Tag

Thinking Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

584: How Curiosity Can Help You Reinvent Your Career and Stand Out with Francesca Gino

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Harvard professor Francesca Gino discusses why we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and nurture our curiosity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset shift that leads to great innovation
  2. Why our fear of judgment is often overblown
  3. How to resolve conflict peacefully with curiosity

 

About Francesca

Francesca Gino is an award-winning researcher who focuses on why people make the decisions they do at work, and how leaders and employees have more productive, creative and fulfilling lives. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School and the author, most recently, of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and Life. Gino is also affiliated with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the Behavioral Insight Group at Harvard Kennedy School.

Gino has been honored as one of the world’s Top 40 Business Professors under 40 and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers 50. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Pitney Bowes. Simplify your shipping while saving money. Get a free 30-day trial and 10-lb shipping scale at pb.com/AWESOME

Francesca Gino Interview Transcript

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

Francesca Gino
It’s awesome to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m thrilled to be chatting. And, first, I need to hear a little bit about your motorcycle racing hobby. I don’t hear too many Harvard professors racing motorcycles, or maybe there’s a bunch of you.

Francesca Gino
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us, what’s your story?

Francesca Gino
I actually thought that you were going to say, “I often don’t hear of moms with four small children.” So, they contributed a little bit of putting the hobby to the side since they are still quite small, but we’ll get back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you’re racing, it’s not just riding them but you’re actually going trying to beat opponents with speed. What’s the story?

Francesca Gino
Yeah. So, I think I grew up in a family where the Sunday afternoon activity was sitting on the couch watching races, whether it was MotoGP or any type of races with my dad and brother. And so, I think that that stayed in my blood a little bit. And growing up in a small town in northern Italy, where you have a lot of freedom, so I had friends who were older than me and I started using their scooters and motorcycles much earlier than, I should say, before having the proper driving license for them. Maybe this is not a good start. I’m already saying about rule-breaking right off the start.

Pete Mockaitis
No, we want it more exactly. sometimes I try to force a segue between the “getting to know you” part and the “your expertise” part, and this makes it easy. So, yeah, that’s all we need…

Francesca Gino
Exactly. How do you study what you study.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s totally rebellious. So, you’re breaking rules. That’s one of your main messages in your work and research and writings, is that it pays to break the rules in work and life. Can you give us some of the most compelling examples or bits of research behind that?

Francesca Gino
Absolutely. I was struck by the fact that I spend a lot of time in organizations, and often you go in, or at least that I started going in with a set of cynical eyes, if you will, and I would try to pay attention to processes, ways of working, or systems that, to the eye of a person who doesn’t work there, really make little sense. They didn’t seem optimal. I had all sorts of questions about them.

And then I would go to people, leaders and employees alike, and say, “Why is it that you do things this way?” Always the same answer, which was, “We’ve always done it this way.” And it’s interesting that it’s very easy for us to get used to the usual way of working and it’s tough to break away from that. So, I wanted to write this book to say, “Look, there are people out there who are very capable of breaking away from the mold in a way that creates positive change and brings all sorts of benefits to themselves and the organization.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I knew that was what you’re going to say in terms of the answer is, “We’ve always done it that way,” which I think really means we don’t actually remember the original purpose and impetus for how this got started but we’re going to keep doing it.

Francesca Gino
Yeah. And also we stop asking questions. Think about, I mentioned the four little children, so I’m in the land of curiosity, pushing boundaries, asking questions. And if you look at the data, you’d see something quite striking, and in my mind, also sad. Curiosity peaks at the age four and five, and then it declines steadily from there.

And I thought, “It can’t be true. Maybe when we get into our jobs, the ones that we love, curiosity is going to pop back up.” And I was wrong. I collected data across jobs, industries, roles, hundreds of people, and at first, when they start a new job or a new role, you see the curiosity is high, some variation across job, across roles, across locations, but not much. And you go back to the same people eight, nine months later, curiosity had dropped by at least 20% across the board. And I think it’s because we conform, we get used to the usual way of working, and we stop asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that you’ve actually done the research. Actually, not like I’m surprised but, you know.

Francesca Gino
You know.

Pete Mockaitis
There are authors who borrow from the research of others, and authors who do their own research, and you are in the latter category, so I’m going to really have some fun with you here. So, how do we measure curiosity? And just what is the extent of that decline? Like, is it like you’re half as curious as you were when you were four or five? Are you like a tenth as curious as you were at four or five?

Francesca Gino
As a scientist at my core, I really puzzled over that data because I was like, “What happens? And why is it that kids so naturally ask questions and stay curious but somehow they grow older, we all grow older, and that disappears?” And it was kind of an interesting exercise because I recognized that, even as a parent, I do things that probably are not good for curiosity. My children ask a question, I give them an answer instead of saying, “Why do you think the sky is blue?” or, “Why do you think we have to pay for things when we go out to the grocery store?” And it’s a different way of reacting. Or they make a mistake and you have that worried face that tells them that, fundamentally, “Yes, we’re learning but I would’ve been happier if we didn’t mess up things around the house.”

And so, it brought much more attention in my own behavior, in my own reactions to what others are doing. And now I’m giving you some examples as a parent but I have equally good example in my role as leader of my own group or the interactions that I have with colleagues. How do you react when they say something that you might disagree with? Do you seek to understand and show curiosity? Or do you just shut them down? And so, there are lots of meaningful opportunities where I think maybe unconsciously we just shut down the conversation and, with it, we shut down curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. The subtle things in terms of non-verbal shows of disapproval with a facial expression or a tone of voice.

Francesca Gino
In fact, I’ll give you a story that actually comes from a business, it turns out to be a yummy one since it’s a three-star Michelin restaurant that in 2016 became the best restaurant in the world. It turns out it’s an Italian restaurant so I’m saying this with a little bit of pride even if I have nothing to do with it. But this is a restaurant where the owner and chef that opened the restaurant decided to go to traditional Italian dishes and completely reinvented them.

Now, I find that to be profound. First, it took courage. I don’t know how much you know about Italians, but I can tell you that two things are true. First, there are lots of rules when it comes to cooking, from all the ways you pair a certain type of pastas to certain type of sauces. In fact, I’m married to an American, and, to this date, my husband doesn’t understand why is it that every time he has pasta, we’d have fish-based sauce, he can’t put Parmesan cheese on top of it. It’s just wrong. You don’t do it. It’s against the rules. And, second, we cherish our old ways, especially when it comes to recipes that have been passed on for centuries.

And so, here you have a guy who went exactly to that context with an open mind, with curiosity, and he started saying, “Look, why is it that we cook the dish this way? Maybe it made sense 20 years ago but not today.” And he completely reinvented traditional Italian dishes, and has been very successful with that. So, quite an inspiring story. And if you spend time with him, you realize that in every interaction, he really takes on the opportunity to look at the what-if or why.

In fact, there is a beautiful story, it’s one of my favorite out of the restaurant, when it’s a very busy night, and one of his sous chefs is working on the last dessert of the night, and it’s a lemon tart, and the name of sous chef is Taka. He’s obsessed with attention to detail. He’s Japanese. He really cares about doing his work well. And, as Taka is working on this dessert, he’s arranging all the different pieces, and, all of a sudden, the tart dropped to the floor, and now he had a mashed tart. And at that point, Taka started to panic but chef Massimo Bottura walked into the kitchen and saw the mistake.

Now, ask yourself what it is that you would’ve done. I can tell you that many leaders in his position would’ve started yelling, but Bottura didn’t. And not only that, he looked at the plate, and then, at Taka, said, “Taka, I think we have a new idea for a new dessert.” And, sure enough, they come out with a new dessert, it’s a deconstructed lemon tart, and is now the most popular dessert at the restaurant. And if you look at it, you look at this mashed tart on the plate, and the name for the dessert on the menu is “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”

It’s just a beautiful example of, even in situations where there are accidents, he’s able to turn them into sources of inspiration. I think it requires a shift in mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is beautiful, and you do sort of see sort of that childlike perspective in terms of…

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
…”Oh, this is interesting that this is all over the floor now,” as opposed to, “This is a disaster that it’s all over the floor now.” Just to make sure that we check the box though, can you share, how do we measure curiosity? And what is the level of the decline from four to being grown up?

Francesca Gino
You’re going to check yourself, right? So, there are scales that colors I’ve developed to measure curiosity, and so it’s often self-reported. So, I ask you a bunch of questions that allow me to understand in which situations you keep on looking for information because you really want to discover something. And it’s not just learning because there is an objective, but you fundamentally want to get to an answer because of the pleasure of that discovery process.

And so, there are many different other personality factors that are related to it, like being open to experiences, but curiosity is on its own category, if you will. And if there are people that are interested, I’m happy to share the scales since they exist and you can measure it on yourself. In the data that I collected, I was looking at adults, and the drop of 20% were adults from the day they started a new job to nine, ten, some cases eight months later. And so, that’s where you see the drop in a way that allows you to ask the question, “Why is it when we join organizations, it’s almost as if curiosity gets squeezed out of us?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. And it’s a shame, I guess I’m thinking about how when I’ve been at my best, when there’s a new person who comes and ask sort of new-person questions, you know, I mean, sometimes that’s sort of annoying, like, “Oh, isn’t this all covered already?” But when I’m on my game, “Oh, what a lovely fundamental question to ask, and I guess I didn’t look at it that way, way back when I invented this process.” So, that’s beautiful.

Francesca Gino
But you’re saying something important, that reaction of, “Oh, maybe this was covered already.” So, when I am the person joining and coming into the organization, I’m thinking, “I’m not sure but I think I have this question, I’d love to ask it.” Often, we don’t ask it because we’re fundamentally fearful that there’s going to be a judgment. And what’s interesting about small children, when they’re three or four, that is not there at all.

In fact, just this morning, I was talking to my son and he was noticing that his underwear got way too tight. And so, he had this nice red marks around his belly, and he turns to my nanny and said, “Hey, do you also get the red marks on your belly because of wearing tight underwear?” And you should’ve seen the embarrassed face on my nanny who knows him really well. But, again, that’s an example where it’s a perfectly fair question, and he’s just curious about asking. He had no way of thinking that there is going to be a judgment attached to that question.

And I think that that’s what we learn and what we become fearful of as we grow older. We’re much more aware that there are other people who might judge us in all sorts of ways, and, fundamentally, we want to belong and be part of the group, and so we stop asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d also love to hear more about, so we’re talking about curiosity, and it’s almost like we’re just assuming and taking for granted that curiosity is good, and I like it, it’s fun, it’s interesting, keeps things spicy and interesting. Could you lay it out for us sort of what difference does it make if you have a team who is highly curious versus highly not curious?

Francesca Gino
Yeah. So, that’s a really important question. There is a business case for curiosity. Curiosity leads to more creative ideas, more innovation. It actually leads to better team performance because the team tends to be much more open in discussing ideas. It leads to conflict resolutions more quickly, which I think is interesting and potentially counterintuitive. And it also leads to broadening of networks.

So, this is the data that I collected in a large study with a Canadian bank where what we found was that if you look at curiosity as a trait, so you have a certain level of curiosity versus not, or higher or lower, and then look at things like, “How do people communicate over email across functions or across departments?” What you see is that the more curious people are, the more they tend to reach out a variety of people in a way that really help them as they move throughout their career, in this case in the bank, but also in performing well in their jobs. So, I think that the outcomes and implications of being curious are actually quite profound.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Francesca Gino
I’ll give you another one that is more recent. It came from the fact that we’re living through a crisis. So, when we’re curious, we are better able to look at stress as something that can enhance our performance rather than finding it to be paralyzing. So, I think that in thinking about this idea of staying agile and transforming ourselves, staying curious is quite important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then so how do you recommend that we go about continuing keeping curious?

Francesca Gino
I think of curiosity as a turbocharger. And, in fact, back in 2018, I had a book coming out called Rebel Talent, and curiosity is a really big talent that these rebels seem to have. And when I was thinking about what I had observed leaders and the police across organizations do to retain their curiosity, some of the suggestions are very simple. And then, since I’m a scientist, I went off and backed them up with data. But here are some simple ideas.

First of all, adding learning goals for ourselves. So, I think whether in our professional life, sometimes also in our personal lives, we have some form of performance goals for ourselves, or a little mission that we want to accomplish. Adding learning goals can be incredibly helpful not only in making our performance higher, but also in retaining our curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
And now when we talk about learning goals, I can imagine there’s…what are the best practices in structuring those? Because I could articulate a learning goal many different ways which will have many different implications for when I get to claim victory and how I go about approaching it. So, how do we formulate that ideally?

Francesca Gino
I’m curious now to see what you have in mind. So, I would keep the same timeline that you have for your performance goals so that the two track together, and what we know from theories and a lot of writings around goals is to make them somewhat difficult but within reach. So, having said all of that, if I think about one of my learning goals since this little crisis started was to learn piano. I’ve never played piano before. And the way now that’s happening is with one of my children actually teach me what he knows, and often is just memorizing songs rather than really understanding the philosophy behind it. So, keeping ourselves honest. But, again, even with that caveat, I think that it’s making me ask a lot of questions about something that fundamentally I don’t know in a way that it’s quite positive.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I imagine that would be some carryovers into other domains. I’m thinking about Einstein and the violin, that was one of his things. And he thought this was absolutely an excellent use of his time and energy and genius, and working with children in particular, because they ask great questions, and they got things moving mentally in other areas.

Francesca Gino
Yup, that is good evidence that often not being entrenched and deeply specialized in a context or in an area of study can be helpful as you’re trying to come up with something creative, because you just have a fresh perspective rather than thinking through the old lenses of looking at that problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s one thing is to set some learning objectives. And it sounds like, to the point of how they’re articulated, maybe it doesn’t matter that much, but you tell me. Like, learn the piano, I mean, I could articulate that in terms of, “I will learn five songs on the piano. I will be able to play songs picturing 16th note triplets on the piano.” Like, we can have all sorts of levels of specificity or depth or not. What do you think?

Francesca Gino
I think that just the general idea of having learning goals is important. Specificity, I think, can help us so that you track your progress, which can be very motivating, so I love that part in what you said, but not necessary per se.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s one practice is the learning objectives. What else?

Francesca Gino
I love the idea of becoming people who actually model inquisitiveness for others. What are the opportunities to ask questions more often without that worry of being judged? In fact, many years ago, I took some improv comedy classes. It was actually a Christmas present for my husband to go to classes together. He hated it at first, but then since the course was 10-week long, he actually got used to it and really got to love it.

But what I’ve learned from improv, one of the lessons which really was an important one, is that curiosity and judgment cannot coexist. I think that it sounds simple but is actually profound. Think about when we’re suggesting ideas in a meeting, or we’re just brainstorming, or we are talking, or we’re disagreeing. I think that curiosity can really be helpful. And when we model it for others, so we’re the first one asking questions, really trying to understand the point of view of the person suggesting the idea, or as a statement whose different from our own, we end up faring much better. And so, I think a lot about, “What are the opportunities where I can ask more questions without the fear of being judged?”

Pete Mockaitis
And let’s talk about that fear for a bit. To what extent is it real versus all in our minds? And is there a way we can clear the air or address it with our counterparts that we’re talking to? How do we tackle it?

Francesca Gino
So, surprisingly to many, asking questions is something that leads to positive outcomes. So, this is a question that my colleagues and I actually studied. And what we found is that when we ask questions in conversations, in meetings, others end up judging us more positively, and they also end up trusting us more and liking us more. And we looked at this in all sorts of context, from meetings at work to speed-dating events. Question-asking does not lead to the type of negative outcomes that we somehow expect to see.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess part of it probably depends on what the question is. My wife and I, we have this recurring joke when we had our first child. There was a class on taking care of your newborn at the hospital, and we just thought it’d be funny to say, “Wait. Time out for a second. I keep hearing us saying the word ‘baby.’ What’s that?” So, I guess that, beyond the ridiculous, like, we all know what a baby is, I guess there’s some kind of a threshold in terms of if the question…I mean, they say there are no stupid questions but there, kind of, are some, you know. But then, again, there’s the judgment. Help me out, Francesca.

Francesca Gino
Yes. So, absolutely, there are limits in the sense of there might, in fact, be questions where if you went through a welcoming process, like the example that you were using, you should know the answer. But I have to say that we often err on the side of not asking where we should ask. What we tend to forget, which I think is quite interesting, is that we feel that you are going to feel the cost of giving us an answer or helping us figure out whatever it is that we’re asking about. And what we forget is that it’s actually flattering for you to be asked.

So, for instance, we’ve looked at this in the context of asking for advice. And what we find is that people feel fearful that, “I’m going to create cost on your time, on maybe a meeting that you don’t want to have, when, in fact, the fact that I’m asking is actually quite flattering to you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, that’s true. And I’m thinking about my buddy Mawi here who’s episode number one. He’s a real mentor and inspiration and friend. And he will often ask me questions, and I think, “You’re so much smarter than I am and better at this business, this industry that we’re in.” But I do, I really do feel flattered when he asks and not at all sort of put upon, so I think that makes sense. So, we like them more, we trust them more, and we feel flattered when they ask the question maybe because we perceive that they are really interested, or really committed, or really think that we have something to offer. Or are there any other sort of explanations or mechanisms by which that result comes to be?

Francesca Gino
So, you are mentioning then that people feel that they have something valuable to offer and that feels good. It doesn’t feel like something negative or something at a cost. So, I am hoping that the evidence that we produce in this discussion is going to help people feel a little bit more comfortable next time that they want to ask or express their curiosity. And, again, I’m not suggesting that they come out with questions if they don’t have any, but what I’m suggesting is that, with authenticity, if there is something that you’re curious about, not to be afraid of being judged.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Okay. So, with that perspective understood, we have a little bit of insulation from the fear just knowing, “Hey, actually, you’d probably be better off asking those questions.” Do you have any additional tips for the fear or things…? Are there any magical phrases you might use to preface your questions that feel like they give you a little bit of cover or can be secure for you?

Francesca Gino
Hmm, it’s interesting. We have not looked at that but I guess giving an explanation for why you’re asking can always be helpful because you’re just giving the other side a little bit more context for where your question is coming from. I should also say that one important application of what we’re talking about in the use of curiosity is in situations where you’re in disagreement with somebody.

And I’ve seen this happening so many times at work, also in family conflict where you’re in a heated situation, we are butting head-to-head, and the thing that we end up telling ourselves is, “Oh, maybe, you’re not as committed as I am to this cause, or to this project. Maybe you’re not as smart as I am or maybe you don’t have the right capabilities as I have for this project in moving this forward.”

And if at that very moment, we remind ourselves of the importance of curiosity, there is a really important shift that happens. Because, let’s imagine, let’s say, okay, now you’re zoned out, you’re as committed as I am to this, or you’re as smart as I am in approaching this, then you’d really start saying, “Then why is it that your view is so different from mine?” And you really want to investigate and seek to understand, and so you’re going to ask a lot of questions that the other side, or the other people involved, are really going to welcome.

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

Francesca Gino
No, the other point to keep in mind is, which has become a reminder for myself, is going through the day with more “What if…?” or “How could we…?” so that you consider alternatives. So, I’ve become pretty good at trying to remind myself, and then hopefully implement the idea of asking, “What could I do?” rather than, “What should I do?” since the ‘could’ retains your curiosity and actually allows you to expand on the possibilities.

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

Francesca Gino
“Break, transform, create.” This is a quote that comes from Chef Massimo Bottura, and it’s a great reminder of how we can all benefit from breaking away from tradition, routines, the usual way of working, and transform these routines to create something better in our own success.

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

Francesca Gino
These days one of the pieces of research I’m reminded of, which I love, is the research that Carol Dweck has done on the idea of growth mindset. Thinking of others as people who have a lot to offer and ooze intelligence and competencies can be developed rather than thinking of them as people’s intelligence and competence as fixed. That leads to very different interactions where we get to invest in them and in their development rather than not.

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

Francesca Gino
A favorite book is the book called “Yes, And.” It’s a book that Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton from Second City wrote about what it is that we all stand to learn from improv comedy.

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

Francesca Gino
A favorite tool these days is Zoom.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Francesca Gino
As I’m becoming much better at trying to leverage virtual and make it fun.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Francesca Gino
A favorite habit of mine is arriving at a time when I’m sitting down for dinner with my family, my four kids and my husband, and asking my children what are the two or three things that they’re grateful for.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite nugget, something you share that people seem to quote back to you often and you’re known for?

Francesca Gino
I gave it to you already, “Rebelliousness can be constructive rather than destructive.”

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

Francesca Gino
I would point them to either my personal website FrancescaGino.com or my book website RebelTalents.org. The book website has an interesting test potentially for those who listen in that can tell them which type of rebel they are. And if they come out as a pirate, it’s a very good thing.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m picturing the eye patch and the sword and the hat.

Francesca Gino
You’d be surprised. You’d be surprised. It was actually a really interesting organization to study as I was working on the book because, at a time when it was about 200 years before slavery ended in the United States, they were the most diverse organization on the planet. So, just for that, I think they get a lot of credit, especially in a world like the one that we’re living through today. And they also were interestingly organized. So, the crew was in charge of choosing the captain, and the crew could actually rule the captain quite easily if the captain was not behaving well towards the crew.

And, to me, that raises the question, that is one that I ask myself quite often, which is, “Am I the captain that my crew would choose as its leader today?” And you can ask it if you’re a parent, you can ask it if you’re leading a group of people, you can also ask it in relationship to how you relate to your friends, or to your spouse, or to you colleagues.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is some fascinating stuff. I had no idea about this and the history of pirates. Where would you recommend, if there’s a book or a resource I could pick up, to educate myself on pirates?

Francesca Gino
So, there, I’m going to be self-serving since I did a lot of integration across resources as I was working on the book. So, I would read one of the chapters in “Rebel Talent” that talks about the pirates.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m scanning your table of contents right now. Oh, “Becoming a rebel leader: Blackbeard, “flatness,” and the 8 principles of rebel leadership.”

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Page 191. Thank you. All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Francesca Gino
I would love for people to think about ways in which they can break away from their mold. As I was working on the book, I was surprised by how much courage it takes, because we’re breaking away from tendencies that we all have as human beings, but also how really satisfying and exciting the experience is. So, if you’re like me, after you tried the rebel life, you’d want to go back.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Francesca, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your rebellions.

Francesca Gino
Thank you so much.

574: How to Navigate Overwhelming Data and Choices to Make Optimal Decisions with Vikram Mansharamani

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Harvard lecturer Vikram Mansharamani discusses how to break free from blind thinking and make more impactful decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The danger of deferring to experts and technology 
  2. Two critical steps for smarter decision-making
  3. How to better predict the future with “prospective hindsight” 

About Vikram

Financial Bubbles Before They Burst and his latest, THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. He is a frequent commentator on issues driving disruption in the global business environment, and his ideas and writings have appeared in Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, Worth, and many other publications. LinkedIn listed him as the #1 Top Voice for Money, Finance, and Economics for both 2015 and 2016, and Worth magazine profiled him as one of the 100 most powerful people in global finance in 2017. In addition to teaching and writing, Mansharamani also advises several Fortune 500 CEOs on how to navigate uncertainty in today’s dynamic global business and regulatory environment. He holds a PhD and two master’s degrees from MIT as well as a bachelor’s degree from Yale University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Vikram Mansharamani Interview Transcript

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

Vikram Mansharamani
Thanks for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your good stuff. We’re talking decision making. And I understand you’ve got a lot of decision making in a place many people say there’s no hope for good decisions, and that’s Las Vegas, and there are more than 50 times. What’s the story?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, that’s a fascinating place to start here, Pete. I mean, Vegas is one of my real soft spots in life. I love everything about that city. I love the gaming. I love the restaurants. I love the pools. I love the hotels. I love the shows. I love the spas. The whole experience is just fabulous. The story as to why I went there so frequently is it was actually the topic of my dissertation.

So, I studied the gaming industry for my doctoral work at MIT. And I did that for various reasons, but the biggest reason was I was about to quit the PhD program at MIT that I was enrolled, and one of my professors and advisor, who I really trusted, who had become a mentor, said, “Vikram, that’s a really bad idea. You should get this done. What are you excited about? What do you enjoy? What wouldn’t feel like work to you?”

And I think I’d just gotten back from a trip to Las Vegas, perhaps with some college buddies, and I said, “You know what’s really fun? Las Vegas. I love Las Vegas.” And he said, “Why don’t you study the gaming industry?” And then there you go. So, it was research that took me to Vegas many of those times, but not all.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. So, I’m curious, in your gaming, are you up, are you down?

Vikram Mansharamani
I’m pretty sure I’m down but I think most people that do any amount of gaming end up down, but for me it’s the cost of entertainment. Look, there’s different ways to spend money to be entertained, and if I can do it socially sitting at a craps table with a bunch of friends and folks that I know, and have a nice time, and people give you some adult beverages while you’re there, that’s really the cost of entertainment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Well, now I want to dig into your wisdom, and your latest is called Think for Yourself I want to hear, what’s one of the most fascinating and surprising discoveries you’ve made about us humans and how we go about decision-making?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, there’s a lot of surprises there but the fundamental truth is I think we tend not be rational in this strict model optimizing sense that some traditional economists think we are. And what does that mean? That means that we sometimes make decisions, as I’m sure you’re aware of through behavioral finance and behavioral economics thinking, based on emotions, or fairness, or some of these things that might not make sense from a strict economic perspective.

So, I think just the sort of seeming irrationality of the human being in decision-making context is in of itself kind of surprising where people do things that might not be in their obvious self-interest. And so, yeah, I think that’s probably one of them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m so intrigued by your title there Think for Yourself because I think a lot of people would say, “Hey, I think for myself, Vikram. Come on, buddy.” So, when we’re not thinking for ourselves, what are we doing?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, let me use a couple of examples, Pete. I think this will actually make it tangible, real, and I think the audience will appreciate this. Let’s say you get up in the morning, you’re getting into your car, you’re heading to a destination east of your current location. It happened to have snowed last night, the schools are closed, but since you’re not 100% sure where you’re heading, you put it into your GPS device or your Nav system in your car.

Now, the algorithm turns around and tells you, “Uh-oh, you’re going east to this location, but there’s an elementary school and it’s currently 8:30 in the morning. Yeah, we’re going to send you north to go around and then come down to the east.” Now, you pause and you think to yourself, “Huh, it’s probably because of the school there.” But the reason it’s suggesting to go around the school is because of the traffic at this time of the morning. You’ve done this before. You know that your system does that. You also know that the school is closed because of the bad weather on a snow day. Do you follow the device or not? There’s a simple question. I’ll give you one other example which may feel like it’s higher stakes.

You go to your cardiologist. Your cardiologist tells you, “You know what, Pete, I’m sensing a little bit of cholesterol levels creeping up on you here.” She happens to be younger than you, and she says, “You know what, I had the same problem. I’m starting to take this statin. I think you should take this statin. By the way, every other cardiologist here in the hospital complex, they’re taking a statin. My medical school peers, they’re all taking statins and I think you should take a statin.” Do you push back or do you take the statin?

And so, these are examples where we may not realize it but we’re not thinking for ourselves. We’re outsourcing our thinking to experts and technologies. And that may not always be bad but it’s something I think we should do mindfully rather than passively and sort of as a default setting.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, well, it’s funny, we’re talking about health issues, and as we speak, I am engaging the daunting process of shopping for health insurance since my wife is shifting to full-time mothering, and I am shifting onto adopting a tremendous financial burden in the United States. Wow!

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re right. It’s like experts say stuff and it’s just like, “Well, geez, I don’t know. This seems like there’s a lot of complexity and it’s intricate and hard to get to the bottom and become super-knowledgeable about all my options. Well, hey, this is golden. It’s Blue Cross and it’s PPO and you all say it’s good. I guess that’s what I’m going to get.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, think about that, and what you’re getting at, which is actually how I start off most of my book here, is we are facing an environment of overwhelming data. And with overwhelming data, comes overwhelming choice. All of us have become conditioned to believe that more choice is better, that more choice lets us find the exact, optimal, perfect combination of features that was what we need. And the reality is we get overwhelmed by that choice.

We are sort of given this illusive ideal of perfection, and it’s never really achievable, leaving us with this low-grade fever of something we call FOMO. We’re missing out on that perfect choice, “There should be a perfect choice.” And so, what do we do? We run headlong into the arms of experts and technologies that promise us salvation from this anxiety of being overwhelmed by choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, that sounds like a fair synopsis of where we are right now. I buy it.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, even just think about your medical insurance dilemma, right? I’m sure there’s an online choice aid that exists that says, “Well, how many dependents do you have? Do you think you want high deductible or low deductible? Do you like your doctor? Do you want to be in a network? Do you need referrals? Do you not want referrals? Do you just want to be able to go anywhere in a network?” All of these things create these permutations and combinations which overwhelm us. In fact, you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t overwhelmed, which is why we then go to people who promise us the hope. And, in the process, we actually stop thinking for ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so in a way, that’s a bit of a pejorative context or phrase in terms of, “Hey, you’re not thinking for yourself.” It seems like something, at least the way I interpret it, the emotional valence I’m sticking on it, is that to think for one’s self is a good and noble worthy thing. And to not think for one’s self is something that foolish sheep do, and they need to step up.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, I’m going to get a little meta on you here. So, thinking for yourself, you may, in fact, think for yourself while outsourcing your thinking. But if you do it proactively, mindfully, then it’s okay, then you are, in fact, thinking for yourself when you’re letting someone else think for you if you proactively make that choice. It’s the default condition without thinking about how you’re making your choices that I have issues with. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t rely on experts or technologies. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. We should rely on experts and technologies but we should do so mindfully. We should keep them in their role where we are the lead actor. They can be supporting actors. And so, that’s really the objective.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you gave us a couple of examples which make it real with regard to the GPS and the doctors. And so, where are some danger zones, specifically for professionals and career people, that it’s like, “Hey, timeout. You may not be thinking for yourself about these sorts of things, and you could be falling for these kinds of traps. Warning! Think about this.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Well, one area, I think, for career-oriented folks who are thinking about doing well in their jobs, climbing the corporate ladder, etc., advancing, is that we’ve developed this core belief system, I think, that expertise, core competence, unique skills, if you will, put capitals on all of those words, are the ultimate destination and the keys to rising in one’s career advancing as well as increasing your income.

And I want to suggest for a moment that actually breadth of perspective may be equal, if not more important than depth of expertise. And part of this has to do with the siloization that’s occurred of knowledge and how people make decisions. We tend to think of the world as broken down in domains. There’s a heart doctor, cardiologists, “Okay, I got to go see someone different for a different part of my body.” But the system is a whole.

And so, what I’m suggesting is rather than hang our hat on developing unique skills and depth of knowledge, I want to suggest that you can actually benefit from being broad, being an integrator of disparate ideas, being a generalist, if you will.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. Well, we had David Epstein on the show, and that was one of his key messages there.

Vikram Mansharamani
David is a good friend.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I think I buy it. So, how do you suppose we fall for the default assumption that specialization is where it’s at?

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, it has to do with the overwhelming amount of data, information, and complexity in our world, or how complicated it’s become. And so, the way most organizations deal with this is they silo people into working on parts of a problem. That’s how we try to do this. And so, as a result, we outsource our career trajectories often to the organizations within which we work. And a little pushback on that would be healthy.

And what it also means is reconceiving the concept of a career trajectory away from rising through a corporate ladder, perhaps thinking about it differently. Maybe it’s a corporate jungle gym and the best way to get to the top is not by going up on every step but by going laterally down to the left, to the right, down three steps, over, up. There may be a different way to get to the top.

Now, what does that practically mean? I mean, it’s a fun analogy to talk about a corporate jungle gym. But it may mean, all right, if you’re rising through the finance function of an organization, maybe it makes sense to stop and do a tour of duty in the marketing department. Possibly, take a demotion rather than a promotion and go into operations. Go run a factory. Possibly, come back and go involve with technologies or call centers or what have you. Develop a portfolio of skills through multi-functional, multi-geographic experiences that could possibly have you leapfrog the trajectories of those who stay within a silo. I guess that’s really what I’m getting at.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ll tell you, in terms of a universal skill, which we’re all about here, that is handy across each of these functional and industry domains is just this, some of that decision-making smart thinking for yourself skills. So, I’d love to get your take then on some of the top do’s and don’ts in terms of, “Okay, if I have decided that I’m going to go about making some decisions, and I’m going to have the experts on tap, not on top…” one of your turns of phrase which I like, “…I’m going to receive input from them but I’m not going to let them just blindly call the shots,” how do you recommend we go out doing research, generating options, selecting the best option for us?

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Well, one of the things that I think is absolutely critical, Pete, is people should spend more time paying attention to the context. Far too often, we focus on what’s in front of us and where we’ve shone the spotlight and not on the related contextually developments that may impact even our decision choices, even the possible selections we can make. So, I think paying attention to the context matters.

Now, again, that sounds very abstract. Let’s make it real. Let’s say you’re in the world of retailing. Do you pay attention to US-China relations? “Maybe. It seems kind of like general knowledge. Is it going to impact me? Is it not going to impact me? I don’t know. I’m in a retail sector. I’m local.” If you’re paying attention to political developments. Obviously, we know there’s an election in the United States, but do we know what’s happening in the political dynamics of our largest trading partners or what have you? Maybe that’s going to potentially come home to impact us. So, advice piece number one is pay attention to context.

Number two, I always encourage people making tough decisions to make sure you get some disagreement in the advice you get. Don’t go out and seek the same advice that you know is confirming your already pre-existing inclinations. Seek disagreement. That’s something that far too few people do this.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s a great perspective but, boy, it’s a frustrating one. I’m thinking back to I had to get a new roof for my home, and I don’t know about roofing, but I had a heck of a hard time just getting anyone to show up and do something it seems in the realm of home renovation. So, I thought, “Well, I better just call 20 roofers so that I can get three quotes.” But I got like nine to show up and weigh in on the matter.

And then it was, huh, boy, it was complex and overwhelming because it’s sort of like, okay, well, this guy costs twice as much as that guy. But why? Is he doing more? Is he better? Is it higher quality? This person says I absolutely have to have it torn off and redone, and that one says, “No, no, no, you don’t need to do that. You can just put another layer.” And this one says, “You don’t even need a layer.” I can just get a sealing and a coating.

And so, it’s like, “Why am I, the person who does not know about roofing, charged with the task of determining who is correct and who is incorrect?” I found myself some disagreement and, I mean, it was tough to sort to the bottom of it.

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, let me ask you this. Do you feel you were more informed about roofing now that you did that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m vastly informed about roofing, and I wish I weren’t.

Vikram Mansharamani
Far more than you want to be. Exactly. Well, so then the question becomes, “Do you think you could make a better decision having had those conversations or not?”

Pete Mockaitis
You mean going forward or looking backward?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. So, ultimately, before you replaced your roof, you presumably had to make a choice, and you, I think, made an informed choice. It might’ve had some costs with developing the options, and seeking the disagreement, and getting a lay of the land, but that mere process, I think, informed you on an area that you would’ve otherwise made a decision blindly in.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it did inform me, and I suppose what I’m really getting at is once I’ve gotten some disagreements, how do I make a call?

Vikram Mansharamani
Sure. Sure. Well, that’s ultimately where you need to think for yourself, right? What are the variables that matter to you? Do you want a 40-year life roof or do you care if it’s a 20-year life roof? Do you want to have the guarantee in case there’s a leak and a hurricane comes through, or do you not worry about the guarantee because you think you may sell the house the next year? So, I think there’s some tradeoffs that one needs to think about themselves.

But part of the reason I encourage the disagreement is there’s a quote, a very famous quote, that Alfred Sloan used it says, “If we’re all in agreement on this decision, then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.” Disagreement helps to understand. So, that’s part of the reason I focus on generating a little bit of disagreement.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s certainly true. That helps generate understanding and, partially, just because it’s psychologically, internally, there’s this tension. It’s like, “Well, what’s right? Aargh.” Because I’m sort of frustrated, I really want to hunker down and get deep into the wisdom because there’s this tension I want resolved and what’s correct.

So, what are some of your pro tips in terms of, I guess, one, you’re getting clear on what you want in your own criteria in rubrics there? But, I guess, part of what I figured out was I had to sort of make some rules of thumb for, “Who am I going to believe and who am I not, and why?” And part of it was I am more inclined to believe people who tell me something that works against their self-interest, where like, “Hey, I can’t do anything for you right now because you got to take care of that masonry first.” It’s like, “So, you’re just going to walk away from the money I want to give you.” I’m inclined to think that that’s a true thing he said about the masonry because it goes against his self-interest.

Or if someone gives me a why, a reason, because underneath what they’re saying, then I’d buy it more than the guy who did not. Like, “You’re going to have to tear off this roof because you can tell from this thickness right here that there’s already three layers, which is already more than the building code allows for. And if you observe this, you’ll see some sagging in the rafters,” versus the guy who’s like, “Nah, we can just put another layer on it.” It’s like, “You didn’t tell me why we could put another layer on it. Like, you didn’t say, ‘Hey, I can tell from this thickness that we have.’” He just said, “Nah.”

So, if you give me a reason versus not a reason, I want to go with the person who gave me a reason. So, those are just a couple of the rubrics I ended up inventing on the spot to make sense of my roof. But what else would you point us to in terms of sorting things out?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, I mean, look, ultimately, we need to think about just satisficing, if you will. Pete, we’ve so often, because of these overwhelming sets of options and the overwhelming data deluge that we’re suffering, we think there’s an ideal so we never settle on “good enough.” I mean, I can imagine, and I don’t know you that well, but you might’ve been a person who got so analytical you could imagine a spreadsheet on which roofing contractor to hire.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s absolutely multiples.

Vikram Mansharamani
Right? At some point, we just need to decide. You can overanalyze these things. And so, when I tell people to focus on decision-making, I say, “Look, you can satisfice, that’s from Herb Simon, a Nobel prize winner, who suggested that actually maximization logic or optimization logic sometimes can mislead us, just the pursuit of it even, into expending more costs on trying to optimize than we get value from the incremental optimization.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, agreed. Time, I mean.

Vikram Mansharamani
So, I’ll give you an example from the book, which is a fun personal example, and it has to do with selecting a movie to watch. Every now and then, when the kids, my kids are asleep, my wife and I will jump on the couch and try to get a movie and just watch a movie in the comfort of our home, more so these days since we don’t go out during this lockdown. But, inevitably, what happens is one of us gets to the couch first and sees a preview or two, and then the second one arrives, and I got to be on the same informational footing, “I got to see the same previews you watched. There’s no way I’m making a choice without you…you have an informational edge here. I need to get involved here.”

And so, we’ll watch a couple. Both of us are in different moods, possibly realizing that, “My goodness, Xfinity has 10,000 movies available, we got the Apple TV, which has another 50,000, we got Netflix which can give it to us all of those 100,000 movies in seven different languages, and we got to be able to find the perfect movie.”

And so, an example I use in the book is my wife, eventually, is like, “Fine. It sounds like you really want to watch it. Let’s just watch that movie.” Except it’s taken us an hour to choose the movie. I fall asleep halfway through the movie, go to sleep, and she turns around and says, “I chose this movie because you wanted to watch this movie.” She’s upset. I fell asleep. I go to sleep. She then wakes up next morning. She watched half of the movie she didn’t want to watch, and half of the movie she did want to watch, and is frustrated by the whole evening.

That’s what happens with too much choice and not satisficing, and we’re all subject to it. Sometimes it’s fine to just make a choice. There’ll be more choices in the future. No reason to stress out about things. Some things shouldn’t be stressed about.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny that you and I are having this conversation. My company is called Optimality, LLC. That is my business name. I love things being optimal. And I think I’m the weird one compared to my friends and family in terms of others are more fine with satisficing. But I think that’s really a great point in terms of, again, thinking for yourself, in terms of, “What are we looking to do here? Do we need to optimize the crap out of this?” And some things you really do. It’s like, “This will make a tremendous impact if it’s 2% better, so we’re going to get there.”

And other things it doesn’t in terms of if you found the best possible movie ever that was, from thence forth, all of your favorite movies, one, that’s highly improbable, wildly occur, because how can you top Life is Beautiful. Wow! What a film. But the payoff isn’t that extraordinarily huge and the quest could take forever. So, I think that’s really great point right there. It’s just we got to decide, “What do we got to do here? Do I get a perfect optimization, a rough optimization, or just a quick good enough?”

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, and I think it has to do obviously with the stakes. When the stakes are low, our default is we tend not in our decision processes to factor in the stakes of the outcome. This is a trivial thing. We’re watching a movie. Why stress about optimizing? Just go with one. It’s good. We’ll have another choice next week. We’ll have lots. This is a repeated choice and the stakes are so low. So, yeah, I think incorporating how big a decision and how high the stakes are should come into that decision of optimize versus satisfice.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, it’s so funny, as we talk about it, it’s like, “Well, boy, if you really want to optimize the bejesus out of movies selection, you just got to go to IMDB or Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, go top to bottom.”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, Pete, you’re hinting at a great point where we outsource our thinking. How many of us go to the recommended, “People who watched this movie will also enjoy this movie”? And don’t we just naturally go there and explore those? When you’ve purchased a book online from your favorite large retailer, do you go down and say, “Well, people who bought this also bought this. You may also enjoy this”? Or do you get an email from someone? Are they channeling our focus in a way that prevents us from scanning? And so, we end up becoming exploiters, i.e. narrow and deep, rather than explorers, wide and broad. So, I think we’re outsourcing some of our thinking even unknowingly in times like those.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I think it’s interesting, if you think about just that notion of exploiting versus exploring, you would probably have a very different approach and mindset toward exploring if it wasn’t in the heat of battle, if you will, like, “We’re going to pick a movie to watch now” versus, “Why don’t I just get a list of candidates ready for the future moment in which we’re going to watch a movie.” You’ll probably be a little bit more open-ended in terms of, “Huh, what’s that about?”

Vikram Mansharamani
Well, it’s interesting. I mean, I think actually some of these large tech companies giving us media have thought about this decision problem, and that’s why I think, I don’t know for a fact, but I think that’s why we have the Wishlist, or the My List, or I think every streaming service has their own one where you put down what your future potential movies to watch are. So, even there I think they’re trying to overcome that problem. So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Vikram, tell me, before we shift gears, any other top do’s and don’ts for wise thinking, decision-making, we should lock in?

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. So, one of the things that I think is critical that very few people spend enough time thinking about is the future. Of course, all of us think about the future, singular, but I think we need to think about futures, plural. And thinking about multiple futures is a different way to think. It’s thinking probabilistically of how things can transpire.

And so, that’s a big-picture topic but I think it has to do with the context. As I said earlier, the context is critical to how you make decisions, the environment in which you’re making the decisions, the stakes of the decision you’re making, but also related to that is some version or vision of the future. And I rather you not have one vision of the future or one version of the future, but rather multiple futures that you’re envisioning or foreseeing.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I might sort of imagine what’s the future that I’m delighted with, what’s the future that I’m furious about, how do these come about.

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah. I mean, look, one of the decision tactics I use in some of my advisory work is I use, from the academic literature, something called prospective hindsight. Now, what does that mean in plain English? In plain English that means it’s called a pre-mortem analysis. What does that mean in real plain English? Imagine failure in the future for a decision you made today, and then paint a story of why that decision failed.

So, you decided to go with one roofer. A hurricane came through and, you know what, you shouldn’t have done the multiple layers because it ripped off. That’s horrible. One possibility of failure in that decision is you went with a choice that optimized for the short term, not thinking about some of these bigger risks.

Alternatively, you failed because you went with the high-price guy who was going to do it perfectly, strip the roof, rebuild the masonry, do it all, and charge you an arm and leg. Well, now, how does that fail? Yeah, the failure there may be that, “Well, I spent too much money. I never really got the value of it,” or what have you, or there’s other versions that you can think about.

And so, you can think in terms of possible regrets for decisions made, trying to project yourself into the future and looking back to say, “Why did that decision go wrong?” And that oftentimes helps for some interesting thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote? You gave us one. Do you have another?

Vikram Mansharamani
I do. Peter Drucker, fabulous management theorist, and it’s related, again, in the domain of decisions, I think it’s the fabulous one, he says, “A decision without an alternative is a desperate gambler’s throw.” I figure I’d bring that in given the Vegas connection too. But, yes, the key is it’s not a choice. It’s not a decision if you only have one alternative you come up with. And this has to do with also that disagreement logic. So, that’s a fun quote.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
There’s a lot of them out there that I find fascinating. Obviously, Kahneman and Thaler. Kahneman and Tversky have done a lot, but Thaler has done a lot in behavioral decision-making, and I find almost all of their work fascinating. Some of their earlier work where they decided to actually go and try these sorts of studies on people.

One of my favorite ones, it’s referenced very slightly, but I think it says so much about us humans, was when they stepped in front of an audience and spun one of those wheels of fortune that resulted in a number, I think, between a zero and a hundred, and then they asked the audience, “What percentage of African nations were members of the United Nations?” And they got a number. They did these many times. Other groups spun the wheel of fortune, got a a random number. Everyone saw it was a random number. And then they asked the question, “What percentage of African nations are members of the United Nations?”

And the numbers that the groups came up with for percentage of African nations that were members of the United Nations were influenced by the random number. And the anchoring effect is so visceral at that point. Like, we know this number is random and yet that’s in our head. We can’t get it out of our head. And we approach the answer to the question closer to that than we otherwise should. I find that fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I saw one where judges, there’s a study with judges, who had an address on the stationery of the document that influenced how much of a monetary award they thought a plaintiff deserved, which was wild. These are judges.

Vikram Mansharamani
Yeah, you’d think it wouldn’t be that way but, unfortunately, it is. The other study that I’ll just highlight, is Philip Tetlock wrote a book called Expert Political Judgment. And in that book, he talks about experts’ forecasting and the long-range forecasts of many experts. And what he found was experts were less accurate in their area of expertise than non-experts were, vis-à-vis the predictions made over a long term and with lots of predictions. Then I think he had 80,000 predictions over lots of years and lots of forecasters, and sort of came back to the logic that sometimes it’s better to be broad rather than narrow.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Vikram Mansharamani
You know, one of the books that I really do love is The Four Agreements which is a bit of philosophy. It’s a book that’s not quite spiritual in the sense but it’s a sort of Toltec wisdom guide to self-freedom or something like that. I forget the subtitle of it. But, really, it’s a book that forces you to step back and put things in context personally, professionally, etc. I find it a really empowering book. It’s a book that I sometimes leave in my suitcase back when I was traveling more, and would happily pick up and read through and re-read. It’s a book that I think is quite powerful.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
I actually think sometimes just disconnecting from the stuff I’m working on. And if that’s go out for a run or, and I talk about this also as a tool to inspire creativity, literally, just get lost in a movie in the middle of the day. So, sometimes if I’m writing and in a rut, I will go turn on a movie in the middle of the day, watch it, watch half of it. Of course, obviously, I don’t think this is unusual advice, but working out and sort of breaking the rhythm. But those are some of the tools I use to really break up the rhythm.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re really known for, it’s quoted back to you often?

Vikram Mansharamani
I think the phrase that you’ve already quoted that I do like to use and a lot of people associate with me is sometimes keep experts on tap not on top. That’s one of the things there.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
I think my website is probably the best place, which is just my last name dot com, www.Mansharamani.com or my Twitter account which is @mansharamani.

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

Vikram Mansharamani
You know, I think it’s really, really important to try to take a step back and think about these multiple futures. And I know lots of people that are professional and focus on their careers are devout readers of non-fiction. But I want you to take some time to read fiction, to watch movies. I think the creativity that it inspires helps you to think about multiple futures. I teach this class at Harvard called Humanity and Its Challenges. It’s a systems-thinking class taught at the engineering school. And I use novels in this class.

Now, this throws engineering students off because their first inclination is, “Wait. What? That’s not real though, Vikram. That’s not real. That’s fake. That’s a fiction story.” And I was like, “Yes, read it. You’ll understand.” Or watching movies, they’re like, “But that’s not real. We’ll watch a documentary, not a movie.” But the point is some of these narratives of future scenarios can really help you navigate through uncertainty as it comes. It helps you get a lay of the land of what may be in front of you.

Five years ago, when I started teaching this class during the year 2016-2017 academic year, one of the cases, and we’ve used it since then, is the risk of a global pandemic. We had students watch the movie Contagion. We had the students watch other movies for other cases. And they dismissed it back then as Hollywood-esque drama, “This isn’t real. This is fake.”

Today, a handful of those students that gave me that feedback back then, are turning around and saying, “Wow, I’m glad you made us watch some of those things. It gave us a version of how the future could unfold that even though we didn’t fully appreciate at the time, we now do.” So, that’s a little tidbit, sort of think in terms of futures.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Vikram, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you all the best of luck in the ways you’re thinking for yourself.

Vikram Mansharamani
Great. Thanks very much, Pete.

566: How to Start Focusing and Stop Firefighting with Mike Michalowicz

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Mike Michalowicz shares how to zero in on the most important issues to fix next.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to identify what you need to fix next.
  2. A crucial question you’re forgetting to ask.
  3. The tremendous energy unleashed by providing context for goals.

About Mike

Mike Michalowicz is the entrepreneur behind three multimillion dollar companies and is the author of Profit First, Clockwork, The Pumpkin Plan, and his newest book, Fix This Next: Make the Vital Change That Will Level Up Your Business. Mike is a former small business columnist for The Wall Street Journal and regularly travels the globe as an entrepreneurial advocate.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Magic Spoon. Enjoy free shipping on delicious, healthy, high-protein cereal that reminds you of childhood. Free shipping on the variety pack at magicspoon.com/HTBA

Mike Michalowicz Interview Transcript

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

Mike Michalowicz
Pete, it’s my joy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I’m excited. I’ve really enjoyed your audiobooks, and you’re kind of a goofball which I am too, so I think feel free to cut loose here. It’s interesting. We had another guest, Simon Sinek, who dubs you as a top contender for the patron saint of entrepreneurs, which is high praise.

Mike Michalowicz
Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m familiar with some stories of saints, and often they include heroically facing adversity. And one of my favorite stories from you involves a tough night at dinner, and some people coming to your aid. Can you share that with us to frame up what you’re all about?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, yeah. So, I started my entrepreneurial journey very early in life right after college and had a couple of early wins under my belt. I sold my first tech company. I was in computer technology. My first tech company was a private equity exit. My second company was a Fortune 500 acquired us, and I’m like, “I am hot shit. I know everything,” which, by the way, seems like to be the impetus or the start of a downfall for many a person when we believe we know all. And I was just full of arrogance and ignorance.

Well, I started a third business that I leave off my CV conveniently as an angel investor, and I sucked at it. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought, “Hey, I’m so smart I know everything about business. As long as I’m here, we’re making money.” I started 10 companies, and within a mere six months, all of them were out of business. I was paying bills for businesses that didn’t even exist anymore and, also, just blew money on just arrogance.

The big house, I got a place in Hawaii for our sabbatical, our family sabbatical. I just blew money on cars and all stuff. And it took me two years, I got a call from my accountant, he says, “Mike, you hit rock bottom. I think you should declare personal bankruptcy,” something actually I didn’t do. I thought I was responsible. But, as a consequence, I had to lose my possessions. We lost our house 30 days later, cars, everything.

I came home the night I heard this from my accountant, and had to face my family because I hadn’t been telling them the truth of the struggles. I really did think, you know, I had a bank account that was dwindling at an exponential rate, somehow, someone would come in and save the day and acquire this mess I had created, but nothing happened. And I came home to my family and told them, “We’re done. We lost it all.” And I was sobbing. I was just devastated. And I had to face my wife, and say, “I’m sorry. We’re losing the house, and we’re losing our cars, and we’re losing our possessions.”

My daughter was nine years old at the time, and she’s sitting there, and I said, “I’m so sorry but I can’t afford for you to go to horseback riding lessons.” That was like 25 bucks for a group session. And she stood up and just ran away. Everyone was crying. And she ran away. I thought she was running away from me. She ran away to her bedroom to grab her piggybank, and she ran back down to me as fast as she could, and she says, “Daddy, since you can’t provide for us, please use my money to support us.” I think I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

I’ve said that story so many times it’s still as devastating. I was so ashamed of who I was, and the arrogance, and the ignorance. And then I forced my daughter, my nine-year old daughter, to save me? Well, that triggered years of struggle for me to reconcile that. I actually went through a depression, I drank, and ultimately discovered that that moment actually has become a source of light, a seedling for me, to realize I didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, that I had to fix these things. And that became a spark for being an author.

I write my business books to solve problems not only for others but for my own problems, my own misunderstandings around business, and simplify the journey and, hopefully, prevent others from experiencing the fallacies and the arrogance and ignorance that I did.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is powerful, and thank you for sharing that again with our audience here.

Mike Michalowicz
My joy.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you are renowned as an author for entrepreneurs and small business owners. And in chatting with your publicity folks, I was like, “Well, I love Mike’s flavor, but we’ve got a little bit of a different audience here, which is more so professionals, kind of in the middle of the hierarchy as opposed to the owners.” But there’s a lot of great sort of tools and frameworks and approaches that are totally applicable in your next opus here, “Fix This Next.” So, can you orient us a little bit in terms of what’s the book about and why is it helpful?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, what I did is I wanted to figure out, “Is there a common DNA or structure for businesses?” And I’m convinced I found it. And it’s something that we all can use regardless of our title or role. We all have a responsibility for the health of the business because collectively it moves us altogether. So, what I did was I wanted to see if there’s a common DNA.

And I, first, started looking at humanity ourselves – me, you, everyone listening in. If you look at the essence of who we are, we’re identical. If you peel back the stuff we judge, the skin, the height, male, female, and we look at the essence of it, the makeup is basically the same. If I was having a heart attack, the doctor wouldn’t say to me, “Where’s your heart? Do you keep it in your foot? Is it in your ear?” No. The heart is in the same place for all humanity, so they know how to operate on us.

Well, the same is true for business. If we peel back the skin of the business, a manufacturer versus a professional services company, or vice versa, we will find there’s a common structure, that’s what I call the business hierarchy of needs. The business hierarchy of needs, I translated from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which defines human needs.

So, this is a quick session on Maslow. Maslow studied human needs and discovered and argues that all of us have base physiological needs. We need to breathe water, I’m sorry, breathe water. Breathe air, drink water, eat food. And if those needs aren’t being satisfied, then we can’t survive. But once they’re satisfied, we go to the next level which is safety needs. We need protection from the elements or harm. Once that’s satisfied, we move onto the longing, the need for relationships, and so forth. And we keep on climbing up ultimately to self-actualization.

But, if at any time, a base-level need is not satisfied, let’s say you and I are having this conversation, we consider it intellectual conversation, we consider it as part of self-actualization, if I start choking on the food I’m eating, well, all of a sudden, my Maslow hierarchy brings me right down to the physiological need of getting that out of my throat.

Well, our business has a hierarchy of needs too. Real quickly, they are sales, that’s the foundation, that’s the creation of oxygen for business; profit, the creation of stability for an organization, without it a business can’t sustain; order, the creation of efficiency, consistency; then there’s impact, which is the creation of transformation, it’s where we have service to our clients beyond the transaction, beyond the commodity; and the highest level is legacy, the creation of permanence, where there’s no dependency on the people that are running the operation, the company is designed for its continued service, and others can come and go, but the business lives on permanently.

The difference between Maslow’s hierarchy and the business hierarchy, while they’re very similar, is one great distinction. Maslow talked about human needs and how we are biologically, neurologically wired into our needs. If you and I, Pete, are walking down a dark alley, and we get the creeps, like someone is going to kill us, what will we do? We will, hopefully, turn around and walk out. And we should because our senses – sight, smell, touch – those senses are triggering, “There’s danger here.”

But the thing is we, as business professionals, are not neurologically wired into our business. We say we trust our gut. I think this is what we got to do. I can feel it. But, really, we need the empirical data to evaluate exactly what the true needs in our business, focus on that, resolve that, and then move onto the next need, resolve that, and so forth, and continue to progress forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so then, let’s talk about the particulars for how that really can be transformational for folks. I’d love to hear some tales about some professionals, some organizations, who applied some of this rigor to great effect.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, I’ll share a coffee shop that does this, and the team rallied around it with what’s going on. As we’re recording this, with the economic crisis, COVID, this company is responding. And let’s evaluate the business hierarchy needs just a little bit further. So, the business hierarchy needs, the five levels, the foundational need is sales. Now, again, the sales is the creation of cash. If your product, your service, your company, your division does not have consistent sales, is not bringing oxygen into that division, so we need to address that first.

And you address it to the adequate levels of supporting profit. That’s actually the simplest base question, “Do I have enough sales to support profitability? If I don’t, we have a sales issue. If we do have sales so we have profit, but we’re not profitable, we actually have a profit issue. Do we have enough margin? Are we controlling the debt we have, and so forth?” Once profit is addressed, we ask ourselves, “Is it adequate to support the layer above it, which is order, efficiency?”

Now, one argument I want to make here is that we’re not ignoring efficiency. You have to have some order and efficiencies in our sales process when we’re doing that. You have to have some system for profitability. I’m just saying this one becomes your concentrated effort. You don’t ignore sales when you’re working on order. You continue it but they must work in relation.

When you get to the order level, this is where it becomes our concentration to resolve efficiency. Now, actually, let me start off with this story because I think it’s the best. This is Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, it’s in the SEC conference. I mean, talking about an organization, thousands and thousands, actually, I think tens of thousands of employees, a massive organization. They implemented the business hierarchy of needs in their own form. They did this before I wrote the book, but they’re far in this process inherently.

And what they noticed back in, I believe, it was the early 2000s, that the school had noticeably less applicants than any of the other SEC schools. So, the first thing we do is, when we have a problem, we ask ourselves, “Where does this reside in this hierarchy?” Well, application is as similar as prospects. They have less prospects, and that’s a sales-level need. So, the company identified, “Okay, we have a need in the sales level, the most foundational level of the business hierarchy.”

Then they asked, “What’s the triggers behind it?” And they went through a process called OMEN. I write about it in the “Fix This Next” book, but OMEN stands for Objective, Measurement, Evaluation frequency, Nurture. It simply means identify what the problem is, measure the process, regularly revisit it, and tweak and change things as we move along, nurture.

They identified this challenge of not getting enough prospects, and they start interviewing prospects of why they aren’t signing up. And they find that the primary reason is the campus ain’t so pretty. One of the biggest determining factors of a student picking a college happens within the first five minutes of visiting a campus. It’s their first impression. And back then, Ole Miss didn’t have such a pretty campus. So, they realized, “We have an issue.”

They then went to their frontline, the people that beautify the campus, the landscape maintenance team, and they said, “We need a more attractive campus. What do we need to do?” Well, interesting, and this happens sometimes in the business hierarchy that needs get interlinked. And the maintenance team said, “Well, we want to do beautification projects. We don’t have enough time.” Now, their campus is a thousand plus acres, that’s a lot of acreage to maintain, and they only have a crew of a certain size, and so Ole Miss was forced upon a decision, “Do we double or triple our team, or do we enable our team to find alternative solutions?”

Well, it wasn’t in their budget to triple the maintenance team so the team had to figure it out. And one thing they noticed is the biggest time-consuming element, now this is an efficiency thing, an order level, one of the challenges at the order level was how long it took to mow or maintain the properties. When they were mowing, the fastest way to mow a property is to go in a straight line. But when they were coming upon trees, they had to navigate around the low-hanging limbs. When they got to a mulch pattern, that was in a square, they had to kind of jostle around that pattern. And when a garbage can was in the grass, they had to kind of go around and get out with the weed whacker.

So, the team said, “If we want to increase efficiency here, cut the limbs off the tree so we can go right under them, 10 feet high,” which, by the way, is a great way to beautify trees, they raised the limbs. They said, “Change the square patterns and angular patterns of mulch always to an oval so we can do sweeping motions right around it and continue on.” They made decisions to increase efficiency which allowed them now to maintain the property in half the time, freeing up the other half of their time to work on beautification of the campus.

Well, fast-forward only a mere few years, Ole Miss became the most beautiful campus. It has the reputation for the most beautiful campus in the SEC conference, perhaps in all of the nation, one of the top-rated campuses on attraction, on its beauty. And you won’t be surprised, they had an exponential increase in their prospects, their applications. So, that’s an example where leadership identified, “We have a problem.” But instead of just saying, “We got to fix the way this place looks,” they looked at the hierarchy, and said, “This is a sales issue. Where do prospects first enter the campus?” That was their first beautification project was near the administration building where students will come in, the students center, and so forth.

They spoke with the frontline, the people that are closest to the problem, and got their direction. And in this case, they killed two birds with one stone. They brought efficiency to their organization at the order level while addressing a sales issue. So, that’s an example of how this business hierarchy of needs is a great way to diagnose and pinpoint what we need to work on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is awesome. And, boy, way back in the day, we interviewed Jeff McManus, who leads up the team.

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, yeah, Jeff is the leader of that team. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, yeah, he shared some more elements to the story, so that was fun. Well, so then, I imagine then in a business or an organization, you’re going to come up with dozens or hundreds of problems or opportunities, as my favorite reference, that you’d notice that could benefit from some attention. So, if you’re thinking about the hierarchy of needs, how do you determine who wins? I mean, do the sales issues always win because they’re at the base of the needs? Or, how do we kind of navigate and triage that?

Mike Michalowicz
Great question. As opportunities or challenges present themselves, you always address the base level first because if the base is compromised, the entire foundation of the structure is. I set a reference to that coffee shop so let me explain how they did this. This coffee shop was growing, and multiple team members, they built a second location, they then opened a roastery facility where they’re preparing coffee. And what they noticed is they’ve been in business for 13 years, and rapidly growing coffee companies. It’s called Cottonwood Coffee, by the way, in South Dakota.

And the leader of that organization, his name is Jacob, noticed that when he looked at the business hierarchy of needs, that they had some sales issues and prospect attractions and so forth. But, also, said, “We’ve been in business for 13 years. We’re one of the most established providers in this area. We’re beyond sales issues. We’re really about impact and legacy of being of service to our community.” And he tried to continue the focus there but the business kept on kind of getting stalled in its growth. Well, finally, he said, “You know what, maybe it is a sales issue.” And he went back to the community they were serving and how they were serving them. And by getting back to the base, all of a sudden, that opened up sales and it allowed them to build up the rest of the structure.

Picture this like building an actual structure building that has five levels. If you want to build a tall building with a big top and you want to have a huge impact, you can’t have a little needlepoint structure below it. It’ll collapse on that. It won’t be strong enough It’s like a pyramid. You must have a foundation that’s adequate and substantial to support the level above it. And that level must be adequate to support the next. If, at any time, we want to grow up stronger at a higher level, we need to make sure the foundation is appropriate to support it. So, this is not a ladder. You don’t just climb up and aspire to be at the top. You cycle through, constantly strengthening the base and the lower levels to support the higher levels.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m hearing that. I guess I’m just imagining an organization in which it’s sort of like, “Okay, we got 60 problems/opportunities. They’re sprinkled across all of these dimensions, and some of them fall into sales.” So, I think it’s a good argument that you got to handle that before to really kind of flourish and have that foundation. I guess I’m thinking, in a way, you know, hey, sales, everything could always be better. So, how do you go about maybe doing the data collection or the benchmarking to say, “Oh, I thought our sales were fine. Oh, but maybe they’re not. I thought our profits were fine. Oh, but maybe they’re not”? Because I think they could always be better. So, what do you think of that?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, everything could always be better, but it can only be better in relation. So, the simple question, and there is no specific number I can share, but what I can say is that, “Is the base adequate to support enough and substantial elements to the next level? Is sales strong enough to support our target and goal and profit?” And a lot of this is just communication.

I’m surprised at how many divisions. We have some public companies that implemented the business hierarchy of needs, and these divisions are taking on without consideration of the overall business hierarchy of needs. So, there’s a greater business hierarchy, and then within each division becomes its own little hierarchy so we got to work in relation to that. So, what’s the major corporate goal and need specifically?

Then we look back and we say, “In our division or in our field of responsibility, do I have adequate sales to support the profit expectation for me? And if so, then I actually have a profit issue if profit isn’t there. It’s not a sales issue.” Sadly, I see businesses go, “You know, we just need to sell more. We’re going to sell our way out of this.” It’s the most common thing I see from business leaders, and it’s one of the biggest mistakes because sales do not translate to profit. I see businesses sell unprofitable items. And while their sales dollars go up, the profit margins are getting thinner and thinner, and the business is actually struggling more. So, it’s all in relation.

We need clarity from the next one who we’re connected to, the next leader that we’re working with, and, “What are the proper expectations to drive your needs? What are the sales expectations? What degree of efficiency? How many resources can we use to get this stuff done? And what are the turnaround times?” Those are questions we have to have clarity on. In that way, we’re speaking up the chain all the way to the leader or leaders of our organization to understand the needs and they drive them back down. So, it works in relation and it works through communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like there’s expectation setting and communicating that’s going forward.

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, yeah, of course, right? It’s funny, I say of course and yet it doesn’t happen. I’m shocked at how many businesses have arbitrary goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at is the arbitrariness. Like, how do we un-arbitrary them and make them based on something real?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. And the similar question is, “Why and how is this serviced?” I worked for a Fortune 500 after they got acquired, and I was blown away by the lack of communication at least around goal-setting. There’s a lot of communication around red tape but there was not a lot of communication around goal-setting. And so, when I was told, “Hey, Mike, your department has to do X.” I said, “Why?” And they’re like, “Because that’s what we told you.” I’m like, “But what’s the reasoning behind it?” And that started an understanding of the importance of how it serves the company in a greater whole.

Now, in context, it actually empowered me in that division. I only worked there for a year before I went back out and started my own business, but then it gave me context of why I need to achieve, what I need to achieve. That’s a very empowering thing, so get the context.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that so much because when you ask why, they’re like, “What?” It’s like, “No one’s ever really asked me that before, Mike. I just got accustomed to telling people what they need to do, and then they try to do it.”

Mike Michalowicz
They just do it. Yeah, it was shocking. And part of it, too, I think was just history, “That’s what we always do. We just pick 10% higher.” “Well, why not pick 50% higher?” “Well, because we never do that.” So, that context. And it isn’t to be challenging in the confrontational sense. It’s we’re challenging in seeking clarity. And just because, in that case, the leader of our department wasn’t telling me that, didn’t mean it was right to ignore that, that I had a responsibility to step up and ask, which made us both better leaders, I think, as a result.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. So, then let’s zoom into the professional who’s somewhere in the middle of things, and they then communicated a target, “We need to reduce the manufacturing waste rate by 10% or the conversion rate of clients needs to be increased by 10%,” it’s like something. And maybe have a good conversation about, “Well, why?” “Oh, I see how that makes sense, interrelates and fits with the other dimensions.” How do you go about making that happen in terms of determining what to fix next within a narrower scope of your responsibilities?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, so this is where we present the hierarchy of needs. So, you talked about conversion, you talked about manufacturing, the factor of efficiency.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so two separate kinds of…

Mike Michalowicz
Two separate things. One was an order level; one was a sales level. So, what we do is we go back to our department leads and say, “Listen, I’ve been given direction in this hierarchy, and there’s two different demands.” The default is we always go to the base. But do we understand, is that a necessity? Because the leader can be giving you arbitrary goals. Do we have adequate sales to, first, drive that efficiency and will have a greater impact on our business? Or do need the sales in place first in order to make the investment in building the efficiency? So, we have to figure out the sequence.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Like, you might be too small to make investing in the super cool technology or robot, but what?

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, my God. I see companies that have so much potential efficiency but so low flow because it becomes actually less efficient. I worked with a major playset manufacturer, one of the bigger ones there, over $100 million in revenue, and what’s so fascinating is they had this massive equipment, and the complexity in setting it up was so time-consuming. Now, they had the demand. Once that system was set, it was just ring out process to process, so the gain was in more volume. But if they just placed one playset through that, the 16 hours of setting up, someone could hand-paint three playsets on their own. It’d be faster, actually, to do hand painting. So, this stuff always works in relation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great perspective there. Okay. Well, then I’d love to hear, in terms of sort of what’s the alternative, like if we’re not thinking in this way, I guess it’s not arbitrary and you’re not motivated and inspired because you’re not connected to the why. You could misallocate your resources and attention on things that don’t really matter. Could you sort of share with us kind of what does life look like when you’re doing this versus not doing this? And what are some of the best and worst practices to making sure you’re doing this well?

Mike Michalowicz
So, with the business hierarchy of needs and the fix this next process, the first thing we always talk about is what’s called lifestyle congruence. It is the base of motivation, “How does this serve you? If you do something, how does it serve you?” And this is how all humanity is wired. So, there’s more than just the organizational needs. It’s how the organizational needs translate to the service of you? Does it give you an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder? Does it give you actually more time, more free time? What objectives are you serving on your own? So, it’s that interpersonal relationship.

Without the hierarchy of needs, without the understanding, I’ve seen business professionals get into a very much an action-reaction mode, meaning there’s some trigger, a request, a demand, that incessant string of email coming in, and we just put out fire after fire after fire. Something comes in, we react to it, but there’s no contemplation.

So, the business hierarchy of needs, the differentiator is an action, a trigger that happens, but now there’s contemplation between the action-reaction. There’s an intentional pregnant pause to say, “How is this of service to the organization? How is this congruent with what I’m trying to set as my own objectives?” And now we move much more deliberately.

The business hierarchy of needs helps us focus on the next impactful thing to do. Without it, people focus on the next apparent thing, and there’s a constant stream of apparent issues and so it becomes a randomization. Those divisions, those leaders often make a few steps forward, and a few steps back, and a few steps forward. The ones who are deliberately identifying the most impactful thing and act on it are much more effective in moving forward consistently, and growing to their objectives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Well, can you walk us through maybe a couple more examples of there’s someone, and they are…we got a set of responsibilities for a division, and then they are doing some real smart prioritization of fixing the right thing next.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, so I was working with a corporation which I want to leave nameless, but since the COVID incident, they’ve lost a massive volume of customers. Actually, the experience, it’s more massive churn. They’re losing customers but they’re gaining. And I may or may not have said to the board of this company, maybe I just gave it away there, I said to the board of this company, and we had an impromptu discussion. The company was working on the impact level.

Now, by all means, you don’t ignore sales. They had sustainable sales and it continues to grow on its own but where the concentrated effort need to be was on impact of being great and great service. All of a sudden, with this shift and this drop in clients, because these clients were not business or a B2B business, and these other clients coming in, now all attention went to sales. The leadership team redirected their focus and said, “How do we cater to this new market? How do we serve these customers that are leaving us almost at a whim because of fear? How do we protect them and retain the core function?” They provided very necessary function for these businesses. Without them, they may go out of business. You need this function. And then, “How do we re-address it?”

So, very quickly on the dime, they saw an issue present itself just when this case broke, or they noticed the metrics, the empirical data of a drop of customers, and all leadership looked there and said, “We will achieve legacy and impact. We have been satisfying that but, for now, we can’t stop building that third and fourth floor of the building. We got to get back in the basement because we have a crack in the foundation,” and leadership went down there, they responded very rapidly as a result. And the story will reveal itself over the next months, perhaps a year or two ahead, but their quick response and deliberate response has put a tourniquet on potential massive loss if they just said, “You know what, we’re going to just continue to focus at this level and not redirect our attention.”

And I think they would’ve been made aware of it because they always looked at the business hierarchy of needs and are asking, “Where do we need our attention now?” They’re responding quicker than if they weren’t considering that hierarchy.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if you can give us, are there any sort of shortcuts or really kind of quick questions or indicators or acid tests that might make you say, “Aha! I have a hunch that I need to focus my energies over here.”

Mike Michalowicz
Yes. So, quick indicator is if you’re taking on debt, if you have increasing demand on budgets, and you don’t have increasing sales, so if debt is increasing in excess of sales and profit, that’s a massive indicator that we actually have a profit issue, there’s a margin issue in the organization. One of the shortcut techniques that I love I see companies implementing right now is in repositioning. If an offering, if you are not buying an offering, to try to sell harder, particularly at the macroeconomics that’s occurring now, it’s not usually a right response. We’re using a technique called one step prior.

Here’s what it is. You look at your final offering. I’ll just use the restaurant because probably everyone on this call has experiences with a restaurant. When you go to a restaurant and you sit down, they deliver food to your table. That’s the end product. But if we look one step prior to that, well, what are they doing? They’re carrying the food to you, they’re delivering it. Well, that’s an offering in itself, the delivery of food, and some restaurants are responding that way. What happens one step prior to that? Well, there’s a preparation of food. A restaurant could make that an offering, make it a new product by recording the 10 most popular recipes and deliver that as a new product offering. What happens one step prior to that? Well, there’s the procurement of raw materials, the inventory, the meats and vegetables. Maybe they can sell that.

So, I see organizations reconsidering if they’re to stop in sales, or you some empirical data with a drop off, one option, too, is reconsider the packaging in the first place, and that’s a real simple shortcut to do that.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, the last thing I just want to mention is, well, there’s a resource for you, if I can share that, and there’s a process. So, I’ll do the process first, it’s called OMEN, it stands for Objective, Measurement, Evaluation frequency, and Nurture. Once we identify what to work on, you can use OMEN as a simple structure to measure and ensure the progress, the results you want.

Then there’s a resource that I’m encouraging people to use because it’s totally free and it’s a quick evaluation for your division, your business. It’s at FixThisNext.com. So, if you go to FixThisNext.com, you could go on a free evaluation. You can take a 5-minute, this is a series of questions, to really pinpoint what to work on next. And there’s no download. The results appear on the screen, and you can take action on it. So, it’s a good compass or guidance tool.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, I have it above my desk at home, and I’m going to bring a big one and put it in our hallway here at our office, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” In my final assessment of business and life, the most successful people are the ones who are most joyous, it’s the ones who truly are simply themselves, and allow the business to be a platform to be more of themselves.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Right now, I’m studying quantum physics, and I’m studying this concept of [31:47] but basically that we’re in a box universe. Actually, that’s not even the right term but that all time has happened simultaneously. So, the past, the present, and the future has already all occurred. It’s all available. It’s time slicing effectively, and so it’s a mind wrap. I’ve been studying it intensely and really trying to wrap my head around it, and it’s changing our perspective of life itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Could you point us to a book, a resource, to get in that?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. Well, Stephen Hawking has some good resource around that. “Simple Answers to Big Questions” is a good starting point, and then the BBC has some really great basic teachings in some of these ethereal concepts.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book in general?

Mike Michalowicz
Well, I say current one, it’s appealing to me, it’s called “100 Days of Rejection” by Jia Jiang, I think, is his last name. And it’s just this guy who studied the power of intentionally being rejected. It’s really a cool concept.

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

Mike Michalowicz
A favorite tool? We use a tool called Voxer here in our office for rapid communication. It’s a really cool way to batch communication and keep a record of communication. I think, particularly, in the virtualization of business that’s really being enforced now, you have to, that we need a new way to have still a semi-tactile experience and engage, and this has superseded voicemail or email. It’s just a better form of communication for us called Voxer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think my friend Lisa who’s also on the podcast, Lisa Cummings, loves Voxer. And how about a favorite habit, something that helps you be awesome?

Mike Michalowicz
Well, every morning, I exercise. And after that, I do a singing bowl. It’s a bowl that you hit and you can rub a stick on it, and it rings. And I use that for meditation or prayer time. It’s just a great way for me to put thoughts out into our world and universe, and it’s a great way to sense relief too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you move the bowl and do you say anything or just think or…?

Mike Michalowicz
No. So, a singing bowl, it’s like a bowl, like a cereal bowl made of metal. You tap a stick on it and it makes a chime sound. And then, as you move the stick around, the vibrations continue so the chime actually gets louder and louder, and you can make it softer, and there’s ways to change directions on the chime. And the visualization I use, is it puts out sound waves or vibrations into the world, and so as I have my thoughts, and I put thoughts out for the goodness of humanity, of people, health, I can see it visually going out. So, it’s kind of a cool visualization tool and an audio tool.

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

Mike Michalowicz
You know, one thing that’s been really powerful is “People speak the truth through their wallets, not their words.” And I’ve used that as an asset. It’s measure people by their action, particularly when we’re in a business. Are they willing to spend or not? Because if they’re saying, “We support this. We love it,” and they don’t spend, they don’t support it. They don’t love it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve lived that a few times.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah.

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

Mike Michalowicz
So, you can go to FixThisNext.com to do that evaluation. And if you want to learn more about my research of business and business operations, you can go to MikeMichalowicz.com. But here’s the deal, Pete, no one can spell Michalowicz so I have a shortcut. It’s Mike Motorbike, as in the motorcycle, it’s my nickname in high school, so I still own it. So, MikeMotorbike.com. And if you go there, all my research is available for free on blogs and podcasts. I also have my books there. I used to write for the Wall Street Journal, and it’s all for free at MikeMotorbike.com.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, listen, this is the time to step up. And the world kind of got punched all business leaders in the face right now, and it’s also asking you to turn up the heat because we need the economy to keep going. So, the call to action is really a call to arms. It’s time for us as business professionals to step up, step forward, and start kicking some ass.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mike, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. I wish you all kinds of luck as you’re fixing things next.

Mike Michalowicz
Exactly. Thank you.

565: How to Get Out of a Rut and into Your Flow with Jonah Sachs

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Jonah Sachs says: "Stop thinking of yourself as an expert. Start thinking of yourself as an explorer."

Jonah Sachs discusses how a simple shift in the way we think helps us achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the experts are often the most unreliable
  2. How to make any task more exciting and engaging
  3. How to turn anxiety into fuel for creativity

About Jonah

Jonah Sachs is an author, speaker and viral marketing pioneer. Jonah helped to create some of the world’s first, and still most heralded, digital social change campaigns. As co-founder of Free Range Studios, his work on Amnesty International’s blood diamonds viral film was seen by 20 million people and was delivered to every member of congress, helping drive the passage of the Clean Diamond Act.

He later helped to create “The Story of Stuff,” which, viewed by over 60 million people, marked a turning point in the fight to educate the public about the environmental and social impact of consumer goods. Jonah’s work and opinions have been featured in The New York TimesThe Washington PostCNNFOX NewsSundance Film FestivalNPR. Sachs also pens a column for Fast Company, which named him one of today’s 50 most influential social innovators.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Pitney Bowes. Simplify your shipping while saving money. Get a free 30-day trial and 10-lb shipping scale at pb.com/AWESOME

Jonah Sachs Interview Transcript

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

Jonah Sachs
Hey, thanks for having me, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really excited to dig into your wisdom. And you’ve got an interesting turn of a phrase – unsafe thinking. What does this mean?

Jonah Sachs
It’s just the idea that if the world is changing around us, our careers are changing around us, business is changing, that what once was safe, relying on what we once knew, what we’ve always done, what’s worked for us so far, is actually incredibly dangerous, that if the world changes we need to change with it. And so, trying to help people get out of that sense that they need to seek safety and really jump in in a smart way to unsafe thinking, which is about kind of breaking all your own rules.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, so that’s a fun phrase there because unsafe, we think, “Hey, safety is important. We don’t want to do anything that’s not safe.” But here you are advocating, “Unsafe thinking is what’s up.”

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, definitely. I’ve just had my own personal experience of running a business for 15 years that eventually I did sell. But going through this process of being on the wild cutting edge of viral video in the early 2000s, and then getting into that place that so many businesses get once they reach a certain level of success that so many people get to, which is you’re just trying to recreate what you did before. But the internet changes so fast, and every industry changes so fast these days, that that falling back on what you know what you know is just deadly. And it became deadly for my business. And so, I kind of took this quest to learn how to break through and to teach myself new ways to think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, can you share, specifically, you say it became deadly, how did that unfold?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. So, I started this company called Free Range Studios when I was 22 years old with my best friend from high school, and we had no idea what we were doing basically. We were doing social change, advertising, and somebody once asked us, “Can you make an internet video?” We’d never seen an internet video before back in 2000 but we figured we’d give it a try. And I think that kind of beginner’s luck, that kind of just joy of doing what we love to do, really helped us break into an industry or start an industry in a way. We were getting 20, 40, 50 million views on some of these socially-conscious activism videos.

And then, as time went on, and we tried, more and more people were coming to us, saying, “Can you reproduce that video you make? Can you make me something like that?” We had 35 employees, we were trying to churn it out kind of like a factory. And what I was noticing first was, “Look, we need a lot more structure here. We need a lot more rules. We need a lot more ways of getting people to just do what we know works.” And the more rules I put in place and the more management consultants I worked with, the less fun everything became, and the less excitement there was in the work, and, frankly, the less creative the work was.

And I kept thinking, “All right. Well, how do I put better rules in place? Or how do I discipline people more to get them to just be creative?” And I realized at some moment when people started quitting, when I just looked at our work and I was like, “Yeah, this looks like the same stuff we were doing five years ago,” that all those rules and processes were actually getting in the way of creative breakthrough. And I didn’t know how to get out of it. It was actually a really difficult life moment for me. Really depressing and I doubted myself.

And so, I started reading neurobiology texts, social sciences, and asking how people that I really admired how they were able to break out of these ruts. And I found that almost everybody who was successful got to this point at some point, what makes them continue to be successful is they found a way to break out of it, and that’s what I was really after when I was doing the research for this book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, speaking of research, I’d love it if you could share some of the most hard-hitting studies and numbers associated with the benefits of stepping out and doing some more unsafe thinking.

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, certainly. So, one of my favorites is they did a bunch of research on expertise, and they did kind of a broad study of about 20,000 expert predictions, and they found that the most vaunted experts over 10 years in each of their fields in business, in politics, in invention in business, were worse than dart-throwing monkeys at predicting what was going to happen in the future. So, they were worse than random chance at making predictions. And how could that be?

Well, they went a level deeper and they found that the more you were quoted on TV, the more social currency you had, the more likely you were to actually be even more wrong than your average expert. So, experts tend to be less accurate in making predictions than someone who’s just a complete beginner in many fields when the world is changing quickly around them. Not only that, the worst thing you can do is believe yourself to be an expert.

Once you believe you’re an expert, then you get even more stupid. So, in a couple of controlled studies, they showed that people who first said that they knew a lot about financial terms, primed themselves to then say that they knew what the meaning of fake financial terms were. So, they would ask them a bunch of terms, and say, “Are you familiar with all these terms?” And some of them were completely fake. The people who claimed that they knew more were the ones who were fooling themselves into believing and too proud to say, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that.”

So, basically, as we gain expertise, we gain also the ability to have impact in our field, and so we start to move up this curve of impact and quality. But at a certain point, most people start to go back down. It’s kind of an inverted U. And you get to the top of that U the minute you believe that you’ve become an expert.

And so, what I learned from that is that you have to break out of that sense that you know what you’re doing. You have to break out of that sense of clinging to what you bring to the table, what maybe people are paying you for, they’re looking for expertise so they’re paying you to have the answers. Really, in a world that’s changing quickly, you have to have more questions. And so, I looked for research on how that actually works. How do you actually break yourself out of that expert’s trap? And there’s a couple of things that do that.

One is kind of humiliating yourself, getting used to the idea of acting and showing yourself to be a beginner and to be an explorer rather than an expert. I tell the story of a CEO of a 56,000-person company. The company was going kind of down the tube when he was brought in. He knew he didn’t have the answers for it. He brought together 5,000 of his employees in an arena, and this is in India where kind of CEOs are known to be sort of emperors in a way or thought to be. And instead of giving his presentation, he started doing this Bollywood dance.

And he was kind of a heavy middle-aged guy, he’s sweating profusely, he’s a terrible dancer, and the arena is kind of rocking it but no one is dancing with him, and by the end, everyone is kind of laughing and wondering what’s going on, and he kind of just sits down and he starts to give the presentation. And he basically said, from that moment, he was able to pull himself down off that pedestal. He was able to admit that he didn’t have all the answers. He was actually asked by the employees then to go give the same presentation to everyone in the company.

So, when you do whatever you have to, to break that sense that you stand above, you start to break that expert’s trap. Other things you can do is engaging in fields where you know nothing. We’re so specialized these days in our work, and we’re so desiring to kind of keep going where we know. If you break out and start to…I think singing lessons is something I’m terrible at, but I do it because I begin to get more creative by stepping into a field in which I have no expertise. People who live abroad for six months are shown to be more creative than people who haven’t had those experiences.

So, the whole take away from that piece of research, which I really love, was stop thinking of yourself as an expert. Start thinking of yourself as an explorer. And the weird thing about it is that when you do that, you will find that people who follow you will not have less confidence in you. There’s a lot of studies now that show that people prefer leaders who are humble and self-effacing to those who act like they have all the answers.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s so much good stuff in there, and that really resonates in terms of like experts and predictions. Like, I can’t help but shake my head when I’m reading financial predictions stuff, it’s just like, “Well, you sound smart because you’re using all the words, and you have a theory, and it kind of adds up that, okay, that theory might indeed result in those financial results.” But, in practice, it’s like Back to the Future or something. It’s like if you could really predict like that, you would just be crazy rich and it’s unrealistic.

Jonah Sachs
That is true. That is true.

Pete Mockaitis
So, okay. Well, so then that’s really interesting.

Jonah Sachs
Those people wouldn’t have to be writing books.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Right.
Well, so that’s great in terms of, especially, when you think you’re the expert then you’re in even more trouble because you’re not, I guess, seeking the dis-confirmatory – is that a word? The evidence that goes against the expertise…

Jonah Sachs
Yup, dis-confirmatory. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
…that’s there.

Jonah Sachs
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then let’s get into it in terms of how should we go about building in the practices so we’re engaging in unsafe thinking and reaching wise decisions as frequently as possible?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. Well, the book is a long, long exploration of how we do that with kind of six or seven main areas we can do it in. And I can jump to a couple more of the ways that we start actually stepping into those practices. Before we do, I do want to also say that we live in a world now where this has also become this sort of negative feeling about experts in certain realms where I’m not arguing for the idea that, for instance, in the middle of this COVID crisis we shouldn’t listen to what doctors and scientists have to say.

We still, of course, live in a world where gaining information, education, understanding your environment is incredibly important. It’s just that even those doctors and experts perform better when they don’t hold themselves up to have all the answers, when they’re constantly in that curious mode. So, I’m not saying, “Just go listen to your uncle about what to do to treat a pandemic,” but I am saying that the more humble you are as an expert, the more flexible you’re going to be out in your environment.

But, yeah, let’s look at a couple other things that we can do to be more creative and to be more flexible in our thinking. One thing that I found that was just incredibly fascinating and really helped me break out of a few of my traps was this idea of attuning the level of challenge that you have to the level of competency you have. And that’s so often what gets us stuck. When we reach an impasse, and we want to fall back on what we’ve always known, and we find it’s not working, that’s often because our skills are not perfectly tuned yet to the challenge that we’re taking on.

So, if you want to understand this, you look at kind of motivation, right? And there’s been a lot of work done on motivation, and you probably heard some of this stuff about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They used to think that people were only motivated by rewards like getting raises, making more money, status, all that kind of stuff. But then about 20 years ago, they started to really realize that there’s more deep motivations that people carry with them, that when you actually give them rewards at times, they start to be less motivated.

There are some interesting studies that show that young children who are asked to do art projects are more creative when you don’t offer them candy for who’s going to make the best piece of art. So, that’s called intrinsic motivation. But we often run out of intrinsic motivation when the going gets tough, and that’s when we go back to our stereotypical thinking, and that’s when we begin to really fail.

So, where do you draw that motivation from? Well, usually we think of intrinsic motivation coming from things like, “Oh, I have a passion for the work that I’m doing,” or, “Oh, I’m an artist,” or, “I’m an inventor,” and yet we all have so many tasks we have to go through that are not necessarily intrinsically motivating. Any piece of building a career is going to be of varying degrees of excitement. We have to do them all well to make our careers work.

So, how do we keep that motivation and that creativity up? Well, that’s where this theory called flow theory really becomes important. This researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll never be able to spell it, I had to train myself to say it, but he was a rock climber, and he began to ask himself this question, which was, “Why do I go out there, nearly break my bones, rip up my fingertips, kind of give up all my money in time so that I can try to get to the top of a mountain from which I’m just going to come right back down? Where’s the motivation coming from in that?”

And he began to form an early theory, which is now one of the best-tested creativity theories, which is that people, when given a challenge that’s just at the edge of their skills, will tune in and almost obsessively work on that problem. It’s why people play so many video games because the video game is always just a little bit better than you are, and it never gets too far ahead, and it never comes too far behind.

So, when you find yourself in a situation where your motivation is beginning to flag, you’re probably out of flow. You’ll know you’re in flow because you’re working for 12 hours and you hardly notice it, or you just can’t wait to get back to that project. You know you’re out of flow when you’re procrastinating, you’re putting it off, and you’re phoning it in. So, what do you do? It’s not really the task itself. It really has to do with whether your skills are just being pressed and just at the lower level of the challenge itself.

And so, what I ask people to do, and which I find to be extremely effective, is, “Look at that thing that you’ve been trying to do, look at that thing you’re procrastinating, either it’s not challenging enough for you, therefore, you’re getting bored by it and becoming rote. So, how could you change the way that you do it so that you gamify it, in a sense, you add challenge to it? Or, on the other hand, it might be a little too far beyond your skillset to do it well. In which case, even when you’re in a hurry, it really makes sense to step back and brush up those skills.” Again, that’s where we go to breaking that ego of the expert, and saying, “I got to learn something here.”

So, the next time that you’re finding yourself flagging and losing motivation, I would really try to chart where your skills are, where are challenges, and where they’re departing. If you’re bored, you know it’s not challenging enough. And if you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, you know it’s too challenging. And in the book, I just give lots of ways for companies to be organized that way, for people to break up tasks into different phases to keep that flow going. So, another tip, that’s what really gets that creative brain going. When you get in flow, you really do better work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jonah, I would love it if we could really kind of go through a number of levers or tweaks to make something a bit more or a bit less challenging because I don’t have a whole lot of ideas here. Hey, there’s some humble self-effacing action there.

Jonah Sachs
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, in practice…

Jonah Sachs
I thought you were the expert here.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess if I want to make it more challenging, sometimes I’ll set a timer and see if I can do it faster within a timeline, or I might try to see if I could do a whole batch of them, like, “Have you ever done three in a row?” to turn that into some more challenge. And if it’s too challenging, sometimes I’ll just try to split it into just the tiniest increments, like, “Step one, open up the email where they ask me to do that thing. Step two, list out each deliverable that they want in that email. Step three, open a blank Excel spreadsheet…”

Jonah Sachs
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it really does help in terms of, “Oh, I’ve been avoiding it. This is hard. I don’t know where to start.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, you do know where to start. It starts by opening up the email.” So, that’s really all I got in terms of tricks to make something easier or harder. What else do you recommend?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, I’ve got a few of those, of these kinds of tips. And what you’re talking about, in some ways, are these fairly rote tasks, which are very important actually to doing them well. The high level of competency in rote tasks is actually key to creativity. When you’re not doing those things well, you’re acting like the mad professor who’s super creative but not very competent, you’re actually putting a lot more stress on your brain and decreasing your creative abilities.

But I do want to differentiate between really creative tasks and tasks that you just kind of have to slog through. So, talk a little bit about the tasks that you just want to slog through. I looked at a lot of research about how bad, and you’ve probably heard about this, how bad we are at multitasking, and how much stress it puts in our brain to do a number of things at once. So, you might be doing something like, “All right, I’ve got this slog thing, it takes me an hour and a half to update my CRM, or to send out this email, or both.” Take a screencast of what you’re doing for about 10 minutes, see how many times you’re switching apps, see how many times you’re actually working, or checking your email, or picking up your phone, actually look at what you’re doing.

We live in a world where usually we’re doing two or three things at once. And things that seem really hard and take a long time, actually take very short if you shut out all outside distractions. It’s actually part of staying in flow is shutting out distractions. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, he apparently used to put hot glue into his ethernet port, back in the day when you needed a wired connection, and worked out of a windowless non-airconditioned office where no sound could get in. He basically shut out all outside, and he said it was the only way he could work.

And I think it’s really interesting because so few of us do work that way. So, one, shut out the distraction that is probably causing things to take twice or three times as long as you thought they were. It is not easy but sometimes when we see how hard it is, we realize how addicted we are to distractions. So, that’s one of them.

Another one is to break up, just like you’re saying, break things down into tasks, some things, smaller tasks. The creative side of your tasks require intrinsic motivation, and you don’t really need to get rewarded for that. You kind of want to isolate the parts of the task that you really enjoy, and, like I say, if there are parts of the creative side, if you need more inspiration or training, give yourself that time because sometimes we need to up that ability.

But other things that have been shown to really work are to think about a problem very directly and hard for about 15 to 20 minutes, make sure you have all the parameters of the problem, and then go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap, step away from it. It’s usually the background processing in your mind that will come up with original ideas when you’ve ran out of other ideas, because what happens in that first 15-20 minutes, the most obvious solutions come forth, and then it’s when you let your mind rest that new ideas. So, for the more creative ideas and more creative tasks, I recommend this sort of on again, off again burst of creativity and focus, and then open-minded for solution-searching.

And then, finally, because, again, we can go on all day just about this one piece of it, but there’s a lot of research to suggest that some tasks really do require external motivators. And so, sometimes you have to treat yourself like a parent if you’re really procrastinating, and say, “I’m going to give you that cookie, or I’m going to let you watch that TV, or I’m going to give you that reward, if you do these three things,” and set small goals for yourself, and give yourself small rewards.

A lot of people report like having that little treat at the end is a strong signal to their brain and a strong dopamine hit that makes the task not as hard as it once seemed. So, these are all kinds of ways essentially of managing energy through the long task of doing things that are hard as opposed to just reverting to going back and doing the things that are easy.

I can tell you that if your main mode of operation is to always work on the things that are easy for you, you are basically atrophying at your desk, and won’t be long until you’re way underperforming to your potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly and that really connects there in terms of it can feel unsafe to do the thing that’s really hard and you’re not quite sure you could do, but it’s so essential to do that. I want to follow up on that point you made, that certain tasks really can benefit from treating yourself like a child and there’s going to be a treat if you do this. What are the sorts of tasks that seem to benefit most from that reward-treat-carrot action?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, those tend to be the more rote, less creative, left brain type of tasks. So, you have to do things very precisely, you know how to do them, they’re difficult only in that they take attention and they take diligence. Those are things that tend to do better. And if you’re working with employees too, those are the kinds of things you want to give people extrinsic motivations to do, “Clean something thoroughly,” whether that’s a bathroom or a database, “Make sure that we have received all our receipts and accounted for them.” Those are the kinds of things that you want to give external motivation for because there’s really not that much excitement from a job well-done. You’re just expected to do it well and you have to, but there’s no real intrinsic joy in doing it.

Something like, “Come up with a new slogan,” “Pick new colors,” “Come up with a creative solution to a problem that we’ve never solved before.” Those are all things you don’t need to give rewards for in that sense. You will want to celebrate people’s creativity, give them more open space, give yourself more open space, and try to dial back that pressure to do it quickly is always helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I want to talk about sort of the social dimension here of unsafe thinking. So, we talked about kind of managing yourself and your productivity and the challenges you take on, adjusting the difficulty. Now, it can be tricky and feel unsafe to challenge someone else’s viewpoint in a meeting to say something, in however you say it, to convey, “I disagree. I think that there’s an alternative which may serve us better,” can be quite intimidating and feel unsafe for people, maybe rightly, because there’s retribution and animosity, or maybe wrongly, it’s just a boogeyman. But, tell us, what are some of your best practices, pro tips, for engaging in unsafe thinking and articulating that with others?

Jonah Sachs
Oh, man, this one is really, really hard because so many workplaces are the sort of schizophrenic mixtures of both really wanting creative employees and really beating them down when they don’t fall in line with company flow. And so, let me just start by saying there’s this fascinating study that looked at teachers, asking them, “All right, first, rate all of your kids in your class from your most creative to your least creative.” So, they put them on a spectrum, obviously, without telling the kids.

Next, they said, “Who are your favorite students and who are your least favorite students?” And, across the board, without exception, less creative kids fell into the favorite student category, and more creative kids were in the troublesome category that teachers actually didn’t like. And when asked, “How important is it for you to teach creativity?” teachers said it was the number one most important thing that they wanted to do. So, this tells us exactly that, by fourth grade, we’re already getting these mixed messages, “Be creative and fall in line.”

So, let’s move that into the workplace, what’s happening in the workplace. Meetings are so often hated and so often deadly because there’s this thing called shared information bias, which tends to happen. It’s this deep psychological problem in groups that happens in a meeting. Okay, so 10 people come into a room, right? They’re having a meeting because it’s important for them to share information. They have to find out what they don’t know from the other people, that’s why they’re meeting, otherwise, people just work alone at their desks.

What happens usually is the leader of the group will set the tone, they’ll say what they know about the problem or about the situation, and that makes sense, and then asks for everybody’s input. Well, it turns out that what people value and report liking in meetings is saying what someone else has said before. And usually so the leader says what everybody already knows because the leader is always speaking, and then everybody feels a psychological pull to rephrasing or somehow agreeing with what the leader said. And, in fact, people tend to even forget what they wanted to say once this shared information bias starts to come up.

And so, what happens is everyone knows something, everyone knows A, B, and C when they enter, D, E, and F are held by a couple people in the meeting, everyone gets together, and everyone leaves still knowing A, B, and C, no one mentions D, E, and F, and the company is stupider for it. It doesn’t work. So, there’s all these things that need to happen for that to be changed. Some of those things need to happen at the level of the organization, some things can be done by individual contributors who don’t have the power.

Let’s talk real quick about the top level of the organization. Leaders should not speak first in meetings. They don’t need to give the context. Let somebody who doesn’t usually speak start the meeting with what they know. You will get information that you did not expect. And they find, often, that low-status individuals in an organization, for a number of reasons, have some of that hidden information that’s most needed because it’s not what everyone is talking about. It’s what’s being seen from the edges. And information from the edges is a key ingredient to being more creative in a group. So, that’s one.

Number two, you can teach in your organization a kind of respectful disobedience. They do this in the airline industry, they do this in the Navy, they actually role-play and practice for the co-pilot to say that they have a different opinion than the pilot. That turns out, because in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the pilot was kind of the king of the cockpit and no one wants to speak up to usually him, we had way more airline crashes. But when co-pilots, and even flight attendants, were specifically trained to be disobedient, to speak back to power, and say what they observe, airline crashes have plummeted, because one person simply can’t know everything that’s need to be known and they have biases and make mistakes.

So, in your organization, teaching what’s called intelligent disobedience, which means that you’re going to be totally loyal to the company, but you’re going to speak back when you know something is wrong is a huge plus. From the individual contributor level, what do you do in a group? One, to get over that problem of actually the amnesia that comes from shared information bias, I recommend writing down, before you get to the meeting, everything that you want to say. It’s hugely valuable. So, if you have the courage to speak up, this will help you not forget what actually your point of view was. And by the end of the meeting, if something hasn’t been said that you have written down that you still think is important, make sure it gets out there, and you will then be contributing something that was otherwise missing.

Second, just keep in mind that employees who engage in intelligent disobedience, those who kind of speak up and are willing to outwardly say they disagree, are considered more loyal and more effective by managers, this has been well-studied, than those who quietly disagree and pretend they do agree. So, basically, if you’re going along with the flow, but you’re not wholeheartedly agreeing, people actually recognize it and it’s seen as a sign of kind of subversion. If you’re willing to speak up, and then go along with decisions once the group has made them, being loyal to the larger group, you’re going to be seen as more creative and a more effective collaborator. So, that fear may be a little bit unfounded.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s interesting indeed. I’m putting myself in the leader’s shoes, yup, it’s preferable to have someone openly tell you they disagree than to grumble and quietly muddy the waters with their subversive, I think is a great word for that. At the same time, I guess there’s that teacher effect that you mentioned that the creative ones are more kind of inconvenient because they don’t fall in line, “The meeting is going to take longer if you have a different opinion that we need to cover as opposed to you just sort of nodding and agreeing or else.” But at the same time, that’s what the meeting needs to do, is surface this stuff that wouldn’t get surfaced otherwise. So, in a way, it seems like your leader has to have a little bit of awareness and virtue, I guess, in order for them to appreciate what’s happening there with that intelligent disobedience.

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. Well, first of all, if you’re a leader and you’re turning your hair out because your employees are not creative enough, it’s just important to internalize that message that if you are subtly or directly calling for agreement and for efficiency, that you are the problem, it’s probably not your employees. So, getting that, opening that space for disagreement is going to be the source of your creativity.

Yeah, there’s another kind of key leadership tool here, I think, but it’s also something that team members can help to build. And Google did a landmark study on it, I spoke with Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he kind of uses it as well, and it’s kind of a little bit counterintuitive when you think about unsafe thinking. It turns out the most unsafe workplaces, the ones that are the most creative and willing to think outside the box, are the ones that provide the most psychological safety to people within that group.

I know that sounds crazy but what I’m trying to say here is that if everyone feels a sense of belonging, if they feel that their job is protected, and they feel that they matter to the team, they are more likely to be able to go against the grain, to say the things that might sound crazy, to open up their mouth when they see things are going wrong. There are these great studies of you could judge a company’s creativity by setting up a prediction market. So, see how often people are agreeing with what the CEO says when you’re actually asking them in front of the CEO, “Do you agree?” But then have a side market where people bet on whether the outcomes or the choices are going to work or not, and you’re going to get the real opinion.

So, prediction market is actually a better way to know if people agree with you than just kind of asking them. But if you create a sense of psychological safety, you don’t need that kind of output. You get to say, “Look, in this arena of creativity, everybody is equal. We fight it out, we go crazy, we are willing to look at ideas. And when you fail, we don’t punish you. We actually reward smart risks rather than just success,” then you’ll find people are willing to start taking those chances.

Now, you don’t want absolute chaos, that’s why it’s very important for groups to be cohesive when they move out of that exploratory phase and into the execution phase. But in exploratory phases, take a look at, “Are you building psychological safety within your organization?” There are lots of tools for doing that. And, again, that’s how Steve Kerr, when he got to the Golden State Warriors, kind of unlocked all the creative potentials of that team to take them to, whatever, five NBA Championships in a row, was by first setting up psychological safety in the locker room so they could get more unsafe on the court, and he kind of walked me through that, and I tell that story in the book.

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

Jonah Sachs
I guess I’ll just say that one of the things that I found most fascinating has to do with the real psychological mechanisms, and this is just kind of one more tip that I think is helpful when you understand this. I came to understand something that I call the safe thinking cycle. So, what happens is the world change around us, and that creates a certain amount of anxiety. What we’re doing is no longer working. We sense it because we’ve stepped up into a new position, and we’re not quite able to perform in it yet, we need to learn more, or what we’re doing no longer works, or there’s a new competitor in the space, or anything like that. We get a signal of anxiety.

Now, we’re programmed by evolution to see anxiety as a threat to our bodies basically. Anxiety out in the African savannah would mean that there was an animal about to eat you. And in those cases, what happens naturally from anxiety is that our peripheral vision shuts down, our nonessential bodily functions begin to slow down, and we really fall back on what we know works. So, we take what’s called stereotypical actions.

So, anxiety will, first, lead to the sense of, “Okay, I got to do something differently.” But by the time you start thinking what to do differently, you’re programmed by evolution to fall back and do something expedient and safe, and then things get worse because you haven’t reacted to the stimulus, and the cycle just repeats and repeats and repeats. And so, that’s where most people find themselves. The more stressed out you are, the less likely you are to take new and creative actions.

The way to break this cycle is not to respond differently or to force yourself to respond differently. It’s actually to reframe what anxiety means. And this has been a really fascinating look, for me, into sort of a whole bunch of different both kind of biological science and psychological science. But people who effectively break this cycle are those who tell themselves that anxiety is not a signal of danger, but a signal that they’re on their creative edge.

So, if what you’re doing is moving away from situations that cause anxiety, you’re actually creating further and further anxiety. And there’s a lot of psychological research that shows the more we concentrate on avoiding a feeling, the more we’re going to have it. The more you move towards that anxiety and say, “Okay, that anxiety is a signal that I should move toward it not away,” that is where we can experience the anxiety, and then take new action in its face.

So, it was very counterintuitive to me, nobody likes that feeling of anxiety, but if you can take it as a signal that you’re in your creative zone, when you feel it, that can really reshape your relationship to the creative thinking cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that’s really good, and I think we might characterize anxiety all the more broadly, not just the, “Oh, crap, something terrible is going to happen” sensation, but I guess maybe also like I think about just sort of learning and growth mindset stuff. It’s just sort of in terms of awkward or dread, like, “Ugh, I’m not any good at this. Oh, I feel stupid.” It’s like that whole family of unpleasant feelings you can associate to, “Oh, I’m at the edge of creativity, or of growth, or of breakthrough,” as opposed to, “Oh, this is a thing to retreat from.”

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, for sure. For sure. The things that are like worth doing but don’t make you anxious are the things that you have been doing for a really long time, probably for a decade. So, the first time you give a speech in public, you might feel terrified. Once you’ve given that talk 20 times, you don’t feel scared anymore. If all you’re doing is giving that same talk again and again and again, your days are kind of numbered.

So, it’s great to fall back on the things that we know when we know we can do well. I would say give yourself at least 15% to 25% of your time though doing things that you suck at, and that will make you just a much better, more flexible thinker.

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

Jonah Sachs
I still love the bumper sticker, I don’t know who even said it, but, “Don’t believe everything you think,” always makes me smile, and I kind of take that as a motto for myself.

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

Jonah Sachs
I looked at a study that showed that people, when given a chance between feeling medium-level electric shocks and being bored, would usually, after about 10 minutes, choose the electric shocks. So, when they put four people into a white plain room, and said, “You can have the electric shock and leave, or you can stay for another 10 minutes,” people mostly took the electric shock.

And just amazing to me, I think probably a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, maybe even 25 years ago, we were pretty good at sitting with ourselves and sitting with our own feelings and ideas. The fact that we’re at a place where most of us would rather be in pain than quiet is definitely a sign that there’s a lot of white space, a lot of opportunities for those who could be a little bit more mindful and take their time through processes, and be in that zone where creativity arises, which is in that quiet zone.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jonah Sachs
Well, I’m reading right now a book called Station Eleven. It’s a post-pandemic science fiction book about a future in post-pandemic. And sitting through a pandemic right now, I’m kind of enjoying its beauty and its quiet, looking at what the world sometimes becomes.

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

Jonah Sachs
I have been really appreciating using Asana lately. It’s a fantastic product and helps me organize the millions of tasks that I try to keep. And I’ve tried many, many different tools, and have really struggled to use one again and again. I’m on kind of month 18 now with it and I find it’s really sticking, so that’s my tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Jonah Sachs
I think I mentioned the one that I’m most excited about, which is doing things that I’m bad at and staying out of my comfort zone, so continuing to press, although I’m not improving as fast as I like, continuing to press on my singing is my latest habit that I’m trying to stay in.

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

Jonah Sachs
I find that the thing that most gets quoted back to me from my work, actually, comes from my first book Winning the Story Wars, maybe it’s because it’s been out for so long. But I kind of had three key tips for how to communicate and how to build your own personal brand and tell stories. And that was be interesting, tell the truth, and live the truth, and that gets repeated back to me as a sort of three pillars in life that are always worth following.

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

Jonah Sachs
JonahSachs.com.

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

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, I would just say it all really comes down to move towards the things that scare you, get out of your comfort zone, and if you’ve been saying that you’re going to do things differently, start doing something different today.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jonah, this has been a treat. Thank you and keep on rocking.

Jonah Sachs
All right. Great talking.