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563: Accelerating Your Career by Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist with Ozan Varol

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Ozan Varol discusses how to make giant leaps in your career by thinking like a rocket scientist.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How success can hinder growth—and what to do about it
  2. How to turn worrying into productive preparation
  3. How rocket scientists see and use failure

About Ozan:

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned award-winning professor and author. He served on the operations team for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rovers project, and later pivoted and became a law professor.

He’s the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. The book is # 1 on Adam Grant’s list of top 20 books of 2020. The book was named a “must read” by Susan Cain, “endlessly fascinating” by Daniel Pink, and “bursting with practical insights” by Adam Grant.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ozan Varol Interview Transcript

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

Ozan Varol
Thank you so much for having me on, Pete. It’s a delight to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m delighted to dig into this. I really like thinking about thinking so this should be a rich conversation. To kick us off, could you maybe share with us an interesting behind-the-scenes story from your days working on the Mars Exploration Rovers?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One of the stories that immediately popped to mind, it was my first few months of working on the project, so this was back in 1999, and I’m serving on the operations team for the project, and that year was a particularly bad year for NASA for a number of reasons. But one story that I have in mind involves a spacecraft called a Mars Polar Lander, and that year, the Lander was supposed to land on Mars but, unfortunately, it crashed. The landing system failed.

Now, this wasn’t our baby but we were planning to use the exact same landing mechanism on our rover and, of course, our mission understandably was put on hold because what we thought was a safe way of landing on Mars had just failed spectacularly. And so, we were scrambling to find solutions and figure out a safe way of actually landing us on Mars. And I remember distinctly my boss, who’s the principal investigator of the mission, walked into my office one day, and he said, “I just got off the phone with the administrator of NASA, and he asked me a really simple question. He said, ‘Can we send two rovers instead of one?’”

Now, up until that point, NASA had been sending one rover to Mars every two years, so that was the default. And this question, it was such a simple question but one that none of us had thought of asking before. And, of course, we were going to fix the landing system but the NASA administrator reframed the problem because the problem wasn’t just this defect of the landing mechanism. Even if you fixed that, there are so many things that can go wrong when you’re sending this delicate robot 40 million miles through outer space, and crossing your fingers that it lands safely on the Martian surface.

So, instead of putting all of our eggs in one spacecraft basket and hoping that nothing bad happens along the way, we decided to send two rovers instead of one, and I’m so glad we did for a number of reasons. One, with economies of scale, the second rover ended up causing just pennies on the dollar, but on top of that, double the rovers meant double the science. They landed on two very different parts of the planet and we built these things to last for 90 days, they were named Spirit and Opportunity.

Spirit lasted for about six years and Opportunity, and I still get goosebumps when I say this, but it lasted 14 years into its 90-day mission just because someone there to step back and reframe the problem and see just the obvious insight that was hiding before everybody else’s nose.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really fun, and as you’re telling the story, I was thinking of, I think it’s from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster where they say, “Why buy one when you can have two for twice the price?”

Ozan Varol
That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
But it wasn’t twice the price instead it was much more cost-effective because you know what you’re doing and then it seems like that’s cool, like the learnings. I guess, it’s that the idea is the second one lasted so much longer because you learned some things and you finetune some things after doing the first or you just got a little lucky.

Ozan Varol
Not necessarily. I think we just got lucky. We had two shots on goal, one ended up being six years and then the other one just ended up lasting for 14 because we were able to send it to a different location on Mars where the geographical conditions, the weather conditions were different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that was a fun story. Thank you. So, we’re going to talk about your book here about Thinking Like a Rocket Scientist. Well, first off, can you frame up the why for us. So, I’m thinking about professionals in particular, those with jobs who want to be awesome at them, why should we think like rocket scientists? What kind of benefits do we get? Or what about the landscape of work these days makes that a beneficial approach?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The world is evolving at a dizzying speed, and we all encounter these really complex and unfamiliar problems in our lives, and those people who can tackle those problems, with no clear guidelines and with the clock ticking, enjoy an extraordinary advantage regardless of what field you’re in. And so, the book isn’t about the science behind rocket science, so I’m not going to try to teach you the theory of relativity. More, it’s about taking these frameworks, ways of looking at the world, processes of thinking from rocket science, and then walking you through how you can employ them in your own life to make your own giant leaps.

One of the biggest conceptions about rocket science is that it’s celebrated as a triumph of technology, but it’s really not. It’s the triumph of the humans behind the technology and this thought process that they use to turn the seemingly impossible into the possible. It was the same thought process that allowed Neil Armstrong to take a giant leap for mankind. It’s the same thought process that we use when we worked on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission to send these rovers 40 million miles across outer space and land them exactly where we wanted. And it’s the same thought process that’s bringing us closer and closer to colonizing other planets. And, fortunately, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to think like one.

And one of the things I’ve done with my life after I worked on the Mars Rovers project and I left, I pivoted and became a lawyer, and then a law professor, and now I’m an author and speaker, is to take these principles from rocket science and not only employ them in my own life to very different fields, but also teach others how to employ them as well and how to think like a rocket scientist. And the book is a culmination of really a lifelong journey for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so I’m intrigued. You laid out, “Hey, these are really cool results we got when you follow a thought process,” so that’s great. I’d like to have awesome problem-solving innovation abilities for sure. Can you maybe give us a cool story in terms of you saw someone, they were thinking non-rocket scientist-y, and they did something a little bit different with how they were thinking, and they saw a cool result? Could you give us a case study or a before-after tale that brings it together?

Ozan Varol
Sure. The one example that popped to mind that I talk about in the book is Alinea, which is the three-star Michelin restaurant in Chicago.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Chicago. That’s right.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, it’s an amazing place. And one of the things that they’ve mastered is thinking like a rocket scientist, I kid you not, across very different ways. So, one is even when Alinea was at its heights in terms of the accolades that they’ve won, basically every award that one could’ve imagined, and they were bringing in a ton of profit, they decided to take a sledgehammer to themselves. So, at the very top of their game, they said, “We’re successful now, we’re about to get complacent, and to fend off complacency, we’re going to tear the place down and start over again, and to get rid of the assumptions and the outdated thinking that’s cluttering the way that we’re running our business.”

And so, they created Alinea 2.0 which has also been massively successful. One of the other things that they do, so that refers to the principle from rocket science, from physics, really called First Principles Thinking, which is a way of looking at a system and distilling it down to its fundamental non-negotiable components. Everything else is negotiable. So, you hack through these assumptions as if you’re hacking through a jungle with a machete to get at the original raw materials and building it back up from there. So, when you apply that thinking, you go from being, say, a cover band that plays somebody else’s songs, to an original artist that does the painstaking work of creating something new.

And so, Alinea did that with Alinea 2.0. One of other things they did is, in the beginning, they would look at dishes and say, “What can we add? What ingredients can we add? What new spice can we try? What new cooking methodology can we try?” Now, they’re asking a question that rocket scientists ask, which is, “What can I remove? What can we take away? How do we get to the fundamental components of this dish to bring out their best as opposed to adding and adding and adding, which not only creates complexity, it can increase problems, but it can also take away from the taste of the dish as well?” And that’s a question that rocket scientists have to ask themselves and have to contend with on a daily basis because you run into constraints when you’re building a rover in terms of weight, in terms of space.

And the best way to, this is a quote I love from Antoni Gaudi, the famous Catalan architect, but he said, “Originality consists of returning to the origin.” And I keep that quote in mind, really, throughout my life, and ask myself, “How do I get back to the First Principles, to the origin, and build something up from there?” because that’s how creativity results.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s really rich and, boy, a lot to unpack there. And so, when you come to, say, the fundamentals in a restaurant business, for instance, I think it sounds like, from the very ground level, you might say, “Okay, we need delicious food people love. We need an ambience that is enjoyable.” Can you share with us what are some of the noteworthy things that they ended up removing that made a world of difference? When you say tore it down, actually I’m not familiar. You know, I live in Chicago. Do you mean literally, like, demolish or sell the space and…

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ozan Varol
They literally demolished the space, literally demolished the menu, which sounds really, well, astonishing in so many ways. Like, “Why take something that’s successful and then destroy it and build it back up from scratch?” But the founders of Alinea knew something that most of us neglect, which is that success tends to breed complacency. So, when you’ve been successful at something, what most companies do is they look at the rearview mirror and keep doing what they did yesterday. Now that can work in the short term but it’s a recipe for long-term disaster. If you don’t disrupt yourself in some fashion, then others will do it for you.

One practical way to implement that mindset, because not everyone is going to be able to take a sledgehammer to their business the way Alinea did, is to apply this exercise called “kill the company.” And the mastermind of the exercise is an author named Liza Bodell, and I first read about it in…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had her on the show.

Ozan Varol
Oh, great, yeah. I first read about the exercise in Adam Grant’s Originals, the book, and the exercise was conducted by Lisa working with Merck, and Merck’s CEO is Kenneth Frazier, and he wanted to bring more innovation to work, to Merck. Most CEOs ask the same questions, like, “What is the next big thing?” or, “How do we think outside the box?” Those questions have become cliché, which means that people are using the same ways of thinking, the same neural pathways essentially to try to get at novel answers but the answers don’t end up being novel because they’re just taking the same thinking that they used yesterday and applying it.

And so, the exercise basically, the way it ran at Merck, Kenneth Frazier asked his executives to play the role of a competitor seeking to destroy Merck, so this is called the “kill the company” exercise. Their goal was to put Merck out of business. And the executives played that role for an entire day and came up with ways to put Merck out of business, and then they switched perspectives and went back to being Merck executives, and the exercise was successful. So, this was sort of a metaphorical way of taking a sledgehammer to your company, not an actual one.

But the exercise was successful because we’re often too close to our weaknesses to evaluate them objectively. It’s like trying to psychoanalyze yourself. But when you step outside the box and actually look at the box from the perspective of a competitor seeking to destroy it, then you end up identifying problems that you may have initially missed because you’re looking at it from a completely different perspective. And you don’t have to be a business to be able to apply this mindset, by the way. You can ask yourself, “What might my boss pass me up for a promotion?” or, “Why may I not get this job that I’m applying for?” And then switch perspectives, and figure out ways to prevent the potential threats that you identify.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that is excellent, and I think that’s really the most constructive productive way to worry that you can do as opposed to just ruminating, like, “Oh, no, all these bad things could happen.”

Ozan Varol
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
You can be proactive. And I like that for prepping for presentations in terms of saying, “Okay, what is the question I fear most? Like, if they’re going to ask me something that’s going to make me look like an idiot because I don’t know and I’m not prepared, like what is that question?” And then, “Oh, I’m going to go find the answer and the appropriate response and approach for that.”

We had a guest talking about what he called red-team thinking in military terms, like, “Hey, if this whole mission goes south, and it’s a mess, like, how will it have gone south? Like, what would be the cause?” And that kind of brings some heads up about doing it. And it’s so great because I think, in a way, our brains are very adaptive coming up with dangers and risks and things to fear if we go there.

Ozan Varol
Yeah. And I want to highlight two things you said, Pete. One is the idea of actually not ruminating about these worst-case scenarios. There’s something really powerful about writing them down because, one, when you let them sort of ruminate in your head, they tend to get worse and worse, and writing them down, putting them down, actually takes their power away, in my experience at least. And then you can look at them objectively and actually come up with strategies to fend off some of those worst-case scenarios as opposed to just letting them sit in your head and get stronger and stronger.

And then the second thing which you mentioned with respect to your preparation strategy for presentations where you think about like the worst-case scenario or what could go wrong, that relates to one of the other principles I talk about in the book from rocket science, which people can apply in their own lives, called “test as you fly, fly as you test.” And the principle is really simple. So, rockets and rocket components are tested on Earth before they’re flown in space, and the goal in rocket science is to make the tests as similar as possible to the flight, and in some cases worse than the flight, because if you find the breaking point of a component here on Earth, that means, well, you break the component on Earth where it’s going to cause far less damage than it will in space.

But many of us don’t apply that principle in our own lives. So, when we do practices or tests or experiments, they tend to be widely disconnected from reality. So, if you’re preparing for a presentation, most people will practice their presentation in front of their spouse while they’re wearing sweatpants in a very comfortable known setting. But if you’re applying the test as your fly rule, you’d be practicing your presentation in front of strangers who are ready to throw curve balls at you. And maybe drink a few espressos before the presentation to give you the types of jitters that you’re going to actually experience in practice.

Same thing with job interviews as well. The way that most people do it is they give a set of questions to their significant other or a friend, and ask them to run through this predetermined list. But that’s so different from an actual job interview. So, the goal should be to bring the tests, the experiments, as close as possible to the flight.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. So, we’ve gone through a few of the strategies, the book has nine. Can you share another one or two that you think can make a world of difference for professionals trying to be awesome at their jobs?

Ozan Varol
Sure. One is the idea of proving ourselves wrong. So, our goal in life, the way that most humans operate, is to try to prove ourselves right, to try to confirm what we actually know. But progress, whether in science or in life, occurs only through generating negative outcomes, so by trying to rebut rather than confirm our beliefs. So, try this for a week, switch your default from proving yourself right to proving yourself wrong.

So, when your focus shifts to proving yourself wrong, you end up seeking different inputs, you open yourself up to competing facts and arguments. And the point, by the way, of proving yourself wrong isn’t to feel good, it’s to make sure that your spacecraft doesn’t crash, or your business doesn’t fall apart, or your health doesn’t break down. In the end, the goal should be to find what’s right rather than to be right. And I give a couple of examples in the book about how you can apply that way of thinking in your life.

Another strategy or principle that comes to mind is a rebuttal or a riff on this mantra that’s so popular in Silicon Valley these days, which is the idea of “fail fast, fail often, fail forward.” So, countless business books tell entrepreneurs to embrace failure. There are now conferences like FailCon dedicated to celebrating failure where thousands of people get together and share their failures.

Pete Mockaitis
I believe you did a podcast about sharing failures.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, I do, exactly. Totally. And Silicon Valley companies are actually now holding funerals for failed startups complete with bagpipes and DJs and liquor flowing freely. And, yeah, I do have a podcast on failure. But the goal, I think, shouldn’t be to celebrate failure, but it should be to actually learn from it. So, if I could change the mantra, and this is one of the things I talk about in the book, from “fail fast,” I would change it to “learn fast.” And this is something I stress in my own podcast as well in trying to get people to share not only what they failed at or how they failed, but what they learned from that failure.

Just because you’re failing doesn’t mean that you’re learning anything. And research bears this out, I cite a number of studies in the book, one involving cardiac surgeons, for example. The study shows that cardiac surgeons who botched a procedure actually perform worse on future procedures because they don’t learn from their mistakes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a bummer.

Ozan Varol
Yeah, because what happens is when you fail, people instinctively, to feel good about themselves, they blame the failure on external factors. They say, “Well, I got unlucky,” or, “We don’t have enough cashflow to be an entrepreneur,” come up with some external reason for why we failed as oppose to looking at internal ones, the mistakes that we made, the bad calls we made, the bad decisions we made. And so, the goal should be, and this is the goal in science, of course, is not to fail fast but to learn fast, because all breakthroughs in life and work are evolutionary, they’re not revolutionary. People do things wrong. So, Einstein’s first seven proofs for E=mC2 failed, but he learned from his failure and applied it. Thomas Edison famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We have an obsession with grand openings in society, but the opening doesn’t have to be grand as long as the finale is. And the way to make the finale grand is not to fail fast, but to learn from each failure.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. So, then I’d also love to get your view on next time we encounter a challenge that just seems tricky, puzzle-some, immovable, what’s sort of like the first thing you do, like the stop, drop, and roll, or the key questions you ask yourself, or the protocol, like, “Here we are, this sounds tough. Don’t know how we’re going to make that happen. Go”?

Ozan Varol
Sure. A couple things. The first is it goes back to the story I told about that simple question, “What if we send two rovers instead of one?” First, ask yourself if you’re tackling the right problem. Because, often, when we get a challenge or a problem, we immediately jump into answer mode, “Is the answer really efficient? I want to come up with a quick answer to this thorny problem.” But when you jump into answer mode, we often end up chasing the wrong problem. So, the first question is to ask, “Am I solving the right problem? Are there better problems that I could solve? Can I reframe this problem in a way that’s going to generate a better answer?” So, that’s strategy number one.

And then after you’ve done that, break down the problem into its smallest subcomponents. So, think about a challenge that you’re facing and, say, you want to get somewhere to an audacious goal in a year or two, and apply a principle called “backcasting,” which I talk about in the book, which is work backward from that desired outcome, and this is sort of the flipside of what we talked about before, Pete, in terms of imagining the worst-case scenario and working back from it. But working back from a desired outcome also works really well.

Work back from what you want to achieve and identify all the steps you need to get there. Because when you look at this, and I experienced this writing this book that’s coming out this week, just when this episode will be released, is when you look at this blank Word document with like 80,000 words to go, it’s really, really intimidating. But if you can take that big thorny problem and break it down to its smallest subcomponents through backcasting, then each step isn’t as intimidating. I can certainly, today, for example, write Subsection A of Chapter 1. But if my to-do just says, “Write book,” that’s really daunting, and this is one of the reasons why people procrastinate.

And so, identifying actual actionable steps is really important, not only because it’s motivating, but it also gives you some sense of progress so you can look back and say, “Yeah, this is what I accomplished today.” It also has the benefit of pivoting your focus away from the outcome to the actual process. So, we tend to, when we’re trying to achieve something, really hone in on the outcome but forget about the process that it actually takes to get there.

And so, for example, if you want to write a book, most people sort of fall in love with the idea of writing a book, and they want to have written a book, but not actually go through the writing process because it can be painful at times. So, doing this backcasting is also a good reality check because it makes you focus on the things that you’re going to have to do to get to that desired outcome.

And the final strategy is, after you outline these steps, so you’ve reframed the problem, found a better problem to solve, you applied backcasting and created some steps of getting there, I would suggest tackling the hardest thing first, the thorniest part of the project. Because if that thorny part ends up being insurmountable for some reason, you want to know that upfront as opposed to a year from now or two years from now.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that. I talk a lot about hypothesis-driven thinking and there are some overlap here when I’m working with aspiring strategy consultants or just teams that want to work better together in my training courses and such, and I think that is one of the best ways to prioritize. Sometimes you might want to start with something that you can sort of confirm very quickly in terms of like, hey, alright, so we can save a lot of time. But that gets to the same core. It’s like you’re tackling the thing that’s kind of like the highest risk in terms of, “Let’s get our answer on the highest-risk matter and then we can move forward.” So, when we talk about think like, I don’t know, a consultant, or like a rocket scientist, or like a lawyer, and I think about political scientists have sort of a whole another way of running their brain I’ve seen, and then maybe like designers.

Ozan Varol
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I think of these very domains, and maybe there’s a book in here somewhere. But how would you sort of contrast sort of like the fundamental maybe priorities and principles of how a rocket scientist thinks differently than, say, a lawyer, or a political scientist, or a management consultant?

Ozan Varol
I think there are a couple of key differences because a lot of that, actually all of the principles that I outline in the book come from the sciences, and a lot of them take sort of a grander scale in rocket science because of the stakes involved. I mean, in none of these fields that you mentioned, whether it’s politics or law, or political science or law, or designers, I mean, in some cases, I guess, human lives are going to be at risk, but the scale involved in rocket science is so massive. Each time you fire a rocket, hundreds of millions of dollars, and for human space flight, lives are at risk. And so, all of these principles take on heightened meaning when you’re talking about rocket science. And a lot of the principles, again, come from the scientific field.

So, for example, I don’t really see lawyers, I’m a law professor, that’s my day job, I don’t really see lawyers think about this, but the idea of in science nothing is proven right. It’s simply proven not wrong. Only when scientists beat the crap out of their own ideas and fail to disprove them can they begin to develop some confidence in them and, actually, that’s something I rarely see in the legal field, for example. The very best lawyers that I’ve seen apply that thinking to some extents of actually trying to get to know the opposition’s argument better than the opposition does, but it’s not something that’s talked about because it hasn’t completely crossed over from the sciences into the legal field. And, again, many of the other principles, like test as you fly, for example, I’ve also really not heard about outside of rocket science.

And there might be some crossover, of course, but because the scales are so massive in rocket science, you have to build in all of these contingencies and ways of thinking in a way that you may not need to when you’re writing, say, an academic article on political science or drafting a brief for a legal case.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ozan, I’m actually very surprised by that response. I thought you would say, “Oh, sure, yes. In the legal community, as I’m a professor, I see it over there.” In a way, I’m a little disappointed if I shell out over 300 bucks an hour for a big law associate, not a partner, an associate, I’m not getting these thinking tools at my disposal. That’s kind of disappointing.

Ozan Varol
Well, if you get one of my students then, sure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ozan Varol
Because I try to get them to apply that rocket science mindset to law every day, but it works for some people, it doesn’t work for others.

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

Ozan Varol
No, I think we’re all set with the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, you gave us one quote. Is that your favorite or do you have another favorite quote to share?

Ozan Varol
No, the quote from Antoni Gaudi is really my favorite. Another one that I think about often is a quote from Warren Buffett where he says, “We get fearful when others get greedy. And we get greedy when others get fearful.” I tend to think about that in my own life, and ask when I see a lot of people doing something, and ask myself, “How can I do the opposite of that? Or what can I do to do the reverse?”

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

Ozan Varol
It’s about this study of college students. The experiment just placed these college students in a room, they removed all of their belongings, so they left the participants on their own, and they told them to spend time with their thoughts for 15 minutes. That’s it, just 15 minutes. Now, there’s also a twist to this. If they wanted, instead of sitting there bored for 15 minutes, the students could self-administer an electric shock by pressing a button. So, you’ve got two options: you can either get bored or you can shock yourself.

In this study, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves instead of sitting undisturbed with their thoughts. There was one person who delivered 190 shocks to himself during the 15-minute period, and I think that’s a really shocking thought, and it’s because boredom is becoming somewhat of an endangered state. And that’s a dangerous development because boredom is so central to creating new insights. I give a number of examples of this in the book. But creative ideas arrive during these moments of slack not hard labor, but many of us are too busy moving from one email to the next, one meeting to the next, one notification to the next, that we don’t build in those periods of boredom in our lives. And as a result, our creativity suffers.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. I’m most intrigued by the gender difference actually because what’s that about?

Ozan Varol
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Ozan Varol
It’s called Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan. His argument is really simple, and I think backed by really compelling evidence. He says that there is a serious mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern conditions of Western civilization. We’re essentially apes dressed in suits, eating a diet, and living a lifestyle just wildly out of touch for how our bodies and minds were constructed. And he offers some ways of adjusting our lifestyle to better match our genetic disposition. It was a really fun read.

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

Ozan Varol
I just signed up actually over the past month and I’ve been obsessed with it is called Readwise, and you can access it at Readwise.io. It hooks up to your Instapaper, so that’s the app I use to save articles and read them later, along with your Kindle account, and it will sync highlights, and it will send you, I mean, you can pick the number, anywhere from, I think, 5 to 50 highlights every day. And so, you open your email in the morning, and these are highlights from a book that you may have read three years ago or four years ago.

And I tend to read books and paperback or hardcover, and there’s a way of typing your notes or importing your notes into Readwise as well. It’s really cool because sometimes I’ll read a book three years ago and I’ll just completely forget about it, and having this system in place where you get an email with these random things that you highlighted from the book is a really good way to help retention. So, I’ll remember things and then I’ll end up using, say, a research study in a book that I’ve read five years ago, and I’ve just completely forgotten about. I’m really loving that tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And how about a favorite habit?

Ozan Varol
It goes back to boredom, but I’ve become very intentional about creating boredom in my life. And one way I do that is, I sit in the sauna for 20 minutes, I try to do this every day with nothing but just a notebook and a pen just to jot down thoughts that might occur to me. But some of the best ideas I’ve had in recent memory have come to me in that stifling solitary environment of the sauna.

Pete Mockaitis
Doesn’t the paper get wet?

Ozan Varol
It does. It does. But I can still read what I wrote so that’s all that matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a particular nugget, something you’re known for, you share and people quote it back to you frequently?

Ozan Varol
First thing that jumped to mind is, “It can be harder for you to survive your own success than to survive your failure.” And it goes back to something we talked about earlier in the conversation, Pete, about how success breeds complacency, and I give the examples in the book of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, two really tragic disasters that were preventable but NASA got complacent with its own success. And I talk more about that in the book and sure ways that people can use to fend off complacency and to identify the small stealth failures that tend to get concealed when we win because the instinct when we win is to celebrate not to look back at what may have gone wrong.

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

Ozan Varol
I have a weekly email that goes out to over 19,000 people called the Weekly Contrarian, and you can sign up for that at WeeklyContrarian.com. And then my book is Think Like a Rocket Scientist, it’s available wherever books are sold, and you can find all the purchase links at RocketScienceBook.com. And I do have a special offer for the listeners of your podcast, Pete. If people order the book by, let’s say, the end of April, I’ll give them a special bonus of ten 3-minute videos from the book with just action-packed insights, so practical strategies from the book that people can apply into their lives right away. And so, if you order the book, and forward your receipt to Rocket@OzanVarol.com, and just mention that you heard about me on this podcast, and you’ll get that video bonus.

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

Ozan Varol
Question the default. Instead of operating on autopilot and taking your assumptions, your habits, your processes for granted, take time every now and then to hang a question mark at the end of them, and ask yourself, “Do I own my assumptions or do my assumptions own me?” And just remember the research study about how employees at call service centers tend to perform better if they use browsers that don’t come as the default. So, if they use, for example, Chrome when the default browser is Safari, and it’s not because using Chrome magically makes you a better worker, but it’s because someone who questions the default when it comes to the browser choice, also applies the same mindsets to other areas of their job.

Pete Mockaitis
Ozan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck with the book and your adventures.

Ozan Varol
Thanks so much, Pete.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Britt:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Britt Andreatta Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britt Andreatta
It’s called a schema.

Pete Mockaitis
Schema, there it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britt Andreatta
Okay. No tall task, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Telomeres?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[39:25]

Pete Mockaitis
Anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Britt Andreatta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

539: Preparing for the Future of Leadership with Jacob Morgan

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Jacob:

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jacob Morgan Interview Transcript

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

Jacob Morgan
Thank you for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob Morgan
He was.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Go ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob Morgan
It is atrociously high. You are correct.

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

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

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

Jacob Morgan
Yeah, good disclaimer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

511: Tiny Leaps for Your Development with Gregg Clunis (Host of the Tiny Leaps, Big Changes Podcast)

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Gregg Clunis says: "All big changes come from the tiny leaps you take every day."

Gregg Clunis discusses the small leaps you can take to make massive changes in career and life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why self-help is often inadequate
  2. Just what you can achieve with one tiny leap
  3. What to do when motivation fails you

About Gregg

Gregg Clunis is the host, author, and creator of Tiny Leaps, Big Changes, a podcast turned book and community whose goal is to help people become better versions of themselves in practical ways. A maker and entrepreneur, Gregg explores the reality behind personal development—that all big changes come from the small decisions we make every day. Using scientific and psychological research, he shows the hidden factors that drive our behavior and shares habit-forming and goal-oriented tools.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Gregg Clunis Interview Transcript

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

Gregg Clunis

Thank you so much for having me, Pete. It is a pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I also want to thank you. You were the one who gave me the idea to have five-minute calls with my listeners which I’ve been doing in celebration of 500 episodes.

Gregg Clunis

Oh, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, everyone, you can thank Gregg for that.

Gregg Clunis
Well, first of all, congrats on 500. That’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Gregg Clunis
How have those calls been playing out?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, it’s been really fun. I mean, it’s just fun to connect with people and I find that, hey, five minutes really goes fast.

Gregg Clunis
Oh, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
And sometimes people, they have all these bullet points and they’re rushing to cover them. So, I think we’re going to do some more actually. So, I also want to get your take, so you mentioned that you play a lot of Fortnite and, hey, I mean no disrespect, but when I hear Fortnite, what comes to my mind is 13-year old boys playing it nonstop.

Gregg Clunis
Pretty much, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
But I think you can translate it for the rest of us, why is this game taking off like crazy?

Gregg Clunis
Yeah. So, here’s the thing, because I think that that is true of gaming in general, but we have to look at why that’s the case, right? So, 13-year old, 14-year old boys and girls are the ones in a position where they can grind away the game to get good, and for the rest of us, because we don’t have that luxury, we never really get good and, therefore, we never really get to enjoy it.

But the reason that, and I have this conversation all the time with my girlfriend, one of the biggest reasons that Fortnite is as massive as it is and blew up the way that it did is because we all have some connection to gaming, right?

And Fortnite comes out, it’s filling this space, but then they do really, really smart things around content marketing, around utilizing their technology, reinvesting in their company to make sure the game is free, to make sure it’s available on literally every single platform.

So, it creates this hype around it, and because we all sort of have this connection to gaming already, and most people like games, we just don’t have the time for games, it just makes it super easy for us to jump back in.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you, yeah. And I think that’s one of the keys there. I think Minecraft has that going on as well. It’s like there’s this creative element, like, “Oh, that’s kind of a nifty novel thing I hadn’t thought of. Let me give that a shot, see how it goes.”

Gregg Clunis
Absolutely. It’s a really cool feeling to be so connected to it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you for unpacking that and I want to hear more. Well, you actually already dropped a life lesson on us in terms of 13-year-olds spend a lot of time playing the game so they get good, and because they get good, they’re able to enjoy it. It reminds me, in high school, shout out to Fran Kick, I think he’s still rocking as a motivational speaker. Fran Kick gave a speech to our marching band, which I still remember. He drew a diagram, it was like a loop of like a virtuous cycle of, “You do some work at something, like your instrument, and then you get good at that something, and then it becomes more fun to do that something, so then you’d actually want to do some more work at it so you even get better at it.” So, it’s a nice loop there.

And I was like, “That makes a lot of sense to me, Fran.” And so, there’s one tiny leap you all can make right there.” So, Gregg, drop an intro.

Gregg Clunis
Oh, absolutely. That’s a critical element if anyone out there hasn’t read the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, highly, highly recommend it. The core thesis of it is that pursuing your passion is the wrong way to go about it. The right way is to get good at something and, therefore, develop passion for it.

So, he went to all these different careers and people working in different fields, things that you and I would hear and think, “How can somebody possibly be passionate about that?” Right? And they found that these people, they’re doing work that most of us would not find glamorous in any way or exciting in any way, they are super passionate about it because they have a sense of agency over it, because they have a sense of independence and a feeling that they’re accomplishing something, because they have a sense of community. Like, all these different factors, and none of it had anything to do with passion. In fact, passion gets developed from having those things rather than the other way around.

Pete Mockaitis
That is wise. Well, so let’s talk a little bit about your world, Tiny Leaps, Big Changes. What’s kind of the big idea here?

Gregg Clunis
Yeah. So, the whole thing with the Tiny Leaps model, so it started as a podcast about four years ago now. And, honestly, Pete, it was kind of accidental. It was one of those things like all good things in life where I was really angry about something, and so I just decided I had to do something in response to it. And that thing that I was really angry about was what I call sort of the corruption of self-help.

So, self-help is this thing that it can be massively valuable. It can help so many people in their day-to-day lives as they move towards the things they want. But in an Instagram-driven world, it also can be very fluffy, and it also can be very removed from practicality, where certain people who are in certain situations, which I’m fortunate to be in, I can have an eight-hour morning routine, and guess what, it’ll be fine.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s not morning anymore when you’re done.

Gregg Clunis
Exactly, right? But I can have this super complicated morning routine and wake up at 5:00 a.m., like I can control every single detail of my life. That’s not practical for the single mother of three in rural Arkansas who is struggling to make ends meet. Like, that’s not something she can do. That’s not something that her neighbor can do.

So, how can we take these principles of self-help that are valuable, like the ideas of setting goals, of making lists, of reading more, of educating yourself? How can we take those things and make them as practical as possible? And so, the underlying philosophy became, “All big changes come from the tiny leaps you take every day.”

And the goal of the podcast and the media company and the book that I published this year, and all of the things that we’re building out, is 100% to just remind somebody of that every single day. It doesn’t actually matter about any individual episode or a blogpost or anything like that. It’s, at the end of this, you’re going to remember all big changes come from the tiny leaps you take every day so that you can use that as a guiding principle in your day-to-day life.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love it if you could share with us maybe an inspiring transformation or story associated with someone who took on some tiny leaps and, sure enough, saw some big changes.

Gregg Clunis
Yeah, there’s no better story for me with this than my dad. So, to give listeners some context, I’m an immigrant here, so I’m 27 now. I moved to the United States when I was 7, so 20 years ago. And my family moved us over here because we had hit hard times in Jamaica. The economy had crashed recently. My dad was running three different businesses, all of which went to zero. And he was an educated man, my mom was an educated woman, they had all the trappings of what should be successful, but they were in an environment that didn’t necessarily allow that to happen.

So, we packed up, we moved to the United States. And my dad’s first job here, before we even got here, there was a period of about a year where he was here sort of setting the foundation and then we moved. His first job here was picking apples on an apple orchard. This is a man who was a college professor, who worked in the police, I’m not sure what position, but relatively high up. He’s still pretty well-respected when you say his name down there. And his first job here was picking apples on an apple orchard as a migrant worker.

And he lived in this trailer, that I never visited while he was there but I visited when we first came here, didn’t have heat in the winter, didn’t have proper air circulation, the water wasn’t drinkable. Like, it was a bad situation. So, that’s where he started here. By the time he passed away, which was two years ago now, he was the head of quality control at a distribution plant, a bottling plant that handles major contracts, brands that you’ve heard of.

But he moved up in life pretty dramatically. We lived a super comfortable life and we’re always sort of happy and comfortable because he started from this place and he was willing to look at that and say, “Okay, this is the opportunity in front of me right now and that’s going to lead me to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.” And, over time, you create that change.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Very cool. Very cool witness there.

Gregg Clunis
And I’ll be honest in saying that the entire Tiny Leaps concept, like I didn’t realize it when I was first developing it, but it’s what I learned watching him and my mom do that, because that is what they did. And I was fortunate to be young as an immigrant here so I didn’t have the immigrant experience but I saw it firsthand. And they couldn’t have done it any different.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, so I’m thinking now in particular about working professionals and some tiny leaps that you’ve seen to be very impactful. What are some of the biggest in terms of those little things you can do that make a world of difference?

Gregg Clunis
Yeah. So, for me, it’s always been it’s so funny. I always find, and maybe your experience has been the same, Pete, but I always find that my life changes because of one individual moment, and I always have that sort of gut feeling of like, “This is the decision that changes things.” But I don’t get to that moment without trying a thousand things before it.

So, same thing happened with this podcast. This wasn’t the only thing I was doing. This wasn’t the first thing I had done. By the time I launched this four years ago, I’d already been creating stuff online for six years, none of which did anything. So, that wasn’t, by any means, the first thing. But when I started it, there was this gut feeling of like, “This is going to work.”

Same thing with decisions I’ve made recently that completely transformed my business. With that said, to get specific, and I only share that because I really want to drive home it’s not about the specific tactics. It’s about how you approach it. It’s this philosophy that if you employ it in your life, whatever your life looks like, will drive results. But to get very specific, one actual thing, that one tiny decision I made in college that I thought was going to be completely inconsequential at the time, I remember I was working on a tech startup. So, I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Finally, I’m away from home, I’m in an environment where I can build something. So, I start working on an idea, and I didn’t know how to build tech.

So, I sat in my room one weekend and taught myself the very basics of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, just enough because I thought if I could at least understand what’s required, then I could find somebody to do it, right? So, I sat for this weekend, used all the free resources, wrote ridiculous amounts of code, a lot of which did not do anything right, and finally emerged with this better understanding of how the Web worked.

That then led to hiring the developer, which is now a really good friend of mine. The long story short, that platform didn’t work, that startup ended up failing horribly, but that skillset of learning how to build websites, learning how the underlying technology of the Web works, that is the reason I got my first full-time job after I graduated. That first full-time job is what introduced me to podcasting and got me interested in podcasts in the first place. And then fast forward to here where podcasting now literally runs my entire life. And that all came because I gained a skillset that I didn’t have before for a completely unrelated thing that does not exists right now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, you’re drawing a distinction there. It’s not about a particular prescriptive tactic, “Learn how to code,” but rather the mindset. How would you articulate that mindset?

Gregg Clunis
So there’s a really good quote that I think is actually really good for this. So, Steve Jobs, there’s a famous quote by him that I’m going to butcher, I apologize, but it’s something like, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. It’s only when you look backwards.” So, there’s all these different actions that you take in your life and it feels random and it feels rambled, but ten years down the line, you look back, and you see how it all fit to where you are right now. And that’s true whether the outcome is good or bad.

So, the actions you took ten years ago led to where you are now. And there are other things, there are circumstances you’re facing, there’s the very real situation of sexism and racism, like there are things that you don’t control, right? But the actions you took ten years ago led to the outcome you have now, whether that’s positive or negative. And the only way you see that is by looking back at it and being willing to be honest with yourself, and say, “Okay, this is how it connects.”

In the same way, if you can look at the actions you take right now, the things you choose to learn, how you spend your time, who you spend it with, and you believe that the actions you took ten years ago led to this, then you also have to believe that these actions will lead to the next ten years. And that’s what the underlying philosophy is, the choices I make right now, no matter how small, they matter. And they matter because they’re the things that connect the dots to the next ten years.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so there’s a lot in there. So, you’re doing some reflections on the past, zeroing in on identifying the patterns and the behaviors and the decisions that led to your current place, and then recognizing that your current decisions lead to the future place. And, thusly, not to just go on autopilot, you don’t really need to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and how you’re approaching things. So, all right, that is great. So, with that application of that mindset, what are some of the behaviors with your clients that you’ve seen frequently have ended up compounding in some great ways?

Gregg Clunis
Yeah, and let me be clear in that. I purposefully choose not to do any kind of coaching or anything like that in the self-help space because I think that’s a part of what led to the industry becoming an issue, a problem in the way that it is. With that said, speaking of listeners, people that have contacted me, the people in the audience, in the community, the big things that I see really driving change always rely around awareness.

So, things like journaling, things like tracking your calories, things like doing the…I know Seinfeld didn’t actually do this, but that whole like checkmark on the calendar every single day thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Seinfeld didn’t do that?

Gregg Clunis
Yeah, he came out saying that he’s not sure where that came from.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no.

Gregg Clunis
It’s a cool story though.

Pete Mockaitis
That really is write jokes every day.

Gregg Clunis
Yeah, exactly. But I will say I’ve done that though and it actually works really well because at some point you do feel like the calendar looks so pretty with all the Xs, you don’t want to like ruin it. But, anyway, so what I’ve found is that people tend to engage in our day-to-day lives pretty unconsciously. Like, even if you think about the last time you got into the car and drove to your job or a place that you visit pretty frequently. there’s a good chance you got out of the car at that location without remembering the one single right turn that you took, or what street name that was, or like you don’t consciously take in that information.

And there’s a reason for that. We’re pretty well-adapted to filter all of that stuff out. But we do that throughout our entire days, because if we’re doing a lot of the same stuff, which most of us are, we have our routines, we have our things that allow us to make it through life. If we’re doing a lot of the same stuff, we filter it because there’s nothing new happening. What that means is all of the bad habits that we build up, all of the things that we just unconsciously do that are holding us back, we become unaware that we’re actually doing it.

Like, we might know, “Okay, yeah, I went to Starbucks” or whatever it is, but we’re not actually internalizing that in any way. And by taking it out of our heads and writing down everything, starting to get very, very deliberate about our tracking, whatever the goal might be, it could be, “I want to save more money,” or, “I want to get this promotion,” or whatever it is, like if we start becoming deliberate about the actions we take towards those things, and the actions we don’t take towards those things, at the end of the week, we have something we can look at that tells us exactly what we did and didn’t do and how much time we spent on it.

And there’s no debating that. Like, it’s on paper. And that awareness is what eventually leads to a change in behavior because now you’re looking and you’re saying, “Oh, crap, I really didn’t do as much as I thought I did.”

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And so, with the journaling or the tracking, are there any kind of particular questions or themes you explore? Because I think one way of journaling is to just sort of the chronology of what went down, “I woke up. I ate this food. I took a shower.” And so, I’m imagining you have something else in mind when you say the word journaling.

Gregg Clunis
No, I found that it’s like what works for you is going to be different than what works for me. I can’t remember the word for that right now. But it is very unique to the person. Like, I have a list of questions that I ask myself but that changes literally every single week. What I found, like the bare minimum, and this is mostly what I do when I journal, to be honest with you, Pete, it’s literally just making a list. And I won’t log my entire day because there’s parts of it that I don’t need to track. If my goal right now is fitness related, I don’t need to track necessarily my financial stuff. Like, that’s not where my focus is.

So, I’ll make a list of everything related to the actual goal throughout the day and I won’t look back at that list with any kind of judgment or with any kind of, like, “Oh, I need to hold myself accountable,” or anything like that because that only leads you feeling bad, and that doesn’t drive change. What I will do though is make that list, and at the end of the week, I will schedule time with myself to review the list and purely come at it from, “This is what reality is. How do we change that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Yeah, “This is what reality is. And how do we change that?” That’s resonating. I’ve been thinking a lot just randomly about the word should and I guess use should for all kinds of things. And I’m thinking about behavior change, “I should not eat out so much,” “I should get to work earlier and do some things,” “I should get to inbox zero.” And what I find intriguing about that is that the word should is sometimes used in sort of like a moral, ethical obligation sense, like, “You should pay your taxes.”

Gregg Clunis
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And other times it’s used in the sense of behaving differently. And I think that there’s some power in just exploring what we mean by should in terms of are we just saying that, “Well, sure, if I were to eat out less, I would derive some benefit in terms of saving money or eating more healthfully.” But in the grand scheme of all the pulls and competing demands of life is that a prudent worthy priority and what will be the downsides and what’s going to be sacrificed as a result of that, and is that indeed optimal? So, it’s like, “Should you really?” Is the should valid?

I guess I’m going a little bit in circles here, but I think what’s powerful about getting clear on tracking the actions associated with the goal is that you can sort of feel better about what you’re doing and what you’re not doing, and seeing if, in fact, a real change is worthy of being made.

Gregg Clunis
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think, to that last point, I think we often also, and I’m still exploring this, I’m not sure if it’s going to be the topic of my second book yet, but it is something I’m very interested in so it’ll be something. But I think we have gotten to a point where a lot of us are chasing productivity or accomplishment or whatever it is purely for the sake of productivity or accomplishment or whatever it is, and not so much because that thing actually needs to happen for us.

And I’ve started to, one of the issues I have with the self-help space is that you can find there are entire communities. I don’t know if you know this, Pete, there are entire communities out there of people trying to hack every single second of every single day to squeeze out maximum productivity, and it sort of started as a weird corruption of Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek concept but it’s gotten really weird.

And a big thing that I’m noticing is that productivity, in a lot of ways right now, is the disciplined pursuit of bullshit. “Let me get this thing done because my life needs it or because people around me need it, or whatever it is.” It’s more so like, “Let me just check this off because it’s what I should be doing,” to use that term.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And that sounds like it could lead you into some dark places as I kind of play that out in my mind with regard to that.

Gregg Clunis
Oh, absolutely. There’s an entire industry around like brain-enhancing supplements to maximize productivity. It’s a weird world out there.

Pete Mockaitis
And I suppose with prudence and a goal-oriented approach, that might be just the thing in terms of, “Oh, it would be helpful if I were able to focus longer based upon my objectives and this thing seems to have some good science behind it, therefore, we’re taking it.” As opposed to any opportunity to do anything we’re reaching after.

Gregg Clunis
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think that that is the distinction, right? There is, and it goes back to the idea of conscious versus unconscious. Like, you can fall into the trap of becoming productive unconsciously and that’s not a good thing ultimately. Like, you were just chasing tasks because you feel like you should, and chasing the supplements because you feel like it’ll help you chase those tasks which is fundamentally built on something that didn’t matter.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I guess some thought-provoking stuff here, Gregg. I’m chewing on this. Well, I’d love to get your take then, when you are zeroing in on going after some tiny leaps and you’re experiencing fear, resistance, “Ugh, I don’t feel like it, low motivation.” What do you recommend in terms of summoning the force to get it done?

Gregg Clunis
Yeah. Well, so the first thing, and this isn’t going to help you in that moment but it is something to acknowledge when you are more level-headed, is that motivation isn’t enough. And I think we all unconsciously know this because motivation fails us the moment we actually need it but it’s just not enough to do anything in life.

There’s so much pain and sacrifice involved in changing any small thing in your life because that change is viewed as loss. It’s a loss of that thing that you had, even if that thing was bad, even if it was negative, you started to, in some ways, some small way, identify with that thing as a part of you, and to change it means losing that part of you.

So, there’s a lot of pain and sacrifice required to make any change in your life, and motivation is not enough to get over pain. One of my favorite quotes, and I’ve been meaning to look up where this came from originally, but it’s that, “People do far more to avoid pain than they will to gain pleasure.” Being motivated to gain something is not enough to push through the pain of losing something.

So, with that said, if you do find yourself in that moment where motivation fails you, one thing I’ve found to help me really, really dramatically is to get up and do something else. And that’s one of my biggest issues with the “productivity” industry because humans are not machines and we can’t just endlessly plug away at something. By getting up and doing something else, you’re allowing your subconscious mind to deal with that problem. You’re allowing your body to get the rest it needs. You’re allowing your mind, your eyes rather, to get the rest it needs.

By doing something else, you’re giving yourself the refresher you might need to be able to come back and use willpower or whatever it is to push through the rest of that task. So, don’t be afraid just because something has a due date on it. You’ll probably get it done faster by getting up and doing something else for a short period of time rather than struggling through it for the next hour and only getting five minutes worth of work done.

And just to add to that, there’s a really good book that I highly recommend. It’s called Two Awesome Hours and I’m going to look for the name of the author right now, but it’s written by an NYU neurologist that changed the way that I look at productivity and like what we should be aiming for in our day-to-day lives.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what is the premise of Two Awesome Hours?

Gregg Clunis
So, as you can probably imagine, Two Awesome Hours is built around this idea that you should be aiming on a day-to-day basis. And this is much more like career-focused, but on a day-to-day basis, you should be aiming to, like, your target is two hours of focused uninterrupted work. That’s it. Now, it might take you eight hours in a day to get those two hours, but they’ve done the research on this. Most of us working in eight-hour day do not work for eight hours.

So, by getting hyper-focused around the idea of, “Okay, I’m just going to get two done, that’s it, just two hours,” that allows you to cut out all the distractions, that allows you to give yourself the space to drift as you might need to. So, if you’re getting distracted, let yourself get distracted for a shorter period of time rather than fighting it for a long period of time. And just playing with this idea of, “What would it need to look like for us to focus for a two-hour window rather than going into it with, ‘I need to focus for the next eight hours,’?”

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

Gregg Clunis
No, I mean, ultimately, listen, when you’re trying to do something in your life, that change, it is big, it is painful, it is a representative of loss, and you shouldn’t downplay it. Like, I think the biggest problem that people have with personal development, and this is certainly true for me, I’m not speaking as a guru here, I’m speaking as someone who struggles with it. The biggest issue that we all have is that we start to beat ourselves up when we don’t hit the goal or when we aren’t as productive as we need to, and then we look for alternatives to fix it, and how are we going to optimize this thing, and whatever it is.

And the truth is, like, this stuff is hard. Like, it is legitimately difficult to do. Approach it with that understanding and give yourself the room to work through that difficult thing. You wouldn’t wake up tomorrow and expect to be able to hit a grand slam in the World Series. But, for some reason, we wake up tomorrow and expect to change our entire lives. That’s ridiculous.

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

Gregg Clunis
The one that really comes to mind for me is not really a quote that I think everyone is going to be able to relate to, but for those of you who do, I think it’ll help a lot, and it’s from my dad. So, for most of my life I’ve been like that ambitious person. Like, I had the big dreams when I was a kid and worked hard and all of that stuff, right? But my biggest flaw was always that I jumped from thing to thing and I would fall massively in love with something, and a week later I’d be done with it and onto the next thing.

And I remember my dad sat me down, maybe four or five years ago, and looked at me and just said, “You have all the potential in the world but you’re going to sabotage yourself.” And it didn’t click for me. Like, when he told me, I actually remembered being very upset. Like, I felt personally attacked, and like all of the defensive stuff, right? It was after he passed away that it finally settled in for me what he was trying to tell me.

And so, for those of you listening that struggle with that, jumping from thing to thing, I want to just pass that to you. You have all the potential in the world, but unless you are able to rein yourself in and spend enough time on something to be able to actually give it a chance of succeeding, you’re going to sabotage yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, we had Jay Papasan on the show in one of the earlier episodes talking about The ONE Thing, just an amazing book, I think.

Gregg Clunis
Oh, phenomenal.

Pete Mockaitis
And he said that, “I learned, as a writer, that there’s a massive difference between being creative, like staying up and having ideas, and actually producing publishable work.” And the latter kind of required him to wake up and consistently put down words at a particular time in his calendar to get the job done.

Gregg Clunis
Yeah, there is a distinction between the two, and both are required, both are good, but at the end of the day, creativity just lives in your head. The thing that puts it out is showing up every day and actually carving that creativity into something. And just real quick, so the book I mentioned before, Two Awesome Hours, it’s written by Josh Davis. And, again, highly, highly recommend it.

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

Gregg Clunis
Ooh, that’s a good one. So, years ago when I first started the show, I think it was Episode 4, I was looking into what happens in the brain when you meditate. Now, I cannot remember, for the life of me, who the study was from or any of those details, but the thing that I learned from it is that when you meditate, it increases, over time obviously, it increases the amount of gray matter, I believe, in the brain. And gray matter is responsible for memory recall, it’s responsible for keeping yourself like calm, and all of those management type things.

And so, there is an actual scientific link, and this I think was the biggest takeaway to me, was meditation isn’t just fluffy. Like, there’s an actual scientific link between you meditating and taking that time, and over time, that increasing your ability in the moment to stay calm and relax and handle complex situations.

Pete Mockaitis
And you mentioned a couple, but how about another favorite book?

[36:01]

Gregg Clunis
There is a book that I’ve finished four days ago, it’s called The Power. And the concept of the book, so it explores what would happen in a world where women suddenly had all the power. So, this isn’t spoiling anything, but something happens and women, for whatever reason, are able to use electric powers essentially. And it’s not magical in any way, like it feels very normal, the way she writes it.

And so, phenomenal book for those of you who like fiction and also love politics and sort of power dynamics and exploring those things.

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

Gregg Clunis
Notion. I recently discovered Notion.so. And when I tell you, I’ve never been able to use any project management tool for my business. They just never felt right. Notion, every single thing that I sit here and I’m like, “Oh, I wish it could…” I immediately try it and it can do it. Now, I don’t know what the team behind it is doing to make that possible, but please don’t stop if you’re listening to this.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Gregg Clunis
I would say journaling before bed. And it’s something that I’ve been able to maintain as a habit. I definitely slip, I would say, every other night or so, but whenever I do it, it feels like I’m able to actually clear my head and get better quality sleep. And the only nights that I don’t do it are when I end up staying up late for other reasons, and because it’s now late, I just essentially crash. But the sleep quality is never as good if I don’t journal.

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

Gregg Clunis
All big changes come from the tiny leaps you take every day. It’s such a simple concept but I think that most people know it. So, speaking of my book, one of the number one reviews for it on Amazon is, “Oh, there’s nothing new here.” And I find it funny when I read that, like it’s positioned as a negative thing. But I find it funny reading that because there is nothing new in self-help. You already know what works. The only reason you listen to me or you listen to this show is because you’re searching for some kind of edge to make it work better. But guess what? You know what works. Just do that.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Gregg Clunis
I would tell them, if you like podcasts, which clearly you do, head over to Tiny Leaps, Big Changes. Just do a search wherever you’re listening to this, or on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Pandora, pretty much every platform. And then if you are interested in connecting further, November 1st, which I’m pretty sure this is publishing after that, but November 1st, we are launching the new Tiny Leaps website at TinyLeaps.fm and so you’ll find articles from our contributors, you’ll find podcast episodes, you’ll find videos in the near future, and it’s just sort of the next expansion of the podcast to a larger media platform.

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

Gregg Clunis
I would say look at today, I don’t care what time you’re listening to this, it could be midnight, but right after you’re done listening to us, I would challenge you to really sit down with pen and paper, and just ask yourself, “What is it that I actually want?” Especially with career, it’s so easy to get caught up in just the ladder of it and the cycle of it, but it’s really important to make sure you retain actual control over the direction of things are going and where you want to push it specifically, because otherwise you’ll wake up 50 years from now.

And a good friend of mine, Dominick Quartuccio, explained this to me. The definition of hell is waking up at the end of your life and seeing what your life could’ve been had you done the things you said you wanted to do. So, start asking yourself, “What is it that I actually want to do?” and then start taking those actions tomorrow.

Pete Mockaitis
Gregg, this has been fun. Keep on rocking.

Gregg Clunis
Thank you so much for having me.

485: Learning like a Superhuman with Jonathan Levi

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Jonathan

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

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonathan Levi Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, what level is awesome?

Jonathan Levi
One hundred percent as awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s exciting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Levi
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
When did you go to get snack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Levi
Viciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Levi
You’re barely comprehending anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, like those are words.

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

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

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

Jonathan Levi
This was before Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
As I do.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Huh.

Jonathan Levi
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
With a microphone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Horechevsky.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How does this work out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
Do you remember your parents’ bedroom?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

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

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

Jonathan Levi
Okay, where was that?

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Jonathan Levi
What was on that table?

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not sure.

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

Pete Mockaitis
It was more than 13 years ago.

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

Pete Mockaitis
No.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Powerful. And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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