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485: Learning like a Superhuman with Jonathan Levi

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Jonathan Levi says: "It's actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it."

Jonathan Levi shares how speedreading and visual mnemonics can enhance your learning.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The scientifically-proven method for speedreading
  2. How curiosity improves learning
  3. A simple trick to remember names and face

About Jonathan

Jonathan is a serial entrepreneur, author, and lifehacker born and raised in Silicon Valley.

He’s the author of the Become a SuperLearner series, and the host of the award-winning Superhuman Academy podcast. His passions include learning languages, musical instruments, acro yoga, weightlifting, and cooking.

He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel with his superwoman, Limmor.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonathan Levi Interview Transcript

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

Jonathan Levi
Thank you so much for having me, Pete. I’m really stoked to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m stoked to have you. And, boy, we’re talking about super learning, speedreading, memory becoming super human-type things. I think it’s going to be a ton of fun. But I’d love it if you could maybe orient us for starters. Like, what’s really possible for a human being with regard to some of this stuff? I know we got memory champions who dazzle us. But can you just sort of paint a picture for what happens in the highest echelons of human super learning?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. You know, no one’s ever asked me that.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just giving you a little softball to warm it up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Why has no one ever asked me that? I think the real answer is I don’t know, but I know what I’ve seen. I don’t know what the upper upper echelon is, but I’ve seen incredible learners throughout history, and I’ve made a practice of studying incredible learners throughout history. And the vision that I paint, and the reason my show is called Superhuman Academy, it used to be called Becoming Superhuman, is because I believe in a different model of super human.

And I think probably the prior generation, what I call superhuman, they would call a renaissance man or woman. Someone like Benjamin Franklin or, to go less cliché, someone like Thomas Jefferson who, like, “Oh, you know, I invented 15 different electronic devices. I discovered electricity. I, on the way, happen to dabble in diplomacy a little bit and helped entire countries form their revolutions, made huge advancements in democracy, learned six languages because no one was willing to translate the books, so I did it myself,” that kind of thing.

Built businesses, sold businesses, established entire organizations, and I think you see this throughout history. You see these people who are so multidisciplinary, and I think that, ultimately, if you ask me, “What’s the purpose of all of this? Why learn faster?” is to do that. It’s not really to go deep, deep, deep, deep, deep into one subject, though I suppose you could, but I think apropos, like how do you be awesome at your job? It’s being a multidisciplinarian. It’s being able to be someone who’s maybe in sales and already have learned your entire customer’s product pipeline.

I gave a talk to Shell’s 150 Top Salespeople in the World, and I asked them, “What’s your biggest challenge?” And they’re like, “We need to know more about our customers’ businesses than the customer knows themselves.” I’m like, “That’s a pretty big challenge because the customer focuses on one business. You each are managing five to 10 accounts.” But that’s what it is, and that’s what’s possible if you can learn and, more saliently, if you can retain everything you learn.

You can be a multidisciplinarian and from there things get fun. Then you can learn four to five languages. Then you can learn four to five different musical instruments. You can pick up different sports and habits, like acroyoga, or Olympic weightlifting, or speaking Russian, or piano. These are all things that I’ve just done in the last few years because you make learning a habit, you make learning a super skill, and then you make learning a hobby in a way of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s cool. So, your benefits there in terms of what’s possible is you could, is it fair to say, that most of us could become half as awesome as Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin if we knew super learning approaches?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I think we could become just as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, what level is awesome?

Jonathan Levi
One hundred percent as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s exciting.

Jonathan Levi
And I’m right now reading a book called A Brief History of Everything, and I’ve read half the biographies out there and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and Elon Musk. I really geek out on the stuff. And sometimes I just think to myself, I’m like, “You know, it was easier back then because there were fewer people doing cool stuff. It’s like 1% of the population was college-educated and the vast majority of people couldn’t read. It was pretty easy to stand out as a brilliant genius.” So, I think we can achieve as much in learning. It might be harder to have an impact. Timing is everything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “You and everybody else knows five languages. Not impressed.”

Jonathan Levi
Bingo. And it’s like I was toldby a teacher, it was like the best thing you can ever do to be successful is to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents. Everything else is like minor tweaks. So, being born on the cusp of like a couple different revolutions in a couple different countries in a time where democracies are forming. That’s pretty, like, you’ve got really great opportunities there that I think maybe we don’t have.

But then again, maybe 300 years from now people will go, “Gosh, I wish that I could’ve been born right when the world was transitioning from old industrial agriculture and ineffective means of energy production and pollution to renewables and sustainables. Gosh, they had so much more opportunity back then than we do now.” So, who knows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, indeed. It can go either way. Well, so that’s exciting. So, we painted a big picture in terms of what may be possible. And I’d love to maybe zoom right in. So, what’s really nifty about your courses in helping folks become superhuman and super learning is that you could readily measure results with regard to, I mean, memory performance, speedreading performance, fast learning performance. So, could you share with us just roughly kind of approximate average before/after results that you see for your students in terms of what you do measure?

Jonathan Levi
So, I don’t have exact numbers for you but I can tell you from stuff that people publicly post in our Facebook group. Typically, when people come to us, they can remember exactly the average, right? Your short-term memory is kind of like four or plus or minus two. Sometimes we get someone who can memorize seven.

When people leave our course, the maximum we have them memorizing is like 20 random pieces of information and they all can memorize the 20. I can tell you that I pushed myself a little further because I’m kind of the poster boy and I can memorize 50 digits backwards and forwards without breaking a sweat. And the upper-echelon students that we have that have kind of gone on to take this more seriously, they are memorizing thousands of digits. Or, we had one guy go to a conference and memorized a 150 people’s names at the conference. And the conference was a two-day conference. It’s like, “How did you manage to have 150 conversations?” That’s the super skill there.

Pete Mockaitis
Really. When did you go to the bathroom?

Jonathan Levi
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
When did you go to get snack?

Jonathan Levi
Right. You probably were shaking hands and kissing babies, you know. But it’s insane what you can do. And we know, I guess I should preface by saying like we teach the exact same techniques that are being taught to win World Memory Championships. We scale it down a little bit because some of the things that are being done in competition are just not practical.

For example, in order to win a World Memory Championship today, you need to kind of have all the memorization work and setup done, so all you have to do is rearrange things. So, I’m not going to tell you, “Hey, Pete, go out and memorize 999 different images for all the possible different three-letter or three-digit numbers out there in the world.”

But we teach the exact same techniques in terms of how you actually do it, how you create these memories, how you organize them, how you structure them, how you review them. So, the world record right now for memorizing a deck of cards is under 13 seconds. The record, last I checked, this changes pretty often. Last I checked, the record for the number of decks of cards was 36 decks of cards in an hour. Pi has been memorized in 30,000 plus digits. It’s actually quite ridiculous what your mind can do if you know how to use it. And that’s like the really big asterisk because most of us were never taught how to use our brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, that’s the memory side of things. How about the speedreading side of things?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so speedreading I always like to preface, not least, because people have been fined many hundreds of thousands of dollars for false advertising in speedreading but also because of those individuals, people have a lot of misconceptions about what speedreading is. So, it’s not reading a page a second, at least not the way we teach it, which is the way that’s based on science.

It’s not reading one page with your left eye and the other page with your right eye. It’s not photo-reading. It’s not any of that. The research is very clear and I encourage people to visit our website SuperHumanAcademy.com/science. We actually hired a PhD in neuroscience who recently was on a Nobel Prize-winning team for some of the work that they did in memory.

The research is very clear that comprehension drops at 600 words a minute. Coincidentally, the speedreading that we teach, we tell people, “You can get up to 600 words a minute with the amount of comprehension that you’re getting or higher because of the memory techniques that we implement, and you can get up to 800 words per minute with around 70% to 80% comprehension.” Again, there are sometimes things that you need to read that you don’t really need 100% comprehension.

But, with all that preface, I do want to say memory techniques are kind of like an operating system overhaul. Or, to choose a different metaphor, it’s like completely changing out the engine and transmission. Whereas, speedreading, I found, in my experience and the experience of over 200,000 students, is more like a specific tool, and you’re not going to use it all the time like you use memory techniques. You’re going to use it when you need information quickly, when the joy of reading is not the most important part, and when you’re not going to be doing it for extended periods of time.

People always ask me, “Okay, you can read 700-800 words a minute. That means that you can read the average book in 90 minutes.” And I say, “Yup.” And they say, “Do you ever do that?” And I say, “Only once or twice because after that I need like a three-hour nap. It’s exhausting. It’s absolutely exhausting.” So, I always like to give people those caveats because it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It got me through business school. It’s the only reason why my email inbox is not completely overflowing, and why I am able to keep up on a lot of the research, I hate to say all the research, that’s being done on neuroscience and learning. But it’s not what a lot of people have marketed it as.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny, Jonathan, I was debating with myself, it’s like, “All right, if this guy comes on the show, it’s like he can do 10,000 words per minute. How much am I going to rip into him? Am I going to do it gently or viciously?” You know, that’s what I was thinking.

Jonathan Levi
Viciously.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Okay, will I just quietly cut that out because I know it’s wrong?” But I love it. You gave me all the right answers. Not that I know all the right answers in advance, but I’ve kind of dabbled and researched a bit in terms of like what’s just impossible. And I love the integrity here in terms of hiring a doctor, getting into the mix, and sharing the constraints and limitations. Like, hey.

Well, first of all, it would still be awesome to double your reading whenever you need to. That’s still a huge benefit. But, note, if you want to really enjoy what you’re reading, and you do want to savor it, and you want to get full energy for everything else you’re doing in the rest of the day, then it ain’t the tool for you to pull out in that moment. So, great visualization.

Jonathan Levi
And I want to say there are gradations, right? Like, I, after being trained in speedreading, before, well, there kind of isn’t a before. I had learning disabilities growing up so my parents bought me speedreading books when I was like 12. So, it’s hard to determine when my “before” was but I never could get it to work. And when I was tested at age 24 for my reading speed, I was reading in like 450 words per minute, whereas the average person reads 200 to 250 words per minute, if they’re college-educated. But my comprehension was 40%, so like what does that achieve?

Today, I can read that same 450 words per minute with near perfect comprehension. So, it’s not an either/or situation but it is…One of my mentors once told me, “The best speedreaders are able to vary their speed, not just based on what they’re reading but in individual sections and sentences.” So, it’s like, “Okay, I know what’s going to happen in the section. Let me ratchet it up and I can read much faster. Whereas, okay, hang on, I’m really confused about this whole chapter on quantum mechanics. I’m going to bring it back down.” And that back down may still be 300, 400, 500 words per minute but with much higher comprehension.

When I created our original course, I came at it from this whole perspective of, first of, I was taught to speedread by two different teachers and it never worked for me because it’s the classic Woody Harrelson, like, “I read War and Peace in an hour and it’s about Russia.” But, also, understanding that the ultimate timewaster is chewing air. It’s even worse to read fast and forget everything you’re reading than it is to just read it slowly. So, we focus on comprehension.

And, truthfully speaking, over the last six years, we’ve made the comprehension and memory and retention parts bigger, and speedreading part smaller, and we’ve moved all of the comprehension and retention pieces up earlier on in the course because it’s just, time and time again, that’s what transforms people’s lives in our courses.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s dig into a bit of the how here. So, how does one boost their comprehension when they’re reading?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, that’s a great question. First thing you can do, and I think your listeners will appreciate this because I haven’t talked about this in 5,000 other interviews that I’ve done over the last six years. Many people don’t realize how important preparation is overall, and I’m going to explain two different aspects of preparation. And both of them are going to seem like, “There’s no way that works, this is fluff. Give me the good stuff.” This is the good stuff. Don’t worry.

One, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. And so, if you just pick up a book and you don’t stop to ask yourself, “What am I trying to get out of this book? What level of comprehension? Am I reading it for a specific piece of information, for enjoyment?” That’s going to change the way that you pay attention. It’s kind of like setting goals, right? If you don’t have goals, you kind of just coast, like, “What are you doing, right?”

So, going in with preparation, and preparation also means like having a backup plan. Like, what are you going to do if you don’t understand the text? Are you going to reread it or are you going to ask someone or are you going to look it up somewhere else online and see if it’s explained more clearly? So, having this backup plan and knowing exactly what you want to get out of the text.

In my next book, The Only Skill That Matters I go into much more depth about this conversation of preparation and give people kind of a flight checklist of, “You need to answer these questions before you dive into learning.” Part of the reason that this works so well is we know a lot about the way that the adult brain learns and the requirements for learning. And we know that adults learn best if they know why they’re learning something, how they’re going to use it, and if they’re going to use it immediately, which is a nice segue into the next kind of preparation piece, which is something we call prereading.

Prereading comes from this reading methodology called SQ3R – Survey, Question, Read, Recall, Review. When you do prereading, you survey and question. You’re looking at the text very, very quickly and kind of skimming. You’re doing what I like to call reinforced skimming. You are looking for things that jump out at you – titles, words that are capitalized, numbers, headings, things that are italicized, long words, things that stand out, pictures, diagrams. And then you’re generating questions about those things.

For example, “Why are they mentioning San Francisco? What happened in 1949?” You’re generating all kinds of cognitive biases as well to try and get your mind to be curious. A human brain can’t resist a good question. And so, if you are able to generate questions and curiosity and, essentially, get yourself to the point where you actually want to read this text, even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want to read, you’re going to enhance your focus, which is going to enhance your comprehension.

Studies have actually shown that people who pre-read the text not only are able to read faster when they do read it, they’re also able to produce higher quality, more accurate summaries of the text, which is a proxy for how well they understood, retain, and were able to reproduce and recall the text. It’s a very good test for understanding actually how much of it sank in. And all that is from flipping through the pages, spending one or two seconds on each page before you read.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, with one or two seconds, I mean, you’re not really subvocalizing anything. You’re just sort of just getting a visual exposure.

Jonathan Levi
You’re barely comprehending anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, like those are words.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, you’re literally generating curiosity. And the beauty of this technique is that there’s kind no wrong way to do it. We’re in the process right now of building our certified coaching program and training our certified coaches. So, I’ve just gone through this whole thought process, and a lot of what we do, the trick is like, “I don’t know what’s going on in the person’s head and there’s a lot of like false flags that can happen and cognitive biases and stuff like that.”

But with this one, the test is very simple. Is the reader able to produce questions around the test? Like, if I have you skim, Pete, 15 pages, looking at each page for one second, and then I take the book away, and I ask you, “What are some of the things you want to know when you read this when I let you read this?” And you go, “Okay, I saw this thing in there. It was like hyper myalgia or something like that. I didn’t catch what that word is but I’m dying to know what it is and what it means, and why is it in the history textbook. Like, that makes no sense to me.”

Or, you come and you say, “Man, I saw the word vegan and I have a feeling I know what this author is going to say, and I have a feeling this is going to be that kind of text that my friend, Allan, really loves because he’s like a total vegan warrior.” So, you’re already generating questions, curiosity, and you go back to those three requirements that I mentioned. You’ve already done a lot of the work to prime your brain. And this comes from the theory of an early learning expert named Malcolm Knowles.

You’ve already told me how you’re going to use the text. You’ve already told me why it’s applicable and why you’re looking to read it. And, since you’ve already told me that you’re going to be using it immediately to talk to your friend Allan, or send it and rub the article in his face, so you’ve generated so much curiosity and questions, the other test is like, “Are you now eager and excited to read this text because…? Forget the fact that it’s about real estate law in the Netherlands, or something super boring like that. Are you eager to read it because you have all these unanswered questions?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And if you’re not, that might be an indicator right there. It’s like, “Well, do you have to read it?” Maybe you get all that done and move on to something else.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, yeah, that gets me going. I’m thinking now about Bob Cialdini’s book Pre-Suasion. He sort of talks about how he figured out a formula to get his class like super engaged such that they would not even leave when the bell rang. It’s like, “Oh, it looks live we’ve cracked the code here.” And it was in that very thing, it’s about generating questions, like, “How is it that this occurred when this, this, and this were not working in their favor?” Like, “Well, I don’t know. How did that occur?”

And it’s just like any good story or movie or book, even like a mediocre one, like Lifetime Original Movies. There was a period in my life, I don’t know why, but they kept sucking me in, and they weren’t really good.

Jonathan Levi
This was before Netflix.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Cool. So, SQ3R, you brought it to life way more than I’ve experienced when I first encountered it, that it’s all about generating that curiosity and that eagerness so that your brain is amped, it’s primed, it’s good to go. So, what should we do after the prereading?

Jonathan Levi
Well, then you’ve gotten through the S and the Q, now you get to R. You do your first readthrough and, ideally, you speedread depending on your level of training, I guess, I would say. You speedread the text, and we can go into how all that works, or doesn’t work in the case of a lot of what you see online. And then after that, you pause and you review. You review the text. You close your eyes, or close the book, or look up at the ceiling, and you ask yourself, “What did I take away from that?” And you do this, you can do it at the end of every page, you can do it at the end of chapters, but you stop and you create visualizations, visual mnemonics.

This is huge because most people read once and expect themselves to remember everything that they read in that book forever. And that’s not going to happen even with the best mnemonic techniques. You’re only going to remember it for so long. What you need to do is spaced repetition. So, you close the book, you review, and then later on, ideally, ideally, you would test yourself on this knowledge.

I like to create simple tests for myself by just writing a summary for myself of the book, key takeaways and key points. And then after that, you continue to review. Periodically, you go in, look at your notes, look at your highlights, and just kind of refresh yourself. Look at your book summary. Because anyone who tells you, “I can teach how to memorize something once and remember it forever,” is a liar. Your brain is designed to forget things. It is highly efficient, in fact, at forgetting the things that you don’t use. So, if you want to remember something, you kind of need to review it and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a brief period of time which all of United States history made great sense right when I turned the A.P U.S. history exam in high school. And it was kind of fun and then it all left me. Alas! So, understood. So, if you don’t need it, it goes away. Got to do some reinforcing of it. Cool. So, that’s sort of the speedreading side of things. Any perspective with regard to like, “I stop send.” I saw a video of Tim Ferriss drawing some lines in on a book. Anything you want to comment in that world?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, absolutely. So, first, you have to understand that your eyes are not meant to read, right? And reading is great. I love reading. Me and reading are besties. But we are not really meant to process language visually and, therefore, reading does this kind of weird thing where you take visual information, which is these little squibbles on a page, which we’re super effective at consuming information in that way. We can not only assess someone’s face, and if we recognize them, but also the complex emotions on that person’s face in 150 milliseconds. It’s insane. We’re really good at picking up information visually.

But then what we do is we try to process language through that. That’s where everything kind of falls apart because we don’t process language that fast. And so, we subvocalize, which is an unavoidable thing because we’re meant to process language auditorily. And so, you have this kind of like whole mess of what’s going on and that’s why when you scan people’s larynx, even speedreaders that way.

Pete Mockaitis
As I do.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, as one does. You just put a sophisticated electronic equipment up to one’s larynx in your goings about, and you see that there’s electrical signaling when someone is reading because we’re kind of processing with our larynx. I’m not a neuroscientist and I don’t play one on the internet, but that’s kind of what we understood about reading.

So, there’s no way to avoid some subvocalization entirely but you can reduce it in the same way that we’ve all seen those stupid things posted, where it’s like, every word is misspelled but the first and last character is right so you don’t even notice or you can still read it. Or, situations where you see a paragraph of text and the word “the” is repeated every single time twice but you don’t even notice because you’re kind of on autopilot.

So, we can reduce subvocalization. And one of the ways that we can do that is by optimizing the movement of the eyes. When your eyes are in motion, when they’re making what’s called saccades, you’re actually subject to a phenomenon called saccadic blindness or saccadic masking. In other words, your optic nerve kind of shuts off while your eyes are in motion.

If you don’t believe me, you can put two fingers out in front of you, one on your right hand, one on your left, and then look at your left finger, and then look at your right finger. And notice that you kind of don’t pick up any information in between. Your brain stitches the pictures together.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s funny because we have our recording time are going, it’s actually moving, right? You see those red numbers moving. They totally disappeared. Yeah, okay. I’m with you.

Jonathan Levi
And that’s fine. That’s like really useful if you don’t want to fall over every time you like move your eyes. But what that means is while your eyes are in motion, you’re not taking in additional information. Most people, when they read, they make one saccade and one fixation which is kind of, think of a fixation as like an eye fold or resting of the eye. It’s when you’re fixated on something per word. And, therefore, there’s a lot of motion going on, and a lot of times spent in saccadic blindness.

You can never train your eyes to have a wider fovea, which is the focal area of the eye, but you can train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, the same way that someone who needs glasses can still kind of pay attention to what’s happening even though it’s a little fuzzy. You can do this with various different tools, and once you train your brain to pay attention to the fuzzy stuff, in the perifovea, the stuff outside the focal optimal area, then you can start making larger saccades, moving your eyes only once or twice per line of text. Then we can optimize those even further so you waste less time and less of the fovea and perifovea looking at white stuff in the margins, and more time looking at the good stuff, the text.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say tools, is this like the writing of lines inside a couple words of the margins of a book or what do you mean by tools?

Jonathan Levi
Tools to expand your ability to take in information from the perifovea are called Schultz tables. And you can actually check them out at Games.BecomeASuperLearner.com. We have some free Schultz tables exercises that people can do. It’s quite fun. It’s like a Sudoku but you stare at the middle square and then you try, without moving your eyes, to pick up all the stuff in the periphery. Then you expand it, get bigger, make the number smaller, and you can actually train yourself to pick up stuff in the margins, which is pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is fun. And we’re both genuinely enthusiastic about this. This is what makes a podcast great. It does sound like fun for me to do and I definitely plan on doing so. So, now then, you mentioned subvocalization, which is like the inner voice of kind of saying the words. You’re saying, so that still happens even though our eyeballs are taking in more words, we’ve got that tiny voices actually reading silently all the words that we’re picking up.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. Well, not all. Even people who aren’t trained in speedreading rarely subvocalize every word, like, and, etc. But for a long time, I thought I just need to get better and reduce it to the point where it doesn’t happen. And then I dug deeper into the research and realized a few different things. One, there’s no way to eliminate subvocalization. It’s just part of how we process the text but you can minimize it.

And, also, every once in a while, and by that, I mean like at least once a month. People like to send me a different research paper or article or study “disproving” speedreading, and I love these because almost invariably they prove the kind of speedreading that we’re teaching. They’re disproving the speedreading of 5,000 words per minute by saying, “Reading is limited in the most skilled and trained readers to 600 words per minute with perfect comprehension.”

And one of the things that they talk about is you cannot train your brain to read an entire page or even an entire line, it just can’t be done. You can’t read an entire line without moving your eyes. But they’ve shown in studies that when you block the stuff in the periphery, in the perifovea, so, for example, if you tracked someone’s eye on the line, and you essentially only let them read the word that they’re reading, and you don’t let them have what they call a preview effect, their comprehension and reading speed dramatically suffers even when the preview, even when the blocker is moving pretty much as fast as their eye.

So, it’s super interesting. It’s like this research that disproves speedreading is actually proving exactly this, that the perifovea is a critical part of reading, and you need to be able to see what’s happening. So, therefore, we should be able to optimize and train that piece.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s say we shift gears a bit.

Jonathan Levi
I don’t know if that answers your question though.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, I dig it in terms of, yup, that voice is going to be going and there’s no way around it. But you may not have to articulate every connect a word in the inner voice, so that’s handy.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah. And, again, one of the reasons why that’s so important is, first off, our comprehension is just better visually. We have better visual memory and better, as I said, we’re faster at comprehending things visually, but also, I encourage everyone listening to this podcast, go back a couple minutes, and if your app allows it, it probably doesn’t allow you to go beyond 3x speed. The reason for that is we can really only comprehend the spoken word in around 400 words per minute. And the reason most of these apps are limited to 2x speed is because you can’t really get every single word at more than 300 to 400 words per minute.

Now, I’m speaking about 150 to 160 words per minute so you do the math. 2x speed is 300, and see how comfortable that is. And then imagine another 50% on top of that. So, subvocalizing every word really just slows you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, let’s shift to the memory side of things. I’ve read some of the tricks associated with trying to memorize a list of things, “Create a ridiculous picture in your brain to connect them.” So, if I’m remembering iPhone and screwdriver, I might imagine like 100 screwdrivers dancing on my iPhone, and then I’ve connected that with this list. And then, numerically, turn each number into like a sound, like nine becomes a P or B sound, and then you can create words out of numbers, and then visualize them and link them together.

So, those are some tactics that I found kind of handy when I really hunker down and say, “Okay, I have to remember this list. There’s no means of writing this down. We’re going to go use these approaches.” But what I find tricky is faces, and I think all professionals can be enriched by this if we can put faces to names. So, Jonathan, I’d love to put you on the spot, how can we boost our memory for names and faces?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s actually people often ask me, like, what do I use this stuff for, and where has it made the most impact in my life. And I think they expect me to be like, “Well, I speak four languages and I learned two musical instruments in the last few years and blah, blah, blah, blah.” But that hasn’t impacted my life nearly as much as just always being able to remember names.

And one corollary of that is I can tell you all the waiters that has served me in the last two weeks. Today my waitress at the restaurant was Maya, and whenever I need Maya, like everyone else is shouting, “Excuse me,” or, “Check please,” and I just say, “Maya,” at normal speaking volume, and she whips around and I have my check, and it’s amazing.

But how do you do names and faces? Very simple. Same association and visualization techniques. In order to memorize something, first you need to visualize it, it’s going to be the vast majority of the benefit is going to come from visualizing everything that you want to remember. Creating these novel bizarre pictures that you mentioned, but then also connecting it.

Our brains function a lot like Google’s PageRank algorithm. They ask, “What is this connected to? How many other things is it connected to? And how important are those things?” Because there’s a lot of information hitting us every day and we need some way to figure out what is and is not important.

So, what I might do is, first, connect that person to someone else that I know that has that name, and figure out their commonalities, picture the two of them together, picture the two of them fighting, something absurd and outrageous. That might be easy. If their name has another possible visualization opportunity, for example, Mike, I might picture them doing karaoke and embarrassing themselves with a microphone.

Pete Mockaitis
With a microphone.

Jonathan Levi
Right. If their name is Ross, I might picture them bargain shopping at the store Ross, and on and on and on. If they have a name that maybe you don’t know, like Sangina, or Croshant, I would break it down and figure out a way to make it into some kind of visualization that I am familiar with. So, Croshant might become Croissant, and I might visualize him wearing a hat made out of a croissant, and then probably, hopefully, not going to call him Croissant, but if I do, I can say that I misspoke. And that’s how you do it. It’s visualizations and connections to preexisting knowledge.

Now, I’m probably never going to forget what a croissant looks like or what a croissant is. That’s a memory that’s like pretty deeply-ingrained for me especially because I have many memories when I was living in France of walking down the street and picking up fresh croissants, and maybe I could throw Croshant in with that memory. So, you pick things that are familiar to you, that are important to you, and then you incorporate those into, again, tip number one, your visualizations.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, just how long does that mental process take?

Jonathan Levi
Fractions of a second if you’re trying to. Well, so Harry Lorayne once told me, this is going to seem like a tangent, he once told me that first thing to remember names and faces is actually paying attention to them. So, I do have to mention that because Harry Lorayne is kind of the godfather of modern memory improvement and he’s right. About this we agree. Most people don’t pay attention. So, first step is pay attention.

And second step is repeat the name back, because I cannot tell you these techniques are so incredibly powerful. You really don’t want to mis-remember someone’s name. I had someone who I thought I could’ve sworn she said Sharon. It was Shannon. For many weeks after that, I called her Sharon, and I never once forgot, by the way, to call her Sharon. They’re very powerful techniques. Make sure you get the name right.

In that time where you go, “Is that Croshant? Am I saying that right?” you now have given yourself one to two seconds which is more than enough time. Recently, at the same lecture for Shell, someone came up to me after I got off stage, and he said, “Okay, memory man, look at this.” And his last name was C, his nickname was C+13 because his last name had 14 letters, C plus duh, duh, duh. And it was pronounced Horechevsky. It’s like a long Polish name.

Pete Mockaitis
Horechevsky.

Jonathan Levi
And he said, “How do you remember that?” And I was like, in the time it took me to describe it, I already had it, right? So, I imagined people dancing the Hora, like Orthodox Jews with their black and white outfit, they’re dancing the Hora in a Chevy, and they’re like shaking skis above their head – Horachevsky. Like, how quick is that, right? All I did was just, “What do those three things sound like? Hora, Chev, Ski. Visualize that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Jonathan Levi
Now, I always talk about Horachevsky. I don’t remember his first name, he didn’t ask me to memorize his first name, I believe it was Jeff.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s funny is that I can imagine that maybe the first hundred times you do this you got to hunker down and think for a good, I don’t know, 20 seconds, “Horachevksy, okay. Boy, I’m going to go with a prostitute, I don’t know.”

Jonathan Levi
That works. That’s even better than mine. It’s more outrageous. Violent, sexual and kind of like disturbed imagery works even better.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so you’ve got a turn of a phrase that I can’t resist, I got to touch on this. What’s the mnemonic nuclear option and how do we use it?

Jonathan Levi
Oh, yeah, this is a good one. So, the mnemonic nuclear option is my kind of fun nickname for the Memory Palace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How does this work out?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I call it the nuclear option because it’s kind of like, for most things, going to a water balloon fight and bringing in ICBM with a nuclear warhead. It’s like it’ll do the job. It’s probably overkill but it’ll do the job. If you’re learning three people’s names at a cocktail party, you probably don’t need a Memory Palace. It’ll work.

And what you do in the Memory Palace Technique, or Method of Loci, people may have heard, is you take a location, such as your house, your office, whatever, you take these visualizations that you’ve created of Mike on the mic, or Horachevsky, and you put them in places. That’s it. You put them on furniture, you put them in windowsills, corners. I like to put them in logical places based on what they are.

So, for example, the word for burn in Russian is stored on the stove. Makes a lot of sense. And just by doing that, because our brains are wired to remember location, it’s kind of part of your survival toolkit. If you don’t know where the winter food supply is, or where you buried something, or how to get to the watering hole, you’re kind of done from an evolutionary perspective. So, our brains remember locations really crazy well automatically. So, this is kind of just hijacking that, and it’s an incredibly powerful technique.

This is how people reach those achievements of Pi to 30,000 digits or a deck of cards in under 13 seconds. It’s insanely powerful. I think, out of all the hacks that I’ve ever learned, and I’ve done 240 something, 50 something episodes with some of the world’s top superhumans, this one is the craziest one, where it’s like, “I can teach you this, and in an hour of practice, I can ten 10x to 20x your memory.” It’s massive ROI.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we’ve almost spent a whole hour on it, but I’ve heard of this. But, so, if I just like stick a person on the couch in my head, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem kind of very noteworthy to me. Like, do I need to make it ridiculous with regard to how they’re being placed on the couch? Or how do I make it?

Jonathan Levi
Let me show you how powerful this is. We’ll play a fun game. Did you move around a lot when you were a kid?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
And everyone in the audience can do this even if they did. Do you remember your childhood home?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
Do you remember your parents’ bedroom?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
That was probably the room that you spent the least time in in the house, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. What side did mom sleep on, left or right?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I know. I know where the little wolf puppet was that belonged to my dad, where was that post.

Jonathan Levi
Okay, where was that?

Pete Mockaitis
That was on the left side as I’m facing him, the left foot side.

Jonathan Levi
Okay. Do you remember, was there a table by the side of the bed?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
What was on that table?

Pete Mockaitis
There was an old-school alarm clock with red digital numbers. There’s usually a book.

Jonathan Levi
So, two things, was it a GE alarm clock, the red digital numbers?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not sure.

Jonathan Levi
So, a funny story, I do this a lot to demonstrate. By the way, when was the last time you were in that house?

Pete Mockaitis
It was more than 13 years ago.

Jonathan Levi
More than 13. Did you ever sit down and go, “I better remember this red alarm clock”?

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Jonathan Levi
Right. So, your brain does this automatically ranging from you can tell me what corner of your shower the soap bottles are in, like, the most mundane stupid things, all the way up to 13 years ago what was on the bedside table, and the room that you spent the least time in. The other funny thing, as I do this a lot as a demonstration, it seems like everyone’s parents had that same freaking alarm clock. My parents had the exact same one, it was like wood grain, red letters, GE. They must’ve made millions on those alarm clocks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. So, I’m with you. Fair enough, I’m remembering these locations real well. And so then, I can just stick new things there and they’ll be there when I revisit the location?

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, and you do need to review. You can’t do it once and it’ll be there forever. Though some stuff that I put in there once randomly I can’t get rid of. That’s a whole different skill. But with very minimal review, it will stay in there.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to make sure we get a chance to talk about a couple of your favorite things. Jonathan, can you give us a favorite quote?

Jonathan Levi
Ooh, I’ve got a few but I’ll go back to an old, old school one that I used to love, which is, “The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we’re loved, loved for ourselves, or rather loved in spite of ourselves.”

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. And how about a favorite book?

Jonathan Levi
I have to probably say Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

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

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, so people can check out SuperhumanAcademy.com where we have hundreds and hundreds of hours of podcast episodes with the world’s top performers, online courses, free trials of online courses. We got a ton of stuff up there. And I would encourage people to check out my latest book coming out September 3rd, it’s on Amazon, and we can send a link to put in the show notes for you guys. And that is called The Only Skill That Matters, and it talks about all this stuff in a fun and engaging way, with stories and examples. My mom says it’s a really good read, so what more testimonial do you need?

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

Jonathan Levi
Yeah, I want people to go out today, and I want them, in their job, or in their day-to-day interactions, to learn the names, as we’ve discussed today, I want them to learn the names of 10 new people. And then I want them to remember those names, first off, and I want them to see what the impact in their life is of just getting to know 10 new people and learning their names, professionally, personally, or otherwise.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Jonathan, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you all the best in your learning adventures.

Jonathan Levi
Back at you. Thanks so much for having me.

484: The Overlooked Basic Skills Essential for Career Success with Dean Karrel

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Dean Karrel says: "The most important thing is to be yourself, enhance your own skills and make yourself better. That's how you advance your career and find new opportunities."

Dean Karrel makes the case for mastering the basic skills that will put you above the rest.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How “B students” can achieve more in their careers
  2. How to survive and thrive in office politics
  3. The secret to building unshakable confidence

About Dean

Dean Karrel is a Career and Executive Coach. He is the instructor of twelve courses with over 600,000 views available on LinkedIn Learning and has also been in senior leadership positions for more than three decades with major global publishing companies, including 22 years at Wiley. Karrel has hired and trained thousands of people at various stages of their careers, motivating them to maximize their abilities.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dean Karrel Interview Transcript

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

Dean Karrel
Pete, thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to join. And you’re getting close to 500 of these podcasts. That’s really impressive.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks. Yeah, it is, it is coming up and I’ve got something special I’m thinking about for number 500. I hope it comes together.

Dean Karrel
I was wondering if you were going to do some special event. That’ll be very exciting. So, you’ve got certainly a lot of us listening when number 500 comes up.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, there’s so much good stuff to talk about and I want to first hear your tale. I understand you have entertained dreams of being a standup comedian and your name is pronounced Carol not Karrel.

Dean Karrel
Carol, that’s correct.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’ve got to hear, do you have one or two great jokes you think could be stage-ready?

Dean Karrel
Well, I’ve got a number of jokes that could be stage-ready, unfortunately, I don’t know if they’d be good for the podcast. It’s funny, over the course of my career, people have said to me, “Dean, you tell great stories, you tell great jokes, you should be a standup comedian.” Well, the funny thing is, it’s like if you’re in front of an audience of colleagues and friends, and you’re making fun of yourself or you’re making fun of senior leadership of the company, of course everybody is going to laugh and they’re going to enjoy it.

The trick is how do you do that in front of an audience that doesn’t know you? And so, early on, when I first graduated from college, I actually went to a couple open-mic nights. I’m living in upstate New York, Rochester, New York and I go to the Holiday Inn Chuckles Club or something on a Friday night open-mic night. And I think the crickets are still chirping. It is really tough.

I talk about it in my career about confidence and how important it is to have confidence. Well, that shattered my confidence, trying to tell jokes and be a standup comedian. It is something that these people I give a lot of credit, because talk about being vulnerable and being out there, and you’re standing on a stage. So, I quickly learned that standup comedy was not going to be my profession.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, that’s amazing. They make it look so easy, the great comedians, but behind the scenes, there are many, many jokes that have died after testing and you’re only seeing the greatest hits by the time the Netflix special comes out.

Dean Karrel
Well, it’s interesting, I talk about in business the importance of planning and preparation. And what’s interesting, if you go back to standup comedy, we see Seinfeld, or you see your favorite comedian, or you see the comedian who appears at the comedy club in Chicago or New York or LA. They just don’t get up there and start telling jokes. They’ve gone through weeks and months of planning and prepping and honing their skills so there’s a correlation to that to business, how important it is to be ready. And it’s also knowing your audience.

You asked me for a couple of jokes right now. Well, it’s not appropriate. It’s tough right now for this audience. And there’s a whole correlation to all of these things from comedy to actually to the business world of planning and preparation, and also knowing your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I want to dig into a lot of the expertise and tidbits along these lines in terms of knowing your audience and doing the preparation. And so, you’ve done many courses and many years of coaching. I’d love to start with maybe what’s perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made when it comes to professionals at work, like over and over again you see this?

Dean Karrel
I think over and over again we try to impress or we get intimated by people with lofty titles or advance degrees, and we try to be people that we’re really not. I use an example of when I first got into business, I was really impressed with some of the colleagues that I worked with. I thought they were smarter, I thought they could do things better than me, and I’m kind of really intimidated by that, and I found myself trying to do things that really weren’t myself.

And you see in business where people say, “Well, I need to have an MBA in this,” or they get impressed by somebody who’s a senior vice president of marketing or sales or the CFO or CEO. And you need to step back and realize you have to be yourself and how do you enhance your own skills. And sometimes we get intimated and sometimes it comes back to confidence. But the most important thing is be yourself and enhance your own skills and make yourself better. And that’s how you advance your career and find new opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you say to yourself, could you share an example of the opposite of that? Like, it’s a mistake to try to do this when that’s not you.

Dean Karrel
Well, I remember going to meetings when I first got into business, and I’d be intimidated by seeing somebody that maybe had a lofty title and somebody with an advance degree. So, I would speak up in meetings because I thought that would be an impressive thing to show other people that I could hold my legs and hold my stance in front of a large group of people. And I would talk about things and I would go down a road that really didn’t need to be done. Or I would extol achievements that I had made in the sales field in trying to impress others. And I quickly came to realize, you know, that’s just not being myself.

I was trying to please others and at the same time what I was doing was not really being authentic. I wasn’t being genuine or real. I was just trying to prove myself to other people. And that never works. There’s a lightbulb that goes off in everybody’s career when they realize, “You know what, I just need to be myself.” Not everybody is meant to be the CEO. Not everybody is going to be the Chief Marketing Officer or the best sales professional.

So, how do you separate yourself? And how do you enhance your own abilities? And that’s the lightbulb that comes off in some people’s career early on, in some people it never goes on. But you have to realize that, “Where do you fit in business? And how do you maximize your abilities to be successful?”

Pete Mockaitis
And when you’re doing those things, trying to prove that you’re smart, which is unattractive for everyone around, it’s like, “Okay, Dean, you’re wasting our time. Okay, we already know that you’re fine, which is why you have this job and, yes, we already know those accomplishments. Thank you for reminding us. Can we get onto the topic at hand please?”

Dean Karrel
Well, we all know those people. We go into a meeting and somebody will say, “Well, I’m the senior vice president of XY & Z.” Or, there’s always that one person in every company who is the first person to talk in every meeting, they’re the know-it-all. And behind the scenes, we’re all saying, “Oh, I wish that person would just be quiet.” And they develop a reputation of being the know-it-all, and that’s never the right approach. It’s also the person, again, every company has them, and they’ll say, “Well, you know what, during my years at XYZ business school, I learned the following techniques.” Well, we don’t care.

Pete Mockaitis
“At Harvard.”

Dean Karrel
Right? But every company has these people. And sometimes we can get caught in the trap of thinking, “Well, maybe that’s the route we should take.” And I came to realize, and it’s the wakeup call, saying, “That’s not the approach you need to do. You need to be yourself and enhance the abilities that you have and not worry about anybody else.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, one of your tenets there, I’d say within that realm, is that it’s really key to master the basics. And that sounds wise. Sure, we should master the basics. But can you tell us, what do you mean by that and sort of like what’s the alternative route that is a poor choice?

Dean Karrel
So, we all get caught up, let’s say, with learning advanced techniques in marketing or social media analyses and organizational development, mergers and acquisitions, and that we forget about, and I think it’s learning and going back to mastering social skills, people skills, soft skills. How do you handle yourself in a meeting? How do you handle public speaking? How do you work with a micromanager? The basics of business are lessons that they don’t teach at a business school.

Oftentimes, we learn these from, hopefully, our first sales manager, our first manager in whatever business that we happen to be in that will help coach us and train us. But a lot of times it happens through osmosis. We’d go to a meeting and we realize, “You know what, I shouldn’t be using my cellphone, I shouldn’t be texting.” Or, we’ll read about stories about that but no one has actually ever trained us in not to do these things.

So, over the course of my career, I’d always have, like, the people I work with have called them Deanisms, and I put together a list of about 200 different topics. And I wrote about a page, a page and a half on each just covering everything from meeting conduct to how to work with your managers, how to work with colleagues. We all talk about being authentic or being vulnerable and words like that, but what does that really mean? So, I went through all of these and I wrote just simple subjects of basic skills and how that can help you be successful in business.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s so wise. And I think I remember in sort of my earliest career moments, just like these simple things, like, “Okay, you have a spreadsheet. There’s a column for a category. Try to make those categories a sort of a simple set of, I don’t know, 5 to 20, or whatever as opposed to your own invention for each category. Otherwise, it won’t make any sense later on when you try to filter or pivot a table or whatnot that’s not useful. Or when you attach a file to an email, double-click that file to ensure that it is the correct version of the file and not a prior version of the file.”

And then I had a great mentor who was managing me in a meeting, and he saw that a partner was doing this as he was sending something out to the client, and he said, “See, Pete, even partners do that.” And it’s so true, it’s like those are the things that can embarrass you or can really distinguish you, I’d say, particularly in the early phases of a career in terms of like, “Okay, this person just gets it. I don’t have to explain all of that.” And that just sort of builds trust and credibility and all kinds of good things.

Dean Karrel
Some people do just get it and they understand it, they’re quick and they figure it all out. And you touched on something with Excel which, ironically, is one of the topics in the book that I wrote, is that I’ll have people come up to me and they say, “You know, I’m awful with math and I can’t do Excel.” Well, you have to learn the basics of Excel or any spreadsheet package, whether it’s Google Sheets or Excel, whatever spreadsheet package. You have to be able to put together a basic P&L, you have to be able to work your way through a basic P&L because that also holds true for our personal lives too.

How are you managing your own budgets at home? You have to learn basic math skills. But, again, that’s taught as a major course – analyses, spreadsheet analysis, and what-ifs and so forth. But for the average person, let’s say like me, the B student, did I ever have the course in saying how you use Excel for basic work in business and the importance of it? And I think it’s essential. I’m not saying you need to be the CFO or an accountant but you need to be able to navigate your way through Excel, a basic P&L, and a spreadsheet and a balance sheet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s one basic. And you had mentioned, okay, you outlined about 200 of these. I’d love it if you could zero in on perhaps the most leveraged two to five-ish of these basics. And my criteria, I’m getting really choosy with you, are that they’re, one, often overlooked, like you might be surprised at how often people just sort of don’t do this; two, it makes all the difference in the world in terms of you do it or you don’t do it, and the impact of folks on it; and three, it’s a lot of bang for your buck in terms of, “Hey, it only takes a couple of minutes and it makes a world of difference.”

Dean Karrel
How about if we start off with a story? I’m a firm believer in knowing your audience and I think that’s so important no matter what job you have and what business you’re in, and I learned this from my very first manager. And he would talk to me and say about the importance of knowing the customer, learning a little bit more about them before you meet them.

So, my first sales manager was a religious person. He never pushed this on any of us who reported to him but we all knew he was a religious person, and he would always write personal notes. This is the early days of email, before email. He’d send a personal note saying how we were doing and how we could continue to improve. He was always big on that.

And that first Christmas, when I was working for him, I was sending out cards to all of my friends and I included one for him, and I had one that was a cartoon of Ziggy and a bear on a pair of skis, and when you open the card up, I wrote, “Happy Holidays – Deano!” And I mailed it off to my manager named Gary. And, literally, two days later, I get the Christmas card from him and he wrote a personal note. He talked about the blessings of the holiday season. And as soon as I got it, you know what, “I forgot, he always writes personal notes and maybe I should’ve sent him a religious card or whatever.”

When I saw him two weeks later, he said to me, “Hey, by the way, way to know your audience,” and he laughed and I apologized saying, “Gary, I’m sorry I didn’t send you a religious card.” And he smiled, he said, “I wasn’t looking for a religious card. I know I never talk about religion with anybody. But the fact is you just did a…” what this day and age would be like an e-card, an e-Christmas card, and it was a toss aside, “Happy Holidays – Deano!”

So, fast forward a year later at a holiday season, I get a Christmas card from him that’s religious in nature again, and then he had kept the same card I had sent to him, and he said, “Thinking of you – Gary.” And it’s his subtle coaching way of saying to remember, “Always know your audience.” And what’s funny now is we’ve exchanged that card for over 30 years, back and forth, with the same line, and, “Happy Holidays – Deano,” and he writes down, “Thinking of you – Gary.”

And so, the message there was great coaching. He didn’t go write it at my face, saying, “Dean, what are you doing here?” And it’s something that’s just a nice lesson through the years we’ve gone through. So, knowing your audience also then ties in with, Pete, you know, today, I’ve spent some time and, obviously, I’ve heard your podcast before, but I went to listen to the ones you’ve just done recently so I get a feeling of  your style, you’ve got a great sense of humor, you always ask great detailed questions that dig in deeper. So, it’s like knowing the audience and knowing who you are, getting a feel for you before you and I are chatting today.

So, to me, that’s a critical lesson. Is that a course at a business school? Is that a course in a community college? No, this is something that I think are basic skills and lessons.

Pete Mockaitis
And there it’s just a matter of kind of asking yourself a couple key questions in terms of, “Okay, what are they? What are they into? What might they appreciate? What’s something that’s unique to them?” And that’s good. Well, you talked about humor and happy holidays, I’m thinking about, I believe this is the episode of 30 Rock where so he made a card and said, the front said, “Happy Holidays,” and then you open it up and it said, “Here’s what terrorists say – Merry Christmas.”

Dean Karrel
That’s good. Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s outrageous. So, that’s what I’m thinking about when you go on standup comedy and about knowing your audience and cards.

Dean Karrel
Well, it ties in maybe a little bit also about you and I meeting for the first time today through this podcast. You asked me how do I pronounce my name. And I would bet you, over your course of your lifetime, Pete, your name has been pronounced more than a few times. And I call that basic skill of I make sure that on LinkedIn you phonetically spell it. It’s like it’s very simple but it’s, to me, that’s a sign of respect of saying, “You asked me how to pronounce my name. I take the time to learn your name.” Basic skill.

When your name is mispronounced, and you talk, let’s say, in a business setting, if I’m seeing a new customer, or a new client, or whatever, and I mispronounced their name, immediately you get off on the wrong foot, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. That’s true. I was in a training once and someone said, “Oh, Pete Macchiatis. I just love that name. It reminds me of a macchiato.” I was like, “That’s completely wrong but I’m not going to take that from you if you’re getting such delight.”

Dean Karrel
Yeah, well, then you take it to the next step. How often has it been misspelled?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right, yeah. Plenty.

Dean Karrel
You know, my name has always got – people usually misspell it with two Ls and other people get away with it for once, twice, maybe three times. Then after the third time, it’s like, “Hey, wait a minute now.” So, again, a basic skill of respect. It also ties in remembering people’s names. We always see people say that, “Oh, I’m awful with names.” Well, we all struggle with names sometimes. We can’t remember everybody we meet.

But how many times have you met somebody, Pete, you’ve met them three times, and then they’ll say to you, “Hey, it’s nice to meet you.” It’s like, “Where have you been? I’ve met you three times already, and you still don’t know my name, or you still don’t even remember that you’ve met me.” And, again, basic skill but it carries so much weight, and I think is it make or break for business success? No, but compiled and put together with all the basic skills, I think it can separate you from other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, absolutely. Okay. So, we’ve talked about knowing your audience and knowing names and pronunciations. So, what are a couple other big ones?

Dean Karrel
How about first impressions? You know, we all say we shouldn’t make judgments off a first impressions? But it is critically important in this day and age whether it’s through an email, whether it’s through a phone call, whether it’s through a first-time meeting with somebody. And my story that I have in the book that I love telling is this is one where there was a day that I wasn’t going to be seeing clients, I wasn’t going to be meeting with customers, and I dressed casually to work, which, for me, is khaki pants and a more toned-down dress shirt.

And I’m going to the coffee shop across the street, and there’s a gentleman, two people in front of me, and this is a coffee shop I go to every day. They’ve got a great staff. Lovely people work there. And, all of a sudden, they got a little bit behind, they got a little slow. And this guy, two people in front of me, started to get in the face of the woman who was making the coffee. And there was a point where I just said, “Hey, buddy, take a break. She’s doing the best she can.” And I said it really politely.

Well, this guy turned around and looked at me like I was, you know, who am I. And he had a few choice words for me. And at 7:30 in the morning, I wasn’t about to start getting in an argument, but I finally just said, “Hey, take it easy, will you?” So, fast forward two or three hours later, a sales manager I’m working with comes to my office and he says, “Dean, I’m interviewing candidates for an opening position, for a new opening position. I know you’re not planning to see somebody today, but do you mind spending a few moments with this person?”

Well, you know where this is headed. About two seconds later, the guy from the coffee shop walks in, and he looks at me, and I just said to him, “Hey, how was your coffee?” Well, he went white. And, again, it’s a first impression, he was a good salesperson, but you learn a lot about somebody and how they act when no one’s looking. And, to me, that’s something. If he treats people like that in a coffee shop, this poor person who’s working so hard, how is he going to treat a customer? How is he going to treat clients if that is his style when he thinks nobody around from that company is going to see him?

And we ended up hiring somebody else, and that wasn’t the overall deciding factor, with that person’s attitude, but because we found somebody who was really superior in all of their skills. But what that did was a memory for me of just how this person acted. And so, that’s a nice story, a reminder that all first impressions do make a difference.

Pete Mockaitis
And that kind of gets me thinking about gossip in the office. And I don’t know how Stephen Covey said it in terms of like honoring those who are not present or something like that. it’s like, “Boy, if you’re saying these things to me about that person, you’re probably saying some things about me to others. And that just kind of doesn’t feel so great.”

Dean Karrel
I’ve talked about gossip. I think that’s one of the great destroyers of corporate culture and it gets people all wound up, and it’s part of human nature. We like talking about things and you can’t eliminate it completely. But 90% of the time, what gossip does is it ends up getting people more stressed out. And it’s not senior management that gets stressed out, it’s the rank and file, it’s the support team, it’s the assistants, it’s the entry-level people who they hear gossip, they’ll hear that somebody’s been laid off or fired, and then the gossip and the rumors starts. And before you know it, you’ve got a whole organization that’s tied up in a knot.

And a gossip to me is a destroyer. And I say, unless you hear from the CEO or corporate communications, what you’re hearing is speculation and gossip, and turn it off and don’t listen to it. I think, again, that’s one of the lessons in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I very recently heard, I realized a turn of phrase, I don’t know where it came from, and it was just to, “Talk to people not about people.” I thought that is a nice encapsulation of it. And the thing is talking to people, it takes more courage and humility than just shooting your mouth off for stress relief or whatever.

Dean Karrel
Right. Tied in with gossip is also using the BCC on your email. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. And whether it’s blind carboned or confidential. Confidential is another one. I think confidentiality is, again, once one person knows, two people are going to know, and it’s not confidential anymore. And I’ve had a few experiences in my career when I learned my lesson about that. And you’ll find out about confidentiality lasts about 10 minutes and then it spreads like wildfire.

So, if you don’t want somebody to know about it, and if you said something bad about somebody, then don’t say it, or see them face to face and talk about it and discuss the issue. Don’t put it in writing, don’t spread it around, and all of that does is cause ill will and it’s not good for you or that other person.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Well, while we’re on this kind of a topic, a number of your basics fall into the category of office politics. How should we think about that? And for those who say, “Oh, I hate politics,” like, how do we survive and thrive in that environment?

Dean Karrel
Well, we all hate politics, all of that. It’s part of an organization and it’s part of all of the company’s culture. And a lot of that starts at the very top. And if you’ve got a good CEO, you’ve got good leadership, good companies, politics are usually nipped in the bud. Jeff Bezos doesn’t put up with that at Amazon. And Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn has a great culture in that organization. Every company has politics but it’s nipped in the bud.

Where you see things are going sideways, or where management is not involved, or if they’re in lofty towers and they’re not visible, they’re not being seen, and I’ve come full circle on this in my career. When I first started, I thought, “Oh, my gosh, the CEOs were the best, they’re at the top.” Well, there are lousy CEOs and there are really good CEOs, just like there are good managers and there are lousy managers.

Again, early on, I thought, “Well, you know what, I can adapt and I can change.” And people who put up with office politics, managers who are micromanagers, they’re not going to change, so that’s where you, again, have to look after your own interest and find that next opportunity. A lot of people are put in high positions, lofty positions, and they’ve never been trained on what to do in those positions. People are managers, but that’s a big step in becoming a leader. And leaders don’t put up with politics, they don’t put up with gossip. It’s focused on the customer, focused on success, profitability, and so on. And I think some people have got it and others don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say don’t put up with politics, what are some things in particular that encompasses this set of behaviors to avoid?

Dean Karrel
It’s communication. And if you have a problem with somebody, or something is going on, don’t send emails, and don’t wait for next month’s townhall meeting, do it today. Get the group of people together today. Or if you’re hearing about something that’s going on in the organization, if you’re a leader in the company, or if you’re department head, don’t sit on it, address it.

Too often now, we wait for, “Well, you know, we have a department meeting on Friday and we’ll discuss it,” or, the buzzword now, “Let’s have a townhall meeting next month on the 15th.” If things need to be addressed, whether it’s politics, rumors, gossip, where we’re going as a company, don’t wait. Do it today. And I think the best leaders address those things and nip them in the bud and that’s how you become successful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, any other critical basics that make a world of difference?

Dean Karrel
Well, again, going back to knowing your audience, the people I’ve worked with, they’ve heard this mantra, and when they hear this podcast, they’re going to hear it again. It’s planning and preparation. And that’s one of my primary messages throughout my career. Again, I was a B student, and I got to be a B student because of extra credit.

And I used to take the time to plan and be ready, and whether it was a test to take, a course to do, and in business, seeing a new customer or seeing a new client, I always make sure I was ready to go. I use the analogy of you don’t start cooking and getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner the night before, right? You’re going to have a problem. And you’ll hear people say, “You know, I’m seeing a customer, I’m seeing a client,” and it’s 24 hours before they’re going to go. You can’t do that. You have to be planned.

The Thanksgiving dinner, you’ve got to defrost the turkey five days early. You got to know what other people are going to want to eat. You have to get all of the side courses ready. So, Pete, do you think I sat down for this podcast at 4:00 o’clock or 3:00 o’clock or whenever and said, “Oh, here we go”? No, I went and learned a little bit more about you. Again, as I said, learn and listen to some of your other podcasts.

That is not rocket science. But planning and preparation is something that people just take for granted sometimes. And I think it’s one of the basics that has helped me become more successful than maybe I could’ve been in my career. I mean, it’s helped me move to the next level of taking that time to know customers, know the people, do the research.

If I’m going to visit a publicly-traded company, spend time on their website to learn about their financials. Spend time to look for presentations they’ve made, press releases. All of these can help you and give you a competitive advantage and just make you more prepared. Also, that ties in with helping you be more confident. And if you’re prepared, you’re ready, you’ve taken the time to know everything you can, so it just builds your confidence, which I think is one of the other critical aspects of the basics is confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, do you have a checklist there that you sort of know, “Okay, preparation complete”? I guess my own process is I imagine kind of.
“What might they ask me? And am I ready to answer that? And what would I most not want them to ask me because it’s trickier, difficult, or embarrassing, or I don’t think I’ve got a great answer for it? And how will I handle that?”

And so then, once I feel good in the sense of, “Okay, I think that no matter what kind of thing they throw at me, I’ve got a decent response.” That’s when I feel prepared. But do you have a particular set of issues or research activities you like to make sure you do with your time?

Dean Karrel
I think you nailed it just there. If you think they’re going to ask you, “Hope they don’t ask the embarrassing question,” they’re going to ask the embarrassing question. And if there’s something going on with your company, or something with your product or service offering, they’re going to ask that questions. You have to be prepared for handling objections.

Ironically, that’s one of my courses at LinkedIn Learning is handling objections. And if you’re ready, you know you’re going to get questions about whether it’s your price, or your product, or your service. If you’re surprised about questions that are being asked by your customer or your client, then you haven’t done your proper planning and preparation.

So, the checklist is knowing what questions you’re going to be hit with, which are the objections. And having your checklist ready with the key features and elements, whether it’s yourself, whether it’s your business, and having those, the top three things that you want to be able to get at, not the top 10. What are the key critical things that I want to make sure Pete knows about me through this podcast? And, again, that’s not that difficult to do but not everybody does it. And, again, that goes to being prepared and being ready.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you mentioned confidence is key, and one of the means by which you acquire that is by doing the proper preparation.

Dean Karrel
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
What are some other components to have that confidence?

Dean Karrel
So, to build your confidence is it does take time. And if anybody says they’re always confident all of the time, then they’re lying. We all go through things over the course of our career and it’s like a rollercoaster. And I think people need to hear that. I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve been in business a long time. And when I say to people, “You know, I still have my confidence or I get nervous sometimes.” Hey, Pete, I was a little nervous getting ready for you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intimidated.

Dean Karrel
That’s showing, Pete, the vulnerable side, the authentic side of me but it also shows that I’m ready so I can be confident as we begin to speak. And I think that’s so important in knowing and realizing in the course of our careers, we’re going to have moments where our confidence is rocked. And the trick is, how do you overcome that? And then it goes back to building on your strengths and working in areas where you know you can have some successes.

But if you think, over the course of my three plus decades of being in business, I’ve always been, “Hey, I’m Dean Karrel. Let’s rock and roll.” Oh, that’s a lot of baloney. I’ve had moments where I’m like, “What’s next?” I mentioned I do these courses with LinkedIn Learning and, Pete, like you, I’ve spoken my whole life. I speak in front of audiences all the time, and sales meetings through the years, 500 people, 300 people, whatever.

I’m out at LinkedIn’s studios out in California, and I’m ready to tape a course and, all of a sudden, my knees start shaking. And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, I know how to do this.” But my confidence was a little unsure because it was a new step for me, something new to me. And the trick though is then being able to overcome that and realizing, “You know what, I have done this before. I have been successful in this before.” And I said, I took a deep breath, did a little spin around the block, so to speak, in the studio, and then we’re ready to roll.

But I think people need to hear, if you’re new to business or even if you’ve been in business for 10 years, 15 years, you’re going to have moments where your confidence is rocked. And the trick is how to overcome it, and you go back to your strengths, which again, for me, are the basics – planning and preparation, working with people, understanding people, and so forth. And, again, that ties back to some degree just my philosophy of business, and it starts off with being good to people.

People say, “Is that a business skill?” I can’t tell you, Pete, how many people come up to me and it’s a good feeling, “Hey, Dean, you’re so nice. You’re nice to people.” Well, how hard is that? But it differentiates me from a lot of people. I say hello. “Why, is that a business skill?” How many times have you walked down the hallway, Pete, and somebody looks at you and they just grunt or they don’t look at you at all? Does that happen?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Dean Karrel
So, people say, “Well, Dean, you always say hello.” “Wow, there’s an MBA course. Dean says hello.” You know what I mean? But that’s part of my philosophy. If you’re a B student, you got to work hard, and that’s one of my messages often, it’s work ethic. So, I sound like everybody’s grandfather here, but you have to have a good work ethic. And, to me, that’s a basic skill. It’s integrity, character, reputation, credibility. I mean, these are, to me, are cornerstones of being successful in business that they don’t teach at any school.

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

Dean Karrel
Well, the last message is it’s like you always have to know your priorities. And what really matters, you know, at the end of the day our families have to come first. So, we all talk about we want to be the most successful business person, “I want the corner office,” or, “I want to make more money,” but at the end of the day, it’s knowing your priorities. And what really matters in life and I think family comes first.

I worked my tail off throughout my career but at the end of the day I’m proud that I didn’t miss some of my son’s events, I didn’t miss my daughter’s basketball games, and I think that’s a message that we all talk about, but I think we all need to follow and follow even better.

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

Dean Karrel
Well, it ties in with business, and the quote side of it is that, “The true test of a person’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” And I think that ties in with my basics, being good to people, and being who you want to be. Can you look at yourself in the mirror and be happy with what you’re seeing? So, John Wooden actually has that quote, which I don’t like using sports people for quotes, but it’s his is such a good one. “The true test of an individual’s character is what they do when no one is watching.”

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

Dean Karrel
I’m a big believer in I wish I had taken more psychology classes in college and afterwards. And I’ve done that later on. And I’m a believer in emotional intelligence. So, Daniel Goleman’s studies on emotional intelligence. There’s other great studies, Travis Bradberry’s EQ 2.0. I think how we follow human nature, human behavior, I think those are all valuable skills for all of us to learn in business. And I think those are studies that I really enjoy.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Dean Karrel
Two of them. One is, and this might surprise you, coming back from the sales industry, but it goes back to when I was a kid. I read Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. And just the trauma that this individual went through, the struggles that he went through, and I actually wrote to Arthur Miller, and it goes back to being good to people. Arthur Miller wrote me back, and I was a high school kid. So, that book had an impact on me and my life.

And there’s a business book that I recommend to everybody and I think it’s essential reading, it’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. And it’s 200 pages, inexpensive book. It’s worth everybody’s time to read. I think it’s a really valuable book of how you work in an organization, work with teams, and how you need to get things done.

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

Dean Karrel
I love my iPad, I love my iPhone. I don’t use them 24 hours a day but it keeps me organized, it keeps me on top of things, and I use them for all of my chores. Going back to your Excel question, I live on Excel too, I keep everything organized. I’m an organize freak. I drive people nuts with that that I used to work with because I’m really organized. Because if I don’t stay organized, I find myself going crazy. So, this keeps me focused is when I have all of my tasks, my to-do list.

You’ve had a number of people on your podcast talk about being organized and having things and journals and notes. Well, I agree with that, so those tools and everything that I can use that can help me stay focused, I think, is valuable for me.

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

Dean Karrel
Everybody always says to me, “Dean, you always talk about planning and preparation.” I also talk about you have to believe in yourself. Because, again, I have had moments where I’m like, “What’s this all about? And what am I doing?” And we all go through that at various stages of our life, in our 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. So, my nugget is you’ve got to believe in yourself. And not every day is going to be perfect.

And on my work now as a coach with people, I see rollercoasters that people are on, and it’s like, “Oh, man.” There’s a fine line, as you know, Pete, between coaching and being a psychologist, and I have to put the barrier up sometimes. And you see people that are really going through some struggles in their business careers, and I always go back, you have to believe in yourself and go back to the things that work for you, which ties into mastering the basics. And then the other nugget that everybody I’ve ever trained and worked with is family comes first, that I’ve already mentioned that. It’s so true.

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

Dean Karrel
Well, I have a website, you know, TheSkyridgeGroup.com but, frankly, what I’m on every day, and I post a couple of times a week, is on LinkedIn. I urge people to follow me. I post videos that are a minute, two minutes long. And I had one yesterday about the importance that we have to have of following up with people who are looking for jobs, or people who write to you and say, “I need help looking for jobs.” And sometimes we duck those calls and sometimes we don’t respond to those emails. So, on LinkedIn, I have posts and videos that are up all the times. I would actually direct folks, follow me there. I think you’ll like what I have to talk about.

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

Dean Karrel
Well, it sounds like a catchphrase but you always have to be learning. I went back to college at a later stage of my career, four years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did. I went back to New York University, NYU, I took courses in human resources management, two exceptional professors, and I was with people there half my age.

So, always be learning, always look for new opportunities. You don’t have to take the MBA course. Take any course. Read. You got to read books. You got to take a seminar. Listen to these podcasts. If you pick up two tidbits, three pieces of information, what a great investment of your time. And my challenge is, to everybody, never stop, whether you’re 20, 40, 60 or 80. It’s always going to pay you dividends.

Pete Mockaitis
Dean, thanks for this and I wish you all the luck with your mastering of basics and your many other adventures.

Dean Karrel
Pete, I really enjoyed speaking to you and I’m excited for every podcast obviously, but you’re getting close to number 500, so you can count on me there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Dean Karrel
Thank you again.

471: How to Acquire New Skills Faster with Scott H. Young

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Scott Young says: "Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities."

Scott Young shares innovative methods to learn new skills more efficiently and effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Foundational principles for mastering skills more effectively
  2. The importance of “meta-learning”
  3. The Feynman Technique and other approaches to accelerate learning

About Scott:

Scott is a writer, programmer, traveler and an avid reader of interesting things. For the last ten years he’s been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better. He doesn’t promise he has all the answers, just a place to start.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsor!

  • The Simple Habit meditation app can help you gain greater control over distractions for faster learning. The first 50 listeners to sign up at SimpleHabit.com/Awesome get 30% off premium subscriptions.

Scott Young Interview Transcript

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

Scott Young
Oh, it’s so great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have many questions for you but I want to start with hearing the tale of how you completed MIT’s four-year computer science program in one year. Like, what even led you to think that’s a good idea, and how did you pull it off, and what were the results?

Scott Young
Yes, so this actually brings me back. This was about eight years ago. I just graduated from university and I had studied business, I met a lot of people who you go to school and you study something, and you realized, “Oh, wait a minute. Actually, this wasn’t really what I wanted to get out of it.” I was thinking, “Well, I should go into business.” I kind of have these ideas that one day I might run a business.

I go in and I take a bunch of business classes and find that, well, actually, most of business schools is how can you be a good little middle manager in a large company and not really so much about running your own or starting your own things.

And, at that time, I was thinking back to when I was a freshman and I was contemplating either going into business or studying computer science. And now, sort of in retrospect, have felt like the better choice because in computer science you, actually, learn to make things, you make programs and algorithms and scripts and websites and apps and all sorts of things like that.

And so, I was thinking about maybe going back to school, maybe I should go and do another degree and postpone my life. And around this time, I stumbled upon this class that was taught by MIT and uploaded on their MIT open course sort of platform. So, it was completely free, it was an actual class that MIT really taught, and they just uploaded some of the materials from it, so the lectures, assignments and solutions, exams and solutions.

And as I was going through this, I kind of thought this little lightbulb moment on my head of, “Well, if you could do a class, maybe you could try to do something like this for an entire degree.” And so, this sort of began this kind of research process, I spent several months putting it together of trying to figure out, “Okay, like how can I use the material that they put online? What gaps do I have to fill? What kind of alterations do I need to make?”

But the end result was sort of constructing this curriculum that was pretty close to what an MIT student would actually take. Just a few little minor deviations or substitutions from one class to another but the scope of the content was pretty much the same. And so, I decided to start going through this. And I was going through some of the test classes, I found that, “Well, wait a minute. When you actually take a class online, you do it with this process where it’s self-paced.”

There’s actually some places that you can maybe even do things a little bit faster. So, it sounds a little crazy when I say that. How could it possibly be faster? Isn’t studying in MIT really difficult? And it certainly is. But there are some definite places where the way that you do it in traditional classrooms could be made a little bit more efficient.

So, one of the instances of that is that when you’re taking lectures, for instance, you sit in the classroom and you have to sit through the whole thing, even the parts where the professor is getting some water and getting the slides set up and all that sort of thing. Whereas, when you’re watching a video, you can watch it at, let’s say, 1.5 times the speed. And if you miss anything, or get confused, it’s not a problem because you just hit pause and rewind.

[03:12]

And I found there were a lot of little places that you can make those sorts of adjustments and that, combined with a lot of hard work, made me think of trying something a little bit more ambitious. And so, I did this project I called the MIT Challenge, which was to try to pass the final exams and do the programming projects for MIT’s computer science curriculum, but instead of going to MIT, just take it on my own and try to acquire the knowledge and skills without having to pay tuition and go to Massachusetts.

Pete Mockaitis
And how did it turn out?

Scott Young
So, the project went great. I think it went pretty close to how I expect it. I mean, it was a lot of work. I did work very hard over those 12 months, so I can’t certainly just gloss over that because it is a lot of work to learn those classes. But, in the same sense, I spent 12 months and I finished the classes as I anticipated, and I did the projects the way that I wanted to do them.

And so, I sort of ended, after that year, with having kind of acquired some facsimile or some close approximation of a computer science degree without having to spend the same amount of time and certainly a lot less money to actually get that education.

Pete Mockaitis
And your marks or whatever, in terms of the final exams were kind of on par with a C or better levels to that?

Scott Young
Well, that’s a sort of deep question there. It’s like, “How do you grade yourself and evaluated?” So, for a lot of the exams, there’s no, “This is an A grade, this is a B grade.” As you probably know in a lot of technical classes, they even grade on a curve for some exams. I talked to a friend who’s a professor, and he says, some of the exams where even a 35% is a pass just because the amount of content that you have to do in such a short period of time, you just can’t finish the whole exam.

And so, my goal for the exam was just relatively coarse. It wasn’t a super fine grading that I got, like, this was an A+ or this was only a C+ but rather it was just to see if I could get over a 50% benchmark in most of the classes. So, for some of the classes, I was closer to that benchmark, and for others I got 80%, 90%. It just sort of depended on the specifics of the actual class. But I uploaded all of the exams, I actually did, to the website where I put this page so anyone can look at what I actually did on those exams. You don’t just have to take my word for it.

Pete Mockaitis
And one day someone is just kind of grade you hard. This is like the weird recurring dreams I have. Like, I’m back in high school, you know, it’s going to come for you. That’s pretty cool.

Scott Young
Well, I’m sure, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s hear about a couple of those, while we’re in the story, a couple of those tips and tricks. So, one was 1.5x the video speed, another was just a ton of hours of your life invested doing this stuff.
Any other particular things that made that possible?

Scott Young
Well, so there are some other things that you can consider doing when you’re doing a class like this or when you are working on something in a self-paced way. So, one common thing you’ll do in class is that you have graded assignments. And because there are graded assignments, you have to go from start to finish, complete the whole thing, and make sure it’s as good as possible because, of course, you’re getting marks for it. Hand it in, and then maybe a week later someone will grade it and give you some feedback. Whereas, if you’re doing a self-graded assignment, you can do it one question at a time.

Now, this obviously makes it a little hard to actually grade it because doing an assignment from start to finish is, strictly speaking, harder because you’re not learning in between. If you’ve got a question wrong because you have the wrong formula, you don’t get to look at the solution to see what the right formula was, which you can then use on questions two, three, etc.

But from a learning perspective, I don’t see it as a disadvantage. It’s actually an advantage because you can go through and you don’t have to wait as long to get those feedback cycles to make improvements. So, that was one of the things I did.

I know from the show notes, when we’re talking, of some of the questions you want to ask me. Another thing we were talking about was techniques like the Feynman Technique and other tools to help you break down kind of complicated subjects. But these are all sorts of things that regular students can apply as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very nice. Well, let’s just get into maybe the goods. So, Ultralearning is kind of your brand and book title here and we have master hard skills, outsmart competition, accelerate your career. It sounds like the stuff you love to do here. So, can you just sort of lay it out for us, like what’s the key difference between, I guess, ultralearning and normal learning?

Scott Young
Yeah, so in some ways I think the MIT Challenge project that I did is a little bit of an exception because of how closely I was trying to match what you do in school. So, the idea of ultralearning, as I sort of defined in the book, is that it is a strategy for learning, it’s both self-directed and aggressive. So, self-directed is kind of in contrast to how we often typically think of what education, where you sign up for class, you sit in a class, the teacher tells you, “All right. You’re going to learn this, you’re going to do this homework,” and you just follow along the instructions. You often don’t have a lot of initiative or control over the process.

Whereas, self-directed learning is when you are kind of deciding, “Okay, I’d like to get good at this. What’s the right way to do it?” You design the project, you pick which materials you’re going to use, and you go through it, even if some of those materials are, let’s say, a class or held from someone else. And so, this is really putting the learner in the driver’s seat, which I think is very important because that often means you get what you want out of some education program rather than just what someone, at a college or someone I think in a classroom, decided that you should be learning.

Now, the second thing is the aggressiveness which I know I think that probably comes across when I’m talking about the MIT Challenge or other projects. But one of the recurring findings I found when I was taking the research that a lot of things that are somewhat more difficult at first are actually much more effective in terms of your ability to actually acquire skills and retain knowledge.

And so, a lot of students sort of unwittingly kind of adopt these studying tactics or learning methods that end up getting much worse results and that are not as efficient, require a lot more time. But if they did something that is a little bit more intense, they would get better results.

And so, ultralearning was sort of a combination of that, and I documented the book by finding these people who just had accomplished these really incredible self-education projects where they had learned really hard skills that are useful for their career and their life often in ways very different from how you would approach it in school.

Pete Mockaitis
So, why don’t we dig into one of those tales in terms of another transformation with regard to doing some ultralearning?

Scott Young
Yes. So, some of the examples in the book that I cover is Erick Barone who, he basically taught himself all the facets of video game design. That means doing the art, doing the music, doing the programming, doing the story-writing, everything, by himself over a period, this was a project he did for five years, and ended up writing a bestselling game which he ended up selling tens of millions of copies of.

We have people like Tristan de Montebello who is actually someone that I met before he did his ultralearning project, and he did want to get really good at public speaking. And over the course of seven months, he went from having about zero experience, just then having a handful of speeches in his entire life, to being a finalist for the world championship of public speaking through a process of doing lots and lots of speeches, but also getting feedback, videotaping his performance, seeking all sorts of unique ways to improve his skills.

And these are some dramatic examples, but a lot of the ways that I think this practice of ultralearning can impact your life are things that they may not be going to be bestselling novels, but they are things that really matter to the person who did them. So, people like Dinah Feisenfeld was another woman that I met in the process of doing this, who was a librarian. She was reaching near the end of her career, and she was facing the fact that the world doesn’t need as many librarians as they used to, and it’s a struggling field with budget cutbacks and stuff.

And so, she decided she was going to learn statistical programming and data visualization because she recognized that where her field was going was being able to deal with large volumes of information that were coming in about books and resources and these sorts of things. And so, taking on a self-education project, she was able to turn her career around so that instead of something becoming obsolete, she was becoming indispensable. So, I think these are just a few of the stories that I cover a lot more in the book of people who have accomplished interesting things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that librarian story really resonates with me, one, because I love libraries and, two, because, hey, that’s really a beautiful move from a career perspective in terms of, “All right. We’ll take a look around. What’s going on? What is really necessary? What skills are associated with that? And then, bam, I’m going after them.” So, that’s pretty inspiring in terms of what can be possible for all of us in terms of from zero to extraordinary in maybe a year or maybe less.

So, that’s awesome. Well, let’s dig into then a few of these key strategies. So, you had said one theme is that you do some approaches that are aggressive and that they’re more difficult at first, but more effective over the course of time. Are there any other kind of key distinctions you’d make between some of your learning strategies you advocate and typical school learning strategies?

Scott Young
Well, one of the main principles that I talk about in the book is the idea of directness and there’s actually a huge body of research extending back decades that basically shows that we’re very bad at what psychologists call transfer. Meaning, that if you teach someone something in a classroom, and then you try to test them in a way that is somewhat different from how they get it in the class, they often do abysmally on these tests even though you would expect the knowledge was transferred.

So, one example of that is in one study, economics majors did not do better on questions of economic reasoning than non-economics majors, which is something you would expect to have acquired after spending a number of years studying something intensively at universities. And there’s a whole constellation of findings that are all around this problem of transfer. And the problem, it seems to me, is that a lot of the ways that we think about education are quite indirect.

You go to a classroom, it’s removed from the real world, you learn some very abstract ideas, and then they say, “Okay, go off and apply it to the real world.” And what’s missing is that often people struggle to apply it to their real world. They struggle to apply these big abstract ideas, or these ideas that are quite removed from the context of their actual lives.

And so, ultralearning, in many of the cases that I looked at, was really tied to using the skill from a very early point. And by tying it to a very early point, you often avoid these problems where you spend a lot of time studying something that doesn’t turn out to be useful.

So, one of the examples of an ultralearner I talk about in the book is Benny Lewis who’s learned dozens of languages. And his approach for learning languages is to start having little conversations with a phrase book, or Google translate or something like that, from the very first day he starts learning it. And this is in contrast to how we often think about language learning where you get some big book and you work through a bunch of exercises, and maybe you spend months without having a real conversation with someone.

And so, by doing that, he is accelerating his process but he’s also making sure that when he does learn something, it’s going to be used immediately. And, obviously, the examples I already brought up about Eric Barone learning video game development often through working on his own video game, or Tristan de Montebello learning public speaking by doing these speeches, this is sort of in contrast to how we often think about the kind of sit and listen model of lectures and classes, which is so typical to our normal education process.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, this reminds me of when I first learned how to podcast. I hunkered down with Pat Flynn’s YouTube videos, which were amazing, and I was like, “All right. Tell me what I’m doing. All right, now, I’m going to do it.” It’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and it was pretty fun and rewarding because, to go from, “I have no idea what I’m doing,” to, “Okay, that’s what the guy said I was supposed to do,” to, “Oh, hey, I just did it. All right. What’s next? How do I get this RSS feed business going? All right. Let’s bring that out.” And so, it did really reinforce in such that it became second nature in a hurry.

Scott Young
Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s just one of the ideas but I think it’s a very important one because it’s one that’s often missed by people. If you think about learning in terms of going to a class or reading a book and doing a test, not to say that those things aren’t valuable or they’re not useful tools to get you to your destination. But if that your dominant paradigm is, “Well, I want to learn something, I’d rather sit in this classroom and do it this way,” you will often have these issues potentially, at least, of transfer where you want to have a real skill but you’re not actually able to perform it the way that you’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s heady principle. Lay another one on us. I’d say I think you got nine principles and I thought I want to hit them all. But I’d love to get those that are the most transformational with regard to, “Okay, this only takes a smidge of time, but, wow, the results are delicious.”

Scott Young
Right. So, another one, and this is another one that’s, I think, not widely appreciated but is super powerful. It’s what is known as retrieval. And so, there is a really interesting study done by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt where they took students and divided them up into different groups. And one of the groups they got to do what they called repeated reviews. That means that you have a text or you have some material that you’re studying, and you just read it over and over again. And this is very similar to how a lot of students study, they take their notes and just read them over and over again as they’re preparing for a test.

And the other group of students, they got them to do what they called free recall, which means you read the text and then you shut it, and you don’t read it again, and you just try to spend time trying to remember everything that was in the text. And what was interesting about this study is they asked the students right after they had done this, “How well do you think you learned the material?” And what was interesting is that people who did repeated review said, “I got this,” that they rated their own sort of self-assessment of how well they learned the material the highest. Whereas the people who did free recall were like, “Oh, wow, I don’t have this,” and they rated their own performance rather poorly.

Now, the interesting twist of this study is that when you go on to test the actual students, it is the people who did free recall that performed much better than the people who did repeated review. So, this is an example of one of these findings that we already talked about of directness, this idea of learning directly before, but retrieval is another example of this idea of aggressive learning and ultralearning where it’s not so much about putting in 80 hours a week, but rather, “What are you actually doing with that time?”

And, in this case, if you spend your time doing repeated review, which is an easier more comfortable activity, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a reason why students like to do it is because just flipping over your notes feels pretty good. It doesn’t feel too bad. Whereas doing free recall, which is often uncomfortable, which you often recognize, “Oh, wow, I don’t actually know this really well,” and you have a little bit of fear about this test coming up. That is not always the most pleasant feeling but yet it is much more effective.

And so, this is just another example of where if you want to remember something or if you want to actually have knowledge at your disposal for a test or for real life, that if you practice retrieving it, you will remember it much better than if you just review it over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Some people toss it and leave it but you pull up quick to retrieve it, is what I’m summarizing. See, I’m retrieving it right now, Scott, and connecting to rap music from my youth. Well, that’s intriguing. So, then to do the free retrieval or what do you call it?

Scott Young
Free recall.

Pete Mockaitis
Method of retrieval, you just sort of, I guess, you can do either just sort of speaking it or writing it and sort of saying, “Okay, what did you just pick up there?”

Scott Young
Right. So, there’s lots of different ways that retrieval can happen. So, free recall is the one that’s done at this particular study, and it’s a useful one because you don’t need anything. You just shut the book and you just try to remember it from the top of your head. You can write it down on a piece of paper, you can say it loud, you can even just do it in your head if you really wanted to.

Other forms of doing this kind of approach is one of them is doing practice testing which means if you do practice questions, so if you’re doing a physics exam and you do practice questions, that’s another form of retrieval because you don’t have the answer with you. And that is an example where you have to bring up the knowledge from your head.

Other examples, there’s a common type known as cued recall. So, cued recall is where you give someone a hint or you give someone kind of a small question in order to trigger the knowledge. This is very common in forms of flashcards. So, you have questions with answers on the back. And this is, again, a good way to recall information the long term because you have to practice remembering it.

I think the real lesson of retrieval is to not think of, “Well, I’ve learned something. Now it’s in my head and, therefore, it’s just going to be accessible to me whenever I want it.” But rather to think of retrieving knowledge of actually bringing it up in the right situation is often the very essence of learning, is to not just have the knowledge in your head somewhere but to be able to access it when you need it is what’s very important. And that’s what you’re practicing when you do retrieval. Whereas when you just do review, it’s sort of that kind of an analogical level where you can imagine your brain just sort of saying, “Oh, this is on the paper. I don’t need to remember that because it’s just there when I’m looking at it.

And I think this is also interesting because one of the reasons students get deceived into thinking this kind of reviewing your notes over and over again works really well is because it gets easier and easier the more you do it. And so, our brain substitutes the feeling of, “This is getting easier,” with, “I’m going to remember this in the future. And those aren’t necessarily the same thing. As anyone can remember being at a party, and someone says their name, and then two seconds later you don’t remember it. It’s for the same reason that you say to yourself, “Well, Mark, that’s a normal name,” and then you forget about it, right? So, there can be the same sort of effect where ease is substituted for how well you’ll actually remember something later.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. So, I’m imagining these scenarios and these principles playing out. I can see how it readily applies to learning a language or a subject matter like physics. I guess I’m wondering about maybe communication skills with regard to you said you had an ultralearner who became a finalist in the global champions of public speaking. So, how does that sort of change things a bit in terms of, “I want to have a skill that I am using. Like, I can put up some drywall, or I can play a guitar, or I can give a good speech, or I can listen better”? Are there other principles that play into those more? Or how do we think about practicing in these dimensions?

Scott Young
So, as we mentioned before, there’s nine principles in the book, and some subjects, some particular skills are going to be like one of the principles are going to be particularly relevant for the fact that most people misapply it, and then for others it might not be super relevant. So, retrieval is one that tends to have to do with when you have to remember things.

So, interestingly enough, retrieval is actually super important for public speaking because you want to be able to remember your speech. And how do a lot of people memorize their speech? They write it on cue cards and they read it over and over again when they are reading it out and practicing in front of their coworkers or spouse or someone. Whereas, what you should be doing is putting the cards away and trying to recall it from memory because that’s how you’ll be able to actually repeat it without putting it on the cards.

But, really, being able to memorize a speech is just a really small part of what makes a good public speaker. And, similarly, if you’re playing a guitar, or you’re doing other things, there is going to be some retrieval. You need to actually memorize those patterns in a song or you need to be able to remember things. There’s a lot of other things that go into it as well.

So, another chapter, we discuss the idea of drill. And so, drills are something that have gotten a bit of a bad rap. We all remember drills that we were forced through in our elementary school where we were kind of punished and had to do the same drill over and over and over again until we mastered something.

And the problem is often just that when you are in a formal education environment, someone gives you a drill and you just have to do it a bunch, but you don’t really know why you’re doing it. Whereas, when you are doing a self-directed learning project, drills can actually be quite useful. And the idea behind a drill is that when we are practicing a complicated skill, like listening or putting on drywall as you mentioned, if you’re doing some skill like that, there’s often a lot going on. Particularly, the more complicated a skill is, if you’re playing chess, if you’re painting a picture, if you are juggling on a unicycle, there’s a lot of little components that all have to go into performing the skill well.

And so, ultralearners are people who are really good at this process of self-directed learning sort of instinctively know to break apart components of the skills which they can kind of practice in some sort of isolation and then weave back together with the sort of more complicated skill that they’re actually trying to perform.

So, Tristan de Montebello, who did the public speaking project, he was actually quite interesting in how innovative he was with doing some of these drills. So, on one of his goals, he wanted to work on his humor and some of his jokes, and so he decided to actually perform at middle schools because when he was performing in Toastmasters Clubs, people were very polite, they would certainly applaud and laugh along to what he was saying. But what if he wanted to know what people really thought, he would go to these grade schoolers who would not pull any punches if they thought his speech sucked.

And so, similarly, you can do the same thing when you are working on your own skills. Break it apart and work on components. So, if you’re a writer, you could sort of, let’s say, work on little mini efforts to get better at storytelling, or research, or grammar, or vocabulary, like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, you’re breaking that into components and then drilling one of them repeatedly.

Scott Young
Well, the idea here is, well, repeated drilling can be one way of improving it, but the right way to think about it just that any skill you want to learn, and particularly the ones that we’re talking about that are not the kind that are usually taught in school, like listening, for instance, the right way to think about it is not, “Well, how the heck do you get better at listening?” It’s to think of listening of actually being many, many different skills that all kind of come together in one activity.

So, being able to listen is not only being able to hear but be able to pay attention. It’s about having some knowledge of what the speaker is talking about. It’s about being able to respond in such a way with your body language and your words so that they can tell you’re listening, have constructive comments, do not react emotionally. There’s tons and tons of little things there.

So, if you wanted to get better at listening, a good starting point would be to look at your skill right now, try to see kind of how it breaks down, practice doing some listening with your spouse and sort of see where you’re making mistakes. And then, what I advocate in the book is that you either focus on the thing that your weakest on, so you focus on your weakest point rather than just some random point to improve.

So, if you’re really bad at listening because you get distracted really easily, that could be something to focus on. And, similarly, if there is too many components, so you’re trying to do many things at once, so, again, like you’re juggling with the unicycle, that might be too hard when you start. So, you start by just juggling one bowling pin, and then you add two, and then you add three, and then you add the unicycling like that.

So, there’s lots of different ways you can think of skills, and I outline some of these specific tactics in the book. But this is the right way to think about these sorts of nebulous skills and things we want to be good at in life that really are quite complicated.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so these are a lot of good little tidbits. I’d love to get your take on is there a particular sort of small adjustment that makes a huge difference? Would you put the retrieval toward the top of your list? Or is there another thing that you’re thinking, “Wow, this makes a world of difference for leverage”?

Scott Young
Oh, there’s tons, yeah. Well, the retrieval is an obvious one. So, if you’re doing anything that you have to pass a test for, you should be practicing retrieval and not doing repeated review. And, again, the fact that most students don’t do this is a real tragedy because they waste a lot of time and they really convince themselves they’ve learned something that they haven’t.

I also talked about directness which is another one. One of the questions that I encourage anyone who reads the book, anyone who’s listening right now, to ask themselves before they try to learn anything, to ask themselves, “Where am I going to use this?” And this doesn’t mean that where you’re going to use it has to be super narrow, and that like, “Well, I’m only learning Spanish so that I can go to a restaurant in Mexico and order fajitas.” Like, it doesn’t have to be that narrow for your end goal. But if you can focus on that little concrete starting point, you’re much less likely to get adrift with these transfer issues.

One of the principles that I open the book with is what I call meta learning, so this is the idea of learning how to learn something, and that’s something that is important for all learners, but particularly important if you’re going to take on your own project and try to design it. And this step is just simply before you start learning anything, just Google, “What are the best resources for learning X?” or, “What are the best methods for learning X?”

And if you spend an hour or two on Google just reading some articles, you will quickly find tons of books, tutorials, videos, textbooks, tons and tons of resources that you can choose from. And so, the actual, the literature on adult learning or self-directed learning projects shows that most people, when they are learning something, they just go with whatever is first available. So, they just, “Oh, one of my friends, he knows this, so I’m just going to ask him,” or, “This is the first book I found at the bookstore, so I’m going to read that.”

And I find that spending a little bit more time to do research avoids a lot of pitfalls because you actually know, “Oh, actually, a lot of people don’t recommend this for learning a language, for instance, because they didn’t find that it works.” And you can save yourself six months of playing around with it. And so, that’s, again, another little tip that I suggest for people to undertake.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that in terms of being conscientious and mindful of what are the tools and resources you’re looking to for your learning because it’s really true, there could be—I’m thinking about some of my favorite classes. Like, there’s some textbooks that I just thought were excellent and I still with me today because I thought I enjoyed reading this and learning this.

And like one topic was social psychology. I mean, I’m sure there are lamer social psychology textbooks than the one I had. And if I had them, I probably would have less knowledge as a result of being saddled with it. And I also think about that with regard to sort of Amazon reviews or if you take a gander at a book, you can look inside, you can check out the table of contents, you can read a couple of pages. And it’s wild how two books on the same topic will be substantially different in their resonance with me as I get into them a bit, like, “Wow, this is really kind of lame and boring and no fun,” as opposed to, “Whoa, this is a page-turner and it’s still non-fiction content that is skill developing.”

Scott Young
Well, the sort of analogy that I like to use is that when you are preparing for learning projects, it’s a little bit like packing a suitcase. You don’t want to pack your entire house and bring 15 bags for a weekend vacation. But, at the same time, you don’t want to show up somewhere with nothing, and you have to buy everything on the road because that’s no fun.

So, the right way to think about it is you do a little bit of researching ahead of time. And the amount of research you do, I think, scales with your project. I was mentioning, when I was doing this MIT Challenge project, I spent a few months just sort of researching on and off in my spare time because I knew it would be a pretty serious undertaking. Whereas, if you’re planning on doing something, which is, you know, it’s going to take you maybe a couple of weeks to learn, then maybe just spending an hour or so on Google is probably sufficient.

And so, the right way to think about it is just that there are lots and lots and lots of different ways to learn everything. And so, a lot of people get stuck in whatever was first recommended to them because that’s just what they go with. And if that isn’t working for you, if that book isn’t working for you, the course, what have you, using a different tool, or at least being aware that different tools and methods exist is very important. I think that’s particularly true of practical skills like, let’s say, languages, or programming, or using Excel, or drywall repair, as we were talking about earlier.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you mentioned the Feynman Technique a couple times, so I just can’t resist. Let’s close the loop here. What is that and how is it helpful?

Scott Young
Yeah, so the Feynman Technique was a sort of idea that I kind of pieced together from reading smatterings of Richard Feynman’s autobiography where he talks about some of his processes that he used to learn things. Now, it’s probably not the case that he used exactly this method, but he did seem to use similar cognitive processes in the work he was doing so I called it the Feynman Technique sort of after my inspiration from him.

And the basic idea is that if there’s some idea that you don’t understand, it’s particularly useful with difficult conceptual kinds of classes, if you’re learning physics or math or biology, or you have to study for a tough accounting exam, or there’s some concept in your work that you don’t understand, you start with a piece of paper and you write at the top, “Understanding X,” so whatever you’re trying to learn. So, it could be understanding torque, or understanding macros, or whatever you don’t understand.

And then you try to explain it to yourself as if you were teaching it to someone else. And this does a couple of things. The first thing that it does is just by writing, you are taking advantage of the fact that by writing things down you can get things out of your head so it’s easier to deal with the more complicated topics. So, a lot of ideas in our head are sort of hard to think about all at once especially if they’re confusing. But if you write them down, they start to make more sense. So, very often you can start and you just write from start to finish, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know what I thought was so confusing about it. It actually makes sense now.”

On the other hand, if you are genuinely confused, and there is genuinely a sort of puzzle piece missing to assemble the whole picture, then doing this process will help you narrow in on where that piece is missing. So, as you write through this, you say, “Oh, I don’t understand steps four to five in this procedure I’m supposed to follow. Why am I supposed to do it this way?” And then, with that knowledge, you can go back to your book, you can go to an online video, you can ask a colleague, a boss, someone who knows something, you can ask them, “Hey, why is it like this right here?” And then the advantage is that instead of asking a super nebulous question, like, “Oh, I have no idea what this thing is about it all,” you can just ask them a very specific question where you’re more likely to get a useful answer.

And so, I sort of first wrote about this idea about eight years ago, and it’s since been really popular. A lot of people have put their own videos and tutorials online demonstrating the Feynman Techniques, so it’s really been something that’s helped a lot of students, and even a lot of professionals, deal with confusing problems and ideas in their life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, at the top of the page you’re writing, “Understanding the topic,” and then you’re writing down, you say as though you’re explaining it to someone else. And so, I guess I’m imagining maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re writing down sort of extemporaneous bullet points versus full texts, prose.

Scott Young
I tend to do full text prose. It depends a little bit on your style. Like, obviously, this makes it more time-consuming, but I think that’s one of the benefits is that if I were to explain some idea, I would sort of say, “Okay, so the first thing we have to understand about this idea…” Like, pretend you’re giving a lecture, and you don’t have to write it on the page. One advantage you can do is just say it loud. And the main advantage of doing this is that it helps you organize your own thinking so you can identify some of these gaps in your knowledge.

Another advantage is that one of the main limitations we have is we have limited working memory. So, working memory is kind of the workbench of the mind, so to speak, where you take all the little memories and sensory inputs, and you sort of assemble them together to new thoughts and solutions. So one of the challenges is that this workbench is kind of famously small that when researchers measure it, we find that we can only actually have a few ideas in mind simultaneously without having one of them be forgotten.

And so, because of this, if you have a device where you can write it on a piece of paper, or you can even like write it out on a board, or do something like this, you can offload some of those ideas so you can focus on the parts that matter. Whereas, if it’s in your head, you can often feel like a jumble where everything is bouncing around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I love what you had to say with regard to when you zero in on that, it’s great for you because you’re focused, and it’s great for your teacher or your resource because it just brings me back to memories of school in which there’d be a student who would just say, “I don’t get it.” And you can tell the teacher was so frustrated with him, and it’s like, “Could you be more specific?” Because there may be a dozen points of entry that they’ve got to now got to navigate and select one as opposed to going right for the jugular that’s going to make the impact.

So, good stuff there. Now, I want to get your take, so the aggressive part and learning in general can be awkward, frustrating, unfun when you feel like you’re flailing and stupid and on the early stages of learning stuff. How do you think about discipline or mindset so that you can stick with it?

Scott Young
So, one of the things that I like to think about a lot is, “How do you structure your environment? How do you structure your goals and plans so that you don’t have to just have this constant feeling of willpower?” So, one of the mistakes I think a lot of people make is kind of, ironically, they actually are a little bit too easy. What they do is they’ll say, “Oh, you know, I’ll just work on this whenever I have time.”

Well, the problem is whenever you have time is always going to be more fun in the moment to pull out your smartphone and play on some game, or go on Twitter, or watch Netflix, than it will be to do some learning activity, especially in the beginning stages where you maybe haven’t yet entered that zone of positive feedback where you’re feeling constantly reaffirmed that you made the right choice to learn this thing.

And so, what I often find is, “How can you structure your environment and your time to just make sure that, ‘Okay, well, when I’m doing this, this is the only thing around me. I’m not distracted. I can focus. I can actually apply my time’?” And then often there’s little other subtle things that you can do to avoid kind of your little dips or your weak points when you’re doing things.

So, one of the big things you can do is get setup. So, for learning a lot of skills and tasks, the major obstacle is just getting setup. Like, if you’re going to paint a painting, you need to buy paints and an easel and brushes and make sure you have all the materials, and get the newspaper laid down, and all that kind of thing.

If you’re learning a programming language, very often the most frustrating part of learning to program is just getting your computer setup so that you can program. Or, for learning a language, for instance, very often one of the major difficulties is that because everyone around you speaks to you in English all the time, it’s always a little bit of friction, always a little bit of difficulty to push outside of that and start speaking a language you want to learn.

So, in the book, I often talk about ways that you can use little tricks to kind of get yourself to move forward. So, a really minor one, but one that made a big difference for me, as I was learning a new language, in this case it was Chinese, and I had to do a lot of flashcards. I was doing a lot of flashcards as part of the process of acquiring Chinese vocabulary. And one thing I noticed with myself is whenever I would mess up a flashcard, meaning that I got the wrong answer, there was this immediate pang of, “Ugh, I hate this,” or frustration. And that frustration immediately led to the urge of, “Let’s put this away. This is enough studying for now. Let’s go do something else.”

And what I found is that that little pang of frustration was actually really short-lived. So, what I could do was is if I just made a rule to myself that I was only allowed to quit when I’ve gotten one right, or the most recent one right. What that meant was that, yeah, sometimes I would get frustrated, but very often I would persist for much, much longer because as soon as you got one right, then you’re going to get a bit of positive feedback and you want to keep going.

And so, I think by thinking about your own behavior and your own habits and your own projects in this kind of systems level view, rather than just, “Hmm, I’m just going to put in lots of willpower,” I think you’ll get better results because very often it’s these very subtle things that if you can adjust, you can go much further.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a great rule there, “I’ll only quit, right after I get one right,” because once you get one right, you’ll feel good and you want to keep going. And, two, you’ll end on it on a high note as opposed to remembering, you know, primacy and recent effects. Like, instead of remembering that session as a huge drag that you painted, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I got it. Cool.” And so, you’ve got that memory with you to reinforce you starting up the next time.

Scott Young
Absolutely.

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

Scott Young
Well, I would say that my main focus with this book and the reason that I sort of obsess myself with learning over the last decade is that I think for a lot of people, learning is something practical, it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to get from point A to point B.” But I found, from doing these projects, and I found in my own experience mirrored in other people that I met that, really, it’s much more than that. That often what our greatest moments in life, the most we fear, the most happy, fulfilled are when we expand our own sense of what we’re capable of and what our possibilities are.

And so, I remember talking with Tristan de Montebello, he was the guy with the public speaking project, and I remember him telling me, he’s like, “You know what, Scott, it’s not that I just got good at public speaking, that that was I was excited about, but that this totally changed how I will approach any project in my life in the future,” that just all these skills and things that he would like to learn just seem to open up in front of him, that he kind of considered before.

And so, my main motivation for writing this book was not just to give people some practical tips, although we’ve talked about lots of them, but so that they may have that own experience in their life where something that they thought, “You know what, well, there’s no way I can learn this because I’d have to go back to school, and it would be tons of agony for years, and it’ll be painful. I won’t be able to do it.” That they could open themselves up whether that’s to learn something, a new hobby, a new language, a new instrument, a new skill, or maybe even transition to a new career, or really upgrade their skills in their career so that they can do a job that seems kind of terrifying for them right now.

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

Scott Young
So, one of the quotes, and I’m going to modify it a little bit because I really like it, but this is a quote from the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and he says, “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is victory.” And the thing that I’d like to modify it to is kind of really into what I was saying that I think that “Happiness is not pleasure. Happiness is the expansion of possibilities.” So, I do think that it is when we achieve things, it is when we expand, when we feel like we’re capable of that, we have our happy moments, not just when we get a reward or something nice happens.

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

Scott Young
Well, I can tell you right now one of my favorite ones is the one that I talked about in this book which is this one by Karpicke and Blunt about the retrieval versus repeated review. And it was so brilliant just because it just fit entirely with the idea of how students think about learning and what actually works.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Scott Young
So, a book I would recommend, which has been my favorite book for last year, is called The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, and this book is basically challenging the idea of what we think we are doing when we are thinking and reasoning about things. And I found it to be a very interesting book because it explains so much of why we argue about things, and also how we can think smarter in our lives.

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

Scott Young
Right. So, I’m going to go really basic but I really like reminders, just to-do lists. And I know that sounds a little like a little bit too basic, everyone wants to use advanced tools, but I find making lists very helpful. So, I have a list for my to-do items, but I also have a list of ideas, and books I should read, and restaurants I should go to, and projects I’d like to work on, and things that someone said, and quotes, and I probably got a dozen more lists on my computer.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Scott Young
So, related to that, I think one of the best habits you can do is, before you go to bed, plan your day in the morning. So, plan what you’re going to do in the next day. So, that could be just as simple as writing it out on a to-do list, “I’m going to do these eight things tomorrow,” or it could be as specific as figuring out what you’re going to do with each chunk of time. But I think the more you plan things ahead of time, the more you figure out how you’re actually going to use them, you’re less likely to succumb to doing the easiest thing in the moment.

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

Scott Young
So, if you want to reach out to me, you can go to my website at ScottHYoung.com, and you can find my contact form there. You can also reach me by writing to personal@scotthyoung.com. You can send me an email. I would definitely love to hear if anyone has applied some of these methods or if they go out and get the book, and decide to do their own ultralearning project, what they’ve decided to use it for.

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

Scott Young
So, the point I’d like to leave with this is one that we did mention before, but is something that I think is so important that I’d like to end it again considering we’re talking about the recency effects, is the idea that whenever you want to learn something, you should always start by asking yourself, “What is one concrete situation that I can use this in? And how can I do a little bit of my time practicing or applying it in that situation?” You’ll go a lot further if you can think of your learning in terms of, “How do I do things?” rather than just putting abstract knowledge in your head.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Scott, this has been a lot of fun. Enjoy your learning.

Scott Young
Oh, thank you so much.

469: How to Keep Robots from Stealing Your Job with Alexandra Levit

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Alexandra Levit says: "Put yourself in a position to be the most effective person in a certain job... [that way] even if some of the jobs disappear, you're still going to be at the top."

Futurist Alexandra Levit explains what the “robot takeover” will really look like and how you can stay relevant despite it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The problem with how organizations automate
  2. Honest predictions about the future of the human workforce
  3. The essentials skills that make you future-proof

About Alexandra:

Alexandra Levit has conducted proprietary research on the future of work, technology adoption, the millennial generation, gender differences and bias, and the skills gap. She also served as a member of Business Roundtable’s Springboard Project, which advised the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of Defense on current employment issues.

Levit also consults and writes on leadership development, human resources, technology adoption, entrepreneurship, innovation, career and workplace trends on behalf of Fortune 500 companies.

She is a frequent national media spokesperson and is regularly featured in outlets including USA Today,National Public RadioCNNABC NewsCNBCForbesthe Associated Press, and Glamour. Levit was named an American Management Association Top Leader for two years in a row and has also beenMoney Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year and the author of one of Forbes’ best websites for women.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, Sponsors!

Alexandra Levit Interview Transcript

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

Alexandra Levit
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we usually start with a fun little warmup question. So, I’d love to hear from you, are the robots going to kill and enslave us all?

Alexandra Levit
Are the robots going to kill and enslave us? The answer to that would be no, at least not in the foreseeable future. There’s something called the technological singularity which refers to a point in time in which technology will become so advanced that we really don’t know how it’s going to transform our society. Our society will not look like it does today. So, all bets are off when it comes to that point.

But I think we can pretty safely say for the next 15-20 years that we can anticipate what robots are going to do and, really, they’re going to be good partners. They aren’t going to replace humans, they’re not going to enslave humans, they are going to work alongside us, and, hopefully, in most occupations, allow us to do things that are more strategic and more meaningful, and focus on the work that matters to us.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you.

Alexandra Levit
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that comforting. Way back when I was in college, we were talking about this and there were a couple of my classmates who were totally convinced it was going to happen, and he even used the evidence point, “Have you seen the movie Terminator?” I was like, “Well, I have but that’s a movie and I don’t think that’s a good evidence point.” So, 15-20 years we’re safe. That feels good.

Alexandra Levit
Yeah, I think your friends are not wrong to be concerned, and we can certainly talk about the reasons to be concerned and the reasons not to be concerned, but I think in the long run it is something we’re going to have to think about because these are very powerful machines, they’re getting more powerful all the time.

And so, while the growth I don’t think is as exaggerated as some people might think in terms of machine learning and machine’s ability to really replicate and simulate human emotions and consciousness, it’s not as fast as some people might think, but there’s really no reason to think it wouldn’t happen eventually. So, I’m going to agree with your friends but try to temper the hysteria a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate that. Okay, well, with that established and a little bit of a breath of relief.

Alexandra Levit
A little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about what’s up with automation these days. There’s a lot of buzz and I’d love it if you could just sort of set us straight on, okay, what are some of the most striking data and stories that point to where automation is replacing workers and where it’s really not?

Alexandra Levit
Well, this is a great question, and I think the primary message I want to get across when it comes to automation is that you can’t just take huge swaths of your employee population and fire them so that you can automate everything. What I see organizations doing tends to be either too much or too little. So, too little means they bury their head in the sand and they really should be automating certain functions, and they’re not doing that because they’re behind the curve, which that’s not an unfamiliar situation for organizations, particularly when it comes to technology.

And other organizations aren’t being strategic enough about it. They’re just saying, “Well, just because I can automate something, well, that means that I should.” And, in fact, what we need to take is a far more measured approach. We need to look at specific tasks, and what the objective is, and then determine, “Okay, well, is this something where it’s a routine task, it’s something that needs to be replicated, it’s something that doesn’t require ethics or judgment?” It’s something that we have machines that can perform for us, freeing up our human workers to do different types of tasks that do require a little bit more abstract thinking, or creativity, or ethical concerns, or judgment, those types of things.

And what we need to do is look at it on a case-by-case basis. And we’ve seen kind of what happens when organizations don’t do that, when they just blindly automate things, and then there might be human workers there but they’re taught to just kind of stand blindly by while the machine tells them what to do, and the machine is not considering the nuances.

There have been several instances of this. The most famous one actually happened here in Chicago, where you and I are both are. It involved the United Airlines a couple years ago, where algorithm told them, “We need to get these flight attendants from one place to another. That’s the best scenario for business, that’s where we’ll make the greatest profit.” And because the algorithm said so, and the system was automated, the human employees just kind of stood there and were like, “Oh, okay.” And nobody really considered, “If we pull passengers off this plane in order to get these flight attendants on, what’s going to be the impact on our brand? What’s going to be the impact on our reputation, on our customer service?”

And the machine is not thinking about that because the machine is programmed that it only cares about profits. It doesn’t care about all these nuances. And so, we call the act of the human being watching over the machine, we call this the human in the loop. So, whenever you automate something, you have to have to have a human being who’s standing by saying, “You know, I get that the data is saying this, I get that this is what we’re automating, but we really need to take a step back and have some difference of opinion here.”

And that is really, really important to consider when you are staffing projects or staffing departments, yes, you might be able to, in fact, automate something and have an algorithm perform the task, but you still need the humans in the loop for oversight. It’s very, very important. And so, United is a great example of that, but I think most people, at least in the U.S., are familiar with that, unfortunately for United. That was very bad for them. And I think we’re going to see, Pete, more of that kind of thing happening because automation is not being planned carefully enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s intriguing in terms of some guidelines there, “Hey, the more that things require ethics, creativity, and judgment, the more we need a human presence, and the more it’s sort of like rote routine kind of repeat, repeat, repeat, that’s sort of the less we do.” So, could you kind of orient us to, I guess, there’s a lot of buzz with regard to some saying that automation is going to replace all these things, all these jobs are not going to exist. Like, what’s sort of the real fact-based in terms of some of the data and the stories pointing to, “Yes, right now, we are seeing these specific jobs disappearing at quick rates and these ones might be next”?

Alexandra Levit
Oh, I’m glad you asked that because there really is an important reality check here. And there’s been a lot of handwringing over the lost of jobs to machines. And when we look at it, it is something that we need to consider. But the numbers don’t really support that it’s happening in absolute crazy rates in all occupations.

So, for example, and a lot of consulting firms have done research on this, but I like the McKinsey research on it that says that about 60% of all occupations will be affected by automation in some shape or form. So, that means, chances are, two out of three, you will have automation touch your job. But, nevertheless, that’s not 100%. That’s still only 60%.

And then the other part of that is, of those 60% of jobs that are impacted, only about 30% of the tasks in that job will be automated, so that means that even if you’re within that 60%, you still have a whole bunch of things that you are going to be doing. So, you might have one task or two tasks that can be automated, but everything else you’re still going to be doing. And, therefore, your job isn’t going to disappear.

So, I think that’s a very, very important message that most jobs are not going to disappear entirely unless they are of the really rote routine factory-related jobs where you literally would stand there and put a widget on a conveyor belt. If you have that type of job, then you may have a problem. If you’re in the tech sector and you only know one program, for example, and that’s what you do, maybe you’re a database builder or something, and that’s all you do is build databases, and you don’t evolve your skillset, then you might have a problem.

So, it’s not just manufacturing and factory jobs, there are some knowledge-related jobs that could be impacted too. And that’s why, really, I encourage people strongly to take responsibility for upskilling and reskilling. Look at where your industry and where your job function are going and see the writing on the wall. And if you see that new software programs are starting to pick up steam, that things are getting automated, then you’re going to need to develop other skillsets, in particular, tech people who have not had to develop soft skills, like great communication, and ethics, and judgment, these soft skills that we’ve been talking about. Now is the time because those jobs are going to be in jeopardy.

The other thing though, Pete, is, yes, there are going to be certain jobs that will go away, as we talked about. It’s not as extreme as people say but it will happen. But what is also really, really important to remember is that there are going to be just as many jobs, if not more, created by technology. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. First of all, whenever you have a machine inserted into a process, we talked about the human in the loop, well, it’s not just one human. It’s somebody to design it, to build it, to figure out how to deploy it, to oversee it, to fix it when it’s broken. And, by the way, that last one, no one ever thinks about that. No one thinks about –

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, reboot it. Oh, reboot it.”

Alexandra Levit
I mean, we just had that. I know. The more we rely on technology the more things are going to break and people are going to have to be able to fix it. So, these things are, really, a ton of jobs are going to be created. The other thing that’s really critical is that there are job categories that do not currently exist that will be created by technology. And, as an example, I always used to say, when I graduated from college, social media manager wasn’t a thing because social media wasn’t a thing. And now every department has its own social media person. Some entire firms are based on social media. So, that’s a good example that everyone is aware of.

And then, also, something that the importance cannot be overstated, somebody needs to explain what technology is doing to the rest of the human world, especially decision makers and leaders. So, those explainers, you need someone behind the technology who can actually, forgive me for using the word again, but to explain in very plain English what the technology is doing, how it came about the decision that it suggested, how did it work, kind of peering into the black box, if you will.

So, these are the types of jobs that will be created as a result of technology. And I think at the end of the day, we’re going to see really no net loss in human jobs. And we had the same concerns when the industrial revolution happened and when cars got on the road. Every time society changes, we worry about this, and it doesn’t happen because new jobs are created. So, overall, I think it’s a wonderful time for human employment. It’s probably the best time ever because we can really use our brains and do what we’re good at instead of doing things that are so boring and easy to repeatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Boy, I like so much of what you said there not just because it’s happy news, but just because it’s kind of inspiring in the sense of, “Okay, there’s not much to fear with regard to this task being automated.” I think a whole another category of stuff is just that I think just about every human has a to-do list that’s longer than what they can do. And I’ve seen this now, so we’ve got sort of more staff now on this podcast. We got about three and a half people which is amazing.

Alexandra Levit
Awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Thanks, listeners.

Alexandra Levit
Yeah, good for you.

Pete Mockaitis
And then plus me, and then plus contractors on top of that, so it’s growing. And, lo and behold, at first, I was kind of worried, I was like, “Oh, man, is that too many people? There are some exceptional talent, I didn’t want to like let go and sort not snap up and to have that work.” It’s like, “Oh, sure. There’s just all this stuff you haven’t been doing now we’re going to do. Let’s fix all these things that are suboptimal. Let’s go chase after these opportunities we haven’t chased after.”

So, I think that’s huge in and of itself in that the stuff that’s not getting done, that, “Oh, we’d kind of like to if we could get to it,” now we can get to it as well as opposed to a zero-sum game. Is it a job taken? There’s jobs to be done, if the machine is doing it, the human is not doing it, and the human is out of work, it’s like, “Well, no, there are more jobs to be done than there are humans to do them.” So, we got that going for us too.

Alexandra Levit
I think you’re right. And maybe if that was the case, maybe companies would be more strategic. Because, I have to tell you, when I go, and I’m a futurist, so I talk about future work and what organizations need to do to prepare, and when I go in, sometimes it’s so funny, people are like, “Well, you’re going to talk about flex work. Flex work isn’t futuristic.” It’s like, “Yeah, but are you doing it? And are you doing it well? I get that it doesn’t sound futuristic, but this is where organizations actually are,” and that’s that they’re behind. And so, my hope with what you’re saying is that maybe we won’t be so behind if we don’t have so much administrative work to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, totally. It’s like, “Hey, go figure out the flex work thing. We got a few hours to earn this week. Where does that happen?”

Alexandra Levit
Yeah, first, do that and then do these other things. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I don’t know, if this is neither here nor there, but there have been surprises. When I really try to rock automation, sometimes I’m sort of disappointed by the results in terms of, “Okay, there’s all these, for instance, platforms and AI, whether it’s IBM, or Google, or others kind of doing their darndest to transcribe a human speech to text, and maybe your accuracy is not bad, 98% or something, but that still means that in one minute of speaking we’re going to have to correct three plus errors, and often I find it’s way more than that. It’s maybe five to 10 times that.

And then, in practice, when I sort of tried a hybrid approach, it’s sort of like my human transcribers who are aided by technology say, “Yeah, it’s a little bit faster but I’m kind of making a lot of concessions in terms of I wouldn’t type it that way, but I guess it’s fine, with regard to capitals or commas or whatever. And it’s a whole lot less fun and rewarding to correct a bunch of things a machine did than to do it myself.”

And so, I don’t know, I guess I am not as bullish in terms of, “Automation is going to replace everything!” It’s like, “Well, they can’t even get the transcript right right now, and maybe they’ll be better in five years,” but I don’t know, that’s me just complaining.

Alexandra Levit
Well, no, Pete, I think that’s a great example of what we’re talking about earlier, and that’s that this isn’t going to happen as fast as people think. If we’re still dealing with transcription, especially transcription has been around for 25 years, in automated transcription. I remember when I first came out of college using a tool for that.

So, it’s just not going to happen as fast and things are not going to be as smooth. So, just like you’re experiencing, but on a wider scale. And, again, as we rely on more and more on technology for our everyday life, and we don’t know how to do things without technology, I think we’re going to be pretty hard up because then we’re helpless. And that is something that I actually get concerned about.

There’s a couple things that keep me up at night, and that’s one of them, that, all of sudden, we’re just not going to know to do anything because we’re reliant on technology for everything. So, I hope that doesn’t happen but I am concerned for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, let’s talk then about the things that humans do well. You’ve highlighted six in particular uniquely human skills. And just thinking about it from the perspective of the listener, if we’re professionals, and we want to make sure that our knowledge-working careers are long and rewarding and fruitful and growing, and we note that technology evolution is sure, a real thing that’s happening, what are the skills we can nail to just be kind of bulletproof with regard to all this?

Alexandra Levit
Well, there are a few, and, of course, I talk about some of the softer ones, like having judgment, having intuition, having interpersonal sensitivity in problem solving, having empathy. I talk about those in Humanity Works but I’d like to highlight one in particular here because I think it relates to a lot of what we’ve been talking about, and that’s applied technology skills.

So, what that means is, I’m a part of a non-profit organization called the Career Advisory Board. It was established by DeVry way back in 2010. And what we’ve been looking at is, “Where are the really biggest skills gaps between what hiring managers are looking for and what people are bringing to the table?” And, not surprisingly, we identified this category of applied technology skills which are skills that help you use people, processes, data, and devices to make better business calls, better decisions.

And it means that not necessarily do you need to know how to program yourself, for example, but you need to know that software is out there and available to help you do your job better. So, you need to know what technology is feasible, and you need to know how to employ that technology, and how to make sure that it’s managed seamlessly, and how to do change management in your organization when you’re trying to roll out a new technology. So, these are applied technology skills, and every single person who works in the business world for the foreseeable future, needs to have these.

And why this so important is, traditionally, the people who focus on technology were in the IT group. Nobody else had to worry about it. And that is changing rapidly. Now, we have line of business, managers and all kinds of people involved in what technology should be rolled out, what application should be developed, what software should be deployed. And that is really an area where I think most people are going be caught completely off guard, that they are not marketable unless they have a really good handle on the technology that’s being used in their function, in their industry, and what’s really cutting edge, what are the top organizations doing.

And no one has really thought about this, if you’re not in IT. And that is, I think, going to be a steep learning curve. Unfortunately, for organizations, applied tech absolutely can be taught but it needs to be re-taught over and over again because, if you think about it, Pete, it’s going to change the technology over like one or two years.

Pete Mockaitis
It really has, yeah.

Alexandra Levit
So, it’s not an easy thing to do but it has to be done internally and people have to take responsibility for doing it on their own as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that I’m just really coming to terms with that notion right there in terms of I think even just with this podcast, about a little over three years old now, it’s sort of like the stuff that was available when I started is completely different than what is available now.

Alexandra Levit
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And then even like application by application, it’s sort of like, “Oh, I heard that wasn’t any good.” And then their teams are iterating away on the thing. And then a year later, it’s like, “No, actually, that tool is perfectly usable now so you should certainly check it out again.” It’s a different landscape every year or two.

And so then, what are some of your pro tips in terms of, okay, the professional who wants to be ahead of the curve and be sharp with that, how does one acquire that knowledge in terms of just kind of regular daily, weekly practices to stay on top of stuff?

Alexandra Levit
Well, I think reading is kind of an unsexy but smart thing to do. Read not just IT publications, although you might think that that’s the place to go, but actually just reading like a Fast Company is really cool because they talk about technology a lot and they talk about different functions that are adopting different types of AI and different types of technology.

I think taking a crash course in data analytics can’t hurt anyone. I did this myself. I was talking so much about data analytics, which is one of the applied technology skills that we found that organizations are really clamoring for, and I realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about. So, I went and I took a free course from IBM on what is data analytics, what are some of the top software programs you use to do it, what does it tell you, etc. And I now know a little bit more. I could get more in deep in it, and may still, if it’s going to be relevant to what I continue to talk about and do.

But I think that the advantage today is that there’s really no excuse for not acquiring a skill because there are so many options. You don’t have to wait for your company to teach you. Organizations are kind of getting with the program in that they’re collating a bunch of online resources for their people, they’re partnering with websites like Degree.com to give their people certifications for different skill areas.

I see this movement is definitely happening here. But you don’t have to rely on your company being smart with this. You can be listening to this podcast today and say, “Oh, actually, I don’t even know what data analytics even is. It’s a buzzword, that’s all I know.” And you could go and find the IBM course yourself, and I think it was like an hour.

And I’ve got all the background that I need for now and just being to talk intelligently with your team about how that might be employed or if it’s already being employed. How is the data being collected? Is it integrated properly? Is it valid? These are all the important things. What programs are you using to look at it? And what decisions can you make as a result of looking at it? So, I think it’s easy to do, or at least easier than it ever was before.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, applied technology skills, data analytics is one. And what are the other big ones?

Alexandra Levit
Well, I think being able to program applications, application development. And the good news there is that, again, you used to have to program apps, you would have to know a lot of code, and you would have to be trained in that. And, now, just like you used to have to know HTML in order to build a website, and now you don’t. You also can get a software program that can help you build apps.

And what we see happening now in a lot of organizations is they realize that an app will help their customers, will help their workers, and so you’ll have one function working with IT to build that app out and it will come from the line of business as opposed to coming from IT, and that is a huge change. So, app dev, data analytics, an understanding of infrastructure, digital infrastructure, digital transformation, so what it means to move everything from a manual process to a digital process, and what’s involved in that.

Change management, I mentioned this briefly earlier, is not an applied technology skill, but it’s what I call an adjacent skill area, where if you’ve got applied technology skills and you’re working with technology, you’re going to need to do change management effectively because research from everywhere, essentially, has shown that between 60% and 90% of change initiatives involving technology fail because users don’t want to adopt it, it’s too difficult, it doesn’t integrate, it breaks, etc. So, you really have to be strategic about it. You can’t just roll it out and expect that everyone is going to say, “Yay, it’s new technology.” So, that’s an adjacent skill area that, if you have applied tech, you’re going to need to develop as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s a nice line up. Well, a quick follow up there. So, where do I go if I want to develop applications without knowing any code? That sounds appealing.

Alexandra Levit
Well, I can say it because I don’t work with this organization anymore, but I learned so much about app dev when I was working with QuickBase as a spokesperson for them. And that’s an example of a software program that allows you to build apps without knowing code.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, nifty. And so, I guess there’s things like, well, hey, one of our sponsors, iDashboards, is handy with regard to looking at all of the stuff without having to know code to make it all display beautifully for you there.

Alexandra Levit
And to prop them up even more. Dashboards are critical for getting all your data in one place and being able to analyze the whole of it instead of looking at it in silos. So, having a dashboard for whatever function you’re running it from, I tend to focus mainly on HR systems, but having that view of everything and having it be easy to read, and, again, you can translate it for other decision-makers and produce reports and statistics. Very, very powerful. So, if you don’t have one of those tools, and, Pete, they don’t pay me to say this, but, seriously, as a futurist, you need to have that view of your technology and your data in one place.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, there’s a bundle of applied technology skills that are great to know to be sort of bulletproof with the future of stuff. And, now, let’s talk about some of those uniquely human skills. You’ve got leadership, team, creativity, innovation, judgment, intuition. I think that in a way it’s almost easy to brush these aside, like “Yes, of course, these are important and we all need to have them.” But what have you found are some of the sort of best practices for a professional to adopt to keep one or more of these skills sharper and sharper week after week?

Alexandra Levit
This is a great question and it’s something everybody needs to be focusing on. And I would’ve said 25 years ago that you need to be focusing on these things. And I think the most successful people in business have always focused on these skills. The difference is now it’s essential because you can’t skate by on being able to do a task anymore. You have to have those unique human elements that will set you apart from a machine.

And my favorite example, I actually talk about it in Humanity Works, this is absolutely my favorite example was what happened in Japan when they tried to roboticize their nursing. They did exactly what you’re talking about, Pete. They said, “Really, what do we really need human nurses for? Like, this is what our nurses need to do.” This is seriously what happened. Japan had a labor shortage in nursing, they didn’t know how to get more humans, so they’re like, “We’ll build a robot. It’ll be cool.”

So, they built a robot, they called it ROBEAR, was six feet tall, and essentially what ROBEAR ended up being able to do was serve food, move people in and out of bed, and do some of these rote physical tasks that nurses do. But Japan had to learn the hard way, “Oh, my God, like our human nurses do things like they come into a room, and they look into a patient’s eyes, and within a second or two they’re able to ascertain the level of pain that they’re in. They can walk into a difficult clinical situation and be able to, in their mind, assemble a group of experts from the hospital that they need to come in and solve the problem. They can sit down with a patient relative, who just got a difficult diagnosis, and sit with them and care for them and show empathy toward them.”

And these are all things that were kind of, as you’re saying, overlooked and became critical when, all of a sudden, they had this robot that couldn’t do any of that. So, most jobs, and this is what I said, this is not just a nursing thing, most jobs have these components. There are very few jobs where you don’t need to have any interpersonal skills and, in fact, some jobs are gaining the need for certain interpersonal skills.

My favorite example that I came across recently is in the supply chain, where in the supply chain it used to be a lot more, I don’t know, it was global in nature, it was less personal the way that it was rolled out in many organizations. And, now, what we’re seeing in the supply chain is it’s actually becoming more local and more regional and more relationship-based.

So, you might’ve been a logistics coordinator in the past and not really had to interact with other people too much. Now, you do. And so, that’s an example of an occupation where if you don’t have those interpersonal skills now, maybe you didn’t need them in the past, but you’re going to need them as we move forward. The world, in a way, is going to become smaller, not larger, as people crave that human touch.

And every time I’ve seen technology rolled out, it’s always got this high-tech, high-touch component. Everyone talks about that. It’s like, “It’s got to be high-tech, but we’ve also got to have high-touch because our employees, for example, don’t just want to go through onboarding where they’re in a portal, they take courses, their little avatar tells them where they need to be and who they need to meet.”

They want their manager to show them care and concern also. They want their peers to come by and say, “Let’s go to lunch.” This is never going to go away. And so, you have to include that stuff whenever you are implementing a new technology. And so, therefore, the people who are in jobs are going to need to have those skills.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’ve got to have them, and no matter what. I’m with you there. And so, how do we keep them sharp?

Alexandra Levit
Yes, so how we keep them sharp, my favorite course in the entire world, I took it way back in 2000 but I’d still recommend it highly, is the Dale Carnegie course. I learned so much about how to be an effective human. It was unbelievable.

I learned how to be diplomatic, how to compromise, how to get people who you have no authority over to collaborate with you, how to change somebody’s attitude, how to combat anger and frustration in people, how to manage my own. It just goes on and on and on. And if your organization has a program like Dale Carnegie, or has Dale Carnegie, please take advantage of it.

I got to take that course for free and I can say that it shaped my entire career after that. It probably is the single most important thing I ever did for my own development. And those kind of courses are everywhere. If you want some additional suggestions, I can either, and people can email me, or you can even just do a web search for interpersonal skills. All of the massive open online course providers, like Coursera and edX and Udemy, they have courses on interpersonal skills that you can take, and empathy.

And, again, like all the other skills we’re talking about, these are relatively easy to get your hands on for either low or no cost. So, the first thing I recommend to people is see what your company offers because you might as well get it paid for. And if it doesn’t offer something, then create your own curriculum, it’s something that I tell people about all skills that they need to develop. It’s like, “Figure what’s going to keep you marketable and then make a plan to get those skills.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And I think it’s kind of fun. I sort of enjoyed the charting your own course and choosing your own adventure in terms of, “Okay, Amazon, let’s see. What do you got in terms of books on this subject?” And then often you see there’s a couple standouts, like, “Holy smokes, this one has 2,000 reviews and is apparently the book about the subject. I guess I’ll read that one.” As well as, “Oh, and this one just looks like a lot of fun. Oh, and I can listen to this one by using audio.”

Alexandra Levit
Yup, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think it’s kind of fun to, as you said, to think about creating or designing your own curriculum. And I don’t know where I read this, but I think it’s true. It’s like if you read the top five books in a field that you will know more about that field than like 90% plus of the people working in that field and just look like a genius.

And I’ve had someone on the show, and they mentioned, “Boy, whenever I had to pick up a new challenge, that’s what I did, and people were like, ‘Wow, this guy know so much about this area.’ It’s like, ‘No, I’m new. I just read the books before I started.’”

Alexandra Levit
That doesn’t surprise me at all, Pete. It really doesn’t. And they say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert about something. I don’t know about that. Maybe to become like a world-class, like the top person to do something.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, like a violinist, yeah.

Alexandra Levit
I think you’re right. And I’ve done that too. I didn’t start off being an expert in all the things I talk about either. And with my first book, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College, literally, all I did was research a book about good traits to develop to become an effective professional, and I used Dale Carnegie and some of the other things.

And the second I published that book in 2004, there was no other book like it at the time, all of a sudden, I was considered an expert. And I’m like, you know, I’m really not an expert. I’m just a 27-year old kid who had a hard time and did some research and put together a book. But it’s amazing, like when you have a book or you read a book, it really is going to give you a surprising platform to talk about.

And I think you’re absolutely right. And the good news is there’s a lot of great stuff out there. And I still like the classics, Dale Carnegie, and of course Stephen Covey, who I had the fortune to be mentored by a few years ago before his death.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding. You had one-on-one time with Stephen Covey?

Alexandra Levit
I did. I did. It was so awesome. He’s so great and he really gave me a lot of great advice and great exposure, etc. But his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, that was written decades and decades ago, and it still applies. And that’s the thing about these human skills, right? They are the human skills that don’t change, and the things that we struggle with don’t change either. So, we have to be mindful of both.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so powerful because I think of Stephen Covey, one of the words that leaps to mind is timeless. And we’ve interviewed a few FranklinCovey executives on the program and they’re all great so it lives on.

Alexandra Levit
It does.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think it gave me kind of a chuckle out of we’re talking about sort of the future and technology and automation, and what’s the answer? Read some books. And so that’s good. But maybe you can zoom into is there any kind of key memory moment sentence that Stephen Covey shared with you that really left an imprint in particular?

Alexandra Levit
He talked to me about, and I know this is in the book too, he talked to me about time management. And, at the time, when I met him, I was struggling a lot with I basically had three things I wanted to do in my life. I was working as a VP in PR, I wanted to get my business off the ground, and I wanted to have a baby. And I didn’t know how to do all of those things. And so, we talked about how I could prioritize the things that were the most important.

And so, thanks to his leadership and mentorship, I was able to decide I’m going to let the PR job go even though this was kind of risky because that was my primary source of income. I knew I had enough income from the business, and I knew I wanted to stay home with my son a little bit to see how I liked being a mom, and I knew I won’t be able to do everything.

And so, he really solidified in me the sense of balance and the sense of you’ve got to prioritize the things that are important to you, and you have to do it young. I’m so glad that I met him when I did, and I’m so glad that when I was 27, 28, I was putting the pieces in place to make a life possible where, to this day, my kids are 8 and a half and 11 and a half, I still have a lot of time with them and a lot of flexibility to do what I need to get done because of the way that I’ve structured my career. And so, I really have Stephen to thank for that in large part.

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

Alexandra Levit
I don’t think so.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then let’s go. How about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Alexandra Levit
Henry David Thoreau for sure, “March confidently in the direction of your dreams and you’ll meet with unexpected success.” Just always go after what it is you want especially in this world where the opportunities are there now. We aren’t stuck in certain occupations. There’s more movement even within an organization than it ever used to be. So, if there’s a skill you want to develop, if there’s something you want to learn, if there’s a type of work you want to do, go figure out a way to do it even if you don’t get paid for it. Our lives are going to be about the pursuit of meaning. And so, that’s why I like that quote from Mr. Thoreau.

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

Alexandra Levit
Well, I like psychological experiments. I was a psych major in college, and so I like some of those famous experiments where they’ve shown the bystander effect, I find fascinating, where if there’s an emergency, if you don’t put somebody in charge of solving the problem, everyone will just kind of stand there. And I see that happening in corporations every day as we speak, so that was an interesting one from social psychology.

We’re talking about human skills. I like the study with the rhesus monkeys where a rhesus monkey was given a cloth mother to love, and that monkey did better than a monkey that didn’t have any love at all. So, even having a fake monkey to love was something because all beings need love and affection. And I think we can’t automate everything because then we won’t have that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Alexandra Levit
My favorite book right now is actually Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and I know that that’s politically charged so maybe I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s about the pursuit of individualism, and I just find it fascinating.

And one thing that I’ve been trying to do lately, especially in the last three years since the election, is understand the other side, and understand where people are coming from, and what values and what ideals are at work to lead people to think a certain way. And so, I do feel that that book is one that I read recently and I’m glad that I did.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool?

Alexandra Levit
A favorite tool. QuickBooks. For accounting it has been a godsend, a lifesaver. And unlike some of the technology that you and I talked about, Pete, for a small business, it’s so easy to use. It makes it so I don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on my accounting every year and taxes, and it’s so easy. It’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Alexandra Levit
My favorite habit lately is meditation. I meditate every night before bed for 30 minutes. I find that it really helps me sleep much better. It helps me be clear-headed in the morning. And, overall, I think it’s a nice thing to do. It kind of stops the situation where your mind is racing, you’re trying to sleep and you can’t calm down. It’s been great and I hope I keep it forever.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, you hear them quote it back to you often?

Alexandra Levit
The biggest nugget that I’ve been sharing for 15 years, so, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College is the book that was published 15 years ago, it was my first book, and it’s the book that is going to be re-published in fourth edition in September, and the thing that people always talk about is that it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s who knows what you do, and do they value it.

And this perception is reality thing is something that really hit me hard when I was a young professional because I thought just churning out work like there was no tomorrow would be enough. I didn’t really care about what people thought about me. I just wanted to do a good job. But part of doing a good job is caring what people think about you and making sure that they have the right impression of you.

And that is something that people come back over and over and over again. It is so gratifying when people who are like 40 come to me and say, “I read your book when I was 25, and it changed the course of my career.” And, usually, they’ll mention something, really, it’s what I call the professional persona or the mature confident face that you project to the work world and the impression you try to get people of you. So, that’s probably the most common.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we have to have a couple sentences on the professional persona. This is so valuable. What’s the story there?

Alexandra Levit
The professional persona is the mature confident and together face that you present to the work world. And there’s a lot of talk recently, Pete, about bringing yourself to work and being your whole self. And I think that you can be the best version of yourself at work, and it’s not necessarily the version that you would share when you’re out for drinks with your friends on Friday night, or when you’re goofing off with your family around the Thanksgiving table.

It’s the more professional version of yourself, and I think you always have to be buttoned up, a little bit concerned about what comes out of your mouth, and what you’re displaying online, that shows who you are, and you just want your organization to be proud to have you as an employee and not have anything detract from that impression.

Pete Mockaitis
And this is a lightbulb for people in terms of like…? Tell me about that.

Alexandra Levit
I think, yes, especially for young people who they’ve been brought up to believe that they are unique and special, and that their perspective should be valued, and that they should be able to be themselves at work. And, again, I think, to some degree, that’s true. But the reality is that business operates in a certain way, it still does, and you have to be mindful of the culture of your organization, and people don’t think about that. It doesn’t even occur to them. They go in, they’re themselves, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. And for me it didn’t, which is how I learned about all this.

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

Alexandra Levit
People should be awesome at their jobs by looking ahead to future work trends, what is going to be necessary in your field, in your industry, and how you are going to get skills so that you are gainfully employed in the next three years, six years, nine years, even the next two decades, and how can you plan ahead. What kind of life do you want? And how can you get there? And you’re going to put yourself in a position to be the most effective person in a certain job. So, even if some of the jobs disappear, you’re still going to be at the top because you’ve got the best skillset.

Pete Mockaitis
Alexandra, this has been lots of fun. I wish you and the book Humanity Works tons of luck and keep up the good work.

Alexandra Levit
Thank you so much. It was great to be here, Pete. And I’ll see you next time.

453: Why Generalists Succeed and How to Learn Like One with David Epstein

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David Epstein says: "Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer."

David Epstein explains why and how generalists tend to achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How focusing on short-term improvement can undermine long-term development
  2. Pro-tips for breaking through your learning plateaus
  3. The benefits of becoming a jack-of-all-trade

About David

David Epstein is the author of the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, and the top 10 New York Times bestseller The Sports Gene. He was previously a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica, and prior to that a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His writing has been honored widely.

David has his master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, and is reasonably sure he’s the only person to have co-authored a paper in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research while a writer at Sports Illustrated.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

David Epstein Interview Transcript

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

David Epstein
Thank you very much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the stuff but, first, I want to hear about your work as an ecology researcher in the Arctic.

David Epstein
So, I studied geology and astronomy in college and, afterward, I worked in a plant physiology lab and that led me living in the Artic in the far north of Alaska, a place called Toolik Lake, where I was basically studying the radiation that plants give off in an effort to sort of help try to understand how the carbon cycle might change as that area warms and the permafrost melts a little because most of the ground is frozen there, so when there’s melt, a lot of nutrients are liberated and they can cause like major changes to the plant life which can cause changes to the carbon cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, how long were you there and what was life like up there?

David Epstein
Yeah, I was basically there for, well, you couldn’t be there a lot of the year because you couldn’t get supplies, so you can only really be there for like half the year basically. I loved it actually. So, it’s technically a desert and I love deserts because even though it’s lush on the ground and the air is cool enough year-round that there’s not much atmosphere and demand for water so you don’t get much rain even though there’s a lot of fog and slush on the ground.

And so, all the plant life is really low to the ground, and so in the middle of summer, when it’s basically light all day and you’re sort of seeing this, the sun go down and just come right back up and all the plant life is low, you can see really far and make for some great hiking. I thought it was beautiful. Some people felt it was desolate who were up there but I loved it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’m curious if that isolation can serve as just amazing, creative, energizing time, or like, “I am going insane.”

David Epstein
Yeah, I’m more on the creative, energizing side, and I think like when I asked, after my first book, people would often ask, “How did you write it?” and I really don’t know how to answer that question because I’m not really sure. Every project is kind of different. And I asked my wife once, I asked her, “How did I write it?” and she said, “You went upstairs and came back down two years later.” And so, I’m pretty good at spending time on my own for projects and being quiet out in the expanse of nature. It’s definitely more creative and invigorating for me than a feeling of isolation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And you’ve recently channeled your creative energies into another opus, a grand tome, I’m excited to talk to you about. So, maybe why don’t we start with some of the most fun tidbits in terms of what would you say is perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery you made while you’re putting together your book Range?

David Epstein
For me, it was this idea that there are things that you can do that cause really rapid short-term improvement that can systematically undermine your long-term development. So, to that point about surprising, I’ll mention the single study that was probably it’s certainly one of the most surprising in the book to me was this one that was done at the U.S. Airforce Academy where they had a setup that you would never be able to recreate in a lab because basically they would get in a freshman class of, whatever, a thousand students, or several hundreds of students, and those students all had to take a sequence of three math courses: Calculus 1, Calculus 2, and then a third course.

And they were randomized to Calculus 1 to a professor, and then re-randomized for the second course, and then re-randomized for the third course, and they all take the same tests. So, these researchers recognized that this was an excellent natural setup for studying the impact of teacher quality, or teaching. And so, the finding of this study was that the professors who were the best at promoting contemporaneous achievement, that is whose students overperformed on the Calculus 1 test the most compared to the baseline characteristics they came in with, those students, then, systematically underperformed in all the follow-up courses.

So, the professors whose students did the best in Calculus 1, they rated those professors the highest, then went on to underperform in future classes. And what the researchers concluded was that the way to get the best results on the Calculus 1 test was to teach a more narrow curriculum that involved a lot more what’s called using procedures knowledge where you learn how to execute certain procedures and algorithms and you don’t learn more of what’s called making connections knowledge where the curriculum is broadened and you’re forced to kind of connect types of concepts and learn how to match strategies to types of problems as opposed to just execute procedures.

And so, when they’ve moved on into these other courses, those students who had the more narrow curriculum were systematically undermined. And that’s sort of one of the themes that runs through Range are the things you can do that seem the best in the short term sometimes undermine long-term development, and I thought that was just an amazing display of that and an amazing study.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. It’s sort of like the items that were being covered on the final test is sort of like, “Yeah, he drilled on real good over and over and over again and thoroughly,” but sort of at the expense of getting some broader conceptual understanding of how the math number, calculus, stuff is working I guess more globally.

David Epstein
Right. And that’s what they, then, would need, that’s what then would help them kind of scaffold later knowledge, so they didn’t do as well in those other classes. First of all, that was just deeply counterintuitive finding to me, but also, so I remember, for example, the professor, out of a hundred, whose students I think did fifth best on the Calculus 1 exam, and he got the sixth best student ratings overall, was dead last in what the research called deep learning, that is how his students then did in the follow-on courses.

And so, that’s really kind of worrisome. The fact that a lot of these strategies, and that chapter four of Range is about these learning strategies, and a lot of those strategies cause the learner to be more frustrated, to not do as well in the short term, and to rate the person teaching them worst. So, that’s kind of worrisome because these professor ratings may not be a good indication of what someone is learning. Their own assessment of their own learning in the short term may not be a good indication either. So, that’s, I think, something that’s important to be aware of.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d be intrigued then to correlate that, if you were to sort of draw some parallels into the professional working world, in terms of how might we be shooting ourselves in the foot if we’re trying to master a certain narrow domain of work.

David Epstein
Yes, so let me give another example that came out of the research that I think relates to this. So, in this one study, people who were playing the role of, basically, simulations of naval officers, essentially, and they were being trained to respond to types of threats based on cues. And one group would practice threats where they would see a certain type of threat again and again and again and again, and they would improve and learn how to respond to it. And then they would see the next type of threat again and again and again, and so on.

The other group would get all these different types of situations all mixed up, and that’s called interleaving, and that kind of training is often more frustrating, it slows down initial progress, the learner will say that they didn’t learn as much, and all those things. And then both groups were brought back later and tested on situations they hadn’t seen before. And in that scenario, the interleave group performs much better than the other group because, again, they’re being trained to sort of match strategies to problems as opposed to just how to execute procedures.

And I think that goes for anything we’re trying to learn. I think our inclination is usually to pick up a new skill and do it over and over and over, when, really, we want to vary the challenge a lot early on so that you’re building these broader conceptual skills. And not only do you want to vary the challenge, but I think when we think about, at least in my life, the sort of formal professional development that I’ve been exposed to as opposed to kind of the informal professional development that I do on my own, is always coming away where it’s like, “Okay, here’s the topic, you’re going to learn this topic, and then you move on from it forever.”

And, in fact, the best way, we should actually use what’s called the spacing effect where you learn a topic and then you come back to it later, and that sort of helps you solidify it. So, one of the famous studies here is two groups of Spanish vocabulary learners who one group was given eight hours of intensive study on one day, and the other group was given four hours on one day, and then four hours again a month later. So, they all had the same total study.
Eight years later, when they were brought back, the group that had the space practice remembered 250% more with no practice in the interim. And so, I think we should apply that to anything we want to learn instead of just doing a topic and moving on from it. You don’t have to do it as intensively but you should wait until actually you’ve kind of forgotten it and then come back to it and do it again. And that’s how you like move it into your long-term memory basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s really cool. And it seems like this is drawing some connections for me with regard to, we had the Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on and we were talking about their top competency that maps to all sorts of career successes, what they’re calling learning agility which is sort of the notion of sort of knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

David Epstein
That’s really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, that would make great sense because as you sort of rise in the ranks and you encounter more and more ambiguous and puzzle-some and, “I have no idea what’s going on” types of issues, the more that you struggle those things the more you’re raring to say, “All right. Well, let’s see how we go about figuring this out.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that gets at sort of a link between the two things we’re both talking about in this classic research finding that can be summarized as breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer means taking your skills and knowledge and attempting to apply it into a totally new situation that you haven’t seen before. And breadth of training breeding breadth of transfer basically means the broader your early training was, the diversity of the situations you’re forced to face, the more likely that when you’re in a totally new situation, you’ll be able to will that knowledge and transfer that knowledge to that new situation.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay. So, now, would you say that’s sort of the main idea or thesis behind Range or how would you articulate it?

David Epstein
No, I think that’s just part of this, the theme of Range that is, I mean, the overall theme is sort of that society may overvalue specialists and undervalue generalists. But the theme beneath that, to me, is again that these things that are the most efficient ways to get the quickest improvement, whether that’s telling someone to specialize right away, or practicing in this repetitive specialized way, is often not the way to get the best long-term improvement.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, there’s just so much, so many implications to that in terms of if you think about sort of what you’re measuring and if you think about training or learning or development things. It’s sort of like you often don’t have the luxury of checking in sort of months or years later to see how we did. And so, there’s all kinds of systematic forces that would point us to doing just the opposite of that.

David Epstein
Yeah, totally. This project, in some ways, started in the sports world for me and only the introduction of Range is in the sports world but one of the things that got me interested there is that there’s this incredible drive to early specialization in youth sports. And then I went and looked at what the research says about optimal development, and it says that athletes who want to become elite, typically, have what’s called the sampling period where they play a variety of sports to gain these broader physical skills, scaffold later learning. They learn about their interests, they learn about their abilities, and they delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels.

And I was looking at that, and then you see what was actually going on, and sort of saying, “Gosh, all these forces are pushing the opposite direction of that in the United States.” In Norway, which is like is, for me, probably the best sports country in the world per capita right now. There’s an HBO real sports on that’s showing they have embraced this stuff and changed their sports development pipelines.

But when I was living in New York until recently, there was a U7 travel soccer team that met near me, and I don’t think that anybody thinks that six-year-olds can’t find good enough competition in a city of nine million people to travel, right? It’s just that there’s these other forces at work, like those kids are customers for whoever’s running that league. And so, all these other forces militate against what we know about optimal development.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then what do you think is to be done in terms of if you’re a professional in a workplace and you want to develop well and over the long haul such that you have a fruitful career and rise and achieve all of your career dreams? What are some of the key things you recommend folks do?

David Epstein
Yeah, so let’s say you want to be an executive, which I think a lot of people would like to be at some point. LinkedIn recently did some research at looking at what were the best predictors of who would become an executive, and they have these incredible sample silos so they did this in a half a million members. And one of the best predictors was the number of different job functions that an individual had worked across in an industry.

And so, I think our intuition is to say, “Pick a job function and stick with it and drill into it and carve your niche and get specialized.” But, in fact, these people who sort of probably developed a more holistic view of their industry and how to integrate different types of skills are the ones who go on to become executives. And so, they are getting that breadth of training. And so, when it comes to having to do these more complex problems, they’re probably better equipped.

So, LinkedIn’s chief economist’s main advice was, “If you want to be an executive, work across more job functions.” And I think that’s good advice but I think you can do things short of that in a lot of ways. Like, learn what your colleagues do, learn more functions at your own work, because our natural inclination is to settle into our competencies. And as we settle into a rut and we get competent enough, I was talking to the economist Russ Roberts, he said it’s a hammock because it’s comfortable that’s why we don’t get out of it. And I was thinking, I want to make a weird analogy here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

David Epstein
When I was getting into my last book, I didn’t write about this, but I was reading some scientific literature on speed typing, okay? How fast is speed typing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been looking into speed typing. Continue.

David Epstein
Really?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I had a recent guest talk about how that’s one of the top skills you can use to sort of accelerate your performance in all kinds of things because a lot of typing that’s going on. And I’m a fan of the website Keybr I think it is, which sort of helps you get fast at typing fast. So, anyhow, my interest is piqued. Please continue.

David Epstein
Okay. So, yeah, so the idea is we all, like at first when you’re learning typing you make a lot of improvement and you get to whatever you get to, 60, 70, 80 words a minute, whatever you get to. And then you plateau and we pretty much all stay there at very good but not great. And it turns out there’s all these strategies that you can use to get like twice as fast, and they’re not even that complicated. Things as simple as you’d use a metronome, you take it up a little bit, and keep up with it even if you make mistakes, whatever.

There’s a bunch of strategies to get like twice as fast. But what it suggested to me is that our natural inclination that just experience will get us to a certain point but then we stop naturally improving just with experience. We sort of settle into that level of performance. And I think that’s kind of true of everything.

And so, we’re in danger as we get more experience and get more comfortable of not developing new skills anymore. We have to try new things. And I think that’s good both because it can get you off a plateau. When I was on a plateau stuff at writing this book, I decided to take an online fiction-writing course and it worked beautifully to help with the problem I was stuck with.

And so, I think it works because it can help get you off a plateau, but also one of the other main ideas in Range is this idea of match quality, which is the degree of fit between an individual, their abilities, their interests, and the work that they do. And good match quality turns out to be very important for your motivation, your performance, and the only way to improve your match quality, it turns out, is to try some things and then reflect on those experiences and keep sort of pinballing, doing that, and with an eye toward improving that match quality.

So, like the Army, for example, has created a system called talent-based branching where they were kind of hemorrhaging their highest potential officers since basically the start of the knowledge economy where those young officers could learn skills that they could laterally transfer into other types of work. And, at first, they just threw money at those officers to try to keep them, and that didn’t work at all. The people who were going to stay took the money, and the people who were going to go left anyway. That has a half a million dollars.

And then they started this thing called talent-based branching where instead of saying, “Here’s your career track. Go upper out,” they say, “We’re pairing you with this coach-type figure and here’s a bunch of career tracks, and just start dabbling in them, and your coach will help you reflect on how did this fit with your talents and your interests. And we’ll do that so we can get you better match quality.” And that’s actually turned out to work better for retention because when people have high match quality, they want to stay. There’s a saying that I quote a research in the book, saying, “When you get fit it will look like grit because if you get a good fit, people will work harder.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad you brought up grit because that’s something I want to talk about. You say that there could be a problem with too much grit. What’s that about?

David Epstein
So, I think for listeners who maybe have probably heard the concept of grit, I’m guessing. But the psychological construct came out of this survey where it started as a 12-question survey where half the questions were points for resilience basically and the other half for consistency of interest. And so, you lose points if you sometimes abandon a project for another one or I think you change interest, and things like that.

And the most famous study, what was actually done on cadets going into West Point, so future Army officers. They were trying to get through what’s called east barracks, that’s the U.S. military Academy’s six-week orientation where it’s physically and emotionally rigorous. And grit, that survey turned out to be a better predictor of who would make it through these than more traditional measures that the Army used. And although most people make it through, which is great, but in the study. I feel like Angela Duckworth and her colleagues, I’d give them a ton of credit because some of the critique I write about in the book comes like directly out of their own papers and it’s kind of like lost in translation, I think, where those people in that study were highly pre-selected for a number of qualities.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Got to get that Senate recommendation, Congressional letter. That ain’t easy.

David Epstein
That is what statisticians call restriction of rank problem. So, if you’ve truncated a lot of variables by selecting a small group out of humanity, so it makes the other variables exacerbated. But they were also pre-selected for this very short-term six-week goal, right? And life isn’t a six-week goal. So, when we looked at the longer timeline, again, like half of these people basically leave the Army almost the day that they’re allowed.

And so, high-ranking Army officials said, “We should defund West Point because ‘it’s an institution that taught its cadets to get out of the Army.’” And that’s not the case, right? And those people didn’t just lose their grit. It’s that they learned some things about themselves, which tends to happen in that time period, the fastest time a personality change in your life is 18 to your late 20s, but it continues changing faster than people think over your life, and they decided they wanted to go do something else.

That’s why throwing money at them didn’t work where talent-based branching did because it’s giving them some control over their career path and their match quality, and trying things and then changing direction is basically essential to improving your match quality. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re just hoping for luck in your match quality. And I think if we thought of our careers the way we thought of dating, right, we would never tell people to settle down so quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
“Just stick with that gal. She’s great.”

David Epstein
For some people that might be a good idea.

Pete Mockaitis
“You have four dates. Don’t quit.”

David Epstein
I thought I was going to marry my high school girlfriend and at the time that seemed like a good idea. And then I had more experience in the world, in retrospect that wouldn’t have been a good idea. And I felt the same way in my approach to jobs. Some jobs I thought I was going to stick with, I thought I was going to be a scientist. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea for me, but I didn’t know that until I tried that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m intrigued then when it comes to sampling, I’d love it if you could share some of your favorite kind of tactical tips with regard to, “How can I get a lot of sampling going?” So, you talked about, “Hey, talk to work colleagues who are in a completely different functional area. Maybe check out an online course.” What are some other means of sampling?

David Epstein
Yeah, I kind of take this approach from someone’s work I love that resonated with me because I had career change, or changed directions several times, from a London business school professor named Herminia Ibarra. And she has this quote I love, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” Basically, what she means is this psychological research shows that we’re not like so great at intuiting our own talents and interests before we have a chance to try stuff, we actually have to try the things, and then learn about ourselves. Act and then think, instead of think and then act, as she says.

And so, for me, I kind of started a book of experiments where just like when I was a science grad student, I’ll say, “Here are my skills now. Here’s some things I want to learn. Here are things, some weaknesses. Here’s my hypothesis about how I might be able to work on this.” And then I’ll go try something and see if that works.

So, again, I mentioned this online fiction-writing class I took, right? So, I got stuck in structuring my book, and I needed to do something different. And so, I go take this class, and among the things I was made to do was write with only dialogue, and write with no dialogue at all. And after doing the no dialogue at all, I went back to my manuscript and stripped a ton of quotes and replaced them with my description because I realized I was unconsciously coming from usually doing shorter-form types of things. I was leaning on quotes to convey information in a way that is not really good writing. And that’s not even the improvement I was looking for. But just getting out of my normal mode of doing things gave me this huge advantage.

And so, I try to do that regularly. Like, people might be familiar with this research “The Strength of Weak Ties” like your new job usually comes not from the people core in your network because they’re kind of doing this, you know those options already, and a lot of them are doing things similar to you. It comes from these people that you are several degrees away from but you can get connected to.

And that’s what Herminia Ibarra’s work shows, that when people find better career fits, it always comes from some key whole view, like they take some class, or they go to some event, or they meet someone at a dinner party and sort of ignites an interest, and then they start testing it little by little, getting in a little more and a little more until sometimes they make a full transition.

And so, I’m constantly doing those experiments with my book of experiments. So, I think everybody should constantly be doing this, “What do I want to work on? Here’s my hypothesis for how I could do that. I’m going to go try that thing.” Then reflect on it and put it in your notebook and keep going forward. And I think even keeping that, what I call that book of experiments, prompts me to constantly be doing that in a proactive way, whereas there was a period when I was at Sports Illustrated, for example, where I very much settled into something I felt come to that and just did over and over for a while, and took a while till I realized, “Gosh, I’m actually not adding to my skills here.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I really like that just sort of the fun exercise you mentioned with the writing, with regard to all dialogue and no dialogue, and then how that filters in forever. And that reminds me, boy, back in my AP, I guess, English composition or rhetoric course in high school, our dear teacher Judy Feddermier, that was sort of like each week that was the challenge. It was a different kind of a challenge associated with the writing, like, “Okay, this time you are not to allow to use any to be verbs. No is, no are, no was, no were.” I’m like, “This is crazy.” And I just used one, “This is crazy.”

And so, but sure enough, I was like, “Yeah, this writing is a little awkward,” but it’s what you sort of kind of back to being able to use some. You realize, “Oh, boy, having fewer of them sure sounds better in terms of more active and exciting and lively than a bunch of is’s and are’s.”

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think it sort of just gets you out of that. Because the interesting thing is and sort of almost like troubling thing to me when I did that with the no dialogue, and went and changed my manuscript, was that until then I didn’t realize that I had been kind of unconsciously doing something I’d gotten used to. And it took doing something different for me to think about that which is annoying. I wish I were just like perceptive enough to realize that without having to get kind of knocked out of my normal mode but, really, I wasn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I’m wondering then, in the whole universe of essential skills you might choose to start experimenting and dabbling in to add to your repertoire, is there a means by which you think about prioritizing them? Or is there just sort of, “Hey, there’s a glimmer of interest here. Let’s see what happens”?

David Epstein
Yeah, that’s a good question. Usually, I kind of always have some project or other that’s either in some stage of development, and my projects tend to be quite different. And so, there’s usually something related to my project that’s either like an area of knowledge maybe that where the project is kind of driving those in some way, where it’s I know I need to, that this book is going to be the biggest structural writing challenge I’ve ever had, therefore like I need to improve my skills. So, usually it comes out of something that I’m otherwise doing, and realizing what’s the new part of that challenge.

So, I will say, when I’ve taken on these bigger projects, like my first book was the hardest structurally to organize all the information writing challenge I ever had, and this book was much harder than that one. And so, I think the one thing I’ve done a pretty good job of is taking on these projects that are kind of in the optimal push zone where they’re not so over my head that I simply can’t do it, but they are definitely stretching me to the point where I have to think about learning new things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fun. And I’m also wondering about sort of things that you hate. So, one approach is there’s a glimmer of interest or sort of what skill is necessary to develop there. And I’m wondering about because when you’re talking about in terms of sort of this inefficiency or doing a wide breadth of things such that it’s more frustrating and less fun sort of the in the early stages, but then you have some cool capabilities later on as a result of doing it.

I guess I’m wondering to what extent would a chasing after skills that I’m just currently very bad at, I’m thinking about sort of home improvement and being handy type skills right now, so kind of the opposite of intellectual, “Hey, we’re having rich conversations and thinking about the themes and summarizing them well, and marketing and reaching audiences,” like all that stuff is like very different than, “Okay, I got to drill and I’m trying to make this thing go there and not make a huge mess.” Is there a particular value in doing stuff you hate?

David Epstein
I don’t think you should necessarily do it over and over if you hate it unless it’s really essential to something you’re doing. So, when I first started doing some lab work en route to what I thought I was being a scientist, my expectation was that I would love it and this was what I would do for the rest of my life. And what I found out was that was not necessarily the case, and that was an important thing to learn.

And, conversely, I’m a fairly new homeowner, and the last thing I would’ve thought I would ever be interested in was plumbing, for goodness’ sake. And, it turns out, it’s kind of interesting actually. Like, we had some stuff we had to fix and I started to find this sort of interesting. So, I don’t think you should do anything with plumbing if you hate it, but I do think you might find things that you a priori would think you wouldn’t really like, then when you actually try them might be more interesting than you thought. And, vice versa, things that you expected to love that maybe not so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, it sounds like it’s worth at least an hour or two to see what happens.

David Epstein
One of the things I write about in Range is a so-called end of history illusion. This is psychology of finding that we all realize that we, based on our experiences and everything, we have changed a lot in the past, but then think we will change very little in the future. And we do this at every time point in life, if we say we change a lot in the past, and then proceed to underestimate how much we’ll change in the future. So, it leads to all these kinds of funny findings.

So, one just sort of humorous one is, because people underestimate how much their taste will change, if you ask people how much they would pay for a ticket to see their favorite band, their today favorite band to 10 years from now, the average answer is $129. And if you ask how much they would pay to see today their favorite band from 10 years ago, the average answer is $80, because we underestimate how much our taste will change.

And the thing is personality actually changes over the entire course of your life, and one of the predictable changes is as you become older, your openness to experience, which is one of the big five personality traits, declines. But doing new stuff that you’re not used to can actually stop that. So, there are these studies where older people are in that decline phase, and this is a trait that we know is very much correlated with creativity. And these old people were trained on things like certain types of puzzles, okay? And even if they didn’t get better at the puzzles, they became more open to experience. And so, I think there’s also these personality reasons that are associated with creativity to do stuff that is just outside of anything else you’re doing if you want to stem that decline of openness to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think what’s interesting about that is it might be hard to even dream up or conceive like what is that thing because it’s so not in your current world. Do you have any tips on how to kind of spark that prompt or stimulus in the first place?

David Epstein
For me, and this has been a long-running thing is I go to libraries and bookstores because those are places where I find interests that I didn’t know I had. And that’s why I value those places so much because, nothing against Amazon, but, yet, the algorithm works in a way that it sends me things I’m interested in and that I think I’m interested in, and it doesn’t send me the things that I don’t know I’m interested in basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

David Epstein
And so, when I do this more natural browsing which, by the way, I consider the willingness to go to libraries now like a competitive advantage for me because I think people don’t do it anymore. But those are the places where I find these things that I did not know I was interested in, and that’s why I really value them. That’s why I make sure I go to those places instead of just only ordering my reading material, and I’m a big reader on Amazon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of libraries and, boy, now, you’ve got me kind of excited just to see what would happen if you just went kind of blind into a stack, grabbed a book, and say, “I’m going to read six pages and see what happens.”

David Epstein
When I go into like a local bookstore or something like that, I don’t go, like if I really need a book right away and I know what it is, I will order on Amazon, and if I really need it quick, I’ll have it on my Kindle. But when I’m going into like bookstores, I’m not going for a particular thing. I’m going to look around and I always end up with something that I didn’t really expect.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, can you tell me, if folks are inspired, they’re thinking, “Yes, David’s Range that’s what’s up, I’m all about it. I want to get some more skills, be more interdisciplinary,” are there any kind of watch-outs or warnings or mistakes that are associated with this endeavor?

David Epstein
Well, I think people are probably pretty aware of the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none sort of syndrome. Like, you don’t want to get cast as someone who doesn’t know anything. And I think it’s actually pretty culturally telling that the end of that phrase, that adage, jack of all trades master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one, but we’ve totally dropped that part and I don’t think we even know it. And I think that’s because there’s sort of this bias against breadth. And so, I do think there’s that danger of signaling to other people that you don’t really know anything about anything.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds dangerous.

David Epstein
Yeah, and I think that’s actually one reason why. So, I was just at…maybe a lot of people have heard of Motley Fool. You know Motley Fool? I was just at an event of theirs, and there was a survey on a video screen and the audience could vote with their phones. And the survey was, “What do you think is the average age of a founder of a breakout startup on the day of founding, not when it becomes a breakout?” The choices were 25, 35, 45, 55, and the overwhelming favorite was 25.

And the answer is actually based on research from MIT and the Census Bureau is 45 and a half. But we sort of think of this, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, when he was 22 and famous, he said, “Young people are just smarter.” Like we think of Tiger Woods, even though that’s not the normal typical model, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s these very dramatic stories of youthful precocity that we think of as the norm, but actually the people who become these really successful entrepreneurs usually bounce around a fair bit first.

And I think what a lot of them end up doing, I describe people like this in Range, is they get this mix of skills that maybe other people sort of look down upon, but it leaves them with this intersection of skills that creates new ground where they’re not in direct competition with someone. They’re trying to do something new, and they have to create their own ground, and they often become entrepreneurs, sometimes because they have to. And that can be really good but it can also be really challenging because you can kind of end up, and I think especially so, in this year of LinkedIn, which I think is a great tool, but also allows HR people to make a much more narrowly-defined job and still have a ton of candidates.

And so, in Range I talk about the work of Abbie Griffin who studies so-called serial innovators who make these repeated major contributions to their companies. And her advice to HR people is basically, “Don’t define your job too narrowly because you’re going to accidentally screen these people out because their traits are like they’ve often worked across domains, they have a wide range of interests, they read more widely than other colleagues, they have a need to talk to more people in other disciplines, they like to use analogies from other disciplines, they often have hobbies that seem like they might be distracting,” but that those are the traits of those people, and her concern is that HR people will see them as scattered and not as focused on any particular area.

So, I think the real concern is of the signal that might be sent to people who are in a position of making personnel decisions.

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

David Epstein
I think specialization made a ton of sense when we were in more of an industrial economy, when people were facing similar challenges repeatedly and that was when those Army officers did not move outside of the Army with nearly as much frequency because other companies, specialists were facing the same challenge, and they were ahead, and you can’t catch up. But in the knowledge economy, some of the patent research I looked at in Range shows that it’s basically just since like the late ‘80s forward where the contributions of more generalists inventors.

So, in this research, the generalists are defined as people, their work is spread across a larger number of technology classes, as class is a patent office, whereas the specialists drill more into a small number or a single technology class. And both of these types of people make contributions, but the contributions of those people who are broader have been increasing with the knowledge economy.

And so, I don’t think this has always been true that generalists have these special, or broader people have these special contributions to make, but I think it’s sort of a function of the fact that with our communication technology, information is rapidly and thoroughly disseminated. And there are many more opportunities, for combining knowledge in new ways as opposed to just creating some totally new piece of knowledge.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David Epstein
I love that quote from Herminia Ibarra, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” That’s one that’s like really stuck in my head because I don’t totally know what I’m going to do next, and I’m thinking about things. And so, that’s really affected the approach that I’m going to take.

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

David Epstein
Right now, I would say that my favorite book, gosh, I read a lot so this changes from time to time, but right now, I would say my favorite book is probably War and Peace, the Anthony Briggs translation, so I read multiple translations when I got really into it. And I didn’t realize, I was just reading it because like I was going through this website that aggregates all great book list, and I was trying to just like go down some of the greatest books.

And it is a novel, in the form of a novel, it’s actually Tolstoy’s refutation of the great man theory of history, and he uses Napoleon as the main character, and argues, and he does like some journalistic reporting on those events, and argues that, well, Napoleon was really an effect not a cause of these larger forces basically.

And so, he had these historical essays. And the story, his writing is amazing. But I also found that argument really interesting, and that led me to read this essay about a philosopher Isaiah Berlin based on War and Peace where Isaiah Berlin used these two types of characters he analyzes in War and Peace the foxes and the hedgehogs. The hedgehogs know one big thing, and the foxes know many little things.

And those hedgehog and fox constructs were then borrowed by Philip Tetlock, the psychologist, to do the work that’s featured in my chapter 10 of people who develop the best judgment about the world and about political and economic trends, who know many little things instead of one big thing. And so, it was really cool, you know, that research I was already interested in, to see in War and Peace sort of where those ideas of the fox and the hedgehog via Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy as it where it came from. So, not only did I enjoy the book for its own right, but it really made me think about some modern research in an interesting way.

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

David Epstein
Oh, my goodness. I would die if I didn’t have Searchlight on. That’s why I have to be a Mac user because I basically, the organization system I use is writing lots of words in various things that I think I would search if I wanted to find it. And so, I’d probably use Searchlight 500 times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David Epstein
Running, if you count that. I’m a very avid runner.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. And is there a key nugget that you share often that tends to get sort of quoted back to you frequently?

David Epstein
In my first book, The Sports Gene there’s like I did some data analysis of body types, and this one part that mentions that if you know an American man between the ages of 20 and 40, who’s at least 7 feet tall, then there’s a 17% chance he’s a current NBA player. And, yeah, people mention that to me a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
I just think it’s funny that a very specific numerical tidbit is what people are sticking with.

David Epstein
Yeah, I tell you, I’m really bad at predicting at things for my own books that people are going to latch onto versus the things that I latch onto the most. It’s kind of an interesting experience.

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

David Epstein
DavidEpstein.com is my website, and I’m davidepstein on Twitter.

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

David Epstein
Yeah, I think if I can really talk to someone it would be managers, and say, “Do your own form of talent-based branching where you allow people to explore some of their other interest and talents, and help them reflect on those experiences.” I was on the podcast for The Ringer, Bill Simmons. He runs probably the most popular sports podcast in the world, and he used to be ESPN’s most popular writer, then he did something on HBO and that kind of failed. And now he started his own company, and it’s one of the happiest workplaces I have ever been in.

And one of the interesting things was people who were hired to edit like online articles, some of them have become like seriously famous in the sports world podcast personalities with huge followings, and that’s because once they’re in that company, he’ll say like, “Okay, come try on a podcast for a little bit and see how it goes.” And it seems like people have an opportunity to basically try their hand at whatever the company has to offer. And a couple of the people who came in, in these more kind of quotidian jobs have become like famous, and it was a happy workplace. So, I think he’s really onto something with sort of letting people try their hand at things in a way that like doesn’t really damage anything too much if it doesn’t go well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, David, thanks for this. I wish you tons of luck with Range and all your adventures.

David Epstein
Thank you very much.