideas.

And then the fiction one is I just read a book called Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan. If you’re a Narnia fan, it’s basically fan-fiction for CS Lewis and it was just a delightful book.

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

Whitney Johnson
Oh, I’ve lots of favorite tools. Well, one is Zoom. I really love Zoom. I love Rent the Runway because I do a lot of stuff on camera, and it’s nice, and you can’t wear something that you’ve worn a million times, so I like Rent the Runway. Let’s see, I like WHOOP, which I’ve got on my armband right now. I love our S Curve Insight tool. Obviously, I’m going to talk about my own book. I love Enneagram, I love Google Docs, and I love drinking water.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a good listing. I’ve been intrigued by WHOOP. I’ve got the Fitbit Charge 5, which works pretty well. But whenever I keep Googling stuff, it lands me on WHOOP’s website, and it just seems like they really mean business over at WHOOP.

Whitney Johnson
They do. It’s good. I’ve had it for about, I don’t know, three or four months now and I really like it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Whitney Johnson
A favorite habit. So, I would say favorite is hard. Getting up early, I think that’s super important and very valuable in terms of being productive. Taking breaks is a habit that I most love, and having a standing desk, standing up. Taking breaks. Standing up.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate; folks quote back to you often?

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. So, I would say companies don’t disrupt, people do. The fundamental unit of growth is the individual. It’s not failure that limits disruption; it’s shame. And then the fourth, and this is the most recent, is it’s not really The Great Resignation, but rather The Great Aspiration.

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

Whitney Johnson
I would point them to two places. Number one is listen to the Disrupt Yourself podcast. And I was thinking about episodes that would be useful to your listeners – James Clear, habit formation, which we talked about; they could listen to BJ Fogg but they could listen to yours as well; Jennifer Moss on burnout; and Scott Miller on mentorship; and then Leena Nair on disrupting inside of an organization. And then people, of course, can go to my website SmartGrowthBook.com.

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

Whitney Johnson
Yeah. I would say get out your finger, or get out a piece of paper and a pen, and draw that S Curve of learning, plot out where you are right now, plot out where people on your team are, and then just know if you’re at the launch point, you need to encourage yourself or encourage people around you; if you’re on the sweet spot, stay focused; and if you’re in the mastery, remember that it’s not, if you’re feeling the sense of crankiness or ennui, it’s not the job, it’s not even the people you work for. It’s just that your brain needs a new challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Whitney, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in all of your growth adventures.

Whitney Johnson
Thank you very much, Pete.

698: How to Grow Your Career Faster through Reading with Jeff Brown (Host of the Read to Lead Podcast)

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Jeff Brown says: "If you want to achieve success in business and life, then intentional and consistent reading is a must."

Jeff Brown breaks down how to make the most of the one habit that puts you ahead in your career: reading.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to strategically pick out your next read 
  2. How to double (or triple) your reading speed in minutes
  3. Two simple tricks to maximize comprehension

About Jeff

Jeff is an award-winning radio producer and personality, and former nationally-syndicated morning show host. Following a 26-year career in radio, Jeff went boss-free in 2013 and soon after launched the Read to Lead Podcast. It has gone on to become a four-time Best Business Podcast nominee and has featured Jeff’s interviews with today’s best business and non-fiction authors, including actor and author Alan Alda, Stephen M. R. Covey, Seth Godin, John Maxwell, Liz Wiseman, Dr. Henry Cloud, Gary Vaynerchuk, Simon Sinek, Brian Tracy, Nancy Duarte, and over 300 more.

Jeff has personally coached hundreds of successful podcasters around the globe – many of them award nominees and winners themselves – and has consulted on podcasts for the US government, two of the largest churches in the US, and numerous multi-million dollar companies.

Jeff and his work have been featured in Inc., Entrepreneur, and Hubspot, the blogs of Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, Jeff Goins, and Social Media Explorer, as well as publications like the Nashville Business Journal, the Tennessean, and hundreds of other blogs and podcasts.

 

Resources Mentioned

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Jeff Brown Interview Transcript

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

Jeff Brown
I am so excited to be here. I have been listening to this podcast for quite some time. I’ve known of it for a while. I’ve even promoted it on my own show a time or two in the last year or two.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. We appreciate that and I’m a fan of you and what you put out there, and I’m excited to hear about how to Read to Lead in a big way. But first, I think, though, we have to hear a little bit about the tale behind you winning a Billy Joel singing sound alike contest.

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I was, as embarrassing as this is to admit, I was in car sales at the time. I spent about 18 months of my adult life selling new and used cars to people. And I remember on my way to work one day, I was listening to the radio station that I wanted to one day work for, I spent 26 years in radio, and they were doing a contest with Billy Joel and Elton John were coming to town. It was that tour of them together. And they were having this sing-alike contest, and I had been singing Billy Joel songs to the top of my lungs in my bedrooms for as long as I can remember, practicing for this very moment.

And so, I called the radio station, I happened to get through, thankfully, and I did “You May Be Right,” I did part of the first verse in the chorus, and they sang along and loved it. And, lo and behold, if I wasn’t chosen as the person who most sounded that day in particular, but just that one day, like Billy Joel. There was also Elton John sound-alike winner, and we got tickets to the show and even joined the radio station that next day and helped give away more tickets. And I dressed like Billy and she dressed like Elton, and we just had a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s good. Well, I have to ask, can we have a little demo?

Jeff Brown
Really? Oh, my gosh. I wasn’t ready for that. Let me see.

“Friday night I crashed your party,
Saturday, I said I’m sorry.”

Now, that’s not me really trying to sound like Billy Joel but that’s just Jeff singing, so there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it was a treat. Thank you.

Jeff Brown
I’m sure you loved it. You weren’t really expecting me to do or you just want to do it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I said I’m going to go for it, and if he declines, I’ll edit it out.

Jeff Brown
Oh, that’s the best I could do on such short notice.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it was a treat and we appreciate it. Well, now we’re going to talk about Read to Lead. So, you’ve got a podcast called Read to Lead, and now a book here. And it’s a catchy title and, more than that though, you say that we need to read as if our career depended on it. What do you mean by this?

Jeff Brown
Yeah. Well, I have found this to be the case in my own personal life and every successful person that I talk to, understands the value of practicing this habit. So, for me, up until 2003, I was in my early 30s at that time, and I had never made reading a practice. Reading wasn’t something that I did in my spare time, certainly, but I had a book and an author introduced to me. It was sort of like the stars and planets aligning, when the student is ready, the master appears kind of moment. And that author was Seth Godin, the book was Purple Cow.

And I did not, as embarrassing as this is for me to admit, I just did not know that these kinds of books existed, that if you’ve got a problem, somebody has already solved it, and they’ve probably written about it in a book. And so, that to me was eye-opening. I devoured that book. I went onto Good to Great by Jim Collins, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Pat Lencioni, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman, and on and on and on.

And when I started doing that, I was doing something that 95% of my colleagues were not doing. And so, just by doing that I was already ahead of the pack. But then, as I began to experiment and implement what I was learning, something happened, something interesting happened.

I tried some things that didn’t work, I tried some things that did. The things I tried that didn’t work were quickly forgotten. The things I tried that did work got me noticed, and I began being asked and being given opportunities to do things within the company I was working for at the time. That all came about as a result of reading and then putting into practice what I was learning. That’s the only explanation I can give for why I had opportunities come my way that no one else did.

I don’t attribute it to me being the smartest person in the room because I certainly was not, but I wanted to surround myself with people much smarter than me, and one of the best ways you can do that is with a book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. And that’s kind of my own journey is growing up I just went to the library a lot, and I realized, “Hey, books make you better. Read a book about photography, take better pictures. Read a book about chess, beat my dad at chess.” And it’s just really exciting to see that there’s a book on anything I want to get better at and it’s all right there, and maybe even free such as at a library.

Very cool. So, you and I have had that experience. I’m curious if there’s any studies or research or data that say, “Hey, it’s not just Pete and Jeff. This is a pretty reliable effect that we can bank on. When people do reading, it improves their professional results.”

Jeff Brown
Yeah, there’s probably more studies that I could possibly reference, and we talk about many of them in the book, for sure. But there are studies that show that reading certain kinds of books outweigh reading other kinds of books. For example, reading physical books have been shown to be easier to remember, easier to comprehend, easier to retain than, say, an e-book.

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

Jeff Brown
Yeah. In fact, and this was a study, I think in 2014, it says our brains were not designed for reading but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. And they found that readers, and I’m going from memory here so some paraphrasing, but in this particular study, they found that readers of a short mystery on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback form.

And so, for that reason and many others, when people ask me, “Jeff, how do you look at reading? Do you prefer physical, e-books, audiobooks?” I think it depends on your situation in life. There may be a time, you may be at a place right now where all you can do is listen to audiobooks. I say all you can do, that’s not a bad thing.

When I was commuting to a job and I had a little free time, or so I thought, audiobooks were a great way to leverage that commute and those served a purpose for that period of time. Right now, when given a choice, I’d much rather have the physical book in my hand. I like the tactile nature of physical books. I like writing in the book, that sort of thing. So, I think it’s going to depend on your situation and also maybe the kind of book you’re reading.

I think if you’re looking to learn a new skill, a physical book is probably, more often than not, your best option for retaining and comprehension. If I’m going to tackle an autobiography, let’s say, that tends to be, for me, more for entertainment purposes, then I’m more likely to listen to that book being read. So, I think, depending on where you’re at in life, and the kind of book you’re reading, will help you determine which of those formats, I guess, work best for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is some interesting research right there in terms of format. And I guess I’m also curious if we got research associated with results. So, we hear that leaders are readers and that’s catchy. Is that, in fact, empirically validated from some numbers?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, it’s hard to say. I don’t have those numbers in front of me right now but I think it’s safe to say that leaders are definitely readers. But, at the same time, readers aren’t necessarily leaders. That’s a quote from one of our past presidents. I don’t recall at the moment which one. But I don’t think you can be a leader, I don’t think you can be a person that impacts, necessarily, unless you’re recognizing the fact that you always have room to improve, that you need to understand and comprehend the value of being a lifelong learner.

Can you read and not grow? Can you read and choose not to do anything with that information? Yes. I don’t believe that knowledge is power, as the saying goes. I think only knowledge put into action is power. So, there are a lot of people who just read and don’t do anything with the information. That’s not really helping you or anybody else. But if you’re one of those folks who understands the value of being a lifelong learner and actually executing and implementing on what you read, then you’re going to go much, much further.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you mentioned that 95% of folks are not doing the reading. What do you suppose that’s about in terms of are there some key stumbling blocks that show up frequently or folks are unaware that it’s transformational or they just think it’s lame? What’s the holdup?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I was having a conversation, and I’m not namedropping here, I promise, but I was having a conversation with Seth Godin about the book. I’d reached out to him and asked if he would consider an endorsement for the book, and he gracefully agreed to do that, but not without giving some feedback because that’s what’s one thing that’s so great about Seth is he’s going to give you his opinions and feedback.

And a couple of things he said to me were, “People don’t want to learn.” These were a couple of things that Seth was noting that we hadn’t really addressed yet at this point in the book-writing process. Learning requires admitting that you don’t know something, which we’re taught to avoid. And it is so easier to not learn and simply get back to work. And the other thing he said to me was, “People don’t want to change their minds.” If a book is going to help you get somewhere you can’t get to on your own, that means you’re going to have to change your mind about something. And, again, that’s something that we resist, something that we’re taught to avoid either on purpose or not.

And so, I have learned, and the sort of the way we responded to that feedback, if you want to succeed in anything, you have to grow in your ability to identify excuses or limiting beliefs in your life, you have to own them, you have to take a step outside your comfort zone. You’re not very likely to experience success of any kind, I don’t believe, if you’re not willing to do this.

And so, people who are successful tend to not make excuses and tend to do whatever it takes to go through or over or around or under whatever obstacle they face. And so, here’s the funny thing about stepping outside your comfort zone. Maybe for you that’s reading a book, or reading about something you don’t know a lot about, or reading about something that challenges you. The more often you do it, the easier it gets.

I used to be terrified at public speaking but I recognized at some point that in order to accomplish the goals I’d set out for myself, that’s a skill I was going to need to cultivate. And so, I began reading books about it, and then putting myself in positions to do that more regularly, more often at small situations at first, and worked my way up naturally. The funny thing is the more I did that, the easier it became, through practice and repetition, and the more enjoyable it got. So, I went from dreading doing that to loving doing that.

John Maxwell, who I mentioned earlier, kind of puts it this way. When it comes to not liking to read, or not thinking there’s any value in reading, or deciding you don’t need to read, I think it’s kind of like saying, “I don’t need to think.” When it comes to doing anything we don’t want to do, and something that we understand could make us better, but we’re maybe lazy, for lack of a better word, you’ve got a choice to make.

And this is what Maxwell talks about, and that’s you can choose the pain of self-discipline which comes from doing the hard thing, sacrifice, growth, or you can choose the pain of regret, which comes from taking the easy road and missing opportunities. So, there’s pain either way. There’s pain in the sacrifice and growth now or not sacrificing and growing now, and suffering with the pain of regret later. Which pain do you want? So, I want the pain of growth and sacrifice because that one does not include the pain of regret at a later time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well said. And those resistance pieces associated with not wanting to admit ignorance or change of minds, I’m thinking now about a recent book, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and he shares a story in which he’s chatting with the famed researcher Daniel Kahneman, and he said, “Danny,” I believe Adam called him. Was that like Martin Scorsese, you call him Marty when you’re…? It’s like, “Okay, they’re buds. They’re chums. Danny.”

He said that he enjoyed being wrong because that’s the only way he really knew that he had learned something. He likened it more to a surprised feeling and a pleasant sensation as oppose to a, “Oh, I’m dumb” sensation. And I thought that was very enlightening.

Jeff Brown
That’s very interesting. It kind of reminds me of the first half of my radio career versus the second half of my radio career. And the second half of my radio career, by the way, was spent at the same company. The first half was all over the place. And I was in a lot of small markets and a lot of small radio stations because, at those small markets and small radio stations, I was the big Kahuna, I was the talented guy, I was the honored king, for lack of a better word. I knew my way around more than most and was naturally talented, and liked to stay in places like that because I liked how that felt. But what that meant was I was comfortable; I was in places where I was “the smartest guy in the room.”

Now, in the second half of my career, I lucked into a position where the tables were turned. Suddenly, I was challenged every day, suddenly I was put outside of comfort zone every day, suddenly I was surrounded by people much further down the path than I was, and people that I could learn from, and that stretched me and caused me to grow, and I learned the value of hanging around in rooms where you’re not necessarily the smartest person. That’s where you can do those things like grow and stretch and be all you could be, as they say.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so I want to dig into the particulars associated with how to read more, better. But, first, I guess I want to hear what’s the process by which you discover and select your next book?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I think you’ll never go wrong if you begin with topics with people, with subjects, with places, with things that personally interest you. This has been the case for me for the better part of two decades. When I was working a regular job, that was things about my industry and about my particular place in the industry, and skills I wanted to hone.

And when I focused on reading books about those things, I was never bored. More recently, that’s been books centered around mindset, and I continue to read books about public speaking because those are the things I want to get better at, being a better public speaker. More recently, that’s been getting booked and paid to speak because that’s something I want to do more regularly, more successfully.

I’ve read many books on mindset and really understanding the value as Carol Dweck has talked about in abundance mindset versus a scarcity mindset. And I used to be the kind of person that couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I could someday earn a living on my own, even a better living than I could earn working for someone else. But I had to have that taken away from me enough times, and radios are notorious for that, for me to have a wakeup one day, and go, “Now, hold on a second. How secure is this really when it’s being taken away from me so regularly?”

And so, I read books that helped me come out of that mindset of “I will always do X when I could do Y only if I took the time to read about how to do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really great. And I guess I’m also thinking sometimes my starting point is like, “Hmm, there’s something I need or want to know, to learn, to understand, to develop, to be better at.” And then I sort of go for it and say, “Well, what’s the book on that?” I search Amazon or whatever. I’m curious, if you’ve got a topic, like let’s just say public speaking, there is a boatload of great books, and I’m thinking Give Your Speech, Change the World which leaps to mind for me from Nick Morgan, a guest on the show. But how do I go about picking from the hundreds of books which one is really worth delving into? And maybe several, but not just one, but how do you make that call?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I think the first thing you need to do is really narrow your focus. So, even something as specific and narrow-sounding as public speaking can be broken down into so many subtopics. So, I think the key is starting with, “Well, what are those subtopics?” and this can be as simple as going to Amazon and searching through their hierarchy of book categories. And they get really granular the more you dive into it.

But, early on for me, even though I don’t know I would start the process the same way now as far as this particular subtopic, but, for me, early on, I read books on presentation design. I lacked confidence standing in front of a room full of people, and I knew that if I had great-looking slides – again, I wouldn’t do this the same way now – that would take the focus off me and put it on the slides. Plus, knowing that I had great-looking slides gave me more confidence.

So, I started off reading Garr Reynolds’ PresentationZen and Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology so I started with that subtopic. And then later, that led to presentation delivery. I read a book on, later after that, the fear of public speaking and how to deal with the anxiety of it all. And after I read a few books on that, I looked at presentation structure. I’m currently reading a book on how to inject humor into your presentations, called Do You Talk Funny?

And so, that presentation reading journey for me has spanned 15-20 years, and I’ve got dozens of books over my shoulder that tackle all of those different subtopics. I just picked a subtopic that grabbed my curiosity and interest and started with books just on that subtopic. And when I felt like I had mastered that, or really gotten to grasp with that, then I went onto the next public speaking subtopic.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Okay. And then how do you think about, broadly speaking, how one goes about developing the reading habit more? So, folks read not at all or very little, and they think, “Yeah, Jeff is right. I want to do more of that.” How do you recommend folks find that groove?

Jeff Brown
Well, one of the books I read in the last couple of years is Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. There’s also Atomic Habits by James Clear, a very popular book. And I found BJ’s book to be life-altering. And this applies to just about any habit you want to create, and certainly reading is among those.

And so, I would first encourage you to find an anchor habit. Like, what’s something that goes well with reading that you already do every day? And, for me, that might be something, and maybe for you, like drinking coffee. That’s something I do every day. I prepare a cup or two of coffee without having to give it any thought. It’s just ingrained. It’s a habit that I have. Reading and coffee go together quite well.

And so, the recipe, the habit recipe, as Fogg would call it, might be, “When I sit down with my morning cup of coffee, I will…” and this is where you can’t be embarrassed to make it super tiny. That might be, “Open the book and read the first page,” or it might be, “I will open the book and read the first paragraph or the first sentence,” or, “When I sit down with my morning cup of coffee, I will open the book, and that’s it. And then I will celebrate. I will do a Tiger Woods fist pump, or a victory sign, or look in the mirror and just go, ‘Yes.’”

And what I’m doing is I’m programming my brain to think, “Oh, this is something that is good for us so let’s repeat it.” And so, the next morning, you come back and you do that thing again, and it might just be opening the book. Now, over time, you’ll get to a point where you’re like, “Oh, I’m here anyway, so why don’t I just read a little bit.”

Fogg talks about this in the context of having a struggle with flossing. He brushed his teeth like clockwork every day but he couldn’t build that habit of flossing until he decided that, “When I brush my teeth, that’s the habit recipe, I will floss one tooth, and then I will celebrate that.” And over time, again, it became, “Well, I’m here anyway, why don’t I floss two teeth?” So, start there and then beyond that, in other words, break it down, make it as simple as you possibly can, and celebrate however simple that might be, even though it might feel silly, you’re reprogramming your brain.

From there, I would begin scheduling your time to read. One of the first things I say to people who tell me they struggle with finding time to read is I ask them, “Are they scheduling?” And when I say schedule it, I mean just like any other appointment or meeting you might have. Like, this interview we’re doing right now, we scheduled this. It’s protected. Barring some tragedy, we’re going to come together and we’re going to do this.

And I think if you want to read consistently and with intention, you have to give it that level of importance. You have to schedule it. And then when someone asks for time that conflicts with your reading, you have a choice. You can acquiesce and give in to that if that meeting is deemed important enough, or you can look at your schedule and you can tell that person, “You know what, I’ve got an appointment during that time. Can we do it some other time?” And appointment with yourself is no less an appointment in my books. So, protect it to that level.

And that might just be 30 minutes a day, maybe even just 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening, or all at one time if that’s better for you. You need, in that 15 minutes, if you just read five pages, we’re talking, what’s that, three minutes a page. Even I can do that math, so ten pages a day. That’s, over the course of a month of Monday through Fridays is a 200-page book.

Most business books are about 200-250 pages. So, suddenly, you’re scheduling that, you’re reading at that pace, at that relatively slow pace, there’s nothing to sneeze at because that’s a book a month. If you’re not reading much at all, now 12 books a year is a big deal. So, again, start tiny, start small, that might be opening the book, and that’s it, or that might be reading ten pages a day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you mentioned speed so I wanted to hear that you’ve got an intriguing bit in your table of contents, and it says, “How I can double or triple my reading speed in minutes.” Jeff, how is it done?

Jeff Brown
Well, there are several techniques, and I’ll admit right out of the gate that my co-author Jesse Wisnewski is the true master when it comes to speedreading but I will say this connected to that since you asked the question. And that is a technique that we talk about called skimming which is directly sort of a cousin of speedreading. And this is something, as a person who reads for my podcast, I host a podcast called Read to Lead, so I’m reading a book a week and interviewing the author on that book.

I had somebody asked me earlier today, who’s like, “Surely, you’ve had times where you’ve read a book, you’ve scheduled an interview, you’ve read a book, and you realized, ‘This is not a book you think is all that great,’ but now you got to do the interview.” And I told them, “No, that doesn’t happen.” “Like, what do you mean that doesn’t happen?” “It’s because, before saying yes to someone and doing an interview, if I had any reservations or I just don’t know them, I don’t know their work, I want to be sure 100%, I will request the book and I will skim it.”

And here’s how that works. I’ll read the table of contents, I’ll think about, “What, in this table of contents, truly interests me?” because in nonfiction, oftentimes, we don’t have to start with chapter one. We might be able to start with chapter five. It’s about that thing we want to know more about or that really draws our interest.

Beyond that, I’ll go to that chapter or chapters and I’ll read just the headings and the subheadings from beginning of the chapter to the end of the chapter. And now I’m starting to get a real sense of, “Okay, what are we getting into here? What are the points they’re trying to make?” And then I’ll go back to the beginning of the chapter, and this might take about 15 minutes, back to the beginning of the chapter, and I read the first sentence and the last sentence of each paragraph, and that’s it.

And you can get about 80% of the meat, the main ideas and key insights from a nonfiction book when you do that. And, again, a single chapter could be done in as little as five minutes to as much as 10 or 15 minutes, and, boom, you’ve got the gist of it. And so, that often works great for me. When I’ve not said yes yet to an author but I want to, and I think I may want to, so I’ll just do that skimming in a few chapters. And if I like what I read, if I like what I’m consuming at that point, then I’ll go ahead and say, “Yes, I’d like to have you on.” Then I’ll go back to the book and actually read it more thoroughly, taking notes, etc., that sort of thing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. And so then, 80% for just a few minutes. That’s a huge return. Think about the Pareto, 80/20 rule there. Very cool. And so, any other pro tips when it comes to boosting our comprehension? Because I guess that preview will be great just in terms of another rep for your memory. But any other pro tips in terms of getting more stuck into your brain so really you retain it?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, a couple. One, I’ve been experimenting with for now a couple of years, and it’s done wonders for my retention and my comprehension. And most times, when I talk about this, people are like, “I’ve never thought of that before.”

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

Jeff Brown
But once they wrap their head around it, they’re like, “That’s a really good idea.” Most people think it’s a good idea. But with Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Habits, a couple of years ago, this is the first book I tried this with, I had the audiobook but I ordered the physical book.

And I sat down with the physical book, opened the audiobook and put it on one and a half, or 1.75 speed. As Brendon read it, I followed along and it was almost like speedreading cheating because we can comprehend far faster than we can typically read aloud or read the subvocalization that we do in our mind, which is read every word aloud in our heads, which we’re kind of taught to do as kids and we carry into adulthood, which slows down our reading.

And so, speeding up Brendon forced me to follow along at that pace. And the combination of seeing it with my eyes and hearing it with my ears, being able to comprehend at that speed, I got through the book much faster. But that simultaneous audio and reading, or seeing in front of me, just did wonders for my comprehension and retention. So, I don’t do that with every book but I do that with a lot more books than I used to.

One other thing I’ll say, sort of connected to just the whole concept of retaining and increasing comprehension and that sort of thing, is teach the material. I think it works best with physical, e-books versus, say, an audiobook, but teach the material. Look for opportunities to take what you’ve learned, this forces you to synthesize it down into its simplest form, and put it in your own words. If you’re going to teach it to someone else, you need to do that.

And so, whether that’s one-on-one, whether that’s at a meeting at work, whether that’s at a lunch-and-learn, or maybe your local chamber of commerce, put yourself in positions to teach others what you’ve been learning about. Many of the books I was reading early in my career, just because I was doing that thing that most people weren’t doing, reading, got me invitations to teach what I was learning. And so, again, just the act of doing that helped my retention and my comprehension tenfold, I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And so then, on the flipside, what are some things that we should not do? Are there any sort of bad reading habits that we should get rid of?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, I would think, or I would say rather, be very careful with your environment, be particular with your environment. When you read, you’re not going to want to have distractions, your phone. I prefer my phone either not in the room or at least turned over so that the screen is not facing up. I will, sometimes, utilize my phone by connecting it to my noise-cancelling headphones and playing an app like Focus@Will or Idagio, which is a classical music app that allows you to select classical music based upon mood, which is awesome.

But I think it’s important to be in a quiet place, have a reading chair, if at all possible. In other words, a place where you regularly read, and drown out those distractions. One of the worst things for comprehension and retention is distraction, whether that’s a mobile device, whether that’s the door of the room you’re in being opened, or what have you. So, try some of those things, whether that’s closing the door, whether that’s a regular spot, whether that’s noise-cancelling headphones and an app, to counter those things.

But distractions, whether it’s our mobile device, whether it’s an iPad, that’s why I don’t like to read on the Kindle app on a tablet because of the potential for notifications, and the same with my phone. You’re not going to have that with an e-book. But I’ve got other books on that device quietly whispering to me to come read them. And so, again, that’s why I prefer a physical book because it’s just that book. It’s the only thing in my hands right now. I’ve got that and I’ve got something to write with, and that’s all I need. And when I do that, retention and comprehension are easier to come by.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And so, I know that this is probably an impossible question, and one you’ve been asked many times but, nonetheless, I’m going to do it. Share with us, as you think about our audience and what they’re into, and how to be awesome at your job with some universal skills, what do you think are some of the top books that you think really nail it on these fronts?

Jeff Brown
Yeah, a couple that come to mind, and they’re inextricably linked, they’re connected for all time, and the first one is Multipliers, I mentioned this one I think earlier, How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman, actually, a book written with Greg McKeown who would go on to write Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. That book just turned my world upside down as to what I say yes to, what I say no to. And I think, in your job, if you’re anything like most people, you probably say yes to far more things than you wish you did.

And I think it’s important to understand, and I don’t know that Greg talks about this specifically, but what I’ve learned since then in applying what I’ve learned from Greg in Essentialism is that we tend to default to yes when people ask of our time. And if we say no, we feel like we have to defend that no to that other person when no is a complete sentence. And we should, instead, not default to yes but default to no. And if we’re going to say yes, we need to learn how to defend that yes to ourselves. And I think when we do that, we’ll have a much better handle on our time.

Now, as far as Liz’s book is concerned, Multipliers, that book, for me, epitomized what being a true leader is all about. Multiplier-type leaders are leaders who understand how to leverage the collective brain power in the room. I spent a lot of my years in early radio career in command-and-control type leaderships environments. And early on in my leadership career, that’s what I emulated because that’s what I knew.

And so, I was intimidated by a staff member who might know something, more about something than I did, or who might one day want my job. A multiplier-type leader relishes surrounding themselves with people smarter than they are, and they’re not intimidated by that. And I have found that when I’ve worked for multiplier-type leaders, that everybody wins.

When you can equip your team, to shine, and to flourish, and to grow, and to succeed, regardless whether or not you had anything directly to do with that, just creating that environment means you’re going to succeed as the leader. And, again, just leveraging the collective brain power of the room, equipping people to be the best that they can be, and just getting out of the way, just letting them do what they do, and trusting them by default.

One of my former leaders used to say, “You know, I trust you. I hired you to do the job. I’m going to trust you until you give me a reason not to.” And Stephen and Mark Covey talks about this in the Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. I think, as leaders, we need to trust our people. If they’ve given us a reason not to, that’s different. But until they do, trust them.

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

Jeff Brown
I would just say whether you’re someone who is already convinced that reading is a habit you need, and maybe you are already cultivating, or whether you’re someone who’s not yet convinced, if that’s the case, there is something in the book Read to Lead: The Simple Habit That Expands Your Influence and Boosts Your Career for you. And I encourage you to check it out. If you want to download the introduction, the first chapter for free, you can do that at ReadToLeadBook.com.

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

Jeff Brown
Yes, and it would be “We don’t take action because we believe. We believe because we take action.” And then I would punctuate that with “Do first, believe second.” This is something that Seth Godin said to me the first time I had him on my podcast. By well-meaning coaches and parents and teachers, we’re often given the advice “If you just believe in yourself enough, you’ll be able to do anything.” Mind you, that’s not necessarily bad advice, but I think the better advice is don’t worry about that. Let the belief in confidence catch up later. Just do and eventually it will.

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

Jeff Brown
I think my favorite study, and it lit a fire in me, honestly, and I don’t know if I can quote the actual name of the study. But my favorite study was when I read, not long before I started my podcast Read to Lead in 2013, it was a study about how few books people read. Most books read are one book a year, if that. I think the stat was 27% of people didn’t read at all. And I was just like, “I can’t believe that there are that many people in the US,” this was a US study, “that don’t see the value in this.” But then I had to admit, “Well, that used to be me. I used to hate reading. What can I do to change that?” And that was the impetus for starting the podcast.

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

Jeff Brown
I love my new reMarkable paper tablet I got a couple of months ago. So, this does just one or two things very, very well. You can read PDFs on it, you can read epubBooks on it, but it’s mostly a writing tool. And I’ve taken all my notebooks and I’ve gotten rid of all the paper, and all my notes from reading and my daily planning, my planner, is all on my reMarkable 2 tablet, and I absolutely love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, that people quote it back to you often?

Jeff Brown
It’s just my mantra, my belief, and that is I believe that intentional and consistent reading is key to success in business and in life. Put more bluntly, if you want to achieve true success in business and in life, then intentional and consistent reading is a must in my book.

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

Jeff Brown
Primarily, LeadToReadBook.com. Secondarily, ReadToLeadPodcast.com.

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

Jeff Brown
Yeah, and I hinted at this earlier. Just start. There’s something that you want to do that scares you. Do something, at least one thing, every day that scares you. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt that first said that. Bronnie Ware in The Five Regrets of the Dying talks about the number one regret of people, being they lived a life that everybody else wanted them to live instead of living a life true to themselves.

And I think that’s the case for a lot of us. We get to the end of our lives with regret not for things we did we wished we hadn’t done, but for things we never tried that we wished we did attempt at. Don’t wait another day. It would’ve been better to start 10 years ago, sure, but you still have the second-best time available to you, and that’s right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jeff, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of fun and enjoyment and enrichment in all your reading.

Jeff Brown
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it, being here. It was a lot of fun.

665: How to Make Lasting Change – According to Science – with Katy Milkman

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Behavioral scientist and Wharton professor Katy Milkman reveals how behavioral science can help you make changes that stick.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top obstacles of change–and how to overcome them 
  2. How to overcome your impulsivity 
  3. How you can make your laziness work for you 

 

About Katy

Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, host of Charles Schwab’s popular behavioral economics podcast Choiceology, and the former president of the international Society for Judgment and Decision Making.  Over the course of her career, she has worked with or advised dozens of organizations on how to spur positive change, including Google, the U.S. Department of Defense, and Walmart. 

An award-winning scholar and teacher, Katy writes frequently about behavioral science for major media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her book How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You are to Where You Want to Be came out two days ago! She earned her undergraduate degree from Princeton University (summa cum laude), and her PhD from Harvard University where she studied Computer Science and Business. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Katy Milkman Interview Transcript

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

Katy Milkman
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to learn how to change once and for all. You’ve literally written the book on this and I can’t wait to hear your insights.

Katy Milkman
Well, I’m excited to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, maybe to kick it off, could you share maybe what’s maybe one of the most surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about us humans doing behavior change while researching the book How to Change?

Katy Milkman
That’s a great question. I love starting with that question. Probably it’d be a study I ran at Google that had the most counterintuitive finding to me. And it was a study where, actually, my collaborators and I were trying to figure out if we could create more durable habits around exercise in people if we got them to build really consistent routines, which is what our read of the habit literature suggested makes habits sticky, like, “Always at the same time of day, I’m really, really grounded in that routine and now it becomes like second nature to me.”

And if we could build that, we thought, then we sort of let go and we’d see these lasting habits. So, we ran this experiment with Google employees where we basically, for a month, gave them rewards for either visiting the gym at the same time of a day, a consistent time that they’d said was ideal for them, or for any time, whatever they wanted. So, about half of their visits ended up being at a consistent time but the other half were all over the place.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, one group was rewarded only when they went during the time they said and the other was rewarded regardless?

Katy Milkman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Katy Milkman
We actually varied the size of the incentives so we got variance in how often people went, and we basically ended up with two groups who went the same frequency but in different patterns. One is going very consistently, the other is more variable when they go. And then the question was, “What happens at the end of this month?” And we were sure, we knew, it was going to be the people who had that consistent routine, and we were wrong.

And what we found out is that the reason we were wrong is not that we had our model completely messed up, it was true that the people who had been really consistent in their exercise who would basically train to be automatons, the same time, same time each day. Those people actually were a little more likely to keep going at that same time, but if they didn’t make it to the gym at that time, they didn’t go at all.

And the folks who had built a more flexible habit ended up with a more durable habit because they went a little less often at that magic time, it was the best time each day for them, but they went at other times too, and at that they went more. And that was really surprising to us that, it turns out, and I write about this in the book, I call it the power of elastic habits. I really expected, from everything I’d read, that those consistent cues would be critical to durable habit formation but what we found instead was that it bred rigidity, and that if you’re going to get something done, you need to be flexible, and just say, “I’m going to do it no matter what,” not, “I’m going to only do it under this narrow set of circumstances.”

So, I think that’s really interesting and it was a really important takeaway and counterintuitive to me. Although, now it makes sense, in hindsight I can see why that’s important but it’s not what I expected. And we surveyed professors of psychology in all the top universities, and 80% of them also were surprised. They predicted strongly, “Oh, yeah, that consistency, that’s what we know about habits. Consistency breeds habit,” and it’s just not what we found.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Wow, that’s striking. And so, well, there’s one gem right there, so thank you.

Katy Milkman
You’re welcome. That’s a great opening question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s zoom out a little bit in terms of, okay, your book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Can you lay it on us sort of the big idea or key theme or thesis associated with this work?

Katy Milkman
Yeah, absolutely. So, the key idea behind this book is that there’s a lot, of course, of great books and a lot of great knowledge out there about how to change and, yet, it’s not getting us where we want to be for the most part. People are still looking for these kinds of books, still trying to figure it out, a lot of us aren’t where we want to be. And one of the things I have found in my career, devoted to studying this topic of where change comes from, is that I think part of the problem is we often don’t focus on what is actually obstructing change for a given individual, for a given challenge or a given goal they’re trying to achieve, and tailor the solution to that obstacle.

We sort of grab one of those big ideas off the shelf that sounds sexy and appealing, like, “Set big audacious goals and then break them down,” or, “Build a really tiny habit and piggyback.” Like, there’s all these ideas that are out that are appealing but they won’t work if they’re not solving for what’s holding you back.

So, that’s kind of the big idea behind the book. There’s all these different things that can be barriers to change, whether it’s, “I don’t enjoy doing the thing that I need to do to change,” or, “I keep forgetting to do the thing and flaking out because I’m too busy and it’s just, I can’t prioritize it,” or, “I’m having trouble getting started,” or, “I don’t have the confidence to change. I don’t believe I really can and that’s holding me back,” or, “My peer group is not showing me the ways to do it and is a bad influence.”

Like, what is the challenge and the solution then will be different. And we can make more progress if we actually diagnose what’s standing in the way, and then use the best science to solve that specific problem. And I see this all the time in my work with companies, that they have some behavior, “We want get people to save more for retirement,” or to get their flu shots, or to be more productive. Like, let’s just grab from this bag of tricks from behavioral science and we think we’ll be able to slap a solution on it, but if there isn’t an understanding of, “Well, why aren’t people saving? Why aren’t they productive? What’s holding them back?” that is matched to the solution, we don’t get very far.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s resonating a whole lot. I’m getting chills in terms of like there’s much truth here.

Katy Milkman
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in a way, it seems like self-evident, “Well, of course, you should figure out what’s the challenge and address it.”

Katy Milkman
It does seem self-evident.

Pete Mockaitis
And, yet, we don’t.

Katy Milkman
It’s astounding how often we don’t, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you lay it down, lay it on us then, what’s maybe the menu of categories of obstacles and the best practices for deconstructing or addressing those obstacles? And then, maybe even before we go there, how do we go about identifying it and zooming in on it very well? Because, for example, when you say, “Why don’t people save?” like, “Well, I just don’t have enough money. I don’t have any spare money to save. I guess we’re done.” And so, it’s like, “Well, no, not quite. I think we got to dig deeper.” So, yeah, let’s start there. How do I identify, like, what’s the crux of the obstacle here?

Katy Milkman
I think the answer is probably most people will recognize themselves and a specific problem when they see these different discussions.

So, for example, I mentioned it’s not fun. That’s a really common one. I don’t know if that’s not a super common one for retirement savings. Most of us aren’t like, “I want it to be fun to save. And I find it dreadful and dreadfully unpleasant in the moment to do it.” That’s more like exercising or eating right or really focusing at work instead of scrolling social media. But that’s a category of obstacle.

Another category of obstacle is, “I don’t see how I can do this. This doesn’t seem doable.” I think that’s a big one, and retirement savings is actually is like, “Wow, it doesn’t feel feasible.” And that can come down to confidence, it can come down to what you’ve seen other people like you accomplish, and how, if you’ve learned their techniques and skills for doing it.

Another category can be, as I mentioned before, just flaking out, like, “There’s just a lot going on and I can’t get this to the top of the list, and I keep spacing it when it’s time to actually setup the 401(k).” So, it depends on which one you see yourself in, and I think it’s not like a category of problem, it’s always the same answer for different people. For some people, savings is also about procrastination, like, “I mean to do it but tomorrow I’ll get around to do it,” and then tomorrow never becomes today.

So, I think the goal of the book is that the reader will be able to see themselves as they see the classes of challenges and see what the solutions are. And there really are some experimentation individuals have to do, like, “Oh, I thought this was right solution for me. I tried it. Oops, I had diagnosed my barrier wrong. Really, that wasn’t what was holding me back. It wasn’t that I wasn’t going to the gym because I thought it was incredibly unpleasant. It was that I just hadn’t made the time to do it with the right people and I didn’t have the right social network and the right structures.”

So, there’s different problems for different people even for the same outcome, there are some commonalities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like one way that you diagnose kind of like the core obstacle is you try something and you realize, “Hey, it turns out that wasn’t it at all. Okay.”

Katy Milkman
That’s one way. Hopefully, I think that will be one way. I also think another way will be looking, for the book and even for this conversation, and seeing yourself in the challenge. So, I do think people will be able to self-diagnose if they just give a little thought. I think normally that’s not the prompt we get. Instead, we get a solution, like, “Here’s your solution. This is going to work for you because it works for lots of other people,” instead of some thought about, “Why is it that I can’t motivate myself to do X.” And often, introspection is going to be enough. We’re not that hard to understand when we look internally in a lot of cases.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s say that if I am thinking about, “Hey, what’s my obstacle?” and then what I come up with is something lame, like, “No, I just don’t have enough time”? Like, what does that really mean and how do we get deeper?

Katy Milkman
Yeah. Well, “I don’t have enough time” isn’t the kind of obstacle that the book is about because that’s not an internal obstacle. So, the book is really about how are you holding yourself back. “I don’t have enough time” is an external obstacle, like the way you structure your life needs to change. And I think you’d get some ideas about that once you’ve read the book about, “Oh, okay, does that mean you really don’t have enough time or do you just need to restructure yourself and your life differently?”

But the book is more about, so, if you’re like, “I don’t have the resources,” that’s a different kind of challenge than, “I can’t get myself to and I need to find a way to get myself to do something differently.” Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I hear you. And I guess maybe you’re kinder than I am to our imaginary interlocutor here. I guess when I hear “I don’t have enough time” I guess I just don’t buy it as my default.

Katy Milkman
Oh, yeah. And it can also be like, “I don’t have a priority to do this.” So, the book is not to convince you that you need to change. The book is for someone who has a goal, they want to achieve it, they haven’t been able to get there, or maybe they haven’t tried yet, they’re ready to try, and it’s going to offer the best science has for them about how they can set themselves up for success.

It doesn’t guarantee success by any stretch changes really, really hard but, hopefully, I think my career has been devoted to understanding what is the best knowledge out there, what’s the best science out there on how we can change, and I’ve tried to put it all in one place so that, for someone who’s motivated and ready to give it a shot, it’ll give them the best chance available.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. And I think that precondition right there says it all in terms of, like, if you’re really motivated, “I don’t have enough time” is probably not going to be what you say is your obstacle because, by definition, you think it’s important enough to make some time, and it might just be tricky to actually figure that out in a calendar, like, “No, for real, where do these 30 minutes actually emerge from?”

Katy Milkman
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
So, maybe can you lay it on us, perhaps like the top three obstacles and some of your favorite solutions to those obstacles?

Katy Milkman
Sure. Okay, I can give you one that I love because I’ll probably pick on ones where I have done the most research personally which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the most important ones but they’re the ones I find most interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Katy Milkman
So, one of them is impulsivity, and I’ve touched on this a little bit already and things I’ve said, which is like people are wired to look for instant gratification and to dramatically discount things that are good for us in the long run, which is why it’s so hard to drag yourself to the gym and eat that healthy food when there’s a pizza right next to it or a brownie calling your name, stay off social media, study for a test when there’s more exciting options that, even though you know clearly what’s good for you in the long run, is just not fun to do in the moment.

And I think one of the really interesting things research has shown is that people, generally, when they face a challenge like this to motivate themselves to do something that’s not that enjoyable in the moment but that’s good for them in the long run, our inclination is to just try to push through and look for the most effective way to achieve our goal.

So, if we’re, I’m going to go back to the gym, but there’s lots of places you can think about this, if you’re choosing to work out at the gym, most people are like, “I’m going to do the most effective workout on this first trip to the gym,” as opposed to an alternative, which would be, “I’m going to do the most fun thing I can do. I’m going to do the Zumba class. It’s not going to burn as many calories per minute maybe but I’m going to enjoy it.”

Same thing with healthy foods. We look for the basket of foods that’s most sinless as opposed to a healthy food that we actually enjoy eating. Or, you need to study and do work, like do you try to set up an environment where you’re really going to actually enjoy it? Maybe there are some people around that you’re studying with, or you’re in a coffee shop that you like, and you get yourself your favorite drink and you feel great. Or, are you just going to try to do it in distraction-free environment because that’s the most effective?

So, most of us think effective, and what research shows is we’re actually better off trying to do the fun workout, eat the tastier, healthy food even if it’s a little worse for us, and study in a way that’s a little less effective but more fun if we want to persist because we’re so wired for that instant gratification. We won’t push through, we think we will, but we won’t, if it’s not fun.

So, I think that’s a really important insight and it actually is really related to some work I did early on in my faculty career on something that’s a very specific solution to this. I call it temptation bundling. And the idea is only allowing yourself to enjoy some indulgence that you look forward to but maybe you shouldn’t indulge in too much, some guilty pleasure, while simultaneously doing something that’s good for you and productive so that now you start to crave.

Maybe it’s trips to the gym to binge-watch your favorite TV show, or trips to the library because you’re always going to pick up your favorite Starbucks Frappuccino en route, or folding the laundry or home-cooked meals because you’re listening to your favorite podcast at the same time. So, if you can temptation bundle, suddenly, this thing that was a chore, actually becomes something you look forward to.

And I’ve studied this and show that it can help people exercise more, and found in my own life, of course, that it also is very effective for solving all sorts of dual self-control challenges. So, in general, a principle is, make it fun, and then temptation bundling is one tool to do that, and the obstacle is when something isn’t instantly gratifying, and because of impulsivity, therefore, you aren’t making progress on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love it. And that just seems like a game-changing insight distinction right there. Because of our impulsivity, don’t go guns blazing for the most effective path, but rather the most enjoyable path if what you want is consistency and persistence, like, that’s huge. Thank you.

Katy Milkman
That’s beautiful, yeah. And I only gave you one, you asked for three. I was like, “I have to breathe in here.”

Pete Mockaitis
You’re allowed to breathe. Your temptation for breathing can be bundled to more insight, Katy.

Katy Milkman
I will breathe while giving insight, okay. A second one that I like, is actually, I’ll call it the getting-started problem. And that is even though we want to do something, or motivated to do it, like finding the moment where you’re like, “Okay, and now I’m going to take action. I’m going to do something. I’m going to do something about it. This is the moment action is beginning.” It’s hard to get over that hump from visualizing it to doing it.

And I had this really interesting conversation with one of the HR leaders at Google about a decade ago when I was visiting and presenting. It’s actually as a precursor to doing the gym study I mentioned earlier on habits, I was telling them about some of my other work on nudging better decisions, helping people through use of behavioral science, make better choices at work about everything from enrolment in 401(k) plans to getting flu shots, you name it.

And this question was, “Okay, Katy, totally sold. We should be using behavioral science to encourage more productivity at work, more use of health and wellness programs, more retirement savings. But is there some optimal time to encourage that change? Is there some moment when people are particularly likely to hop on the bandwagon if we offer up tools that will help?” And I thought that was such a fascinating question and I didn’t know of any research that really addressed it so it ended up guiding my work for the next several years.

And what I immediately thought of, which came to mind, for you, too, when I posed that question was New Year’s. We all know that at the beginning of a new year there’s like this huge boost in people’s enthusiasm for starting resolutions. Forty percent of Americans set some sort of resolution. Many of them fail but they at least give it a shot which is more than we can say for many other times of the year. And I wondered, and my collaborators and I wondered, too, like, “Is there something bigger going on there? Is it just New Year’s or are there moments like that? And why New Year’s?”

And what we realized is, of course, there’s this like, it’s a social construct now, there’s norms around it, but part of it, what’s going on, is that at these moments, like New Year’s, that feel like a breaking point in life, we step back and think bigger picture, and we also feel some sort of dissociation from our past failures, because, “Oh, like, that was the old me last year, and the new me has a clean slate and I’m going to be able to do the things that were tough before and that seemed insurmountable.”

So, that sense of a clean slate and identity shift, boosted optimism, the tendency to step back, actually arises at a lot of moments in our lives that basically serve as chapter breaks in the way we structure our narrative. So, there are small ones like the start of a new week. There are big ones, celebrating a birthday, moving to a new job or a new city, becoming a parent. All of these moments turn out to make us feel like we have a clean slate and a new beginning, and people are more likely to do things like create goals on goal-setting websites, search for the term “diet” on Google, go to the gym, at these moments, and so I think that’s really interesting.

So, my team has studied specifically temporal landmarks, so moments that actually don’t involve a change in our lives but there’s also research that’s shown when you move to a new place, you move to a new job, those moments are productive times for change because, literally, you have a clean slate. You don’t have old bad habits to fall back on and you have an opportunity to build and structure new routines and not walk by the Dunkin Donuts on the way to work on this new commute.

And so, whatever it is that has been tripping you up, you have that clean slate in addition to the psychological clean slate. So, in that sense, I think the obstacle there is, “How do you find the motivation to get started?” And our research points to looking for these moments that have fresh-start resonance as jumping off points, and also nudging other people to notice them.

So, we found, for instance, if you just mark your calendar with the first day of spring on it and give you an option, like, “When might you want to start getting reminders from us to pursue a goal you’ve been meaning to get around to?” and March 20th is labeled first day of spring. Now, it triples your excitement about getting reminders to start your new goal in that day than if we gave you a calendar without labeling March 20th the first day of spring.

So, we can do, and we ran a study where we invited people, thousands of people who weren’t saving adequately for retirement, to sign up for our retirement program at their employer to start setting aside a portion of their paychecks in retirement savings. And everybody got an identical offering, you could start saving right away or you could delay a few months. But some people that delay, we labeled, and it corresponded either to a birthday or to the start of spring, and we said, “Do you want to start saving after your next birthday? Do you want to start saving at the start of spring?”

So, we’re literally making an apples-to-apples comparison because everybody is getting that same offering but some people don’t have it labeled for them as their birthday. It just says in three months. And we see a 30% increase in savings over the next eight months when we’ve invited people to start saving after those fresh start dates.

Pete Mockaitis
I was just going to ask, Katy, so not only do we have more enthusiasm to start but the proof is in the pudding. They actually do it afterwards.

Katy Milkman
Well, I do think a really important note is that, in that case, we set ourselves up for success because it’s an auto…it’s like a self-fulfilling thing.

Pete Mockaitis
You flip the switch once to do it, yeah.

Katy Milkman
Yes, and those are the best things to do at fresh-start moments because the motivation wanes and that’s why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. So, it only solves one problem, which is getting started, and the rest of my book talks about how you solve all the other problems so you stick to it and actually get somewhere with your goals. But if you can put it on autopilot, how about if that’s my third answer, but it’s not a super original and it is a super powerful one.

Anything we can put as a default so that it is just self-perpetuating, that’s a huge win because an obstacle to change is laziness, but you can turn it on its head and make it into a solution if you set defaults, like in that moment of motivation, you sign up for the retirement savings plan on January 1st, and now it’s going to just kick in. You’d have to actually lift a finger to change it and, goodness knows, you’re never going to. Or, cancel all of your subscriptions that you don’t really need, one day a year, when you’re feeling motivated after your birthday. Those are the kinds of things that can sort of be gifts that keep on giving. Or, signing up for an educational program or subscription of some sort that’s really valuable. Those also can carry you forward and sort of have like riptide-like effects.

So, if you can use that moment, when you’re feeling motivated to do something and lock in a change that will continue, that’s really valuable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool. So, let laziness work for us if you can somehow shift it such that the default of doing nothing benefits you, then that’s awesome.

Katy Milkman
Exactly, which is what happens when you sign up for a savings program once, that just keeps going. Or, when you enroll in school, I mean, you still have to show up, but you’re going. It’s hard to get out. Like, the path of least resistance is to go for the thing that you’ve put a down payment on.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, Katy, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Katy Milkman
No, this has been so…you’ve asked such good questions. I feel like I’ve been giving you really long and detailed answers, like highlights of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love them.

Katy Milkman
So, I’m excited. Thank you for the great questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, maybe I’ll give one more. What should we not do? And maybe something counterintuitive, like, “Hey, I’ve heard I should do this, but maybe I shouldn’t.”

Katy Milkman
I’m not a big fan of setting like really big audacious goals, like that model, and just assuming that will carry you forward, because without actually getting into the nitty-gritty structures, like I do think people try to think about a north star huge objective and that having that could be really valuable, and I think it can be distracting, it could be overwhelming. There’s also research showing that if you make too many, set too many goals, and then plan for each of them, that’s really demotivating because you can’t do it all and you sort of throw up your hands and give up.

So, I think sort of too big and distant and dreamy and not broken down is bad, and too many objectives that you do break down and plan for is bad. Like, focusing on one thing at a time, that’s a little bit of a stretch but it’s doable and you can plan for it, and then you can use these tactics to help you is the right way forward.

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

Katy Milkman
Is it “Well done is better than well said”? Is that Ben Franklin, I believe? I like that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. And how about a favorite book?

Katy Milkman
My favorite book is Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, and that actually has a new edition coming out later this year which I’m really excited for. Though, I’ll also say, my second favorite book, and it’s really close, is Influence by Bob Cialdini. I know you’re a big fan too.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Katy Milkman
I assign both of those books, by the way, to all of my MBA students at Wharton. I love them and read them every year, and they’re just classics and truly wonderful and have changed the way I think about the world.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit for you?

Katy Milkman
That’s interesting. I wouldn’t call it a habit. Can I say a favorite behavior?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Katy Milkman
Because habits have this very narrow definition in academia where we’re like it’s on autopilot. Okay, so like a favorite behavior or this thing I do, which is I choose to work with people I really, really admire and enjoy spending time with so that work for me is a treat intellectually but also socially. And I feel really lucky to have the privilege of being able to choose who I collaborate with. And so, that has made my career tremendously fun, and I think it’s part of what’s helped me be productive and successful in my career as well.

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

Katy Milkman
My website which is KatyMilkman.com. It has all sorts of information about my book How to Change, about my podcast Choiceology, I have a newsletter called Milkman Delivers, which is a name that I was shying away from but my MBA insisted I had to go with, and about my research.

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

Katy Milkman
I would say one of the biggest takeaways from all of my research on behavior changes that, and we sort of started here, it’s super important to expect that there will be things that don’t work out, that if you are too rigid in your expectations of yourself, if you set up habits that are too rigid, if you set up goals that are too rigid, and let yourself be discouraged when things don’t work out according to plan, and don’t push through, you just won’t get very far.

And in change, anticipating setbacks and being prepared for them, having a backup plan, is just absolutely critical. Even in habits, we found that it was critical to be flexible and build flexible habits. So, it’s “I’ll always…” not “If only…” kind of habit. And I think that’s critical to everything. It comes up again and again in my research, how important it is to find ways to get back up after you’ve fallen down, and to be expecting that that could happen and planning for it.

So, my words of wisdom would be don’t let yourself be discouraged too easily, expect that there’s always setbacks. But on the path forward, it’s, hopefully, two steps forward and one step back, and just be prepared for that and set yourself up for success when you hit those roadblocks.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Katy, this has been a pleasure. Thank you. I wish you lots of luck with the book and all the ways you’re changing.

Katy Milkman
Thank you. So lovely to chat. Thanks for having me on the show.

644: How to Sharpen Your Skills for Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet with Michelle Weise

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Michelle Weise sheds light on the learning challenges professionals will face in the near future—and how we can prepare for them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to surface your hidden skills
  2. How to keep AI from making you irrelevant
  3. Nifty tools for upskilling quickly

About Michelle

Michelle Weise was just named to the Thinkers50 thinkers to watch in 2021. She is senior advisor to Imaginable Futures, a venture of The Omidyar Group, and BrightHive, a data collaboration platform. 

She is former chief innovation officer of Strada Education Network and Southern New Hampshire University. She led the higher education practice at Clay Christensen’s Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Her most recent book is LONG LIFE LEARNING: Preparing for Jobs that Don’t Even Exist Yet (Wiley, 2020). Her first book, with Clay Christensen (2014) is Hire Education: Mastery, Modularization, and the Workforce Revolution.

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you, sponsors!

  • MunkPack. Save 20% on delicious, keto-friendly snacks at Munkpack.com with the promo code AWESOME.

Michelle Weise Interview Transcript

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

Michelle Weise
Great to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, as I was reading all about you, one thing that I found, I guess, touching or moving or wanting to touch up on for a moment was we’ve spoken with some people who have worked and written books with Stephen R. Covey, and it was just sort of beautiful to hear some memories of that great man and teacher who’ve lived on, and, likewise, I wanted to hear a bit from you, to start us off, about working with Clayton Christensen. What’s something folks should know about him and who he was when you were collaborating with him?

Michelle Weise
He was one of the most generous people. He would always kind of make you feel like you were the most important person talking to him at that moment. And, it’s funny, I had a lot of folks who would see him speak at large events and they could sense his sort of folksy tone from him and his kindness, and he would say these beautiful things, and people would turn to me and say, “Is he really that nice? Is this for show?” and it really wasn’t.

He was sort of rooted in that way. He was driven by a really intense faith. He was a Mormon. At his funeral, it was kind of amazing to hear the incredible amount of service he did on the sidelines. And that just sort of…that feeling of just kindness and generosity that was emanating from him, I think it just showed through every action.

And, for me, it was life-changing to work with him directly and to write with him and to learn from him, and to go very deep into the theories of disruptive innovation and sort of see where he would get frustrated with kind of the misuse of his theories. And everything I learned about storytelling, I learned from him.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And so, oh, yeah, we’re going to be doing a little bit of storytelling, I suppose, here about your insights associated with long life learning. I keep almost saying life-long learning every time, it probably happens to you a lot with your collaborators here. So, well, hey, let’s go meta for a second. Michelle, tell me, how can we tell this story most effectively?

Michelle Weise
Yes, so the reason why we’re getting tripped up on long life learning is we’re so much more familiar with this concept of life-long learning that we should be constantly learning how to learn throughout our lives. What I tried to do in this book was to move us into action. I was just noticing a lot of inertia around this concept because we know we need to reskill throughout our longer more turbulent work lives. But where is the actual infrastructure to sort of take these on and off ramps, in and out of learning and work, or do both at the same time and not have it feel so painful?

And so, for me, this mental shift comes through this concept of a longer life. If we extend our life spans, which we know since 1840, we’ve tacking on three months of life to every single year since 1840, so our life spans are just definitely extending but so are our work lives. When you look at early Baby Boomers and how long they’re staying in the workforce and how many job changes they go through by the time they retire, it just helps us kind of snap us into attention, and to say, “We have to start building a better functioning ecosystem in which we can access the education and training we need in order to thrive in the labor market.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that thesis seems to just make sense as a natural implication of living longer and such. So, could you maybe share with us something that’s surprising or counterintuitive as a discovery that you’ve made along the way as you’re putting this together?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, I have been doing a lot of research on the future or work, and what I noticed in a lot of the literature and the analyses out there by chief economists as they’re trying to sort of forecast all the different kinds of ways in which jobs are going to become obsolete or this industry will become decimated by these technologies, what I realized was this kind of intense focus on the “it”, or the things or the jobs, or the tasks and numbers.

And so, what I realized is if we actually kind of move away from thinking about the future of work to the future of workers, and all of us having to somehow kind of move through this learn-earn, learn-earn cycle, to me it kind of helped surface some of the most intractable issues and barriers that we need to solve for today.

So, what my book does is it really actually elevates the voices of people who only have a high school degree, who are constantly being overlooked for work they could actually perform, and noticing where the barriers kind of coalesce. So, these concepts that I come up with around better career navigation, or better wrap-around support services, or more targeted educational pathways, or more integrated learning and earning, and more fair and transparent skills-based hiring practices, those aren’t just coming from me thinking what we need to do. It’s really kind of trying to gather all this qualitative data.

We did over a hundred hour-long in-depth interviews with folks to sort of sass out, “Where do people keep kind of bumping up against pain points?” And if we designed this future system better, then all of us are going to actually end up benefiting. It’s the same idea of the curve cuts that we did when we kind of created the Americans With Disabilities Act.

When you’re cutting into the curve and you’re making a sloping curve, you’re not only helping folks who are disabled who need to use a wheelchair, but you’re helping mothers pushing strollers, or FedEx delivery folks with their dolleys, you’re helping runners, cyclists, skateboarders. It’s this idea of universal design. But when we want to target our focus, because it just seems like this huge, expansive challenge, we focus on the people, the future of workers.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. Well, so then, as we got a lot of workers listening right now, can you sort of frame things up for us a little bit in terms of…? So, you make a point that the old model of, hey, there’s education, then there’s work, then there’s retirement isn’t what we should be relying upon going forward. Can you expand upon that?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, just the notion that we could have one or a handful of jobs and retire in comfort, that’s already become sort of a quaint notion. And when you look at the amount of job changes that people are experiencing by the time they retire, folks are already going through, on average, 12 job changes by the time they retire.

And so, as we think about that longer more turbulent work life that is shaped by rapid advancements in technology, we can only extrapolate from there, “Wow, we may have to somehow entertain 20 or 30 job changes by the time we retire. And so, how in the world are we going to navigate that when one is just so difficult to navigate?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, lay it on us, how should we navigate these optimally?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, I think the perfect illustration of what’s not working today is when we look at what the pandemic has shown us, which is when retail and hospitality were just completely decimated as industries, we had no way for people who were in those customer service roles or those frontline worker roles to actually transfer their skills from retail or from hospitality into something totally different but to identify their kind of transferable skills.

And I think, all of us, we believe that we have really important kinds of skills. Those transferable skills that can help us port our assets from one specific area to another. But, in general, when you think about the job market, we think about it in such a linear format. We kind of, if we start off in retail, or if we start off in office admin, when we think about advancement, we think within that line of work. It’s harder for us to sort of think about moving beyond that industry that we started in.

And the reason why we feel that way is because that’s what employers tell us, right? The employers want to see exact work experience in hospitality to move you up to a manager role. We don’t have ways of validating other kinds of experiences. So, one of the key solutions for us that are exciting for us to anticipate, and we already see these different kinds of AI-powered platforms.

What they’re doing is they’re helping us surface maybe some of our hidden skills. The skills that aren’t necessarily recognized by a formal credential, like a degree or a certificate or a certification. And what they’re doing is, as we’re typing in, I used to be a barista, that signal of the barista helps the platform actually surface, “Oh, did you know that folks who were baristas they have these specific competencies and skills.”

So, there are ways in which these platforms can not only help us surface our own skills but then help us envision pathways where we might actually be 75% of the way there towards something in human resources, or 85% of the way there towards something in advertising and marketing. We just didn’t know it; we couldn’t envision it for ourselves.

So, these kinds of tech-enabled platforms are interesting kinds of seeds of innovation to look at that might help us not only kind of validate our own skills whether we’ve acquired them through taking care of our own families or through work experience, and also understand the kinds of gaps we might have to fill in order to move into these other opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really interesting when you mentioned that if you’re a barista, you can very well have under the surface like all of these skills that you’re applying there. And that reminds me of a previous guest we had, Todd Rose, talking about dark horses and how what might seem like completely different skills are actually, if you zoom way in, super similar in terms of, “Oh, actually, well, you’re using your hands to shape these things into other things so that they fit. Those are similar.” Much like, “Oh, you are optimizing a manufacturing production schedule is sort of like solving a puzzle over in the realm of math or physics or something that, who would’ve known, those are quite common or quite complementary.”

Michelle Weise
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, these platforms you speak of, how do we get our hands on one? So, can I go to some website right now and it’s going to tell me all my hidden skills?

Michelle Weise
So, that’s one of the challenges. There is like a free one off of Emsi called Skills Match where you can start to surface and kind of build a resume using these technologies. But this is one of the challenges and this is what I’m trying to point out in my book is that there are hundreds of thousands of innovations and solutions out there. The problem is for any normal person to understand where to go, like if we’re suddenly laid off, we don’t know who to call, where to go, who to talk to.

There are so many of these solutions out there but they’re not knit together in a way that’s easily understandable and navigable for any person. It’s not that we need a whole slew of new innovations. We need these things to become just more accessible so we can understand and comprehend how to navigate this who to go to for, “How do I know that when I pick this learning experience, a future employer is going to validate it and understand what it means? And how do I know precisely which skills I need to acquire? And which school actually offers those three competencies? I don’t need a degree, maybe. Maybe I already have a degree. I don’t want to go back to school full time. How do I get just what I need in order to move on?” And that’s one of the challenges.

But there’s a bunch of these groups, like Skyhigh, FutureFit. And what they’re doing right now is they’re more B2B, they’re more working with enterprises and trying to help them get a better understanding of who’s in their workforce. Because a lot of companies, and it’s very odd to think about it this way, but most companies don’t actually know what their people can do.

They know job titles, they know names. They don’t have a real granular sense of the skillsets, the competencies, all those hidden talents that folks have. So, that’s where these innovations are starting is trying to help employers be less wasteful, not always recruit externally, but look at the talent that they have right in front of them, and think, “Maybe I could actually take 30% of these folks and build their skills in X, Y, or Z technique or strategic goals for the future.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s exciting, and, indeed, it just seems like a huge opportunity that’s just waiting to be plucked. A great manager would know a lot of what their team is capable of. Yet, how is that information captured, collected, and transmitted elsewhere? And one of the incentives for doing so, you’re like, “No, Michelle is a rock star. She’s working for me. Get your hands off. I don’t want you to snag and do a completely different function.”

Michelle Weise
That is a real challenge within the companies. Yeah, this kind of like zero-sum game of, “Oh, if you take my person, you’re hurting me versus helping the company.” It’s hard to get out of that mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally, unless you have sort of a widespread culture and reciprocity and such so that you say, “Hey, you know what, there’s give and take, I might lose Michelle for a couple months, but I’m going to get Phil who’s amazing and fills another role that we really need,” so there’s that trust there that can be handy.

Well, now, you just got me dreaming big, Michelle. I remember I once, I don’t know if I’m going to do this or not, but I hope someone is doing this. But when you talked about the high school folks who did not have diplomas and yet are capable of doing so much but it’s hard for them to sort of prove that. I kind of imagine just like forming this whole business where we just sort of like assess the crap out of people in terms of like all of these batteries of things because I come from strategy consulting and we did case interviews, and I found that that was a pretty excellent means of identifying if some folks have a particular set of skills. And so, that’s one kind of a test for one set of skills.

Likewise, there’s many tests for many other skills. Wouldn’t it be cool if folks could go to some sort of facility for a week or something and get a rundown on all their skills in a language that firms could read and understand, and then open up opportunity for people as well as savings for the companies? It seems like someone should have invented that. Maybe it needs to be me or maybe that’s in the works. But, Michelle, give us your take on to what extent does that exists, a means of identifying and appreciating hidden skills so that companies can save money and not have to hire the Harvard grad, and professionals who don’t have the degree can see some cool opportunities?

Michelle Weise
Yeah. So, what you’re identifying when you’re talking about seeing how someone responds to a case study is you’re testing their problem-solving capabilities, you’re trying to see, “What kind of systems-thinking, critical-thinking capabilities do they have?” I was just talking to a colleague who used to work at Arthur Andersen and they had this very open-question format where they would do the same things where they’d be trying to assess out someone’s sense of initiative and collaboration and these more fuzzy things, but trying to see how they talk about this in the context of solving a problem.

The good news is that there are these innovators who are working on new kinds of ways of assessing curiosity, problem-solving, all these really important kinds of skills that we know are going to be deeply valuable in the future of work. Because as we think about the rapid advancements of AI and how intelligent these AI are, where it’s not only able to read, drive, see, but it’s also able to write poetry, it can paint Picassos. It’s getting scary how far these technologies are sort of infiltrating our lives. What is our human advantage? What is our competitive advantage when we compare ourselves to these machines who can usually do some of this work far more flawlessly than we can? And it comes in these human skills.

So, places Imbellis and Mursion and all these different groups are trying to figure out ways to test out someone’s problem-solving capabilities where you’re on a computer and you’re thrust into this setting where you’re in this natural environment in the mountains and something is dead in front of you, and you need to kind of poke it and look at it, sort of see what is going on, and you’re trying to figure out what happened.

And so, on the backend you have psychometricians kind of figuring out what all those clicks mean, what are you doing when you’re putting these two datasets together. So, there’s really interesting ways in which groups are trying to democratize the process, and say, “We’re looking for the best problem-solvers in the world. If you can kind of solve this problem, this is really exciting.” And it makes me think of what you’re talking about with Todd Rose’s concept of the dark horse.

One of the most valuable assets that we will bring to the table is our ability to take concepts from seemingly unrelated domains and make them make sense in the context of the problem we’re trying to solve. So, InnoCentive, as an example, this was a platform that was created partly because at Eli Lilly, these chemists and scientists couldn’t figure out a problem so they posted it online and they found out that a lawyer could actually solve the problem using his sort of different kinds of contextualized expertise to help them figure out a way forward. Or, when they tried to figure out how to create more efficient ways of solving for oil spills in oceans, it was actually a pastry chef who talked about the process of making chocolate mousse and how that might actually help us think through how you remove oil from water.

And this is all, I’m totally stealing this from David Epstein’s book Range, but it’s this idea of, “How are we going to cultivate not only problem-solvers but people who can display that sense of range?” And it doesn’t always come from a four-year college degree. We don’t always get that real intensive interdisciplinary learning that we probably should. And, for me, for the next steps for higher education, that is a real opportunity for them to kind of break down silos across disciplines and departments. But, as we think about those skills that are going to make us most valuable, it’s going to be those kinds of hidden ways of thinking about problems.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hit that for a minute there. So, AI can do a lot, and right now we’re very much evaluating humans being able to draw from different disciplines and putting them together. So, What are the fundamental kinds of principles or distinctions that…? Like, we think human brains are going to be able to do this better than machines even 20 years from now. What are those things? It’s not playing chess or Jeopardy, but what is it?

Michelle Weise
I think probably the most helpful way of thinking about it is when I talked to an executive from Apple who, he actually went to Stanford for a mechanical engineering degree, but as part of his general curriculum he took a class on ethics. And he mentioned that that class is probably one of the most valuable classes he had while he was an undergraduate, because when they’re producing technology, new technologies, new products, the thing they have to think about is, he called it sort of volume impact repercussions, where they have to think of second-, third-order effects of what they’re building, because, in an instant, millions of people are going to be leveraging whatever it is they are producing. And so, they really have to kind of anticipate forward and think, “What are all the ways in which this can go wrong?”

And if we think about where we are today with social media, we didn’t do enough of that. We didn’t extrapolate enough far forward. And when you hear the co-founders of a bunch of these different social media companies, you hear them say, “I didn’t think that this is the way that it was going to be used.” But this is what humans do bring to the table when we sort of bring ethics and judgment and values, and try to think forward.

And this also has implications on the kinds of people you bring around the table to do that sort of analyses. It has to be a diverse group. It cannot just be young white male undergrads kind of thinking about this problem. It has to be a diverse group of folks kind of thinking about those volume impact repercussions. So, I think those real skills in exercising judgment are going to be critical, that we can’t rely on the AI to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, second-, third-order things. And I guess that makes sense to me in terms of like as I think about things that are like playing chess or Jeopardy or even like composing or painting, it’s sort of like they’re all kind of bounded in a way in terms of find the right answer, or the right move, or apply a principle of color or sound.

Michelle Weise
Right, they’re finite. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Versus saying, speculating as to what social media and how it will impact us with widespread adoption. That does seem harder to stick inside code. Anything else that we humans do great?

Michelle Weise
So, a couple of years ago, Amazon had tried to leverage AI to diversity their hiring processes, and they thought maybe AI could do a better job than humans. And so, they kind of built out this new system, the AI started kind of going through the diverse set of applications. And then it was the humans kind of watching and seeing the output to sort of identify, “Huh, kind of strange that so many of these folks are named Jarod. Or, a lot of them played lacrosse.”

And they started to realize, “Oh, my gosh, we’ve trained the AI on flawed data.” They kind of looked at their existing talent pool. They tried to sort of say, “These are the senior leaders at our company that do great work.” But what they did was they trained the AI to search for people that looked and sounded exactly like their existing leadership, and that is not a way that you diversify your talent pool.

And so, it took humans to kind of notice and sort of exercise some judgment to say, “Wait, something is wrong. Interrogate it. Look deeply, look into the data,” and sort of say, “Oh, okay. We’ve got a problem here.” Because the AI will only just kind of repeatedly get smarter and smarter with the data that it is trained on. And we see this also happening, unfortunately, in the legal system where we’re developing sentencing structures based on deeply inequitable past data of how we’ve punished people.

So, we need this kind of deep-thinking humans for the future who have enough domain expertise to be able to question the AI because we cannot just let it…the crazy thing is that most companies…

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Jarod is in here. Whatever you say, robot.

Michelle Weise
Yeah, most companies like don’t know if they can trust their AI right now. I have a statistic in the book where they are not comfortable auditing the sort of their existing AI.

Pete Mockaitis
Not comfortable auditing it?

Michelle Weise
Yes, so this is from an Accenture study that basically fewer than a third of companies surveyed have a high degree of confidence in the fairness and auditability of their AI systems, and less than half have similar confidence in the safety of those systems. So, we’re so reliant on these technologies and yet we don’t fully trust the algorithms that undergird them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I buy that even in a very easy example. I think about machine-generated transcription, which, I mean, that’s existed for 20, 30, 40 years and yet it’s still not great. I don’t know. If you have 98% accuracy, okay, that sounds really impressive, but that’s really still like three errors every minute. And so, in this conversation we’d have a hundred or two, and so I wouldn’t call that good.

And so, anyway, I just find that, I don’t know, not to be quite grouchy, but I’m a little skeptical myself in terms of maybe eventually it will be awesome but right now I’m not super impressed, and maybe I just haven’t been looking at the right places to blow me away.

Michelle Weise
No, what you are pointing out is what this MIT economist named Daron Acemoglu calls so-so automation. So, like when we think about just the rise of ATMs in the last few decades, what’s interesting about an ATM is that it is far better than a so-so technology because it actually completely made obsolete the role of a person counting money because it could do it really well.

And we don’t actually have a lot of technologies that we’re building today, the transcription one is a perfect example, or the robots that we use in warehouses where we have to depend on people as pick-and-packers to be able to sort of get the thing out of the robot’s sort of treasure trove and put it into a box.

So, we’re creating technologies that are just so-so. They’re not great enough to completely obviate a certain task. And, as a result, we’re not creating enough forms of truly creative labor. Because when ATMs kind of took over, what was fascinating to see is the sort of burgeoning of the services industry in banking. It wasn’t that people just became useless, it’s that they actually transferred their skills into different domains.

Here, what we’re having is a lot of kind of unfulfilling what researchers called ghost work. It’s this kind of interstitial stuff that we have to do on the backend even when we’re training AI. You have tons of people, these mechanical turkers who are working for cents on the dollar, who are identifying all the photos that are coming up from the AI to say, “That’s a face. That’s the same face as that one. That’s a body part. Ooh, that’s not a body part we want to show.”

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s a cat. That’s not a cat.” Right?

Michelle Weise
Exactly. And, “Not a hotdog. A hotdog.”

Pete Mockaitis
Silicon Valley.

Michelle Weise
But we have a lot of terrible work that’s emerging because of that not-great-enough technology. Right now, we’re in this awkward phase where we’re not creating enough forms of creative labor.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Michelle, these are a lot of interesting ideas. I’d love it if we could sort of zoom in here now for the professional who are maybe in their 30s or 40s who got a lot of work left in their career before retirement, likely. So, what’s our game plan in terms of learning the right stuff effectively and well and keeping our careers moving in a great trajectory?

Michelle Weise
Yes. So, I think one way forward is, unfortunately, for us as job seekers, a lot of the burden rests on us, and a lot of the financial risks also rests on us to make these decisions on our own. But moving into the future, what we really need to see and what, I think, will signify the kind of company that we want to work for are the ones who stop this kind of dis-investment in training their existing workforce and start to realize, “I have all this talent within. How do I help them acquire the skills they need to be successful?”

And I think the most powerful indicator of a company that is truly invested in us as job seekers are the ones that tell us, “You don’t have to do this on your own. We’re not going to just dangle tuition assistance or tuition reimbursement dollars and say, ‘Hey, we’re glad that you would like to advance your education. Go do it on your own time on top of everything else you’ve got going on in your lives.’”

The most competitive forward-thinking companies are going to realize that the workplace is really the classroom of the future. And I’m not talking about on-the-job compliance training, risk mitigation work, like sexual harassment training. I am talking about real new skills-building activities. So, it’s critical that the company not only identifies really transparent internal mobility pathways for you and for us, but it also has to be very explicit about carving out time in the flow of the workday for you to acquire those skills because it’s not fair for us to have to somehow squeeze it in on top of stitching together multiple part-time jobs, or all our caregiving activities. It’s too hard to just kind of stack that on top of everything else.

So, I think the things that we need to look out for the future are the companies that are truly invested in our reskilling and upskilling who kind of figure out ways to make that learning bite-sized, or for an hour a day, or an hour a week where we can be doing this in the flow of work. And, also, for educational institutions and providers to be able to modularized their learning in ways that’s more accessible where we’re not always bending to the sort of linear structure, the college or the university, but that it’s much more flexible and easily consumable.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a beautiful world that I’d love for us to live in. And I guess part of why this podcast exists is that we’re not there, and it is a little bit of a do-it-yourself proposition for a lot of folks these days, and fair or not, pleasant or not, stressful. So, let’s talk to the professional who’s in an environment that’s not so enlightened with regard to offering some great learning opportunity, and let’s say even, hey, they’re a little mercenary, they’re just going to go take it, “At 11:00 a.m., when there’s no other meeting on the calendar, I’m just going to do me some learning.” What are some of the top resources you’d recommend to them? I’m a huge fan of LinkedIn Learning myself, but what else would you say in terms of, “All right, you got an hour. You’re going to do some learning,” what are some of your favorite places to go?

Michelle Weise
So, one that I talk about in the book is called GLEAC. And what they do is they make this kind of mobile-friendly learning apps where they just take minutes and they have folks, for instance, who are customer service or retail folks in Prada stores, as an example, where they’re building up their reflection and communication of this kind of human skills that they’re developing where they’re exercising their judgment. And they are these bite-sized learning applications that a worker can kind of leverage while they’re working.

Another one would be Mursion that I’m kind of really interested in.

So, we tend to think of executive coaching as reserved for people kind of mid-level managers and up. What Mursion enables us to do is practice those really important human skills in a low-stakes environment. So, giving feedback, receiving feedback, these really critical skills for success in the workforce but we generally only practice them in a high-stakes environment, when we actually have to give someone really tough feedback or when we’re receiving it from our bosses.

And, generally, I know whenever I do this, I leave the conversation sort of thinking about all the different ways in which I could’ve done it better. And this environment actually has avatars in front of you, and the quality of the imagery is good enough where you can notice different people’s nonverbal cues, and you hear their voices change, and so you have to be responsive in that moment.

And it’s actually this kind of interesting AI-powered platform that’s puppeteer-ed by one human also in the background, where the human can play the role of like six or seven different people with different voices and different characteristics. And so, it gives you that chance to practice negotiation, all these different kinds of skills that we need to get better at because the fascinating thing, just in general, with human skills is even though we’re human, we’re not very sophisticated at them. We actually have to practice these skills. And just because we take a LinkedIn Learning class on empathy, we’re not somehow going to become more emotionally intelligent just from taking that one class. We have to figure out ways to practice this. So, those are the kinds of innovations that I’m excited about.

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

Michelle Weise
One thing that might be important for job seekers to know about is the existence of different kinds of alternative learning providers kind of outside the traditional realm of colleges and universities. I think most people have heard of these things called coding bootcamps where you go and you get pretty savvy in web development or frontend development and you do this for 6 to 12 weeks, you pay $20,000 out of pocket, and maybe you get this great job.

Those have typically kind of been more geared to folks who already have a degree, sort of more affluent who can actually afford to pay out of pocket. But there are these interesting other set of providers that I call on-ramps where they do this kind of really important human skills-building work but they also help learners get skills in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, data science, enough to get hired by.

There are amazing stories of a US Postal Service worker becoming a quality assurance engineer for Facebook through this data science immersive program. And what they’re doing is that they’re actually stitching together that kind of career navigation with a very precise educational pathway with a direct connection to an employer.

And so, there are these kinds of opportunities available. It’s a matter of trying to, again, it’s back to us as the individual job seekers, the burden is on us to kind of find some of these. But a really interesting example of another one is one called Climb Hire we know that Salesforce administrators, they are a job that are in demand, that are in high demand. And so, what they’re doing is they’re building these skills but they’re also embedding social capital building into the learning process where they’re helping folks, who may not have the best professional networks, learn how important it is to build relationships, build professional networks.

And when a person actually gets a job at a company, as a Salesforce administrator, the onus is on them to refer and bring someone else into the company from Climb Hire because the CEO realized from LinkedIn data, as an example, that people are nine times more likely to get a job through a referral so they’re helping job seekers and learners really build this skill because it is something that you kind of have to learn how to do unless you’re sort of born into an incredible network.

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

Michelle Weise
So, you heard me talk about David Epstein who wrote Range, and he talks about deep learning, but he says, “The most effective learning looks inefficient. It looks like falling behind.” And I love this quote just because I think when we think about all the ways in which we are kind of channeled and incentivized to achieve, we’re always measuring through this kind of testing that is actually not measuring what matters.

And if we were actually to sort of really understand what kind of learners and that kind of deep learning in folks, it would actually look like failing. And I think that’s, I don’t know, that’s important for us to know.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Michelle Weise
Probably Beloved by Toni Morrison.

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

Michelle Weise
I have one of those keyboards that are split into two and kind of at an angle.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too.

Michelle Weise
I have some tendonitis, so.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I’ve got the Freestyle2 from Kinesis.

Michelle Weise
That’s what I have.

Pete Mockaitis
But you got the tents going. I didn’t get the tents. I just got the split because I’ve got, I guess, some wider shoulders and so I always found that I was…Yeah, so I like being able to stretch out and be me without having to crunch them in.

Michelle Weise
Yeah. I have the same exact one, the Freestyle2. Underneath you can flip out the thingies.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s right.

Michelle Weise
You know what I realized, I think I pressed the delete button so much that I actually really kind of hurt my wrist and needed to re-shift my posture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that there’s something beautiful hiding in that. Perhaps it’s revision, commitment to excellence, iterating, learning, that meta stuff there.

Michelle Weise
Yeah, nothing you write is golden.

Pete Mockaitis
Not at first anyway. And how about a favorite habit?

Michelle Weise
Oh, walking.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re kind of known for, people quote back to you a lot?

Michelle Weise
Oh, I think maybe because I learned this from Clayton Christensen, one of the most powerful parts of the theories is when you see something that looks less than, our immediate kind of reflexes is to sort of scorn or disparage it or to dismiss it as, “Ah, it’s not an important innovation to pay attention to,” but Clay always said it could be just good enough. And that is something that I try to convey to folks. When we have that very human reflex, when we perceive newness as danger, that might be actually the precise time where we need to take a beat and look at the thing more carefully.

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

Michelle Weise
I’m always available through Twitter and LinkedIn @rwmichelle or I have a website called RiseAndDesign.io.

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

Michelle Weise
I think, in general, it’s still this concept of collaboration. I think we, generally, just because of the way we trained from K-12 on through college, it’s so often kind of this notion that things are a zero-sum game, where if you’re winning, I’m losing. But in this concept of kind of long life learning, there’s no winning list. And so, how do we actually change our behavior instead of always sort of trying to be the leader? How do we actually make sure we’re collaborating in truly distinctive ways? I think that’s something that I think about a lot. It’s a hard behavior to turn to given the way that we’re trained.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Michelle, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in your long life learning.

Michelle Weise
Thank you. You, too.