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752: How to Reframe Rejection, Beat Burnout, and Get Unstuck with Lia Garvin

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Lia Garvin talks about the mental shifts that are crucial to moving forward at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Key phrases to avoid at work  
  2. The questions to ask when you’re stuck
  3. How to overcome impostor syndrome 

About Lia

Lia Garvin is an operations leader, speaker and executive coach on a mission to humanize the workplace, one conversation at a time. She has nearly 10 years of experience working in some of the largest and most influential companies in tech including Microsoft, Apple and Google to explore the power of reframing to overcome common challenges found in the modern workplace. She is a TEDx speaker, presenting a talk at the 2022 TEDx Conference in Boca Raton, and will be featured at the SXSW Conference in Austin in 2022.

Through her writing, leadership coaching and program management skills, she helps teams examine the challenges that hold them back and focus on what matters. She was recognized by the National Diversity Council as a 2021 DEI Champion. She is also a Co-Active- and ICF-certified professional coach with a certification in Hatha yoga. She lives in Corte Madera, California.

Resources Mentioned

 

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Lia Garvin Interview Transcript

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

Lia Garvin
Thank you so much. Excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to discuss getting unstuck. But, first, I think we need to get to the bottom of is it true that you are descended from one of the 300 Spartan warriors?

Lia Garvin
Well, that’s what they tell me. So, my mom’s family is Greek, from Sparta. We’ve been there. We’ve seen it. And when the movie 300 came out, my mom was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s us.” And I said, “Okay, I don’t have any historical documents to prove it.” But, one day, I was heart-set on figuring out that 300 ab-training workout that all of us did to prepare, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
There were impressive physiques in that.

Lia Garvin
Yeah, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sure a number of personal trainers had a lot of work associated with making that movie.

Lia Garvin
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so tell us, you’re an expert on getting unstuck, and you wrote the book called Unstuck. Can you start us off by sharing a particularly maybe surprising or counterintuitive discovery you’ve made about why it is so many of us find ourselves stuck?

Lia Garvin
Yeah. So, I think one of the main reasons I’ve found myself getting stuck and other people getting stuck is because we keep approaching a situation through maybe we try things a little different but we’re still tackling it from the same perspective or the same way. Or, we adjust something small but if we took a step back, we realize we’re actually still doing the same things.

And so, reframing, which is the central theme of my book Unstuck is about looking at a challenge or situation through a whole new perspective, something that we haven’t tried before, and then seeing all that’s available there. And when we look at something through a new perspective, needless to say, new things become possible.

And I would say one area that I think so many of us get stuck around is feedback – feedback at work. Thinking feedback is a criticism, feedback is someone coming to me to tell me all the things they don’t like about me, or someone picking on me or pulling things apart. I think when we get positive feedback, people can also have a little bit of trouble with that even, like, “Okay, they’re happy with this now but what about next time?”

And so, I think, especially things around feedback, all of these beliefs that we have get us really stuck in this narrow way of thinking. And, really, a surprising discovery I had around something like feedback was it’s actually an insight into what the other person, what the feedback-giver believes, and what they want and what they’re comfortable with. It’s really not about us.

And, recently, I had a situation where I was changing roles and I had said I was moving on, and the manager I was working with, we had a good relationship. He was disappointed but supportive of that, and then he said, “Hey, before you go, let’s have a feedback conversation,” and my stomach dropped, and I was like, “Why do I have to have a feedback conversation with someone I’m not even going to work with anymore?” And I went really negative with my thought process, like, “Oh, my God, is he going to tell me all the things he didn’t like about me or all the things I did wrong?” And I went immediately into the dread zone.

And, first, I tried to reschedule it and not have the meeting at all but he ended up rescheduling it, so that was out of the question. And then when it was leading up to the conversation, I was thinking about, “Okay, it’s going to be a two-way street. What should I share? I want to bring in empathy and be specific, all the things I know about feedback,” but still I was really, really dreading it.

And then we had the conversation and he ended up sharing a piece of feedback that just really made me laugh and proved that it was all about my perspective. And that was he had said, “Sometimes when you deliver a piece of work, it looks really done and really polished. I’m not sure how to give feedback. Like, is it in progress or is it super final?”

And I laughed to myself because, well, I had done work that way because of other feedback I got from other managers that said, “Hey, I want something final. It’s got to be polished. I just want to sign off.” And I realized, like bringing…kind of being trashed by different pieces of feedback, and that it wasn’t about me. It was just about how this particular person likes to work or how they like to engage with work.

And when this example hit, I realized it is so not about who we are as a person, what we bring. It’s about getting on the same page with someone else around shared expectations. And that has made me a lot more comfortable with having a feedback conversation because, first, I can level-set and say, “Hey, what are we talking about here? What does success look like?” And then we can sort of word-off future feedback by getting really aligned upfront.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s a really cool example in terms of your book, the subtitle there is Unstuck: Reframe your thinking to free yourself from the patterns and people that hold you back. And feedback is a really great area where we can have patterns and associations. And if you avoid it all the time, that’s sure going to hold you back, like, “Oh, I feel so uncomfortable. They’re going to judge me. They’ll tell me all the things I’ve screwed up. I’m not into it.”

Versus if you have a different…reframe that perspective, you’d be like, “Okay, feedback is not so threatening, and, thusly, I’m able to go get more of it, and, thusly, I’m able to align on expectations, and, thusly, people think I’m amazing, and then promotions and good things can flow from that.” So, that’s cool.

Well, so then I’m curious, so that’s a cool example. Was that what you would call the big idea behind your book Unstuck that there are some key things to reframe that will unlock a lot of goodies? Or, how would you articulate the main idea or thesis here?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, I’d say the main idea is when we find ourselves stuck, to reframe the way that we’re looking at that situation. And by reframing our perspective, we unlock a new set of possibilities. And I take that reframing thesis and apply it to 12 different challenges that show up most commonly in the workplace. So, we talked about feedback. Another one is articulating your impact, like talking about your work in a way other people understand that doesn’t diminish the importance of it, that really demonstrates the work you put in.

I talk about negotiation, another really tough subject for a lot of us out there, decision-making, comparison, and 12 challenges that I think most of us get stuck with in the workplace, things that can be particularly fraught for women in the workplace because of all of the expectations and biases and societal norms and these sort of narratives that we often hear throughout our upbringing that we start to attach to or believe with feedback, sort of having to be perfect or that everybody has to like you, or some of these things that many of us might believe from our upbringing can make it even harder to hear feedback.

With an example like talking about your work, some people have trouble talking about themselves at all, and then talking about our work and why it’s awesome and why it’s important and why it should be noticed, that can be really, really difficult for people. So, the reframing, it’s couched in the acknowledgement of these biases and double standards, and how our inner critic really attaches to these, and make these challenges even harder.

Pete Mockaitis
And I love it. It’s so powerful that in each of things, like I can see how you can have a mindset, a frame of perspective, that is troublesome like for articulating impact. Your frame of perspective might be, “Oh, I don’t want to brag. I don’t want to be seen, like, ‘Oh, he or she thinks that they’re just all that, like they’re so special.’ I don’t want to be conceited. I don’t want to be that guy or girl, who just makes it all about them, and it’s just really, really unattractive.”

So, that can be a frame of perspective you have. And if you have it, you’re not going to be articulating your impact and then, unfortunately, some key decision-makers who can have some keys to your fate with regard to promotion or opportunities just won’t know that you’ve got the goods and may very well be ready for a cool new thing if they never heard that impact that was never articulated.

So, I love this, how we’ve zeroed in on a tool that has a whole range of impacts – reframing. So, help us out here. Maybe let’s talk specifically about articulating impact, and then maybe zoom out a little bit in terms of, okay, when we need to get our reframe on, how do we go about doing that?

Lia Garvin
Yes. So, articulating your impact, this is a funny one because this is something I struggled with a lot in coaching and in working with folks internally, especially in larger companies where you have to do things like performance reviews. I saw this just being a huge struggle that folks dealt with, really no level of seniority they even were in an organization.

And when I think about articulating your impact, I look at it in a few ways. First, it’s about really shaping the narrative around your work. And this means not talking about our work in like, “I do these set of things,” like a bulleted list of random tasks or ideas. But figuring out what is the arc across your work, what is the why behind it. And then, most important, how to connect that why to what your organization cares about because that’s where…

Like, you talked about getting in front of decision-makers, people that hold the keys to things you want to unlock in your career. If we don’t connect the dots there, we’re leaving it someone else to figure out the why it matters. And we are always best equipped to talk about why our work matters. And, yes, it’s helpful to have other people championing us and sponsoring us and bringing visibility to our work, too, but we have to have that story figured out.

So, my first step there is to really understand what you do, why it’s important for your organization, the goals that your organization has, and connecting the dots there, and then to be talking about it, not shouting over the rooftops everywhere all the time but making sure that that’s known by decision-makers, by people that are responsible for making decisions related to your career and what kinds of projects you work on, things like that, so that they know and can propose you for projects or opportunities.

The other piece around impact is really getting more precise with some of the language that we use when talking about our work. And one phrase I ask people to strike from their lexicon completely is helping out. Like, no one’s helping out. We’re at work. This is our job. It’s our careers. And I think we can get in the habits and trying to sound collaborative, like a team player, using words like helped out, pitched in, worked on. And, like, worked on, what does that mean? Are you owning this whole project? Did someone like send you an email that you read about it? What does that mean?

And so, getting really specific and owning the verbs. I coach folks around performance reviews. Authored, led, drove, facilitated, brought to light, there’s a lot of really powerful verbs we can use that weren’t helping out, was in a volunteer project. And so, that’s where I always start. And then, also, removing we. I think this is the trap a lot of “us,” a lot of people can fall into is saying we, when really, “I did it.” And, again, there’s a way to talk about being a part of a group and a collaborator without making it really unclear what your individual impact was.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s so much good stuff there. When you talk about owning the verbs, I’m thinking about this Onion article about verbs on resumes, and they were just absurd, like, decimated, whatever. Hey, talk about Spartans, huh?

Lia Garvin
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s very specific in terms of, okay, when it comes to articulating impact, it’s not about, “Hey, you’re bragging, you’re selfish,” but, rather, we’re informing people and we’re just getting clear in terms of we didn’t just help out or worked on something. What that even means is pretty fuzzy. So, as we get specific, folks understand really what you did and, thusly, what maybe skills, experiences, and opportunities may just make a lot of good sense for you.

And so, I’m curious, you’ve shared right then and there, “Hey, here’s a great perspective to have,” as opposed to the, “Oh, no, I don’t want to talk about myself.” How do you recommend that we, generally speaking, if we find ourselves stuck somewhere, how do we know that we’re stuck? And then how do we go about getting to a better frame?

Lia Garvin
Yeah. Well, I think one way to recognize we’re stuck is when we keep running into the same outcomes that’s not what we wanted. And one example is with, let’s say, we keep asking our manager for new projects or a promotion, and we keep hearing, “It’s not time yet. You’re not ready yet.” Or, another is, “I applied for many years to work in tech, and I kept sending the same kind of resume, and I didn’t get there.”

And, for me, personally, it took a lot of stopping and examining my approach. So, I think, first off, it’s about recognizing, after one or two or maybe three times of hitting this wall, and pausing, and asking ourselves, “What is the approach I’ve been using?” and then the question, “What else can I try?” And the real reframing question is really, “How else can I look at this approach?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about reframing rejection, and an example, applying to work in jobs in tech for a number of years; sending out the manuscript for my book to many agents and publishers and not getting a yes; applying to do a TEDx Talk for several years, not getting yes. These are three things that I had done over and over and over and kept getting nos. And it was in these moments, instead of saying, “Screw it. I give up. No one wants me. No one likes me. My work sucks. I don’t care. I give up,” saying, “Huh, I’m getting a signal, and now I have to shift how I’m approaching this.”

And the shift in the approach is the reframe. And with a job, maybe you look at, “Okay, I’m going to try a different way of writing an email when I reach out to a recruiter, or changing out my resume, or share it with a friend to look at, like, ‘Hey, is something we missed here?’” With my TEDx Talk, I found a coach and I worked with someone that was able to really help me unlock how to tell my story in a better way. And with my book, continuing to reframe, “Is it my proposal? Is it how I’m pitching it? Is it this?” because the reframe is really about shifting and not just doing the same thing over and over.

And I think the definition of stuck is when we aren’t able to do a new thing, is when we’re not seeing that we have to shift that perspective. And it does take being a little bit intuitive, trying to be more self-aware. And so, like kind of a quick tip I would say is checking in with ourselves when we’re feeling really down or we’re feeling frustrated, and saying, “Hey, what’s going on here? Am I falling into the same patterns? Have I got a second? No. Did I really shift my approach or did I kind of just sent out the same cover letter because I didn’t feel like writing a new email?”

And being really honest with ourselves on, “How far have I shifted the approach to really get in the zone of newness where I can say, ‘Yeah, I really did give this a new…I really did try this through a new lens.’”

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess it’s also I really like your perspective about working with a coach there in that sometimes we might not know what results are good versus not yet. For example, let’s say, I don’t know, if someone is like new to sales, and like, “I don’t know, man. I’ve called like 50 people. I’ve only made six sales.” And it’s like, “That’s fantastic. You’re doing…”

Lia Garvin
Yeah, that’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re like, “It’s like almost 90% of the time, they’re just like bail on me.” And so, I think it’s so good to get some perspective, whether it’s like there’s some published benchmarks or figures or you just talk to someone who’s gotten the result that you want, or someone who’s got a whole business around coaching or providing expertise on a matter, can really be handy.

And then I’m curious, when it comes to the approach and the shift, I guess I’m thinking about almost like the reframing in terms of our internal beliefs and emotions about a thing. Like, even if someone tells us, like, “Oh, this is how it’s done.” You’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I like that. Well, that still feels uncomfortable to go get that feedback.”

I remember, for example, I was reading a book, I think, it was about nonprofit fundraising. It might’ve just been called Asking, it might’ve been by Jerry Panas. It might not have been. But he had a reframe in terms of it’s not that you’re hounding people for their money because that’s no fun for anybody. What you’re doing is, in fact, it feels great to give to a cause that you believe in, that you support, and then you see some cool results or social good unfolding from, “Ooh, I had a little part in that.” That feels great as a donor.

And so, as an asker, what you’re doing is you are inviting people to a party, and they’re like, “You know what, that’s not my style of party. I don’t really like horror movies. I don’t like costumes,” whatever. You’re inviting them to a party, and those to whom it’s a good fit will accept the invitation and be so glad that you did. And so, that really worked for me and I got a lot more comfortable asking people for money after that.

And so, I’m intrigued about sort of like the mental-emotional game and how we work on that before, if we need to, before we’re comfortable shifting tactics.

Lia Garvin
Yes, so I love that. And I think that example is the…it’s about that perspective mindset shift. And so, recognizing what’s actually kind of at the base of what you’re trying to do, and a lot of that can connect to, you said, “What is the why behind what you’re doing?” This is about connecting people to something they enjoy. For example, feedback is about getting insight into how you’re being perceived. Talking about your work is about bringing visibility to like the output that you have.

Negotiating is about ensuring that you are getting sort of the right, fair, equitable outcome, maybe it’s financially, maybe it’s not, like for whatever you want it. It’s typically can be mutual beneficial, and I think it’s depersonalizing from all these things because when we attach, like, “I don’t like to ask for money,” you’ve sort of made it about you when the whole thing has nothing to do with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. It’s for the children or whoever the beneficiaries are for the organization.

Lia Garvin
Right. And so, I think it’s the first step in that mindset shift is to detach, and I have a chapter about reframing the ego because a lot of this is an overidentification of, like, “I’m at the center of whatever it is going on.” And when we can get some space there, we see, well, first of all, everybody’s at the center of their own universe, and so we’re not alone there. But it actually is somewhat of an ego issue of seeing ourselves. And having ego, sort of overinflated ego, if you will, it doesn’t mean that we think we’re the greatest person on Earth, but we’re looking at things from a me-centered approach is what that means, and from a me-centered lens, I mean.

And so, to recognize, “Hey, I’m making this about me and what I want and what I think and what I worry.” And so, I’ve been saying, “What is this really about?” that’s how we start to shift that perspective. And I would say that’s the first place to start is when another signal beyond feeling stuck and kind of generally crappy, it’s like, “Ooh, all this is leading to me and I need to get a little distance,” and then we can start to see what else is there.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot with the me-centered lens because I think with negotiations, it’s like, “Oh, no, I don’t want them to think that I’m greedy, I’m not satisfied, I’m entitled, they think I’m just all that.” But, again, that’s all me-centered, like, “I’m worried about the judgments they’re making on me.” But if I shift that perspective on negotiation, it’s sort of like, “Well, no, if I bounce six months from now because someone else pays me a lot more and kind of has more cool things that I’m looking for and opportunity, they’re going to be bummed.”

And like, “Oh, man, we’ve invested all that stuff into Pete and now he’s gone, and I got to go through this whole hiring process all over again.” So, if I shifted from me to them, it’s suddenly like, “Well, no, it’s in their interests to give them a package, for them to provide a package that makes me go, ‘Sweet! This is a good deal. I like working here.’” Well, so far, hopefully, you know the people all around.

Lia Garvin
Exactly. You’re ensuring you have a mutually beneficial agreement that everybody is satisfied with. Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, not to bounce around too much, but you mentioned a few key reframes, and I love decision-making so much. So, Lia, we got to hear what you have to say about that.

Lia Garvin
Well, decision-making is one I struggled so much with that that’s actually what my TEDx Talk was about. That’s going to be coming out in a few weeks. And I have a couple of reframes. One with decision-making is about reframing the finality of decision-making. We can’t predict the future, so when we think about decisions as, “Oh, my God, if I decide this, then, then, then, then, then,” and we cascade down this sort of spiral of what’s going to happen. We’ve, essentially, decided we can predict the future, and we know exactly what’s going to happen. And so, I think reframing and realizing, decision-making is about finding the right decision for right now. We can start to feel a little space and freedom from having to have every decision be perfect.

Now, the second reframe on decision-making, in the same similar vein, is to look at where our confirmation bias is landing. Now, we typically have confirmation bias around the decisions that we make, and for a lot of us it’s negative. And if we’re agonizing over a decision, and we have a lot of doubt about it, we can think, like, “Should I buy this thing? Should I take this trip? Should I order this dinner?” whatever. We can start to fixate on, I think, depending on how uncertain we are, if it goes wrong and we don’t like it, it’s all, “I knew it, I shouldn’t have done that,” and we’re looking for all the reasons why we knew we were going to be wrong, and we’re wrong, and it sucks, and it’s bad.

And my challenge to people is to test out, try on a positive confirmation bias. And, instead of saying, “Oh, I shouldn’t have ordered that burger. I should’ve gotten the salad because now I have a stomach ache,” or whatever, we say, “That was awesome. I got to try something new.” Instead of saying, “Oh, I shouldn’t have bought that,” “Hey, I really wanted this thing, and I was really happy to be able to get this for myself.”

And then when we change that mindset from looking for all the reasons it was bad and we were wrong and we’re bad decision-makers, looking for some of the signals why it was good or positive or we made the right call. Because, again, we have just as likely the ability to predict if it’s going to go poorly with a decision that it’s going to go well, yet we attach the negative. And then when we think it was going to be bad, we’re going to want to believe that because our brain likes to be right. And so, I challenge people to try to be right in a way that doesn’t make them feel terrible, especially with the pretty trivial day-to-day decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. So, feel right, feel good. And then I’m thinking we’ve had Annie Duke on the show, the professional poker player who writes about decision-making and such, and some other decision folks, and they’ve talked about keeping a decision journal, and like, “What was I trying to think through and how did it go?” And so, that’s sort of a different goal, which was improving the skill of decision-making, which, in a way, takes a lot of the sting out right then and there. It’s like, “Well, yeah, I expect I’m going to miss some, so that’s fine, and here’s what happened.”

But if it’s inconsequential, yeah. Go ahead and feel good about it. No need to analyze, and, “What should I have asked the waiter so as to not have gotten this tummy ache?” That’s probably not worth your mental energy and angst. I also love that take about for right now. And sometimes I find when it comes to like starting and stopping subscription services, I don’t know why I get really frozen sometimes, in terms of like, “Oh, I don’t know. I might use it any day now, so I don’t really want to cancel it.” And I’m like, “Well, Pete, you haven’t used it for the last two months, so you’re just kind of burning money. That’s silly.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, but I think once this process gets set up then it will just be perfect.”

And so, the notion of for right now has saved the day a number of times. It’s like, “Well, hey, this month, I want to use the thing, so let’s pay for it. And if I don’t think I’m going to need it next month, I’ll cancel it. And if it turns out I was mistaken, I can un-cancel it.” It’s fine. It’s not like, I don’t know. I’m thinking about like flip-floppers. Like, in politics, we shame the flip-flopping candidate or job hoppers, on HR it’s like, “Ooh, hmm, I don’t know about this trend. It seems like you’re just hopping around and not committed.” Like, there’s no tribunal judging us about our subscription membership or what we get on a menu or any of this stuff, it’s like, “For right now, does this maybe work for you or not?”

Lia Garvin
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, let’s talk a little bit about some emotional stuff when it comes to the inner critic and impostor syndrome. How do we wrestle with that? And what can we do to feel more confident?

Lia Garvin
Yeah. So, inner critic, I think that’s another one where we need to build some tools around how to recognize when it’s the inner critic talking versus our regular rational, risk-deciding or navigating mind. And I think one signal that the inner critic is talking is when we’re talking absolutes, when we’re saying, “I always,” “I never,” “They always,” “They never,” and that’s really a quick signal to see if, “Are we in this sort of negative space or the inner critic?”

I think when we’re noticing that we keep running into the same sort of outcomes with the conversation we’re having with people, with the approach we’re trying, again, I think it’s when we’re stuck in this judgment zone. And one tool that I learned that I think is another really simple shift is reframing the questions we’re asking ourselves from why to what. When we’re stuck in this self-judgment shame spiral, a lot of times we’re asking, “Why did they do this to me? Why did this happen? Why me?” And these are all just iterations of, “Yeah, why me?” in different flavors.

And when we’re in “Why me?” zone we are not going to get out. We’re not going to be able to see what’s possible. We’re not going to be able to see other perspectives because we talk about reasons for why everything is bad. Now, if we shift the why question to what, “What happened? What might be going on with the other person?” ideally, that we say, because we can bring some empathy into the mix, then we start to see, “Okay, there’s something outside of me that can get me out of this spiral with the inner critic.”

For example, if a coworker sent us a sort of, what we feel, is a passive-aggressive email, we say, “Why did they send that to me? Why are they always doing this to me? Why are they always picking on me?” We’re just going deeper in the reasons why we hate this person. But if we say, “Gosh, what might be going on with this other person?” we might realize, “Okay, well, they’re under a lot of pressure from their boss. They’re under a big deadline.”

Or, “Gosh, their kids are at home for like COVID school closures, and they’re really stressed, and they’re just trying to fire off a quick email between meetings so they can get back to whatever they got to deal with.” We start to both have empathy, we start to, again, make it less about ourselves, we talked about ego, and just be able to see that there’s more besides the conclusion that it’s “Because everybody hates me.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, it’s funny, I don’t know, this is almost passive-aggressive the way I’ve done this at times but I remember I got an email that made me angry, and I really tried. I was like, “Okay, try some compassion, think about the other person.” I was like, “You know what, it must be really hard for that person living their life as a stone-cold jerk, all the relationships and friendships they’ve missed out on.”

And so, in a way, I don’t know, it’s a little…I don’t even know about myself how authentic I’m being, like, “Am I still just trying to judge them, and be mean, stick it to them?”

Lia Garvin
Well, you made it not about you. So, you made it not about you.

Pete Mockaitis
I didn’t make it about me but, it is true. Like, at times, that does work in terms of mustering some genuine compassion and empathy for, “Yeah, maybe they’re just busy when they dashed off that email that was kind of rude. Or, maybe this is just sort of a blind spot in terms of their skillset in general. Or, maybe they’re under a particular acute stress.” But in any of those circumstances, you could find some compassion for, “Oh, that’s tricky.” And sometimes it might start a little bit barbed, like, “Oh, it must be so hard to suffer from narcissistic personality disorder to then being someone a bit more genuinely authentically passionate for that situation.” That’s good.

Lia Garvin
Yeah. And the last thing you asked about impostor syndrome, and I think the related piece there is impostor syndrome is, “Everybody’s watching me, waiting for me to mess up,” feeling, it’s back to this that everybody’s watching us. It’s back to that sort of over sort of like heightened sense of ego that everybody is watching and waiting and looking at everything that we’re doing.

And so, again, this getting a little bit of space from our ego is a really powerful tool for overcoming impostor syndrome because we can realize that it’s really likely not everybody’s watching, waiting for us to mess up because, again, everybody is focused on their own stuff. And if people are nitpicking mistakes or kind of being hypervigilant on our work, that’s a separate thing that we can tackle but it’s not about…but it’s different than impostor syndrome, because impostor syndrome or experience is really like believing that without a ton of evidence.

And so, again, I think this distancing ourselves from the “I” and the “me” and the ego is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for overcoming impostor syndrome, and saying, “Hey, I’m not in the center of the universe, and that is amazing and liberating, and I like it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is powerful. My mom said one of her favorite quotes, I don’t remember who said it, was, “We wouldn’t worry how much other people…we wouldn’t worry what other people thought about us so much if we realized how seldom they did.”

Lia Garvin
Yes, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Zing. You’re right, they’re not thinking about you that much. That’s good. Well, Lia, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Lia Garvin
Yeah, to check out Unstuck. It comes out April 5th, available for preorder now. And I would love to hear people’s reframing stories, too. I know I’ll have a plug at the end but I think there’s a lot there that, once we start to explore, how to shift that perspective, that folks find possible. So, please do get in touch, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, a reframing story that came to my mind, it’s so funny, I remember back when I was dating and all the perils emotionally that come with that and being dumped and such, I remember my reframe was, like if I was blown off or whatever, I wouldn’t say, “Oh, she doesn’t like me. There’s something wrong with me.”

I would say, “Well, this candidate has been disqualified because she has not met the key criterion of crazy about Pete Mockaitis. So, it’s unfortunate we’re going to have to pass on her because she doesn’t check the boxes.” So, I don’t know, it helped me feel less but, again, that is me-focused, I guess. Maybe there’s an even better reframe, Lia.

Lia Garvin
I think if you took a similar parallel to not getting picked for a job, like maybe it’s something you’re really excited about, you feel like you did a great job in the interviews, and then in the last stage you didn’t get it, you didn’t get picked. Instead of believing, “Oh, God, I must’ve misread the interviews. I must not have been qualified. I’ll never find a job,” and going through these sort of doomsday scenarios, and saying, “I’m really proud that I got that far. Like, I got to practice. I got to really practice and see, ‘Hey, like I’m really good at these conversations. I can get to the final stage.’”

And I think, again, not thinking in terms of absolutes is just another way to reframe the situation. It’s like, “I had a fun experience on that date. This person is not going to be forever but I was still able to get out there and see what’s out there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Lia Garvin
Yes. A favorite quote I’d say, in the spirit of reframing, is, “When you change the way you look at things, the things we look at change,” by Wayne Dyer. When I saw that, I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s the definition of reframing,” but that’s what this is all about, is seeing how much is possible when we look at something through a new lens. Because when we look at things the same way, we obviously keep…typically we get the same results. We’ve all heard that quote. And so, shifting the way we look at things, it starts to give us a completely new way of…everything around us starts to change, unfold, be different, be new.

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

Lia Garvin
My favorite is good old Amy Edmondson’s psychological safety. I do a ton of work inside companies around helping build effective teams, and psychological safety is at the base of that. And I think it’s so exciting to see that more and more understood and celebrated. I think it’s going to be the foundation to really getting people, potentially that have left the workforce as a part of the Great Resignation, to be back, to be reenergized.

And I think establishing psychological safety and really fostering that is going to help us move into whatever the next phases of work. Is it hybrid? Is it more distributed? Whatever it looks like. And so, that, I think, is some of the most important work around workplace dynamics that we can learn from.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Lia Garvin
Favorite book is The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, or Dan Coyle. And this book dives into kind of in the spirit of psychological safety. It examines teams of all different disciplines from MBA to military, to restaurants, and what are the building blocks for why those teams were effective, and the kind of cultural pieces. And I think it has a ton of great strategies that any team can apply to helping create a greater sense of belonging. And it’s just super practical, has great stories, really inspiring, and also informed a lot of the work that I do with teams to be more effective and inclusive.

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

Lia Garvin
It’s got to be spreadsheets. And this is such a boring example, I know, but it can be Excel, it can be Google Sheets, it can be anything. If it has cells and I can type things in, I love it. I manage everything I do in spreadsheets. I find them very easy to use.

Actually, in one of my first jobs, I was working for an executive, someone like a chief of staff, and he said, and I was trying to get something done, I was sending an email out with, like, “Hey, here’s what’s outstanding.” And he said, “If you’re sending anything to a group of people, and something has to get done, put it in a table and it will get done instantly.”

And I took this paragraph and the request that I had, and I put all of it into a table using a spreadsheet, and we said, “Here’s the ask, here’s the owner, and status red…”

Pete Mockaitis
Here it is, yeah, nobody wants to be red.

Lia Garvin
Here it is. Nobody wants to be red. And automatically people were responding, “Oh, no, no, no, here it is. Here, I’m done.” And I just find spreadsheets just, yeah, great, simple, like evergreen tool for getting stuff done.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Lia Garvin
Favorite habit is, call me boring again, waking up early. This is something, in order to do a lot of these things I got going on, and have a toddler and a day job, it involves making more time. And so, I get up early before my toddler wakes up. I have about hour, hour and a half to work on personal projects, be creative, exercise, before the day gets started. And I always, no matter what happens throughout the day, feel like I got that productive time for myself.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really resonates with folks; they quote it back to you, they re-tweet you, etc.?

Lia Garvin
Yeah. So, we talked about impact, and a quote that I like to share is, “Not all heroes wear capes. But when talking about your work, wear an F-ing cape.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Lia Garvin
Wear the cape, let it shine, let it flow because we have to be our own advocates for our work. So, when talking about your work, wear the cape. That’s my quote.

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

Lia Garvin
Yeah, check out my website at LiaGarvin.com. Follow me on LinkedIn. On Instagram, I’m @lia.garvin. I have a YouTube channel called Reframe with Lia. All those places are places to learn more about my book Unstuck, to preorder, to get in touch with me, to learn more about the work I’m doing with coaching and workshops, everything like that. So, I would love to hear from folks.

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

Lia Garvin
Yeah. I would say, again, when you are feeling stuck, when you’re feeling the same sort of outcomes keep happening, pause, and ask yourselves, “How else can I look at the situation?” Reframe because it really is unlimited. There is infinite number of ways we can apply this. And it’s about getting more in tuned with finding that moment when we’re stuck, recognizing it sooner so that we’re not stuck for months or years, but maybe we’re stuck for a week or two, or a day. So, tuning in with yourself, becoming more self-aware so that you can recognize that you’re stuck and ask that reframing question.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lia, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and getting unstuck regularly.

Lia Garvin
Thank you so much. It’s been awesome.

740: How to Reclaim Your Time and Calendar with Rick Pastoor

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Rick Pastoor shares his tried and tested strategies for beating the calendar overwhelm so you can get back to what matters.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why your calendar isn’t working–and how you can fix it 
  2. Powerful questions to keep you on track
  3. The simple trick to knocking out your biggest tasks 

About Rick

Rick Pastoor has always liked experimenting at work. He’ll try things out, then keep what works, ditch what doesn’t. Try. Rinse. Repeat. In his time at Blendle, the New York Times-backed journalism startup, Rick steadily refined his methods. That’s where GRIP was born, a flexible collection of tools and insights that helped the team do their best work.

Originally self-published in Dutch in 2019, GRIP became an overnight bestseller in Holland. Rick’s mission today is the same: helping people make smarter decisions about their time. He divides his own time between his young family in Amsterdam, giving talks on GRIP, his weekly newsletter “Work in Progress,” and a new startup, where he’s building a next-generation calendar called Rise. 

 

Resources Mentioned

Rick Pastoor Interview Transcript

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

Rick Pastoor
Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom and hear about the book Grip and your startup Rise but, first, I think we got to go back in time a little bit. I understand there was a moment in your life when you received a letter from your mayor as a youngster, it made quite an impact. What’s the story here?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah, okay, so this story is about when I was…I think I was around six. And on my birthday, on my sixth birthday, I received a letter from the municipality, like the local enforcement. It said, “Thank you, Rick, for cleaning up for us.” So, as I was young, and I still do but I cared about the environment in the city, in the local neighborhood actually. So, I started cleaning up stuff when I saw it and then I brought it home, and then my parents had to take care of it.

And for years, I thought that this letter was real, like it was signed from the mayor. And then at age, I think it was 12 or 13, I once brought up this letter, like, “Hey, it was actually weird. Did I get this letter from this…? How did they do that?”

Pete Mockaitis
How did they know?

Rick Pastoor
And then my parents said, “That was fake. That was something that we made up.” So, actually, I spent years thinking that the people in the city actually cared about this kind of stuff, that they noticed me. And I think the reason for sharing this is that, one, I always have cared about the idea that there are some rules that can be helpful, can be ideas that we should care about to keep things in order, and that brings you something, some idea of like you enjoy being in a space that’s nice and neat. So, that’s one idea.

And the second is that, while this was fake, this taught me that noticing these small things that people do that are working well can have a huge, like years’ long effect, of how they perceive the world, how they think about themselves, and stuff like that. So, since then I have made it a habit to try to notice this stuff and reach out to other people and share it with them.

Pete Mockaitis
So, like, “Hey, I noticed this and it’s really cool. Thank you.” Like that sort of thing?

Rick Pastoor
I think that kind of stuff, and I think that, I don’t know if you’ve ever…of course, you’re producing this podcast and you do other stuff, people think that you get bombarded with messages all of the time. And, of course, you probably get a lot of stuff but, still, I also found that, like the book sold over, whatever, 70,000 copies here in Netherlands, and people think that I have like hundreds of emails.

Of course, that is like the number of well-written and thoughtful emails that you get that someone had researched you or someone that really took the time, I can count on one hand every week. So, it’s really easy to stand out in that sense. And I found that to be true also for the biggest CEOs of the world. So, it has served to me as a trigger to don’t hold back in terms of the stuff that I share, also the questions that I ask to this kind of people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. And you haven’t held back when it comes to discovering and sharing advice for working smart, productivity stuff. Can you tell us, what’s perhaps one of the most surprising and fascinating or counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about this game since you started looking into it?

Rick Pastoor
So, I think the biggest one for me is that the calendar is a really under-looked aspect for a lot of people, and that has a reason, I think. I’m a huge fan of what David Allen wrote in Getting Things Done, and that’s a big starting point for a lot of people when they think about how to structure their work. I found that in a time where we spend actually a lot of time in meetings still and we have a lot of things going on in the calendar, that sometimes there’s a disconnect.

And that’s where I struggled a lot a couple of years ago when implementing this, and I found a way of working around that but, actually, it starts with the calendar. For me, there was a big shift in terms of the level of sanity that I could achieve while doing something as simple as making sure that the calendar is an actual reflection of how I spend my time. Since then, that has been some kind of a message that I’m trying to preach to people around me and which ultimately led to writing the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, David Allen, for folks who are not familiar, he wrote Getting Things Done, which is fantastic, and we’ve interviewed him a couple of times, including toward the beginning – what a guy – before the show was big enough to be meaningful for his publicity. Episode 15-ish. Thanks, David.

And so, I recommend listeners check out his work. It’s so good and the general vibe being, “Hey, download all the stuff out of your brain. It’s for having ideas, not for holding them. Have them in organized lists. Know what your projects and next actions are associated with those projects and you’ll feel a sense of sort of freedom, and things will become unstuck in.” And it’s really true.

I think about it kind of like exercise. It really works and it’s also really easy to fall off the wagon and stop doing it because, hey, more stuff comes at us all the time, and so you got to be pretty vigilant and pick yourself up when you do fall.

So, when you talk about the calendar and the disconnect, was the disconnect you’re referring to is your calendar is not actually truthfully reflecting or displaying what you’re doing with the hours in your life? Is that the disconnect?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. So, there’s basically two things. One is that if you have a sense of the project and the tasks that you need to accomplish to get these projects done, there’s two big things that I found that I needed to add to make the system work. And one is to make the connection with when something is going to happen. Of course, what David was saying is that there are a certain set of contexts where a task can be executed well, and then you just start off with this list. But this list is endless, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
It really does get big. I’ve got 1800 items in my OmniFocus inbox.

Rick Pastoor
Exactly. And I have the same, and I feel that, when I was discussing this with people, it gets really overwhelming and it never gets done, and especially in a time where there’s no clear, like, I’m opening the door of my office. I walk in and then I walk out of there at 5:00 p.m. There’s no closure anymore. So, we need some boundaries. And if they are not there anymore in the physical world, we need to build them in our digital world and in our own management of how we manage time. So, the sense of, “When is it done?” It will never get done. Our work is never done.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Rick Pastoor
So, artificially, we need something, and I found that in the calendar. So, that’s one. And, two, I found that there’s a disconnect between where I am now and where I’m going with this. And, for me, that’s like David is describing this in “Getting Things Done” with the different levels of height that you’re looking at your life, like different thousand-foot levels, and I struggle with implementing this.

Like, “How does this link to my day-to-day stuff?” So, you have your weekly review, of course. But how does this map out over the bigger things? And that’s the second ingredient that I added in the second part of the book. It’s basically sharing how I do my quarterly goal-setting, annual review, and stuff like that, how do I keep all this stuff in place. And, again, that’s the link to, “Okay, I know where I want to go but when will this happen?” Well, I’m making the link to time again on this level.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s a great point in terms of “When does the work get done? Never because it’s endless.” And I find, maybe just to pause there for a moment, I find that to sort of emotionally that’s difficult because I really like to win and to feel like I’m winning, and I really don’t like to lose or feel like I’m losing. Not that I will bite your head off if you beat me in Monopoly or something but I would prefer to win.

And so, it is even more so with sort of my projects, my goals, the things that I’m trying to accomplish. And so then, I guess I’m curious, how do you know, whether it’s the course of a day or a week or an hour that, “Hey, even though the work is endless and always coming at me, I can declare victory. I have checked the box and kind of call this a successful day or week”? How do you get there?

Rick Pastoor
Well, if you zoom out, I think a big part of the way that we live, the stuff that we run into, is getting comfortable with the fact that the time on this planet is limited. And that means that we will find all kinds of ways to think that we have an endless opportunity to change stuff, to fix stuff, to start with things, to do stuff.

And I think, ultimately, being really aware that this day has so many hours, and, thus, forcing me to, upfront, decide how I’m spending it, and then making sure that that at least happens, will give me – and that’s what I found – this gives me fulfillment because this gives me a sense of, “Hey, I’ve mapped this out and this is what got done.” So, that’s one perspective of looking at it.

So, that’s like mapping it out again onto time, does not only force me to figure out when I’m starting, but also when I’m done. And that gives me this in-between, these small milestones, these small runs, like small days within the day where I can say, “Hey, I made this within the hour. I’m even faster, or I’m a bit slower, so I need to adapt.” So, it gives me these check-in points in the day, so that’s one.

And two is “What’s the alternative?” The alternative is that we assume that we’re not living with the fact that time is limited to us, and we never really get close with this. Well, that gives a false sense of opportunity. And, also, how do you prioritize if there’s no boundaries? So, in that sense, bringing that as close to the day as possible, so not thinking in a year but also in a day, really force me to make the tough decision, tougher decisions, on, “Okay, is this what I’m planning now, is it really worth my time if I look back on this?” Well, most of the time I need to swap things around a lot, actually.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s intriguing. So, that question, “Is this really worth my time looking back on it in the future?” So, in terms of like is there a specific articulation of that question or maybe that’s just it right there? like, I think, “A year from now, will I be pleased that I interviewed Rick in this moment?” So far, the answer seems to be, “Yes, Rick, nice work.” And so, that’s just all there is to it or are there some more nuances or layers?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah, I think this is also a part of a habit, and I think you and probably a lot of listeners might be familiar with the idea of doing a weekly check-in with yourself in the form of a review or, like in the book, I call this a Friday recap and expand on that a little bit. But, in a sense, I think it’s key to be aware that, without dedicated moments to sit down and reflect on certain time skills, these insights won’t really appear out of thin air. We need to work on that. We need to spend time on mulling this over and thinking about this stuff.

And, for me, the answer is also a structure where I no longer have to decide that I’m going to do it but it’s part of the structure so it happens. Like, it’s not something that you negotiate with, just like you’re not negotiating the fact that there will be a New Year’s Eve, like this is just what’s there. Like, in that sense, it should be something that’s just part of the deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, intriguing, so I like that. So, it’s just there, it’s just in the structure. And I guess maybe, from like a discipline motivation perspective, the first few times probably does require some will to do it, but then it’s just sort of like, “Well, Fridays at 11:00 a.m. is just when the recap happens. That’s just kind of what happens. That’s just it.” And so, is it just that simple after a few reps, then it’s there?

Rick Pastoor
I think, ultimately, there are two ways to look at it. One is there’s the really habit-forming approach where you’re looking at the technical parts of how will habits get formed. And Atomic Habits is, of course, a great book, if you want to dive into a lot of details around how you get to self-motivate instructions. There’s also the other angle of “What kind of value does this bring to my life?” And I think, again, for me, what I’m doing on a quarterly level where I’m taking this is one or two evenings, and on a yearly level, one or two full days to think about “What happened in the last year and how will this next year look?”

Those are the times where the value of this weekly sessions really sinks in but I also see this as if I skip it a week, and then the next week I feel I’m actually a worse person for it if I’m not doing it. And I think that’s where the rubber hits the road, and I experience that, that there’s something lost if I’m not doing it. And that’s where I feel this is not a trick. This is not something that I do because I feel like I really experience that stuff will fall apart if I’m not doing it.

But, of course, there’s also a connection between, “How do you make this super simple?” And we have the tendency to make things more complicated if things are not working, and I get that. Like, we bring in more complicated software if things are not but, actually, what really works is the other way around. If things are not working, take at least one piece of the puzzle out and then try it again. Like, make it simple instead of more complicated.

Pete Mockaitis
That reminds me of BJ Fogg’s work in Tiny Habits, like, “How can I make this easier?” is sort of like the master question. And I think that’s dead-on. Well, so I want to talk about the book “Grip” and some of the productivity experiments, but we’ve already sort of teased a little bit about sort of like the daily plan, the Friday recap, the quarterly, the yearly. Can you just give us a couple kinds of key guiding-light questions that you prompt yourself with at each of these intervals?

Rick Pastoor
Okay. So, on a weekly level, I’m thinking about, “Hey, what happened in the last week? What made me proud? What went well?” And then, “What are some of the things that did not go as well as I thought they went?” But, also, on a weekly level, it’s way more tactical, it’s way more like I’m tapping each item in my calendar to see if there’s any loose ends. Like, I follow the structure that also David Allen brought us, like, “Hey, go over each project and make sure that there’s a next action,” like there’s a basic checklist.

And then if I move to the quarterly level, I’m specific on using quarters because a month is way too short and a year is too long for setting any type of goals, so that’s why I’m using quarters. Also, it links really well with how a corporate structure works so you can also fold in your work plans a lot easier. And then I’m asking questions like, on the level of one goal, “So, how did my goals go? Did I manage them? And if not, why?”

On category level for each quarter, I have a couple of questions around, “Hey, like in my work, what kind of stuff do I actually want to spend my time on if I’m purely reasoning from my own perspective?” But, also, shifting towards more personal questions, like, “Hey, think about your friends, think about your family. How do you evolve in this, in this network of people? And what do you bring to each of these members of your family, friends, and group around you?”

So, going over these set of questions, zooming out on a quarter level and also on a yearly level, you see that gradually, like it moves from more technical to strategic “Where do I want to go as a person?” in a sort of sense.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so let’s hear, it sounds we’ve already hit a lot of it. But what’s sort of like the big idea or main thesis behind your book Grip, which will soon be released in English to us Yankees? And let’s hear about some of the intriguing productivity experiments that are inside of it.

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. So, basically, what I’ve done is I brought a guide that I would’ve found super useful if it was my first job, and it contains a structure for having a better week, and that starts with the three components: calendar, task manager, email/communication, and this Friday recap or weekly review. That’s the first part of it.

And based on what I found missing is that there’s a lot of books and ideas that zoom in on one of these specifics and give you a really helpful tool. But how does this fit into the life that I have to manage? There’s a lot of stuff going on. And how does this fit into the Slack channels that are also there and WhatsApp that’s also there? I need to deal with this. How do I make this happen? So, that’s the first part of the book.

And then, of course, the second part builds up on top of that with the goal-setting. Like, goal-setting, to me, is like a lot of people get mad if I start talking about setting goals.

Pete Mockaitis
“How dare you?”

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. They have this instant negative response because people are using goals in a wrong way. Like, they’re used on them, not with them. It’s like something that gets managed for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. “Here are your goals, Rick. For this quarter, you will be doing these goals.”

Rick Pastoor
Exactly. It’s more of a stick. And what I also hear is that it’s something that is spoken about a lot, like you discuss a lot at work, and then, ultimately, of course, a couple of weeks in, you get completely different directions. Like, we’re not able to stick to them as well. So, of course, it brings in a negative response. So, my goal was to give you something that you can actually play with that brings you something as a person.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. And so, you’ve done some experiments, huh? Let’s hear some of the results.

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. So, one of the things that I love, and this is not rocket science, but one of the things that I’m a huge fan of is “How can you break things down to the point that you do them today?” And this is something that I’ve seen work for a lot of people, but, of course, we have these big dreams and big ideas.

And, ultimately, what I found, one of the first things that I’ve done aside from the main job that I had as a startup back then, is that I found that it was hard to do a specific type of research in a team, and people were always saying, like, “Yeah, we need more time to do research,” and complaining, basically, about, well, the decisions that were made.

And then I thought, like, “So, okay, how can I break this down as much as possible?” We were building a new version of the onboarding of one of the apps that I was working on. And onboarding meaning, well, the pros of signing up and then getting a new account. So, then I thought, “Okay, what can I do every single day? Well, let me review one specific onboarding for another app, and then write a brief blogpost about it, and then post that.”

So, ultimately, after a month, I had quite a collection, actually, of work which were super simple to do. Like, it was precisely in my circles of stuff that I found interesting, that I’m good at, that give me a good feeling, and also had a good mix with, and add to stuff that we were doing at work. So, this is one example, which ultimately led to writing an article for A List Apart, which is one of the blogs that I still am a fan of for years, which I find super exciting.

So, then one thing leads to another. That also led, ultimately, to the second Fuller Project which was writing a newsletter for every single day of, that was, 2016. And that led to, ultimately, writing the book because I had this material. And then, of course, ultimately, people started asking me, like, “Hey, how do you manage this?” Well, then I point back to the starting point, which is just writing for 15 minutes a day. And that, we all have time for. So, I think that was one of the experiments that I started with super small, and then, well, kept on improving and kept on building upon, which is one of the core things that I still do every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so fun. And I’m just imagining in your workplace, like, “Oh, boy, Rick is the onboarding expert. Like, he’s the master of onboarding.” And it’s like, “Okay, so I signed up for an app a day and wrote about what happened when I got on board for 15 minutes, and I did that for 20 days, a total of five hours. And now I am like the all-mighty onboarding….” Well, I’m just sort of making assumptions that this…

Rick Pastoor
That is fair. No, that’s basically completely fair but, also, as soon as you start, as soon as you do this yourself, you start looking at the other stuff that gets published, gets written, and people get idolized for with different eyes because, sure, there are some things that are truly a ton of work, of course, but a lot of things are also a culmination of tiny bits and bytes every single day. And if you know that, then you also know that, like if you publish hundreds of podcast episodes, like you did, people start asking you, “How do you actually manage this?” “Of course, one episode at a time.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right, yup.

Rick Pastoor
One step at a time. And I think we underestimate what we can do if we do this for a longer period of time, which is super powerful, I guess.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. Well, I would stop myself from ranting about how when you Google something, all 10 results look suspiciously similar often, not always, but often. It’s like, “I know what you’re doing, everybody. I know what you’re doing.” And it irritates me. Anyway.

Rick Pastoor
Are you saying with that that you feel that these types of habits are causing this?

Pete Mockaitis
No. I’m just saying when you look at a body of work with a different set of eyes after producing something, it’s true in that I know that there are SEO articles out there saying, “Google something, look at the top 10 results, and then repackage them. And, hopefully, your domain authority, or whatever, will push you to be on the top results. Now you get some traffic.” Well, thanks, you’ve made the world no better, and I find that annoying. That’s my hot take, anyway. Not super relevant.

Rick Pastoor
No, I get what you’re saying, and I think what is true in that is that if you use any type of these kind of hacks to make yourself do stuff, it also matters what you then do, of course, and the direction matters. And I think this is also why I love the saying of Stephen Covey, “You can run up a ladder as fast as possible, but if these ladders are set against the wrong wall, why are you doing it?”

Pete Mockaitis
Exactly.

Rick Pastoor
“What’s the ultimate perspective?” And I think this is what happens in a lot of stuff that you can just copy and paste tips and tricks. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, well, the combined effort of small steps every day can really surmount to a huge body of work that a lot of people will recognize, but that’s not the goal, that’s not really the goal. The goal is like, “How can you move this mountain for yourself?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, and I guess, fundamentally, it just feels more generous and loving in the world. Like, you’ve created something that is truly useful as opposed to something that’s just useful for your own sake, like, “Okay, hey, I managed to get some clicks but I’ve made the world know better,” is just kind of sticks me the wrong way.

But, anyway, bit by bit. Also, another thing I want to say about that, I remember back in my consulting days, when we were fresh recruits and we would look at people building these elaborate Excel models, and they showed us an example, like, “Oh, hey, yes, so here’s something I made,” and people are like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s insane. There’s like 50 different sheets and they all interrelate and you can automatically update one assumption and it flows into all these other places.”

And it was just like wildly intimidating but then they always said the same thing, it’s like, “Well, hey, this didn’t start out that way. One day we set out to figure out this one thing.” And they said, “Okay, so we had a very rough one-sheet thing.” And then we said, “Well, hey, actually there are some really dynamic assumptions working underneath it.” So they said, “Okay, so I made two other pages to reflect that, which then linked to the first one.”

And they said, “Well, there’s another section of things.” And so, again, it just sort of builds bit by bit. And then, when it’s unveiled in its entirety, whether it’s a whole book or a glorious Excel model or whatever, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s insane. I could never do that.” It’s like, “Well, no one can in one day. It grows up bit by bit, and then it becomes something awesome.”

Rick Pastoor
Yeah, I do want to add to one of the previous things that you mentioned on “Is it actually worthwhile what you’re doing?” That I do tend to believe that most of these does not happen out of malintent or out of purposefully making something that’s not useful, or just useful for yourself. I think, ultimately, we do want to build or make something, most people, that is, in some way, deeply useful for, one, ourselves, but also for others.

And I think if there’s, in your life, no structure around “How do you gather insights that help you course-correct? Who is your sounding board, in that sense? Who are the people around you that can speak to you about this? Who do you use as a sounding board to reflect on how kind of ethical and moral choices you’re making? I believe that this is also a hugely important part where you can, one, stand out from the pack, and, two, can have huge effects on the direction that you’re following.

Like, if you’re listening to this and you don’t have an answer to this, you don’t have a way to think about this to deconstruct these issues, you’re not course-correcting. And that’s when you’re missing out, I believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well-said in terms of if you don’t have something, some guideposts or values or people to bounce things off of, and you just go down an optimizing shortcut-y pathway to maximize something, you’re going to get into some gross results. I don’t know if this is true, but I heard a conversation with Bethany McLean and Seth Godin, and one of them said that, “If you continually split-test A-B, what gets better results and clicks, a website, it will always devolve into porn.”

And I don’t know if that’s true, but there is a kernel of truth, I think, to it in terms of like what’s more exciting, like, “Hmm,” in terms of capturing a click, if it’s more clickbait-y or provocative, it does tend to, in the short term, get more people curious enough to take a look. So, yeah, that’s a great point about zooming out and getting the broad perspective. But I want to zoom back in.

So, with calendars, you noted a disconnect and you’ve taken it to a whole another level here in terms of you’re not just using your calendar a little bit differently. You have raised $3 million, I see – congratulations – to build a full-blown new bit of calendar software. What’s the scoop here?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. So, if you think about when you do your best work, if you think about when you want to be focused, when you want to have your meetings, you will probably have some idea, and your listeners will probably have some idea, too, otherwise, you won’t be listening to this. But the question now is, “Okay, think about the rest of your team, think about your teammates, think about the people you possibly manage, the people that you interact with within the company, you probably have no idea or maybe you know, “Okay, this guy is working mostly late shifts. This is not a morning person.” Okay, but that’s as far as it goes.

With Rise, what we want to do is not just build the calendar as an Excel sheet that you fill in but, actually we want to fold these signals into a calendar as we’ve actually done in the last year. We built a scheduling engine that takes this stuff into account, so personal profile, but also the meetings and stuff that you’re attending already. And if you request a time, like, if you say, “Hey, I want to meet for one hour with colleague A, B, and C in the next week,” we will schedule that on a time that’s saving as many focused time minutes as possible for the whole team on average.

So, that’s the biggest thing. We don’t just want to build a pretty calendar, which is something that I think we do, but that’s not the décor because the gist of it is we want you to be in and out, but actually want to help you preserve as much time to focus on what actually matters but also actually have better meetings because they are scheduled at times where you can perform at your best.

And that’s something that’s also linking back to the book but also in how you structure your week, is that we arrived at this, in a time where we just assume that we perform on this very same level on Monday mornings as Thursday afternoons, or at least we expect that of ourselves. Well, of course, that’s not true. And the same is what we’re doing in a year, like on a scale of a year. We just assume and expect from ourselves, from our team, that we perform at our best at all times. Well, that’s not how nature works.

So, there are times where we are just not so focused as we could possibly be, there are times in a year where we need to re-energize. And I think those are things that we actually know that are proven by science, that are backed by research, and stuff that we want to fold into this engine to make sure that you no longer have to think about this stuff, but actually have a calendar guide you to having better days and better weeks.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s certainly intriguing. I guess I’m wondering if there are low-importance meetings that you can schedule for people’s least juicy times. Although, I know if anyone hosting meetings likes to think of it as low importance, but sometimes they might. It’s like, “Hey, these are just the updates that we’re obliged to do by law or something.”

Rick Pastoor
There’s one way to think about that, and that is there is no way for a team to set any type of guardrails about how much time you spend in meetings. So, there is basically just saying, “Hey, can we put it in this week or not?” Like, that’s what we are thinking about. So, that’s also hard to think about more weeks because there is just so much data to consider if you think about just scheduling in a meeting.

And you say low-priority meetings, well, like we know this but it’s just too big of a mental hurdle to think about the other possibilities, but that we can do. So, what happens in Rise is if you schedule a meeting, and the meeting loads for a team, it crosses the boundary that you set as a team, it will suggest, “Hey, possibly move this to next week.” And in a lot of situations, that’s fine. Like, there’s a lot of stuff that can wait.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m curious then, in terms of for our own selves, and maybe Rise does some of this, what are the best times to work? And to what extent are there universals versus individual personal preferences? And how do we masterfully deduce those and work with them?

Rick Pastoor
I think, roughly, there are – and this is not rocket science – roughly, there’s two types. There are the morning owls and there’s late nights, the people that perform better later in the day. And I think if you take those as archetypes, you can split those, again, into two groups but, roughly speaking, there is half of the population that really wants to have their focused time early in the day, and have their meetings maybe a little bit to start around 11:00 in the morning or just after lunch, and then continue into the afternoon.

And there’s another group that prefers to have their meetings in the morning, so to get them done, and have their peak time around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m., and then continues later in the day. And, additionally to this, there’s also a group that is really productive in the evenings, while there’s no distractions, there’s no things going on. What you do see is that you can ask yourself if that happens because of the distractions, or because they are truly more productive at that time.

So, I think that’s an interesting thing that program to impact especially in the next couple of years when people are and will be way more experimenting with disconnecting the work, the usual work times, and figuring out more. But if there’s no construct of an office anymore, and if you can let go of the times more, like you need to appear at 9:00 in Slack and then disappear from Slack at 6:00, what will happen to our productivity if that’s truly possible? But, in a sense, I see two big groups. So, either one in the morning or in the afternoon to focus.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, before we hear about some of your favorite things, can you give us maybe a top do and a top don’t in the realm of calendar, task manager, and communications?

Rick Pastoor
Okay. So, a top do would be, one, make sure that what you do is reflected in this calendar. So, one, that’s meetings, but, two, after that, preparation time, processing time, travel time. Those are three that are very often overlooked. And, of course, you are not the person that is not preparing their meetings, but all the other people are. But we can actually set a good example and make sure that we have the preparation time booked in, otherwise it won’t happen.

And then, connects to that, make sure that what you’re actually working on, so all your tasks, two biggest tasks that need to happen should be in the calendar, that’s what I absolutely believe. That gives a signal to the team, that gives a signal to the people that try to book something in, but also it’s a huge thing for yourself to see a notification pop up and say, “You need to work on this right now because now there’s no excuse anymore.”

So, I’m really saying, make sure that what’s in there, that’s also something that you’re not negotiating with anymore. So, it’s really something that you should actually do. So, that’s really the do part. And the other two parts is what you already mentioned. Like, you should not use your brain for storage. Of course, that’s a mantra that people hear on this channel a lot, but that’s really something that you should not do because you should use your brain as a working memory to focus on what’s at hand.

And then the final one from me would be schedule time for communication, and let that happen at a set time because, one, that’s a skill. Communication is something that we value, like we’re not cutting it out, but very often, what happens, of course, we do our chats and our email while on the go, while we’re, I don’t know, in line in the grocery store, and, of course, we’re not reading things well, we’re not having our full attention. And, of course, stuff runs off the rail with that because we’re not reading. So, I would suggest book off time, like block off time in your calendar to do this communication. If we really value it as part of our work, it should be there.

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

Rick Pastoor
My key quote that I return to is the one, of course, from old president Eisenhower, there’s stuff that’s urgent but not important. Most of the things that are urgent are not important, and most of the things that are important are not urgent. And I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but that’s something that, like every day, is challenging me so much to really think about. If someone puts something on my plate, is that truly because it’s…like should I accept this because it really fits where I’m going? Or, do I do this because, well, really someone else requests this of me?

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

Rick Pastoor
Okay, so the one that I find really intriguing is still this study that’s about how much time do we need to return to our tasks when we are disrupted by something, or when we’re disturbed by something. And there’s a study that’s often quoted, which is that we need – what is it now? 24 minutes? 23 minutes?

Pete Mockaitis
I was thinking the Microsoft study, 24 minutes. You got something fresh for me, Rick?

Rick Pastoor
No, no. We all talk about this study. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel that I need this amount of time to return to the task, but, still, we talk and think about it, and we use this to, I don’t know, take certain directions in how we shape our day. So, I feel this is something that I hope, in the brief, like short time, near time, we will discover that there’s actually something else happening.

And how can we, in a world where so much is happening around us, and we’re disrupted a lot, can we find a way where we’re not dependent on our own discipline so much to get done what needs to get done? So, there’s these paradigms where, of course, if you look at deep work, for example, where…and actually part of Rise is built on top of that, you need as many undisturbed blocks of time to really do work that’s important.

And that’s the idea that most of us start from. But the question is, “Is that something that…can we invent something that really breaks with this pattern that allows us to combine both the fact that we are available instantly, with the fact that we can produce meaningful work if we are still, like in a way, connected and sometimes interrupted by something?” That’s something that I’m fascinated about.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Rick Pastoor
One that I re-read a lot is one of the earliest productivity books, and that’s How To Live On 24 Hours A Day. I don’t know if you know it. It’s a really thin one and I think it’s 1907, something like that, that it was written. And I love it because he’s basically describing that we tend to focus our work in like eight hours a day, and we have like around eight hours of rest, and then, still, there’s quite a lot of time left.

And he’s basically saying, “Okay, if we can, instead of focusing on how can we make these eight hours at work more productive, if we think how can we meaningfully spend those other eight hours, that’s, of course, a 2X improvement,” which is really hard to do with incremental, really small changes in, I don’t know, our day-to-day software and our to-do list and our hacking our kind of stuff. And I think this is, to me, a really useful reminder that I need to be conscious about, or can be conscious about, this other segment of my day as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah, well, the calendar is an easy one for me. Like, for me, that’s something that I begin the day with and end the day with. I’m actually on the first version of Rise now, which is really nice, and I’m connected to that. I’m also a huge OmniFocus fan, so that’s my go-to task manager.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Rick Pastoor
Favorite habits will be, for me, we have been doing a smoothie every single day for, I don’t know, 10 years. Every morning, I make this.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s in the smoothie, Rick? We have to know.

Rick Pastoor
It’s all veggies. And we started off, and I think this is, again, is something that like you have to ease in a little bit because, like I have some friends that drink this stuff that we make, and they’re like, “What are you drinking because this is disgusting?” But I do feel that, while I cannot prove this, that this has a lot of long-term healthy effects on my energy during the day, but also long-term what kind of stuff do I consume and do I get the proper amount of nutritional value in my body.

So, we started off with a lot of fruits, and then, over time, gradually replaced fruits by more vegetables. And that has been something that, I would say, something that the longest running habit that I’ve been doing.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, let’s see, like this morning, what was the recipe in terms of the vegetables?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. Okay, so there is the fruit that is in this is unpeeled bananas, because in the peel of a banana, there is most of the fiber, actually. So, I wash the banana, and then I put it in. There’s – what is it? – linseed, I guess – how do you call it? – in there. There is carrots, there’s spinach, there is kale, there is…let me check. I have to also translate the words in my head so I’m looking. Avocado?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Rick Pastoor
Yeah, it’s the same, huh? Avocado, yeah. So, avocado is in there. And for flavor, I use cacao, is it in Dutch?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cacao? Chocolate?

Rick Pastoor
Chocolate, but, of course, the pure biological version, which is in powder. And spirulina.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s something.

Rick Pastoor
And that’s it. And then water, and that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
There you go. Cool. All right. And tell us, is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote back to you often?

Rick Pastoor
Yeah. So, what they’re saying is the first thing that they discover when they start to put in the work in the calendar, saying, “I have way too much on my plate. So, how do I…like, give me a tip to compress it all in.” And, of course, the answer is there is no way. Like, there is no way that’s happening, and that’s actually the exercises you should go through because now you start to see that it will never all fit, and you need to make the decisions that matter.

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

Rick Pastoor
I’m quite active in Twitter so that’s where I’m sharing the stuff. So, that’s @rickpastoor on Twitter, and that’s also where I refer to my newsletter and the other stuff that I’m working on, and that’s the place to find me.

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

Rick Pastoor
I would say that being diligent about how you spend your time, not only on a weekly basis, but I would challenge the people, especially from this podcast, to also spend time on the longer horizon, and not just following what’s offered in the workplace, but consciously thinking about what your system, your structure there, because that’s where you find the real impact.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Rick, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun with the book and with Rise and all your adventures.

Rick Pastoor
Thank you so much for having me.

738: How to Get Inspired and Be Inspiring with Alise Cortez

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Alise Cortez reveals what sets apart inspirational leaders, and how you can become one yourself.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three principle sources of meaning
  2. How to get yourself out of a job rut
  3. What people look for in an inspirational leader 

About Alise

Dr. Alise Cortez is the chief purpose officer at Alise Cortez and Associates, a management consulting firm. She is also an inspirational speaker, social scientist, author, and host of the Working on Purpose radio show. Having developed her expertise within the human capital / organizational excellence industry over the last 20 years, she is focused on helping companies, leaders, and individuals across the globe to live with “gusto,” meaning, and purpose. She is the author of Purpose Ignited: How Inspiring Leaders Unleash Passion and Elevate Cause, and the Curator of Passionately Striving in “Why”: An Anthology of Women Who Persevere Mightily to Live Their Purpose. 

Resources Mentioned

Alise Cortez Interview Transcript

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

Alise Cortez
Thanks, Pete. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be on the other end of the mic.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to be chatting with you and to hear about your wisdom when it comes to purpose and inspiration and fighting burnout. But, first, I want to hear, you had an aspiration as a youth, tell us about this.

Alise Cortez
Yeah, let’s just be thankful that things change and evolve over time and, hopefully, very quickly. So, Pete, when I was in my elementary school years, and I asked a lot of people this when I’m doing my interviews with them, what do they want to be when they were young, like in elementary school, and I had a very, very strong singular aspiration in the second grade to become a horse.

And that was because my mother was married five times by the time she was 28. She finally found Mr. Right with her fifth marriage when I was in the second grade, and he moved us to this farm and I had my own horse, he was my best friend, and I thought, “Wow, if a being can be that magnificent, I want to be one of those.”

So, I, literally, Pete, would go around, I had two young siblings at the time, I would literally go around practicing being a horse. And so, I’d get on all fours and I’d give them rides on my back, and I practiced my whinny, and I was ready to be a horse. And my parents were, of course, horrified. I don’t know how long it took me to outgrow that, but that was my first aspiration.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s interesting, they say, which is that’s a great question, “What do you want to do?” when you were little in terms of upon growing up, and there are often clues in that about your interests and passions and things. Tell me, were there some things about horses that connected to what you’re doing now?

Alise Cortez
What a thoughtful, beautiful question. As you ask me the question, I can connect the dots. No one has ever asked me that before, but, yeah, there’s something about, for me, horses are magnificent. They are elegant. They are elevated. They are graceful. And so, the work that I do today is so much is about stewarding consciousness. That’s so much of the work that I do.

And, yeah, so we’re on stewarding individual lives, organizations upward and toward magnificence, toward elegance, towards something bigger and beautiful, more beautiful. So, yeah, I think I can connect it, my fascination with horses to what I do now.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, so now let’s chat a little bit about some purpose. You’ve got a new book, Purpose Ignited. What’s the big idea here?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, the big idea here is that each and every single one of us have the capacity and, frankly, the responsibility to be able to ignite that which is already within us in terms of our energy, our passion, our vitality. It’s always there and available to us but we lose it along the way in life as we go out and get burnt out and we get overwhelmed, etc. but it’s always there. And so, the book really teaches us how to remain vigilant and develop it and exercise it on a daily basis, first, as individuals and then as inspirational leaders.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell us, when it comes to, I’m thinking a little bit about if someone is listening and you’re an individual and you are not yet having direct reports but you are feeling your inspiration, motivation sagging and maybe burnout on the rise, what would you recommend are some of the top things they should do?

Alise Cortez
Oh, yeah, I got this, Pete. I got this. Okay. So, I haven’t introduced myself as a management consultant specializing in meaning and purpose and an organizational logotherapist but now is the time to do so. So, when it comes to logotherapy, what that really speaks to is healing and vitality through meaning. And I don’t think you can go a day without hearing about purpose and meaning, but what the heck are they, right? And how do we actually get to them?

So, as a logotherapist, a lot of the work that I’m doing is about helping people to access meaning in their lives and their work because when they do so, that is their ultimate turn-on mechanism, their ultimate energy source, essentially. That’s what logotherapy teaches and that’s what I embrace.

So, what I would say is I’ll share with you there are three principal sources of meaning according to logotherapy and when we can each access those and learn to presence them in the moment to moments of our lives, the more energy that we have and the more irresistible we’d become to other people. So, I’ll share those really quick, but before I do, do you want me to speak just to the individual piece or do you want me to speak to this model first?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, let’s hear about the individual and then the model.

Alise Cortez
Okay. So, let’s go back to from an individualistic vantage point. We each and every one of us have access to this notion of meaning in the everyday moments of our life and across our lives, and yet it’s up to us to be able to find that. And the more meaning we can find in our lives, the more lifted we are, the more energetic we are, and, frankly, the more irresistible we are to other people.

So, what does that speak to? How do we translate that to the world of work? As individuals, one, when we really understand what it is that lights us up, what do we love, we can opt-in to those opportunities and let anything else go that doesn’t actually fit that path or that pattern, if you will. And then, two, when are leading other people, or we want to lead other people, even if we’ve never done that before, when we’re so up to something that turns us on and lights us up and we’re passionate about, that is what is irresistible to others.

In fact, what we’ve learned in the leadership space, Pete, is that there’s all different kinds of ways that leadership has been taught about, categorized, and tried to develop over the years, but where we have come to with a lot of common ground with thought leaders in the same space is the one thing that we really need is inspiration.

We need inspirational leaders who actually show us the possibilities, something much bigger than ourselves, that makes us feel like we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves and that we belong to that, and helps us grow into the best version of ourselves. So, individually, what we really need is that path to meaning to steward us toward that higher being in ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, so then, I’m curious, if we’re doing our own introspection and we want to tap into that ultimate energy source and get some more of that, how do we come to get a great understanding of what really lights us up?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, okay. So, then I want to get into the model then. So, according to logotherapy, there’s three principal sources of meaning. And so, the first one is creative, and that is what we give of ourselves to the world, that we can uniquely give of ourselves to the world. And I translate that word to passion. So, what is it that you can’t not do in the world? If nobody was looking and nobody paid you, what would you do? That’s the stuff and it’s always the thing that you put yourself into.

So, for me, as an example, one of the things for me is I have to go find someone on a daily basis that I can uplift. So, even if it’s in the grocery store, even if it’s walking down the sidewalk, I look for someone that I can say something kind about, not because I want something, Pete, but because when I do that, the act of giving that unique message from me to them lifts me, and that’s the energy source back that I’m talking about.

So, the more that we, one, know what our passions are and, two, exercise them, the more energy we get. So, when I’m out speaking with audiences, Pete, and I ask people that question, I ask an audience of a hundred people, five hundred people, a thousand people, “What are you passionate about?” Guess, Pete, what the number one response is?

Pete Mockaitis
Helping people?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, I’ll get that as a little response here and there. Some people will say families, some will say travel, but the universal response more in common is, “I don’t know.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That was so funny. I was about to say I don’t know because I didn’t know. But I thought, “I want to give her a good guess. Let’s see.” I was like, “Wine, coffee, travel. Let’s go with helping people.”

Alise Cortez
Right. But those, again, are not really passion because those are just things you enjoy. You’re not putting yourself into them unless you’re like savoring the moment and letting the juices run down your chin as you drink that coffee or drink that wine or whatever. So, passion is your first source of meaning. The second source is experiential, and this is what the world gives you in the way of encounters and experiences, and I translate that to inspiration.

So, those are the moments that literally breathe life into yourself as you experience them, and so they are interactions, encounters. People might then say things like, “Travel is an inspiration,” or, “Watching somebody do something really amazing or great.” So, for me, there’s lots of sources of inspiration, and hosting my radio show is one of them. Each week, I’m having an amazing conversation with somebody who teaches me something, so that breathes something into me.

And then the third source of meaning is attitudinal. So, one important thing to understand is all of these sources have to surround themselves around a value that you hold. So, whatever it is, I value empowerment so, therefore, lifting others is part of the reason that giving of those experiences to others is meaningful to me. I value learning and growth, so hosting a radio show is why that works for me as an inspiration.

So, the attitudinal is that becomes a source of meaning when, especially when you face an encounter or faith in life that you cannot control but you turn that into the ability to recognize it as an achievement, but for the way that you allow yourself to put an attitude toward it, or your mindset. So, the one thing that we always have control over, Pete, no matter what, is the attitude that we take against whatever circumstances life puts forth through us. And it is that which we have control, and that is our brand.

So, whether you’re an optimist, or whether you’re somebody that say, “Oh, woe is me. I’m a victim,” all that is true because your mind told you that. So, you have an opportunity to be able to architect that mindset. And, for me, it’s all about, “What will you do with your one precious life? You have just one of them, what are you going to do?”

I just watched, by the way, last night, “14 Peaks.” If that is not inspirational and doesn’t teach you the sheer power of mindset, I do not know what does. Have you seen it?

Pete Mockaitis
I have not.

Alise Cortez
Oh, it’s incredible. It’s about a Nepalese man who finds a team against all odds. He summits the 14 tallest mountains over 8,000 meters – is it meters? – in less than seven weeks. Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s truly amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Less than a week’s rest between each.

Alise Cortez
It’s like phenomenal. But that, Pete, is the power of the human spirit. And when you convince yourself, and you have that kind of a mindset powering your sails, there’s nothing you really can’t do.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. So, okay, we got the three categories – the creative, the experiential, and the attitudinal. What discovery process or key introspection questions might you recommend we engage in to really zero in on a clear bullseye for these pieces for us individually?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, great question. And, by the way, you have a great voice, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Alise Cortez
You’re welcome. So, first, the creative, right? I can tell you that so many people have left their passions go over the years as they became “an adult.” So, there were things that you loved when you were a kid, in your earlier years, and you let them go because, oh, you didn’t have time anymore, you’re working, whatever, or there’s additional nuance that have come along that you just haven’t given time over to because you’re busy with other adult matters.

And so, really finding those things that literally light you up when you do them, and pay attention. Ask your friends, ask your family, “What do you think that I love?” They’ll tell you. They’ll know. You’re just the only one that forgot. So, first, giving space in your life for those things even if it’s only 15 minutes a day or some time per week because it’s the act of giving yourself over to those passions that gives you that vital energy back.

On the experiential front, I actually had somebody at my workshop last week asked me this very same question. She knew what her passion was, it was totally giving herself over into her children, but she didn’t know how to identify an inspiration. And I said, “Well, I think that’s a matter of paying attention to look around you.” For a lot of people, it’s nature, it’s beautiful music, it’s art, it’s being or hearing about phenomenal stories.

Like, for me, I think Nelson Mandela is one of the most inspirational human beings I’ve ever known about. That he can devote his whole life to this idea of exercising apartheid. It’s just amazing to me. So, if you look around, there’s so much to be inspired by. It’s just what do you value? Do you value eradicating world hunger? Do you care about climate change? Do you care about economic improvement in your backyard? When you go looking for the things that you value, and then you go see, “Who’s doing something about those things? Or, what’s doing something about those things?” I can guarantee you, you will find some kind of inspiration in that front.

On the attitudinal space, first and most importantly, examine what is governing you today. When you think about how you make decisions and what goes through your mind throughout the day, one thing that people do, Pete, is they’ll set like a timer every hour or every two hours, and in that moment just quickly record what was on their mind. And then you can start to see the pattern of what actually shows up in your mind throughout the day, “Oh, man, I’m constantly thinking about how bad my life is,” or, “I’m doing this wrong,” or whatever it is.

So, when you get a handle on what is that governing pattern of what guides your life and your thoughts, because most of the time we’re on autopilot for that. We don’t even know what is our mindset. You have to bring it to your awareness. And one way to do that is to record your thoughts for some period of time – every hour, a couple of hours – to bring that to light. And then just see how is that serving you, how is that working for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, could you maybe tie this together with a story of someone who was feeling low on the inspiration, and then they did some discovery around these points and had a transformation?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, I was thinking about that. I didn’t know if you were going to ask me about a story, but I thought, “Gosh, I want to bring this home.” So, my PhD is in human development, and I started meaning in work and identity when I was doing my research. And then, several years later, I decided to expand that postdoc research into something much bigger, and I interviewed 150 men and women across 20 different professions about their experience of work and how their person was related to it, and I found these 15 modes of engagement.

I was getting towards the end of the data collection, Pete. I might get 110 people, I want 115, and I needed another chef as one of my categories. And I found somebody who had been referred to me, I called him up, I say, “Hey, I’m doing this research. It’s about meaning in work,” and he goes, “Oh, Alise, you don’t want to interview me. I hate my job.” And I’m like, “I definitely want to talk to you because I’m trying to understand the full spectrum of experience. Please, can we talk?”

So, we scheduled the in-person 90-minute interview at his restaurant, and I came one evening at like 6:00 o’clock and we had dinner together at his restaurant, and I interviewed him. And during the course of that 90-minute conversation, Pete, he fell into a pile of tears no less than five times. He was so miserable. He hated the fact that his family was at home while he was a chef working Friday, Saturday nights, all the weekends, and they were living while he was working.

He felt like he was trapped in his job. He made a lot of money, and he said, “I’m beholden to this because I have to pay my ex-wife all this alimony. My boss is a jerk. He yells at me every day. I walk on egg shells. I don’t get to serve the menu I want. I got to do what they do.” He just was so miserable. So, I finished collecting all this data, it was 2800 pages. I go and analyze all this data, and I come up with these 15 modes of engagement, all the way from transcendental connection, which is the highest, most fulfilled, to living your purpose, and all the way down to number 15, which is existential crisis, which is where I found him to be.

So, part of my research design involved sharing with each of my participants, “Here’s what I came up with. Here’s what I came up with the results. Here are the 15 modes of engagement. Here’s the one that I think you were exhibiting when we interviewed you. Do you agree? And since I’ve interviewed you, do you think you’ve changed modes, and to which one?” So, Pete, the day I go to, I scheduled the conversation with this guy, his pseudonym is McKinney, I am not looking forward to this conversation. Who wants to tell somebody they’re in existential crisis?

Pete Mockaitis
“It looks like you’re the worst. You’re in a weird tight spot.”

Alise Cortez
Who wants to give that message? So, the phone rings and I’m hoping he doesn’t pick up. So, he picks up, and he goes, “Alise, guess what? I’m all the way up to conflicted fit,” which is like six modes up from existential crisis, and I let a deep breath go. And I’m like, “Well, what happened? What’s going on?” He goes, “Well, Alise, after you interviewed me, remember when you sent me the transcript about our interview,” which is part of my design, “I shared that with my wife and my mother-in law, and when they read it, they wept. They had no idea I was so miserable.”

“And so, immediately, what that did was it opened them, and they just began to support me in a whole different way that I’ve just never had with them before. And so, suddenly, I just felt understood and appreciated in a way that I just never had.” And he said, “Today, I have the same boss. I still work, he still screams, I still walk on eggshells, I have the same crappy hours.” But he said, “You know what I’ve come to understand is I make good money. I can send both my kids to college. My kids are proud of where I work.”

And so, the only thing that has changed, Pete, is his attitude, about how he’s come to understand his work. So, conflicted fit, that particular mode, what that speaks to is you’re in the right kind of work but you’re in the wrong place or the wrong environment. That’s what that particular mode describes. Existential crisis speaks to having a negative view of yourself because of the work that you’re doing, and you’re literally on such an existential level that it’s literally chopping away your soul. So, it was quite a change for him.

But, again, all that speaks to is getting conscious, getting aware of, “Where are you today? What can you do to start to turn and other people and where you want to be in life? And how can you change, literally, what happens and how you decide what that means?” and that’s your attitudinal change. So, he’s a great example of, literally, in a matter of some weeks, he could change his whole life and his health and his relationships, but for the way that he was relating to his work.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s cool. Six rungs without actually changing the work itself. That’s pretty potent. Now, I want to hear a little bit about, when it comes to if we are trying to inspire others, what should we think about?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, I love that question. That’s a killer question. Well, if we want to inspire others, first we need to get turned on ourselves. That is job number one. You got to be turned on in your own life. People do not want to follow somebody who is a dill pickle, who wants to hear about all the negative stuff that’s going on in the world. That’s not who they want to follow.

They want to follow somebody who’s excited about their own lives and feels great about where they’re going and what’s happening around them, and in the process, they’re looking to see what’s amazing and great about you, “Wow, I’ve never seen anybody problem-solve like you do in such a creative way.” And, usually, people are like, “What? Really?”

And so, when you, as a leader, can see what’s amazing and great about your people, and you help them then lift to a higher version of that by giving them opportunities, and challenging them in a loving way to get them to be able to become higher versions of themselves, to realize more of their potential, that is an inspirational leader that people want to follow. People want to be able to realize their best, and they can’t do it alone.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the starting point. And then what?

Alise Cortez
And then from there, you got to hold them to that. So, if you do it right, you’re going to bring them to places where they’re scared to death, “What do you mean, Pete, you want me to go and do that project? I can’t do that project. I’ve never done that before.” “Mm-hmm, I know. So, here’s how we’re going to help you get through that.” And if they aren’t literally, if their knees aren’t knocking on occasion, you’re not doing enough.

Now, some people don’t want to be challenged to that quite so you got to understand a little bit of their appetite before you go pushing them over the edge. So, that means you got to really become a fantastic listener. And so, the best leaders, literally, do transform lives, and you know you’ve done this well when you give them appreciation and feedback, and the appreciation that you give them, literally, can move them to tears and when they want to stay in touch with you for years over time. They don’t want to let you go, then you know you’ve done this well.

But it’s really about transforming their lives, helping them to be able to see a greater possibility given the resources, to be able to create that within and for themselves, and introduce them to possibilities and opportunities that they couldn’t have by themselves.

Pete Mockaitis
And, likewise, could you share a story of this coming to life?

Alise Cortez
I’m going to share my own. And this is a great example of an inspirational leader. I grew up in a small town north east of Oregon, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. My ticket out was Roland Harvel, who owned a small pumping company that I got to do a co-op job for, and he said the magic words, “If you ever find yourself in Portland, you’ve got a job with me.” I’m like, “I got to go. I’ll see you later.” I graduate high school, get to Portland, do a little bit of business college, go to work for him for 18 months in his commercial real estate development company as his administrative assistant.

Pete, great job, time of my life. I’m in downtown Portland, I’m working for a commercial real estate developer, and just thinking, “He teaches me so much. He’s funny. He’s bigger than life. He pulls me forward. He believes in me,” all this sort of things. Eighteen months on the job, one day out to lunch, he passes by my front desk, opens the door, walks out, over his shoulder he says, “You got to get out here. You got to go see the world. Get an education. Do something with yourself. But before you go, hire your replacement,” and the door shuts.

So, I’m wondering the whole time he’s gone, just the singular question, “Did he just fire me?” So, he comes through that same door a little over an hour, just merrily walks through and goes back to his desk, and I stopped him, I’m like, “Hold on just a second, Roland. Did you just fire me?” And he said, “Absolutely. It’ll be a crime to keep you here.”

So, here’s the magical thing about this, Pete. Before he said what he said to me, I did not know I could go to college. My parents were farmers and restaurateurs. They were very successful entrepreneurs. We didn’t talk about college. So, a bachelor’s, three masters, and a PhD later, I think I can check the education box. He told me to go see the world.

I lived in Spain and Brazil. I learned those languages. I speak five different languages. I’ve done work in many parts of the world and travel all the time. Still working on that “What do you do with your life?” That will be a forever thing. But this guy, we’re still involved. He’s 84 years old now, and he came to my wedding. He called me every weekend when I got my divorce in 2016. Today, my job is to cheer for him as he brings together his new invention – the interlude chair. So, we’re still connected after all this time, so a really great leader.

He totally saved my life, Pete. God, I don’t know how long, I’d probably still be there if he hadn’t…he saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. He showed me that vision and he led me to it, and it required, in his case, to kick me out of the nest. But what a saving grace and what a gift, and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for that.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, when you say he saw something in you, you did not see in yourself, I mean that sounds…in some ways, it just sounds like, “Oh, he has a gift. How lovely.” Can we learn to do that? And how?

Alise Cortez
Yeah, I love that question, Pete. You’re so good at this. Yeah, we sure can. And I use this phrase “Go looking for your people. Go looking for them.” Pete, he saw things my parents couldn’t see in me. They couldn’t see with their eyes. I do think he’s unique because he’s a Czechoslovakian-American, he survived getting out of the war, he was headed toward the camps, so I do think there was something special about him, and we can all learn from him.

So, if we will literally stop looking at “What’s wrong with people? What are they not doing right?” which usually translates to “What aren’t they doing like I do because my way is right?” and we start looking for, “What’s right about these people? What’s different? What’s unique? Why is it that Sally always asks these razor-sharp questions in meetings that some people find to be kind of put-off but they’re so incisive? What can we do with that?”

Like, go looking for the gem in every one that we have in our group, in our team, and talk with them about, “Where is your life going? What do you want to do? Do you know that you have this amazing gift to be able to really understand and make explicit that which others can’t see? Do you know that? Most of the type of people don’t know that.”

So, when leaders can go looking for what’s really right and different and special about their people, and help them, one, become aware of that, and then, two, if they’re interested, steward that, develop that, learn to apply it, that’s an amazing gift. That’s an amazing gift to people.

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

Alise Cortez
I guess I will always emphasize the point of we really do just have one precious life as far as we know. And, really, it’s an opportunity, it’s your responsibility to do what you want in that, and it takes energy to do that, and it’s right there. Logotherapy teaches us that being able to find the meaning in the moments is the easiest cheapest thing that you can do to be able to steward that journey in an energizing, invigorating, vitalizing way. And it’s right there for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite

Pete Mockaitis
book?

Alise Cortez
It’s not a book but it’s a story. It’s called The Beast in the Jungle. Do you know it?

Pete Mockaitis
Mm-hmm.

Alise Cortez
I forget who the author is. I’m sure one of our listeners will remind us. I read it when I was in my late teens, and it was so powerful for me. This is the power of writing and the power of stories. But the essence of it, Pete, is that the author, the narrator is talking about this awful thing that’s going to happen to him in his life, and it he knows it and so he avoids all these relationships. And, also, that there’s something really, really special that’s waiting for him, too. There’s something awful and something special, and he spends his whole life protecting himself.

But he makes this friendship with this woman, and she totally buys into his vision of himself, and they become lifelong friends. At the end of this thing, we discover that their relationship was really, it’s hinted anyway, that their relationship is really was the beast in the jungle the whole time. It was the thing that he was afraid of and it was also his best gift. It just reminded me so much of how much we can lose in life when we’re not open to the experience of life unfolding, and that we don’t trust the magic of the moments that are right here in front of us all the time. So, it was such a profound book for me and it’s something I’ve never been able to forget.

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

Alise Cortez
What people generally say about me is I’m energy and I’m inspiring. People remember the “What will you do with your one precious life?” People remember that “You have it within you to do what you want.” Those are some of the major takeaways that people get from what I speak.

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

Alise Cortez
My principal website is the easiest – AliseCortez.com. That’s the easiest.

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

Alise Cortez
Yeah, get really flipping clear about what you’re passionate about, and do that. Do that like to the hilt. That is your one opportunity to distinguish yourself, and, in so doing, you will totally energize and light yourself up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Alise, this has been a treat. I wish you much purpose and inspiration.

Alise Cortez
Thanks, Pete. I got more books to write, so thanks for the opportunity to be on the show with you. I appreciate getting to share my message.

737: How to Make Decisions Smarter and Faster with Ralph Keeney

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Ralph Keeney reveals his simple process for making wiser decisions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three steps to making better decisions
  2. How to gain extreme clarity on your best options
  3. How to quickly move past indecision

About Ralph

Ralph L. Keeney has made significant contributions to the fields of decision analysis and value-focused thinking. He is a consultant, an award winning author, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

He lives in San Francisco where he consults on business, organizational, and government decisions in the United States and overseas.

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Ralph Keeney Interview Transcript

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

Ralph Keeney
Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to chat with you, and you consulted on many decisions. Can you share with us one of the most, I don’t know, unique, or funny, or zany, or, in some ways, standout decisions that you consulted on? What’s the story?

Ralph Keeney
Well, in a sense, some of the biggest and maybe zany ones are usually for governments or large agencies.

Pete Mockaitis
Those zany governments.

Ralph Keeney
Did a lot of work on evaluating sites in the United States for a nuclear waste storage site, and that was quite a while ago. And once, I’m looking at long-term energy policy for Germany where we involved many, many stakeholders in Germany. And that included talking to leaders in both the Catholic and Protestant churches, and in many of the organizations that were big companies in Germany as representatives of them, and then to just normal citizens about what they wanted from the entire energy policy for all of Germany.

Pete Mockaitis
And were there any breakthrough moments that really were pivotal?

Ralph Keeney
I think there were some important ones because we had a lot of people evaluate some of the alternatives intuitively. And then we helped them systematically break their evaluation into parts and put them together. So, we had two kind of evaluations from many of the participants and we pointed out the distinctions between kind of their intuitive in the head judgment of the whole thing, what was the best thing to do, versus the more carefully thought out.

And then we said, “So, now that you know both of your responses, choose what you think is appropriate.” And most of them ended up about two-thirds of the way from their intuition to their more systematically thought-out judgments. And I think that spirit holds for a lot of personal decisions. We use intuition all the time, and we should. But if we think about it a little more carefully on decisions worthy of thought, we often come up with something different. And I think it’s often closer to when they put the parts together and decide what to do to follow their well-thought-out judgments and decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. And I’d love it if you could maybe share, is there a particularly surprising or fascinating consistent discovery you’ve encountered about decision-making that has come from your many years of working through them?

Ralph Keeney
Well, I can share a simple thing that came through some of that and it’s very basic. The only purposeful way you can influence anything in your life, at work, or your personal life, is through the decisions that you make. Now, a lot of people, when I say that, they say, “Well, I don’t think that’s true. If I decide to eat much more responsibly, that’s going to improve my life,” or, “If I exercise routinely, I’ll get in a little better shape, that will certainly improve my life.”

And I say, “All those are correct but none of that will happen unless you make the decisions to think about it, choose to do what is done, and then follow through on doing what you need to do to complete it.” So, it is the decisions, and that’s basically the thing that enables you to have some control over your life and offers you that control.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup, absolutely. That adds up to me. Well, cool. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about your process. And I’d love it if maybe we could start with a story in terms of someone who was struggling with a difficult decision and then they put a few of your particular suggestions or process or skills to the test, and came out with a cool outcome. Could you share such a story?

Ralph Keeney
I can but I’ll just start with one comment. How did we learn to make decisions? And the point is none of us learned how to make decisions. We just picked it up. We started very, very young. You’re hungry, so how do you communicate that? You holler. It’s maybe not such a conscious decision, and obviously the words are not known, but those were many of our actions when were very young. And decision-making is a skill but most of us have never learned it as a skill. In fact, we’ve never learned how to make decisions. It’s all picked up and it comes with some useful techniques that we all use. And it also comes with a large number of cognitive biases and shortcomings that we take that degrade the quality of our decisions.

So, to get to your point, let me give a rather simple decision but important that all of us probably have faced. It could be you have an opportunity to have a dinner with somebody very important in your company that might even help your job, or with somebody in another company where you might be interested in a job, and you’ve never met them,.

You’re excited. You think about, “What do I hope the dinner is?” And it’s, well, convenient restaurant to the hotel the guest is in, quality food and local cuisine, and you go to the hotel and ask the concierge, “Do you have a restaurant like this nearby?” Well, of course, they do, two blocks away, so you make a reservation. The important person comes, you’re excited, you meet them at the restaurant, you go in, the food is tremendous, but the evening is a disaster. It was way too noisy, you couldn’t have a good discussion, you didn’t learn much about them, and they hardly know who you are.

Now, that particular case could’ve been changed dramatically with a little bit of clear-thinking about the decision and, particularly, this example can illustrate the three fundamental components of every decision that are worthy of thought. And you might’ve not just chosen that restaurant, you might’ve asked for three or four restaurants nearby and just gone and looked at them the day before, or two days before, and you would’ve noticed that was way too noisy and you wouldn’t have chosen it, but maybe you still have though you didn’t do that, so you got the one alternative.

Before that then, you should think, “What are the objectives that I would have for the dinner?” Well, you certainly wanted to meet the person, that was stated. And so, maybe you should’ve recognized, “I want a good conversation and I need it to be quiet enough to do that.” Had you done that, you never would’ve chosen that restaurant.

And the third thing is it was perhaps the wrong decision problem. It wasn’t to find a place to eat. It really was to find a place where we can have a quality discussion that serves food. So, knowing the major objectives to get to know the person would’ve led you to a different alternative too. So, any of those three things – clarifying the decision you should address, better identifying what you hope to achieve, i.e., your objectives, or coming up with a few more alternatives to compare – would’ve led to a much better decision. Any one of those things.

And each of those is a piece of information relevant to your decision. It improves your insight about it and your ability to make a better choice. And I refer to that using the word that the behavioral economists use – a nudge. Each piece of information nudges you to make a better decision. In their work, and Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for his work on that in 2017 for his book with Cass Sunstein, Nudge. But their nudges are when someone else nudges you in your decision. And these types of nudges that I just referred to are when you nudge yourself by giving a useful piece of information to make a better choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Well, that’s cool. So, we got three fundamentals there – clarifying, then identify the objectives, and having a few more options. The previewing or sampling the venues in advance, does that fit under of the three or is that under a fourth?

Ralph Keeney
Well, I think that’s kind of looking for alternatives. I think that’s one of the three.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you, part of the alternative-seeking process. Okay. Cool. Certainly. Well, yeah, that’s great in terms of what you didn’t anticipate. And I think about this, I think, my decisions a lot when it comes to just like purchasing stuff in, like, Amazon.com, “What am I ordering? And why am I choosing this thing over that thing?”

And I think of returns, I find returns kind of painful actually. It’s like, one, it’s just a little bit of a pain, but, literally, in terms of just spending the time. And, two, it just feels like, “This is an acknowledgement that I did not make the optimal decision I had hoped. This thing I got did not work out the way I was hoping for it to.” But it’s fine. It’s somewhat easy to return. You iterate and you try again.

But, yeah, I think that’s dead-on in terms of that previewing or sampling can tell you a whole lot in all kinds of things because sometimes you have no alternative but to try it on for size and do a little bit of a demo or a trial or a sample or an iteration to get you where you want to go a few steps away instead of in one giant leap.

Ralph Keeney
Right. That’s true. And the other thing is once you get your decision clear with those three steps, of course, you don’t know how well the various alternatives measure up in terms of each of your objectives. That’s the second part of decision-making. Often, some clear thought about it can help you a great deal, and that’s the case with buying products online.

You can’t actually see a lot of the detail, you don’t know how they might look from various positions, and the nice thing you want to look good, where it is in your kitchen or in your office, etc., and you want it to function in certain ways that might be mentioned but it doesn’t do what you want. And you can’t get that information unless you see it, so that you buy it knowing you can return it is fine.

Now, if you’ve signed up for a vacation that’s expensive and you can’t know everything that’s going to happen there, especially if it’s a group vacation, some kind of tour or something, you’re committed and there’s going to be, as with all important decisions, uncertainties about how well the chosen alternative will measure up, or any of the other alternatives that you didn’t choose. And we make those decisions with the uncertainties there, doing the best we can. And you can have, of course, a good decision but the outcome isn’t so great.

It happens all the time in the market, but in everything in life. If there’s three different products you could invest in, and you carefully think about it and get all the information available then, no one knows for sure how well each of those products will do in the next couple of years, and yet you make a decision on, dead-on, which one will do better. And if you’ve made the decision with the best information available, and it doesn’t turn out to be the best one after the fact, you made the right decision, it’s just that it wasn’t the one that turned out to be the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. We had Annie Duke on the show and we discussed that phenomenon as well, is you may have made an optimal decision, even though the outcome is not what you desired.

Ralph Keeney
Yeah, there are just different things, and it happens to everybody all the time in life. And if it didn’t, you wouldn’t do a single thing because, with anything, there’s the chance that it doesn’t work out great. And I should say, as well as not doing anything has a lot of negative consequences.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Doing nothing is a decision in and of itself even though we don’t maybe think of it as such. Well, maybe now, could you maybe walk us through a demonstration of your decision-making process, step-by-step, with an example?

Ralph Keeney
Sure. Now, I should say one doesn’t have to do all these steps. That’s important. Because if you get one nudge, sometimes, like for that restaurant decision, you figure out, “I need a quiet place where I can have a great conversation,” and then you walk in two or three other restaurants, and one just really clearly meets that, that’s going to be the best place. You’re done. You don’t need to figure out more alternatives or even too many more objectives. The price, you maybe care about a little bit, but it’s just swamped compared to the importance of having a great discussion.

So, you don’t have to do all of the steps. But the first step, you want to make sure you’re addressing the decision that you want to address. In this aft, there’s a lot of shortcomings just in this one. And the reason is decisions come, like your car might be in an accident and you didn’t cause it but it’s damaged badly, and it’s an old car. Now, a lot of people will say, “Oh, now I got to get the car fixed,” and the first thing they would think of is, “Where can I get it fixed?” and they maybe have a routine place or an alternative if they take it there, and they’re done.

But in that situation, maybe they should’ve thought, “You know, that’s an old car and it’s going to cost almost as much as it’s worth just to fix it. Maybe I should get a different car, a better used car, or a new car, or maybe I should even go without a car for a while,” depending where you live, “and rent a car only when I need it.” So, it could change the decision that you should address by thinking more clearly and not rushing to kind of get it over with because it is a problem.

And then the second thing is you want to think, “What are the objectives that I have for that?” And it’s surprising perhaps, but most people often don’t identify a large number of their important objectives. An important example, it’s certainly relevant to all the people with jobs, is a study I did some years ago with a couple colleagues with the entire MBA class in their first year at a university in the east, and there were roughly 300 students in the first-year class.

And in between their first and second years, they have an internship at a company. About 30% to 40% actually get their job out of their MBA in those companies but they want to check out new areas in the country, new types of businesses, all kinds of things. And so, when I went to give the seminar on some of the topics we’re talking about here, I said, “I’ll be very happy to do it, but I want to have some questionnaires that they fill out.” And they were asked to fill them out, and they’ve done this homework assignments so people really thought about them somewhat.

And one of them was, “What are the objectives you had for your internship?” And the students wrote their objectives down, and it’s like, to learn a lot about a new field, see another part of the country, learn special things about how businesses work, meet some people in this field, all kinds of things. The average number of objectives, or values could be the word, things that they would care about in selecting it, turned out to be about 6.5.

Independently then, my colleagues that I’m working with, we thought about the objectives from knowing a lot of MBAs and things, and we created what we thought was a pretty full list because we put everybody’s objectives in that they had. We had 32 objectives once we cleaned them up.

So, later on in the survey of the students, showed them those 32 objectives, and said, “Check any of these that matter to you,” and they checked, on average, 20 objectives. So, they got six on their own, which were six of the 32, and they added 14 more. And you might think that the importance of the six they got were much more important than the 14 that they then identified on our list. So, we had a later question that showed them everything that they either got on their own or came from the list in a different order.

And so, we said, “Rate the importance of these on a scale from 1 to 9.” And the average importance of the ones they got on their own and the ones they missed and later picked up was almost identical, 6.21 compared to 6.28. That result happens all the time. It’s very hard to come up with all your objectives. If somebody asks somebody, “Write down your objectives,” they’ll be done writing in two minutes for a decision that they have.

And on decisions that are important, like that one certainly is, it’s worthwhile thinking about it a little bit over time and coming up with a better set because just recognizing one or two more objectives could eliminate an alternative that you might’ve chosen because it’s just not going to be good on something that you hadn’t thought of but is important, or it might suggest an alternative that you hadn’t thought of that would be great on that, and then, of course, it’s going to help you choose the best of the ones that are competitors.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is intriguing. So, we have smart MBA students and thinking about a decision that matters a lot to them, career-related – MBA students tend to be into that – and we can list, on average, 6.5, unprompted from our own, generating it from our own thoughts, versus when selecting from a list, we would select 20. So, it’s like a third. It’s like we only get, can generate about a third of what matters from our own heads. That’s kind of startling.

And so then, I’m thinking, “Boy, what’s the antidote to this? Is it just like we need to have directories of checklists for all sorts of various and sundry decisions we might need to make?” It’s like, “When you’re considering your career, think about this. When you’re considering a product, think about that,” because, in some ways, it’s hard to anticipate every objective or value in advance but, apparently, we need some help and some prompts to get a full list.

Ralph Keeney
You’re absolutely right. And there are a lot of those prompts and you certainly want to use them.

Pete Mockaitis
Where can I go to get them?

Ralph Keeney
Well, there are two places that I know. One is I wrote a book on a lot of details on these three things called Give Yourself a Nudge: Helping Smart People Make Smarter Personal and Business Decisions. And things in there, I mean, one chapter is on how to really do a better job getting all the objectives you want. And I should say I missed some of my objectives on decisions too even though I do this, but I do a better job than I would if I was not aware of what can stimulate ideas that will help a lot.

And things that can really help you include, think of what emotions and feelings that you have relevant to this decision. And then from those emotions, kind of pursue, “Well, why do I care about that?” Because a way to stimulate the thinking is not necessarily, I don’t use the term objective then. It sounds technical. I say, “What do you care about concerning this decision? And anything you care about matters. Write it down.”

And then there’s no definition that’s kind of narrow to care about so they don’t think, “Oh, I’m not sure if this thing is something I care about or not.” They know. Whereas, objective, they might say, “I’m not sure that’s really an objective.” You don’t want to worry about technicalities then. So, any feelings matter. And then you think of any alternatives, just a few, and think of a terrible alternative. And then, “Why is it terrible?” There’s got to be something you care about. Think of what would be a perfect alternative, hypothetically, if it just existed. People can describe, “Why is it perfect? What makes it so great?” Those are going to suggest things too.

And then you can think of what might be goals or constraints, either one. Ask, “Well, what constraints do you have here?” And somebody might say, “Well, I wouldn’t want to pay more than a thousand dollars for that.” Well, that suggests that one of their concerns is the cost of the product, which is true for many things if you’re purchasing. You don’t want to use the constraints to say, “No alternatives over a thousand dollars,” because if you got one that’s fantastic for $1,010, and the $970 one, which met that constraint, was really much inferior, likely you would pay the $40 more. So, it indicates what’s important but you don’t want to use them inappropriately.

And then you think of disappointment and regret, “What could really disappoint me here?” Well, why would that disappoint you? What’s the mechanism? And how does it get back to, again, characteristics of the product or whatever it is that you’re going to purchase?” So, all these things can stimulate your mind to think a bit more clearly about what’s there. You want to do your own thinking first.

And then, for certain decisions, like important work decisions, or if you were thinking of moving divisions in an organization or something, once you thought about what was important to you, makes a lot of sense to talk to some of your colleagues there about what they think might be important to you, and, separately, about what would be important to them if they were making this decision, because each of those comments kind of stimulates them to think a little differently and anything they come up might help you think of something that’s important to you that you had missed.

So, it’s a lot of things you could do, and people would develop their own techniques. And then, for certain decisions, if you have an important medical decision, you know the basis of what you want, “Well, I want to get well. I’d like to minimize time where I’m incapacitated in some sense,” and the cost might be important there. But there might be some aspects, or consequences in the future about aspects of your health or your functionality of your body that you wouldn’t have any idea to even think mattered.

So, you might need to talk on some problems that are more complex from a particular field to experts in that field, but you’re going to have to ask them what the objectives are. Just to show you how important, and one simple example is a medical one. On many important medical decisions, like if somebody has a cancer case or anything like that, I think, partly because of the responsibility and role of decisions, they would say the objectives is to increase the chance that you live or perhaps that you live longer. But what they don’t include is what affects many people, the quality of their life when they’re living longer.

If somebody were 70 years old, and it looked like you could go through all this treatment but it was so horrendous and you had to follow things, but you’d live an average of 12 years, or you could not go through the treatment and have a much better time and your average expected lifetime was 10 years, a lot of people, and I’ve asked this question, would prefer 10 years of a quality life, from a basis of 70, to 12 years of a really degraded life. That’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Ralph, so much good stuff to chew on here. And I very much like your approach better than having an endless compendium of checklist that I need to reference, but rather generating your own ones emotionally, “What do I care about? Why? What would be a terrible alternative? Why is that a terrible alternative? What will be the perfect alternative? Why is that a perfect alternative? What are the goals?”

This reminds me of some of like the best coaching questions, really drive at these sorts of things, like, “What do you really want? And what else? Or, what does wild success look like? Or, imagine we’re looking back at the end of this, and it was a smashing victory or a smashing defeat, what happened and why?” That begins to surface it. And then I love it, once you get a nice list to start from, you can check in with somebody else and they can build up and develop it. And I like that question a lot, “What would be important to you if you were thinking through this?” and that very well could be something completely different.

I guess I’m thinking a lot of times with career decisions, I think there’s some research, maybe you know better than I, Ralph, there is some research that suggest that we could sometimes be shortsighted in terms of thinking about this one opportunity as opposed to what pathway does it lead us down into the next job, or the next, next job, or the next, next, job, over five, ten years in progression and pathways. But that’s something someone else, who’s been in the game, may very well flag for you, and so that’s cool.

And, Ralph, is there a magic number? Like, let’s say if a decision really counts big time, I imagine we’re going to be getting some diminishing returns in terms of if we talk to, I don’t know, two people, five people, 20 people, to get their input. Is there a sweet spot or point of diminishing returns you recommend when it comes to advisors or counselors?

Ralph Keeney
Well, sure, but it might depend on what the decision was. There are two things related to that one. You don’t want to make perfect decisions, whatever that would be. It would take you way, way too long. Or, I should even say always try to make the best decision. If that just means, “I do my best given the time available and appropriate for the decision,” that’s fine. But if it means, “I’m going to search till I find the best alternative,” it’s usually nutty. It takes way, way too much of your time, and it’s the same issue I just mentioned.

You degrade the quality of your life because all you’re doing is procrastinating and worrying about this decision and trying to do better. Whereas, if you would’ve just made the decision earlier with what you knew, it might’ve been a pretty good decision, and then you have time to enjoy your life. It’s worthwhile breaking life, with this point, into two things. The time you spend making decisions and the time you spend enjoying life as a result of your decisions.

And enjoying life could be doing work on problems in your company too because that’s interesting and it’s stimulating, etc., but, per se, that’s just getting useful information. The decision per se, you don’t want to spend everything making decisions. You want to spend, the overall thing is to have a productive and enjoyable life that contributes to you, your family, friends, and country, and whatever your objectives are. And that should guide all the uses of your time.

Now, there’s one other really key thing a lot of people don’t think of or that have a lot of control, and you think, “Where do decisions come from?” Well, a lot of them come from problems. And the easiest place to put it is personally, “If I get sick, I have a decision problem. I have to do something about it. If my car is an accident, I got a decision problem. I need to do something. If I’m not doing very well at work, I got a decision problem. I need to deal with it.” And all these are basically a consequence of other’s decisions or circumstances, like you got sick or a car wreck or somebody assigns you something. And often they’re problems.

And when those happen, the quality of your life drops a little. No one wants to be sick or have your car wrecked or not doing well at work. And so, you try to make the decisions to improve them to get back to where you were before these problems occurred, but you typically don’t give above where you were. The only way to get a better life is through what I call decision opportunities, not decision problems. And these are the decisions you create for yourself rather than the decisions that are, in a sense, dumped upon you by others or happenstance.

And if you’re at work, you can think of, “How could I contribute more to the organization?” And you want to think of yourself because there are two objectives in any decision in the company, I think, or an organization, “How can I contribute more to the organization? And how can I contribute to my life?” And you, that’s your decision, you think of, “What could I do that would do both of these?”

And I’ve certainly been in a situation that works when I went to a consulting firm in San Francisco. I said to the boss, there are 700 people there, and I said, “I think my responsibilities are to contribute professionally and financially to the firm. And subject to that, there’s no other constraints on me. Is that a correct representation?” And my prospective boss, executive vice president in the organization kind of sat up straight and thought about it, he’s never heard that before, and he said, “Yeah, I guess that’s about right.”

Pete Mockaitis
And, in a way, the law, please.

Ralph Keeney
And I could do that because I could bring in work where I work on decisions so they’d make money, and I think I could do that work well, and publish it and contribute to the reputation and knowledge of the skills of the company. And I knew it and they knew it, and then I could do anything I wanted. Not stupid stuff. It’s not like I had hours where I couldn’t take a time off any time I wanted it, because I made sure that I was definitely contributing more than I was taking, which was the pay.

And so, these decision opportunities at work, you can go. And in this firm, sometimes I’d go. There are all kinds of tasks that need to be done in any firm, and some of them your boss might do or others, and you think, “Gee, I might like to learn how to do that.” You can propose to do a task that your boss maybe spends four hours on a week to do and it’s a little boring for him or her. So, you say, “I’m willing to do that,” and learn how to do it and do it well. They might be very happy and you can often get out of something that’s four or even six hours a week that’s less important to the firm and a lot more boring by making this proposal. It’s better for you and better for the firm.

And that’s what you want to do to figure out decision opportunities or something to be pursued that really help your life at work or personally.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Well, now, I’d love to shift gears and hear a few of your favorite things. Could you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ralph Keeney
I think what really inspires me is people who think about what they really want and put in very good efforts to achieve those things. And some of the simplest cases is when what people want are kind of straightforward.

So, people who basically think about what they want, put in the effort, do their best, and achieve a lot of what they want inspire me a great deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Ralph Keeney
Well, the ones that really influence me, a few books on decision-making by people really starting in the field. And I guess one was a while ago by Howard Raiffa called Decision Analysis but was really starting the movement away from intuitive thinking into prescriptive thinking. There was a lot of work done descriptively. And then descriptively, I think one of the best books is the one I mentioned called Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.

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

Ralph Keeney
An easy way to find out more about me is, and there’s things on there not about me, is just my homepage, so to speak, it’s RalphKeeney.com, no point in between Ralph and Keeney. It describes a lot of things. It has an awful lot of references there. And there’s one other thing that soon will be coming out by Oji Life Lab. OJI is Oji Life Labs, and it’s separate words that you can find at searching. It’s a product in beta testing that has an awful lot of the fundamental ideas to help people make better decisions at work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Ralph Keeney
And it’s done in a unique way.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. Well, Ralph, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you all the best in all your decisions.

Ralph Keeney
Well, thank you. I’ll work on it and I hope that you and some of your listeners got some useful points here, and also make some great decisions, or better decisions as a result of it. We can all do better, and I’m certainly one of those. So, thank you very much, Pete.

736: The Surprising Problem-Solving Insights from Art with Amy Herman

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Amy Herman reveals the surprising framework agencies like the FBI, NATO, and Interpol have used to solve their most intricate problems.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What to do when you don’t know what to do 
  2. Three simple steps for smarter problem solving
  3. The top two do’s and don’ts of problem solving 

About Amy

Amy Herman is the founder and president of The Art of Perception, Inc., a New York–based organization that conducts professional development courses for leaders around the world, from Secret Service agents to prison wardens. Herman was the head of education at the Frick Collection for over ten years.

An art historian and an attorney, Herman holds a BA in international affairs from Lafayette College, a JD from the National Law Center at George Washington University, and an MA in art history from Hunter College. A world-renowned speaker, Herman has been featured on the CBS Evening News, the BBC, and in countless print publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily Telegraph, the New York Daily NewsSmithsonian Magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Resources Mentioned

Amy Herman Interview Transcript

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

Amy Herman
Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to get your perspectives on art and problem-solving and more. Could we start with maybe hearing what’s been one of the most influential pieces of art in your life? Like, what is a piece that has stuck with you and made an impact, and tell us that story?

Amy Herman
Well, that changes almost every day because every time I see a work of art that takes my breath away, I think, “Oh, that’s it. That’s lifechanging.” And luckily for me, that happens quite often. But the work of art that really got me thinking so much about this book and about the work that I do is a painting from 1819 by Gericault, and it’s called “The Raft of the Medusa.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, yes.

Amy Herman
And the reason I talk about this work so much, it’s a really horrific painting. It shows the worst of humanity but just the tiniest bit of hope. And it’s a huge painting, it’s 23 feet by 16 feet.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog.

Amy Herman
It takes the whole wall at the Louvre. And it shows the absolute worst that can result from incompetence and from power, and yet there is this slightest bit of hope in retelling the story of how the painting came to be and how this people survived, really, has been inspirational, and I’ve been able to apply it in so many different situations. So, I’ve been thinking a lot and I open my new book with “The Raft of the Medusa” and I close with it as well, so I think a lot about that work of art.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ll certainly link to an image of that for the visual side of things in a podcast interview. And the sliver of hope, so there’s the story, in reading your introduction, I gazed upon it, I confess, well, in a much smaller amount of real estate on my screen.

Amy Herman
Uh-huh, than the Louvre offers.

Pete Mockaitis
And maybe only for about 20 seconds, which I imagine you would say is not nearly enough to take in the depths, but I was just like, “Oh, man, that’s a real cluster.”

Amy Herman
That’s exactly what it is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, was there hope depicted in that image that I overlooked?

Amy Herman
Believe it or not, and you’re not alone in overlooking the hope because very, very faintly on the horizon line, if you really, really squint your eyes, the rescue ship can be seen.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, okay.

Amy Herman
Yes, the rescue ship is there. And what I love is the painting also does away with discrimination, and there is black man at the top of the pyramid who’s flagging down the rescue ship, and that was a real scandal back in the 19th century to have a black man was the one who rescued everybody because he was the one who’s able to flag down the ship. But the ship is not apparent.

Don’t feel bad for not seeing it. It’s so small and it’s on the horizon, and it reminds us all that sometimes hope is just out of our grasp and we have to look a little bit harder and really try to find it. And it really is within our grasp, and that’s what I hope that readers of the book will be able to understand, and be able to apply in their own lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I like that. Hope may be just beyond my immediately obvious perception, just as it was in that image, and I’ll chew on that. Thank you. Well, let’s talk about problem-solving here. You spent a lot of time thinking about this, training people in this, learning and researching on this. Can you share maybe one of the most strikingly maybe surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about problem-solving over the course of your career?

Amy Herman
I have. And I’d love to share one of the things because it’s almost counterintuitive but I’m going to start by telling you about a process in Japan when ceramicists and potters, when they make bowls and vases and cups, it’s inevitable that some of those vases and cups are going to come out broken or asymmetrical or imperfect. And instead of throwing that flawed pottery away, what these Japanese ceramicists do is they fill the cracks in with gold and silver and platinum lacquer. And the process is called kintsugi, and it means to repair with gold, to fill in the cracks with gold.

And what happens to each of those objects is they become more precious and more valuable than had they been perfect in the first place. And what I take away from the process of kintsugi is none of the people that I work with are potters or ceramicists, but I ask them the question, “How are you practicing kintsugi? How are you fixing what’s broken with resources that you already have?”

And the beautiful thing about kintsugi is it honors the struggle; it brings the mistakes to the fore. So, rather than walking away from our mistakes, and saying, “I’m going to do better next time and I’m going to make it perfect,” we’re not striving for perfection. I want to bring our mistakes to the fore. So, not only can we honor the struggle that we went through to solve a problem, but others can see our mistakes and see how we got there, because I hate to break it to you, nobody is perfect and there is no perfect solution.

So, the idea of kintsugi, it’s such a beautiful concept and it allows us to make our mistakes and to honor those mistakes in trying to fix them.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you
So, kintsugi really is a beautiful visual representation of that very process, that notion of we have some mistakes and we’re going to fill them in and make it all the more useful in terms of maybe sharing the mistakes and lessons learned with others so that that wisdom can proliferate. That’s really cool. Can you share a cool example of this in practice?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. In the field of medicine, doctors sometimes, this takes place in hospitals all across the country, and sometimes it’s done weekly, sometimes it’s done every two weeks or every month. Doctors go behind closed doors and they have something called M&M. And M&M stands for morbidity and mortality, kind of a downer of a title.

But what they do is they go around the table and they talk about what went wrong, who misread the MRI, who got the wrong prescription, who died, and what went wrong. And by sharing all their mistakes, not only does it alleviate the guilt of the individual person and recognize that we all make mistakes but, also, we can learn from each other’s mistakes because we’re human and things will go wrong.

And so, just the idea of M&M, the doctors are willing to go behind the door and talk about what went wrong, I wish we had M&M in every profession. The way kintsugi enables us to visualize what went wrong and actually honor that struggle, medicine says, “Okay, we’re not perfect. Things go wrong. Lives are lost. We gave the wrong medicines. Let’s all learn from it collectively and keep moving.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a powerful example because that says that’s about as high stakes as it gets, “Lives were lost because of a mistake I made,” and that happens in law enforcement and military and many of your clients and medicine, certainly. And I was just thinking, one my very first thoughts was this litigious age, it’s like behind closed doors is right.

Amy Herman
I can give you one more example that’s not so high stakes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess, maybe first with that practice, which indeed I agree with you, there are many other fields where that could be applied excellently. I’m curious, how do folks get past some of the hang-ups associated with like the vulnerability, and trying to cover your rear end, and liability? We’ve had Amy Edmondson on, talking about psychological safety, and other guests. And that’s often hard to get to, but as you described it, it sounds like this is just par for the course in most hospital environments.

Amy Herman
It’s a recognition of the fact that we are all human. One of the things that I talk about across the professional spectrum is that when you are missing a critical piece of information, and it can happen whether you are a postal worker, a prison warden, a beekeeper, a doctor, or a Navy Seal, you’re missing a piece of information, and in the intelligence world, they call it an intel gap.

And I tell all the people that I work with that no matter how big the intel gap is, you have one more source of information that you can rely on. You can default to your humanity. And if you default, because before we’re doctors and patients and lawyers and clients and police officers and suspects, we are all human.

And if you don’t know what to do next because of an intel gap, ask yourself, and say, “You know what, if I was this guy’s father or uncle or friend, what would I do?” and default to your humanity, and you have this whole rich source of information that you can really rely on, and very rarely will it let you down.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really beautiful because in those instances, humanity, that really strikes…it can automatically stir up sort of virtuous stuff, like humility, like compassion, like, “Hey, man, we don’t quite know what’s going on here. But you know what, if it were my kid, I’d want to test X, Y, and Z. So, what do you say?” and we keep it moving.

Amy Herman
That’s exactly right. And what’s so interesting, sometimes it comes down to the smallest of human interactions. I had a group, they were a group of Army officers on the ground in a foreign country, and it was a hostile country, but they were at the local village and they were looking for help in the local village, and none of the women would talk to the Army officers.

They weren’t forceful, and they defaulted to their humanity. And, finally, one of them asked in the other language, “Why are you not speaking with us?” And you know what it was? It was because the Army officers were wearing reflective sunglasses, and women in this village can’t make eye contact with men. And if they didn’t know if they were making eye contact or not, they wouldn’t talk to them. So, it all came down to sunglasses.

But I find what’s universal is sometimes we have to ask hard questions, “Why isn’t this working? Why can’t I fix this?” to find the solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. It is a hard question in that there is, again, some vulnerability in terms of, “Well, you know, you smell, you’ve been very rude to us, you were involved in an accident that harmed a family member of mine a couple weeks ago.” It is a hard question, like, “Why aren’t you talking to us?” and, yeah, that can surface some surprisingly simple solutions. Okay, sure, taking off sunglasses can do.

Awesome. Well, so we’ve already gone deep into kintsugi. Can you tell us then, your book Fixed.: How to Perfect the Fine Art of Problem Solving, what’s sort of the main idea or thesis here?

Amy Herman
The main idea of the book is to take the artists’ creative process, how artists create works of art, and use that as a template to solve problems from minor annoyances to intractable dilemmas. Let’s face it, everything is broken right now. Everything. When I started writing this book, we weren’t even under the crunch of pandemic. I had no idea what we were going to be facing. And in so many cases, solutions from the past, yesterday’s solutions are not going to solve tomorrow’s problems.

And so, I wanted to create this template that everybody could use regardless of their profession, regardless of their educational level. How can we make problems more approachable? And what’s a template everybody can solve? And I use the artists’ process to create a work of art because I’m a lawyer and an art historian, and I like to think I have a logical mind but I also wanted to tap into the creative process.

So, I broke the book down into three sections, three really easy sections – prep, draft, and exhibit. How do we prep the problem? How do we draft our solutions? And how do we bring them into the world? And each of those sections is broken down into subsections, but it all goes back to prep, draft, and exhibit. And I wanted the process to be simple. We all have enough on our plates. I don’t need to give people fancy acronyms and things to remember, “Oh, Amy said in her book we have to do A, B, C, and D.” Nobody has time for that.

How can we break problems into digestible pieces? And how can we not be afraid to engage in conversation the way artists, for millennia, have been creating works of art? This is not the time to fool with that success. Let’s leverage it. Let’s use that approach to try to solve our own problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, intriguing. So, that’s fun. And a lot of your clients are, I don’t know what the word is, hardcore.

Amy Herman
That’s a good way to put it, they’re hardcore.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know, secret service, NATO, FBI, Interpol. In terms of not having time, I imagine their patience for “out there” or frilly or soft tools might be limited. I’m purely speculating. You can confirm or deny.

Amy Herman
You’re speculating correctly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, given that, I’m curious, could you maybe walk us through an example of what’s called hardcore clients applying some of this prep, draft, exhibit problem-solving process used from the artistic approach to solve something?

Amy Herman
Absolutely, and I’ll tell you about one of my favorite clients. One of my favorite clients is the NBA, National Basketball Association, and they brought me to Las Vegas, and I was going to lead a session in my program for about 250 heads of security for the NBA. Picture these guys. They’re the ones on the court, they’ve got an earpiece in their ear, they’re dressed in a suit, they’re watching the players, the GM, the audience, they’re making sure everybody is safe, there’s no violence, and that game is going to go forward. Can you picture the scene?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Amy Herman
So, the woman who introduces me gets up on the stage and she reads from a piece of paper, and says, “Amy Herman is here from New York, and she’s going to teach us how to look at works of art so you can do your job more effectively.” Every head went down to their phone. That was like the trigger to go start scrolling on your phone.

So, I get up on the stage and I say, “You know what, we’re going to have an instant replay. You’re going to be looking at art for the next two hours, I’m in charge, and you’re going to leave here thinking about your job differently than you came in.” And I broke them into pairs and I said, “One of you, close your eyes, one of you, keep your eyes open,” and I put a work of art up, and they had 45 seconds to describe it to their partner so that they could get the best visual image of what it was they were looking at.

They had to look at a work of art, they had to decide, they had to prep, “What am I going to say?” then they had to run it through their mind, and then they had to exhibit, they had to tell their partner the best possible version of something they had never seen before, and for the next two hours, flew, because I brought them new data. I brought them works of art. Nobody trained the NBA to look at works of art to think about how they do their job.

But to think about the creative process, every single basketball game, no two games are ever the same, no two teams are the same, no two securities concerns are the same, no two cities, and the game always changes from painting to painting to painting. And how do you assess that work of art you’re looking at? How do you re-draft it in your head? And how do you articulate it on that little microphone in your ear because the safety and the success of that game is in your hands?

And at the end of the session, I said to them, “You know, the NBA brought a copy of my book for each of you. Before you go to your cocktail party, I’ll be at the back signing your books.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to be all alone back there.” Every single one of them stopped to sign a book and there were hugs all around because so many of them were NYPD officers from back home.

And it made me realize, it doesn’t matter what you do, whether you’re on the basketball court, or you are in hostile territory, or you are the night nurse, you’re going to face problems that are unforeseen, and I want to be able to help you solve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing because, at first, you might say, “I don’t see the connection at all between looking at art and security,” but then this is, “Oh, yes. Sure enough, very often in that job, you could look at something and you had to describe that something well to collaborators or you might have a bit of a stickier situation if you did not describe it as well in terms of misunderstandings and over or under reactions and all that sort of thing.”

Amy Herman
I can bring in a quote that applies to everybody, and it’s a quote from the 19th century from Henry James, but it’s a quote that I give to every single one of my sessions, and I say, “Try to be that person on whom nothing is lost.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Amy Herman
“Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.” So, when you look at a work of art, I want you to tell me not only what you see but what are you missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Say more about that. Tell you not only what I see but what’s missing. Like, what I am missing from the art?

Amy Herman
Not only what you’re missing, what you expected to be there, assumptions you had that aren’t there. This is a concept that I stole from emergency medicine. It’s called the pertinent negative. It means articulating what’s not there in addition to what is there to actually give a more accurate picture of what you’re looking at.

So, here’s the example. If a patient comes in to the emergency room, and, let’s say, the attending physician thinks the patient has pneumonia. Pneumonia has three symptoms. Symptom one is present, symptom two is present, but if symptom three is absent, it’s the pertinent negative you need to say that it’s not there because then you know it’s not pneumonia.

So, when you arrive at a crime scene, and you hear on the radio all the details, well, you expected there to be blood. Well, there’s not blood everywhere. You need to say, “There isn’t blood everywhere. It’s not just that I see disarray and I see shell casings. There is no blood.” Because when you say what you see, you’re only giving half the picture.

So, art gives us this perfect vehicle, “Well, I notice all these blues and yellows, and trees in the picture, but I noticed there were no humans in the picture. There was no sunshine in the picture.” We’re actually getting to the other side of the issue to tell people not only what we see but what we don’t see. The pertinent negative is a really powerful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is handy. I guess I’m thinking about all sorts of conversations in terms of we had a guest who talked about not just being provided an explanation, but are you being provided evidence. And there’s quite a difference.

Amy Herman
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, often, we make do with an explanation, like, “Oh, okay, I guess that makes some sense, so I can move along,” versus if you really got your antenna up and you’re thinking critically and alertly, you can say, “Okay, so that might be a plausible story but do we have the evidence that that is, in fact, what did occur? That’d be great to see.” Or, in a conversation, in terms of maybe what I didn’t hear was an apology, what I didn’t hear was a commitment to do something differently.

And so, that’s a cool tool, the pertinent negative from ER folk. If I could, well, say, have you borrowed some nifty things from law enforcement in terms of a ready-to-go tool like that you could share?

Amy Herman
I have. Actually, I have two tools that I wanted to share.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Amy Herman
One of them, just to build on the pertinent negative, is in warfare, in modern warfare.

Pete Mockaitis
Not the video game.

Amy Herman
Nope, not the video game.

Pete Mockaitis
Modern Warfare, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah, I didn’t even know there was such a thing, so I’m learning from you.

Pete Mockaitis
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

Amy Herman
No, my son would know that. In World War II, the Royal Air Force sent their planes out, their fighter planes out, and they suffered heavily at the hands of German anti-aircraft fire. And when the planes came back, the Royal Air Force didn’t have enough armor to reinforce the whole plane before they sent them out again to fight.

So, the decision was made by the Royal Air Force, “Let’s just fix the planes where they were damaged,” but it was a mathematician, a single mathematician who was dissenting, and said, “You’re looking at this the wrong way.” He said, “You need to look at these planes to see where they weren’t damaged, and that’s where you need to reinforce them because the planes that were damaged in those areas didn’t come back.”

Pete Mockaitis
Zing, yeah.

Amy Herman
See how the pertinent negative works. So, you get on the other side of the issue. And just today, I was talking with one of my colleagues in the NYPD and we were talking about different applications of the program, and he said, “You know, one of the things that you taught us is that when we get to the crime scene, we hear about the crime scene, we hear it on the radio, we get there, we know what we’re expecting.”

“Not only do we have to overcome confirmation bias, thinking, ‘Been there, done that. I know what I’m going to find,’ but you’ve instilled in us that we need to go back, retrace our steps, and walk into the crime scene again to notice what we didn’t see the first time. What’s on the staircase? What’s on the landing? What’s in the garbage can?” He said, “How many times have I found a weapon that’s been thrown outside the crime scene, and is never within the confines of where we’re looking.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, the retracing the steps, I’m thinking how does that work mentally? So, okay, I go to the crime scene once, I take a good look around, and then I just pretend that I didn’t do that or what are we thinking?

Amy Herman
I think the whole thing in reverse, and I enter again because your eyes, you’re already planning on what you’re going to see. And what confirmation bias is, is you have an idea in your head of what you’re going to see and your brain will seek out those things to confirm what’s already in your brain. But when you make it a practice to say, “Okay, I’m here. I’m going to step out and walk again, and try to notice what I didn’t see before.”

So, one of the assignments that I give to my classes, if I see them over a course of two days, their assignment is, when they leave, to come back and tell me something that they noticed that night on the way home that they wouldn’t have seen before. And it forces you to look outside of your comfort zone because we’re all trying to get from point A to point B, and we forget that there are points C through Z out there.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s funny. When I think about that challenge, “Notice something you haven’t noticed before,” I guess I’m thinking in a professional career context, like a document. You want a spreadsheet or a report or a bunch of words to be free of errors and really compelling, persuasive, well-researched and all that good stuff.

And so, it’s tricky when you’re reviewing your own writing in terms of being like kind of catching the stuff. But then when you put that challenge in there, in terms of notice what you haven’t noticed before, in a way it’s sort of puts your brain in a funky little loop, it’s like, “Well, how am I supposed to do that? I didn’t notice it before. How am I going to notice it?”

But then it’s just like look specifically for that which you haven’t looked before, I guess my mind is thinking, well, the first thing you might notice might be somewhat inconsequential, like, “I’m using this font, is actually mismatched in some places. Okay, quick fix, doesn’t matter a lot, but a little more consistency, professionalism.”

And then you might notice any number of things like, “I’m using the word indeed a lot. That might be kind of annoying,” or if you say, “Hey, if I’m not going to notice something that I haven’t noticed before, maybe I need to get a fresh lens on this, maybe get some AI tools to look at my writing, and tell me some things. Like, hotdog.” I’m actually kind of impressed with what those can do right now.

Amy Herman
And think about how effective this can be in problem-solving. You do the same thing over and over again, you say, “Well, how are we going to get out of this rut?” And you say to yourself, “All right, I’m going to look for something that I haven’t seen before that’s intrinsic to this problem. What happens before the problem occurs? What happens immediately after?” And if you make it a practice to look for things that you didn’t see before, you’d be amazed what drops into your lap.

And you know what, this all calls upon another concept that I learned from one of my colleagues at the FBI, and I use it every single day. It’s a Latin phrase, “Festina lente.” Festina lente. It means to make haste slowly. We all have deadlines, we all need to get to the finish line, but if you don’t make that haste purposefully and slowly and look around, you’re going to have to start all over again.

And it brings me back to one of my favorite books, it’s called The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, it’s a book from 2013. And it’s about the eight-oared boat from the University of Washington that won the gold at the 1936 Olympics. They beat Hitler’s boat. It was, really, quite the upset. It’s a great book. It’s about our strengths and weaknesses, and that we’re all part of a team. The boat is just as good as its weakest rower.

But the reason I bring in festina lente is what could be a better example of having to row. Of course, you want to row quickly, you want to win the race, but if you’re not in sync with all the other rowers and you’re not communicating with them, you’re going to lose. And so, it means taking the time to communicate about how quickly you’re going so that you can make haste slowly.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Lovely. Okay. Well, so we talked about the prep, draft, exhibit. Could you maybe walk us through, in terms of step by step, how do I apply this process when I’m trying to solve a problem?

Amy Herman
Absolutely. There are some steps within each of those, and the table of contents is broken down. I’m going to give you one section from each of them that I think is most important, and it’s going to sound blatantly obvious. But under prep, you need to define the problem, you need to say it out loud. Because if you assume that everybody knows what the problem is, you’re all gathered, how many times have you been at a meeting and everybody says, “Okay, we’re here to discuss X.” How come we never say what X is?

We need to go around the table, and ask, “What is everybody’s perception of the problem?” to make sure we’re all starting on the same page. That’s part of the prep. And part of the draft, I think, the two most important parts of draft are breaking the problem into bite-size pieces. When little kids, toddlers, are learning to eat, you cut their food up into small pieces. Well, at some point, they have to learn to eat themselves. We need to break it into bite-size pieces so that we can digest the problem, and then we need to set deadlines.

There’s this negative association with the deadline. It’s not such a bad thing. It forces us to be creative. It forces us to find a solution. And, finally, under exhibit, the two most important things are to manage contradictions. We’re going to find contradictions all the time, “It can’t be fixed. Can’t do it. This doesn’t match.” Manage those contradictions. Articulate them.

And the second one is what I started this discussion with was kintsugi, repairing your mistakes with gold because there are going to be mistakes the whole way but I think it’s so important to incorporate those mistakes into your solution because you’re going to have to solve problems over and over and over again, and recognizing the mistakes and honoring those struggles is a great way to start to get to the solution.

So, within prep, draft, and exhibit, there are bite-size pieces that you can take. And I really believe, working across the professional spectrum, almost any problem can be solved this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s grab one, let’s grab a problem and sort of move step by step here.

Amy Herman
Sure. So, let’s think about… I worked with a group of nurses in the hospital after there was a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Do you remember?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Amy Herman
Yeah. And so, I had a session with the shock and trauma nurses. And one of the reasons I love working with them, there’s no mincing of words. They are negotiating on the frontlines, they are processing the trauma that’s coming through the doors, they’re dealing with family members, they’re dealing with medical personnel, and there is no time. You can’t mince words. Every word matters.

And one of them said to me, she raised her hand, and she said, “You know the night of that shooting, we ran out of gurneys, Amy. We ran out of gurneys and we had to put the patients over our shoulders to bring them into the emergency room.” And she said, “I lost it as a human being.” She said, “We were out of resources and I couldn’t articulate anymore.” And I said, “Well, what did you do then?” She said, “I had to pull it together because I can’t be an effective nurse until I can communicate not just with my colleagues but with colleagues, patients, and families.”

And so, without that communication, we just have to learn to pull it together, and, of course, not everybody is in a shock-and-trauma setting. As you said before, so many of the people I work with are in life and death situations. Most of us don’t work in those situations. But it’s still so important to regroup, and to say, “Okay, what’s the immediate problem here?” She lost it as a human being, she couldn’t communicate, and if you can’t communicate and you’re in the shock and trauma ward, you need to fix that problem immediately.

But, yet, another shock and trauma nurse who doesn’t have the same reaction is going to be dealing with families, and they’re going to see people in panic mode, so they’re going to have different perceptions of the problem and how they’re going to solve a problem, so articulating, “You do A, I’m going to do B, and you do C.” Sometimes there are time constraints, sometimes there aren’t, but we have many, many different facets to deal with. And, again, this book is not about art. It’s using art as a template that different people can use in a whole host of scenarios to prep, draft, and exhibit to solve their problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And could you share with us maybe one more top do and top don’t when it comes to problem-solving and how art can help us?

Amy Herman
Sure. So, the first top do is to recognize that you need to say what you see before you say what you think. People confuse them all the time. So, when we’re looking at a work of art, people will say, “Well, I don’t like that. And I hate modern art.” That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking, what do you see? And so, to think about the firm line of delineation between saying what you see and saying what you think. What you think is very, very important but you need to lay the groundwork first.

And I would say the top don’t, don’t speak without thinking. Do the prep and draft in your head before you send an email, before you press send, before you pick up the phone, or so many of my clients are on the radio. Think before you speak. And I will say this, communication is a two-way street. It’s not just what you have to say, it’s how it’s being heard. To whom are you speaking? And who is listening to you? And the prep and the draft and the exhibit are all tailored and according to whom you are working with and to whom are you communicating.

Think before you speak. The top don’t is don’t speak without thinking. And the top do is say what you see before you say what you think.

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

Amy Herman
I‘m going to repeat the quote that I said before about Henry James, at the risk of saying it twice, because it is so fundamental to me, to my work, and the way I try to live my life from walking to the corner to go get a quart of milk, to helping someone in distress. It’s what Henry James said, “Try to be the person on whom nothing is lost.”

And just in parenthesis, that also enhances your own engagement in the world. Nothing is lost. I know you can engage with people and the places and appreciate so much more where you are by trying to be that person on whom nothing is lost.

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

Amy Herman
Yeah, a bit of research that was just mind boggling to me was a study done in 2009 in Jerusalem, and it was a study of radiologists. And what they did is they showed a group of radiologists MRIs and X-rays and scans, but for a controlled group, they also showed a photograph of the patient. So, it wasn’t just the X-ray of the lungs or the ribs or the hips, there was also an actual photograph of the person.

And for those radiologists who had the photograph of the person, they found 80% more findings. Their reports were more in depth, and they also found ancillary findings. And when they asked the physicians, “What could account for this 80% difference?” they said, “You know, it took no extra time to have a picture of the patient next to a picture of the lung, and it gave us a broader picture of the whole person.”

And I think about that study because sometimes we just see a cross-section of a person, we have an email, we have an X-ray, we have an MRI, and by thinking of that person, by thinking of that X-ray as in a whole person, it’s going to broaden your own view of them and help them solve their problems.

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

Amy Herman
My favorite book, again, to repeat what I talked about before, The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown from 2013. It’s about individuals and teamwork, and just cheering on the underdog. I’m a huge champion of the underdog.

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

Amy Herman
When I’m completely overwhelmed and my brain is foggy, I sit back and, because of the pandemic, I go to a museum online, and I look at works of art, some that I know and some that I don’t, and I just take a deep breath, and it allows my eyes to relax, and it allows my brain to simmer down and remind me to see things with refreshed eyes whenever possible.

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

Amy Herman
Think about what you’re not seeing, that pertinent negative. More often than not, when I ask, “What’s the key takeaway from the art of perception?” people say, “To think about what I’m not seeing and to know that it’s right in front of me, and to really gear our vision and our looking and our sense of critical inquiry, to think about not just what we see but what we don’t see.”

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

Amy Herman
I would point them to my website, ArtfulPerception.com, and my books are at ArtfulBooks.com, and I’m on social media @AmyHermanAOP.

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

Amy Herman
Every day that you go to work or you sit down at your desk, prepare to have your eyes opened when you don’t even realize that they’re closed. Every day, I want you to end the day having your eyes opened in a way that you didn’t even know they were closed. And it can be the smallest thing that you notice, just so when we talked about what you didn’t see before, but know that your eyes are closed and make the effort to open them. And use art to do that when you can.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Amy, thank you. This has been a treat. And I wish you much luck and fun in all your problem-solving.

Amy Herman
Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. Thanks for having me.