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Mindset Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

934: Building Confidence by Facing Fears with Michelle Poler

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Michelle Poler shares her epic story and strategies for facing fears head-on.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to instantly flip your fear perspective
  2. Why to dare being disliked
  3. The distinction between being brave versus fearless

About Michelle

As the Founder of Hello Fears, Michelle Poler has created a social movement empowering millions to step outside of their comfort zone and tap into their full potential. She has inspired some of the world’s most influential organizations including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and many more. Poler is also the creator of the project 100 Days Without Fear and her work has been featured on CBS, CNN and Buzzfeed, among many others. 

Resources Mentioned

Michelle Poler Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis

Michelle, welcome.

Michelle Poler

Hello. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited to hear so much of your story and your pro tips. Could you kick us off by giving us the whole scoop on the 100 Days Without Fear project?

Michelle Poler

Yeah, where should I start? This is 2015, I moved to New York to do a Master’s in Branding at the School of Visual Arts, and I realized that I was not living life to the fullest, that I was living inside of my comfort zone. And, suddenly, at the Master’s that I was doing, they asked us to do a 100-day project of our choice. And while a lot of the students kind of picked a project that could fit their lifestyle, I adopted my lifestyle to the project when I decided that I was going to go outside of my comfort zone for 100 days in a row. Basically, I faced one fear a day.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, lay it on us, so what was the first fear you tackled? And what was the most dramatic? Can we hear a few tales on the frontlines?

Michelle Poler

So, the first fear was to actually accept this project, to say yes to facing my fears. I spent my entire life living inside of my comfort zone, so it was like 26 years saying no to things that made me uncomfortable, and, suddenly, saying yes to all of them at the same time, so that was really scary, just saying yes to this project, committing to changing my life from one day to the other. So, that was the first fear.

And then I started slowly taking risks, doing things that are outside of my comfort zone, but that are not too risky or dangerous. For example, fear number two was, I think, eating an oyster, something I avoided for a really long time. Fear number three was getting a piercing in my ear. Like, those small things that I avoided for 26 years, and, suddenly, I’m like, “Let’s do this. I’ve been thinking about this for so long, but I didn’t have the courage. Now, I’m going to try it out.”

And then, little by little, I started, like, escalating on the level of, I guess, I don’t know, the fears that I was facing, until the project went viral around day 40. And then, even though I got a lot of love and new followers, and people being very inspired to go after their own fears, I also got criticism, as you could imagine, and people saying things like, “You’re doing things that I do on my day-to-day life.”

I was doing things like getting a Brazilian wax, or driving at night, or flying by myself, eating by myself in a restaurant, doing all these things that I just avoided for a long time. And I was like, “This is my time to step it up,” and that’s when I started facing bigger fears, doing things like skydiving, posing nude for an art class, holding a tarantula or a snake, doing standup comedy, things that people don’t do on their day-to-day.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, there’s so much in there right there, and it’s unfortunate when you hear the haters, or the critiques, because that’s sort of the whole idea, like, “Yeah, they were my fears, not yours.”

Michelle Poler
Yeah, it’s very personal.

Pete Mockaitis

And I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, all us probably have some fears that it seems like “normal people,” or everybody else is just fine with. I’m thinking about maybe there’s some, like, home improvement projects, like, “I don’t know if I really want to get down and dirty with, like, the saw, and the drywall.” And it’s like, “Oh, it’s no problem.”

And so, I think that’s dead-on. It’s sort of unique for each individual, and so maybe there’s an implication right there. It’s like who are you going to share this with? Some folks will support you, and some folks will just do the opposite.

Michelle Poler

That’s why people hide their fears because they’re afraid to be judged, I guess, and say, “Am I the only one afraid of this?” And then that’s why I think the project went viral because I was, I guess, brave enough to be very vocal about my own fears, even though they’re like super simple, some of them, but still scary to me.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, could you paint a picture for us for one particular that was pretty hard, and what the scene was like, and what you were feeling, and how it unfolded?

Michelle Poler

Well, so many come to my mind, it’s so hard to choose one. But let’s talk about posing nude in front of an art class…

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, let’s.

Michelle Poler

…which was really scary.

Pete Mockaitis

Lay it on us.

Michelle Poler

First of all, I didn’t come up with that fear. A friend of mine suggested that fear. Actually, I only came up with 20 fears. The rest, like all the other 80 fears, people suggested to me, and those that I can relate to, and I was like, “Yes, that is definitely outside of my comfort zone I would tackle.”

So, a friend suggested this, and she’s like, “Why don’t you pose nude for an art class?” And I’m like, “Why did you put that idea in my mind? Now I can’t say no because I’m in this process of facing my fears but I definitely don’t want to do that, but how can I say no to that now?” And so, okay, so I signed up for a class as a model, I talked to, I think it was, like, a school of art in New York, and I thought, I was so self-aware, so self-conscious that I went waxing.

So, I was like, “I don’t want any hair in my body,” and I starved like the entire day because I was like, “I want to look good,” which was a huge mistake, both decisions were big mistakes because when I got to the place, before it was my turn to model, the models that were there, they had, like, curves and a lot of hair.

And that’s when I realized, “What am I doing?” I was only thinking about myself. I was not thinking about the students. And the students need something to draw, they need more hair and curves and all these things, and I was so self-aware that I was removing all of that. And so, at the beginning when I undressed, I went to the room, immediately I turned around, I gave my back to the students because I was so afraid to look at their faces. And then the professor was like, “Okay, Michelle, can you turn around now?” It was like quick 5-minute poses.

So, after five minutes, she was like, “Please turn around,” and I was dying. I was like so embarrassed but, at the same time, I had this really interesting change of thought where I went from thinking about me, and how I look, and how I’m being perceived, to thinking about them and what they need in their class to succeed. And then, at that moment, I started bending myself and finding interesting shapes to give them something to draw. And it was really interesting having that transformative, I guess, thoughts in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And then how did it wrap up?

Michelle Poler

So, they all knew that I was facing a fear, that I don’t normally do this, and they were like really supportive at that point, and then they were clapping and cheering, and they showed me their drawings.

Pete Mockaitis

All right, so there you have it. And so, you have one sort of master key right there, was shifting the focus away from yourself onto others and being of service. That’s pretty cool.

Michelle Poler

I realized no one is judging us in the same way that we judge ourselves. I was judging myself so much, I was the only one judging myself, and that thought, that, I guess, aha moment stays with me every single time that I’m afraid to put myself out there.

Pete Mockaitis

That is powerful. And so, you share that and many other such insights in your book Hello, Fears: Crush Your Comfort Zone and Become Who You’re Meant to Be. Can you lay it on us, what are some of the master principles that you’ve unearthed here?

Michelle Poler

Well, I divided the book into 10 chapters, and they’re all the 10 different fears that stops us from becoming who we’re meant to be from fulfilling our potential. And some of the main aha moments that I share in the book are related to the fear of rejection and failure. Those, at the end of the day, are the biggest fears that hold us back from pursuing what we actually want to go after, and fulfilling our own definition of success.

At the end of the day, it’s not about skydiving or holding tarantulas. It’s about what we tell ourselves in that moment where we’re about to take a risk, a risk that is aligned to our dreams. That’s the most important thing because it’s not about facing any fears, it’s not about facing a hundred fears. I’m not here to tell you to do that. It’s about facing the right fears, the ones that are holding you back from the life that you actually want to live.

And so, one of the things that I share in there is one of the most powerful tools that I have, and that have changed the lives of so many people is that, you know, the typical question that, I don’t know, why on earth we are used to asking ourselves or other people around us when we’re about to face a fear, and it’s, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Have you ever asked yourself that question or somebody else?

Pete Mockaitis

Certainly.

Michelle Poler

That’s a really terrible question. Because when you think about what’s the worst that could happen, immediately your mind goes to the risk, and that’s not helpful when you’re trying to face a fear. And even though I know the intention of the question is to help us understand that we’re not going to die, but we might get rejected, we might get fired, we might be embarrassed. There are other things that might happen if we take certain risks.

So, instead of asking ourselves, “What’s the worst that can happen?” I started asking myself, “What’s the best that can happen?” That question brings your mind to focus on the reward instead of the risks. And that is the main reason why we, in the first place, decide to face a fear because we want something, we desire something, so let’s focus on that instead of the risk that that may bring.

And it’s not that I’m telling you do not consider the risk. We’re human and that is the first thing that we’ll consider anyways, but we forget to consider the reward. And that is why, so often, we stay in our comfort zones. So, next time you’re about to do something scary, something that is worth it but that’s outside of your comfort zone, ask yourself, “What’s the best that can happen?” Try to put yourself, your mind, in that scenario, and that is the one thing that will encourage you to take action.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, that’s handy. Thank you.

And, Michelle, you’ve also got a strategy for, specifically, dealing with impostor syndrome. What’s that?

Michelle Poler

Well, impostor syndrome is the one thing that keeps us from really going after the things that we want to do because we tell ourselves that we don’t deserve that, that we’re not worthy of, and we ask ourselves, “Why me? Why would people listen to me, my message? Who am I to be someone to be heard?”

And I ask people to ask themselves, “Why not me?” That is a question I ask myself before doing this project, and putting it out there, because I was like, “Why would people follow me? Like, why would I talk about fear? Who am I?” And then I’m like, “Why not me? Am I not passionate enough? Am I not creative enough? Am I not intelligent enough? Do I don’t want this enough? I do.” So, it’s about betting on yourself.

And one question, like a different question I always ask myself, and this really also helps with impostor syndrome, is, “What is everybody else doing? And how can I be more me?” I don’t have anything against Google, but people Google too many things, and they Google how to dress up for conferences, how to speak in public, how to do all these things.

And I never Google anything, unless it’s an address or something like that, or a recipe, but before going to Google, I always ask myself, “How would I do this? How would I speak in public? How would I dress for a conference? How would I do an icebreaker?” Like, anything, I always ask myself, “How would I do it?” before I research other people. I actually avoid researching other people because I want to make sure that anything I do comes from me.

If I’m going to do research, I’m going to do it myself, I’m going to do my own research. When we own who we are, and our authentic selves, we are not going to have to deal with the impostor syndrome. The impostor syndrome is when we’re trying to be somebody else to fit in, to be accepted, to be liked. But if you’re just really trying to be yourself because you like who you are, you accept who you are, you give yourself permission to just be you, there will not be any impostor syndrome that can stop you.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, that’s really a fun perspective in terms of if I am not trying to fit into a mold or a role, then the impostor syndrome goes away because the comparison goes away. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not a big shot like these people who are doing these things in this way,” because you didn’t even bring that up in the first place. It’s like, “I’m just going to do how I do…I’m just going to do this thing the way I imagine it ought to be done,” as opposed to trying to fit another set of expectations, which I may very well fail to meet because they’re not mine.

Michelle Poler

That’s why I encourage people, instead of comparing yourself, contrast. I’ve been practicing that for so many years already. Like, since I was little, I didn’t want to be like anybody else. I think this was, I have to thank my mom for this, in that she, in the first place, she called me Michelle because she was like, “I don’t know any Michelle in the world, so then I won’t have any expectations. I just want you to be who you are,” since the beginning, and she was always very curious about who I am, and always listening to me.

And I always felt like I had a voice, and I’m really grateful for that. And that is what I want to encourage people now to see that they have a voice, that it matters, that that’s their own, and that’s all we want. We don’t want a copycat. We don’t want more of what we already know and have. We want real people with real problems, real solutions, real ideas.

Pete Mockaitis

And then, to that end, I suppose as you’re doing you and living your life and approaching things the way you want to, you’re going to get some criticisms, you’re going to have of those haters. What are your favorite approaches for dealing with this kind of stuff that comes your way?

Michelle Poler

The first thing is that it’s so important to understand that we are not here to be liked by everybody, and that is okay. I’d rather be loved by a few than liked by everybody. And the more you want to be liked by everybody, the more generic you will sound, and the less you will connect with people. The more you are daring to be disliked by others, the more true to yourself you’ll be, and the more you’ll connect with the right audience. And, for me, that’s priceless.

And I’ve heard a lot of people that they don’t like me, and they say, “Michelle, I can’t stand you. I can’t stand your voice or how self-confident you are,” because I am very self-confident, and people don’t like that. But then there’s another group of people that really admire that, and that they want to be like this, and they want to learn from me so they buy my programs, and they buy my books, and they listen to my talks. And they actually get really inspired to change their own lives. And, to me, that’s enough.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. Well, so that’s a great perspective, that we’re not trying to be liked by everybody. We’re just loved by a few, and that’s enough. And so, help us, if we’re there intellectually, and we’re like, “Yeah, that makes sense. I agree. That checks out,” and yet emotionally we’re not there, how do you recommend we get there?

Michelle Poler

So, I want to ask you something. Do you like everybody? If you have a party at your house, would you like everybody to be there? Or, can you think of a few people that you’re like, “I’d rather not have him in my house. I’d rather not hang out with that person”? And every time, for example, on social media, if I lose followers, I don’t think, “Oh, they don’t like me.” I’m like, “Maybe I don’t even like them either. Like, we’re just not a match, and that’s okay.”

Like I was saying, we’re not here to be liked by everybody, just like you don’t like everybody. It’s okay if people don’t like you. But those people you don’t like, they’re loved by other people, and that’s fine too. I think we’re not supposed to be a match for everybody in anything in life, in love, in jobs, as influencers, as anything, and I’m okay with that.

Pete Mockaitis

That’s cool. And then when you’re in the midst of doing something you’re afraid of, do you have any specific mantras, self-talk, pump-up rituals, any tactical things you do when you are about to enter into the fearful place, and you want to make sure that you go forward instead of running away?

Michelle Poler

Yeah, sure. So, like I told you at the beginning of this conversation, I spent my entire life avoiding fear, avoiding discomfort because every single time that I experience that feeling in my body, when you’re about to do something scary and your stomach starts telling you, “Stop it! I don’t want to go that route. Like, it’s not safe.”

I used to interpret that feeling as a sign of my body telling me, “Don’t go that way. It’s dangerous and it’s a sign that you shouldn’t do that.” It’s my intuition trying to protect me. And I realized that that feeling is also growth. That, for me, was a huge realization because I thought, “Oh, my body is protecting me,” and I realized now that my body was protecting me from growth, from opportunity. And growth feels like that. It feels uncomfortable.

So, every time now that I experience that feeling in my body of, “I am uncomfortable. My stomach is telling me not to go that way,” I understand that there’s an opportunity there. And now, instead of avoiding it, I choose that.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. So, through practice, repetitions, you’ve just made the connection that, “Oh, doing this thing that I’m afraid of is what makes for growth. So, this fear feeling is really just the pre-growth feeling, and that’s that.”

Michelle Poler

Yes, it was over and over again, as I was doing the project, every single day, if you ask me, you haven’t asked me this, but everybody asks me the same question, “What’s the biggest fear that you faced?” And the biggest fear is the one you haven’t faced. It’s so hard for me to tell you and answer for that question now because I already faced them.

Every single day of the project, I thought, “Okay, this was not that bad. Tomorrow I’m going to die. I can’t.” It’s going to be the worst one because I haven’t done it, because the fear is the unknown, but after I did it, every single day would be like, “Okay, that wasn’t that bad. Tomorrow is the worst one.” So, I can’t even think which one was the worst one because after I did all of them, none of them was as bad as what I thought they were going to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a huge lesson right there in terms of, “Hey, take it from Michelle. She’s done this a hundred times, plus a hundred document of times and then more that each time it wasn’t as bad as you feared it would be.” And I’m curious, so that was the experience over and over and over again, “Oh, I’m really scared of this thing. Oh, that wasn’t so bad. I’m really scared of the next thing. Oh, that wasn’t so bad.” So, I’m curious, somewhere along the line after 50 days or 70 days, did you come to think that the next day wasn’t going to be so bad?

Michelle Poler

No.

Pete Mockaitis

No? Okay.

Michelle Poler

And I’m still a fearful person. People think that I’m fearless now, they’re like, “Oh, my fearless friend, you faced so many fears. I want to be fearless like you.” I’m quite the opposite. And, actually, being called fearless is like a disservice to what I actually am. It’s actually the opposite of brave. Fearless is doing the things that don’t scare you.

So, what’s the courage in there? Why would I be proud of being fearless? I’m more proud of being brave. That means that I was definitely afraid every single time that I faced a fear and still I conquered that fear, like I still showed up. And I think that is more powerful, more valuable, more inspiring than being fearless.

Pete Mockaitis

So, now you have the perception, “Oh, this fear feeling equals that I’m about to grow.” So, you know and understand that at a deep level but you still feel the full fear and think it’s going to be terrible before you embark on the thing?

Michelle Poler

Yes, and I try to avoid it at the beginning, I go through the entire process just like the first time because we’re human, and new fears come up every single day, and a fear means that it’s something that you haven’t done before, but, also, it’s really interesting to understand that if you do something and you don’t like it, it’s very fair that you don’t want to do it again, not because you’re afraid but because you don’t like it, generally, because you tried it.

My entire life, I just said, “I don’t like this,” or, “I’m afraid of this,” but I never tried those things. Like, I would say, “I don’t like oysters.” “Have you ever tried an oyster?” “No.” “So, how can you know?” So, it was so important for me to just expose myself to all these fears, try all these things, and now I can tell you with all certainty that I do not rollercoasters. I tried them and I don’t like them, and I don’t want to try them again. But I could if I need to, but I don’t want to, but I tried them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a good distinction right there. Okay. So, maybe, Michelle, if we could zoom right into now, today, is there something that you are experiencing fear and avoidance of right now? And how are you talking to yourself or planning to approach it?

Michelle Poler

Well, for the first time in my life, I am experiencing fear of success. When I heard about fear of success years ago, I was like, “That makes no sense. Why would somebody be afraid of reaching their goals? It makes no sense.” But now, as a mom, and understanding how limited time is, I am afraid of success. So, I’m at that point where I’m, like, “Should I grow more? Should I stay where I am?” Like, that is one of the fears I am right now dealing with, and also the fear of having another baby. Like, we are thinking about it but, at the same time, brings a lot of fear because now we know what it is to be parents.

Pete Mockaitis

So, with the fear of success, what are you doing with that?

Michelle Poler
I guess the most important thing is to understand what is your definition of success first. And understanding also that it can change over the years, because my definition of success was to be New York Times’ bestseller, speak as much as possible, like be on the road as much as possible, be on all these shows and surround myself with these people.

And, suddenly, what if my definition of success changed to also have more free time, be more at home, have more quality time with my family? So, it’s understanding that and being at peace with what your definition of success is today, and stop pursuing an old definition of success that you had in the past, or worse yet, pursuing other people’s definition of success.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Well, so I guess what I’m thinking here is, with this fear of success, it doesn’t so much seem as much as the others as something that you’re just going to just go do it, but rather maybe it seems like there’s some thinking, some distinguishing, some sorting out, that prioritizing, soul-searching, values to finding clarifying action that’s happening with this fear.

Michelle Poler

I think what’s important here is to identify if you’re not pursuing something because it is no longer part of your definition of success, or is it because of fear? If the answer is fear, then my recommendation is to never make decisions based on fear. If only fear is what’s holding you back, then you definitely have to go for it. Find the best way to do it. If you need therapy, whatever you need, but go for it. Do not allow fear to hold you back.

But if it’s just that your definition of success changed, then that’s something that you have to adapt. So, in this point, that’s what I’m trying to figure out, “Am I not growing because of fear? Or is it because my definition changed in this moment?” And it can always change back in the future but that’s what I’m trying to understand right now. So, it’s a lot about just looking inside and being really honest with yourself, and do not ask other people what the answer is. We love asking other people, “What do you think I should do?” And people don’t know. Only you know. The answer is always inside of you.

Pete Mockaitis

And as you do this self-inquiry, having these conversations with yourself, and you land at…and sometimes it’s really trick to reach that point of clarity, that, “Oh, it’s only fear that’s holding me back,” because a lot of times, fear can masquerade as, or rationalize some things, like, “No, really, there’s a strong chance something terrible will happen if you do that thing.” So, I guess we can call that risk. Do you have some perspective on how you distinguish between this emotion of fear versus valid risks that need to be prudently considered?

Michelle Poler

That’s a really good question. I think it’s like having that honest conversation with yourself. Like, if I’m thinking about it, what I told you about the fear of success, I think it’s more aligned to I actually want to spend more time with my family, I actually want to feel more at peace and less rushed and less things to do, and all of that.

But when I talked about having another baby, that is actually fear, that’s not my definition of success. That is, I know what it takes now to have another baby, and fear is the one thing that’s holding me back but it’s something I want. So, if I determined that fear is the only thing in my way then I’m not going to let it come in the way of something I want.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Understood. Well, now zooming into the workplace in particular, what are some of the top fears you’ve observed people have at work, and how you recommend we tackle them?

Michelle Poler

One of the main fears people have at work is they don’t want to be themselves. They want to be who they’re expected to be. So, I’m at work, I’m expected to behave like this, to talk like this, to send emails like this. And I want to encourage people to be their true selves at all times with whoever, with your boss, with your team, with your in-laws, with anybody. I think that that is the definition of living an authentic life, and people say, “Well, at my work, they wouldn’t like my real self.” Then maybe you’re not at the right job, that’s what I would say.

I think that we only have one life. I’m very mindful about that. And one of my purposes in life is to live life to the fullest, is to really enjoy my life, is to feel that every day counts, and I want to be happy. And there is a huge difference between being comfortable and being happy. And people, without realizing it, they’re pursuing comfort, not happiness. And I feel like it’s one of my missions to make people see this and understand that comfort will not lead to happiness.

And we’re told this since we’re little. Since we’re little, it’s like, “You need to find the right job. You need to have stability. You need to find a partner. You need to have all these things.” And when you check all the boxes, and you ask yourself, “Is this what happiness is about?” If you’re not truly happy, it means that you’re checking other people’s boxes, and you should check your own boxes. That’s what will lead you to your own happiness and not comfort.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. And now let’s hear about, at work, folks have a fear of speaking up in a meeting or asking for what they really want and need. Any tips on how we can tackle those in particular?

Michelle Poler

For me, the best strategy is if you really believe that you deserve something, you’re certain about that, you’re not just being entitled, or you want it because somebody else got it, you feel like, “I deserve this. They’re not recognizing me and I have to speak up for myself,” first, you have to do it. If not, you’re betraying yourself and you are rejecting yourself. Because of the fear of rejection that you’re getting, you have that fear, “I don’t want to be rejected. I don’t want to get a no,” you are rejecting yourself. And I think that’s the worst thing that we could do.

So, first of all, encouraging people here to speak up and ask for what they know they deserve. And the strategy I would use, again, is asking myself, “What’s the best that can happen if I do this, if I ask for it?” What if you get a yes? We’re so afraid of getting a no and being judged that we stay where we are. Every time that we choose comfort over growth, we feel like we’re staying where we are but we’re actually moving backwards.

Every single time we’re choosing comfort, we’re moving backwards because the rest of the world is moving forward. And I think it’s also, like, our duty to speak up for ourselves. And if you know you deserve this, you ask for it and you don’t get it, maybe you’re at a place that they don’t appreciate you enough.

Pete Mockaitis

Okay. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michelle Poler

This quote is by Steven Pressfield, and this is the quote that inspired me to put my 100 Day project out there.

So, it says, “Are you born a writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end, the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it. If you were meant to cure cancer, or write a symphony, or crack cold fusion, and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet. Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, beautiful. Thank you. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michelle Poler

Well, I’m a big fan of Brene Brown. All of her research that she’s done about empathy, about language, about vulnerability, anything that is in her books, I’m a huge fan of those. I learned so much from her.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite book?

Michelle Poler

I would say The War of Art by Steven Pressfield from the quote that I read. That book is very simple and very life-changing. Well, also, a kids’ book.

Pete Mockaitis

Oh, sure.

Michelle Poler

Can I say a kids’ book that I feel every adult should read. It’s called Maybe by Kobi Yamada.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Michelle Poler

Favorite tool, Videoleap. That’s where I edit all my reels. So easy to create a reel and find the perfect music and everything through Videoleap. So, I’m a big fan.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. And a favorite habit?

Michelle Poler

Dancing before any phone call, any important phone call, like with clients, or doing a podcast interview. Before coming to this podcast, I danced by myself in my office. It just gets me in the right mood.

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

Michelle Poler

The question, “What’s the best that can happen?” It’s the one that I get the most quoted on. And if I can share another one, is when you believe in yourself so much, you make others believe in you as well.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Michelle Poler

You can go to my website, MichellePoler.com, or if you want to watch me embarrass myself facing all 100 fears, you can go to 100DaysWithoutFear.com, or follow me on Instagram @hellofears.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Michelle Poler

I would say the final challenge would be find the right place for you. Don’t settle. Don’t settle for anything in life, not for a job, not for a partner, not for a city, not for a home, not for a dog. Find what feels right for you.

Pete Mockaitis

All right. Michelle, thank you. This was a ton of fun. And I wish you many adventures and fun times crushing more fears.

Michelle Poler

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

921: Overcoming Failure and Achieving the Impossible with Astronaut Mike Massimino

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Former NASA Astronaut Mike Massimino shares powerful insights on how to push past failure and achieve the impossible.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 30-second rule for dealing with failure
  2. The trick to getting along with people you dislike
  3. The most important lesson Mike learned while in space

About Mike

Mike Massimino served as a NASA Astronaut from 1996-2014 and flew in space twice for the final two Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions. He became the first human to tweet from space, was the last human to work inside of Hubble, and set a team record with his crewmates for the most cumulative spacewalking time in a single space shuttle mission. He received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is an engineering professor at Columbia and an advisor at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum.

He is a frequent expert guest and has been called the real-life astronaut who inspired George Clooney’s role in the movie “Gravity.”

Resources Mentioned

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Mike Massimino Interview Transcript

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

Mike Massimino
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s good to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Mike, I’m excited to be chatting. You are a bona fide astronaut, and you spent some time in the Hubble Space Telescope. And my hometown Danville, Illinois has a hero we’re quite proud of, Joe Tanner, who also worked on the telescope. Tell us, you know each other.

Mike Massimino
Oh, yeah, Joe was a little senior to me but he was very helpful and a good mentor and instructor. He really was great. I call him St. Joseph because he was such a nice guy. He’s a religious guy but he was also just a good guy and was very thoughtful, a really good guy. You should be proud of him, Pete. He’s a good guy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m glad, yes. Danville, Illinois, we love to be proud of Joe Tanner and Dick Van Dyke.

Mike Massimino
Oh, he’s another good guy. I met him a few years ago.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, good.
Mike Massimino
Yeah, I met him. We both were on the same talk show together, and I can’t remember which one it was. It was in L.A., and I got to meet him in the green room and spent some time with him. He’s just a really nice fellow.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. You are plugged into all the cool kids but I think my listeners must know an awesome tale from your time in space.

Mike Massimino
So, I’ll just give you a little bit of background. I got a chance to service the Hubble Space Telescope so that was my job as a space worker on both my missions. So, an awesome tale from space, I would say, for me, what I still think about almost every day, Pete, is the chance to look at our planet and enjoy the view.

And the reason I get to think of that every day is not only the view itself that I saw, I thought I was looking into an absolute paradise, is that I have a different appreciation for the planet now. I think we’re living in an absolute paradise. We should be very happy every day we have a chance to be here. And I got that impression looking at our planet from space. It just looked like it was a perfect place for us to have. We’re very lucky to be here. I felt like I was looking into heaven.

And so, I think about that all the time. But being around the planet, you get a chance to engage it, and enjoy its beauty whether you’re looking at buildings, or people, or a mountain, or clouds. It truly is an amazing place, and we should try to appreciate it every day.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Thank you.

Mike Massimino
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now my wife will make sure I ask you. You actually had a medical disqualification but you trained your very eyes and brain to see better. How is that even possible? What did you do?

Mike Massimino
Well, the third time I applied to be an astronaut, I got an interview. The first two times I was just rejected outright. The third time, though, I got an interview, and then I was medically disqualified. I failed the eye exam.

I didn’t know if LASIK existed back then but they certainly didn’t accept it, or they didn’t accept any kind of medical procedure to improve your eyesight, and you had to see pretty well without glasses and contacts. Well, all these rules are changed now so it’s not an issue any longer. But back then, in the mid-1990s it was still a pretty strict requirement to see well without your glasses.

And I was left with no options, really, it seemed. So, what I did was look into it a little bit, and I found out about vision training where you can do exercises and try to train your eyes to focus beyond what they’re looking at, which is kind of interesting.

So, if we focus at an object that’s put in front of us, we can see that clearly. And two feet, we change our focus and we can see that but, eventually, you run out of room, and what you try to do is look beyond that object and try to focus on something beyond that object, and then what you’re looking at kind of comes into focus.

So, it’s a bit of a training not just for your eyes but your brain as well. And I found an optometrist in Houston that specialized in that, and she helped me out, and was able to pick up a couple lines on the eye chart so I could at least apply again. I was able to get medically qualified again and, at least, I was able to submit another application. Once you’re medically disqualified, that’s it. You’re done but I was able to get it overturned.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And as I’m imagining this in my own mind’s eye, I’m hearing a Rocky montage music as you’re doing vision training.

Mike Massimino
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Was it like that each day?

Mike Massimino
No, it wasn’t really very physical or Rocky with the physical. No, it wasn’t that. It was more like, I don’t know, some kind of strange evil eye I was giving somebody, it seemed like it, kind of staring out. I don’t know what it would’ve been. More like a Psycho movie or something but not Rocky. Rocky music can get involved in other things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, if we cut the scenes together and just so, and put the right soundtrack behind it, yeah, I think that could be an inspiring portion of your movie.

Mike Massimino
Maybe so.

Pete Mockaitis
The Mike Massimino tale coming to big screen.

Mike Massimino
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so you got a book here, Moonshot: A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible. That sounds cool. Could you perhaps kick us off with a couple stories, maybe one inspiring, an inspiring victory and a disappointing failure of those who set out to achieve the impossible?

Mike Massimino
Well, it’s interesting you mentioned that because I think every victory was preceded by a failure. So, to me, in my life, Pete, they seem to run together. So, the first of those, I mentioned I’d been medically disqualified and things weren’t working out with me but I went through vision training and then I was able to rectify that and get selected as an astronaut, so that was a victory. It ended up as a victory.

And I think that things like that, and also failing my qualifying exam at MIT the first time I took it, I did miserably on it and failed, and my advisor talked to me afterwards, and said he didn’t think it was worth my while to try again. They typically give you a second chance at this six months later for that exam. And I thought about it and decided I did want to give it a try, even though it seemed unlikely. And I went back and told him what my decision was, and he said something like, “You know, Mike, if one can learn to live with indignities, one can go far in life.”

And I think it was his way of saying, “If you can get knocked down and beat up, and get up again, you can go far.” And I looked at what I had done to fail, I got cooked in the oral part of the examination. It was a written part followed by the next day, it was an oral exam, and I wasn’t good at thinking on my feet. And some of my friends, I reached out to my friends about it, they knew what happened, and I told them what happened, and the suggestion was, “Well, let’s put together a little team to help you.”

And my friends who had passed the exam in the past, I’d buy them cookies on Friday afternoon, and they would drill me at the blackboard in a small conference room at MIT, and I got much better at answering questions on my feet. And so, I was able to retake the exam and come out with a victory. And I think that those lessons, that and other things, I think anything worthwhile I think is difficult and it doesn’t work out the first time.

And once I got to be an astronaut, every one of us who was in my astronaut class had some sort of adversity to overcome because it’s not an easy thing to do. You just don’t sign up to be an astronaut. It’s a pretty long and could be grueling process to get in there and faced with lots of obstacles. But once you get in, you’ve accomplished something by getting in, but you haven’t done anything yet, Pete. You just showed up for work.

And so, now I think it’s that same grit and determination that get us to the goal that is required to make us successful once we’re given the opportunity. It’s no time to slack off. And so, you talk about success and failure, I was faced with that throughout my training, and also in space. I was repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in my final spacewalk, and it was a very complicated repair, but there was something I was going to do, which was remove a handrail which was blocking my access to this panel that I had to remove to get to a power supply.

It was a very complicated spacewalk, the most complicated, complex one we’ve ever tried. And I made a real bonehead mistake. So, this is where the failure is. I stripped the screw when removing that handrail and we didn’t have a backup because it was so simple. We had a backup for everything else but not this but they came up with a solution.

The handrail was loose at the top. I had gotten through the screws at the top off. There’s just one stuck on the bottom, and the solution was just to tear it off. Now that might seem simple but it took about an hour to come to that solution. And I was able to comply with that, rip off that handrail, and continue with the repair.

So, I think, I would say, each major victory or success I’ve had was always preceded by a pretty bad failure. And in the way I recovered was getting help, both when I was taking my qualifying exam, I got help. I got help from an optometrist to get over the medical problem I had, and then I got help from the mission control center.

And I talk about that in the book where you’re not in this alone. When you need help, reach out to your mission control center, whoever that is. Know that help is there for you somewhere. Reach out. People know you need help. And also, be that person that other people can come to when they need help.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love that. That’s a fantastic principle right there. And I will think of you every time I strip a screw from now on, which is semi-often actually, Mike, I’m like, “Don’t beat yourself up.”

Mike Massimino
Happens all the time, man. Well, it happened at the wrong time, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Out in space.

Mike Massimino
It really happened. I looked out, when I first realized what I had done, I took a look out, bent down to see what I had done, and I didn’t see a hex head hedge screw anymore nor a piece of metal. And I kind of leaned out of the telescope, I leaned myself out, I was in a foot restraint. I leaned out and looked at the planet, and we were over the Pacific Ocean, Pete, and I couldn’t imagine a hardware store to get to. So, it’s one thing when you strip a screw at home, it’s another thing when you’re in space when that happens but, luckily, the team came through for me with a good solution.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious if you drive screws any differently now as a result of that one experience.

Mike Massimino
I kind of do but I’ll tell you the other one. So, those were big screws, they were big bolts, and we didn’t expect them to be a problem. But one of the next things I had to do was remove 111 small screws that were really tiny, and those we were more concerned about stripping than the one that was easy. So, it certainly changed the way I behaved from then on for the spacewalk, and I try to remember that at home, too. You can create a lot of problems and a lot of work for yourself by moving too quickly, so you try to learn from your mistakes.

One of the things I talk about or write about is that if you’re going to make mistakes, it’s okay to be upset and give yourself 30 seconds of regret, beat yourself up internally, call yourself names, don’t vocalize it because you’ll scare people but leave it to 30 seconds and then move on. And that’s something that helped me because you’re going to make mistakes. You don’t mean to but it’s going to happen.

And then the other thing to remember when you’re dealing with a problem is it could always get worse. No matter how bad it is, you can make it worse. And sometimes we make one mistake and we follow it up by trying to rush and do better, and we make another mistake. And now we’ve got a problem B to fix before we can go back to problem A.

So, that’s what I try to keep in mind, particularly during my spacewalks, and when I’m working on stuff around the house. You make a mistake, 30 seconds of regret, and move on. Try to solve it and then don’t make it worse. Give yourself a chance to fix one problem at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s paradoxically very comforting that idea of, “Oh, I can make it worse” because, in a way, well, one, it’s just absolutely true. I’ve just lived that. And, two, it’s just sort of a potent reminder of when you feel powerless in those moments, you do have power. And even if you don’t feel much hope that you can make it better, you have the power to make it worse.

Mike Massimino
You do. No, you absolutely do. And when I made that mistake, I mentioned earlier, I even thought about, “How could I make this worse? Well, I could break something. I could do something to my spacesuit. I could lose the tools I was going to need to fix this.” You’ve got to be really careful. Things float. Objects can become permanent satellites if you’re not careful with them and you don’t use the right protocol to tether things and to keep an eye on things.

And I saw that happen. I’ve seen guys lose one tool, and then have to go get a replacement, and lose that one as well, and now you’re really cooked. So, I’ve noticed these things, and you’ve got to be careful because once you do one thing wrong, if you try to rush to make up for it especially, guess what’s going to happen, Pete, problem number two is going to happen. It will get worse so you’ve got to be careful. Get help. It’s time to slow down and get help when that happens.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’d love your take here – is 30 seconds better than zero seconds or 10 seconds?

Mike Massimino
I think so.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Mike Massimino
Because you need to be regretful. I think. And I think 30 seconds, to me, is a good enough time that you can beat yourself up. You don’t want to ignore it, “Ah, I’ll leave it in the past.” See, the thing is people keep telling me, “You’ve got to leave it in the past. Move on from your mistakes. Learn from them and move on.” But it’s hard to move on, and I tended to beat myself up for a long time when something would go wrong or I’d make a mistake. It could go on for a week of regret, like, “Oh, man, I really messed that up. It’s terrible.”

But you’re not getting that time back. And in space, you can’t afford to check out for even a minute. You got to stay engaged. And so, that’s a lesson that I learned because I had to. In space, I just could not check out. I’m the guy out there doing the spacewalk. I can’t wallow in the misery. I have to stay engaged. But the value of it is for what goes on, on the planet, all the time when we make mistakes, and that same principle applies.

And I think it’s okay to be remorseful and be regretful, and say, “Holy cow, that was a terrible stupid thing to do. I can’t believe I did that,” and rant. Let yourself have it for 30 seconds, and then you got to get back in the game.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Mike Massimino
Leave it in the past. Flush it. Leave it in the past.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you’ve got some other perspectives here, such as cultivating a bank of good thoughts. What is this tool about? And how does it help us?

Mike Massimino
All right. So, for that one, I was told a rule or something to think about by my friend Alan Bean, who was the fourth person on the moon, fourth person out of the 12 to walk on the moon. And he told my entire astronaut class that the key to being a good leader and a good teammate is to find a way to care for and admire everyone on your team.

At the same time, we often, to solve complex problems in today’s world, we work together with a diverse group of people, because if everyone thinks the same way, you’re not going to solve major problems. You need people who have different perspectives. Sometimes that can lead to friction and you might find that you don’t like somebody, like, “I just can’t admire that person. I don’t…and I can’t…”

So, if you find someone like that, Alen went on to explain, don’t think of it as you don’t like them. Think of it as you don’t know them well enough, and take the time to get to know them, and find something that you care and admire about them. And I kind of added onto that concept with this bank of good thoughts that you mentioned, that I think it’s important to, when you find someone you don’t like, and you take that time, you got to find… you think you don’t like.

It’s not that you don’t like, you don’t know them well enough. You really don’t. Because people who are in your family or people that are in your workplace, they’re there for a reason. Their name wasn’t picked out of a hat. They have something to add and you have to spend a little time. And when I’ve done that, I’ve always felt so much better about things.

One of my best friends I had a very bad impression with when I first met him, another astronaut, named Andrew Feustel. I thought he was kind of loose and didn’t care, and I just was wrong. And I took the time to get to know him, and we’re great friends. I spoke to him yesterday for about an hour on the phone. A really good friend of mine. And my first impression wasn’t great but I don’t know what he thought of me. Probably not great either, but we took the time to get to know each other, and we really love each other. A great guy. A really great friend.

And I think it’s important, when you find that thing that you like about a person, that you care, that you find that common ground, something that they’ve done that’s good, when people help you, when they show up for you when you need them, when they do some kind act somewhere in their life, or whatever it is that you have about them, that you found out, or that you’ve experienced with them, you have to put that in the bank of good thoughts because you’re going to need to take a withdrawal.

When you start feeling badly about that person, when they do something that might aggravate you, don’t act right away. Take a beat and go get a withdrawal from that bank of good thoughts, and have that good thought in your mind, “Yeah, this person might’ve done this that I didn’t like, and I need to address it, but before I go and send that bad email, or confront that person in an angry way,” because that’s not good.

Go to the bank of good thoughts with that good thought and have that in the forefront of your mind, and say, “Look, I really care about this person. We might have this misunderstanding. I’m going to have to deal with it, talk to them about, to clear the air, but I’m going to go in there with that good thought.” And I think that’s a good way to do it because one bad experience, one bad thought, one bad email, one final to handle, whatever it is, that can destroy a thousand good things.

So, one bad thing, that’s worth a negative a thousand, and to make it up, you’re going to do a thousand good things to make up for it, I think, with a relationship. And that’s what we’re dealing with when we’re working on a team, is building those good relationships with our teammates.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say bank of good thoughts, I am actually imagining specific statements associated with specific people. Is that fair? And could you give us some examples of how these are articulated?

Mike Massimino
Like, for example, with a family member, my brother, for example. He has come through for me on many occasions. And if we have an argument, or something is going on, I try to remember, “This is one of the most important people in my life.” You might argue as siblings or you disagree about things, but he has been there for me when I really need him, and I try to remember that as best I can.

With my crew mates, I try to think of the times where they helped me when I needed them, when I was counting, when I was having some trouble with a concept or with training, and they were there for me and stuck by me. I try to think of that. Or, with my friend Drew that I mentioned, he was a really smart guy, very mechanically inclined, would help me fix all kinds of things. So, that personal relationship where I appreciate his help, but also, I admire his ability that he was a great spacewalker and a really good astronaut is what I came to find.

I do talk about one case where there was one person we were working with on our team, an engineer, that we were having some difficulty with, and he just seemed strange. That person was just like, “I don’t know about this guy.” And people would discount what he would say because they thought he was a little bit different. But I took the time to get to know him, and realized, “This guy is really smart, and he was really dedicated, and he could probably be doing anything that he wanted to in his life, but he decided to dedicate his time and his career to the space program, and, more specifically, helping us be successful on Hubble.”

And so, the feeling was, “Well, it’s a strange idea, whatever he was talking about,” that might turn people off, I try to think of, “Wait a minute. This guy is a really smart guy. Maybe he’s not communicating his ideas well. Let’s give him a chance. Let’s remember what’s his value. Let’s not devalue people. Let’s remember why they’re here and what they can do for us, and what they can do to help the team. Not just for output, what they can do to help the team.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s super. And do you have these written down somewhere?

Mike Massimino
No, they’re in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Mike Massimino
Maybe I should write them down, Pete, but it’s in my head.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m just imagining in the heat of battle if you’re really ticked off at somebody, you might have a hard time remembering the good thoughts you have about them.

Mike Massimino
Just take them, Pete. You can remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And now, I’m thinking about professionals who, in the course of their jobs, are feeling maybe a little bit timid or scared, in certain contexts. Maybe it’s before a big presentation, or taking on a risk, or making a career change, or something. You have faced some uncertainties, some potentially scary things, and found the courage within. How do you think about courage and stepping up and enduring discomfort well?

Mike Massimino
Whenever you’re nervous, I think that that’s okay. I think that that shows that you actually care about what you’re doing. And if you’re not nervous, it probably doesn’t mean that much to you. If you’ve got an assignment or something to do that seems scary or makes you nervous, I think that’s a good sign. I think that you should try to use that to help you get ready. I don’t think being scared is good.

There’s times in my life where I was scared and I tried to shut that out because I couldn’t afford it. The thought that went to my mind during one of my spacewalks were, after I made that mistake, I was going to have to do some things I was a little bit uncomfortable doing. I had to go and translate, I had to move as a spacewalker in some areas that were going to be difficult to do that in, and I was scared, like, “Oh, my gosh, what happens if something happens here?”

And I realized being scared is not going to help. I had an airplane incident one time, we had a hydraulic leak in the airplane, we might have to eject, and right away you know the fear or scared, and I realized, “Being scared is not going to help me here. I’m trained. Let me follow the procedure.” And I found that you can use that nervousness, an anticipation to get ready and make your plan.

And then when it’s actually time to face whatever it is you’re doing, I think thinking about is a lot worse than doing it once you’re actually in the heat of the moment, whether it’s making a presentation, or delivering whatever it is you need to deliver to a group, or whatever that might be, whatever that event is, that now it’s time to relax and trust, and trust your gear, the tools you have to help you, whether that’s a computer, or a parachute, or whatever it is you’re using that day. In my case, it was some of those things, like getting in an airplane and trusting a parachute is going to work if I need it.

But trusting your gear, your tools, your computer, whatever it might be, trust your training. Your name wasn’t picked out of a hat. The reason you’re given that assignment was for a reason. And whatever you did to get ready, you can consider as training. And then you’ve trained yourself to be ready for it, and you’ve shown yourself to be worthy, so trust your training.

Trust your team is the third trust. Life is rarely a closed book test. It’s usually an open-book test. You can get help when you need it. So, remember that there’s a team behind you to help you when you need them. And, finally, trust yourself that you’re going to be up for the challenge. So, I think that’s what helped me face really scary things that made me nervous. It was just trust that, “I’m ready for this. It’s okay. I can handle it. I have a team behind me. I have the right tools. It’s going to be okay.”

So, that’s what helped me face some of these things, that, even looking back on, I’m not sure how I did it, but that’s how I did it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, what seems really wise there is you feel fear coming on, and you just decide, “That’s not going to serve me. I put that aside.” Is it just like that, Mike? Is that all there is to it?

Mike Massimino
Well, not necessarily. It depends on the moment you’re in. Let me give you another example. I don’t like heights. And I was on an exercise out in the Canyonlands where we were doing a lot of rock climbing and rappelling and hiking at heights, like very close to the edge of a cliff, and walking up very steep rock formations, and it was driving me nuts after a while.

I just didn’t like it. And I realized I had to figure out a way to get through this because we were out there for two weeks. And right from the get-go, I think I probably dealt with it for an hour or two, but after a while, I was like, “I don’t think I can do this for a couple weeks.” And I reached out to one of my teammates, Jim Newman, who was my spacewalking buddy, and we were out on this adventure together with the rest of our crew. And I said, “Look, man, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just don’t like this.”

And he says, “All right. Let’s try to take care of this.” And during one of our breaks, we kind of went around the corner, we were having lunch on a rock, more or less. We’re pretty high up on a mountain in an incline. And we walked around the corner so no one would see us around the corner of this rock, and there was a steep face there, and he held my hand, and we walked around it. And then, he let go and made me move around by myself.

Then he made me jump up in the air just to get the confidence that I was okay. So, I think that there are times where you need to think. If you’re in a situation where you’ve been trained to handle the situation, like, I think a lot of times you are, something goes wrong, and hopefully you’re able to handle it, or you’ve been trained to handle it.

So, it depends on the situation but there were times where I was, like, “I can’t be scared right now.” Being scared is a luxury. If you have time to be scared, I think that maybe things aren’t as bad as you think. But I felt like, in those few occasions, like in the aircraft and when I was spacewalking, when something came up, I needed to work the problem. Just being scared was not going to help me. So, yes, I did turn off.

But in other cases where, like the example of being afraid of heights and being scared of the situation I was in, I had time to try to solve that. And it wasn’t just a 10-minute experience. I was going to have to be out there for a couple weeks so I dealt with it in a different way. But I think it’s okay to feel these things. It shows that you want to be better at them when you’re nervous but the scared part of it, I think that could affect our ability to think at a time where we need to think.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. And as you’re sharing your story, it sounds like, I guess, psychologists would say, “Well, that’s simply exposure therapy,” and how that works. And I’m reminded of Bryan Cranston has a lovely autobiography, it’s called My Life in Parts, or A Life in Parts. And when he was doing theater stuff, he was scared of the heights associated with the lights and stuff.

And so, his director said, “Okay. Well, here’s how we fix that,” just very matter of fact. “I’m going to hold this ladder and you’re going to climb up to the top.” He’s like, “I’m scared.” “Yes, I know.” And he’s like, “Now, you’re just going to hang out there for a while.” He’s like, “Yeah, but I’m scared.” And it’s like, “Yeah, it’ll go away eventually.” And sure enough, it did. And that’s how you solve that.

Mike Massimino
Yeah, I would avoid that. The other way is to avoid height. I try to avoid it wherever possible, but sometimes you’re in a position where you need to deal with it. And I found myself in those situations where I had to do it. I just had to, “There was no choice. This is the way home. You have to deal with it.” And that’s when you got to figure out a way to face it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’d also love to hear, in the unique environment that is being out in space with just a few teammates, that’s a whole another flavor of environment in which teamwork skills get put to the test. Can you share, are there any nifty principles or takeaways that you believe can be handy for typical working professionals as well that you’ve picked up from that environment?

Mike Massimino
I think what I learned at NASA pretty much from the get-go was the importance of the team success and that you can’t do things alone. And that was taught to me very early on. My first week at NASA was mainly administrative stuff where we all got to know each other a little bit, we’re in a classroom where we get briefings about different things but we were going to start the training in the second week in earnest.

And one thing that I wasn’t looking forward to that I knew was coming up was that I was going to have to pass a swim test. I did not like the water as a kid. I never learned how to swim very well but we were told, and when we were accepted as astronauts, we were given our packet, after we get the phone call, saying, “You’re in,” which was a great phone call. We got a package of info, and in that there was, in the cover letter, like the second paragraph, it said, “Please practice your swimming skills because you’re going to have to pass a swim test in order to go to water survival training with the Navy.”

And the reason we need to go to water survival training is we’re going to be in an ejection seat aircraft, we eject over water, we need to be able to survive in the water until the help can get to us. But we’re on the Space Shuttle, also there’s a bailout mode. We might end up bailing out if you can’t land on a runway, if you’re having trouble during launch and you can’t make it to orbit, you can’t come back and land in the United States, and you can’t make it over to the other side of the ocean to southern Europe or to one of the landing sites in southern Europe or North Africa, you end up in the ocean.

So, in order to do our jobs, is we had to go through that training. And then to do that training, we had to pass the swim test. And I practiced as much as I could but I still was worried about making myself look like an idiot in the water.

And so, at the end of that first week, we’re about to go home for the weekend, and Jeff Ashby, one of the pilots from the class before us, was our class sponsor, kind of leading us through our training. And he said to us at the end of that day on Friday, he said,
“Who are the strong swimmers in this class?” and a few people raised their hand. And then he said, “Who are the weak swimmers, more important? I want to see a show of hands.” And I raised my hand as a weak swimmer. And he said, “Okay, anyone that didn’t raise their hands can go home. But the strong swimmers and the weak swimmers are going to stay after class. We’re going to arrange a time to meet over the weekend at a pool, and the strong swimmers are going to help the weak swimmers with their swimming because when we go to the pool on Monday, no one leaves the pool until everyone passes that test.

And so, that setup for me, that in trying to accomplish something, it’s a team goal. And individual success is great but if you’re good at something, your job is to help your teammates. And if you’re having trouble with something, your job is to admit it because you don’t want to hold back the rest of the team. And that set the bit of my head of what it was going to be like, that we’re depending on each other.

And so, when we got to space, and you’re talking about conflict, I felt like space life brings out the best in people because you knew that you had to depend on that person in order to be successful on the mission. You can’t do it alone. And that also, for me, what was helpful, was that, what we talked about earlier, when a conflict did arise, you’re like a family member, you love each other, but you might argue once in a while with your crew mate, and you’re going to have conflicts and disagreements, and that’s not good but they’re going to happen, and you need to deal with them.

But I think it’s always good to remember why you like that person, and why they’re important to you, and try to address the problem with that in mind, with good intentions, and not being mean. And that’s the way we did it. So, we would have a conflict or a problem with somebody, we always raise it and always honestly, and usually it was better to clear the air. Don’t let it fester because it just gets worse for the team to do that.

And if you look at it from the perspective that, “I’m speaking up about this for the sake of the team, for the sake of the mission,” then it’s not necessarily just a personal problem, it’s, “Hey, I think this is something we need to talk about because I think it’s going to hurt our team.” Then I think everyone can get on board with that if you think of it that way.

One of the things you mentioned, too, about people not wanting to speak up or raise something, one of the things I learned was the importance of speaking up, whether you’re having an issue with someone, or you made a mistake, or you have an idea, and oftentimes it’s the new person that has the best ideas. And so, I think that people should speak up, and I think it’s up to leadership, though, to foster that sort of culture where, if someone speaks up and admits a problem they’re having, they’re not going to be punished, or a mistake they made, they’re not going to find retribution for it. They’re going to be helped, and we can learn from their mistakes.

And so, if not, if people don’t come forward with the mistakes they’ve made, then people are going to repeat them, and that doesn’t always work because sometimes these mistakes might be something that could hurt you. If you’re in an airplane or a spaceship, and you do something wrong and you get away with it, you want to tell people about it because the next guy might not get away with it. So, it’s important to have a culture, I think, where those concerns can be raised.

And also, good ideas. A new person has a fresh perspective on things, and a lot of times it’s the new person that has the right idea. In my case, doing spacewalks, one of the spacewalks I was assigned to in my first flight had been done before but it didn’t always go well. It took a long time and it’s hard to align one of the scientific instruments on the Hubble. And I had a suggestion of a tool that could help us align it, and I put that forward, and the team liked it, and we designed it, and that’s the way we installed the instrument using the tool that I envisioned.

Now, for every good idea I had, there was probably 20 of them that stunk, but you don’t want to squash the bad ones or the ones you think aren’t good. You want to hear them out because you don’t want to lose that creativity. You want people to keep coming back with their ideas. So, I think leadership needs to set the tone that people can bring up concerns, can bring up ideas, can raise conflicts, so we can talk about it and move on.

And people need to feel that leadership has that culture, is fostering that so they’re not going to get in trouble for bringing something up, that they have the ability to speak up when they feel there’s a need to say something.

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

Mike Massimino
No, go ahead.

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

Mike Massimino
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with the success unexpected in common hours.” What do you think of that? Henry David Thoreau.

Pete Mockaitis
I hope you do voiceovers, Mike.

Mike Massimino
I have. I’ve actually done…I was a voice in the latest Beavis and Butt-Head movie, the voice of mission control in “Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe.” Well, take that. What do you think of that, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know why it’s not in your bio, Mike. I feel like that should be the first thing.

Mike Massimino
That should be the first thing we mentioned. I don’t know. And we talked about all the space and everything while this other…yeah, I lead with that. I save that one, Pete, if I meet a Nobel Prize winner or some really smart person who’s telling me about something they did, “Oh, I was a voice in the latest Beavis and Butt-Head movie. How about that?”

Pete Mockaitis
I very much appreciate that. Thank you. And could you share with us a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Mike Massimino
For me, personally, the stuff that I enjoy doing, I teach at Columbia’s human-machine interaction and figuring out what humans can do well, and what machines can do well, and designing displays to help people control things. That’s what I enjoy. But as far as the stuff that’s interested me, that I don’t necessarily participate in but I find amazing, is the astronomy, particularly the stuff that’s come out of the Hubble Space Telescope, and now what we’re seeing with the James Webb Telescope.

I was very pleased to be able to participate in those missions, in the Hubble Space Telescope missions. And to see the science that came out of it, that research I think is amazing because it’s answering some of the big questions of, or trying to answer some of the questions of “Are we alone in the universe? How did we get here? Where do we go after? How did this all happen?” And they’re getting closer to those answers.

And it’s through the use of these amazing telescopes and some really smart people that have been able to come up with those answers, and also coming up with questions that we don’t know the answers to yet. I installed an instrument called the Advance Camera for Surveys that was used to validate the theory of dark energy, which led to a few astronomers getting the Noble Prize in Physics as a result of that discovery, which was an energy source.

The universe is expanding but it’s also accelerating, and they don’t know why it’s accelerating. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like throwing a football, instead of it landing on the ground, slowing down and landing, it goes faster. It actually picks up acceleration, it goes faster. And that’s what’s happening to the universe, and they call that dark energy. So, I think those are the really cool things that’s going on. And I don’t directly work in that research area but I feel like I’ve had a hand in it by fixing the telescope that they use for a lot of this stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. They didn’t give you a piece of the prize though.

Mike Massimino
No, not at all. No, but I feel like I had their gratitude, that’s for sure. Every time I see one of those folks, they say, “Oh, thank you for risking your life so that we could do our research.” And I’m like, “Thank you for giving me a good reason to go to space.” So, yeah, it’s like a mutual admiration society there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, I want to ask about a favorite book, and if I may steer you in the direction of something physics related. It’s funny, I’ve actually, by fluke of how my credits worked out in high school and college, never taken a physics course, and I feel a little ashamed. And I might just take one myself, like university continuing education extension, whatever.

But that was some fascinating stuff about the dark matter. Are there any cool books you recommend that are very accessible for lay people to wet their whistle and get a great understanding of physics, and maybe less of a textbook flavor and more of a, “Whoa, this is amazing” flavor?

Mike Massimino
Well, my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson has a book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. So, if you’re in a hurry, I think that’s the right book to get, so I would recommend that. And even if you’re not in a hurry, I think it’s a good introduction to all things astrophysics. Another book that I like, if you like looking at the stars, the book that I used, there was an MIT course for observing. One of the books we had to learn the constellations, and I used that at NASA as well. It’s written by H.A. Rey, the guy that wrote “Curious George,” the monkey.

He wrote a book called The Stars and it talks about all the different constellations. But as far as what’s going on in astrophysics, I think Neil’s books are really good. I think Brian Greene is also another good author that writes some pretty cool stuff about what’s going on. He’s more in the mathematical bent of things but I would recommend anything by those two guys.

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

Mike Massimino
My favorite tool has to be a Leatherman. You can almost get anything done with a Leatherman.

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

Mike Massimino
What I try to do is I try to appreciate where we are in the universe every day. I talked about looking at the planet earlier, I think, when we started. I think we talked about that, viewing the planet and how beautiful it is. I try to do something every day to appreciate our planet, whether it’s just even riding on the New York City subway, looking around at the faces around me, looking at the leaves on the trees, up at the clouds, stars at night, something. We’re living in an amazing place and I think we need to take a timeout at least once a day to just be amazed at how amazing this place is.

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

Mike Massimino
When I was pursuing the astronaut job and got rejected all those times, we talked about the medical disqualification. What kept me going was the mathematical reality that things aren’t necessarily impossible as long as you try. And it might be one out of a million as your chances for success but that’s not zero.

One out of a million is a non-zero number. It’s 0.000 a lot of zeros and there’s a one at the end. And the only way that that one disappears, and you know your probability of success is zero and you will not succeed, is if you give up. Once you give up, it’s game over and your probability of success, you’re not going to be successful. So, I try to keep that in mind and I encourage people, and that’s been told to me as well as something that’s been helpful for people to think about. So, when you try to do something and you know it’s hard, and it might seem impossible, but as long as they try, one out of a million is not zero.

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

Mike Massimino
My website is probably a good place, MikeMassimino.com. You can reach out to me there. There’s a way to contact me through there if you’re interested in doing that. If they’re interested in following me around social media, I was the first guy to tweet from space, so I’m on Twitter @Astro_Mike now, or X now, AstroMikeMassimino on Instagram and Facebook, Michael Massimino on LinkedIn. Those are ways you can get hold of me there.

And if you’re interested in learning more about these things we’ve talked about, Pete, for the folks out there, if they’re interested and they’re either developing their moonshots or succeeding at their moonshots, whatever they’re trying to do in life, at work, or at home, these are things that I’ve learned that have helped me, and I’d love to share them with you, as we have today, but also in the book if they’re so inclined. And that can be purchased just about anywhere, wherever you buy your books, at your local bookstore, or Amazon, Barnes & Noble, whatever. It’s available there, Moonshot is available there.

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

Mike Massimino
Don’t give up. Embrace the challenge. Embrace change. Things are constantly changing. I talk about that, too, in the book, and knowing when to pivot. But embrace the challenges, embrace the change, remember you’re not in it alone, and don’t give up. If it’s tough, it means it’s worthwhile. Don’t give up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mike, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you many more fun moonshots.

Mike Massimino
Thanks, Pete. You as well.

919: How to Find Fulfillment, Drive Engagement, and Unlock Your Greatness with Sean Patton

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Sean Patton reveals his warrior mindset to help maximize your potential and performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get better at feeling grateful
  2. The root of every workplace failure–and how to overcome it
  3. The coaching approach that really works

About Sean

Sean Patton’s mission is to transform modern leadership into a driver of fulfillment, abundance, and freedom. He applied these principles while growing his own companies and now helps others unlock greatness through Stronger Leaders Stronger Profits, a leadership coaching and consulting company. Sean’s leadership foundation was forged as a US Army Airborne Ranger and Special Forces Green Beret Commander, where he earned the respect of his men and chain of command while operating in hostile and politically sensitive environments.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

  • The Management Muse podcast. Sharpen your leadership skills with Cindi Baldi and Geoffrey Tumlin

Sean Patton Interview Transcript

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

Sean Patton
Hey, Pete, I’m excited to be here, man.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to be chatting. Boy, you have such a rich body of experiences that I might classify as hardcore. Is that fair to say, Sean?

Sean Patton
Yeah, we can put it in that. We’ll put it in that section of the library if you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Army Ranger, Special Force, Green Beret, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion. That’s awesome. First, let’s talk about jiu-jitsu. That’s how Nick connected us, and Nick is quite the jiu-jitsu fan. He raves about it. Tell us, what do you love about it? And how does one get to be a champion?

Sean Patton
Well, there’s so many things I love about it. It’s interesting, jiu-jitsu is addictive. I tell people it takes about 90 days. In 90 days, you’re either going to hate it and never come back or you’re going to be in for life. And I think that jiu-jitsu actually fills a role that we don’t get filled in modern society, that’s very natural to us. We’re tribal creatures.

We’re designed to be in a group of like-minded people, with a common set of values, and a common purpose, and elders that teach us things, then we teach the people below us things, and we all believe the same things, we’re all going towards the same sort of mission, and we all have the same mindset. Like, that’s the environment we’re supposed to be in, and that’s obviously very different than the modern world we live in. It’s very individualistic and there’s conflict everywhere.

And so, in jiu-jitsu, everything in life is a filter. Jiu-jitsu is a good filter of people who want to come in and are willing to put themselves through hard things and be uncomfortable because they want to better themselves. And so, now everyone can call us around that, and it really becomes, like, a family and part of your identity. And, ultimately, because it’s so hard, it makes the rest of life easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, I do want to talk about hardness. So, tell us, we mission hardcore, that theme, like, yeah, each of those experiences – Army Ranger, Special Force, Green Beret commander, Jiu-Jitsu – sure do involve some discomfort physically and on other domains. Tell us, how do you and your compatriots endure this discomfort and pain regularly?

Sean Patton
I think it comes down to mindset and, more specifically, purpose. Like, I was a Special Forces combat diver so my second command was an underwater infiltration team of Green Berets, and I had to be in cold water, like, all the time. It was brutal. And there’s nothing worse in life than having to be wet and cold, and I had to be wet and cold so much.

So, that being said, I’m a complete baby now. I scuba dive. If it’s below 70 degrees, I’m not going in the water. If it’s the Pacific, count me out. I’ll hang on the beach. I’m a baby because there’s no purpose behind it. And when people struggle to, I think, overcome challenges, overcome apathy, overcome any sort of wear or friction it is in their lives, oftentimes it’s because they haven’t created enough value and the purpose and the reason behind it.

You might say, if you take, like, the mother with her kids, like, “Well, she wouldn’t harm a fly. She’s the nicest thing in the world.” Well, what if someone was after your kids? Well, then she’d be this big mama bear, she’d be crazy. So, we all are capable of greatness, we’re all capable of growth, we’re all capable of being these amazing individuals, and it’s just up to us to decide how we want to express that and what matters to us. Like, what’s worth suffering for and what’s not?

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell us a story of you going through an experience, maybe it’s a training, maybe it’s a mission, in which you did have a whole lot of suffering but also a whole lot of purpose, and it worked out for you to persist?

Sean Patton
So, when I was in Afghanistan, we’re in the Afghan-Pakistan border, and we had in a bunch of nurses who had flown in to this rural area because, well, there’s no female doctors in Afghanistan because they can’t go to med school, like there are barely even midwives, and so there’s no medical training, and men can’t touch women. So, what that means is women have zero healthcare. There’s no one to serve them.

And so, just coming in and doing sort of routine medical care and treatment can be a huge boost for our mission there for the community. So, we flew them in and did a whole female-women’s seminar, health seminar. And then, as they were flying out, we were in an area that had a group called Haqqani, which Haqqani is like the extreme, the guys who are too extreme for the Taliban they go to Haqqani, and they were in our area, and they didn’t like the fact that we were helping women get healthcare.

And so, they had a recoilless rifle, and they tried to shoot down, almost did shoot down this helicopter full of all the nurses. And as soon as that went off, obviously, we have to respond. So, we immediately hit everyone out, and before they could break down their positions and drove out there, they were up on the mountains, we’re at between 8,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level with all our gear on. We ran up to the side of the mountain, and then we get into a firefight around between six and 900 meters. It’s a pretty far engagement but we were under consistent fire.

It was a tough firefight but the weapon they had used to almost shoot down the helicopter, we know we had to destroy. Like, we had to destroy that weapon, that recoilless rifle, because that’s something that can kill one of our tanks, that can take down a helicopter. We couldn’t let them break this thing down and take it back to Pakistan.

And so, we got in this firefight. I remember one of the crazier stories is as we’re shooting and they’re shooting back, and we have these grenades that go in grenade launchers, and we needed to, I needed to get those to the people that could shoot them. So, I’m running up and down the line, grabbing grenades from certain people and giving them to people who can shoot them. And as I’m running, I keep getting in the face with these evergreen trees, like the branches keep smacking me, smacking me in the face.

And I remember thinking, like, “What a time to be a klutz! Like, what a time. Like, come on, Sean, get it together. I know this is crazy. Things went fast. Like, you keep running into trees.” And then when I jumped behind a rock, and bullets were going around, and I realized, as I was next to one of my guys, that that was actually machine guy fire cutting down branches around me, and the branches were falling on top of me as I ran from position to position.

But that being said, we still had to get these grenades to other people, and we had to stay there until we could get air support and drop a bomb, and we couldn’t let them go. So, we were in this thing, the firefight, for four or five hours, and we had to keep them engaged so that they couldn’t withdraw. And, eventually, we were able to call in air support and drop bombs and take care of that.

But that was a mentally and physically exhausting mission that lasted almost a full day, but you get through it because, almost to come back to this, the purpose was so great. That’s the thing about the military. Is the juice worth the squeeze? Well, when it comes to defending a helicopter full of nurses trying to do their job in area where people are trying to stop them, and people trying to kill your friends and your compatriots, then you’re willing to do about anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, that’s powerful. Thank you. And so then, let’s make it a little bit more mundane, I suppose.

Sean Patton
Less hardcore. Down the hardcore.

Pete Mockaitis
But in the world of jiu-jitsu, so there’s discomfort there. So, what’s your purpose there that keeps you persisting to the point of becoming a champion?

Sean Patton
A few things. One, I was one of the owners of a jiu-jitsu gym and one of the instructors at the time we started up. So, there’s a leadership aspect, a leadership by example aspect that went into play, especially when I was training up for world. And I had this drive, I had gone through a really hard time. My first business had failed. I had gone from Green Beret commander, to having my first business fail and going through a bankruptcy three years later, to finding new partners and standing up, and growing a company.

And when I was specifically training for those tournaments, I feel like I had to get back to being my sort of warrior self, like I needed to prove it to myself, I needed to also set the example that it wasn’t about going out and actually winning, though that was the goal, but it was about showing the other members of the team and creating a culture where we work hard and we put ourselves out there in difficult situations, we put ourselves into stressful situations because we want to be the best, because we want to prove something to ourselves, because we want to do it for our team.

And so, that was a big driver for me during that time frame because, again, it was a hard time from a personal standpoint of my life. And so, I really dedicated all the time and effort, and said, “You don’t control outcome in life.” We don’t control whether we win, whether we lose. All we control is our process and our preparation. And so, I just try to do all those things right and lead by example, and it worked out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Well, so, yeah, let’s hear about this Warrior’s Mindset, that’s the name of your book. What’s the mindset and what’s the big message in the book?

Sean Patton
Absolutely. So, I went with the Warrior’s Mindset, which is maybe a little, I don’t know, off-putting, it’s a little hardcore. You said hardcore. It’s a little intense for some people but how I define a warrior is a warrior is someone who fights for a noble cause greater than himself, and I don’t mean just physically fight. It’s, like, pursues, persists for a noble cause greater than himself.

And when you define it that way, then it becomes binary, so you either have a noble purpose, a noble cause, something that’s bigger than yourself that you’re working towards, that you’re fighting for, that you believe in, or you don’t. It’s one or the other. And if you don’t, which is if we’re not intentional with our lives and we don’t set purpose, if we don’t get to know ourselves, we’re just going through the motions, and you will consciously and subconsciously make decisions that are based on, “What is going to cause me the least discomfort in the moment?”

It’s going to be a very shortsighted decision-making. It’s going to be about comfort. It’s going to be about apathy. It’s going to be, like, “Well, that feels stressful.” But, again, if you don’t have that purpose behind it, you will turn it down. And I just think that, of those two, having that warrior’s mindset and having a noble purpose, aligns with our genetic purpose and aligns with who we are as human beings, and is the path to fulfillment.

And I think the other way is a path to misery, anxiety, depression, and everything else because you lack that noble purpose. So, that’s why I use the term A Warrior’s Mindset and what I ended up doing was researching and taking my own experiences, research, there’s over 300 citations in this book, everything from neuroscience, psychology, sociology, to history, to whittle down, and say, “How small can I make the framework to achieve that?”

Because it’s one thing to say, “Have a warrior’s mindset. Go fight for a noble cause. Do all these great things,” and then they ask the question, “Awesome. How?” And so, I really set out to create as simple a framework as I could but not miss anything critical to have a system, a framework that you could work through for your own mindset that really maximize your greatness. And so, I came up with a guide called Six Keys to Greatness.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us some examples of noble purposes that folks can really seem to connect and engage with in their work lives?

Sean Patton
Yeah, absolutely. So, I work with a lot of companies as a leadership coach and consultant, and I’m a firm believer in a leadership culture creating fulfillment. And so, I believe in purpose alignment. Managers are worried about financial incentive alignment, which is important. I’m not saying it’s not important but money is a satisfier, it’s not a driver. And if you can get yourself and getting people on your team aligned with, “What is the larger goal of this company?” your company should exist to provide some sort of effect to better people’s lives in the world.

And so, if you can really align that purpose in your work life, you can say, “Well, personally, here’s my beliefs. I think people should, in any industry, have better access to information, and we should support mothers doing home school. And I believe that we shouldn’t censor information to help that growth,” or something like that, as an example.

Well, if that aligns with your values and your purpose, now you can find a reason outside of the transactional paycheck to work every day, and how much better. I believe everyone should – this sounds crazy in some people’s corporate worlds – you should look forward to one-on-ones with your manager, like you should look forward to having performance evaluations and counseling sessions with the people that you work for and people that you work with.

I feel like we spend so much time at work in our work lives, more and more people are, and the pandemic just accelerated this mindset of, “We want purpose in the work we do. We want fulfillment in the work we do.” And I think if you do leadership the right way, I’m a true believer that you can create both fulfillment and profitability. Those things are not mutually exclusive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Could you, while we’re on the topic, give us a few more examples of folks you’ve seen they’ve got a purpose that’s aligning with their work, job, career, purpose, and then fireworks are happening?

Sean Patton
Yeah, absolutely. So, I’m trying to think which client example. So, I have one client I’m working with currently who had a successful company, it was a title company, he had 29 employees, doing very well for himself, but there was no passion behind it. He was just going through the motions and didn’t feel like he was living up to his potential, feel like he had sort of plateaued out for himself. And what he really wanted to do was create a vertically integrated real estate company.

And so, we sat down and we looked at, “Well, why do you want to do that?” “Well, I want to have freedom. I’ve got kids that are going to go to college. I want to be able to travel. My wife and I finally can go out and travel on our own, so I want to be able to have freedom of movement. I want to be challenged. I want to grow.”

And he also had this noble purpose of, a firm believer that for most people, especially people, normal middle-class folks that home ownership was a path to financial stability in life, and he really believed that. And so, he wanted to set up a company, everything from property management of rentals to construction, to real estate selling and title work with the idea of getting people who wanted to own a home but didn’t have the credit or do the background to do it, and then setting them up with rental situations that were stable so that they could stay there longer and then help them get to a point where they could buy their first home, and then they could hopefully buy it from him.

So, it was both profit and purpose together, and we came up with that plan slightly over a year ago, and I’m excited to see what he’s doing now. He’s got all four stood up, they’re all bringing in revenue, and he’s already got a team underneath him. And you can just see the drive and the excitement in the work he’s doing because he believes in it and he’s challenging himself.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. All right. Well, working through The Warrior’s Mindset, you’ve got six keys to greatness. Can you lay it on us what are each of the keys? And any pro tips for getting them unlocking stuff for us?

Sean Patton
Absolutely. So, the six keys are perspective and gratitude, is number one; internal locus of control is number two; north star purpose is three; self-discipline; perseverance; and leadership. So, I’ll give you the brief overview of each, and it has to start with the perspective of yourself. Do you have this warrior’s mindset or not? Are you trying to maximize your experience of life, maximize your impact on others or not? What are your values? So, what’s your perspective around that?

And then, hopefully from that, it becomes gratitude. I see gratitude as the eternal fuel source for everything else. Like, if I’m getting frustrated, if I’m feeling confused of my life, from having relationships, whatever that can be that’s going in my life that I’m struggling with mentally, I can always come back to expanding my aperture and show gratitude for, like, how lucky we are, how lucky are we to be in this country, how lucky are we to be at this time.

Like, there’s never been a time in the history of mankind of probably trillions, billions and billions of humans that have ever existed over the last few hundred thousand years, how many have had air conditioning. Like, how many have been in some sort of democracy where they had basic rights and freedoms? How many had a car that can drive them wherever they want to go and talk to people, like we’re talking now, across spans of time, and have information at their fingertips? Like, almost none of them. Basically, none of them.

The life we have, if you really think about it, should fill you with so much gratitude that it can get you over humps and drive you when you’re feeling. So, gratitude is the baseline for everything, I think, and that really takes work. And you can do gratitude journaling, you can do mindset work, you can do meditation. You can do a lot of things. But if someone’s listening to this podcast right now, I guarantee you, you’re in the 10% wealthiest people on the planet. Like, if you’re listening to this podcast, you are.

You are in the top 10%. And let’s embrace and celebrate that, not get apathetic to it, but use it as fuel to achieve our true greatness.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that is powerful – gratitude, eternal fuel. I’m intrigued. It is true, objectively speaking, we’re super blessed. When you zoom out, I like that notion, the wide aperture. We zoom out in terms of time and place, it is just a fact that we are exceptionally blessed and lucky, and yet it often doesn’t feel that way. And so, I like what you said, we should feel grateful, and it takes work. Can you expand on that? It seems like we humans have a knack for having our expectations rise so fast.

One of my favorite stories here is I remember, once I was coordinating a conference. This was back in college. I was coordinating a conference, and I thought, “You know what, I’m really going to delight.” I had a team of maybe 58, I still remember this. It was on my resume for a long time. I had a team of 58 people on my staff volunteering, my fellow students. And so, I thought, “You know what, I’m going to treat them. I’m going to,” to their surprise, this hadn’t been done in years past, I thought, “Right. We’re doing great, the budget is cool, so I’m going to get everyone a nice little spread of bagels and cream cheeses from Panera one morning.”

And so, I did, and they were thrilled, like, “Oh, this is so cool. Thanks. Awesome. I was hungry, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” and I thought, “Oh, yes.” And so, it felt good to be liked and appreciated, and that it was a hit, a surprise accomplished. And so then, it was a very hectic day, we were taking care of a lot of things.

I was tired, and I was thinking, “Oh, wow, we’ve got a bunch of bagels leftover. Okay, that’s fine. I guess we’ll be all set for tomorrow. Great. I don’t have to do anything because I want to go to bed now. it’s been a crazy long day.” And so, the next day, they said, “So, Pete, are there bagels this morning?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, actually we’ve got a ton leftover. They’re just right over there.” They said, “But they’re not fresh.” And I just loved it.

I was like, “In all the years past, we’ve done this event, there were not bagels. Yesterday was the coolest thing ever. Today we still have those bagels, and they’re almost as good. They’re not, like, two-week old bagels. Like, one day.” I’m no connoisseur, Sean.

Sean Patton
You’re no bagel connoisseur?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not too picky with my food but I was like, “Okay, I know one-day old bagels aren’t as great as super fresh bagels, but that’s still not bad.” And so, it was just like one day is all it took from, “This is so grand” to “Aargh, they’re not fresh, and I’m disappointed.” And I think that that is representative of me and many of us in terms of something cool happens, we feel so blessed, so grateful, “Oh, my gosh, this is awesome. I got a big promotion, big jump in income. Cool, cool, cool.”

And it’s like, “Oh, now, what do you know? It’s so hard to make ends meet. How did that happen?” It’s sort of like our lifestyle, or our wants, or perceived needs, expectations grow such that we don’t feel the gratitude associated with, “Oh, wow, what I have is oh-so-abundant.” So, Sean, I want to throw that to you. You said we should feel grateful, and it takes some work. What’s going on with this human nature? And what can we do about it?

Sean Patton
Well, Buddhism says that being human is to suffer, and the real suffering comes from, I think you said it, expectation. And so, when there’s an incongruence or a difference between what our life is and what we may want, that wanting is what’s covering, is what’s causing the suffering. It’s not external. It’s inside our own heads.

Pete Mockaitis
Dukkha.

Sean Patton
Right, dukkha. Exactly, yeah. And we don’t have to go all spiritual on this, but I think that’s part of human nature as you get accustomed to that. I have this story, another story, it’s when I just got back from Iraq, I’ve been gone for 14 months in southwest Baghdad. And I get back, I was young, I was 25, and I was excited I got to go to Starbucks. I was super stoked, like, “Oh, my gosh. I go to Starbucks.”

I get in line, and I’m waiting there, and there’s just two girls in front of me, and they’re having this conversation. Somebody said something about…Oh, no, what it was it was the fall, it was October and they ran out of pumpkin spice.

Pete Mockaitis
“I need my PSL, Sean. I totes need it.”

Sean Patton
They needed it, and they lost their minds. And one was like, “This is the worst day ever.” And I just had to cover my head and walk out after I’m like, again, objectively, you should feel grateful but they had this expectation and this quality of life. And to kind of go back to our earlier conversation about jiu-jitsu, we’re about just doing hard things, like, it’s easy. To be comfortable in America, like, let’s be honest, is it the perfect place? We have a lot of things we need to change, absolutely.

But to be comfortable? Like, it’s not that hard. You don’t have to do much. And because of all that comfort and the reward, and whether it’s social media, we feed that machine of getting gratification, of getting pleasure without putting in work, and then that becomes an expectation. And that’s a dopamine cycle that is at the root of all addiction. And we get addicted to the easy dopamine and that easy win.

And so, yeah, we have to do that work. And that’s why you have to be intentional about that gratitude. Are you going to be perfect? No. I do it all the time. It’s not, like, I’m walking around floating on a cloud with fairies over my head, and just like rainbows everywhere. Like, that’s not the case. I go through hard times, and everyone does, but it’s doing work so that when you have enough self-awareness to see yourself going down that path, and you can redirect and pull yourself out with intentionality.

And I think that’s really what it comes down to, is living intentionally. Because if you let yourself, again, that’s really the definition of a warrior’s mindset, living with intention toward this bigger goal, as opposed to being reactive to your environment, and just like, “Well, I feel awful, therefore, everything is awful.” Like, does it or do you just feel awful because you wanted your PSL, and now you can’t, and, really, you could get something else and be fine? Like, that’s a matter of perspective but that takes intentionality.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, these practices, can you share with us, let’s say, in the moment? Because I’ve done some gratitude journals, and sometimes when I write down the thing that I’m grateful for, it’s like, “Yeah, that really was so amazing, and I feel in my heart a grand sense of gratitude.” And other times, it’s like, “Yup, that was good, and that was good, and that was good,” but I don’t feel much of anything, and I’m just objectively, “Yes, that was a good thing. I am pleased that that occurred,” but my heartfelt gratitude is not ignited. What do I do with that?

Sean Patton
Yeah, I know, you’re totally right. And I think it really also comes down to, like, present-ness and sort of being in the now of it, which is part of internal locus of control, which is like an attribution of control, “Is it external or is it internal?” And so, that comes into play here, like saying, “Well, ultimately, how you feel is up to you. It’s inside you. You own this.”

And so, when you are working through that gratitude, if you can be present and not thinking about, “Well, the things I don’t have or where I want to be, or what’s going to happen in 10 minutes,” but, like, “But are you okay right now?” Breath. Slow down. And it sounds super cliché, but you don’t have to do a formal journal. Like, count your blessings. Like, how good is it right now for you compared to how bad it is other places? And I would just say do more research about what’s going on in the world.

If you want to feel lucky, like go read the news for a day, and you’ll be like, “Oh, my God, my life isn’t anything like these.” It’s almost like I hear people talk about they watch trashy reality or something because it makes them feel better about their own lives because it’s so crazy and dramatic. And so, whatever it takes, I don’t know, I guess if it’s “Real Housewives” or if it’s breath work or gratitude journaling, whatever it takes for you to get to that place.

And, again, you’re going to get off-kilter, you’re going to feel bad, and it’s okay to feel bad in the moment, that’s fine. We’re not worried about the acute feelings of, like, sadness and happiness in the moment. We’re worried about the underlying mental state that you’re carrying around.

Pete Mockaitis
So, your advice then is if I’m doing a gratitude journal, but, one, if it never does it for me, just maybe try something else. But if I am doing it, and it sometimes works for me, I’m seeking to double down on experiencing the feeling of gratitude. Is that accurate?

Sean Patton
Yes, double down on the experiencing gratitude. I’m a meditator. I actually don’t journal. There’s always different techniques, and some things work for some people, some things work for others. For me, meditation has been huge for me in my own mindset shifts and even the transition in the military, and everything.

And a simple gratitude meditation of if you’re really starting to go off the deep end, like sitting down, following your breath, and then just picture in your head things that – your family, or your friends, or the things you have, or the house you have, or the job you have, or the security you have – and reflecting on that, and experiencing that gratitude in the moment, because as soon as we ruminate on the future, that creates anxiety. Why? Because you can’t control the future.

And if we reflect on the past too much, if we ruminate on the past, it creates depression and regret because you can’t change the past. But, luckily for us, neither one of those things are real. The only thing that’s real is the moment. And so, working on your perspective and gratitude, internal locus of control, and doing things that bring you in this moment, my guess is you’re doing pretty good compared to others. That doesn’t mean you have to feel great awful things happen to people.

You should feel emotion. But, again, we’re not worried about, “This thing is happening so I feel bad.” That’s okay. But it’s about living unconsciously and not even being aware that you’re doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, tell us then, your organization Stronger Leaders, Stronger Profits, you do leadership coaching and consulting. We talked, we had a quick overview of the keys, and then a deeper dive into gratitude. Can you share with us, when we look at a whole team or organization level, how do you see things shake out in terms of being the primary drivers of, say, poor versus amazing engagement?

Sean Patton
That’s a great question. The two things, the two Cs, if you will, if you had to say, “What’s the quickest win?” or, “What’s the one thing?” If I had to say, “You’ve got a snapshot, two minutes to look over this company, and figure out how are things going,” I would look at two things – communication and counselling.

How are your communication systems? Are they clear? Is it accurately spreading information down? Is there a system to get feedback to come up? When someone gives feedback, do they get a response? Like, how is your communication? And I think looking at that system first, that fixes so much. Most of your listeners, I’m sure, can, when I think about how to be awesome at your job, and when their job is awesome and when it’s not awesome.

When your job is not awesome, or something goes wrong, communication, or a lack thereof, or a misaligned expectation because of communication, communication is either the primary cause or a strong contributor to almost every business failure. There’s very rarely where I say, “Hey, Pete, here’s a task. I need you to finish this project by the end of the week,” and you get to Thursday, and you’re like, “Eh, screw Sean. Like, whatever. Screw that, I don’t really care,” and you just fail on purpose. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but those are pretty easy to identify if that’s happened.

So, if that’s not the case, if you were going to assume good intent, that you’re trying to do the right thing, well, then we must’ve had misaligned expectations. What you thought was done and good is not what I thought was done and good. And so, I do have one sort of framework around effective communication when you want to ask someone to do something, or give someone a task, or whatever, without missing anything. And I call it the Five Bravo.

So, it’s task, what do you want done; purpose, why do you want it done, how does it affect other people; intent, and that’s the how, like if there’s a certain way I want you to do it, is there a resource I’m going to give you, like are you going to have a team to do this, what’s your intent behind it; and then timeline, when do you need this done by, what are your for dates and end state. So, when you’re done, you come back, and you say, “Hey, Sean, I did that report for you. Here it is,” what’s that look like to me, what’s my expectation?

So, if you just go through that task, purpose, intent, timeline, end state, if you just cover all five of those when ask someone to do something or put something in an email, and then the B for bravo is back brief. So, especially if I gave that to you, “What questions do you have?” and I say, “All right. So, Pete, I probably missed something, like that’s a lot of information. What do you have? What did you hear from me?” And then you repeat it back to me.

Seventy percent of the time, you’re going to be missing something, and that may be because you missed it or maybe because I thought I said it because it was in my head but I didn’t actually say it, like all those things happen but it can be cleared up with a simple framework of the Five Bravo. And I’ve had clients take their project request forms between divisions and actually change their forms to be that layout.

Because if you communicate effectively that way, then when someone doesn’t meet expectation, well, the decision is binary. It’s binary. Then you have, which is only one of two things, it’s either they’re not capable of doing this yet, so they need more training, or they have had the training and they’re uncapable, unwilling to perform what you need them to perform, in which case, they need to do a different role and leave the organization. You can start making that determination.

But what happens most often in organizations is there was a fault on poor communication from the person giving or asking that to be done, there was misaligned expectations of what their expectation coming back was, and there’s a blame on the person for not executing the way, and not having the end state that they desired, but it was due to a poor communication.

So, this happens companies, too. If something goes wrong, the first thing I do before is think, “Did I give them the Five Bravo? Did I give them all five?” And if I didn’t, that’s on me. I can’t hold them accountable for that. It’s my responsibility to get better at communicating. But if I did, now I can take action. And so, communication is so important. And the second thing is counselling, which we can talk about in a second if you want.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I think we know it when a communication failure went down in the moment. How do you assess the overall health of communication in a team or an organization?

Sean Patton
So, there are several ways. One, doing a good assessment and coming in and hearing from people how they feel about the communication. Are they heard? Do they have the means to give feedback? Do they understand the why behind what they’re doing? Do they understand where the company is headed and what they do? Is the mission and values and vision communicated all the way to the bottom? Do people know?

You can simply ask, “What’s your role here? What do you do?” They should be able to walk that all the way up to how the company executes its strategic initiatives. And if they can’t, you know there’s a lack of communication. But your question actually brings me to a huge part, which they’re intertwined, is counseling, which is the second thing.

And I see almost no one does this as well as they should, and it’s the number one thing that would improve the culture of any organization and team. And it also facilitates this type of communication, where instead of doing performance evaluations, that’s very transactional, again, that’s management. Like, “You had these tasks. Did you do them or not? How did you do them? Did you do them okay? Where are you at in this?”

That’s fine. I’m not saying not to do that. But if that’s all you do, you’re really setting yourself up for failure, especially in the modern workplace, especially if they’re remote and hybrid workers. If you take a developmental counseling approach, where we meet monthly, quarterly, and we’re talking about we’re not just managing the position but we’re leading the person.

We’re talking to the person, “Personally, what are your goals this quarter? Did you accomplish them? Did I do everything I said I would do to support you? What’s your goals in the future? How can I help you get there? What are your professional goals? What are your team goals? And what are those objectives? And how can I support you do that? And what are you struggling with? And here’s where I see you going? Here’s your career progression.”

Like, that’s a coaching mentality and that leader mentality of creating new human potential by changing the way people think about themselves, the organization and the world, versus management, which is efficiency of a system. And so, when you shift to a leadership culture and you shift to communication and development of human beings, being a core competency of your business, that’ll turn around almost any company.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, in most organizations, are these conversations just not happening very often? Or, what’s the piece that’s lacking?

Sean Patton
Yeah, there’s no formal construct to have this type of leader conversations, and so you have some people that are having them, and others that are checking the box. I guess we don’t want to piss off too many people the way they do things, but I see a lot of companies where we’ll go in, and, say, HR sends you a performance eval for your annual performance eval, you fill it out of how you think you did, that gets sent to somewhere or something, and then somebody talks to you about it, and maybe they talk about how that affects your bonus or where you’re looking to go next, and that’s about the end of it, “Do better here. Don’t do this.”

Like, that is such a different mentality than saying, “Hey, Pete, here’s the role, the function you play here. Why are you here? Like, why are you doing this job? Are you money-motivated? Cool, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you talk to, like, a seller, this actually happened at my wife’s company. She was having some issues with one of her sellers. She’s a senior sales manager. And when she talked to him, yes, he’s money-motivated but this wasn’t his passion. His goal was to open up his own business. And in order to do that, he had figured out that he would need $200,000. Okay.

So, instead of her assuming that he wants to hit goal to make money, to move up in the sales organization, instead of that being the expectation, he was very clear, like, “No, my goal is to actually leave the organization and do my own thing. I see 200K.” “Cool. Well, let’s align your purpose with company purpose. How fast can we get you to 200K? How do I need to support you?” And now that person is motivated, even though they’re doing the same job they were doing before. But before, they hadn’t framed it as, “Let’s get you out of this company as soon as possible and onto the next thing.”

And so, having a formal system to have leadership conversations at a regular interval that is written out, that people are accountable for, is huge. When I was counseled in the military, we do counseling like this in the military, and it’s a big part of the leadership equation, and I can’t tell you, I had hundreds of counseling sessions. I can tell you a handful of specific moments or things that I still remember that’s still impactful.

But I can definitely tell the commanders that took the time out to actually do it and the ones who skipped over it and penciled with it, like cared enough to develop me and have that conversation about how they could support me, and where I wanted to go, and give me honest feedback on that as a human being, not just in, “Here’s your performance metrics and KPIs,” and that human component is really where we get from management to leadership.

And with the way the world is heading with our workforce, people don’t want to just be managed. And it used to be if I had a bad manager at my job, it’s like, “Well, yeah, Bob kind of sucks but I got another job offer, but I got to move the house, and the kids are in soccer, and the change cost is so high.” But with remote hybrid workers now, the only thing that changes if I changed jobs is, “What software do I log in tomorrow?” So, that’s a different set of conditions, work conditions that companies are not adapting to. They’re not realizing that 75% of the reason people leave jobs is because of bad bosses, not bad jobs.

And so, if you get this right, it increases retention, internal hires, employee engagement, all those things. And we’re right back to your company can create fulfillment and profitability together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s good. So, counseling frequently. Is there a magic frequency – weekly, monthly? What’s the vibe?

Sean Patton
Depending on the position, whether you need to do weekly one-on-ones or not, some positions, I think, you do, some you don’t. Lower-level people generally need more weekly one-on-ones and check-ins and handholding right, like more entry-level folks as oppose to more senior folks don’t need that as much. But I think the magic sauce, what we espouse and we help our clients with, is that we do a written form every quarter that lays out the next three months, and then you adapt off that same form and you meet monthly. So, monthly counseling but you’re filling out a full new form on goals and objectives once every quarter.

Pete Mockaitis
Fun. All right. Well, now, could you tell me a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Sean Patton
My favorite quote is actually by George Bernard Shaw, it’s the unreasonable man quote, and it’s that “The reasonable man sees the world the way it is and adapts himself to it, and the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to him, and, therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

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

Sean Patton
The quintessential one for me, it’s funny, because of all the different research and stuff I looked at is still the Harvard happiness study. An 80-year study that started in the 1930s that tried to determine what are the variables that affect joy and fulfillment in life, and they’re on the second generations. So, they did it with their first subject all the way through their deathbed, then the second generation. And they, recently, just last year, revised their latest findings.

And it’s just clear that it’s not socioeconomic status, it’s not race, sex, any things that really are universally responsible for fulfillment and joy in life, and it’s absolutely the quality of your close relationships. And I think that is a really powerful thing because if you talk about motivators for different people, to get over those hard challenges like we talked about at the beginning of this episode, my nightmare is being in older age and having regret about something in my life, about something I didn’t do, and not having the time or energy to do anything about it.

And there’s actually studies that have been done that show that 70-75% of all seniors live with the regret because they lived the way someone else thought they should, or because of societal norms, or because they thought it was just the right thing to do, and they didn’t go live their life the way they wanted to, and they didn’t maintain the quality close relationships. So, that’s my worst nightmare. That’s what drives me at the end of the day, is I think that when I’m one day laying in my bed, getting ready to close my eyes for the last time, I can look back at my life, and be like, “I freaking did it, and it was awesome.”

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And a favorite book?

Sean Patton
My favorite book right now is an older book but it’s The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership and I’m really getting more and more into conscious leadership right now, and some of the practices around that, and how I can implement that in my systems. Yeah, so that’s one that I’m a huge proponent of. But before that, I read Life of Joy it’s with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu who talked about how you create joy in life. I would say those two books in the last year have been two that really hit me hard.

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

Sean Patton
Another great question. I know this is the hot topic of the day, but I use a paid service called Jasper for my AI. And it sped up our workflows in so many ways because I’ve been able to come up with my original concept or framework. So, you can put your own original thought in but you can just put in bullet format and it can write you an 80% solution, and it can create captions. So, I’m fully in on using AI, generative AI, in our day-to-day to make our jobs more productive and easier.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Sean Patton
My favorite habit is, I’m going to sound so boring though, I’m going to sound boring to say this, but that’s fine, but I am all about my nighttime routine and the same times, going to bed at the same times and waking up at the same times. And so, one thing my wife and I do is, like, she’s even more into the sleep stuff than I am. She’s like Spy Kids, she’s got like a Whoop on one arm and an Apple Watch on the other, she’s like all the bio data she can get.

But we have half our lights in our house set so that at 8:00 p.m. we only have red lights from down all the way to our bedrooms to our bathroom. So, we take away all that light exposure, and that habit, that itself, whether it’s the blue light or whether it’s just a Pavlovian response to the fact of the red light, but as soon as the red lights come on, I get sleepy and I have a great rest. So, I’m really big on my night routine and going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time.

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

Sean Patton
I think one thing I often say is that there’s an obligation of greatness. If I truly believe that, again, we are living at such an amazing time, we’re in this country, we have so much potential to do so much good, to be great. Almost everyone that’s listening, like you have the potential to be great in however you define that in your life, you have greatness inside you, and your potential for that, and the opportunity for it.

But I’m a firm believer that, with the potential for greatness, comes an inherent obligation to achieve it. So, now that’s a chip on your shoulder because, otherwise, that’s the unmet potential is not being grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given.

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

Sean Patton
So, I’m SeanPattonSpeaks on Instagram. I’m on LinkedIn. Those are my primary social tools. And then our website is StrongerLeadersStrongerProfits.com.

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

Sean Patton
I think it’s to evaluate inside of their company whether they are managing the position or whether they’re leading the person, and lean into leading the person and leading the person with intentionality. And I think you’ll see some great results not just in the company’s success but in quality of life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sean, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and warrior mindset goodness.

Sean Patton
Thanks, Pete. This has been awesome. I appreciate it, man. You do great work here.

911: Making Uncertainty your Friend with Maggie Jackson

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Maggie Jackson talks about the power of uncertainty and how to harness it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How uncertainty enhances learning
  2. How to manage the fear of uncertainty
  3. How routine can hold us back

About Maggie

Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist. Her new book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure (Nov. 2023) explores why we should paradoxically seek not-knowing in times of flux. The book’s been nominated for a National Book Award, Uncertain is a Next Big Idea Club “must read.” Jackson’s prior book, Distracted (2nd ed., 2018), sparked a global conversation on the steep costs of fragmenting our attention and won the 2020 Dorothy Lee Award. A former Boston Globe columnist, Jackson has written for the New York Times and other publications worldwide. Her work has been covered extensively in the global press.

Resources Mentioned

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Maggie Jackson Interview Transcript

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

Maggie Jackson
Oh, wonderful to be with you, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear about your wisdom you’ve put forth in your book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure. But first, I need to hear about you swimming in the Atlantic Ocean almost every day. What’s the story here?

Maggie Jackson
Well, it’s a pandemic story. I used to be a pool swimmer, and I’ve increasingly loved swimming the older I’ve gotten. And then I moved out to the countryside in Rhode Island from New York City during the pandemic, and got kind of really into swimming all the time in the ocean, increasingly in the fall, and then all winter, and spring. I absolutely love it. Being there at dawn, it’s beautiful and feels a whole exercise you can’t beat.

But then it’s sort of interesting because it also offers a great deal, kind of a daily dose of uncertainty. So, I finally began to realize that part of the joy and the daunting nature of what I’m doing is that swimming is never the same twice. When you’re open water, four seasons swimming, it’s never the same twice. So, it’s a great little lesson in uncertainty.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And I have recently been getting into cold water immersion. Fun things. And I’m thinking, wow, fall and winter, you’re getting that in spades. You know what the temperature in the water is like during these times?

Maggie Jackson
Oh, yes. Yes, we all keep track of the temperature quite carefully because I do wear some gear, so I adjust my gear. But the temperature is about the low is 36 Fahrenheit.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Maggie Jackson
And a lot depends on it could be 20 Fahrenheit in air, and it can be the wind, and then you can be in the snow. It’s all really beautiful and it’s just so much fun. And they’re now doing studies, trying to augment people’s kind of understanding or capability with uncertainty in order to boost resilience. So, we could talk about that. But that, I feel as though, I’ve gained resilience by doing this.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, is it your experience, as it is mine, that just the sheer cold alone is invigorating and mood-boosting over the long term?

Maggie Jackson
Exactly. I find that the colder it is, the more joyful it is. The deep dark winter when my little band of swimmers is going at it, we’re actually laughing out loud and sort of hooting and hollering, and I find that the summer is beautiful, it’s relaxing, it’s wonderful, but it’s not quite as exhilarating. So, it completely represents what we might call good stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, now let’s hear a little bit about uncertainty in your book Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure. Have you encountered any particularly surprising, or extra-fascinating, or counterintuitive discoveries about us humans and uncertainty while putting this together?

Maggie Jackson
Sure. A long list of surprising discoveries related to uncertainty. We mostly think of uncertainty as being, what psychologists call aversive. We don’t like it. Humans don’t like it. And there’s a reason for that. We’re naturally made to survive by getting answers. Like, we can’t exist in the state of not knowing. However, it’s really interesting because when humans encounter something new, it might be your first day at the job, it might be a six-month roadblock on your highway and you got to adjust, you actually undergo all of these kinds of stress changes in your body.

You might sweat a little, your heart might race, but at the same time, there are changes in the brain that are extremely beneficial when you are in this uncertain, this unsettling state of uncertainty. Actually, your working memory is bolstered, your focus broadens, the brain is more receptive to new information, so you’re basically on your toes. So, what seems unsettling and sort of this uncertainty that we dislike is actually priming us to be able to learn.

So, as one neuroscientist told me, “When you’re in that moment of so-called arousal due to uncertainty, the brain is telling itself there’s something to be learned here.” And so, I think it’s really important on the job, or on the restive life, not to squander that moment. Move forward into uncertainty. Don’t run from it or deny it or hide it. I think it’s really important that we don’t cut short that opportunity to learn that uncertainty offers.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we are more able to learn with these sorts of emotional stress response things going on, and that just sort of fits. It makes sense because, well, yes, there’s something that needs learning here because, by definition, it’s uncertain what’s going on.

Maggie Jackson
Yup, you walk into the meeting and there’s a surprise, or your boss hands you a project you didn’t really think you’re going to have to do. And it’s not emotion, really. It’s cognition. So, your brain is actually going on alert. It’s being aroused, as scientists say. And that puts you in a state where you can take advantage of that.

And so, I think the myth-busting one we have to do first about uncertainty is to realize that uncertainty is unsettling, yes, but that is its precise gift. It bumps us off the routine. It’s telling us. When you’re uncertain, that’s basically your brain telling you that you have to stop your automatic behavior. The status quo doesn’t work anymore. You’ve got to be ready to update your understanding of the world.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting is you say that we tend to not like uncertainty, and yet there are some contexts where we, humans, proactively go for it. We want to play card games, or videogames, or go to the casino, and that’s the whole draw of these things, is we don’t quite know how things are going to turn out. There’s an element of chance.

Maggie Jackson
Oh, I think that’s a very, very good point. It’s sort of uncertainty by another name. We might call it suspense, or just the kind of not knowing that’s playful or entertainment form that, I think, as uncertainty has grown, or I would say unpredictability in the world has grown, and, really, studies do show that economics, business world, climate, etc., there are a lot of aspects of the life that are more volatile. Uncertainty has become kind of a lament. You see it in the headlines. You hear people talk about it.

People just equate uncertainty with something bad. And that’s not moving us forward. That’s actually keeping us. Uncertainty is not the paralysis that we think. The human uncertainty, the unsureness, the not knowing, it’s not that all, as research shows. It’s actually something that’s highly dynamic and active, and something that moves us forward. Uncertainty is a lot more than we know.

And, actually, for decades and decades, this state of mind, it’s a mindset, basically, wasn’t studied. It wasn’t studied even in psychology because the onus and the emphasis was on what the human can do, what’s the task that you accomplish. It’s not sort of in between time when people are pausing and unsure, or they don’t know what to do. The scientists wanted to study what they could get accomplished.

And so, I think this puts human thinking, and even what it means to know what it means to be successful, it puts it in a whole new plane because if we can add not knowing to our skillset, as well as knowing, well, we’re suddenly really opening up to the world in ways that we weren’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, not knowing as a skillset that benefits us. Could you perhaps give us a story, an example, of someone who upgraded that skill and saw cool results as a result?

Maggie Jackson
Yeah, I’ll give you a couple of stories, but one little story came from a friend of mine who was calling me up, and saying, “Oh, there’s a merger and acquisition at my pharmaceutical company,” and she’s a scientist, and she was moaning and groaning. And in the next breath, she was talking about how she’s brushing up her resume, and she’s looking around for an internal job.

And I was sort of amused inside, having been steeped in uncertainty research, so I realized that she was actually doing precisely what, through her uncertainty, she was actually taking hold of the situation, and she was propelled to investigate further. And you can see this in many, many great figures. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was basically borne of uncertainty. He was a leader who was very humble. He wasn’t opposed to saying, “I don’t know,” and he really led the movement through conviction but also with adaptability.

And when it came to that incredibly important speech that day in 1963, The March on Washington, first of all, he had asked for opinions from many, many advisers. The night of the speech, he didn’t know quite what he would say. He had elements but he didn’t really know. He was actually still working on the speech right up on the podium that day.

And what that shows is that he was in tuned with a very divisive, very difficult moment in history. He was wakeful to all the different influences and patterns and sort of things that were going on in that moment, and he, of course, pulled off one of the greatest speeches of all time.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Let’s have another example.

Maggie Jackson
Well, I would say a more modern example is I’ve been studying the work style of the new Nobel Prize winner in medicine, the co-winner, Kati Kariko, who was originally from Hungary, and she worked for decades on mRNA, which, of course, was the sort of her work on mRNA led to the breakthrough that gave us the COVID vaccines and saved hundreds of millions of lives perhaps.

And she was incredibly dogged and incredibly persistent, and she saw the capacity of this aspect of biology when no one else was. She was terminated from UPenn, but this is not just a story of persistence. As she puts it in one Nobel Prize interview, one of her coworkers said, “Oh, Kati, you’re always zigzagging.” In other words, she didn’t always work in a straight line. And she said, “By zigzagging, I learned so much.”

And this is what it means to inhabit uncertainty. You’re not shutting down on that space of possibility that uncertainty is. And one of the most interesting things about curiosity is that scientists have been finally studying this topic, too, and they’re beginning to kind of understand that one of the most key components of curiosity, of the curious disposition, is the ability to work with or tolerate the stress of inhabiting the unknown.

So, when you’re curious about something, anything, painting or what you’re curious about, something you’re doing at work, or curious about what this Nobel Prize winner did, you are actually having to kind of understand, or withstand, or kind of leverage that uncertainty in order to get to the answer. And that she really represents that. She really does. She spent so much energy on doing things that were denigrated, devalued in every sense of the word. She kept going and she basically exemplifies the willingness to stay in that liminal space, which is to not know, to not know in order to get the better answer.

If she had raced to the first answer, well, she might’ve discovered something but she never would’ve put the pieces together. She had to go down a lot of dead ends, and that, to me, is that entirely what uncertainty is about, productive uncertainty.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you elaborate on the distinction between working in a zigzag fashion versus linear fashion? What are those different modes look, sound, feel like by contrast?

Maggie Jackson
Well, I would say that the linear fashion         of working would be to work from one logical point to another, to be focused on outcome. Outcome orientation is a really hot topic in business circles today. Whereas, a zigzag, a nonlinear, that is something that Leonardo da Vinci was famous for. “Confusion rouses the mind to invention,” he once said.

And the zigzagging that she was referring to would be the dead ends. Many times, mRNA was actually toxic to the body when introduced in mice, etc. It didn’t do them any good. And so, basically, she could’ve quit there but instead she zagged, or zigged, over to a different type of thing. So, that’s what I mean.

Eighty percent of strategic business decisions are made after considering just one option. And, yet, if people actually go to the root of the problem and consider multiple reasons for the problem, multiple roots of the problem, then they’re actually four times more likely to have a successful decision.

So, again and again, we hear that we should widen our options but the other point of that is what I call widening and deepening, and that is testing and evaluating. So, again, that’s where you’re leveraging uncertainty. This is leveraging what Kahneman calls the slow mind. It’s what I also call take two. Rather than just leap to a solution, or go to what’s obvious, or try to shoot for that outcome, you’re willing to explore many avenues, and not forever.

Sometimes this can happen just in a few minutes in the operating room with a surgeon in crisis. They just take a minute to do take two, or to dwell in uncertainty, and then they find the better answer, or the hidden answer. And so, that’s what I mean by zigzag.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And so, if folks do have this attitude or fear of uncertainty, do you have any recommended first steps in terms of, “Hey, if that’s where you’re at right now, here’s what I recommend you do or think about”?

Maggie Jackson
Yes, that’s a great question. And it’s really important, and I get asked that all the time now, “How can I get better at dealing with uncertainty?” And, actually, I’ll talk a little bit about what I found, but also there’s some new research on this, a great deal of research. There are scientists now planning a new study, an intervention, in Columbus, Ohio, to help stressed high schoolers gain resilience by teaching them how to better tolerate, which is not such a great word, but to manage uncertainty, to actually, it means lean into uncertainty. That’s the term I prefer.

And how are they doing that? Well, scientists, clinical psychologists, and others were developing these interventions, are now, they’re basically importing some lessons from exposure to therapy, so that makes sense. If you are fearful of uncertainty, if you’re the type who’s intolerant of surprises, you need to overprepare for the presentation, you need to pack not just your bag for the family vacation but the entire family’s bag because you don’t trust them to do it, those are kind of signs that you might be a little bit intolerant of uncertainty.

And so, trying new things, trying to, in effect, seek a little bit of surprise in your life, will show you not that it’s always the perfect solution. You might delegate at work, and it might not actually work out better every single time. But, at the same time, if you never delegate at work, you will never know the other possibilities that that person, that the hidden talents of that person shows. The person who works for you might show hidden talents when you allow them to work on that project a little more than before.

So, what you’re doing is expanding your perspectives, expanding your range of experience, and one of the ways in which clinical psychologists are now teaching people, especially people with anxiety, to get better at handling uncertainty, to stop denying and avoiding it, are tiny little things like, for instance, “Answer your cellphone without caller ID.” And that seems so simple but, at the same time, it’s just injecting a little bit of mystery.

And some scientists actually surmised that phones, because they provide instant answers all the time, and we’re checking 150 times a day, that’s what they call certainty-seeking behavior. So, some part of this is just sort of lifting up your head and kind of contending with what’s happening, not trying to control every little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. This reminds me of a recent camping trip in which we were…I don’t even remember what we’re talking about but it was some sort of factual question that could be readily Googled, and we weren’t sure, it’s like, “Oh, I think it’s this way.” “Well, no, I think it might be this because what about that?” And it was funny, we’re like, “Huh, here we are all not being quite sure about this thing,” which, on ordinary circumstances, when we had cellphone reception, someone would’ve Googled it within about five seconds, and then that would be that.

Maggie Jackson
Right. And, actually, what you were doing, by collectively or individually kind of cogitating, you were reaching into your memory, which is not something we do when we’re turned to the phone all the time. You’re actually reaching deep into your memory. And even if you don’t come up with the answer, it strengthens your brain to do so.

It’s really quite amazing but just searching around in your memory, something that we just don’t do today, is actually great for the brain. And why is that? Because, say, you’re trying to think of a painter. I’m trying madly to think of Degas, and all I can think of is Monet. And, really, if you’re looking around in your brain, internally searching, in other words, you’re looking through different knowledge networks because our minds and our experiences, they’re varied associations. They’re networked. They say they’re branching trees of knowledge.

And what you’re doing is going along those paths, and you’re saying, “Oh, well, maybe an impressionist, or I guess French,” so you’re strengthening by utilizing those synapses, you’re strengthening other areas of the brain, and that’s really great for greater wisdom. Our minds are not computers, information is not downloadable and upload-able. It’s really sort of an organic shifting thing. And that’s another reason why not knowing is really important because it kind of blows away that idea that our minds are computers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, these are fun practices. Tell me, Maggie, anymore?

Maggie Jackson
Yes. Well, I would say one very, very important practice is it involves teamwork. So, uncertainty has a social side to it. And the upshot is that, basically, one of the best fuels of collaboration is conflict, and I mean judicious, mild, respectful conflict. But study after study shows that teams and groups that have mutual criticism, conflict, dissent are better performing. They actually have deeper discussions, they’re more creative, they surface hidden information that isn’t usually discussed, etc. Now, why is that?

Well, a lot of people think that, basically, when you have a disagreement or even when you just have diversity on a team, diversity of opinions, that diverse or dissenting opinion is just giving you the right answer, but that’s not true because a dissenting opinion, even if wrong, also bolsters performance. Why is it? It’s because uncertainty has rousted you from that kind of complacency of being in agreement. And the neuroscience on that is pretty amazing. The brain in agreement is a really lazy animal, believe me.

So, basically, if you can keep cultivating disagreement, then you get on what I call uncommon ground. It’s really important to be uncertain, and then you can do a whole host of things. You’re basically finding out what the team doesn’t know, which is really important for growth. You basically deepen and intensify the discussion. Now, studies have shown this in supreme courts, in the Supreme Courts, in juries, in financial trading, even on Mount Everest.

They did studies where teams that were very diverse, had a lot of different kinds of knowledge on climbing Mount Everest, but who emphasized all for one kind of mentality, so a kind of collective mentality, actually were more likely to have a depth on the team, and that’s really serious business. So, one flexible work consultant told me a wonderful story to illustrate this.

Cali Williams Yost was at a law firm where she was helping the firm institute flexible work for the legal team. I’m sorry, it was the legal team of an energy company. So, the legal team was all set to go, the bosses were on board, they were going to work remotely part time, etc. Well, one executive stood up and said he was completely opposed, at a meeting, and there was going to be a lot of knowledge left on the table because people weren’t meeting in the morning to coffee clap, etc.

Well, the bosses were angry, and everyone was shocked, they were all set. And what Cali Williams Yost wisely told me is that, basically, he was wrong to oppose flexible work but he was right, something was missing. And so, his dissent actually sparked a younger person in the room to, later in the afternoon, stand up, and say, “Well, I can create a virtual knowledge platform, and we can go remote and still have that time to coffee clap, so to speak.” So, that’s a perfect example of how dissent threw everyone into uncertainty, and then they were able to actually kind of find a third way to meet the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny how, as I imagine that scene, the emotional reaction is just as you’ve described, it’s like folks are annoyed, like, “Oh, come on, man. Just, like, shut up and get in line. We’re almost done. Why you gotta be difficult and cause problems, and not be a team player?” Like, all of these negative associations. And yet, it really is an asset to have folks who have unique perspective and the courage to share it and go against the grain, it really does enrich the whole team, and yet so rarely do we say, “Thank you, dear colleague, for disagreeing with all of us. This is very helpful.”

Maggie Jackson
Oh, you’re so right. And you put it so well, and I’m so glad you used that word courage because I was just thinking of a quote by William James, a great psychology philosopher in the 19th century, who talked about the courage of a maybe. He basically talked about how no human achievement can be created without the “courage of a maybe.” And that’s exactly what’s happening.

I think one tip for people who want to try this, and I would advise, throw in a no, a gentle no, or maybe just a maybe. And what you’re doing with the word maybe is actually using something called hedge words. And so, those are really, really important. Hedge words are maybe, sometimes, those sorts of words, as opposed to more…there’s no alternative word for hedge words, but anyhow, non-hedge words, which are, “You’re wrong,” or, “Therefore.” Those are not hedge words.

And what hedge words do is signal your receptiveness to another opinion. They also signal that there’s something that’s not known. So, if you say, “Maybe we should consider something,” or, “Maybe we haven’t thought of…” etc., you’re actually smoothing the way for others to pick up on that. And it’s a wonderful kind of linguistic flag that you’re waving, saying, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be so sure,” and that’s where then the disagreement can be fueled, and the uncertainty. And then people can be in the space of uncommon ground, and then go deeper and explore multiple perspectives.

Another study I really loved, which brings this all to life, was basically a CEO who’s in Europe, a few years ago when the European Union was being widely expanded, so quite a bit of Eastern Europe was being inducted into the EU. And so, it was a time of great unknowns for business leaders on that continent. And so, two professors, one in Germany, one in the US, went and studied German CEOs for an entire year, and they asked them whether they’re for this expansion or were they against it, and what would happen, was it good for their company or was it bad for their company.

Well, when they got the results back, they found this third group. To their surprise, 25% or more of the CEOs were ambivalent, they didn’t really know, “Well, we’re not really sure this is going to expand the markets. Is it going to take our customers away? We’re not sure.” And it’s amazing to me that the professors were surprised.

Well, a year later, fast forward, the result was the people who were sure that it would be either good for their company or bad for their company, basically didn’t do very much. Those who were ambivalent were more resourceful, they came up with more products, they opened new factories, they actually were more inclusive, they asked for different opinions. They weren’t sure so that propelled them to do more.

And I think there was an award-winning study, and it just perfectly underscores not just what we’re talking about, about dissent, but also about the power of uncertainty. And it certainly is an overlooked unsung power.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that a lot. They’re not sure and, thusly, they do more. They’re not sure, so it was like, “Uh-oh, I don’t know so I better hustle. I better figure it out and do the research, do the work, do the investigation, talk to people, and get the info.” And this reminds me of, I don’t know if this has been coined somewhere before, but I might’ve made this up. I call it second time syndrome.

Like, the second time you do something, you might get worse results than the first time because you’re more confident, like, “Oh, I know how this goes,” versus the first time, you’re like, “Oh, boy, I’m a little scared, a little intimidated, a little overwhelmed. I better really hustle and figure this out.” Like, I remember, I was, at one point, a leadership seminar chair, or HOBY daddy for these HOBY, Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership event, so there’s a bunch of folks assembled for a three-day thing, and I’m kind of like the guy in charge of everything.

And so, the first time, I was like, “Wow, this is intimidating. I really want to make sure I’m on top of everything,” and it went very well. And the second time, I thought, “Oh, we got this. It’s fine.” And it was still good but it was not as excellent as the first one. I could see this event now years later. And it’s because I was more certain and more comfortable and less effortful the second time around.

Maggie Jackson
I think that’s so true and that’s such a good point. Because uncertainty, and confronting something new, is actually putting you at the edge of your knowledge, and that’s exactly when we want to retreat. There’s a term called the routine expert. The routine expert is someone, we’ve seen it everywhere. We see it in medicine. We see it in accounting. We see it in reporting. I’m a journalist. But people who have accrued years of experience, they’re really good at what they do, but everything has become routine. They have this sort of honed automaticity, so the heuristic thinking, “Chest pain equals heart attack” that is predominant.

But when the routine expert hits something that’s really new, they just retreat into the same old solutions, and they’re then not doing well. They fail. Whereas, adaptive experts are the people who can utilize that uncertainty, to do the kind of deliberative work, and also to be flexible about using their knowledge. And so, adaptive experts are nimble. And that’s exactly what we want.

When something goes wrong in the operating room, I witnessed multiple operations up in Toronto while researching this book, and one of the senior surgeons who epitomizes our ideal of the expert, he was quick, he was sure, really sure, well, he then, in a moment, in a terrifying moment in the operating room, he thought he had done something nearly lethal to the patient during a liver operation. Everything fell silent, there was sweat on his cap.

Well, he was just too sure. He carried his certainty into that operation like a badge of honor. And then he was able to, “It was not a lethal error,” but, at the same time, he epitomizes what we loved in experts. And we really are venerating the wrong type of experts. What we want to really emulate and respect the people who ask the questions, the people who say, “I don’t know,” whether it’s medicine or not, and the leaders who are willing to pause and deliberate.

And other study shows that those leaders, who when confronting a new problem, actually, are deemed in experimental studies anyhow as being less influential. But we’ve got it all wrong. We’ve got it all wrong. We need to be really promoting people who ask questions, who don’t mind hesitating for productive uses, who don’t mind being unsure.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s beautiful. Indeed, we tend to favor, like, trust the confident-sounding voice but there are studies that reveal that there is almost no correlation between the confidence someone exerts and how right or good they are at the thing, so that’s dangerous and some ways it’s like we’d be better off if we trusted or valued more the nuanced person, it’s like, “Well, you know, under these circumstances, it’s probably best for A, but, however, given the variables X, Y, Z, I’m leaning towards B.”

Like, that doesn’t sound as commanding and inspiring, like, “Yes, you know what you’re doing. I’ll follow you unto death” That doesn’t give you the that emotional charge. And yet, it’s likely much closer to true, and there’s much higher probability, it seems, of finding great wisdom there worth following.

Maggie Jackson
Exactly. Adaptive wisdom, the kind of person who sees the world as it is, not as they wish it to be or assume it to be. And that takes time, it takes effort, it takes unease, etc. but it’s really important that we change our views on what a leader is, that we change our views on what a student or a pundit or a presidential candidate is, because the cost of our certainty are certainly rising, and we can see it everywhere in terms of the polarization, narrowmindedness, etc., the anxiety levels.

I see that uncertainty, if we begin to understand it, to study it, to learn how to use it skillfully, can really change humanity, and give me great hope. They’re even trying to, there’s a movement by leaders in AI today to instill uncertainty in models, in robots, that is to make AI unsure. Now, there is some uncertainty in a robot. It couldn’t traverse the factory floor without some degree of being open to what’s unpredictable in its environment.

But what they’re trying to do, and this is picking up steam, and it’s really quite important, is to make on a robot that’s unsure in its aims. So, say, you have a housekeeper robot, and it’s fetching your coffee, well, today’s AI is built to carry out a task because the rationalist’s definition of intelligence is fulfilling your goals no matter what. And, therefore, that’s both the danger and the wisdom of today’s AI.

Well, an unsure robot, and what I call the “I don’t know” robot, will actually ask you how you want your coffee, or which room across the kitchen, or, “Do you want something?” It’s teachable and it’s more honest. It’s not just doing what it was initially programmed to do. It’s more flexible. And in that very vision of “I don’t know” robot, we can see something a little bit that we should be striving for, too.

Pete Mockaitis
The quote that comes to mind thinking about these notions of certainty is this quote, I come back to it again and again, I just got to have him on the show. Robert Rubin said, “Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.” And I can totally relate, it’s like, “Are you sure?” And I think about all these scenarios when the experts tell me the opposite of each other, and they do so very confidently.

Like, roofers. You get multiple bids on a roof project, it’s like, “Wow, that guy said we had to tear it off, and the other guy said we could just put another layer on. And they were both very sure. And they’re the roof experts, and I’m not. What the heck am I supposed to do here?” And I think that if most of us took the time to solicit multiple perspectives from multiple angles, we would see a lot of that, “Wow, these people are very certain of the exact opposite thing. Well, now I have to do some hard thinking.”

Maggie Jackson
Exactly. And we think of uncertainty as being sort of lost, adrift, etc., some of the metaphors used with uncertainty or lostness and wandering, etc., but it’s a form of exploration. It’s kind of a wonderful way to buy time, in a sense, so that you can explore the possibilities and uncover the complexities that are already there.

You’re not creating complexities when you do a little bit more pondering. You’re actually uncovering what’s already there. And it’s not that it’s an endless kind of pursuit but it has its place, and we haven’t given enough due to being unsure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Maggie, tell me, any final things you want to share before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Maggie Jackson
No, I think we covered a lot of great ground.

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

Maggie Jackson
Yeah, it’s actually a quote from my book, and there are many but I’ll start the quote, “’I know’ seems to describe a state of affairs which guarantees what is known, guarantees it as a fact. One always forgets the expression, ‘I thought I knew.’” That’s Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher.

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

Maggie Jackson
Well, there are lots. Yeah, I’ll tell one little one. And you probably heard of the candle problem. This was a psychological experiment developed in the 1920s in which people were asked to tack a candle to the wall using just a box of matches, some thumbtacks, and then just the candle. Well, people made a real mess of it, and they tried to melt the candle, glue it to the wall, etc.

Well, the answer lies in making a platform out of the matchbox. But the point of this story is that people only see what an object is meant to do, not what it can do, because they’re so sure that matchboxes are there just to hold the matches. They cannot see any further. And what’s wonderful about this study is that if you take a bunch of five-year-olds and give them a similar study, but without the matches, with toys on a shelf, the five-year-olds don’t have any problem with this. Their knowledge doesn’t get in their way of their problem-solving.

Whereas, at age seven and up, they’re beginning to act like adults. They only see what it’s made to do. They don’t ask what it can do. And that’s a miniature example of the beauty of being unsure. And uncertainty is basically another word for open-mindedness.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Maggie Jackson
I would have to say Pride and Prejudice, kind of an old classic but it’s really about two people, Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, whose certainty got in the way of their love. And, finally, when they were a little bit less sure, they were able to get together and understand one another despite their differences. I already loved that book before I became an uncertainty junkie, so to speak. But now I kind of see it through the prism of uncertainty.

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

Maggie Jackson
It definitely has to be just plain old paper pad. I’m completely adoring of the technology of paper. By writing, I don’t write everything in the longhand, but I do drafts of what I work on that I call sketches, literally, because I can draw arrows and make circles out of what it is. It’s all over the map. And I find that, by putting something immediately onto a computer, I’m forcing my thoughts onto the template of another person’s design. And so, I find that the legal pads, I go through so many, and they’ve been a huge help to me in my writing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Maggie Jackson
Well, in order to get in the focus that I need, there’s a kind of boundary-making, focuses literally a boundary-making, a type of attention that creates boundaries around what you want to be doing, I use alarm clocks and I use distance from my phone. So, if I really have to concentrate, I’ll put my phone on another level of my office, downstairs, basically. If I’m able to take a phone call, it’ll be nearer to me, but it changes how you think, etc. So, I really curate where the phone is.

I also use alarm clocks. So, if I have an appointment in an hour, I’ll put the alarm clock on, and then I don’t have to spend my mental resources thinking about when I have to do this. I then am able to drift off, inhabit the uncertainty, focus on what I need to do, and completely within the new you of what I need to think about.

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

Maggie Jackson
I’d say that the quote from my book that resonates most with people is “Uncertainty is unsettling, and that is its gift.”

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

Maggie Jackson
I would say my website would be a great one to stop and shop. I’m also on Twitter, LinkedIn, but the website is a great resource for my articles, my events, etc., what’s going on with my books.

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

Maggie Jackson
I think that if you realized that at any one moment you might not know, you’ll be giving yourself the power of an open mind.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maggie, this has been a treat. Well, Maggie, thank you for this. I wish you much fun uncertainty in the years to come.

Maggie Jackson
Thank you, Pete. It’s been a pleasure. You, too.

876: How to Present Like the Pros with Michael J. Gelb

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Michael J. Gelb on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast

Michael J. Gelb shows you how to shape your message so that your audience—big or small, in person or virtual—will care about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three questions you need to ask before every presentation.
  2. How to align your message with your body language.
  3. How to channel your anxiety into your performance.

About Michael

Michael J. Gelb is the world’s leading authority on the application of genius thinking to personal and organizational development.  He is the author of 17 books including How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Innovate Like Edison and Discover Your Genius.  Michael’s books have been translated into 25 languages and have sold more than one million copies. His new book is Mastering the Art of Public Speaking: 8 Secrets to Overcome Fear and Supercharge Your Career.

Resources Mentioned

Michael J. Gelb Interview Transcript

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

Michael J. Gelb
Thank you so much. Great to be with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into your wisdom about mastering the art of public speaking but, first, we got to hear about your juggling experience and performing with The Rolling Stones. What’s the scoop here?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, I worked my way through graduate school as a professional juggler. I used to do children’s parties, I would perform on the streets outside Harvard Square and in London Portobello Road. I worked at a few nightclubs as a juggler. And one day, I was in Hyde Park in London practicing with my juggling partner who used to be the head of Reuters. He was the science editor for Reuters for Europe.

And we were just minding our business juggling in Hyde Park, and a gentleman approached us, and he said, “I’m the tour manager for The Rolling Stones. Their concert tour theme is carnival. We need jugglers. We’ll pay you £50 each if you can come to Earls Court Theater tonight and juggle in between sets with Mick and the Stones.”

So, yeah, we did that and then that went well, so we got invited to the Knebworth Rock Festival where we juggled on a stage shaped like Mick Jagger’s mouth in front of an audience of more than 100,000 people.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that is cool. So, what I love about that is that when you’re juggling, your skills are on full display, like it’s clear, like, “Hey, we need you…”

Michael J. Gelb
Or your lack thereof, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
The Rolling Stones manager was like, “Hey, we need jugglers. I can clearly see they are capable of juggling, therefore, come on down.”

Michael J. Gelb
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
That is beautiful. Well, I’ve always had trouble with juggling. Any pro tips for folks getting started?

Michael J. Gelb
Yeah. So, I taught myself to juggle because my original teacher was a brilliant juggler but he didn’t know how to teach. So, he told me, “Take these three balls. Throw them up. Don’t let any of them drop.” So, unfortunately, many of us get turned off from all kinds of activities because we’re told, “Learn this but don’t make mistakes.” And that seemed crazy to me, so I said, “There has to be a better way.”

And I figured, “What if we just started with one ball and got comfortable tossing one ball? And then attempted two but let the balls drop so we could focus just on the throw. And then throw three, let them drop.” And once you get them flowing out of your hands in the right rhythm and pattern, it’s actually quite effortless. They start landing in your hands, and before you know it, you’re juggling. So, the secret is to focus on the throw, start with one ball, work your way up, and have fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, we know. See, that’s a freebie. We didn’t know we were covering that because we’re talking public speaking. So, you had an earlier version of a book on public speaking over 30 years ago. Tell us, what are some of the lessons that takes 30 years to learn about speaking that you can give us a shortcut for right now?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, they’re really actually pretty simple. The simplest one is to actually know what you’re talking about because people come up to me, and say, “Oh, I want to be a public speaker.” Well, what’s your message? What do you have to tell us? What interesting life experience have you had? What stories do you have to share? What wisdom have you gained and accrued that you will put forth in your presentation? So, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of having something valuable to say.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that sounds like, “Well, but of course.” But, really, though, I think that’s a powerful point that it’s easy to rush past, yet I think if we really stop and validate, there are many circumstances in which we don’t have something valuable to say, or, like, “Hey, there’s always a weekly staff meeting. That’s just what we do on the Mondays. Okay, and someone needs to present about this.”

So, I think that’s one context in which people speak without having something to say comes up. And I also think that sometimes speaking is not the best modality for conveying a thing, it’s like, “Hey, just write an email or send me a link to the cool TED Talk that does this better than you were going to say.” So, yeah, I think it’s worth lingering there a little bit. Tell us, how do we validate whether we got something worth saying and what might be some alternatives we should use instead?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, the key is to, then, marry what it is you think you have to say, what is your message, with an audience because, ultimately, the meaning of your communication is a function of the response you get from a given audience. So, who are you speaking to and why are you speaking to them? What is the purpose of your presentation? And I guide people before they give any kind of presentation.

And you’re right, it could be a staff meeting, it could be in an informal presentation, or it could be your big TED Talk, or a paid speech. Whatever it happens to be, I guide people to actually write down their objectives for each presentation in terms of, “What specifically do you want the audience to know? How do you want them to feel? And what do you want them to do as a result of your presentation?”

And the further guidance on the objectives, “know, feel, do” is, of course, to keep it simple, speaker. That’s my evolved version of KISS, the KISS principle, “Keep it simple, speaker.” So, simplify your message. Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, not simpler.” I call it optimal simplicity. Write down what do you want the audience to know, what do you want them to be able to remember.

So, for example, if this were a presentation on public speaking, one thing I want everybody on my presentation on public speaking to understand is, before your presentation, think about what you want the audience to know. Write it down. The second one is tricky. It’s how do you want them to feel. And this one is often lost in business presentations because we think it’s just about the facts or the ideas or the data, but people buy on emotion and they justify with fact.

So, it’s important to tune into the human quality in the interaction. It’s not just an exchange of data. If it was, you could just read it. It’s why we like live presentation with real human beings. It’s why people still, thank God, pay professional speakers to travel around the world and go give live speeches. You can watch what I say on video but people like it better when it’s spontaneous, real interaction, because of the emotional element. So, how do you want them to feel? And then, obviously, what do you want them to do?

Maybe it’s a sales presentation so you want them to buy something, for example. In a lot of staff meetings, maybe it’s just you want people to leave you alone, but you need to know specifically what’s your objective because when you know your message, when you know what you’re talking about, when you’ve done your homework, when you’ve done the preparation, you know who the audience is, you know what you want to tell them, you know why you want to tell it to them, how you want them to feel, what you want them to do as a result of the presentation, that organizes everything such that, well, one of my favorite sayings, “Everybody gets butterflies in the stomach before presenting,” but that’s how you get the butterflies to fly in formation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, what do I want the audience to know, what do I want them to feel, and what do I want them to do. Can you give us an example of clear articulations of that? Because I think we can maybe be shallow, it’s like, “Oh, I want them to know my product is awesome, I want them to feel kind of excited about it, and I want them to buy it.” Is that detailed enough?

Michael J. Gelb
No. No.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Michael J. Gelb
But you did a great imitation of a sort of generic, “Ooh, my product is awesome.” It would be good to have that degree of enthusiasm because one of the other huge points is people are always reading your energy, they’re reading your body language, they’re looking to see if there’s any discrepancy between what you’re saying, and your voice tonality, your facial expression, the way you look at them, your gestures. I call it body message synchrony, which is why it’s a really good idea to actually be aligned with and believe in whatever it is you are doing because it’s much easier to have that alignment happen naturally.

Pete Mockaitis
But to the point about synchrony, I think this evaluation that we’re doing, I agree that we’re doing it. I think, in my experience, I think we’re often doing it unconsciously or subconsciously and not so much, like, ticking the boxes with a close conscientious evaluation but rather you just get a vibe, like, “Eh, I’m kind of bored,” or, “Eh, there’s something a little off about this guy, and I don’t really care to dig in. And I don’t know if I trust him. I don’t think he would just straight up lie to me but something feels off here, and I’m just maybe going to tune out.”

Michael J. Gelb
Yes. Well, you’re exactly right. Most people just experience this without being aware of what it is specifically that is the discrepancy. Whereas, I can usually watch somebody and see what the discrepancy is. There’s an old Chinese saying, “Beware of the man whose belly does not move when he laughs.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is a creepy vibe, I will admit.

Michael J. Gelb
Yes, I’m good at that. But coming back to what you said earlier, so it’s not just good enough to say, “Well, gee, I want to tell them my product is awesome.” You probably want to think about what is your unique selling point, what is the specific advantage. Most importantly, what is the need that your product is going to meet that the audience actually has? And then, how can you help them feel that, oh, you’re here to help them?

I’m a big advocate of helping other people, that that’s how to have a successful happy life, that’s how to be a great presenter is, I’m genuinely interested. I want to help people. I’ve always made my living with that principle. There are plenty of people who find ways to make a living by doing other things, by focusing on pandering to people’s addictions and their fears and their anxieties. But if there’s an underlying ethical underpinning to how I teach presentation, it’s present something that will make the world a better place.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we were in the example of selling something for what the knowing, feeling, and doing. It sounds like in a shallow version versus a bit more detailed. Can you give us another common case situation and what a robust articulation of what I want my audience to know, feel, and do sounds like?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, I’m working on a presentation right now, so rather than just telling you about something from the past. I’m working on a presentation for next week, and it’s a five-day seminar. And I am actually going through the whole week each day what I want the audience to know, feel, and do. And then I’m attempting to simplify the whole thing, and this is another point, a takeaway for people, which is I’m going to tell them, right up front on Monday morning at 9:00 o’clock, what it is they’re going to get through the course of the whole five days.

And I’ve been working on a way to codify it in a simple as possible and as memorable as possible a fashion, and I’m going to actually have them do a physical movement that represents each of the five essential things I want them to get in the course of the week. I’m going to introduce that right at the beginning of the week. I’m going to be reinforcing those five points throughout the course of the week. And guess what the last thing we’re going to do is? We’re going to review it again.

So, I’m confident that people will actually, not only understand what I teach them, and this is another critical point for presenting, because it’s easy for people to understand what you’re saying but will they remember it? And if you really want to be a great presenter, you not only get through to people, and they go, “Oh, yeah. Oh, wow, that’s cool. Oh, I didn’t see it that way,” but they also remember it, ideally, for many years to come.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that sounds swell. So, then, in your specific instance here with the five-day situation, could you give us your articulation of the knowing, feeling, and doing?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, it might take a little while because I have to explain to you, I’m teaching something that’s a little bit off the beaten path of everyday business discourse, and it may not immediately directly relate. This is a Tai Chi Qi Gong seminar.

Pete Mockaitis
We got a Tai Chi seminar, and what do I want them to know, what do I want them to feel, what do I want them to do?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, so I’m teaching something called the five animal frolics.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. It sounds like a good time.

Michael J. Gelb
It’s really cool. I’m going to start by asking people, “Do you like animals?” And they’re all going to say, “Yes.” I say, “Do you like to frolic?” And they’ll say, “Yes, we do.” And I say, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.” And actually, the truth is, because it’s not just a talk, it’s a seminar, there’s a very important element, which is that I’ve learned over years of practical experience, which is it’s always important to connect with the audience first before you try to influence them or get into what you want them to know, feel, and do.

What you want them to feel is comfortable and happy and filled with anticipation and excitement, and you want them to know that they came to the right place by paying money to sign up for your seminar or your presentation, whatever it happens to be. So, I came up with, I was just working on this today when I went for my walk, “What’s the perfect way to get people to feel comfortable, to open up and start to get to know each other, that fits in with the theme of the course? It’s the five animal frolics.”

So, the five animals are the bear, the crane, like the heron, the deer, the monkey, and the tiger. So, I’m going to put the five animals, and I’ve created fabulous graphics for this and images of all of them, and I have poetry associated with each one of them, and music, not to mention the actual movements from the ancient Chinese lineage.

But what I’m going to do is just put the five animals on the board and I’m going to say, “Rank choice voting, describe yourself in terms of these five animals which is most like you, which is second most like you, third, fourth. And then we’re going to talk to everybody and tell everybody, first, one-to-one, and then small groups, and then altogether, who you are in terms of your five-animal ranking of yourself.

So, it’s a disarming, fun, playful way that will engage people with the content of the course. Because what I want them to know at the end of the course is what are the energetic qualities of these five animals and how can you access them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s what we want them to know. And what do we want them to feel?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, what I want them to feel, I actually want them to feel the quality of the bear, and to feel the quality of the crane, and to feel the quality of the deer, the monkey, and the tiger.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, this sounds like a fun time. I kind of want to be there.

Michael J. Gelb
Oh, it’s going to be awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess what they’ll do is just the actual bodily motions that you’re describing.

Michael J. Gelb
What I want them to do though is actually practice it. I’m not trying to sell them something. I’m not trying to do this so that they’ll buy something from me or hire me. I just want to give them the best possible experience, but part of what will be the measure of that is people will actually practice the five animals. And a lot of these people are advanced Tai Chi practitioners, so I have another thought in mind for them in terms of what I want them to do, which is to see how the animals play into their Tai Chi form and how it can empower the practice of their Tai Chi form.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. All right. So, there we go, knowing, feeling, doing in that context. There we go. Well, so there’s so much good stuff in the book. I’m curious to hear a bit about the mind maps helping us communicate better. I am not much of a mind mapper myself, so, please enlighten me.

Michael J. Gelb
Well, it’s just a whole brain way to generate your ideas for any presentation. And, most importantly, for many people, it helps you remember what you’re going to say. So, it’s one thing to creatively generate it using keywords and images. That’s the essence of a mind map, is you’re expressing your ideas in images and keywords, and you’re generating the ideas first before you organize them. So, initially, it’s kind of messy because most people slow themselves down and limit their creativity because they try to organize their ideas before they generate them.

So, somebody sitting down to give a presentation will say, “Oh, what should I do, say, first?” That’s not the way to start. Don’t worry about what to do first. Just what might you say? Who’s there? What do you know about this? What’s the topic? What stories do you have? So, just put it all out in a non-linear fashion to start with. Then the coolest thing happens when you do it first in this creative free-flowing non-linear way. You step back and then you say, “What would be a good order to present this in?” And it just becomes apparent. It organizes itself.

Then you redo your mind map so it’s in clockwise rotation, and then you make an image and a keyword to go with each branch of the map. And images and keywords are way easier to remember than outlines or paragraphs or sentences.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, it’s funny, as I was imagining, “Hey, I want to say a bunch of stuff.” So, one, I have poor handwriting and drawing skills, and type fast, so I tend to jump, which is lean digital in a lot of ways here. So, when you talked about just putting all the things out there in their natural organization, I was imagining using my shortcuts to move it up a line, down a line, but what you said toward the end is that, “Okay, we got the sequence of things.” But in having a circle rotation with the keyword and image, we have engaged the brain in such a way that it’s easier to remember the sequence of things we’re going to say.

Michael J. Gelb
That is correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. And so, I heard a tip, to rotate your portrait landscape piece of paper, landscape over your mind map.

Michael J. Gelb
Oh, landscape. So, mind map, the classical way to do it, which I still do myself and I recommend to all my students, is landscape not portrait because it’s easier to spread out and go in different directions. Start with an image in the center even if you think you can’t draw because it will engage the imaginative pictorial part of your mind. And then print keywords and other images as they arise, put them on lines. The reason to print them is so you can read your own writing because when you start to really get into this, the images and ideas start to flow, and it’s easy for it to get so messy that you can’t read it

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. All right. So, we got a real thing to say, we got clarity on what I want the audience to know, feel, and do, we’ve got it nicely mind-mapped, so we’ve got a masterplan, and we’re not going to forget it. So, I’d love to get your perspective in terms of when you’re actually up in there with the audience, what are some of the best ways to really establish a connection so that you’re vibing together real time?

Michael J. Gelb
Yes. Well, it’s to genuinely care about your audience and care about your message. People sense if you’re genuine. So, that’s one really fundamental element. The other is to put in your time to prepare, to rehearse. A lot of people just go out and try to give their presentation for the first time in front of a live audience, so you’re not used to saying the words, you’re not used to telling the stories.

So, you met my wife, Debra, before, and whenever I’m getting ready to do a presentation, I give it to her multiple times. I tell her, “Wait.” We just went for a walk. I actually gave her the five-animal frolics presentation so that I can practice what it’s like to just say this to another person so it’s not happening for the first time.

And if you rehearse, your rehearsal is the time to make lots of mistakes and to anticipate the needs of the audience in terms of potentially awkward questions you might get. Whereas, if the first time you ever get the awkward question is live in front of the audience, it might throw you off. Now, having said that, there’s a lot of suggestions in the book, in Mastering the Art of Public Speaking on how to get your system aligned so that you won’t freak out if something unexpected happens but you have to practice those before you get up there, too.

If you’re not practicing the things that are in the book, and somebody blindsides you or just ask something that’s challenging, or difficult, or that you didn’t expect, or that you just don’t know, we’ve all seen people get embarrassed and have very difficult experiences, which is why public speaking is the number one fear of the American public.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what is the procedure by which you prep for the unexpected? One thing that I’ve found does loads for my own confidence is just imagining worst-case scenarios and questions from hell that I really don’t want to get, and then just preparing for all those. And then I just feel like I can’t think of anything that was not going to work, so it’s like, “Oh, what if they don’t have…?”

I remember when I did a lot more keynotes, I would have a Mac, and I just love the look of terror in their eyes, like, when they would say, “Do you have the adaptor?” I was like, “Yes, I have the adaptor.”

Michael J. Gelb
I always make them bring their own computer, I say, “You provide the computer, you set it up. I will send you everything way in advance. You get it set up. I’ll come in the night before. I’ll go over the whole thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. That’s good. I found that they have a hard time with my custom fonts, and then they’re like, “I can’t make them go,” or, “I have a different version of PowerPoint or Keynote, and then it didn’t translate.” It’s like they’re not up to it, they’re not up to the task of getting it on their computers successfully.

Michael J. Gelb
Well, speaking of computers and preparation rehearsal, I got to tell you, here’s another very recent real-life story about why it’s so important. So, a couple months ago, I was invited to speak at a conference in Trinidad, sponsored by the biggest company in Trinidad and their business school. And they also invited the co-author of my book The Healing Organization, Professor Raj Sisodia.

So, Raj was supposed to speak and I was supposed to speak on the same day. So, I said to Raj, “Let’s make sure we get there the afternoon before, and just go through our presentations together because I want to make sure that they’ve got it working,” and, as you know, the fonts sometimes come out differently because of their system or what, so you want to go through it, make sure the clicker works, check the light. You check everything well beforehand so you can make changes if you need to.

So, it turns out that they had basically said to Raj, “We want you to speak about The Healing Organization,” that’s the name of our book, and they said to me, “We want you to speak about The Healing Organization.” So, Raj and I had prepared pretty much the same presentation almost with the same slides. So, if we hadn’t met and reviewed this, now the truth is I would’ve been able to improvise. If he went first, and I suddenly saw he had done everything that I was going to do, I can improvise, this is a professional thing, is don’t be dependent on anything. If the audio/visuals fail, if your PowerPoint doesn’t work, you’re ready to rock and roll no matter what.

So, sure enough, we see we have the same slides, we were going to do a lot of the stuff in the same order, so, obviously, I said to Raj, “Let’s change this up. What would you most like to do about this?” So, he said what he wanted to do. I said, “Okay, you go first and do all that in the morning, and then, at the end of the day…” So, we changed places, we had to get the staff to buy into sending out a message explaining that they were changing the order of the speakers at the last moment.

We got them to buy in. And then Raj went first, he gave his presentation, I re-ordered all my slides, I referred back to how he started the day. That’s another thing when you’re presenting with other people. You always make them look good. You always highlight the brilliance of what they said. You share it again because we have a much happier, more beautiful world, plus Raj happens to be an incredibly brilliant guy, so it was easy for me to do that.

And then the audience goes, “Oh, yeah, I remember that this morning.” And so, they’re getting more depth of connection with what he said, and then I’m using that as a launching point for the next point that I want to tell them. And one of the things I wanted them to do is invite us back, which they already have.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. Success.

Michael J. Gelb
Yeah.

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

Michael J. Gelb
Anything you want to know, it’s about you and the audience. I’m here to share anything you might want to know.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, tell us, do you have any super tricks for overcoming the fear?

Michael J. Gelb
Yeah, the two most important ones, one is to actually be prepared and know what you’re talking about and know what your objectives are. When you know why you’re doing something and you have stories to tell, almost everybody speaks naturally and freely and openly. They don’t say uhm and ahh and you know if they’re telling a story. So, figure out what your story is, why you’re telling it, that will help tremendously.

The other thing is why do I teach all this Tai Chi and Qi Gong and Alexander technique, because your physical presence and your energy on the stage makes a huge difference to the audience but also to you. So, if you have done a preparatory energy-harmonizing practice, and there are lots of them in the book, the most effective ones that I have learned in 50 years of being a professional speaker, they’re in the book.

So, if you do any, find which ones works best for you. I try to give people options. One of the simplest ones, because you’re nervous, you’re anxious, the adrenaline is starting to flow, just do some exercise, do jumping jacks, just do some shadow boxing, do something that gets your energy moving rather than just sitting there, as people do, waiting for their turn to speak. It’s like waiting to go to the gallows for a lot of people.

So, their body, their energy is stuck. It’s the fear pattern of stress, and, “What happens if this goes wrong?” and all the adrenaline. And then they’re getting cotton mouth, and they feel like they’re having trouble breathing. I’m laughing only because it’s so easy to solve this. Don’t sit there and stew in your own stress hormones. Get up and move. And then I give all kinds of options. The most sophisticated, which comes from the Alexander technique and Tai Chi and Qi Gong.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us a tidbit from the Alexander technique?

Michael J. Gelb
Sure. So, Alexander was a professional presenter. He was a Shakespearean actor. And he probably was losing this voice in the middle of presentations, so he came up with a methodology to free himself from this pattern, became famous on the stage, and, ultimately, became even more famous for teaching this method to other actors and singers. It’s still taught today at The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Drama, the Royal Academy of Music. It’s like a trade secret of the theatrical profession.

And the simplest practice from the Alexander technique is to, you can do this, you can just stand in front of a mirror, and be as upright as you can be, and smile, and then let go of everything you don’t need to stand there, and stay standing.

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

Michael J. Gelb
One of my favorite quotes is from the young Leonardo da Vinci who said, “I wish to work miracles.”

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

Michael J. Gelb
I tell you, my favorite study related to presenting is a study that was done with inmates at Rahway State Prison, and they asked muggers in the prison to look at videos of people walking down the street, and say who they would mug. And the muggers said that they would mug anybody who looked out of it, who wasn’t paying attention, who looked weak, they would attack.

Interestingly, anybody who looked kind of arrogant, they wanted to attack. People who looked balanced, poised, and present, the muggers said, “I just wouldn’t bother that person. There are too many easier targets.” And the lesson is when you walk on stage, don’t be mug-able.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good lesson. And so, it didn’t have anything to do with them looking rich, like, “Ooh, they got the expensive sneakers, or they…”?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, the thing is if you’re rich and you’re not paying attention…

Pete Mockaitis
Double whammy, okay.

Michael J. Gelb
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I got you. And a favorite book?

Michael J. Gelb
Favorite book. Well, there are lots of them but my seminal book that inspired me was, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

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

Michael J. Gelb
Oh, my favorite tool is the juggling ball.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, do you squeeze it or what do you do with it when you’re just working?

Michael J. Gelb
Well, juggle it, and then I also, see, I juggle them. I have them everywhere. See, I have this one. Can you see what it says on it?

Pete Mockaitis
IBM.

Michael J. Gelb
Because I taught a thousand IBM engineers how to juggle.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Michael J. Gelb
And so, I kept my IBM juggling ball. I have all sorts of corporate juggling balls all over my office. But actually, I juggle them as well as using them as wrist flexibility and strengthening gadgets.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Michael J. Gelb
Favorite habit. Well, I suppose this is a habit, is walking. I go for a walk. Walking, obviously, I walked into my office to talk to you, but I made it pretty much, we could call it a ritual, maybe a habit to go for a walk in the beautiful around the ponds and through the trees. I’ve done two so far today. I may do one more, possibly two.

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

Michael J. Gelb
Well, what people quote back to me most often is that it’s really because they’ve read How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, which is my most well-known book, is that they quote back to me, and say, “Da Vinci was always my inspiration, and thank you for bringing him to life for me.”

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

Michael J. Gelb
MichaelGelb.com. G-E-L-B, MichaelGelb.com.

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

Michael J. Gelb
The call to action and the final thought is take every opportunity to present. You have to practice. So, think of yourself as a professional presenter. Even if you’re not going to do it for money, eventually, you’re going to keep your job, I think it’s actually the number one thing you can do beyond your technical expertise to strengthen your long-term career prospects and be awesome at your job.

Because if somebody else is technically competent, and you’re technically competent, the person who’s better able to speak to people and get a powerful message across is the one who’s going to be that much more awesome at their job, and have that much greater career prospect.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun amidst your animal frolicking.

Michael J. Gelb
Thanks so much. My pleasure.