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784: How to Quadruple Your Reading Speed and Learn Faster with Abby Marks-Beale

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Speed reading expert Abby Marks-Beale shares the key strategies to speed up your reading–on screens and paper–without compromising comprehension.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to quadruple your reading speed with just one notecard 
  2. The best ways to retain more of what you read
  3. Awesome tools for optimal screen reading 

About Abby

Abby Marks Beale is a speed reading expert, consummate educator and professional speaker who enjoys teaching busy people how to read smarter, faster and just plain better. For the past 30+ years, she has taught thousands to build reading confidence and competence through the knowledge of simple yet powerful active reading strategies. She is the author of 10 Days to Faster ReadingThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Speed Reading and Speed Reading: A Little-Known Time-Saving Superpower. 

Resources Mentioned

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Abby Marks-Beale Interview Transcript

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

Abby Marks-Beale
Thanks for having me, Pete. Much appreciated.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about speedreading with you. We’ve only covered this like once or twice before out of nearly 800 interviews. So, I know there’s much more goodness to share. But I want to start with hearing you say you used to hate reading. What’s the story?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, I think a lot of people feel that way, that when you’re in elementary school, it’s like so great that you can read some fiction and stories are great. And then you get into middle school and high school, and they make you read these nasty textbooks that aren’t fun, there’s no pictures or not many pictures, and things that you have to learn.

So, I got turned off to reading at about that time. I used to love it until I was like in seventh grade, and then it just wasn’t fun anymore. And then I hated it until after college. And it was the kind of thing that was like I never understood why anyone in their right mind would read a newspaper on a regular basis. And I was just averse to reading. Period.

And so, I majored in Spanish in college, which helped because I could read word by word, and it was okay. And so, the comprehension part and such was just a very different animal at that time. So, yeah, I used to hate to read but I learned through a job that I got soon after college, having my degree helped to get this job, that this is not hard to do. This is something that can be learned, and it’s just a set of strategies, strategic things that people can do to become better, smarter, more effective readers.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued, when it comes to we can be better, stronger, more effective, faster, can you maybe lay out, like what’s possible in terms of just for normal professionals as opposed to, I don’t know, I’m thinking about memory champions or world record speed readers? Like, what could be possible for us in terms of, “Well, hey, I’ve been reading my whole life and I’m going fine”? What are we missing out on?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, you think it’s going fine but for some people it’s not. It’s like, “I know how to read but I don’t like to read.” There’s this thing that I talk about called your reading attitude. Everybody has one. It’s kind of like…and I say fill in the blank with this, “I am a blank reader.” And I start off all my programs that way, and it basically, if you can put in the word, like, “I am a good reader,” “I’m an avid reader,” “I’m a voracious reader,” those are all like really good positive terms, and that means that reading is something that you will do and you find it valuable, and it doesn’t waste your time, and it typically doesn’t make you fall asleep, and you don’t re-read a lot.

But others that put in the words like, “I’m a bad reader,” “I’m a slow reader,” “a distracted reader,” any of the words that are more negative means that they look at reading like the plague. It’s like, “It’s going to waste my time. It’s going to be boring. I’m going to fall asleep. I’m not going to understand it. I’m going to have to re-read.”

And so, what I aim to help people understand is that they can be much more confident about who they are as readers just by having some strategies. And even if they think they’re really good readers, which they probably are, they can still learn a few more because we haven’t had training since elementary school, pretty much. Most people haven’t taken classes or upgraded their skills. It’s like, “Here’s the words, folks. Go at it.” And that’s pretty much what they gave to us, and then we had to figure out how to manage the reading workload from there on.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I guess I’m thinking about my own story. I think I’m a fine reader. I enjoy reading things. Sometimes I do need to re-read or I do seem slow, to my own judgment, I guess. I don’t know. I haven’t timed it recently. And so, tell us, just what is possible? What sort of benefits or magic is on the other side of mastering this skill?

Abby Marks-Beale
The Rich Habits Institute, did a study about reading habits of the wealthy. And it talks about, and I’m just going to read to you a couple of the percentages. Eighty-six percent of the wealthy loved to read, 85% of the wealthy read two or more educational books every month, 88% of the wealthy read 30 minutes or more each day, and 63% of the wealthy listen to audiobooks or podcasts during their commute to work.

So, for any of your audiences thinking, “Oh, how can I make more money at what I do?” the more that you read, and I encourage more nonfiction, things that are going to make you better at who you are and what you do, that those, when applied, are going to be incredibly helpful for your life and your career. So, I agree that the more that you read, I think, the tendency to make more money is definitely there.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Thank you, Abby.

Abby Marks-Beale
It’s about feeling more confident about who you are as a reader, if you need that. It’s about having certain strategies to apply. So, some people think that when you learn how to read faster, everything has to be read fast but that’s not true. It’s about creating a gear shift. And I use this concept of five gears, and I show my hands.

So, imagine your hand, you look at your hand, on your hand you have five fingers, which are basically five gears, and gear one is your thumb, and gear two is your pointer finger, three, four, and five appropriately, keep going. So, that’s five gears. Most people are stuck in gears one and two because they don’t know how to get into gears three, four, and five. So, it’s about becoming more efficient, more effective, depending…

Like, if you’re reading something you’re very familiar with, you shouldn’t be in gear one or two. You should be able to get into, minimally, three, and definitely possibly four, depending on why you’re reading something and what you need it for. And so, it’s about… I call it active, mindful, and conscious. Those are the three things that I don’t think readers are when they read. They’re like, “Oh, here I am, my eyes are going to hit the page, and I’m going to hope that I understand what it says.” And it’s very much a conscious process, at least the way that I teach it, and the way that I do it, and the people that learned from me do it.

it’s not going so fast that you don’t understand or, as Woody Allen said, “It’s reading War and Peace in five minutes, and it’s a book about Russia.” That’s like the worst quote and I use it all the time because I hate it but it’s something that people can relate to.

But I want to give you my definition of speedreading because it’s different than other people that teach speedreading. So, it’s a set of active, mindful, and conscious strategies that allow you to get what you need quickly from any reading material in an efficient and an effective manner. So, it’s not about going so fast that you don’t understand. That’s called speed-looking not speedreading. And so, it’s being efficient and effective, active, mindful, and conscious.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you define what is your one, two, three, four, five?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, there’s different speeds. It’s basically gear one and two, they’re anywhere from about 100 to maybe 250-300 words a minute. That would be gears one and two. And then gears three, four, and five are anywhere from like 300-350 all the way up to 1250-1500 depending on what you can do. So, that’s not like wicked fast, although for some people it sounds that way. And the average reading speed of most people that haven’t had training is around 250.

So, if you think about, okay, if they’re in gear one and two, that’s around 250. Then if they could get into gear three, four, or five, they could easily go the other way, which could be 800 or 1000 words per minute when appropriate using certain strategies. So, it’s about using the gear shift, just like your car, like sometimes when there’s traffic, you got to slow down. And when it’s on the open highway, you can go into fifth gear. It’s about knowing what’s on your radar, what’s in front of you, what do you need to know, how much do you already know.

Like, okay, for example, I work with lawyers or doctors sometimes, and I teach them how to read better and faster, I say, “Look, I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a doctor, you guys know you have background knowledge that I don’t have. We could sit down with the same study,” they’re reading a study, or they’re reading a legal document, and they’re going to read it probably faster with much better comprehension than I will because I don’t have the background knowledge. You need to have the understanding of the vocabulary, of the concepts, the structure. They have that, which I don’t.

But put them into my world, reading educational material, reading speedreading material things, like I know how to get through that stuff a lot better and faster than they probably can. So, it’s about your background knowledge, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, well, quadrupling the reading speed sounds magically enticingly powerful in terms of what might be possible for just like slamming through an email inbox, or looking through reports, or doing research. Being able to pull that off four times as fast can mean going home early, or having time to do more fun, strategic work, or the people development stuff that is being neglected. So, are you saying that it is, in fact, possible via practice and strategy to read at four times the average speed, if we’re 250, to go to 1000 plus without losing comprehension?

Abby Marks-Beale
As long as you have, number one, the background knowledge, you know what it’s talking about, you’re familiar with it, and, number two, that you’re using the right strategy for the right reason. And so, two things I want to say. One is that in order to get into those gears of four and five, what you’ll find is that you have to use a tool.

And the tools that I talk about are using your hands or a card to read but you have to find something to put on, either your screen or your paper, that’s going to help you track your eye movements because your eye movements, they get tired just going across the lines and back to the beginning, and across the line and back to the beginning. But if you have something moving on your page or on your screen, you’re able to follow it much faster.

And, for me even, to get into those higher gears of four or five, I have to use my hands or a white card to read with. And so, that, for some people is just really uncomfortable because they’re not used to doing it, and I explain that, yeah, it is uncomfortable at first, but once you get the habit, you’re sold on it because that is how you get to those higher gears.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds easy.

Abby Marks-Beale
It is.

Pete Mockaitis
I just get a notecard and move it fast, and that’s all you got to do, Abby. Is that what we’re saying here?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, yes but, yes but, the white card, this is my favorite thing to share with people. It’s called the white card method. It’s taking a blank white card or the back side of a business card that’s blank, or a blank piece of white paper, like that, just as I’m seeing it, not everyone is seeing that, but, yes, a blank white card. And if you have like a magazine, newspaper, a book, whatever in front of you, most people would put that card underneath the line that they’re reading, and they would put it below.

And it’s just a natural thing because when we’re learning how to read, that’s where you would put it because you want to leave exposed what you’ve just read so that if you feel uncomfortable, you can go back and re-read it. But as the adult reader, the more skilled reader, you’re blocking where you’re going and leaving available what you’ve already read, which means you can go back. It’s something called regression. You don’t want to go back and re-read things.

So, to use the card effectively, it must go above the first line that you’re reading so it pushes you down and it blanks out or blacks out what you’ve already read so the tendency to go backwards is a whole lot less. You can still pick up the card if you lost your place but it’s really meant like, “Here, let’s keep it going, let’s go straight down,” and it’s very, very effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Okay. So, I’m not cutting out a window pane but rather I’m blocking that which I have already read and bringing it down and…

Abby Marks-Beale
You’re covering what you’ve already read and leaving open what you haven’t read.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that means the notecard border edge margin is above my line, my active line.

Abby Marks-Beale
Correct. Yes. You got it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, tell me, all I gotta do is get my card, put it at the top, bring it down at a pace four times what I normally do, and, bam, I’m speedreading and that’s all it takes?

Abby Marks-Beale
It’s not necessarily just go four times. You build to that. You start wherever you start, you have a starting point, and then you try that strategy as well as there’s other strategies I teach called keywords and phrases. So, how do you pick up all those words that you’re going over pretty quickly with your hands or a card.

And so, being able to know that one word at a time is not the most efficient, but finding the bigger, more important words in the text is important, finding phrases, groups of words that form thoughts. Imagine throwing thoughts back to your brain at one time instead of one word at a time. The brain loves that. It’s just that it’s about active, mindful, conscious strategies. You stay awake when you read now because you’ve put yourself into a thinking place. I call it a quiet place.

You’ve set yourself up for learning or reading success. You could learn all this stuff in my program, put yourself in a really noisy place, it’s going to be really hard to focus. But if you can get your environment the way you like it to get the concentration you need, then you add all these different things. It’s magical. And it doesn’t mean laying in bed, I hate to say.

It’s like sitting up at a desk or a table, a place that we’ve been conditioned to work. It could be kitchen table. Your work desk may not be the best unless you’re reading webpages because there’s too much to do at your desk. There’s the phone, and there’s email, and there’s to-dos that pop up, and dingers and whatever. It’s like you want to move to a quieter place if you can.

For those that work in offices, go to a conference room or a cafeteria off hours. For those that are entrepreneurs and work from home, just get out of your office to a quieter cleaned-off desk, table, kitchen table, dining room table, but avoid the LA-Z-BOY chair unless you don’t really care if you get too comfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then with these phrases, does that mean…I’ve heard the term subvocalize, which means I am reading each word inside my mind’s ear, like your bio, “She has taught thousands to build reading confidence and competence through the knowledge of simple yet powerful active reading strategies.” So, am I not doing that when I’m rocking at the 1000 plus words per minute level?

Abby Marks-Beale
Subvocalization, first of all, know that a lot of people have it because we’ve learned, at least here in the United States, that we’ve learned to sound it out, hear it in your head, called phonics, that’s how we’ve learned. And so, when you learned how to read, they didn’t tell you by the time you had a good sight vocabulary about seventh or eighth grade that you don’t need to do that anymore, and so you just kept doing it.

And so, we have this mental whispering that goes on in the head, and it’s hard to get rid of completely, so I tell people, “Don’t expect it to be gone but the faster you read, the less you can do it because you can only read about 150 to 200 words a minute out loud quickly.” And if you’re reading at 250 or 300 even as your base level, you’re not reading every single word. And so, you’ll read less, mentally whisper less the faster you go, and as long as you’re understanding what you’re reading, it doesn’t matter.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s just kind of mind-blowing in terms of…

Abby Marks-Beale
Yes, it is, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
…that if I am reading but I’m not hearing each word in my head, although I talk kind of fast and I read words in my head fast when I talk, so I think I am probably around 250-ish. Average sounds about right. I’ve tested it back in the day, and I think it’s been about the same for a good long while. So, then I guess I’m a little, I don’t know, spooked.

My vision is like I’m on a treadmill and I’ve crank it faster than I can really handle, and I’m like, “Ahh.” And so then, I guess I’m wondering, would I, in fact, be able to comprehend, remember, retain stuff that I’m flying through if I’m not saying each word to myself?

Abby Marks-Beale
The short answer is yes, and this is where the active, mindful, conscious stuff comes into play. Like, if you’re going so fast that you’re not getting it, then you got to slow down. It’s about understanding you have gears that sometimes you need to slow down either because of the content or because of where you’re at in that moment of time.

If you’re really stressed, you had a hard commute to get to work, or you just had a fight with your spouse, or you’re dealing with something going on and you’re just really distracted, that can affect it too. So you have to have the most ideal mindset, which is…well, okay, I’m going to back up for a sec because this is something that, over the past 20 years, I’ve been teaching this stuff over 30 years.

But over the past 20 years since we’ve had computers and phones, that people have learned how to multitask but haven’t re-learned how to mono-focus. And so, it’s so hard for people who are so busy, and especially type A personalities, even people like me at times, to just stop and just read because they’re thinking about so many other things.

And so, by learning how to calm the mind, be it through mindfulness techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing practices, something that can center you will greatly benefit your reading. So, I feel like that’s important to mention because we’re so twitchy with all the stuff that we have to look at.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Got you. So, we’re just entering that tunnel of focus and it’s like all that is in my consciousness is this text and away we go. Okay. And I guess I’m curious, is there a place you might recommend? If I want to really take this for a spin, I’m going to get out the notecard and rock and roll, is there a place I can go to readily check my reading comprehension? I’m thinking about Standardized Test from my youth. Reading Comprehension was a section. So, how might I assess my comprehension and check that out to see if, yup, I am really blazing so fast I don’t even know what’s going on anymore?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, I think the first thing to know is that it’s important just to know what your speed is to begin with. And, of course, people read ideally for comprehension. So, even if you don’t have ten questions after what you’ve read, you can still get your speed. I do have on my website a place where you can take a speed test just so that you can see what your reading speed is.

But if you’re looking for speed with comprehension, one of my books 10 Days to Faster Reading has ten readings in it with ten questions, so that’s a place that you could read and answer questions. Just don’t look back at the reading to get your answers. And there are a few other timed-reading exercises. I would bet if you Google them, you’d probably find them.

I know teachers can use them in high schools. Some do in college-level courses as well where you can get readings with questions. I had one from Jamestown Publishers. I used to teach when I did high school or college. So, you can get books like that if you wanted. You might even find it online as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. All right. Well, so we’re jumping around a little bit. So, we talked about the notecard, and you also talked about word clusters and…

Abby Marks-Beale
Keywords.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there something to do there with the keywords? Or what am I doing when I’m using the keyword method?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, in some ways, it’s hard to just describe. You really have to see it. However, what a keyword is, is basically any word that’s about three letters in length or longer, and it usually gives you the most meaning of a sentence. And so, it’s almost like picking out from a like a 12-word sentence, maybe seven or eight of those words that make sense. But by doing that, what you’re doing is actively consciously looking for the more important words, which keeps you more awake and alive and on task more than daydreaming.

So, daydreaming, regression, and subvocalization are the three evils, if there were such a thing, to reading. And so, mind-wandering is one of the things that happens when you go too slow. And so, by having a strategy, you will tend to daydream less, first of all, which is helpful. And then by learning how to find keywords, you’re going to be able to read almost…it’s just like newspaper headings. It’s just like a headline, that’s what I’m looking for, a newspaper headline. And it’s just like, “I get it. I don’t need all those other words because I got it through these bigger words that are more important.” And you see the other words. You’re just not stopping your eyes on all those words.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you and I know what you mean about needing to see it. As I’m looking at my note draft starter outline questions, which I flexibly refer to and suppose to march through. I’ve got, “What are your best practices for people trying to get into speedreading?” And I’m seeing in many of these words, “What are your” don’t need them; “best practices” that’s big; “for people trying” we’ll take the trying; “to get into” okay, “speedreading.” “Best practices” “trying” “speedreading” like those keywords are maybe a little under half of the total words, and I get the gist of what this question is about.

Abby Marks-Beale
Yes, correct.

Pete Mockaitis
So, okay. Very cool.

Abby Marks-Beale
So, I just pulled out, I was looking for some reading material next to me. So, I have a copy of my book that came out Speed Reading: A Little-known Timesaving Superpower. Just opened up to squeeze the margin section, just opened it up. I’m just going to read like two, three lines and keywords.

Abby Marks-Beale
And just see if this makes sense to you even though you’re not seeing the other words. “Reading newspaper column quite different reading email. Not just content different, also column width. Average newspaper column, six words across. Average email anywhere 18 to 25 words across. I jump from end one line to beginning next. Much longer email than newspaper makes it hard eyes read. Find the next line accurately.”

Does that make sense at all to you?

Pete Mockaitis
It does. Well, it’s funny, like I’m already jumping the implications, like, “Oh, maybe if the email is wide, I should like shrink the window so that it’s more manageable and it squeezes that in a bit.”

Abby Marks-Beale
Yeah. And not saying it out loud, obviously, by doing it internally, you’ll go a lot faster than if you do it out loud. But it’s about getting good at just finding those bigger words, and that takes a little bit of play and experimentation, but once you get good at it, it’s very helpful for some people, especially people that subvocalize every word because then…and even English as a second language learners find that this is a very helpful tool for them so they don’t have to read every it, that, to, the, to, and, for, if because they look at those words as if they have to all be processed the same way and they don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, beautiful. Thank you.

Okay. So, we talked about getting in the right mindset and maybe it’s some breathing practice or mindfulness or a distraction-free space where it’s just the text. We talked about looking at the clusters of words and then the notecard, starting at the top, and then scooting on down to cover what we have already read and put it at the top of each line, and not needing to subvocalize, and we can rock out at four times the speed without losing comprehension with practice. That’s exciting.

Abby, tell us, what are some of your top do’s and don’ts that we haven’t covered here? It sounds like there are some more tools with regard to margin use. What’s the story here?

Abby Marks-Beale
So, there’s a lot. There are so many different pieces of this whole concept. I think, probably, one of them is about the purpose that a lot of people when they sit down to read, they don’t really know why they are reading what they’re reading, and, even more importantly, what do they need to get from it. And the reason I say that is because there are times when you’re going through something where it’s like, “Why am I reading this? It’s not going to meet my objective,” but it’s there so you feel like you have to read it.

And so, when you know that you’re not going to need it, you can skim over it. I teach people how to effectively skim. You can skip it without guilt and just say, “I read this because I read the rest of it because that was what I needed, and I didn’t need that piece.” And I give an example of, let’s say, you wanted to read about, I don’t know, like chocolate. Like, you’re reading a book on chocolate. That’s a good one. You want to know about different kinds of chocolate and where they’re made, and blah, blah. But then there’s a chapter that just talks about one maker of chocolate, Belgian chocolate, and you’re like, “Nah, I don’t really like Belgian chocolate. It doesn’t really matter.”

And so, there’s like a whole chapter, 12 pages on this one person, and you’re like, “You know, I’ll do a quick skim and find if there’s anything really interesting here but I’m not going to spend a lot of time because it doesn’t interest me, it doesn’t float me in some spiritual way, personally or professionally.” So, you become very selfish, I think, when you read active, mindfully, and consciously because you don’t want to spend time on things that aren’t worth your time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. And I heard it said somewhere that if you can determine in one minute that a 30,000-word book will be of no value to you whatsoever, then it’s as effective as you having read all 30,000 words in that one minute.

Abby Marks-Beale
That’s a great one. I like that. I agree. I agree 100%.

Pete Mockaitis
Fair enough.

Abby Marks-Beale
Yeah, I agree.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well, what else are the top do’s and don’ts you’d put forward?

Abby Marks-Beale
So some of my other favorite things, that reading on screen, which is the bane of so many of our existence, there are some really cool apps. I demonstrate them when I do webinars and I like to share them whenever I can. One is called BeelineReader.com. B-E-E-L-I-N-E Reader.com. And so, you go into, like you’re looking at, I don’t know, Fortune magazine or Vanity Fair, whatever, online, and you’re reading an article. There’s all these videos and pop-ups and things that are just like distracting you, and it’s so frustrating.

And when you put BeelineReader onto your computer, it can do really two things. Number one is it color-codes the lines so that it’s easier to read. So, it goes from black to red, red to black, black to blue, blue to blue, black to black, so it’s easier to find the next line. But then when you do this thing called activate in clean mode, it takes out all the ads, all the pop-ups, and it puts the article in basically standard-length lines all the way down the page in the colored texts.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Abby Marks-Beale
It is like the coolest app, and I use it all the time when I’m reading longer articles, like, “I don’t want to read with all that stuff flashing at me.” And so, I think it’s like $9, $10 a year to have that on my browser.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Abby Marks-Beale
Yeah, it’s a really cool thing. I like that a lot. And then another one that I like and I tell people about for learning how to process words faster, is to get the free app of something called Spreeder, S-P-R-E-E-D-E-R. The free app of Spreeder, you can copy the words that you have on that article, just copy them, and paste them into Spreeder and you can force-feed it to you at different speeds. And so, one word at a time, you can set it up. You play with it. It’s fun and it’s free. And it’s another way to get the eyes and brain used to communicating faster. It’s just one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Abby Marks-Beale
Yeah, a lot of cool things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to get your take when you’re focused in and reading fast, are you more or less tired afterwards? Because, on the one hand, I can see, “Oh, man, I’m draining mental resources because I’m just going bananas in terms of fully dialed in and focused and slamming through so quick.” Or, is it like, “Hey, by being completely absorbed in that which I was doing, it is actually sort of like a flow state rejuvenator”? Or maybe it just varies person by person. What’s your take on this?

Abby Marks-Beale
I think it’s both. I do think it’s a flow state rejuvenator. Definitely, when I’m reading something that is very interesting or something I really want to learn, and I sit down at a desk and I have it in front of me, and I’m using my hands or a card to read with, and I’m really dialed in with it, then when I’m done, I’m like, “Wow, that was so good.”

Like, I read a book on an airplane. I went down to Florida last week and I just read half the book on the way there, and half the book on the way back, and I’m like, “Wow, that was awesome. It was so good.” I didn’t feel tired from that at all. But if you read too slowly and you don’t have a purpose, it’s very draining because you’re sitting there trying to learn it, you’re trying to understand it, and it doesn’t really work.

And you can get so much more done when you have that purpose in mind. And, obviously, you don’t want to read it unless you’re a night person. I don’t know how people read at 10:00 or 11:00 at night unless they’re really night owls because that’s like the last thing I want to do. I read like a couple pages and it’s my nightcap to go to sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that’s a great illustration of the gear system. It’s like, “I’m chilled out, I’m lying down. I’m not looking for max speed, max wisdom. It’s just like here’s a soothing thing that’s a bit interesting.”

Abby Marks-Beale
Or, “I’m at the beach. I’m on vacation. I don’t really want to read so fast,” or, “Maybe I do because I love the book and I want to read fast.” It’s always a choice once you have those five gears in place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, we talked about screen reading, there’s a few tools right there for us. Anything else you recommend, like maybe just shrinking the windows to get the width or margin in a certain spot? How many words or inches should I be going for? Because I got a big old screen here and I can resize this window anyway I want. So, what would be optimal for my speed if I am not going to leap over to BeelineReader or Spreeder? How do I think about my windows and my line width?
Abby Marks-Beale
So, some people like the six words per line that are a part of like a newspaper column, and if you like that and you find satisfaction reading quickly across those lines, then get your screen to six to eight words per line. Otherwise, if you look at like emails, it could be anywhere from 18 to 25 words per line, and if that’s comfortable for you, you could do that. But if it gets to be a lot more than that, the eyes have a really hard time tracking all the way across those lines, and then back accurately to the beginning of the line.

And so, you can use, I’m sharing this really special with you, Pete, just so you know.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Abby Marks-Beale
Is that you can use your screen like the white card. So, you take the text that you have in front of you, line it up to the top of your screen, like if there was a ruler there or just the top of your webpage, and you use your scrollbar, hopefully your mouse can do it one click or two lines at a time. And so, as you click it on your scrollbar, the lines go up into the “black” just like covering it up with the white card, so you’ve adapted the white card to the screen. Does that make sense in how I described that?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very easy, yeah.

Abby Marks-Beale
Okay. And so, it’s another way to use the white card but on a computer screen or a Kindle or whatever.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s clever, yeah.

Abby Marks-Beale
It’s just easier to use that way.

Pete Mockaitis
And my mouse likes to make giant leaps when I click it but I could just use the down arrow and bo-boom, bo-boom.

Abby Marks-Beale
You can use the down arrow. You could also change the settings of your mouse just for reading purposes. It can be one line at a time when you go in your settings, so that’s another way to do it.

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

Abby Marks-Beale
Oh, there are so many other things but I think one of them is about creating a manageable or a quality reading workload instead of a quantity. I think a lot of people have stuff stacked up be it on their computer, or on paper, on their desk, on their nightstand, in their bathroom, in their backpack, whatever. There are so many different things, places that they have stuff. And after a while, it’s just like, “What am I going to get to next? I don’t even know.”

And so, by really evaluating what you have in your pile, and so I’m going to give this to you, too, because you’re a nice guy and I know the people, they would like it. And so, it’s a quick four-step process, so if you have a lot of stuff to read and you’re like, “I know there are stuff there that I don’t want,” and you put it in there six months ago, six years ago, and you just never got to it.

The first thing you do is kind of put it all together and then put a number on it on a scale of zero to ten. Zero is, “Totally worthless, totally not worth my time. Yuck, I hate it,” to a ten, “This is like the best thing ever. I love this. I can’t wait to get to it. It’s so good.” And so, you rank it on a scale of zero to ten, and anything over six, you put in one pile, anything under six, you put in another pile. The stuff under six, you recycle, get rid of, don’t need it, don’t want it, it leaves right now, it’s not worthwhile to use, so get rid of it.

And then what’s left, you think you’re done but you’re not. Now you have to say, “Well, how much time do I have to read on a regular basis?” If you only read five minutes a day, get rid of a lot of your stuff because you’re just not going to get to it if you’re just thinking you will. So, making more time to read is really important but then managing, “How much time do I read with what I have in my pile?”

So, you want to read things that are of value to you, things that float you spiritually, personally, professionally, and then make sure that you make the time to do it because that’s how you get a pile that’s under control. You don’t want to have boxes and boxes or bookcases and bookcases of things you’ve never read. That doesn’t help. So, it’s about being attracted to your reading workload instead of repelled.

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

Abby Marks-Beale
I think, actually, I have two. One of them is, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” That’s by Henry Ford because sometimes I have stinking thinking, so it does help quite a bit. And the other one is “There has to be a better way.” That’s another quote. I don’t know. I say that. I don’t know who says it but I always think just when I think things aren’t working, like, “There’s got to be a better way. There’s got to be a better way.”

Pete Mockaitis
That makes me think of, I think, there are some infomercial pitch man, at least that’s how…my wife and I say that to each other. We do it in a British accent, in a slow informercial-ly voice, “There’s got to be a better way. Well, there is, Abby. Buy my product.”

Abby Marks-Beale
I like that. That’s good.

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

Abby Marks-Beale
So, I quote this study, it’s called the Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting. It’s E-B-B-I-N-G-H-A-U-S in case anybody wants to look it up. And, basically, when you read something today without any active, mindful, conscious strategies, you’re not going to remember more than 10% of it three days from now unless you talk about it, re-read it several times, or experience it in some other way.

And so, by becoming more active, mindful, and conscious to begin with, you remember 50%, you don’t remember just 10. You remember 50% or more because of the intention. And so, I love this Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting, and so you need to repeat and re-read and experience with other people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Abby Marks-Beale
Yeah, you’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Abby Marks-Beale
I’m going to say that one of my favorite books is called Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope. He’s a person that I followed at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Meditation. It’s a really good book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool?

Abby Marks-Beale
BeelineReader. I think BeelineReader is my favorite tool for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Abby Marks-Beale
Favorite habit for me is probably doing exercise that feels good and doesn’t cause pain, which is like I’m a swimmer so I swim laps and walking and yoga, but I don’t like things like lifting weights because they cause problems for me. Yeah, just things that don’t cause pain.

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

Abby Marks-Beale
It’s more what I quote to them. It’s kind of my tagline, that, “The road to knowledge begins with a turn of a page.” It was a fortune that I found in a fortune cookie when I decided to start my business in 1988, and so I keep that. It’s just to me very powerful. “The road to knowledge begins with a turn of a page.”

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

Abby Marks-Beale
Yes, thank you, to my website at RevItUpReading.com, R-E-V-I-T-U-P Reading.com. And there’s the free test that you can take, the speedreading test. There’s also a free sneak peek which will allow you one module, which actually introduces the phrasing concept in my favorite exercise called discipline your eyes. You can get all that for free. So, I encourage people to go check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful.

Abby Marks-Beale
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Abby, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun reading.

Abby Marks-Beale
Thank you. You, too. I read a lot. It’s your turn.

780: How Minds Change and How to Change Minds with David McRaney

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David McRaney breaks down why it’s so difficult to change people’s minds—and shares powerful strategies to get others to open their minds.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why facts alone can’t persuade others
  2. One simple question to make you more persuasive
  3. A step-by-step guide to changing even the most stubborn minds 

About David

Science journalist, podcaster, and internationally bestselling author David McRaney is an expert in the psychology of reasoning, decision making, and self-delusion. His wildly popular blog became the international bestselling book You Are Not So Smart, revealing and celebrating our irrational and thoroughly human behavior. His second bestseller, You Are Now Less Dumb, gives readers a fighting chance at outsmarting their brains. His most recent book, How Minds Change, is a brain-bending and big-hearted investigation into the science of belief, opinion, and persuasion. 

David is an in-demand speaker whose work has been featured in The Atlantic and many others.

He also created and hosted Exploring Genius: In-Depth Study of Brilliant Minds, an audio documentary for Himalaya, and is working on a TV series about how to better predict the psychological impact of technological disruption. 

Resources Mentioned

David McRaney Interview Transcript

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

David McRaney
Thank you so much for having me. This is so cool to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited to talk about your book How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion. But, first things first, David, we got to know about your stint as a strong man in the circus.

David McRaney
How in the world did you even know this? I feel like I’m on Hot Ones. That’s one of those deep cuts. I was at a Renaissance Fair a couple of years, it was right before COVID, and I’m a giant dude. I’m 6’2” and they were like, “Hey, do you want to…? We need a strong man,” they pointed right at me, and I was like, “Sure, I’m into it.”

So, I got up on stage, and it was one of those acts where they…you have an acrobat climb up your body and then stand on your shoulders, and you have to hold them up, and they juggle flaming objects back and forth with their assistant who was inside a shopping cart that’s slowly rolling away. And I had to do all sorts of acts. It really was hard because I was like, “If I messed this up, one of us is going to be horribly injured. I’ll be covered in fire.”

It’s a Renaissance Fair in Louisiana, so it’s just going to be a YouTube video. It’s not like there’s going to be medical attention that’s going to rush over to our aid. It’s going to be one of those things that people share online and say, “Don’t do that.” So, that’s what I did. It was fun. I’m into it.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow. So, that’s pretty high stakes and it sounds like there wasn’t a lot of prep. You just launched right into it.

David McRaney
Yeah, it was fun. I was wearing a full kilt and I just was in the mood to do weird stuff at a Renaissance Fair, so that speaks to my character, in general. Yeah, I’m down to do crazy stuff if it seems like there’s going to be a good story involved. So, I finally get to tell it. I think this is the first time I’ve told anybody this outside of my immediate friends and family.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’re honored. Beautiful. Well, thank you for sharing, and I think that really does set a great foundation somehow for the topic to come. Let’s talk about how minds change. And could you kick us off with a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or fascinating discovery you’ve made about us humans and our brains and persuadability while putting together this book?

David McRaney
One is the idea that humans are flawed and irrational, which I used to talk about all the time.

And the other is that some people are completely unreachable and unpersuadable, which I also used to say. I talk about it in the beginning of the book. I was at a lecture once, and someone asked for my advice on reaching out to their father who had gotten into a pretty deep conspiracy theory, and I, at the time, this was years ago, said, “I don’t think you have any hope here. This person isn’t willing to change their mind,” and I never felt good about that. I never liked that answer.

And then I witnessed the incredible shift in public opinion and attitudes towards same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues, in general, in the United States, leading to the Supreme Court decision. And, interested in that, I started investigating it and found my way to the work of both Tom Stafford and Hugo Mercier, who are in the book, and who had been on my podcast, and who I, at this point, know them well enough to be able to chitchat.

Hugo Mercier has a great book called The Enigma of Reason which I highly recommend, and is an explanation of the interactionist theory of human cognition, which is his work with Dan Sperber. The simplest explanation of that is humans, we evolve over time to reach consensus towards common goals, common courses of action to share worldviews, to be more effective in groups.

And we have these two cognitive mechanisms underlaid by biological mechanisms: one is reproducing propositions and one is for evaluating propositions, and they work differently. And, oftentimes, we’ll find ourselves in environments where we’re only producing arguments, often we’re doing it in isolation, and it’s different from evaluating arguments.

And then that combines with what Tom Stafford has, put forward in a new model. Called The Truth Wins theory. Everyone who wrote books about this sort of thing, there was sort of a new hotness in the world of pop science, which were humans are irrational and flawed.

And so, the idea that the same reason we lock our keys in our cars and send emails to the wrong person, scales up to climate change and things like that, most of that research, even though it was done with lots of people, those people were researched in isolation. And that means we were looking at what an individual does and how an individual comes up with solutions to problems or reasons for thinking something or justifications and so on. And, yeah, individuals do that in a very biased and lazy way but if you give people the opportunity to approach those same things as a group, you’ll get a much better outcome.

And so, those two things together were the first sort of torches in the distance that I’d walked toward as I moved through all sorts of on-the-ground reporting with activists and cults and pseudo-cults and conspiracy theory communities and experts who study all these things, leading up to the arc of really shifting my view on not only how minds change, whether or not it’s through persuasion, but also how persuasion actually could work in a way that actually brings results.

So, that all sums up into one big epiphany for David McRaney, which is I don’t think anyone is unreachable anymore. I don’t think anyone is unpersuadable. I think that the frustration we often feel when we are approaching someone who doesn’t seem to want to change their mind or resist deeply, that frustration is better directed at ourselves for not approaching them in a way that would help them arrive at a different conclusion or see things differently.

In the book, I use the metaphor it’s like trying to reach the moon with a ladder, and when that doesn’t work, assuming the moon is unreachable. I think you try to reach out to people who disagree with you or see things much differently than you using improper approaches and techniques. You might assume they’re unreachable, but you just need to change the way you go about doing things. So, that’s my long-winded, super giant answer to your great opening question. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Fundamentally, why do we humans tend to believe some things and not others? I was intrigued when you mentioned, you got cults and conspiracy theorists. I watched the documentary Behind the Curve about the Flat Earth stuff.

David McRaney
Oh, yeah, I got to help with that a little bit, yup.

Pete Mockaitis
And that was intriguing. And I’m just so fascinated as to why is it that some of us will accept some things and reject other things and like what’s that about?

David McRaney
Behind the Curve, that’s great. I didn’t know that I contributed to that documentary until someone told me that I was in the credits.
it also led to, of all things, there was a festival in Sweden that was similar to South by Southwest, and they invited me and Mark Sargent on stage to talk about his Flat Eartherness, and I used one of the techniques in the book on stage, although I wasn’t really that good at it. Like, I’m much better at it now.

But that’s a side story that came out of that documentary. I loved that documentary. One of the reasons why this is something that’s difficult to get your mind around is that some of the same assumptions that lay people, like ourselves, would make in this, even though we have all this experience with people we’ve tried to argue with over the years, are the same assumptions that scientists made when they first started studying this in earnest in the 1940s.

In the 1940s, they were trying to understand propaganda. They’re trying to understand, they were worried about what the Nazis were up to with propaganda, and the United States was trying to figure out, “Should we fight propaganda? Should we make propaganda? What works? What doesn’t?” And there were already social scientists who were interested in marketing and advertising and messaging and all that kind of things, and they ended up making this thing called Why We Fight.

You can watch it on YouTube. It’s this very long American propaganda piece that opens up with the Nazi propaganda, and says, “Look at this. This is bad. And why are we fighting this war?” And it says, “Is it because of this?” And they show all these places getting bombed and tanks rolling through, and they say, “No, no, no.” And then, eventually, they show the Statue of Liberty and the Magna Carta and stuff like that, and say, “This is why we fight. Torches of freedom that are being snuffed out around the world.”

And they had this whole idea, “We’re going to show this.” They showed it to the President. The President was like, “This is so good, I want this in every theater in the United States.”

And they went to bootcamps and things like that and showed them the film, and they measured the impact of it. And what they discovered there is something that we all often discover when we try to get people to see things our way. We throw a bunch of facts at them, a bunch of links, we tell them to go watch these videos, read these books. And what they found, there were these misconceptions that they were worried about.

One was that the war would be over in a couple of weeks, that the German military was very small, that the UK wasn’t doing a very good job of defending itself, we were just coming in to save them. They wanted to get rid of these misconceptions. And they found that the film did a great job of doing that. It did correct people’s incorrect beliefs. The facts in their mind were updated but their attitudes were not changed in any which way whatsoever.

All their opinions going in about the war, things like it’ll be over in this amount of time, or their negative or positive evaluation of things, no change. And that led to a new wing of research into persuasion in which we started to actually think of categories of mental constructs that were separate from one another. Attitudes aren’t the same as beliefs. Beliefs aren’t the same as attitudes. Then you have values and norms and opinions, and these things are interchangeable terms and we’re just kind of talking in our lay language, but they are not interchangeable when we start trying to divide them into mental constructs.

So, what often happens when you’re trying to change someone’s mind, and it’s not working out for you, is that you hear them present a claim or a proposition or an idea, and you try to change one aspect of it instead of the other aspect, which is actually driving their eagerness to present this to you.

What often happens is someone will say something, “I think the President is a great president,” or, “I think the President is a bad president,” whoever that may be, and you try to change their mind about that. It feels like you’re trying to change a belief. But what you’re really trying to change there is an attitude because they’re telling you their positive or negative evaluation of the person. And though there may be beliefs involved, there’s a sort of assumption that, or it could be anything.

It could be climate change, it could be fracking, it could be gun control, it could be whether the Earth is flat. We often believe it’s the facts that led to our feelings on the matter. Like, we’re Gandalf or something, we go to the bottom of our castle and we go to the scroll room and read all the scrolls, and then finally you hold up a finger, and you go, “Hmm, this is what I believe about blah, blah, blah.” It feels like we did that sort of contemplation.

But what usually is taking place is the person has a very strong emotional reaction to this that is a combination of motivations and drives and attitudes that come from experience, they come from their social group that they feel aligned with, they come from maybe motivations like “My job or my reputation.” And then that leads them on a search for evidence that will support the feeling that they have, and that’s motivated reasoning in a nutshell. They’re looking for reasons that will justify the foundational state that they’re in, that we don’t usually recognize is that foundational state.

So, when you approach someone at the level of their conclusions and your level of your conclusions, you’re really asking them to interpret evidence based off of your feelings and your attitudes and your emotions. And if the end goal in that is, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” and then their goal is to prove that, “No, no, I’m right and you’re wrong,” there’s very low chances of that actually getting anywhere, versus a conversation in which, “Hey, I notice that we disagree on this. I wonder why we disagree,” and then you investigate almost as a team to try to solve the mystery of where your disagreement starts.

And in that, you may find that there’s sort of Venn diagram of overlapping attitudes and values, and you can find something in there that will shift both of your opinions at the end of the conversation. So, that’s my very long answer to your question. And why do we resist? Because, evolutionary speaking, it’s dangerous to change your mind if you don’t need to but it’s also dangerous to not change your mind if you should.

So, either one of those outcomes could lead to you getting eaten or not having enough food to survive the winter, so we’re very careful about going through assimilation and accommodation, sort of the two mechanisms of changing our mind. We do this so carefully, considering all these possible motivations that turn it into a risk-versus-reward scenario, and we sort of evaluate the risk of it, and the risk just simply outweigh the rewards in a lot of situations for a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew, yeah, so much there. So, when you talked about Mark Sargent and risks, I remember there’s a piece toward the end of that documentary Behind the Curve in which he said, “Oh, I couldn’t leave Flat Earth now if I wanted to.” Like, all of his entire social network and reputation is sort of built around this. And so, yeah, we have a whole boatload of reasoning there that you’re motivated to, to kind of find and dispute, it’s like, “Well, this experiment, it didn’t work out this way because of this.” And so, it’s like even a spot where it’s very difficult to accept evidence to the contrary of his beliefs because of what that will cost him. So, that’s the spot. That’s intriguing.

David McRaney
And the person may not know why they believe this or feel so strongly. If you want to put it in terms that actually fit what’s going on, like, “Why do you feel that pseudo-emotional thing of certainty? Why, when you see this news story, do you accept it unquestionably versus when you see this news story you feel skepticism and then another person has a completely inverted response to that?”

And you take something like vaccines. Like, I spent a lot of time with anti-vaxxers, before COVID anti-vaxxers, and spent time with the people who studied the CDC response and why it wasn’t working with MMR vaccines, the people who were against it often would say they’re afraid that it causes autism. If you asked that person, “Why do you not want to get your child vaccinated?” they may produce as a reason for you, “I fear that it may cause autism, and I’ve read all the stuff and I really believe it, and so I’m not getting my child vaccinated.”

That’s likely not the actual reason. That’s their justification for not doing it, but the reason they’re not doing it is so deep they may not even recall the beginning of their quest to find evidence to justify it. There are so many things that go into that. Usually, all the research suggests that there’s sort of a moral slide or setting in that person where they’re thinking, “This takes away my agency. I’m fearful of institutions. I don’t trust governments and medical institutions.”

“I don’t have a lot of knowledge about these foreign liquids, and they seem kind of disgusting to me in some way, and they’re scary. And you can take all of that and put it into a syringe, and put a needle at the end of it, and stick it into my child without my ability to say no,” that’s really what’s motivating them. That’s the strong negative attitude toward all of that.

Then they’ve gone on a search for, “What supports this strong negative attitude? Ah, yes, this autism thing. I totally accept that. That is a good reason for me to feel this way. It really justifies it.” And then when you get into a discussion with them and you might be presenting your evidence and they’re presenting their evidence, they’re saying to you, “This is why I believe this.” But that’s not actually why they believe it. That was some sort of justification they found later. So, they’re actually going in the reverse direction of the processing that was there.

And this is what we do in every domain when things are uncertain, ambiguous, scary, anxiety-laden. You know what I mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I like that little listing that you gave in terms of these are the domains in which that occurs.

And then what’s tricky is when it’s so…yeah, you said it’s scary. Let’s hear those lists again. It’s scary, it’s ambiguous. What are some other ingredients that are right…?

David McRaney
Yeah, there’s uncertainty in there. There’s also we don’t know what we don’t know, so there is a large pocket of ignorance as to how any of this work but you don’t really know that you don’t know those things, but you do feel some sort of uncertainty because of it. There’s also uncertainty of outcome. It’s ambiguous as to what’s happening and there’s all these anxiety triggers in there. Anyone is anxious over having something put in their body that they did not themselves…like, we’re not involved in the creation of it.

And then there’s all these agency problems, like, “You’re taking my ability to determine…you’re taking something away from me when it comes to the care of my child. You’re also doing something to me. I’m not the one holding the syringe.” There are dozens of things in there. And there’s just the general fearfulness of institutions.

There’s nature nurture here. Some people come into the world already somewhat fearful in that way, and then life experiences compound that. Some of those are very reasonable. There may have been things that happened in their lives that they have a really good reason to not trust the government/medicine/so and so and so.

And I advocate in the book for cognitive empathy for those, like, “This person has no choice but to feel that way, no different than you have no choice but to feel, if you’re on the other side of it, you can imagine the question being directed at yourself, which is, ‘Why are you so trustful of all this?’ And it might be difficult for you to articulate why you so readily go, ‘But I trust this. I trust science. I trust doctors.’ And that’s what you should offer to them as well. They may not really be able to articulate why they feel that way.”

Pete Mockaitis
I think you’re nailing it here because I find myself really stuck in the middle with regard to that domain of sort of trust authorities, distrust authorities. Like, I’m thinking about times when I had to get my roof replaced. And so, I was having a hard time getting any roofer to show up, it’s like, “Darn it. I’m just going to call a dozen right now, and one of them is going to show up.” Well, four of them showed up. They gave me completely different perspectives, and I thought, “Wait a minute. You’re the roofing experts, I know nothing of roofs, and I’m supposed to make the call on which one is correct and which one is incorrect. That’s tricky.”

All right. Well, so we’ve laid the groundwork in terms of what’s up with minds changing and not changing. Can you lay it out for us then, ideally with some cool stories and examples, what are some workable strategies we can use to persuade folks? And I’m thinking particularly in professional context as we’re being awesome at our job here. So, lay it on us, how is it done?

David McRaney
So, in the beginning of the book, I go, I hang out with 9/11 truthers, conspiratorial communities. I go hang out with deep canvassers who are activist groups in Los Angeles that go door to door, knocking on doors and change people’s minds about wedge issues in about 20 minutes.

I spent time with the researchers in NYU who studied the dress, which helped me understand the nature of disagreement at the level of neurons, and there’s all sorts of stuff. And Westboro Baptist Church. I visited Westboro Baptist Church, talked to people who left, went to their Valentine’s Day Sunday services, and also went to the building across the street that protest them regularly, the Rainbow house.

One of the things that I found in all this, people who have techniques that actually work and have techniques that are supported by research, most of them had never met each other and weren’t aware of each other, and most of them had never actually looked into the science behind what they were doing. They were just doing a bunch of A/B testing and going with what worked and tweaking what didn’t.

I thought of it kind of like if you wanted to make an airplane, like before airplanes were invented, and you were trying to make something that flew, no matter where you were in the world, or what you made it out of, it would pretty much look the same because we’re dealing with the same physics and the same planet.

Persuasion techniques that really work all look about the same and work the same way because brains work pretty the same way in this dynamic, and that’s because we’re all sharing the same DNA that’s using the same proteins to make the same brain structures that were all influenced by natural selection and so on. That leads to me, if I was going to give you something that I feel that demonstrates this well, I would use street epistemology because I think it’s the easiest one to understand up front and it helps you understand the others really well, and you can apply it in a business setting, in a workplace really easily.

The first thing you need to do if you want to change somebody’s mind, my step zero in all this is ask yourself, “Why do you want to do that?” I find there’s a lot of value in introspecting as to why it is important to you to persuade someone one way or another. Try to make sure that you do have, at least believe you have, the moral high ground, the ethical high ground, or you are factually correct, and then investigate as to whether or not that is so before you enter into this space.

Then try to determine what it is that you want to change on the other side. Is it a belief, is it an attitude, or is a value? A belief is an estimation of something being true or false, a fact-based claim. An attitude is an evaluation of positive or negative, good or bad. And a value would be, “Where should we put this in the hierarchy of things that we are willing to put our time, money, and effort into?”

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like important or not important.

David McRaney
Right. So, establish that first, and then you’ll be much better off as to which one of these techniques works best. Street epistemology works really best when it’s a fact-based claim, like we use for anything. So, the order of operations goes like this. First, build rapport. Rapport is important because we are social primates, and the thing that we care about even more than our own mortality is whether or not our reputation is at stake in any dynamic.

If you communicate anything to the other person that can be interpreted as “You should be ashamed for thinking, feeling, or believing X,” that’s the end of that conversation. You are now in a place and a category of them, or you’re just considered a dangerous person who might get them ostracized or might get them canceled or something that, in effect, nobody wants to be on the end of that dynamic. So, you may not intend to do it, you may not have that in your heart, but it’s very easy to get somebody to feel that way. It’s very easy to communicate it, and you may actually do feel that way. You need to make sure you establish rapport.

The same way, like I’m sure we all have friends that we can go have drinks with, and we don’t agree with half of the things they think about the world but it’s okay, they’re our friends. Like, they’d go on our zombie survival apocalypse squad even though we don’t agree with them on everything. And we might even see the same movie and they’d have it and we love it, and we’re okay with that because we have that trust as social primates. So, you need to establish that up front. Do what you have to do.

If you have a relationship with that person, like it’s your parent, or your family member, or someone in your job who you’ve sort of had a lot of bad conversations with over the years, it may take a while to build that rapport. You might not be able to start this process until you’ve had a couple of meetings and hangouts where that rapport is re-established. So, it’s vital that that’s there first, otherwise they’ll stay in what psychologists call the precontemplation stage. They’re not going to engage in the act of processing the message you’re going to deliver until they feel like they can trust you. They need to feel that they can disagree with you and nothing bad will happen. So, that’s kind of up front.

Now, that’s very easy with strangers. You can establish trust very quickly with strangers, and then you can be transparent, be open, ask their consent, and say, “I’d like to explore this topic with you. I’d like to hear what you think about it. I’d like to kind of figure out where you’re coming from in all this. And if that’s okay with you, you may even change your mind by the end of this conversation. If you’re alright with it, would you be willing to have this conversation with me?”

If they agree to all that and you’re transparent, you just ask for a very specific claim. If it was, “I believe the Earth is flat,” that’s what you would say, like, “Give me a specific claim,” and they’d say, “Well, I believe the Earth is flat.” Once you get that claim, repeat it back to them in their own words. They may tell you all sorts of things, they may be very elaborate, and you need to try to repeat it back in a way that shows you really do understand where they’re coming from.

This borrows a little bit from the “Feel, Felt, Found” method of approaching people. It also borrows from all sorts of therapeutic models but it’s important to reflect, to paraphrase and reflect back what they’re telling you. If they say that you’ve done a good job and they’re satisfied, now you need to clarify their definition.

Like, some people, you may be talking about something like the government, and you think you’re talking about the same thing because you might have like a civics textbook idea of what governments are, and their idea of the government is maybe completely different. They may think that’s like a smoke-filled room where they divide the country up and all that sort of thing. So, you want to make sure you have the same definitions, and then use their definitions, not yours.

And then after that, this is the crucial moment, you need a numerical measure of their competence or their certainty, zero to 100, zero to 10, something like that, where all the way on one end is absolute certainty, and all the way the other end is zero certainty. This is important for a couple of reasons. One, if it’s a contentious issue, like gun control, or at the job, there could be something that’s happening too that there’s a lot of emotions wrapped up in it, they may know that by telling you where they’re on that scale, it could cause you to think poorly of them. It’s important for them to tell you on that scale, and then your reaction to it isn’t, “Oh, my God, what’s wrong with you?” So, that’s important.

The other thing is this is the way we’re going to encourage metacognition because this is a tool for exploring. You can just try this right now. Like, let me think of a movie. Like, the last Avengers movie, like, “Where would you put yourself on a scale, like from one to ten, how much you liked that movie?” And then, it’s weird, like if you asked somebody to put a number on it, like you start to feel yourself thinking about it in a different way.

You might’ve, just before, said, “I liked it.” But if I asked you, like, “Yeah, but how much, like one to ten, zero to ten?” You say, “A seven.” It feels different. It feels like a totally new thought that you hadn’t had before but that’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s more effort, for sure, like, “Well, seven is not as good as The Dark Knight. I mean, come on. But I mean you know…”

David McRaney
“Yeah, where would you put yourself on The Dark Knight?” “Oh, I would say that’s a nine. It’s not perfect but it’s a nine.” Like, “So, where’s the Avengers then if that’s a nine?” Like, “Oh, well, I mean, it was good. I enjoyed it. Seven, six, seven. Seven, six,” you can feel that process is taking place. You can do it with any topic, “What do you feel about this new policy we’ve put in at work? Like, from one to ten, like ten it’s the best thing it ever was; one, we should never have done it.” “Well, you know,” and they start having that reaction. Or, it could be about a contentious wedge issue, like, “What do you feel about vaccines or gun control?”

So, once you have that number out there, then you want to ask, “What reasons do you have to hold that level of confidence?” or, “Why does that number feel right to you, basically?” And this is when you hand off this conversation to the other person. This is the part that allows all of us to work because no longer are you trying to copy and paste your reasoning into them. You’re evoking their reasoning out into the world, which may have never happened to them before. This is maybe their first chance to actually have a true opinion about it.

So, you ask for their reasons, like, “Well, I feel that it’s a seven because this, this, this.” That may not be the actual reason, like we covered earlier. That doesn’t matter. It’s just important they’re thinking about it in that way. And then once they’ve put a reason out there for you to discuss, ask, “What method are you using?” You don’t have to worry at this point. I’m telling you broad strokes here, but you want to ask in a very natural way, “What method are you using to arrive at that as a good reason for having that number?”

So, you can already feel, this is a three-dot chain. You have a number, you have a reason, “What’s the method?” And you ask it in such a way that you are easily guiding that person backwards all the way back to foundation. And then, hopefully, like in the best cases, the most sudden changes, the things closest to a complete flip happen, where a person realizes they weren’t using a very good method or good epistemology to like sort out the reason.

And that’s it. from that point forward, just repeat all three of those over and over again, especially the method part. Listen carefully, be a nonjudgmental empathetic listener, summarize, repeat, and help them sort it out. Just be a guide to help them sort through all of that. And when you reach a point where it feels natural, you can wrap up and wish them well. You may have to do this several times but just engaging a person in that way almost guarantees that they will see the issue differently than they saw it before that conversation.

Which, seeing something than they did before, is changing their mind, but moving at your attitude one way or the other is changing your mind, and moving your certainty up and down is changing your mind, and moving your idea of what is and is not important is a way to change your mind. And all those things can take place in this particular framework.

Pete Mockaitis
Whew, that’s beautiful. Well, David, could you roleplay and see in action right now?

David McRaney
So, that’s the method. Some conversations, like the one we’re having, like the character you’re presenting is a person who you can tell when there are moments when like they’re admitting to themselves maybe they haven’t considered this very deeply, or they’re admitting to themselves they’re using epistemologies that aren’t very rigorous, but usually at that point, a person starts to feel a little bit of reactance and they don’t want to lose face in front of the other person. They need time to think better on their own and let it flourish, let it blossom inside of them.

The key thing is to never get into an argumentative frame, and that’s what I was avoiding at every step of the way. So, they typically want to have three conversations with a person, and they do. They often keep up with them. I think they spreadsheet it out, they make sure they do contact them again. And on an issue like this, where if you’re the street epistemologist, if you’re not a climate expert, you’re avoiding talking about facts anyway, you have to admit to yourself that there are good points on the other side, and you have to bring those points forward.

But the idea is to establish a good dynamic in which we’re both trying to kind of figure out, “How would we understand this thing?” or, “Are we using good ways? Are we parsing the data well? Are we actually using news sources? Are we experts?” And I hope some that some of that was coming through in the conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, thank you. Yeah, that is handy in terms of, indeed, at no point you’re like, “You really are going to get us all killed, right? Oh, so you’re climate denier. That’s what you are. Okay. I have all I need to know about you.” So, yes, so non-argumentative and it does, indeed, feel open. And I guess as I reflect on this conversation, it’s refreshing and it’s different from, I guess, what you see in politics on both sides. It’s just like, “The other side is very bad and wrong and evil, and what we need to do is to demolish and defeat them,” is the vibe you get when you look at US political discourse in 2022.

David McRaney
Yeah. I used the dress in the book to demonstrate what the dress some people saw as black and blue, some people saw it as white and gold, but you had no choice in the matter. Like, that’s just what your brain resolved it to be. And if you got into an argument with someone about, “No, it’s this way. No, it’s the other way,” you’d never get an opportunity to have the kind of conversation where you could ask, like, “I wonder why we see it differently?” or, “I wonder why other people would see it differently than you?” which opens you up to this introspection and also this sort of critical-thinking frame of like, “Hmm, I do wonder what is the nature of disagreement?”

And some little voice inside you says, “Oh, yeah, I could be wrong about this,” or, “Oh, yeah, it’s difficult to be certain of anything, and there are reasons why people think, feel, and believe things.” And with the dress, it was because the more exposure you have to sunlight, the more time you spend in the daylight or you work around windows, the more you assume when something is overexposed, is overexposed in the blue side of the spectrum, and the more time you spend around incandescent light, which is mostly yellow light, the more you assume something is overexposed in the yellow side.

So, the picture itself was very ambiguous as to what it was overexposed but it was ambiguous as to what was causing the overexposure. And so, a person’s experiences with different kinds of light sources determine what they subtracted from the image resulting in two completely different ways of seeing that thing.

But the same thing takes place in politics or even an issue like climate change, like we were discussing. All the experiences that person has had up to that moment, this is an issue that’s uncertain and ambiguous and requires some expertise to understand. So, to come to any kind of conclusion on it, you’re going to have to use something that comes from your priors.

In the character you were communicating to me just now, this person was using ideas of trust. This idea of where the money goes. Like, that’s something that you can understand. That’s something you can use to determine whether or not I feel very strongly about this. But one of the parts of the technique is, that comes from motivational interviewing, is always ask the other person if they’re a five, why are they not a four. Or, if they’re four, why are they not a three.

And what happens often is that they have to present an argument for not going that way. And then you take that argument and that’s what you pump your energy into, into giving them the ability to articulate, “Oh,” and usually they’ll go up. What I didn’t do is ask you where are you on the scale again because that’s usually how you measure that you had some sort of effect.

But it didn’t seem, in that particular conversation, that the person on the other side was ready to re-evaluate because the thing that was coming to the fore was, “Oh, I’m not an expert. It will be difficult to become an expert in this, and I haven’t read a lot about this. And so, therefore, my opinion isn’t really on a strong foundation.” And that needs to mature in the other person before you would take it to the next level.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I liked how, I guess, we also determined that if I have skepticism associated, or the character has skepticism associated with monied interests, then that really could be an interesting point in terms of, “Hey, get a load of these people who walked away from tons of money by going to the other side.” It’s like, “Oh, huh. So, there are some folks who made this call based on convictions that caused them something. That’s sort of persuasive.”

David McRaney
Or, you could go with oil and gas companies, or politicians that are supportive of them, they have vested interests, and so the conspiracy could be on the other side, if there is something like that afoot. Or, there are just human activity that’s based more off like, “I need to stay rich and have a nice car and live in a nice house.” So, you could always take that because that’s more like that’s the fundamental attitude, that’s the fundamental anxiety, that’s the fundamental skepticisms at play, and it’s something that could be applied on either side of this dynamic, of this issue, and could move a person from a four to a five, or at least put them into this state.

The street epistemologist, they often say like their goal is not to change the other person’s mind. Their goal is to encourage that person to use critical thinking, or encourage that person to examine how they come to certainty at all. If they happen to change their mind in the conversation, that’s one thing but that’s not what they’re really attempting to do. It’s just sort of a happy happenstance, if it does happen. It’s more about, “Did I encourage that person to think in a new way about this particular issue?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, David, thank you. So much good stuff. Let’s hear about some of your favorite things now. Can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

David McRaney
It’s attributed to Mark Twain. He probably didn’t say it, like most things attributed to Mark Twain, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” I like that one a lot.

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

David McRaney
One of my absolute favorite studies is this coin flip experiment done by Tversky. Kahneman-Tversky, one of their old ones. You have a person flip a coin, you tell them you’ve flipped the coin, it’s all on paper, and you say you flip a coin, “If it comes up heads, you win $200. If it comes up tails, you lose $100.” And that’s the situation, and then you divide people into two groups.

One group, you tell them the outcome of the coin flip and you randomize it, and then you ask them, “Would you like to flip the coin again under the same conditions?” And everybody chooses to flip it again. And you ask them why, they say, some will say if it didn’t come up in their favor, they’ll say, “I need to flip the coin again to win back the money I lost.“ And if it did come up in their favor, they say, “I need to flip the coin again because I’m ahead and I can risk it.”

So, either way, they come up with a justification for flipping the coin a second time. However, in the other group, you don’t tell them the outcome of the coin toss. And if you do that, nobody chooses to flip the coin a second time, which is incredible because we already know from the other group, it wouldn’t matter which way it comes up. You would’ve chosen to flip it.

But if I don’t give you the information required to justify flipping it a second time, you won’t do it because you can’t do it, because there’s a mountain of evidence to suggest we don’t make the decision that is “best.” We make the decision that is easiest to justify. And if we’re denied the opportunity to justify, we just won’t make a decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and it’s not fun. It’s like nothing is going to happen if I tell you to flip the coin again, so.

David McRaney
I’m assuming you did or didn’t win the money but I’m not telling you yet till you flip it a second time. And most people just say, “Well, I don’t want to do that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

David McRaney
Fiction, I love Joe. It’s a really good Southern fiction from Larry Brown. It felt like the South of my childhood, but also it felt like the things that I’d noticed and felt about the people I’ve lived around. They were in there in a way that I’d never felt before in a book, so it’s great and I still love it.

And nonfiction, I always tell people to get, if you’re interested in this world that I talk about, start with Incognito. It’s a really great book by David Eagleman, talking about how the conscious part of our existence, of our organism is only a small part of what the brain does. It’s kind of the stowaway on the Titanic, whereas, the rest of the stuff we do is we’re unaware of it. But here, recently, and I mentioned it earlier, something that’s just been humongous for me as far, as nonfiction goes, is “The Enigma of Reason.” It’s not an easy read but it sure will change the way you see yourself and other people.

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

David McRaney
I love Notability on the iPad. It’s become a super tool for me because I have to read a lot of studies, and I used to keep them in legal boxes, and then mark them up with a pen, and then have to have labels and all that kind of stuff. Now, I use Notability. I just import the PDF, I mark it up, it goes into a category. It’s in buckets, I can refer to it at any time.

And if you just want to take regular old notes, it’s incredible because you can manipulate the notes like you would with like Photoshop or something, and you can cut things out, paste them, enlarge, embiggen, you can speak directly into it, and it dictates it, you can circle things, and then turn it into, a handwritten, into texts in a type.

And I use it in interviews now because I connect a lavalier mic to my iPad, and I take notes while the other person is talking to me. And if I want to go back to the document, if I touch my note in any place, wherever that note is at, it moves the audio to that part of the conversation. It’s an incredible tool. It’s really, really force-multiplied the way I do my job.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

David McRaney
Well, I lost a hundred pounds over COVID, and the habit was tracking calories. The reason I did that, I did a lecture and somebody in the audience, or somebody who watched it on YouTube commented, they said, “I don’t know why you would listen to this guy about anything when he’s a fat dude.” So, it’s like, “I’m not going to listen to critical-thinking advice from a guy that can’t eat right.”

Obviously, it hurt my feelings but I also was like, “Fair enough. So, I should probably apply something to this from the world of what I do.” And I asked a couple of experts just on the side after interviews, and tracking your calories religiously was something that kept coming up. And I got an app, it doesn’t really matter what app you use, but the habit is to, like everything, like you put a little creamer in your coffee, add it. Every single little tiny thing you put in your body goes in there.

It is astonishing how overboard your calories are without your realization of it. You just really kind of have this intuition that, “Eh, that wasn’t that bad,” when you would go over the line pretty easily. Changed everything for me. I was able to lose 100 pounds using that technique.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; it’s Kindle book highlighted and retweeted, etc.?

David McRaney
Well, in the most recent book, a lot of people, the early interviewers I talked to you about, debates have winners and losers, and nobody wants to be a loser. So, the most important thing is to have a conversation where you try to get at, “Why is it do we disagree on the issue?”

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

David McRaney
All of my stuff and my podcast is under You Are Not So Smart, YouAreNotSoSmart.com, and that’s the name of the podcast. How Minds Change is just the name of the book, and you can find information about everything I do, from lectures to consulting, to books and everything else at just DavidMcRaney.com.

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

David McRaney
Yeah, it’s a thought experiment that my friend Will Storr created, and it goes like this. Ask yourself, “Are you right about everything?” And some people are going to say yes. That is a whole issue you got to work on, my friend. But let’s assume you’re like the rest of us, and you say, “No.” If the answer is no, ask yourself, “What are you wrong about?” And if the answer to that is, “I don’t know,” ask yourself why you don’t know and how you would correct that. I think that’s useful in any job.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. David, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your book “How Minds Change,” and all you’re up to.

David McRaney
I appreciate it, man. Thank you for all your patience and for your participation and your willingness to get into weird territory. I think that’s fantastic.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Barry

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

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

Resources Mentioned

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Barry O'Reilly Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Too hot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Agreed. And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Whitney

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

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

 

Resources Mentioned

Whitney Johnson Interview Transcript

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

Whitney Johnson
Thank you for having me, Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitney Johnson
Exactly. Exactly correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitney Johnson
You’re welcome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about mastery?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitney Johnson
No, I think that’s good.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitney Johnson
Thank you very much, Pete.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Jeff

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

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

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

 

Resources Mentioned

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Jeff Brown Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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