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728: Uncovering the Hidden Elements that Influence Decisions with Eric Johnson

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Eric Johnson says: "You are a choice architect. You are a designer. You make the decisions whenever you present somebody with a choice."

Professor Eric Johnson shares compelling research revealing the tiny factors that have a huge impact on what we (and others!) end up choosing.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How changing order drastically changes what we choose 
  2. The key to minimizing indecision
  3. The biggest decision-making mistake people make 

About Eric

Eric J. Johnson is the Norman Eig Professor of Business and the director of the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia Business School. He has been the president of both the Society for Judgment and Decision Making and the Society for Neuroeconomics. He lives in New York City. 

 

Resources Mentioned

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Eric Johnson Interview Transcript

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

Eric Johnson
Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom when it comes to decision-making. It’s one of my favorite topics. We’ve had luminaries like Annie Duke and others on the show, so excited to get into your perspective. But I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing a particularly tricky decision that you’ve had to make in life and kind what was hard about it and how did you, ultimately, come to that decision?

Eric Johnson
So, one of the things that was most devastating in my life was actually a diagnosis of stage 4 Hodgkin’s. Now, granted, that’s a buzzkill to kick this off, but one of the things that got me thinking about is how people make such serious decisions about treatment, and the way that people actually pose those options to people, changes what they choose. And I became madly obsessed with the literature, and that sort of kicked me off, a lot of my interests in choice architecture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, that’s fascinating right there. So, life or death, high-stakes decisions, you would think, unlike software where you have like a bold, blue, highlighted choice of the two, which is nudging you that way, that people might be a little bit more robust in working through this. But can you expand upon that? Like, how might presenting the options lead people to choose one treatment or approach more or less often than another?

Eric Johnson
So, my experience is interesting but there’s actually a nice study that makes the point even better, and that is they were looking at, actually, patients who were at the end of their life. For some reason, this is going to be a depressing day today but I’ll try it not to be. And they gave them the choice of two different kinds of end-of-life care, “Just pre-check one box or the other. One is called comfort care. The other is called, essentially, extreme care. We’ll do everything we can to keep you alive and the other case, we’ll just take care of your pain.” And there was a 30% difference between people’s choices.

And the question is “Why is that the case?” It’s because that’s not something we’ve thought a lot about. So, you might think an important decision is something where it doesn’t matter how you ask the question. Well, this is an important decision we don’t get to make very often. Hopefully, almost never. And so, lots of the decisions we make in life are things where we don’t have a clear preference, and that’s one of them, but some of them are pretty common.

Like, “What are you going to eat in a restaurant?” You may have a rough idea, “I don’t like liver,” but there are a lot of options out there. You’re trying to predict what you’re going to like in a half hour when you’ve actually finished the meal.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, yeah, that’s powerful and, in some ways, and I guess the why behind it being a number of things, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, I guess this is what’s checked, that’s what most people do. I guess this is the standard or recommended go-to option if it’s the one that’s checked.” Or, maybe it’s like, “This decision is so overwhelming and intimidating that it’s kind of a relief that something has been sort of been checked for me, so I’m just going to roll with it.” We’re speculating here but what do you think is behind that?

Eric Johnson
So, you got two of the three things, I think, happens. One is basically it’s easier to take the default – ease. Second thing is endorsement. It’s as if the person who designed the menu, chose something for you so that must be the best thing. But there’s something that’s a lot more fundamental, which is we actually think about things differently depending upon how they’re framed.

So, there’s a great study I love, which actually gives people the choice between 70% lean hamburger or 30% fat hamburger. Now, you’re smart, your audience is smart, you realize that’s the same thing. But, yet, people, when they have the word fat as a description, think about the hamburger differently. They think about clogging their arteries. They think about it being juicy. When it’s lean, they think about protein and muscle mass. It’s actually as if they’re eating two different things even though the label is the only thing that differs.

When you ask about how much they’ll pay, they pay different amounts. Or, you ask people how good the burgers taste, they rate it differently. So, that study shows that when we’re in these situations, what I call assembled preferences, it’s actually the label that changes what we think.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating. And so, the 70% lean won on all the dimensions of measurement.

Eric Johnson
Except unless you like a really juicy burger.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. Okay. Well, so that’s one big surprise right there in terms of just the way things are presented to us changes how we think about them, and, thus, what we select even if it’s high stakes. Any other really big surprises or discoveries you’ve made over your lifetime of work in this domain?

Eric Johnson
So, that first thing is called a default. I want to give it a name so we have a handy name. It’s not default like going broke. It’s like default in what happens when we don’t take an action. A second thing that surprised me, actually, as I was writing the book, is the effect of order. What you see first can be more attractive. This is why you go down to a supermarket, people actually pay to be in different positions of the aisle so you’ll see them. So, something at eye level is actually, typically, gets more attention and is seen first. So, it turns out when you look at the many studies that have been done, effective order is surprisingly large.

Pete Mockaitis
And first is where you want to be if you want to be chosen. Is that right?

Eric Johnson
Well, almost most of the time, particularly if it’s a place where the decision-maker is in control. So, they look at first, they look at second, and then they stop. So, on lots of websites, for example, people only will look at one or two options, click on them to look at them more carefully. But let me give you the counter example. Imagine, instead, we’re going back to the same restaurant we had the menu at before, but now the waiter, it’s a fancy place, is reading you the menu. Now, are you going to pick the first or what else is going on there?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so funny, that happened to me a few times, whatever that says about my dining choices, but I remember I feel like a little bit nervous, like, “Okay. All right. I really got to strap in, listen, pay a lot of attention.” And I’m thinking, I don’t know if this is what most people do, but like, “Okay, I got to think. I’ve got to give something, a judgment of like thumbs up or thumbs down.” Like, “You’re a finalist or you’re out,” like right away, or else I just can’t even process seven options given to me verbally.

So, I’m like, “Okay, don’t even need to think about that one. Okay, don’t even need to think about…oh, maybe. Prime rib. Interesting. Remember that one.” And so, I’m trying to hold finalists in my head, and then I usually have to ask them and repeat something, like, “What was the third one again?”

Eric Johnson
Right. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s me but I might be an anomaly.

Eric Johnson
But you’ve gotten a great intuition for it. Because what happens, of course, is what’s the one that’s not going to be clobbered by the next one? The last one. And it turns out, in those situations, where the decision-maker is losing control, last has a big advantage. One of my favorite studies of this is, you may or may not have seen it, but there’s a famous song contest that’s been held for over 50 years in Europe called the Eurovision Song Contest.

And it turns out, people have done studies, last has a big advantage there because people remember it. Memory is really important in both cases, but, yeah, between the head, “Who knows what Estonia…” I’m sorry, any Estonian listeners, “But who knows what Estonia did in the second song?” You remember who was the last. So, order, to go back to your question, is surprisingly important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, it sounds like we’ve, maybe, potentially mentioned this, but just to make it explicit, can you give us what is the big idea, core thesis, behind your book The Elements of Choice? It sounds like we’re hitting it. There are things like this that are impacting our choices. Or, how would you articulate the main idea?

Eric Johnson
So, there are two main ideas. The first one is how questions are posed make a difference. But the second one that’s probably most relevant to your listeners is that you are a choice architect. You are a designer. You make the decisions whenever you present somebody with a choice, whether it be your spouse, someone who reports to you, someone you report to. Whenever you’re presenting choices, you’re actually a choice architect. You have control over many of these things, like what the default is, what the right order is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then give us some core principles then in terms of if I have something…Well, I guess, first of all, this presupposes that you’re offering people choices as opposed to saying, “This is what we’re doing now.” Now, I guess you may or may not have the authority or power, influence, sway, relationship, to just, by fiat, say, “This is what’s happening now.” But, maybe, before we delve into the how do we present choices, I’d love to get your take on under what circumstances is it optimal to present multiple choices versus just the, “Hey, I’d like to do this,” or, “How about we do that?”

Eric Johnson
Well, it’s interesting. You say it in a way that says, “How about if we do that?” and in your voice there was a question mark, as if I can come back and say something else. An extreme would be, by fiat, “We are going to go and order this,” and that certainly saves lots of work in decision-making but people often feel like they have lost a lot of power or input or it can be demotivating.

So, a slightly gentler version of that is how many options do you give somebody? Do you give them one, which is your extreme case, in which case, it’s not really a choice? Or, do you give them two, or four, or five? It’s actually quite an interesting aspect of choice architecture.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes. And so, I’m curious, are there certain…what are the criteria or factors which might lead me to think, “Hmm, I’m going to go with one choice or option versus a multiple choice or option”?

Eric Johnson
So, how well do I know the person making the decision? If I know a lot of their taste, I can cut down the number of things I show them. So, a menu, when I tell my wife, “What’s on the menu?” Let’s say I’m calling her and saying, “What’s on the menu?” because she’s running a few minutes late and wants me to order for her, if I know her taste, I can give two or three. If it’s somebody I don’t know, I’m going to expand the number of options. I’m going to try and figure out what options are different. So, the more I know the person who’s making a choice, assuming I’m trying to help them, the fewer options I can give them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it makes sense certainly as a principle. Okay. And then I’m thinking if it’s just from a general, like influence-mastery perspective, I’m thinking in the course of, let’s just say, I want boss, or collaborator, peer, to come my way with something. And I guess there’s a whole another set – we had Bob Cialdini on the show who was awesome – of principles associated with being influential. But here, it seems like we’re specifically zeroing in on, in a world where we’re sharing multiple options and we would like them to pick the one we want them to pick, how do we do that?

Eric Johnson
So, I think we’ve covered two things already. One is default, say, “If you don’t have anything else in mind, here’s the default.” So, I’ll give you an example of that that turns out to be very handy in my life. I could say to somebody, “Oh, we should get together for a meeting. What’s good for you?” That’s giving them, in essence, an infinite number of options. Instead, I could say, “Look, 9:30 on Tuesday is good for me, but I’m flexible.”

Now, from my perspective, as the designer, as I call that person, I’m going to increase the probability that gets chosen and it’s better for me. From the other person’s perspective, it saves them a little bit of effort. Instead of having to go through their whole calendar, they can look first and start with that as a starting point. And so, that actually probably makes both the designer and the chooser, or the person making the choice, better off.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like that. And then, it’s funny as I’m thinking about, I’ve had some conversations with some sales-type folk in which they’re reaching out, and they say, “Hey, would you like to meet at this time or that time?” And I’m thinking, “Well, neither of those times because I don’t want to meet with you at all.” Any thoughts on, I don’t know if you call that presumption, or when there’s a good possibility that they don’t want none of your options? Like, how does that come across in terms of this little…?

Eric Johnson
So, let me step back one second. The premise of the book is actually a little bit different than it would be if I was doing sales. And it’s basically you’re trying to make the chooser make the choice that’s in their best interest. And the world we’re talking about, of course, that may not always overlap but you probably want to get a time that doesn’t get somebody that has to drive into work an hour early for the meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. And if you’re an ethical salesperson, hopefully, your solution really is, worth their time and effort relative to the alternatives.

Eric Johnson
And, in fact, I’m an optimist, and I think they’re trying to get the right product to you or make you a repeat customer.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure, I’m with you.

Eric Johnson
So, default would be one. We’ve already talked about sorting, what would be first, second, third. And if it’s a salesperson, that’s actually getting closer to a place where it’s a verbal list so you have to be careful that the last is going to be something that’s also remembered. You have to be careful in that decision as well. So, those would be two very concrete steps you could make in setting appointments.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. And so then, let’s hear some of the others. We’ve talked about the ideal number of options. So, there’s the one or there’s the infinite, and then there’s some discrete numbers in between. How do we think about that?

Eric Johnson
Well, I think there, the issue is basically, again, a lot of us are going to be thinking about the decision-maker and how well you know them, but let me give you a sort of application that’s not exactly how to be great, at least on your job per se. But there’s a really nice example at dating sites. Dating sites differ in the number of options.

So, let me ask you how you do this. If you go to Tinder, the number is infinity. There’s actually something called Tinder thumb for swiping too much. Now, on the other hand, there was a site called Coffee Meets Bagel.
Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I utilized that back in the day. That’s great.

Eric Johnson
It gave you one option, originally, or a small number of options, and they were good. Now, the thing about the chooser who thinks about those two things differently. In Coffee Meets Bagel, you would read the profile and go beyond the picture.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you have more time.

Eric Johnson
Yeah, you have more time and you’re not screening. On the other hand, with Tinder, you’re looking at pictures, I suspect, and then pictures get a big weight, and all the other things like personality get almost no weight. So, it depends on what you want the person to do. If you want them to make a good choice, it’s probably a reason to reduce the number of options.

So, if I gave them too many options, that can result in a poor choice because they may be more shallow in their evaluation, kind of like a Tinder effect, versus if I gave them a limited number of choices, like, “Hey, here’s three really good options,” as opposed to, “Well, there’s 14 things we can do,” then they’re like, “Well, I don’t know. That consulting firm seems to have a cool name, so let’s go with them,” versus, “Oh, three. Okay, I can kind of get into a little bit of detail here and think through the pros and cons of this.”

Eric Johnson
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, so then, three, I said, was kind of arbitrary. But do you have some thoughts on two versus three versus four versus five?

Eric Johnson
Right. Well, one of the things that’s very tempting to write a book like this is to say five is the magic number. But imagine we’re designing an airplane, would I say, “Two engines is always the right number of engines”? No, it depends on the kind of plane it is. So, rather than say three, I want to give you the principles to think about, which is one thing is that you increase the number of options, people get more variety, but they tend to get overloaded.

So, there are lots of cases where you want to give people variety, particularly if they don’t know you well, but I don’t want to go, like the New York City school system gives kids 769 different high schools they could choose between. That’s a bit too many.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m thinking about my toddler, I kind of give him two shirts, generally, to choose from, and that seems to work pretty well. What do you think?

Eric Johnson
As they get older, they may want a little more, a couple more. But, notice, you’re doing something super important there, which is you’re limiting the choice or the options you want by assuming…you picked those two shirts.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s cold outside so I’d like the long sleeve situation, “This one is cleaner than the other one and a nice shirt.”

Eric Johnson
A friend of mine solved a problem, how to get their three-year old, so this might be useful, to bed by changing it to, “Do you want to go to bed or not go to bed?” to, “Do you want to fly in the bed or do you want to bounce in the bed?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. I did that one.

Eric Johnson
No more fighting but, notice, control of the choice set is a lot of control there. And I think, as a parent, you’d argue it’s in both your and their best interest.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Like, “Do you want to fly to the car like an airplane or hop to the car like a kangaroo?”

Eric Johnson
You’ve done this before.

Pete Mockaitis
I can’t get away with that with grownup professionals. “You pay them with a check or with Venmo?”

Eric Johnson
Right. But you could, for example, limit…let’s take a common that many of your listeners have, which is pension plans. How many pension plans are you offered? Which ones? That’s a real-world example that I think is really important. And the funny thing is, for many of these things we’re talking about, people aren’t aware of their effects.

So, the defaults, people have actually done studies where they say, “Okay, now you’ve made a choice,” people see different defaults, they choose different things. And you say, “Did the default affect what you chose?” And they say, “No. It might affect other people but I made my decision based on what I wanted.”

So, the interesting thing for folks here is that the choices you make as an architect, as a designer, actually are things that will influence people and often they won’t realize the influence you have.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful and the results can be massive when you come to retirement age, like, “Oh, shoot. There might’ve been a whole lot more money had I chosen a different option,” or a whole lot less. So, okay, we got a number of elements. Any other key elements you want to cover?

Eric Johnson
I think we’ve gotten a big list. The only other one that I think would be important is when you give people choices, you often describe the choices.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Eric Johnson
So, what might be called attributes, so price, quality. For a car, it’s how many miles per gallon it gets, how fast it gets. Another thing that a designer does is present attributes. Imagine you’re giving someone a choice between two consulting assignments. You might use travel. You might use challenge. You might use opportunity for advancement. You, as a designer, get to choose which attributes are first and what’s presented.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true.

Eric Johnson
So, I know it’s a long list but these all are things that you, as the designer, have as tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you describe choices or attributes, are there any best or worst practices there? Because, again, I’m thinking about the overwhelm, I guess there’s relevance, like, “I might not care about your liter is a turbo horsepower or whatever. Like, those numbers don’t mean things to me.” And maybe I should be better educated about vehicles. That’s come up before. “But I’m just not.” So, any pro tips on best and worst practices for great descriptions within the attributes?

Eric Johnson
So, I think one of the things that is a classic result is imagine calories. Now, if you’re really concerned about your weight, you probably understand calories, but a very nice example is to convert that into the number of miles walked you would have to do to walk off those calories.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Got you.

Eric Johnson
The general principle is making sure the attribute is in a concrete way that people understand.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I think that’s a great in terms of I think like computer things, in terms of like I understand very much what the impact of a 1-terra byte versus a 2-terra byte drive is, and I just bought a 2-terra byte, versus others, like, “What’s that even mean in terms of movies or songs or pictures or whatnot?” Because I often find myself, if I’m reading something and I’m just sort of out of my depth, I don’t know, I’m thinking about power tools or drills or impact drivers or something, they have numbers, like, “Is that good? I hope. It’s probably not horrible if you’re telling me about it. So, certainly, it has to be kind of relevant and understandable.”

And I guess I’m also thinking about just like, “How much is too much?” And now I’m thinking about sales landing pages on websites. And some of them can just go for dozens of pages, like, “Wow, people are reading that?” And others are pretty darn quick in terms of header, subhead, couple bullets, and then that’s that. How do you think about how we make the decision for more versus less?

Eric Johnson
The really interesting thing about your point is that people seem to be very sensitive to the initial cost of information. So, if you land on a page that has an ugly font and it’s hard to look at, even if the offer is attractive, you’re likely to bail. So, we know a lot just by watching firms do their customer funnel, how they actually acquire customers, that each click is very important, and to minimize the effort for each of those clicks is terribly, terribly important in attracting customers. And, again, if you think about trying to get somebody at work to sign on for a project, very similar stories apply.

Pete Mockaitis
So, reducing the friction, making it as easy as possible to do that.

Eric Johnson
Particularly at the beginning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then I’m curious about, so the flipside, any sort of like mistakes, or cognitive biases, or things we really got to be on our guard for when we are trying to make optimal decisions and present choices optimally to others?

Eric Johnson
So, the first big mistake is most of us don’t realize we’re designers so we’re doing this very haphazardly. So, we use what is first in our mind is what we tell people. So, if you’re saying, “Where do we go to lunch?” well, what happens is the thing that you think of first, it may not even be where you want to go. But, in general, I think neglecting choice architecture is the biggest mistake that we make. It’s because we don’t think it affects us, and, in fact, we don’t even realize how it affects other people. So, there are now a lot of studies showing that people don’t do things that would be in both their best interest and that chooses best interest.

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

Eric Johnson
Well, I think the only thing I would say is realize that deciding how to present information to people is almost a secret power that you have, that it’s actually something that is a source of your ability to help other people, that if you don’t know about it, you’re neglecting a really important aspect of your job as a boss, or as a colleague, or as a report, any of the above.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you talk about power, that makes me think, can you share with us some more of the most sort of eye-popping sort of results or case studies and how little changes make huge differences? So, that pre-checked thing, that was pretty wild in terms of, “How do you want to be taken care of in your final years?” I mean, wow, what a huge impact just to pre-check can make. Any other striking examples or cases that leap to mind?

Eric Johnson
Well, let me talk about another of the tools we’ve talked about, which is order, what’s presented first. It turns out, on ballots, somebody is first, someone is second, etc. What research shows is the first choice gets about 2% more vote even in presidential elections. So, if we think about go back to the year 2000, Gore versus Bush, remember it all came down to Florida. In Florida, there was like 500 votes separating them.

It turns out, Bush, George W. was first in the ballot in Florida because the governor, his brother, Jeb, got to pick who was first. And, of course, any governor would pick the member of their own party. It wasn’t because it was his brother. That probably made the difference in who was elected president of the U.S.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. That was a big case study. Thank you, Eric.

Eric Johnson
It’s not my research but it’s actually there was a case, by the way, in Texas where two Supreme Court justices who ran against each other, Pete Greene versus Rick Greene, whichever Greene, there they randomized. That’s how we know it made a difference. They picked one first in half the time, the other first the other half the time. There was a 20% difference between who got the vote depending upon who was first.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! So, it was 20% when we actually got to randomized it, so it might be much bigger than 2%.

Eric Johnson
Right. In that case, because they had the same last name, and nobody knew who they were, that’s one of the reasons it’s 20%.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, fair enough. Well, that’s really heavy. I’m just sort of sitting and processing that for a moment. And then for our elections in the U.S., is that normally how it goes, the governor gets to pick? Or is alphabetical? Or does it vary state by state?

Eric Johnson
It varies a bunch by state by state but often it’s, in some places, the incumbent, which gives them an advantage. In other states, it’s the party in power that gets to be first. In Delaware, it turns out, just to be equally surprising, the Democrats always are the first slot in the ballot.

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

Eric Johnson
So, something I’ve thought a lot about is a quote that I saw when I was a young person reading science magazines, and it was a Browning quote, “For a man’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” In other words, keep striving. You’re not going to get there, but go for it.

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

Eric Johnson
Well, I think I have to admit that I very much like one that I did, which used the default manipulation to change people’s willingness to be organ donors.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell us the result. What went down?

Eric Johnson
Well, basically, if you look at people’s willingness, not necessarily to be a donor, but to be willing to be a donor, there is a 40% gap between those people where you are a donor by default, which happens in several European countries, and countries like the U.S. where you have to choose to be an organ donor. So, the default actually can change people’s willingness to be an organ donor.

Pete Mockaitis
Hotdog. And a favorite book?

Eric Johnson
When I was very young, I read two books at the same time practically, and they would change my life. One was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The other was Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And growing up in New Jersey and not seeing much of the world, this really opened up my eyes.

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

Eric Johnson
I actually use, I’ve tried a lot, like many people, many different kinds of planning software. I use something called Marvin, but the important point is not the software. It’s basically sitting down every day and doing a to-do list that includes time, not just, “I’m going to do it in this order,” but, “I’m going to do it at this time.”

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, something that really connects and resonates with folks you’re chatting with?

Eric Johnson
One of the things that I find interesting about using social media and, particularly, to promote the book, is to see what other people are saying. And I think one of the things that I hear people are repeating, so I let them choose, is basically, “Being a choice architect is something that’s a power that I didn’t know I had.”

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

Eric Johnson
Well, really good, Twitter is @ProfEricJohnson. And there’s also a nice website on TheElementsofChoice.com.

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

Eric Johnson
I think, basically, realize that you actually have the power whenever you present choices to another person that, if you don’t think about it, you’re going to waste an important part of what you can do on your job.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Eric, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with all of the choices you make and present.

Eric Johnson
Thank you very much. It’s been a lot of fun, Pete.

696: How to Separate Truth from Bullsh*t for Smarter Decisions with John V. Petrocelli

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John V. Petrocelli discusses the communicative perils of bullsh*t—and what you can do to stop it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why BS is more damaging than you think 
  2. Three ways to sharpen your BS detector
  3. Six clarifying questions to help you call out BS 

About John

John V. Petrocelli is an experimental social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University. His research examines the causes and consequences of bullshit and bullshitting in the way of better understanding and improving bullshit detection and disposal. He is the author of The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullshit. Petrocelli’s research contributions also include attitudes and persuasion and the intersections of counterfactual thinking with learning, memory and decision making. His research has appeared in the top journals of his field including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Petrocelli also serves as an Associate Editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Resources Mentioned

John V. Petrocelli Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll get a few seconds of silence for the audio engineers and away we’ll go. John, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

John Petrocelli
Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into the wisdom of your book The Life-Changing Science of Detecting Bullsh*t and we’re going to be ducking the S word a bit just so that the podcast will not be censored and unavailable in certain countries. So, BS or bullsh*t, that’s what we’re talking about. And you say you’ve come from a long line of bullsh*tters. What’s sort of your backstory here?

John Petrocelli
Well, I think everybody does actually. When I tell people what I do and my work, most people have readily available examples of how their friend or their colleague or their Uncle Larry is the world’s greatest bull artist, or half the time it’s Maurice on the second floor in marketing in their company, and people usually have these ready-made examples, and they’re convinced they all seem to know the same person.

So, I’m convinced that we are constantly surrounded by BS artists and, in general, I think most people are, I wouldn’t call most people BS artists, but the average individual, I think, generates their fair share of BS themselves. So, it’s everywhere, it’s in every walk of life, and it’s something that I think is not as harmless as we like to think. Usually, we kind of say, “Oh, Pete’s just BS-ing us,” or, “We’re just sitting out here on the porch BS-ing.”

But we often think that it doesn’t have the devastating effect that it can actually have for our wallets, or for our career decisions, for our interpersonal decisions. Really, all over the place, you’re going to find this insidious communicative substance that we often refer to as BS.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I want to definitely hear about the impact and the damage and what’s at stake here. But, first, you’ve got a bit more of a precise definition than I think most of us do. So, how precisely do you define what is bull? And how is it distinctive from just straight up lying or fraud?

John Petrocelli
Yeah. So, I use Harry Frankfurt’s original definition. He was a philosopher at Princeton University. And, in 1986, he wrote a book, or actually in 1986 he wrote a small article-turned-book 15 years later, and the title of the book was called On Bullshit, and that’s where he defined BS and the definition that I use, which is simply a communicative substance that emerges when people communicate about things that they know little to nothing about, and in which they have no regard or concern for what we would call truth, genuine evidence, or established knowledge.

And so, the behavior of BS-ing is often characterized by a wide range of rhetorical strategies designed to communicate without any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that might come out in the form of exaggerating one’s competence or their knowledge or their skills in a domain, or it may come out in the form of trying to impress others, fit in with others, influence or persuade them, or to embellish, or to confuse, or to simply hide the fact that they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that’s a pretty broad definition but the core of it, again, is simply talking about things that one really doesn’t know much about, and doesn’t have any regard for truth, evidence, or established knowledge. And that’s very different from lying because, when we lie, to do it successfully, we have to know what the truth is. If I wanted to detract you from the truth, it’s a good idea to know what the facts are. So, the liar is usually concerned about the truth or they know the truth, whereas the BS-er doesn’t care. They pay no attention to truth and they could care less.

And, in fact, by definition, what the liar says is categorically false to the extent that they do know the truth, and they successfully tell us something that’s false. But if the BS-er is truly BS-ing, they may, by chance, accidentally say something that is correct. But even the BS-er wouldn’t know it because they’re not paying any attention to truth, established knowledge, or evidence.

And the social reaction, too. The social reaction that people have towards BS-ing and lying is completely different. So, usually, if a friend or a colleague lies to us, and we find out that they’ve lied, we respond with anger or great disdain, and they’re going to have to tell quite a few truths in the future to gain our trust back. But, with BS-ing, often we let it slide. We give the BS-er a social pass of acceptance because we often think it’s harmless.

Rarely do we say, “Oh, we’re out here sitting on the porch lying to one another,” or that Pete is lying. Because lying oftentimes is associated with fighting words, but BS-ing is we assume that it doesn’t have the same kind of negative effect.

But not only my own research but certainly lots and lots of examples where people have lost money, they’ve made very poor decisions in their life, in their work, in their interpersonal relationships, that are truly grounded in BS. And I’m convinced, I’ve got treasure troves of data now, Pete, in my experiments from thousands of participants, and looking at what they write about no matter what types of events I ask them to write about and explain why they have the opinions and attitudes that they have.

I’m convinced that the personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal problems that we have are often rooted in indirectly or directly in mindless BS reasoning and communication, and being so closely married to BS preferences and so adverse to truth comes at a great consequence to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so then let’s hear it then if lies or fraud really does sound a lot worse than BS, but you’re saying there’s a lot at stake. Can you share with us some of the most hard-hitting data points of studies that show, “Hey, this is actually really damaging”?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. So, what I’ve focused on in my own research is what people believe to be true because truth, what you believe to be true, is fundamental to the decisions that you make. So, in my experiments, I’ve used very simple statements that can be readily recognized as true or false, and demonstrated as true or false. And I give people false statements like, “Sydney is the capital city of Australia. How interesting is that?” “Steinbeck is the author of The Agony and the Ecstasy. How interesting is that to you?”

Now, both of those statements are false. And when you mix those with a lot of other statements, what you will find is what we call an illusory truth effect. So, people will overestimate how true something is just because it sounds familiar.

And what we find is when we say that, “Well, the author of those statements that you read, the author was told to lie on some of them. They were told to write half of them that are true, and half of them that are false. All right? Now, we want you to determine whether or not these statements are true or false.”

And another condition, what we do is we say, “Well, the author of these statements, they were asked to write half of the statements that are true, and then the other half not to really worry about truth and not to worry about fact-checking, how true these things are. You can really just write whatever comes to mind.” And then we looked at the illusory truth effect in that case.

And what we find is that when the author is BS-ing, you get a stronger illusory truth effect, so people are much more likely to tag things as false if they’re told, “Well, some of these things are lies.” But they do treat the BS differently. It’s tagged as potentially true or potentially false. It’s not categorically tagged mentally as false as we do lies. Like, if I tell you, “Hey, I just lied to you about a fact,” well, then you know that it’s false. But if I said, “Hey, I just BS-ed you on that,” it’s possible, to the extent that it sounds feasible and plausible, it could be true. So, people treat those things differently.

Then we also find that in some cases the conditions are right, that BS can be quite persuasive even in comparison to strong arguments for an issue. So, we have compared what we call evidence-based communication with BS communication. So, evidence-based communication is the exact opposite of BS. It is grounded in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge.

Now, if I give you two arguments that are strong, and in one case I tell you, “I’m concerned with the evidence. I’ve actually looked this up. I’ve actually considered what the data looked like, what the readily available data looked like.” That’s the strongest strong arguments that you can produce. But if I said, “I don’t care what the research suggests. I don’t care what the data is on this issue. This is what I believe,” and I say the same exact thing. Now, I’ve weakened the strong arguments, so that makes sense.

But with weak arguments, I could say, “Yeah, I think we should have comprehensive exams at our university as a requirement for graduation for these reasons. And one of the reasons is, well, Duke University is doing it.” That’s a weak argument. Now, if I give you evidence-based cues to that same argument in comparison to BS-based cues of the same arguments, there’s no difference. There’s no difference in evidence-based and BS-based cues and the potency that it has on your attitudes.

So, BS tends to weaken strong arguments, but if anything, it strengthens weak arguments. And we think that this happens because people tend to shut down. When you know that someone is BS-ing you, they’ve given you enough cues that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, and they really don’t have any interest in the truth, people tend to shut down. And, if anything, they will change, their attitudes will be influenced by what we call peripheral cues, how attractive someone is, maybe how tall they are, how quickly they talk, what their authority position is, their perceived credibility.

That’s not where people recognize the difference between strong and weak arguments. So, BS tends to get people in a perspective or in a mode of thinking in which they’re really not thinking very well, and they’re not thinking very clearly about the strengths of arguments, and they don’t even recognize the difference between the strengths of arguments. So, those are really big problems.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess therein lies the danger, is that because we’re susceptible to this, weak arguments plus a lot of BS, results in many, many suboptimal decisions being made everywhere and at all times that discourses is occurring and, thusly, it’s a whole lot of damage accumulatively. Is that kind of your take?

John Petrocelli
Yeah, and we’ve studied this also in a procedure that we call the sleeper effect. So, if I tell you really great things about an attitude, what we call an attitude object, in our studies we’ve used a pizza, a gluten-free pizza, and we tell you all these great things about this gluten-free pizza and how great it tastes and how healthy it is.

And then we tell you, “We want to know what your attitude is.” Well, we’ll see that people have attitudes about Ciao’s pizza that’s rather positive. But then we say, “Oh, you know, there’s a consumer protection agency that did a study and they found out that Ciao’s pizza marketing team, well, they lied. They lied on three things, and here they are.”

Now, over time, you have two pieces of information now. So, initially, the attitude was positive but then you’ve been given a discounting cue. They tell you’ve been lied to. So, immediately people reduce their attitude, they say, “All right. Well, Ciao’s pizza is not so great then.” But, two weeks later, when we survey people’s attitudes about Ciao’s pizza again, what we find is sort of a rebounding effect, which is the attitude becomes more positive, closer to the positivity that it initially was. And the idea is that people forget the discounting cue faster than they forget the initial information that was positive.

So, now, if I tell you, in the same paradigm, “Oh, consumer protection agency found that Ciao’s pizza marketing team was bull*, and they don’t even know if it’s true that most people loved this pizza and has all of these great qualities.” Again, the attitudes are reduced, but two weeks later it’s even stronger and actually at the same level than a control condition who had never gotten the discounting cue in the first place.

So, here now, we have a case where what discounted the initial information is completely forgotten and it’s no longer worked into the attitude. So, people will say to you, “Well, you’ve got to hear these false things maybe 16 times,” I used to believe that. Well, it’s not true that you have to hear it 16 times to believe it. You only have to hear it one time.

The same thing happens in the illusory truth paradigm. You only have to present these falsities one time for people then to confuse them, either confuse them as true because they sound familiar or they forget the false piece of the information, and the part that sounds true remains. And it comes back to shaped attitudes. And, again, what we think is true would be devastating to decision-making.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Well, so that paints a really clear picture then in terms of just given how we interact with information and conversation, how we can form perspectives on what is true that are not at all appropriate or actually true, and that can sort of have all kinds of cascade negative impacts. So, then what do you recommend we do in terms of as we’re navigating life, doing research, making decisions, to as much as possible become immune to the negative effects of this BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, one of the first things I think that is critical to that is accepting the possibility that we are susceptible to BS and the unwanted effects of BS. So, that’s one of the biggest problems with BS is that people feel, one, that they can detect it, and that, two, it really isn’t harmful and it doesn’t affect them very much. But my research suggests they couldn’t be more wrong.

So, the first step would be accepting some susceptibility to it. And, in fact, there’s a lot of research, we call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect that has been studied for over 20 years now, that suggest that the people who are most confident in their abilities in a particular cognitive domain are oftentimes the most susceptible not only to BS but, also, they’re most likely to overestimate their actual skills. So, the cognitive skills that you need to be competent in a domain are the same cognitive skills that you need to recognize competence.

So, often the most confident people, sort of they think that they’re protected against BS and deception, often those are the easiest people to dupe with the BS. So, that would be the first thing. The second thing, I think, is recognizing the difference between explanation and evidence. Explanation and evidence are two totally different things. If you asked people why they believe what they believe, oftentimes they will go into explanation. They’ll give you reasons why they believe what they do. They’ll talk about values, they’ll talk about things that are rather abstract, and sort of the heady things. They’ll talk conceptually.

They won’t give you boots-on-the-ground hard evidence demonstrating the process as to how they came to the conclusions that they’ve come to. So, evidence is something that verifies or demonstrates or supports a claim or an assertion. And people often treat the two things very similarly but they are very different. So, recognizing the difference between those two things.

And then I think the third thing would be to ask questions, to simply just ask questions. I cannot tell you how much money I’ve actually saved myself showing that asking these basic questions actually work. And they’re really basic critical-thinking 101 skills. And the first question that I would ask, when you suspect, “Well, I may have just been exposed to some BS,” is to ask the communicator, “What? What exactly is the claim?” to clarify the claim.

And what you’ll often find, and my research shows this and my own personal experience, I can tell you that people will often take a couple of backpedal steps, and they’ll start to clean the bull up immediately because they see, “All right. Someone is interested in my claim, and maybe they kind of want to hedge it, they want to qualify it in some ways.” So, clarification is a strong antidote to bullshit, so just ask, “What?”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you clarify the claim, can you give us an example? Is that as simple as saying, “Wait a second, John. So, were you claiming…?” precise sentence. And then they say, “Well…” You’re saying that’s all it takes?

John Petrocelli
Well, oftentimes, that’s all it takes. If they tell you, “Well, there’s going to be some changes in this company but no jobs will be lost.” “Well, what do you mean? At what level? What exactly are you talking about? Are you talking about this month or this year or what?” And just to ask clarification, “What?” questions just to get people to talk about it, to clarify the claim.

And once you get through “What?” which is nice because you can immediately expose yourself to less BS if they are willing to clean that up for you, then you’d ask, “How? How is it that you have come to this conclusion? I’m really interested in your claim or your assertion. How do you know?” So, if you ask, “How?” what people will usually do is they will provide for you a more concrete level of abstraction, and they will talk about actual evidence if it is readily available, or if they can recall some from memory, or if they can access it.

Now, a lot of times they’re not able to do that. If they’re truly BS-ing, they probably haven’t really thought through or gone through a logical rational process to come to their conclusion. So, you just ask “How? How do you know this?” or, “How is it that you know this?” And then the third question would be to ask, “Well, have you considered any other alternatives? I hear you saying X, Pete, but what about Y? Don’t this conflict? How do you reconcile these differences?”

And all three of these questions are essentially designed to diagnose the communicator’s actual interest in truth, genuine evidence, and established knowledge. If they’re unable to answer these questions, people are very reasonable when they’ve got enough information. Now, if they rely on what they usually rely on, which is just their own personal or professional experience, they’ll often ignore the fact that personal experience is often very, very messy. It’s a very, very messy data collection method. It provides data that’s random, that is unrepresentative. It’s ambiguous. Oftentimes, it’s incomplete or inconsistent, indirect, and often surprising or counter-attitudinal, not something that we necessarily want to think or want to believe.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

John Petrocelli
And that’s not a good way to collect data.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And I love that example associated with, “Hey, there’s going to be some changes. No jobs will be lost.” The distinction between BS-ing and a lie, it’s a lie if he knows darn well that dozens of people are going to get laid off within a few months, versus BS-ing which is like, “Hey, he’s got a general sense that we’re probably going to be okay.” But if you’re considering your own job opportunities and economic situation, that’s not good enough.

And so, with those questions, the “What?” and the “How?” and “Have you considered?” I could really just kind of imagine what a great answer versus a poor answer. It’s like, “Are you saying that no jobs will be lost over the next year?” He’s like, “Well, yeah, we’re pretty sure there probably shouldn’t be any.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s a bad answer,” versus, “Yes, we’re absolutely certain that there’ll be zero jobs.” “Okay, that’s a commitment.”

And then, “How have you come to know this?” This is like, “Well, hey, we’ve taken a look at our cashflows, with our reduced revenue situation that we’re at from the pandemic or whatever, a negative event, and we’re still cashflow positive, so we have no trouble making our payroll over the course of the next year.” And then, “Have you considered, well, hey, what happens if it gets a little bit worse?” Like, “Yes. Well, we have a couple years of reserves in savings to work with so even if it gets a little worse, we should be okay.” Now, those are great answers versus, “Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about this. Hey, this thing should turn around any week now, really.” Like, “Oh, okay. You don’t actually know.”

And then, yeah, that kind of makes it all clear for me, the distinction between the lying and the BS-ing is that’s where it is. And then, in some ways though, John, what would be your take on this? If someone sort of acknowledged upfront, like, “Hey, I’m just speculating about this but here’s my read on things right now,” it seems like that could diffuse a good amount of the dangers of BS. Is that fair to say?

John Petrocelli
Absolutely. I’m totally agreeing with you, Pete, because in that case, you have communicated that you are actually interested in the truth and in reality but you don’t actually know for sure. You haven’t given this vague, ambiguous, pseudo-profound kind of answer that everyone is hoping to hear, and you’ve been specific about your interest in the truth. And so, exactly, if you say it, if you qualify, “I’m only speculating. I don’t actually have the data. I haven’t consulted other available sources yet and I don’t know this for sure, but here’s my sense, here’s my opinion so far but it’s not well-informed.”

That’s one of the problems with BS is that the people are often so ready to offer BS because our communicative culture, there’s an underlying implicit assumption that we are supposed to have opinions about everything but it’s impossible to have a well-informed opinion about everything, and everything is so large now, especially since the dawn of the internet. We’re supposed to have opinions about seemingly countless things now or, otherwise, we don’t sound interesting, we are non-factors in conversations, and that doesn’t bode very well especially with people with a high need to belong to the various groups that they do belong to.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the need to belong, to appear competent, and like you must have an opinion on these things. It’s funny, as I’m imagining if someone asked me…you’re changing my worldviews, John. Good work. If someone asked me a question, I don’t really know the answer to, I think it might be refreshing if I were to say, “You know, I can only offer you speculation on that. Would you like to hear it or not?” And then it’s like, “I’m not going to be offended if you say, ‘You know, no, I don’t want to hear your speculation.’” And I’d probably appreciate being asked if I’m on the receiving end of that.

John Petrocelli
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, tell me, any other? I love those three, they’re very prescriptive questions, the “What?” the “How have you come to know this?” and the “Have you considered?” Any other key words, phrases, questions, scripts that you find super helpful as you navigate this, both as the BS-er or the recipient of the BS?

John Petrocelli
Yes, I gave you examples of when you can communicate directly with the potential BS-er but there’s lots of cases where we’re exposed to BS where we can’t communicate directly with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, just on the internet.

John Petrocelli
And there’s another basic critical-thinking skills, 101s, three-point question, and that is, “Well, who? Who am I getting this information? Who is telling me this? Or, who is the claim coming from? What is their expertise? What is their credibility?” So, you start with “Who?” Well, then the next question is now, you’re back, “Well, how? How do they know? How is it that they possibly came to this conclusion? Is there anything in their presentation or their assertion, their claim, that they have communicated that would hint at how it is they would know this given their credibility, their level of expertise?

And “What?” back to “What?” But this time it’s “What agenda might they have? What are they trying to sell me? What are they trying to sell us?” So, now, instead of “What?” “How?” and “Have you considered?” you can sort of just mentally go through, “Well, who’s telling this? How do they know? And what are they trying to sell me? What’s their agenda?”

And it’s also useful to turn these kinds of questions onto ourselves because one of the most potent BS-ers that we’ll ever meet in our lives is ourselves, it’s the BS that often goes unchallenged, it’s the BS that we tell ourselves things that we would like to believe, that just ain’t so half the time, probably half the time.

So, it’s good to turn these questions onto the self, and say, “What level of evidence do I actually have? And do I have any? What am I basing this on? Do I have anything conclusive that actually leads me to this conclusion? And what about other people? What about my friends and colleagues? Do they have the same beliefs? They have an important perspective too. What about asking them?” Collecting more data instead of just remaining in one’s box and one’s head can do wonders for the types of data collection that are needed to combat the BS that we hand ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
What this brings back for me is I remember I needed to get a new roof and I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was having trouble getting someone to show up, so it’s like, “To heck with it. I’m calling every roofer that I can.” So, I called like 20 and, sure enough, I had like five show up, so I was like, “Hey, that worked. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

But then they were telling me contradictory things, like, “Oh, you got to tear this off,” “No, you don’t need to tear it off. You can put another layer.” And then it’s like, “Oh, you can just put a coating on the top. You don’t need to do more material at all than a coating.” And so, I was like, “Well, how the heck am I…? I don’t know anything about roofing. You’re the roofing masters and you’re telling me completely different things. How do I get to the heart of this?”

It was tricky, it’s sort of like…but I guess I followed your principles in terms of what was their agenda. And so, when someone told me, like, “Hey, I can’t work on your roof until you’ve fixed this masonry situation over there because you’re just going to have leaking.” I was like, “Okay. Well, this guy is walking away from perfectly good money, so I think that’s probably true.” So, looking at the agenda part of the story.

And then someone else actually offered evidence, like, “Hey, do you see how this is sagging and do you see from this side angle there’s already three layers? Well, the Chicago building code only allows for this thing.” I was like, “Okay, now that’s some evidence.” And it was funny how in hindsight…

John Petrocelli
It’s a picture of your roof not someone else’s roof.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny how, in hindsight, like that’s what cuts through the clutter, but because I felt overwhelmed and it was a large expense and these are the experts who are contradicting each other, I find it very stressful. But by following your guiding lights there, I probably could’ve been like, “Okay, I’m disregarding what you say, and you say, and getting the mason and we’re tearing it off and, hey, that was easy. Could’ve been a lot quicker.”

John Petrocelli
Yes. Well, I would say, Pete, you did 100% exactly the right thing in that situation. And it sounds like you asked a lot of follow-up questions, and that is another antidote to BS, because only through follow-up questions are you going to reveal the inconsistencies and are you going to reveal other things about a person’s personality and their agenda that will come through if you follow up with as many follow-up questions as you can.

I had a similar instance recently where I had to have a breaker box to our AC unit switch, and I had two separate electricians come out. The first one said it was basically a $2,000 repair, so they wanted to replace the entire two-breaker panel, and I thought, “Wow, gee, that’s really expensive. I’m going to have to definitely get a second opinion on that.” But I went out with him and we looked at it, he explained everything, and I asked him so many questions, Pete, by the time he left, he was coaching me on how to speak with the home warranty representative on the phone on what to say and what not to say because it ended up being really a minor repair that cost $80 with the second.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay

John Petrocelli
There was no damage. The breakers were actually a mismatch. They were sort of apples and oranges and we discovered this, but there hadn’t been any damage to the box itself. So, I could suspect that with something that I thought, “Well, this probably won’t be more than a couple hundred dollars of repair,” and, all of a sudden, it’s 2,000. My detector went off and I just asked questions. Again, I said, “Well, show me what that looks like,” because he said there was damage.

But when he pulled them out, they looked brand new to me so it was harder for him to then kind of continue following down that path because there didn’t appear to be any burning or there didn’t appear to be any kind of any marks. They looked brand new. And so, just asking questions. We did the same thing with what I’ve called the masters, the well-trained artists, the BS artists of all time must be people who sell timeshare agreements for vacations, hotels.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s a marriage insurance, John. Can you put a price on that?”

John Petrocelli
So, these people are highly-trained BS artists. So, they will bring you in to maybe Myrtle Beach for two nights, they give you free two nights to stay, and they’ll say, “All right. Well, on Saturday, all you have to do is agree to watch a one-hour presentation that we’ll give you. It’s a marketing presentation and dinner is on us and all of this stuff.”

Well, what they do is they’ll bring you in at 10:30 a.m. because they know you’re not going to have lunch before 10:30 a.m. and they sit you in the waiting room until about 12:30 so now you are starting to get hungry for lunch, and then the presentation starts at 12:30, and then that takes an hour, and then they want to show you some of the properties. And then they want to BS you on how great all this whole package is going to be. Before you know it, it’s 5:00 p.m. and then they want you to make a decision. So, you’re exhausted.

And people, we know, are less likely to detect BS if they are fatigued, if their what we call the self-regulatory resources that are the resource, the mental resources that you use to maintain, to change and maintain your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And when people are depleted of those basic psychological resources, they don’t always make the best decisions, they don’t always behave in the ways that they normally would if they are full of these resources. And detecting BS, and even producing BS, are affected by these resources.

And what they do is they drain them, and then they ask you to make a decision.

But even in those cases, if you ask enough follow-up questions, people will usually come to reasonable decisions if they’ve got good information. When they don’t have good information, or incomplete information, they often make very poor decisions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, John, this is a lot of great stuff. I want to shift gears and hear about a couple of your favorite things. Could you now tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

John Petrocelli
Yes, my favorite quote actually is by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he says, “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

John Petrocelli
It’s got to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Bull, but I think a close second would have to be anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Just beautiful. The writing is just beautiful and that’d have to be a close second.

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

John Petrocelli
Well, I would say that what I’ve been trying to do with the book, too, is just to normalize calling BS. And when I think people have commented that, well, some of the things I’ve talked about in earlier talks, and in my research that they’ve read, they said, “You know, this actually works,” and you don’t have to use the word BS.

You can do it in a very considerate way and maybe even in a private way such that people don’t feel uncomfortable being called on their BS because, as you probably know, that calling BS can be a serious conversation-killer, and perhaps fighting words in some parts. So, I would think that doing it in a considerate way works best and maybe even in private.

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

John Petrocelli
Yeah, I’m available on Twitter as @JohnVPetro or you can look me up at Wake Forest University Psychology, you’ll find me there.

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

John Petrocelli
I’d say call to action would be to, I think, this would be for leaders and for managers especially, to try to create a communicative culture that is open to asking questions, one that is open even to possibly challenging. One of the most frequently used BS words in all of the workplace is best practice, to challenge things like that, and to just create the sort of atmosphere to make that kind of thing okay. And I think decision-making will be much more optimal in that type of communicative culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. John, this has been a pleasure. I wish you much success and BS-free exchanges.

John Petrocelli
All right. Well, thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Pete.

695: How to Take Risks Confidently with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy

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Sukhinder Singh Cassidy says: "When nothing is sure, everything is possible."

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy shares valuable insight on how to take smarter, more calculated risks with confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two easy ways to build your risk-taking muscle 
  2. How to stop the fear of failure from holding you back 
  3. One question to help you make smarter, more calculated risks

About Sukhinder

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy is a leading technology executive and entrepreneur, board member, and investor with twenty-five years of experience founding and helping to scale companies, including Google and Amazon. She served as president of StubHub and as a member of eBay’s executive leadership team. Sukhinder is the founder and chairman of theBoardlist, a premium talent marketplace that helps diverse leaders get discovered for board and executive opportunities, and the author of CHOOSE POSSIBILITY. 

Resources Mentioned

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Sukhinder Singh Cassidy Interview Transcript

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your perspectives associated with your book Choose Possibility. Can you tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
The big idea is that we all have a rather terrible relationship with risk-taking and a rather kind of, I would say, ill-conceived view of what risk really looks like. And so, the book was written to help us reframe risk for what it is, really the pursuit of possibility, and offer really pragmatic ways to rethink how you approach risk-taking in order for you to be able to unlock more of its benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’ll take right away the pursuit of possibility feels a lot better than the word risk just in the gut, as you sort of feel the words side by side and their valance. So, very cool. Now, your own career has had some interesting possibilities and risks and wild successes and disappointments. Can you give us a little bit of view for some of the wildest rides and how you’ve thought about risk and what happened for you?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Sure. Sure. Well, as you noted, I consider myself someone who’s taken hundreds of risks in my career. I have been at large companies when they were growing, like Amazon and Google. I’ve been a CEO of large companies like StubHub, but I’ve also started three of my own, been an early-stage investor, a mid-stage investor, a late-stage investor, a board member at startups, a board member at large public companies, and so I feel like I’ve navigated and traversed risk-taking throughout my career.

And if you said sort of, “What are some of the wildest rides?” Well, they include quitting my job as a president at Google when I was arguably among the top 15 executives in the company, and going to a startup as a CEO, and, honestly, having it fail ferociously as a career move within six months, only to have to figure out how to recover and navigate my way to my next career choice and, ultimately, find the unlock for myself in terms of the rewards I took for the risks I took. As you can imagine, that career left me feeling like risk-taking is not what people think it is, and the reward relationship with risk is anything but linear, which is how we tend to conceive it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I absolutely want to ask about that specific point, so let’s roll with it. So, the risk-reward relationship is not linear. What does it look like?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I think of the relationship between risk-taking and reward is not only non-linear but, in some ways, very circuitous. And so, let me explain what I mean. When we make a move, any move, or take any choice, I bet you we’re looking for not just one reward but multiple rewards. We might be making a career choice that we’re hoping will fulfill us financially, that we’re hoping will unlock some outsized career, win like a title change, or step up in responsibilities, and maybe brings us a lot of personal happiness. So, we’re making a move that has effectively three choices within it that we’re trying to optimize for.

Yet, when it comes to sort of how things unfold, as we execute our way through a choice we’d made, the reality is we’re measuring it on these three different choices or goals we have, and we won’t get the results all at the same time. We maybe figure out if it’s going to be a financial win for several years. We may figure out if it’s a happiness win within a year. We may or may not achieve the career ambition we wanted in terms of title.

And so, when you think about all the reasons we take the risk to begin with, the rewards don’t unfold in sequence, they don’t unfold at the same time, and each reward may have its own relationship to our execution or to the factors that are entirely outside of our control on whether or not we sort of achieve we originally intended against that specific goal.

So, when I say it’s non-linear, I mean it unfolds at various points in time, big and little risks don’t correlate to the size of the ultimate reward, and so you look at the whole thing, and you say, “Gosh.” Whatever you imagine going in, you may or may not achieve it going out, but I bet you that you will still be able to collect the benefits of risks even if they don’t look like the rewards you originally imagined.

And I think that is the key, how you take risks and make sure that if it’s a non-linear and circuitous relationship, you can still gain benefit from the risk you take and understand what the relationships and the benefits might be every time you take a risk even if it’s not the ones you originally imagined.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, I think you could chew on that for a while and really get to some great places. It’s funny, when I was thinking about a non-linear relationship doing risk and reward, I was just thinking from a strictly kind of a finance thing, it’s like, “As there is a higher standard deviation and the returns of the given asset class, risk, there is a higher reward, like percent, money, return.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah, percent return. Right. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
But as you sort of zoom out and think about kind of the long game and your life and time and how things unfold, it doesn’t look like that at all.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. So, actually, let’s back away, let’s look at your asset, my view versus your view, and back way. First of all, there is a thesis that I have in the book that if you actually look over the extent of your lifetime, you will actually find maybe that linear relationship but through multiple choices and multiple cycles.

So, if people were to chart my career, they’d say, “Wow, Sukhinder, there’s a pretty linear relationship between risk and reward because you started at one place and you took a risk and, gosh, look where you ended up.” So, it looks like a straight line over your lifetime but, really, what you’re doing is mapping through a bunch of cycles of choices and individual risks and individual rewards, each of which may or may not have worked out.

So, to your point, it’s like a stock pick. Any given stock pick may or may not work out. You and I would agree. When you’re building a stock portfolio, what are you trying to do? You try and actually make multiple choices. You’re diversifying your risks in order to maximize your overall return. By the way, as you keep picking stocks and watch pattern matching, I bet you become a more calculated stock picker over time.

And over the course of a long timeframe, let’s say 10 years, in which you are managing a stock portfolio, you’re getting better and better, though never perfect, at picking stocks, diversifying risks, taking parallel risks at the same time. And over the course of that entire period, you may say, “Wow, there was a relationship between starting to be a stock picker in my ultimate value of my portfolio.” But that doesn’t mean every individual stock you picked worked out.

And I think therein is the opportunity, and therein is the miscalculation of how most people think about risk. Most people think about risk as one mighty choice for one mighty reward. And I think, to take your analogy further, you will see the compounding benefits over a long period of time, but it will be an amalgamation of many individual choices or risks taken, each of which may or may not have worked out. And that’s why I think risk-taking has to become a skill rather than a single event we imagine.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when we think about risk-taking as a skill, how do you recommend we go about getting better at this skill of risk-taking?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
First and foremost, it’s probably no surprise, I think about starting early and often. I will say to people, you imagine and look at the biggest risk-takers in the world, and we somehow celebrate their biggest choices and we act like that’s the only choice they ever made and that’s why they’re such a mighty risk-taker when, in fact, most started taking risks long before we knew it, and they took risks of different sizes.

So, if I were to say to you, “How did you become good at managing your portfolio?” or whatever it is you’re doing, I bet that it started by doing it early and often. So, I say to people, first and foremost, find reasons to take risks in your everyday life, in your everyday career. And most people will say, “Well, I took a risk. I made this choice to go into this career. I took a right turn and decided to join a startup.” Okay, well, that’s one risk but we have opportunities to take risks every day.

I always say to people you could take the risk to learn something new. You could take the risk to discover more opportunities. You could take the risk certainly to achieve an outsized ambition, or you could take a risk to avoid harm. Like, those are four different reasons we might have to take risks every day. And so, I say to people, early and often is the way to really build your risk-taking muscle.

The second thing I talk about with people is many people believe that risk-taking first requires a lot of planning. I don’t know. Have you ever seen this, Pete, the person who plans a lot, and plans judiciously, and plans in great detail before they ever take a risk? Because we think the more perfect our plans, the better our risk-taking will be and the more we can control the outcome.

And one of the other pieces of advice I say to people when they’re trying to get going and just start to take risks is, “Hey, as oppose to the perfect plan from afar, spend less time planning, create a rough plan, and then the most important thing you can do is get proximate to the choices you’re thinking about making, or the risks you’re thinking about taking.”

If you’re thinking about taking a risk to be an entrepreneur in a big company, one of the best ways to do it might, first and foremost, be proximate to people who are entrepreneurs. Learn what it looks like to be an entrepreneur. Get proximate by joining a startup. Become an apprentice before you make a final choice.

And so, I think people presume that risk-taking requires a perfect plan. And, instead, I kind of advocate for a rough plan, what I call a whiteboard plan, “What’s the direction in which you want to head?” And before you make your choice, take the little risks to get proximate and closer to the opportunities you seek, and learn before making your final choice.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, we’re using the phrase take risk a lot, so let’s get clear with definition, shall we? When you say, “Take a risk,” what precisely do we mean by that?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, I think of a risk is anything that has an uncertain outcome in pursuit of a goal. So, if you look at the standard definition of risk in Merriam-Webster, it’s to avoid injury or harm. That’s the kind of risk-taking we all imagine that keeps us from ever acting. If you look at the definition of risk-taking, it talks about literally entering an uncertain situation for the pursuit of a goal.

So, for me, a risk could be speaking up in a meeting. That’s ego risk. That’s psychological risk. It’s not financial risk but why don’t people speak in meetings? It’s because there’s a risk involved to their psyche or to their sense of what others think of them. And then risk-taking obviously follows more classic definitions if you know. You might decide to, as we said, empty the money from your bank account and put it in your first startup. That’s a bigger risk but it’s still a risk.

So, I think of risks as micro-actions, medium-sized actions, and larger-sized actions, all of which are uncertain but they’re decisions you make to try and unlock more impact. And what keeps you from doing it is obviously these fears we have, whether they’re related to our ego, financial, or kind of personal risks.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so let’s talk about the fear. And maybe we’ll zoom out for a moment and get to a conceptual or theoretical optimal relationship to risk. Like, is your take that we should neither be fearful and take zero risks nor reckless and just do every nutty thing that we think about? Or, what does optimal look like in the realm of risk-taking?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Sure. Well, let’s start with what I call the universal risk-taking equation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
So, I want you to imagine two phrases, they’re pretty simple. One is FOMO, fear of missing out. I’m sure you know FOMO. The other of FOF, fear of failure. So, many people have fear of failure, many people have FOMO. So, I think of the universal risk-taking equation, put this in your head, the one that guides us all.

It’s goes something like this. If our fear of missing out on something is greater than our fear of failure, we’ll likely act, we’ll likely move in the direction of a choice we’re contemplating that has some uncertainty. If our fear of failure is greater than our FOMO, we’ll likely fail to act, it will equal inaction. So, let’s imagine risk-taking framework that looks like that.

First of all, you’ll notice two things. In that universal risk-taking equation, there isn’t the absence of fear. There are actually two fears that we are managing at any point in time – our fear of missing out, which is kind of what we would all think of as a positive fear, it’s the fear that induces us to act, and this fear of failure.

So, if you think about that concept, I think the world largely tells you that if you want to act, you just have to visualize the positive. Keep visualizing the positive because we’re going to ramp our FOMO. Makes sense. It’ll be like, “Hey, if you want to get that risk-taking equation working in your favor to act, just ramp your FOMO.” That doesn’t really do much for the way most people live, which is with a lot of fear.

So, just visualizing the positive doesn’t really do anything to help shrink the denominator in the equation, which is fear of failure. So, you could have a lot of FOMO, like you could have a lot of positive visualization, but if you can’t conquer or find a way to shrink your fear, you just won’t act, even though you know intellectually that there are all these things you’re excited about.

So, I often say to people, first of all, embrace both fears. I have an executive coach that I’ve worked with for 10 years through a number of my career choices, and he says to me, that I think is absolutely right, most people have a rather immature relationship with what he calls our inner risk manager, that voice inside of us that is, on the one hand, sometimes goading us forward, but more often our risk manager is trying to keep us from acting by sort of signaling all the dangers that’s going to happen to us, they’re trying to keep us safe.

So, he always talks about this immature relationship with our risk manager, and managing that formula I just talked about is about having a more mature relationship with your risk manager. And so, while it’s all good to kind of visualize the positive and ramp your FOMO, and I certainly recommend it when you’re creating goals, or when you’ve made a big choice and you’re trying to keep yourself motivated every day. What I often say to people is, “Let’s work actively on reducing our fear of failure,” and, “What are the strategies we can use that would help us reduce our fear of failure and allow us to act also?”

And there are a couple that I strongly recommend. One comes from our favorite risk-taker of all time, Jeff Bezos. Bezos wrote in his very famous shareholder letter to investors when he was going public, that most decisions Amazon makes, and he says that, “Most decisions we make, as people, are what we call decisions with two-way doors.” We often imagine that we make a decision and it’s a one-way door, there’s no way back. But the vast majority of things we do or try, there’s a way back. If you say something in a meeting that it doesn’t work out the way you want, it’s not like you can never say anything again.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re fired.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah, “You’re fired. Are you kidding? You said that terrible thing. Nobody thought you were smart.” Like, that’s absolutely ridiculous. If we said, “Hey,” you want to take a new job opportunity and it’s at a startup. If you’re very employable, and your current company lets you, it’s not like there’s not a way back if you go and it doesn’t work out.

So, the vast majority of things we think about are not one-way doors; they’re two-way doors. And so, I often advocate, and I advocate certainly in the book, that if you want to have a good relationship with your fear of failure, let’s start by not avoiding what those risks are. Let’s name them. Let’s size them. And they get sized as big if they’re one-way doors. If they’re two-way doors, they’re likely smaller, medium-sized risks, and go one step further.

I say, like, imagine the choice after the choice. Imagine you say that thing in a meeting and it doesn’t work out. Well, what’s the very next thing you would do? Imagine you go to that startup and you hate the job. What’s the very next move you would make? And the minute you can imagine the choices after the choice, and if you can come up with several, well, that’s probably not as large a risk as you think it is. And imagining what you would do actually helps us confront those fears of failure as opposed to avoiding them.

So, I often think about that universal risk-taking equation, and while I’m all for FOMO, I actually believe that we own each strategy to sort of look and shrink our fear of failure in order to get us into action. And those are some of the things I think about a lot and talk about a lot when I advocate for people to take more risks.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you say you advocate for people to take more risks, is it fair to say that most of us don’t take enough risks and relatively few of us are wild and reckless? Or, what’s your take about the breakdown of the…we’ll just say United States professionals?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, you’re asking a question that’s near and dear to my heart. If you want to go to the website for the book called ChoosePossibility.com, you can take a risk quiz, interestingly, to figure out what your natural risk-taking style is because I wanted to know the answer to the same questions as I was writing the book and certainly bringing it to market as we launch it.

And so, we actually created a simple risk survey, and then we surveyed the US population, obviously not the entire population but a sample, before putting the risk quiz on LinkedIn and on the site where you can take it. And to your point, what we found is that we sort of named four archetypes for risks, and we found that the vast majority of people taking the risk quiz, like 60%, are what we call contemplators, which is very good at being calculated and measured in laying out the pros and cons of any decision.

But where they self-identify is having challenge is in actually making a decision. And these people self-identify saying, “Hey, I can look back and I have a decent amount of regret about choices I didn’t make and actions I failed to take.” So, the majority of the population in our risk quiz are contemplators. And then let’s think about what comes on either side of a contemplator.

A contemplator who is more negative, who sees more easily the cons of any given situation, who’s always trying to keep safe and keep away from harm, we call a critic. On the other side of being a contemplator is what we call the calculator, the person who also does the analysis of pros and cons in any big decision, and certainly probably does a faster analysis or more efficient analysis on smaller decisions, but is comfortable making a decision within a given time period. So, they’re always calculating and kind of biased towards making a decision more than the contemplator.

And then the last archetype we identified is what we call the change seeker. And you and I probably know lots of change seekers, which are people who are so easy to see opportunity that, in fact, they may move very spontaneously. Some would call them reckless, some wouldn’t. Some would say that they’re the life of the party and the people who never miss an opportunity even if it costs them overcommitting or, in some ways, moving rashly.

And so, when we look at these four archetypes, and as I said, you can identify which you are by taking the quiz on the site, I think the majority of people certainly are comfortable with the idea of a pros and cons list, but when it comes to action, they maybe sit on the sidelines a little bit more than they wish they would. And, obviously, that’s what prompted me to write the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s talk about some particular strategies and tactics when it comes to doing some decision-making. So, I liked how you discussed how we can shrink our fear of failure by thinking through, “Hey, is this a two-way door? If this went south, what would be the very next step?” What are some of your other favorite approaches? Or, do you have a master framework when you sit down and say, “Okay, Sukhinder, decision time”? How do you get to your answers?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, let’s put it this way. First of all, in our risk quiz, I’m a calculator, which means I’m never without my own spreadsheet. Make no mistake, I think of my own relationship with risks as, “Yes, here’s that formula.” But to answer your question, I do believe that for smaller choices, it’s about doing the rapid formula and moving yourself to action because as soon as you realize that a risk is of rather small size, hopefully you can get into action fairly quickly without needing a gigantic spreadsheet.

But, believe me, when it comes to bigger choices in my own life, I have a pretty gigantic spreadsheet too. And some of the things that you would find on it might surprise you. So, in my frameworks for taking risks and making bigger choices, there are probably two things that I do, and I weigh in my framework that most people don’t weigh.

When most people create a framework for making a bigger choice, they really do a pros and cons of like what we might think about like how they will execute, they say, “Gosh, this could go right and this could go wrong.” But they really act as if the entire risk and thing worth rating are like their own execution ability. Like you say, “Oh, this could go right or this could go wrong if I do this or I fail to do this.”

In my own risk-taking frameworks, actually, I not only look at how something compares to my goals or my own skills and capabilities, like, “Gosh, am I likely to succeed or fail in my efforts?” But I have two dimensions that I think most people fail to add. Number one is what I call the people factor. So, most people try and make a choice sort of on the what of the thing they’re pursuing.

So, let’s put it this way. I want to go to a startup. I’m thinking about the what that that startup does and is that startup likely to be successful or not? Is that a winning idea? I often, and this has certainly been something I’ve learned the hard way in my career, but I’ve also had the benefit of, I’ve really, in all of my frameworks, I overweight the people I am going to join in any new choice or endeavors. So, I call that the “I put the who over the what,” and that’s one big piece of advice I have for people when creating around framework and doing your own pros and cons list. You have to add and rate the people factor of any dimension.

And people say, “Well, why is that important?” I think it’s important because many of us have been told to take risks in the direction of our passions, as an example. Like, “Hey, go overweight moving towards something that’s in the direction of things you enjoy.” That’s great. But 99% of our careers and how successful we are on the job are done in collaboration with others, with peers, with a boss, with a CEO who might be guiding the direction of the company, so with people who share or don’t share our values, let alone complement our strengths.

And so, when I overweight the people, what I’m really overweighting is, like, “Hey, I’ll get to have fun in my job or do the things I’m passionate about or good at dependent on the people I go to work with every day. And if I go to work with extraordinary people, people who have skills I seek to acquire, or people whose values fit my own, there’s a far better chance that I’m going to enjoy the day-to-day of my job and do my best work.”

And, yes, all the better if it’s in the direction of my, let’s say, stated passions in terms of topic area. So, putting the who over the what is one big factor in my frameworks that most people don’t really rate enough or rate highly enough when they make their choices. And the other one that I often tell people is missing from their frameworks, and I would add to any framework or pro-con choice, is what I call the things that aren’t in your control, the headwinds and tailwinds of any situation.

We tend to believe that we go into any situation, and what I call the neutral state, like it’s just waiting there for our immense and amazing execution in order for us to be successful as if that is the only factor at play in things that work and don’t work. But if we take the time to rate the situation we’re entering, as it’s like, “Does it have momentum and tailwinds?” People often give me a lot of credit for my choices, but my friend, I came to Silicon Valley in 1997. Ahh, that was a good time to come to Silicon Valley.

Let me tell you, there are so many tailwinds that if I made a bad choice, I could still pivot into good choices. And, in fact, that happened to me in my first job in the Valley. I quit in six months but there was so much opportunity that I could pivot into and so many companies that had tailwinds, that I had plenty of what we call room to fail and still be successful.

And so, I think objectively rating the situation you’re entering, “Does it have headwinds or tailwinds? And what does that mean for your ability to execute?” is a huge other factor in the frameworks I build around any big choice.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that concept right there, room to fail. I guess I could just flip it around. As I was contemplating, “Should I launch this podcast? Oh, it’s going to be a lot of work. And, hey, I’ve tried a lot of business initiatives that didn’t work out.” And one of the things I loved about this, as a concept, was that there were just so many ways to win, financially. I already knew it was going to be fun talking to people like you about stuff I love.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Of course, right?

Pete Mockaitis
But I thought that there are so many ways that this can win, whether it’s just from sponsorship, or selling courses, coaching and training, licensing and monetizing. Like, there’s a lot of ways. As opposed to a lot of businesses are like, “Well, hopefully people like this thing,” whether a product or service, and if they don’t, then that’s kind of all there is to it.

So, room to fail or many ways to win is a cool parameter to embrace and to value and to consider.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I love it. This comes into like embrace your inner calculator. Like, lay out all of these things because sometimes, as you know, like one of the things I found in the book is if you look at the research, people often make decisions quickly because uncertainty feels so uncomfortable.

But when you lay out all of these paths, as you said, all the ways your podcast could monetize, like you’re not only ramping your FOMO, you’re also, in many ways, like dealing your fear of failure. You’re saying, “Oh, my goodness, here are like the three ways. If this one doesn’t work, this one could work. If this one doesn’t work, this one could work.” So, I bet you, that thought process got you into action by confronting all of these thoughts early and being calculated in taking this risk, not just like a hope and a prayer, but laying it out in order to get yourself into action.

And so, I mean, I love it. Yes, room to fail all the time. But room to fail means you take the time to confront the things that not only you would love about doing this, but the things that you fear, and laying out all the possible paths you could pursue. That’s what gets me into action, it’s not just sort of dreaming in the abstract.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a really compelling point right there about folks moving quickly because they don’t want to linger in the discomfort of those, the moments of uncertainty.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I think there’s some real wisdom there. And so, any pro tips with regard to if folks are in a position, like, “Ah, I’ve just been thinking about this too long. Aargh!” How do you recommend sort of calming the system, or, maybe just in general, like when emotions are running hot, like to get back to a place of calm, wise rationality?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, I’ll tell you what I do because I certainly love to act and I’m somebody who makes decisions, relatively speaking, fast. But when it is a weighty decision, or when there is something bothering me, the first thing I do when something is like I’m prompted to act quickly, almost too quickly, and I feel myself becoming reckless, is I try and step back and ask myself, “What am I trying to solve?”

And, often, what reveals itself is that there is not a one-stepper but a two-stepper. So, first of all, when we’re feeling anxious, it’s because something in our current situation is maybe feeling threatening or negative to us. You know people who are like, let’s say, take the first job offer they get. And you say, “Well, why are you going to jump into that job? Like, just step back. What are you trying to solve?”

And when you ask yourself the question, “What are you trying to solve in making the decision now?” usually, what you find is you’re trying to solve in a one-stepper something that’s effectively of two-stepper. So, what do I mean by that? Let’s say your current job sucks. Like, you’re fighting with your boss. So, the first job that comes up, you feel like, “I’m going to take that. That’s the one. I’m saying yes on Monday.”

I would say, “Okay, figure out why you want to say yes on Monday. Before you say yes on Monday, figure out what you’re trying to solve.” So, first of all, you’re trying to solve your current discomfort at work. That might involve going in on Monday and having an honest conversation with your boss about something that’s not going right. That is a distinct decision and risk to take from the risk of what job to go to next. That’s the two-per. Like, number one, solve the current discomfort. Number two, then decide if you were in “a neutral state” and try and pick the best possible job choice, “Would you pick this one? Or, would you now take the time, having solved your immediate discomfort, to go lay out five job choices because maybe you’re going to find one that’s even better?”

And, certainly, I say to people, like, “Step back. Forget what you’re trying to solve. And if it’s a two-per, lay out your two independent goals because they may be solved separately. And that allows you then, my friend, to setup the next choice, that next possibility, and I’m not like, “Hey, go live forever in uncertainty,” then I’m more in there like, “Hey, if you were in a neutral place, maybe you would have the time to go figure out the three jobs that would be your dream job. Go have two more conversations and set yourself a timeframe to still make the decision but it doesn’t need to be yesterday.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that is an insight that’s applicable in many circumstances, that this isn’t a one giant leap but rather maybe two or three or four steps and components. And in asking that question, “What are you trying to solve?” you can see that and take appropriate action. And what’s fun is that you may feel all the more empowered and emboldened and equipped to have that conversation with boss because, like, “I don’t know if this is going to go well.” It’s like, “Well, hey, if it’s horrible, at least I have something.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Yeah, I have something. I have a bird in the hand. Yes, absolutely. But it’s just about forcing those things apart when we’re feeling reckless. So, the point is that I think our relationship with risk tends to be risk is for the risk-takers among us. Okay, not true. Risk is a skill that anyone can build, point one. And then, number two, on this point of like, “Okay. Well, if you want to build those risk-taking muscles, think about these choices in increments.” You’re often not making, as you said, one choice. You often have the opportunity to make two, three, four choices.

And you know what that does for us when we know we have the ability to make two, three, or four choices? It frees us from the pressure of one big choice, which is what people think it needs to be – one big choice. I call this the myth of the single choice, “I’m going to make one big choice and it’s going to be either a raging success or an abject failure,” and then there’s so much pressure on that one choice. The minute you say, like, “I have multiple choices and risks to take or choices to make,” it really frees us up from this myth of the single choice. And, in fact, we can get the compounding benefits of choosing again and again and again.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, I think mostly it’s what I said. If you think that risk-taking is for the risky among us, reframe your thinking about what risk really is. It’s a small or big choice that you can make multiples times a day, a week, a month, a year that get you into action now and sort of unlock your learnings so you can choose again. And it’s about this freedom to choose and choose and choose again that really helps us create compounding benefit to the risks we take.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
My favorite quote is probably one from the book, which is, “When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” And so, we often think about, as I said, this idea that uncertainty is daunting, but let’s just remember, like, uncertainty is literally the definition of possibility. When nothing is sure, everything is possible. So, that’s a pretty awesome place to dwell, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
And we don’t tend to think of it that way.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, one of my favorites is actually, I don’t know about, but have you ever read the book Good to Great from Jim Collins?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
So, that’s one my favorite older books, but one of my favorite newer books, in fact, I had it in our book club at StubHub. I made the entire leadership team read it, it was this book Growth Beyond the Hockey Stick from a set of McKinsey partners. It’s one of my favorites. It’s a 30-year study of companies that non-linearly outperform over time.

And what it really finds, which I think is so fun, is it sorts of reinforces or validates through data the research that the companies most prone to failure over a long period of time are companies that fail to take any move rather than companies that made multiple moves, some of which were wrong, actually have a much better chance of what they call, what McKinsey calls moving up the power curve to become non-linear, you know, outsize successes over time in terms of shareholder returns. So, failing to move is far more likely to have you, what we call go, whereas making multiple moves, imperfectly, is far more likely to get you to grow. Very neat analogy, obviously, to the book.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
My favorite tool to be awesome at my job, you would laugh, but it’s my iPhone notes. Like, when people talk about having, like, “I always have a plan,” but I’m moving all the time, so although I’d love to have a whiteboard. The reality is my iPhone notes is my whiteboard. If you went into it, you would see notes on everything from business ideas, to what I need to get done today, to my grocery list, to tips for what are the things I want to remember to mention on this podcast. So, I would say one of my favorite tools is a pretty simple one – iPhone notes. All the time. Goes with me all the time. I can erase it, modify it, but it’s always there.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
These days it’s tennis. I don’t know what your favorite COVID habit is but I have become much more regular as a tennis player, and I’m loving it.

Pete Mockaitis
And it sounds like you may have already shared a couple of these, but is there a particular nugget that you articulate that gets quoted back to you frequently and people are loving?

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I have a quote I often give people that does get played back to me all the time. It’s called, “You manage me or I manage you. Which would you prefer?” And when people are like, “What do you mean by that?” I often say in leadership talks, “Okay, like literally, if you’re a leader, you have a choice, you can say to your people, ‘You manage me or I manage you. What would you prefer?’”

And most people presume that the right answer is, “Well, gee, like I would prefer to manage others.” And I say to folks all the time, I’m like, “Really? I prefer for somebody to manage me.” They’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “No, no, I really prefer that they manage me. Like, I’m a CEO, so if you walk into my office and expect to be managed, and I’m an opinionated person, there’s a pretty good chance I’m just going to spit out whatever is in my head and tell you to do it. That doesn’t mean it’s the right answer. It’s also not a super empowering place to be.” So, if you presume that my job is to manage you, that’s not a particularly fun place to be.

Now, let’s reverse it. Now, if I say, like, “Gosh, your job is to manage me. That means you’re likely to walk into a meeting with me with an agenda of your own. You take control of the conversation. You probably have a problem and a solution you’d like to propose. You’ve thought it out. You lay it out.” Now, guess what that means for me as your leader and manager? It means that I get to have a really highly leveraged interaction with you where you’ve clearly thought it through. You get to lay out your vision. I get to respond to it and add to it my vision and my insights. And then you leave out my office in 10 minutes versus an hour. You’re feeling super empowered. And guess what? I’m feeling pretty leveraged and we both go on to have a better day.

So, I always say to people, like, reverse your thinking on management. If you think the purpose of management is for you to manage down to others, imagine what life looks like when you ask people to manage up to you, what it looks like for them and what it looks like for you. That, to me, feels like real leverage for both parties.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a beautiful perspective. And one of my mentors, Victor Cheng, in episode 500, he said that that’s how he would approach his conversations with new direct reports. So, he’s the boss, he’d say, “I work for you and here’s how it works. You tell me what you need, what resources, what decisions I need to provide to you so that you can do your best work. And then that’s what I want to with them, and get out of your way, and we’re going to have great things happen.”

It’s sort of a reframe but it is lovely. I could tell you, with employees, it is refreshing and wonderful for all of us when they say, “Hey, Pete, here’s what I need from you.” I was like, “Okay, cool. Well, hey, you’ve got it. Is that it? That was quick.”

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Isn’t nice? It’s awesome, right? It’s quick and efficient. Now, make no mistake, your friend sounds pretty graceful and patient. My problem is I’m actually impatient and fairly opinionated. So, I always say to people, “The problem is if you walk in with a blank sheet, you’re far more likely to walk out with my sheet, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It may or may not be but the problem is I always have something to say, so I would much rather you come in with what you have to say because that is a fun place for me to be as well.”

And sometimes personalities like mine, you definitely don’t want to be walking out just presuming that because I have an opinion, it’s always the right one. What I’d really love to do is get into an interaction with someone, which is quick, efficient, highly leveraged, and fun because we’re both learning something from it.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, you can always find me on LinkedIn, just at Sukhinder Singh Cassidy. You can find me on Twitter but, honestly, I hang out more on LinkedIn because it’s a fun place to have career conversations with folks. And, certainly, you can, if you are so inspired, you can always preorder the book Choose Possibility on the website, and it comes out August 17th.

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

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
I would say my call to action is take the risk quiz but, more importantly, understand that it doesn’t matter what your natural style is. Every single one of us can be what I call a chooser. And so, my call to action is be a chooser versus kicking the can down the road. Make the little choices today that unlock incremental possibility.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Sukhinder, thank you for this. This is a real treat. And I wish you lots of luck in all your possibilities.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy
Well, thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

684: Achieving More by Tapping into the Science of Less with Leidy Klotz

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Leidy Klotz reveals how to access the untapped potential of subtraction to make work and life more efficient.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What Legos can teach us about smarter problem-solving
  2. The trick to overcoming your brain’s bias for addition
  3. How subtracting leaves us with more

About Leidy

Leidy Klotz is a Professor at the University of Virginia, where he directs the university’s Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative and is appointed in the Schools of Engineering, Architecture, and Business. His research on the science of problem-solving has appeared in both Nature and Science and has been covered in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post among national newspapers on five continents. 

Resources Mentioned

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  • Blinkist. Read or listen to summarized wisdom from thousands of nonfiction books! Free trial available at blinkist.com/awesome 

Leidy Klotz Interview Transcript

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

Leidy Klotz
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom you’ve put forth in your book Subtract. So, why don’t we kick it off by you telling us the story of your epiphany that occurred with Legos?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, the epiphany courtesy of my three-year old at the time, so I was playing Legos with my son and the problem that we had was that we were building a Lego bridge and it wasn’t level. And so, one of the columns was shorter than the other column. I turned around behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter column. By the time I had turned back around, my son had removed a block from the longer column. And that right there in front of me was this kind of thought process that I became interested in. And we’ve since done tens thousands of hours’ worth of research, studying and trying to figure out what was going on there.

But what was really helpful for me with that moment with the Legos, with my son, was that I’d always been interested in less, kind of this end state of things that are better because there’s less to them. But what he helped me see in that moment was this act of getting there, subtracting, and he also helped me see it in a very tangible way, in a way that I could actually go around and even show other people and describe my thoughts to other people. So, that proved really helpful as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Yes, three-year olds, I’ve got one as well and they teach you much. So, that’s wild how that sparks such a long journey, and it’s cool that we don’t stop there with a nice little metaphor. You got a boatload of research now to back it up. So, can you tell us then, while that’s kind of an interesting way to think a little bit differently, what’s sort at stake or the benefits associated with pursuing subtracting as opposed to adding?

Leidy Klotz
Fundamentally, what’s at stake here is that it’s a basic option that we have to make things better. Whether we’re creating a Lego structure, or whether we’re trying to improve our daily task list, whether we’re trying to improve the thoughts that are in our head, we can add things to them and we can also take things away.

And what I did in that moment was I didn’t even think about taking away as an option, and I would’ve added and moved on, never even considering if I wanted to subtract in that moment if not for being shown the other way by my son. And so, that’s the problem. The problem is that we’re not considering the options. The problem is not that less is always better. In fact, I quite like adding, but I think that anytime that we’re systematically overlooking a basic way to change things, that’s a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. Doubling our options sounds handy for sure. Could you share with us maybe some cool case studies in terms of professionals who’d done some subtracting and seen some really cool results and benefits?

Leidy Klotz
So, the downside is that we systematically underuse it. The upside is we don’t have to, and because everybody else is systematically underusing, there’s kind of additional power in taking things away. This is an untapped opportunity. And so, I think you see it everywhere really. So, one example is the craft of good presentations. I know you’ve had some people talking about that on your podcast before.

But, like, one of the elements of a good presentation is that all the kind of unnecessary stuff is stripped away. Edward Tufte, who’s this guru of information design, talks about maximizing the information to ink ratio, which basically means stripping away any ink that is not adding to your message. And so, that’s something in PowerPoint presentations, or posters, or any kind of visual displays, but obviously you can see the same thing in editing, so editing writing, also editing podcasts. I’m sure you’re going to take out some of the stuff that I say here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, not much. Not much.

Leidy Klotz
So, that is a very powerful subtraction that improves the overall product by taking away. So, that’s subtracting in kind of the information way. I think, on a personal level, and I’m certainly not the first person who has thought of this, but thinking about what you can stop doing, especially at work because at work we’re so inclined to show competence, and this is one of the reasons that we tend to add, I think, is because adding shows competence. But reminding ourselves, “Hey, one of the ways to make your work life better is to stop doing marginally useful tasks so that you have more time for the really useful ones.”

So, forcing myself, when I’m doing my to-do list, also thinking about, “Okay, what’s on my stop-doing list for the week?” And it’s critical that it can’t just be things that you’re going to say no to. It has to be things that you’re already doing, and now you’re going to stop doing them. That’s an actual subtraction from your calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s like saving money, like if you buy something that’s 30% off, you haven’t really saved money. But if you remove something, like, “You know what, I don’t even use that thing. Cancel that subscription.” Okay, now you’re saving some real money. So, that’s cool. And I’m curious, now             you’ve got a boatload of science and research behind it. Could you share with us what are some interesting insights, experiments, and results there that have taught you something about how we humans tend to operate and how we might operate better?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. So, building from the bridge with my son, we did have one Lego-inspired study here, and basically you could solve this Lego study. There was a platform that was protecting a mini figure, and the task was to try to stabilize the platform so that you could balance a brick on top of the platform without crushing the mini figure. And, basically, you could solve this by removing one block and kind of letting the platform set down, or you could solve it by adding eight blocks and stabilizing it that way.

So, in this case, with the bridge it was like either/or. Either way could be a viable solution. In this case, it was obvious that taking away was better. We even incentivized people, and said, “Hey, every block you add, you have to pay for, but if you don’t add blocks, you can keep more of the money that we gave you up front.” And people still, overwhelmingly, kind of defaulted to this way of adding.

And so, what’s interesting about that is it shows not just that we tend to add but also that it’s a problem, like we tend to add even when subtracting would serve us well. And, of course, when people noticed or were told that, “Hey, this is a subtractive option,” they said, “Oh, geez, I wish I did that.” So, that was evidence that people were systematically overlooking it.

And we did this in a lot of different contexts. For me, the most convincing study paradigm was these grids that we created that you could just play on a computer screen. Because the argument could always be, “Well, that’s just what people do with Legos. This doesn’t mean we’re systematically doing it. It just means we add when we’re playing with Legos.”

But the grids on a computer screen are an entirely new task for people, and the way we set that up was there was a matrix, and it was basically divided into four quadrants. And the task people had was to make the quadrants symmetrical from left to right and from top to bottom. And we put extraneous marks in one of the quadrants. So, the way to solve it was to either to remove those extraneous marks from one quadrant or add the mirror marks in three other quadrants.

So, again, as with the Lego protecting the mini figure, subtracting was the better option, and people systematically overlooked it. And with these grids, there was no kind of preconceived contexts or preconceived ideas that people could bring to the task, so it was pretty good evidence that this is something we’re systematically doing.

Pete Mockaitis
in some ways, it’s funny. With like leveling a bridge, I guess I think about like leveling a table. It’s a lot easier to put a little shim under there than it is, like, “Oh, let me whip out the saw and just kind of shorten one of these legs.”

So, in many contexts, adding is easier. Adding, you mentioned, can reveal competence, like, “Oh, wow, you must know a lot of things because look at all those slides you made there.” And so, there’s a little bit of a nudge or bias there. Any other big explainers as to why do we humans do this?

Leidy Klotz
There are a lot of reasons. The first four chapters of the book is that there’s biological, cultural, and economic forces that have us doing it. And I think one useful distinction here is that there’s this basic oversight where we don’t even think of the option, and then there’s all kinds of reasons once we do think of the option, why we wouldn’t even pursue it.

So, your example of, and I certainly agree with, like cutting a leg off a table, that’s harder. But the assumption there is that, “Okay, we considered it. We thought of that option and we chose against it because it was harder.” That’s logical. That’s not a problem. Basically, what’s going on in the cognitive process, the reason we overlook it is because we add and then move on, we basically say, “This satisfies.” So, we say, “This is a good enough solution and I’m moving on without considering other options.”

And then, from there, there’s evolutionary reasons why that might be happening. You mentioned competence. We think of competence as a very work-related thing and it’s maybe a modern thing. I was surprised, doing the research, just how deeply rooted this desire to show competence is. This is why bowerbirds build their ceremonial nests to attract a mate.

So, if you’re not familiar, these birds build these really great nests. The males build the nests, the females go around and look at the nests, and then they decide which males to mate with based on which nest they like the best. And then the females go and make their own nests to shelter the kids. So, these nests serve no other function than to say, “Hey, the bowerbird who built this nest is effective at interacting with their world.”

And so, we all have this biological desire to show competence. So, when I have 800-file folders saved for this research that we did, none of which that are ever going to see the light of day, part of that is this kind of innate desire to show competence through adding things. And so, that’s a strong why. I think there’s cultural reasons, of course. Then cultural and economic reasons that kind of come together.

If your country is being measured on Gross Domestic Product, anything that you add to the economy is going to be seen as a positive even if it’s a jail or something that’s bad. And then if your company is working on kind of quarterly earning reports, that can incentivize adding stuff to show that you’re doing more and to show that there’s increasing streams of revenue coming in.

So, I think there’s economic incentives, cultural incentives, and biological incentives, and they’re all kind of reinforcing each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I guess I’m also thinking about that corporate example reminded me of it seems like sometimes if you’ve got a really great thing going in terms of like a product and process, and it’s like you could just keep doing that all day, it’s sort of like, “Well, hey, the team is getting bored.” It’s like, “We’re getting bored doing this thing that’s working perfectly over and over and over again, and making lots of profits. So, how about we do a new thing?” I think that can happen too.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. And I think that’s what I like about subtracting. I’m that kind of person. I want to do and I don’t want to kind keep doing the same thing over and over. And subtracting is an action, so it’s like, this is different than just kind of sitting back, kind of minimalism, or even laziness, or just getting stuck in a rut. It’s like, “Hey, we want to change. We want to improve this thing. We want to try something new. Why is it that we only think about things we could add?”

Because the other way to break out of rut, if you’re that organization that’s been doing the same thing over and over and over again, it’s like, “Hey, let’s cut out half of what we’ve been doing and really focus on the other half,” and that would be a change. Again, I’m agnostic on whether you should add or subtract, but to not consider the option is the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You mentioned the research reveals some stuff about how we can get our brains to swim against the current, go against the grain, and do more subtracting. Tell us, how do we go about making that happen?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, and one of the things we’re trying to show with the research, we’re trying to find with the research is whether people weren’t even thinking of this. And so, we would try things to get them to think of it, make them more likely to think of it, and one of the things we tried was cues. So, with the grids, for example, we gave people a cue that you could add or subtract to solve the grid pattern, and that increased the rates of subtracting, which would be like, “Okay, big deal, you gave them a reminder and they were reminded.” But it didn’t increase the rates of adding.

So, what that showed was that the reminder was bringing new subtractions to mind but for adding it was redundant with what people were already thinking. So, it was really useful for our research but also really useful as a how-to. And so, I think one thing is you have a reminder that you can add or subtract, or add and subtract, to solve things, but it’s really important, we didn’t find any evidence that that reminder would kind of carry over from one study to the next, so you have to put those reminders close to where you’re making the decision. That’s why when I’m doing the stop-doing list, I’m forcing a reminder that subtracting is a way to improve my calendar.

One of the things on your sheet, you talked about your listeners, and you talked about them being interested in thinking, and you put a reminder on there about thinking involves generating and selecting ideas, which is beautiful because it’s like that’s a reminder that adding and subtracting can be used here in our thinking process and actually mimics something that I talk about in the book, which is that evolution generates and selects to make progress. So, having those reminders at the point of when you’re making the decisions or when you’re trying to make the improvements is really important and supported by the research.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. so we’ve got some reminders up front. Maybe, could you share with us some of the coolest examples of subtraction in terms of someone did some subtracting and then they saw great results? So, you mentioned you’ve got your stop-doing list. What are some things that you’ve chosen to stop doing and the cool fruit that’s come from that?

Leidy Klotz
Email.

Pete Mockaitis
Nice. Stop doing email.

Leidy Klotz
I haven’t stopped completely but I think just forcing myself to be disciplined with doing it one time a day, and so I positioned that stop-doing as like stop these intermittent email checks. And what’s interesting about that, of course it has this amazing effect where I’m not distracted throughout the day, but it also led to decrease the stream of my email. Because part of the problem with me getting so many emails was me sending so many emails. So, every time I spam my graduate students with, “Hey, did you see this article?” then I’m distracting them, they’re feeling a need to respond, and then I have like distracted people working with me, plus I have six new email responses in my inbox the next time I go to check.

So, that email discipline, that stop-doing, has actually led to cascading subtractions. Another personal one that’s really helpful is kind of just unplugging when I exercise. And, again, like gathering knowledge is just so precious. I listen to podcasts, I read voraciously on Wikipedia, but I had been kind of using my exercise time as like, “Okay, can I catch up on the news while I’m running on the treadmill, while I’m listening to a podcast?” and it wasn’t giving me any time for my brain to kind of like synthesize things and think about what’s really important to select. So, those two are kind of personal ones that are work-related.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And even if they’re not work-related, I’d love to hear what are some cool subtractions you’ve seen in action?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, one of my favorites is the balance bike. So, you said you had a three-year old.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Leidy Klotz
Do you have a balance bike?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t.

Leidy Klotz
You don’t. Oh, man, so this is the value that I’m providing right now to you, Pete. They’re these miniature bikes that don’t have pedals and they allow the kids to ride them like a Flintstones car basically. So, the kid balances on the bike and then just pushes, propels it with their feet. And what’s amazing is that the kids learn how to balance within like 30 minutes to an hour of walking around on this. So, very quickly, they can reach really high speeds as like a two-year old on this bike.

And what’s amazing about is that, well, the power of it, I think, is it gives kids like two extra years of bike riding, which I think is a very delightful thing. I’m disappointed that we didn’t have them when I was growing up. And also, the innovation there is removing the pedals. People have been thinking about better bike design for a hundred years at least, and there’s been a lot of profit to be made, and people added training wheels. We added connections from the kids’ bike to the grownup bike. We made fatter tires, fatter tubes. And it took all this time for somebody to think, “Hey, what if we subtract the pedals? What will happen there?”

So, I think that’s a beautiful example in the physical world. And then an example I used in the book is Bruce Springsteen. He’s a prolific artist, obviously, but one of his albums is Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it’s one of his most critically acclaimed albums. And what’s really unique and noticeable about that album is that he really stripped things down. And so, one, he stripped on the number of songs on the album. He recorded like 50 songs during that time period and only a few of them, a dozen or ten, made it onto the album. And he stripped away some really good songs that became hits for other artists.

But then the music itself is very stripped down. So, the wording is sparse and the music is compact and powerful. And what’s cool about that is that he subtracted but, also, he kind of showed competence by subtracting because it’s not that we can’t show competence by subtracting. It’s just that you need to probably do more of it for your subtracting to stand out. And so, everybody, when they heard this album, and if you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, if you’re listening to his albums, you’re like, “Well, this is different.” Even if you don’t know why it’s different, you’re like, “This is different. Something happened here.”

And so, in the subtraction that he persisted with there led to this kind of innovative change in how music was made. So, whereas, the balance bike was a physical example, the subtraction in his music is a very kind of ideas/words and music example.

Pete Mockaitis
And I had also heard that married couples that don’t have a TV in their bedroom have more sex. So, I don’t know if we’re going to go here today. And so, I think that’s an interesting example and it sort of makes sense, like, “Hey, well, our focus is on each other as opposed to that large eye-grabbing device on the wall.”

Leidy Klotz
That’s such a beautiful example. And it’s really annoying to be doing these podcasts after writing the book and thinking like, “Oh, I wish I could’ve used the TV-sex example,” would’ve been way better than the example I used in the book to illustrate this principle, which I’m about to say, which is so often when we’re trying to improve a situation, like we think about what incentives we can add. So, it’s like, “Okay, the goal is like let’s have more sex. And so, can we put in mood lights?

Leidy Klotz
You get the idea. There’s a lot of things, a lot of incentives we could add for having sex. And then we often overlook the barriers to the behavior we’re trying to produce. And so, in this case, the barrier is that TV, what’s interesting with this and the argument that people make, and like Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology, said, “There’s two ways to change a situation. One is to add incentives and the other is to remove barriers.” And he said, “Removing barriers is actually the good way because it relieves tension.”

So, imagine if you add the incentive, well, you still got the TV there. So, it’s very clear that the incentive might work but if it doesn’t work, there’s still this kind of you’ve got the incentive plus you’ve got the TV, and you haven’t actually relieved the fundamental tension in the system. Whereas, if you stripped away the TV, you’ve actually relieved tension in the system. The example I used in the book is an iPad with a kid. So, it’s so close to the example but it’s so much better than the example I used.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, if you go with the iPad and the kids, so if you…

Leidy Klotz
So, the behavior in that case is I’m trying to get my kid to spend time not looking at the iPad when he comes home from school. And so, one thing you can do is say, “Hey, if you don’t use the iPad, you can have a cookie,” that’s the incentive version. And, in this case, if he doesn’t, so it may work. He may eat the cookie and be happy and never think about it, or he may want to watch the iPad still, which increases his frustration because now he’s not getting a cookie because he’s watching the iPad. So, you’ve increased the tension in the system. Whereas, kind of the equivalent of removing the TV is just removing the iPad from the kid’s view and hopefully he doesn’t think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that notion of removing the view, I think, is huge because while it’s true, it’s so funny because I just want to take a photo of the adorable thing my child is doing. And then when I get out my phone, it’s like, “Ooh, can we play the pre-school games?” It’s like, “I just want to take a picture. This is going to be like three seconds.” And so then, we now have a bit of a, “Well, hey, no. We did that earlier,” you’ve got that whole thing.

And so, could you expand upon that in terms of some things that maybe we just want out of view and how we get them out of view? I imagine there’s like social media, news, distractions, and there’s some apps you can use to block those or shut them off. What are some maybe creative ways you’ve seen this put into practice?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, to get them out of view. That’s, essentially, what the email was doing, the not checking the emails, but also the email reminders. I’ve got my good friend Ben who worked with me on the research. He’s like, “I got to figure out how to turn off my email reminders.” And this is like four years into the research together, which is like this is kind of forced, automated adding that’s distracting you throughout the day, so things like that come to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
I heard that there’s a study that they challenged folks to turn off all of their phone notifications for like a week or something, and then they followed up with them like a year later, half of people continued to live that way, like, “Now it’s so much better. Thank you.” And so, it’s striking how that is good. I have seen they’ve actually made…my buddy Jackson, shoutout Jackson, has, I think, it’s called a lite phone and it doesn’t have much. You can make phone calls, you can do texting, maybe a little bit more. It has like a Kindle-style screen, and that’s on purpose. So, you can’t get a bunch of apps and all the distractions that they incur because it’s just not available, or that temptation.

I guess now I’m thinking about like tempting circumstances, like alcoholics, or overeaters, or anyone, or gambling. There’s many number of ways you can just make sure you’re not in the presence of those things, which lead you down there. But I’d love to hear, I guess I’m just so intrigued by this because if people have that hardwiring, like, “More is better and I want more,” what are some maybe surprises you’ve seen in terms of it turns out that subtracting this thing was actually awesome?

Leidy Klotz
We talked a lot about the disadvantages that subtracting faces, like the systematic, “Oh, it doesn’t show competence,” and we don’t think of it. One of the systematic advantages is that when you subtract something, you’re left with the new situation plus whatever you took away. So, like the donut holes is the example I used in the book here just to illustrate it. It’s like it took forever for somebody to realize you could cut the middle of the round wall of dough and make it cook more evenly, and you could spread more stuff onto it. And then it took even longer for somebody to realize, “Hey, this thing that we just took out is actually like another source of revenue.”

And so, this applies in a lot of ways. If you think about divestment is another thing I talk about in the book, which is like, “How do you, not investing in things that are kind of counter to your values?” So, this was really powerful in helping bring down apartheid in South Africa, for example. It’s like, “Okay, let’s stop investing in the companies that are operating in South Africa, propping up this system that nobody thinks is good.”

And when you divest, you take the money out and you’ve still got the money. You can do something with it. You can go put it somewhere else. It’s the same, going back to your example of the people in the business who are like, “Okay, we’re working along really well, and we like what we’re doing. What can we do differently? What can we add?” If you add, you’ve got this existing situation plus all the stuff you’ve added, the activities you’ve added, so you’re still at capacity or beyond capacity. If you take something away, then you’ve got the new improved situation, which is like you’re streamlined-focus plus you’ve got this effort that is now unaccounted for and you can devote to something else.

So, I think it makes sense when it’s explained to you but it’s also a little counterintuitive when we think about subtracting. We often overlook the fact that you can reuse the thing that you took away. Whereas, if you add, you’ve got nothing left over.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, whether it’s money or time or attention or energy, you got it.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, time is a big one.

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

Leidy Klotz
No, I think the key thing is across ideas, objects with the Lego bridge, and then our day-to-day situations. So, the ideas one, that’s for people who like to listen to podcasts and for people who like to think about how they’re going to be better at their job. We spend a lot of time kind of accumulating information and we often overlook, like, “Okay, how do I streamline my mental models? What am I kind of grounding my ideas in that I may not believe anymore that has been shown isn’t actually the way that I think it is?” And so, spending the time streamlining our mental models is a really powerful use of subtraction and very overlooked.

Pete Mockaitis
Streamlining our mental models, so that’s like specifically identifying the, “I don’t believe, think, accept, agree with this thing anymore.”

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. And prioritizing, so it’s like, “Yeah, this thing is true. I listened to it but It doesn’t warrant the same attention as these kinds of four core things that are in my mental models.” The intentional version of synaptic pruning, which is our brain has evolved to do naturally which is like the connections that get used, get reinforced and strengthened, and when we sleep, it kind of prunes away the connections that aren’t being used to leave more room for the connections that are being used. So, our brain does that on its own for all the parts of the brain, but it also is something that we can do, and say, “Hey, this is not something that warrants the same amount of attention as some other ideas that are really, really critical.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Leidy, could you share with us a mental model or two that you have pruned away as the years have gone by?

Leidy Klotz
This is a slightly embarrassing one to share but I think if people are honest with themselves, I think a lot of us felt the same way. So, if you think about the systemic racism, I remember last summer the first time systemic racism came up in a department meeting, everybody, myself included, some people were verbally like, “Whoa, we’re not racists.” And I was probably thinking that but not articulating it, smart enough to not articulate it, but I think that’s certainly a mental model that shifted this notion that I knew the playing field wasn’t level before. I knew that always but just kind of the degree to which it was not level, and the fact that there can be systemic racism with me not being racist.

It required learning a little bit of new stuff but it also required subtracting some of my deeply held beliefs about how the United States operates for people. And so, I think that’s one very important one that has shifted for me recently.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote?

Leidy Klotz
Perfect, and we didn’t cover it yet, and it relates to subtraction. So, Lao Tzu has this great quote that’s attributed to him, that’s, “To gain knowledge, add things every day. To gain wisdom, subtract things every day.” I love the quote because it’s a great reminder that we talked about being important, but it’s also evidence of the fact that we’ve been overlooking subtraction for a long time because this is a two and a half millennia-old quote, and it still rings true and counterintuitive today.

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

Leidy Klotz
One that I really like that I find myself talking about a lot is actually Ashley Whillans, who’s at Harvard, and Liz Dunn, who’s at the University of British Columbia, they do a lot of work on time and happiness, and they’ve got this great study that shows that people who spend money to save time are happy.

And they show it, one reaction to that study is like, “Well, yeah, that’s because they have money to spend on like housekeepers.” But they show it on a population of millionaires but they also show it in people who are working on like minimum wage. And they do that by kind of giving them money and setting up a controlled experiment where certain people spend the money in one way, and certain people spend money the other way.

So, it’s a really cool study. It’s really powerful. And it ties into subtraction here because what you’re essentially doing when you spend money to save time is you’re like not only are you not doing something, which we see is hard for competence, it’s hard when you say, “Okay, I’m not going to do this task anymore,” but you’re actually paying for it now. You’re not going to do it plus you’re going to pay somebody else to do it. So, it’s a hard thing to do but the research shows that people who do do it are happier, so it’s really a great research and also very practical.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, Leidy, that reminds me of back in the day when I had roommates who did not work from home, and I was doing a lot of coaching, I found my laundry was kind of piling during busy season, and I was like, “Well, I mean, this is good money per hour from the coaching. Am I just supposed to stop and do laundry? But am I going to wear dirty clothes? What are my options here?”

And so, even though I was working from home, and there were like eight laundry machines on the first floor of this apartment building, I paid someone to come in and do my laundry. You can have a laundry service, Leidy, but then they don’t put in your drawers and closets. And so, I felt a little silly and decadent but I kept looking at the spreadsheet, I was like, “I will make more money and have clean laundry by paying someone else to come do this for me but I don’t want to feel, like, I’m so rich, I’m too good to do my laundry.” I had this mental block but I did it and I loved it and my roommates made fun of me but I didn’t care.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, that’s a great example. That’s the exact feeling that I have when I do it, it’s like, “Who am I to be this guy who hires a whatever?” but, yeah, it’s exactly that. Number one, the money that you’re making, and then when you’ve got kids, it’s the free time that you’re losing. This is like an hour of my kids’ life when he actually thinks I’m cool. I don’t want to lose that. So, yeah, you’ve given us a really good way to overcome that, and Whillans and Dunn talk about this, it’s like, “Think about the value of your time.” And then, also, another reason that’s kind of hard to do because, yeah, you feel snooty.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Leidy Klotz
I’m biased towards the ones I read recently, but Alison Gopnik has this great book called The Gardener and the Carpenter. It’s about parenting and the cognitive psychology of parenting. But she’s a psychologist plus a philosopher which I think is the perfect combination for parenting, and it’s just an amazing parenting book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. Well, I was just reading No-Drama Discipline by the authors of the The Whole-Brain Child, and now I’ve got this one. Thank you.

Leidy Klotz
Yes, I like The Whole-Brain Child too. And if I can plug one other author, Eduardo Galeano. I love his stuff. He’s an Uruguayan guy who writes kind of this amazing blend of history/his opinions/fiction, and it’s like unlike anything you read before, and it’s really amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Leidy Klotz
Favorite tool. This is an embarrassing one – Wikipedia. I use it a lot. It’s just so amazing. We talk about this information to wisdom thing, and the amount of work that people have done to make Wikipedia. It’s not my last stop in doing research, but it’s often my first stop because things are organized around subjects instead of in isolated journal articles. So, it’s an amazing tool for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love Wikipedia for when I’ve been out of the game for news for a while, and there’s an article about the latest development in a thing, I was like, “Well, what was this thing?” And then you go to Wikipedia, and you read a four-minute piece, and it has like 180 references, you’re like, “Oh, I’m glad I didn’t read 180 news articles. I’ve read this synopsis. Thank you.”

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that but that’s a great kind of way to subtract information and still get the same benefit. It’s like just wait a couple weeks if it’s important and it’ll be on Wikipedia. And not only that, but it’ll be summarized so you don’t have to go get the 180 different viewpoints. You can get it all in one spot and distill it for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. And a favorite habit?

Leidy Klotz
Exercising is really important to me, and unplugging when exercising, we already talked about. So, yeah, just physical exercise to kind of strengthen my mental performance. Also, just because it’s enjoyable but the more I progress in my career, the more I realize how instrumental it is in my mental performance too.

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?

Leidy Klotz
“Less is not a loss,” is kind of a counterintuitive thing from the book. So, yeah, it is what it sounds like but oftentimes we don’t subtract because we perceive the end state as being a loss. And what we’ve talked about in all of these cases are subtractions that actually lead to something better, but it’s still really easy to kind of conflate the two. And so, this reminder that less is not always a loss seems to be really helpful for people.

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

Leidy Klotz
Twitter is great. I’m @Leidyklotz. And I like interacting with people especially people who have read the book. It’s really fun to hear their thoughts. One of the cool things about the book, in my mind, is that it brings up kind of people’s experiences from all walks of life, so it’s incredibly rewarding for me to hear, like I told the Bruce Springsteen story earlier.

I talked to this guy in Germany who’s writing an article about the research for Germany’s version of MIT Technology Review but he also talked to me about these Johnny Cash American recordings. He’s like, “It’s just like what you’re describing with Bruce Springsteen.” So, now I have like six CDs, well, six downloads on Amazon to listen to from Johnny Cash that were sparked by my book. And then he shared with me and it’s made my life better. Very selfish authorship here. It’s like, “What benefit can readers give me from reading?”

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

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, add and subtract. So, don’t overlook this basic option to make things better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Leidy, this has been fun. I wish you much enjoyment in all of your subtracting.

Leidy Klotz
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

679: How to Become an Everyday Innovator and Unleash Your Creativity with Josh Linkner

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Josh Linkner breaks down the habits of great innovators and how you can become a great innovator in your own right.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you can develop your creativity–no matter your role 
  2. The habits and mindsets of the greatest innovators
  3. How to spark new ideas when you’re in a rut 

About Josh

Josh Linkner is a Creative Troublemaker. 

He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million. He’s the author of four books including the New York Times Bestsellers, Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention.  As the founding partner and former CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, he has been involved in the launch of over 100 startups. 

Today, Josh serves as Chairman and co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation research, training, and consulting firm. He has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is a recipient of the United States Presidential Champion of Change Award. 

Josh is also a passionate Detroiter, the father of four, a professional-level jazz guitarist, and has a slightly odd obsession for greasy pizza. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Care.comFind the perfect caregiver for your child, parents, and home.
  • RISE. Improve your sleep and energy with the RISE app at risescience.com/awesome 

Josh Linkner Interview Transcript

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

Josh Linkner
Truly appreciate it. Excited for our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. Now you’ve had a lot of cool innovative moments across your career. I’d love it if you could share with us one of your favorite eureka aha moments that have happened to you.

Josh Linkner
Well, one aha moment is that I realized that human creativity is not born as much as it’s developed, and the research bears this out. In fact, Harvard came out with a study that shows that human creativity is as much as 80% learned behavior. And many of us think that you’re either creative or you’re not, you’re born that way or you have to suffer. And the truth is that it’s more like, I would say it’s more like your weight than your height. Try as I may, I’m not going to be a foot taller by next month but my weight I can control. And creativity is very much the same. That was the big moment for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And so, I want to talk a lot about exactly how one learns to become more creative. But, first, if we could make the case for creativity, innovation, particularly for listeners who are like, “Hey, you know, I’m in the middle of the organization, and my job isn’t creative per se in terms of I’m not doing design or new product stuff. I’m a program manager, maybe.” And so, can we make the case for those professionals? What do they have to gain, personally and professionally, by sharpening their creative skills?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, awesome question. The truth is that the way that we get ahead in organizations has really changed in the last few years. In the past, maybe it was your knowledge of hard skills or whatever, but nowadays, those would become outsourced, commoditized, and automated. And what allows us to really soar in our professions, to be awesome at our job, if you will, is to bring inventive thinking and creative problem-solving to the game. When you really unpack, “Why does somebody get promoted? Why does somebody achieve more in their career?”

Most often these days, it’s tied to their ability to use, get inventive thinking and solve problems in fresh ways. So, I think it’s really become mission critical, in fact, and especially as automation and robotics and artificial intelligence, that’s the one thing that’s uniquely human about us all.

The other thing I’ll just quickly say is that, too often, unfortunately, we attribute job title with creative needs. Like, for example, people in marketing should be creative and people in accounting should not. But the truth is that there’s room for creativity in every single aspect in an organization, every single box in an org chart. We can be creative in our own ways whether you’re selling or running a customer service team or, yeah, doing finance. So, I think it really applies to us all, and I think that’s the one thing that we can truly harness to get ahead in our careers.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Thank you. Okay, I’m sold. So, then let’s hear it, with your book Big Little Breakthroughs, what’s the big idea here? And, particularly, what are micro-innovations and why do they matter?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, so the book Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results so the big little idea is that it sort of flips innovation upside down. And, too often, we think of innovation, it’s got to be a billion-dollar idea, it’s got to change the world, and it feels risky and out of reach, and just inaccessible for most normal people.

And this really flips it upside down in that it’s cultivating small daily acts of creativity as opposed to these wild swing-for-the-fences things. It’s taking the small bites of creativity, which are way less risky, way more within the grasp of us all, they build critical skills, and they add up to big things. So, that’s the premise of the book.

I like to think about it as innovation for the rest of us. It’s kind of helping everyday people become everyday innovators. And a micro-innovation is just what you might think of. If a big innovation is inventing penicillin or the assembly line or something, that’s awesome. Nothing wrong with that. But, again, most of us won’t do that. Those happen once every generation.

On the other hand, all of us can generate micro-innovations on a regular basis everything in our personal lives. An example would be you can chill a glass of white wine by using a frozen grape in that way you don’t dilute the wine with an ice cube. So, that’s a micro-innovation. It doesn’t change the world but it’s helpful.

In a professional sense, a micro-innovation might be something as simple as how you greet a customer, or how you prospect for a new client, or how you interact with the boss, or how you conduct a job interview. And so, these are things that don’t change the world in and of themselves but they add up to big things and they do create meaningful outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m not one to get too nitpicky over definitions here, but it’s interesting with that white grape example in white wine. It’s interesting. Well, now I’m going to try it. And, in a way, that’s an innovation in that I wasn’t doing it before but I didn’t invent that. I just heard it from you and thought it was pretty cool, and I’m going to try it, and it might just enhance my life that little bit. But it feels like innovation is happening in my world as a result of trying it. Can you noodle on that with me?

Josh Linkner
Sure. Well, first of all, you don’t have to invent something to take advantage of it. I love borrowing and sharing ideas that’s awesome. How great is that? Every time I get to learn a new way to do something that’s better, that’s an aha moment that can be savored. But when we’re taking advantage and noticing them around us, it actually encourages us to come up with them ourselves.

And so, it’s funny, the best way to get creative is just the same way that I learned to play a guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for 40 plus years. I put myself through college as a working musician. I still play today. The way you don’t play a guitar is one day you wake up and say, “Eureka! I’ve got a lightning bolt from the heavens and, all of a sudden, I’m a master musician.” Of course not. The way you play a guitar is you practice day in and day out. And the more you practice the better you get.

Same thing is true with creativity. So, when we think about we want to create our Mona Lisa’s in our lives, or things that we want to be remembered by, you don’t start there. I mean, Da Vinci’s first painting wasn’t the Mona Lisa. First, Da Vinci had to learn to paint, and he had to paint bad stuff, and he painted every day. And, over time, his Mona Lisa was revealed. So, for us, even cultivating small ideas like putting frozen grapes in wine is a wonderful step along the process of unlocking your full creative potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what’s so funny is that that can just sort of take you down a path in terms, “Oh, I can do the same thing for Gatorade. I have a frozen chunk…” or just insert beverage. Or, then you can extract is a little farther in terms of, “Oh, if I put a modified version of the like something on a something, it can be enhanced in some way.” I don’t know. Like, “I could extend my Post-it note by taking the same color sheet, I don’t know, and put it to the top of where the adhesive is,” whatever. I think there are some bad ideas along the way to good ideas, right?

Josh Linkner
Well, really, to go with that, I really like because you’re doing pattern recognition. You’re saying, “If this applies here, can I apply it there?” And that’s actually a wonderful technique to come up with creative ideas. We don’t need to be imbued by the gods with some original thought every 10 seconds. We can borrow from all these things around us. A lot of times innovation comes from borrowing from one part of life and applying it to another. So, that’s not a cheat. That’s actually a really productive approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, I dig it. Well, so then you talk about a number of particular simple habits that some creative folks like, Lady Gaga, Banksy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, have adopted that helped paved the way for their creative success. What are some of these habits?

Josh Linkner
Well, so you focused on helping people become awesome at their jobs, and if you want to be awesome at anything, I feel like you got to examine the mindsets, the habits, and the tactics of people who are awesome at something, and then you can replicate and follow their lead. So, that’s what I tried to do in the book.

I covered the eight core mindsets of everyday innovators, I covered a lot of tactics, which I’m happy to talk about with you, but I did, also, really examined, “What are the habits? What are the daily habits of people like Lady Gaga all the way down to normal people like you and me?” And what I really examined was a few different things.

First of all, people do work at it on a regular basis. There’s a real sense of habitual repetitiveness to it. And people are always changing those habits. It’s not like you just have to adopt one habit forever. It’s always in flux. What I do actually, I keep tweaking my own. I have a five-minute a day creativity habit that I do. It’s sort of like taking a shot of espresso for your creativity and it lasts me for the rest of the day. But even that, like since I wrote the book, I’d modified it a little bit and that’s kind of healthy. But I’m happy to give some, a really beginning entry. I know we’re not talking about tactical things on your show, but try this.

First of all, do an experiment 14 days. Instead of worrying about, “I’m going to do this forever for the rest of my life,” don’t over-commit. Try to for 14 days. Try this – two minutes a day. Two minutes, 14 days. Here’s how it goes. Minute number one, I call it guzzle inputs. In software engineering, they always say, “If you want to change the outputs of something, you got to change the inputs.” So, take one minute a day and just absorb the creativity of others. Maybe watch a YouTube video of a concert. Maybe you stare at a painting. Maybe you read a poem out loud. Nothing to do with you or your work, just guzzle creativity of others. And it’s sort of like priming the pump.

The second minute of your two-minute a day routine is try riffing on an unrelated problem. Pick up any problem. Look at a news source and just find any problem that has nothing to do with you, your life, or your career. So, maybe you see plastics pollution in oceans. So, okay, that’s nothing to do with you. And here’s what you do. Spend one minute, seeing how many small ideas you could think of that won’t cure it but will help it.

When we try to cure a problem all at once, it has to be so perfect that we just get all caught up and it’s hard to be creative. Don’t do that. Instead, say, “Can I come up with five little ideas that might help plastic in oceans? Can I come up with 13 little teeny baby things that might make a teeny little difference?” And so, here’s what happens. That’s like Jumping Jacks for your creativity. It’s getting your mind going on something that you’re not responsible for, it’s not going to impact your life. So, again, two minutes a day, one minute of inputs, one minute of outputs on an unrelated problem. Do that for 14 days and people will text me how crazy creative they feel.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. And just to be clear, like it’s okay if your idea happens to be big, right? You shouldn’t be like, “Oops, no, that’s too big. Never mind. I did it wrong,” because as I’m thinking about plastics, I was saying, “Well, what are the plastics that actually dissolve over time into something that was healthy for the oceans? Or what if we had ships that already trans-oceanically moving have some nets and it gets some governmental subsidies?” So, those are kind of big but that’s okay. That’s not what we’re shooting for but if that’s what we land on, I mean, count it, it’s all good. Or, how do we think about that?

Josh Linkner
Fantastic. It’s great. By the way, I love those ideas. There’s creativity in action right there. Yeah, you don’t have to restrict yourself at all but here’s what happens. The risk is when we try to solve something that big all at once, we freeze up. If our goal is getting a Nobel Prize, or becoming a 10X billionaire, or something, it’s too complex and our mind is just locked, it’s deer-in-the-headlights. Whereas, if you start with little ideas, then, all of a sudden, you’re right, big ones come.

And just really quickly, since we’re talking about that, plan that question. So, here’s a perfect example from the book that I just love. There’s a problem in oceans that’s actually bigger than plastics. And the problem is cigarette butts. So, cigarette butts, I guess, is the bigger issue in ocean than plastics, and it also is a big problem in major cities. It’s a terrible environmental challenge when people discard their cigarette butts on the ground, and most major cities spend millions of dollars a year, no luck cleaning it up.

So, enter a guy, who I interviewed for the book, named Trewin Restorick. Trewin lives in Central London, he’s not a famous guy, he’s not a celebrity billionaire. He’s like a normal dude. Anyway, he was faced looking at this problem of cigarette butts, and none of the solutions had worked so far. So, he invents something called a Ballot Bin. A normal guy just had an idea. And a Ballot Bin works like this.

Let’s say you and I were having fish and chips at a London pub. We walk out into the street, we’re about to throw our cigarette butts on the ground but, instead, we see a glowing metal yellow box 10 feet away, maybe mounted on a pole. So, you walk a little closer and realize that this metal yellow box, the front of it is glass, and at the top, there’s a two-part question, like, “Which is your favorite food? Pizza or hamburger?”

And underneath each of those is a little slit where you can vote with your butts. In other words, you drop your cigarette butt in there and it falls in. There’s a divider so it’s almost like two bar charts, and you can instantly see which of these two selections is in the lead. And the thing is totally low-tech and it didn’t require a billion dollars, and it didn’t require six PhDs or regulatory approval, but the Ballot Bins work. And when these Ballot Bins were installed, Trewin told me, they reduced cigarette litter by up to 80%.

So, this guy, who just had an idea was like a normal guy, starts a company, now has 55 employees, and these Ballot Bins are in 27 countries, reducing cigarette litter. So, you’re exactly right, man. He came up with an idea. He just started riffing on small ideas, and that small idea actually became a really cool big idea, changed his life, changed his career.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s so fascinating is that gets me thinking, like, huh, what was so darn appealing about the Ballot Bin, I guess, it’s sort of like there’s maybe a bit of fun in terms of, “Ooh, I have an opportunity to cast a vote with this thing and I’m not going to let it go to waste.” I don’t know what’s going on in the psychology of the smoker.

Josh Linkner
Part of it is you’re not shaming the person into compliance. You’re involving them, it’s an optional thing, and everyone likes to express themselves and so they sort of capitalize, you’re right, on this human psychology of things, but it’s this really fun simple thing that any one of us could have come up with.

And it’s funny, like to me, that is the perfect example of what the book is all about and what a big little breakthrough is all about. Again, most of us look at SpaceX, and like, “Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. But who’s going to do that?” Most of us cannot. But most of us can come up with the Ballot Bins in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. So, you mentioned we got mindsets, we got habits, we got tactics. When it comes to mindsets, you’ve got eight of them and you also call them obsessions. Can you tell us why the word obsession? And can you give us a quick overview of what are those eight?

Josh Linkner
Sure. So, just to give you a little backdrop. This is borne out of utterly 20 plus years of research on my own but in practical experience but, for the book, I interviewed people all over the globe. Some were people like Trewin that you’ve never heard of. I also interviewed billionaires, and celebrity entrepreneurs, and Grammy Award-winning musicians, and people from all walks of life.

And I tried to extract from these amazing people what are the commonalities, how do they think and act on a daily basis. And I kind of discovered these eight core mindsets. I call them obsessions because a mindset is sort of like, yeah, you think about it when you think about it. But an obsession is sort of like it’s ever-present. It’s a stronger word. And that’s how these people sort of live. These are ever-present guidelines as they think and act and perceive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, what are they?

Josh Linkner
Well, I’m happy to share as many as you like but I’ll share a couple to start. And, by the way, most of these are counterintuitive. They’re the opposite of what we’ve been taught. So, one of them is called start before you’re ready. And, truthfully, most of us, we see an opportunity or a problem, and we wait, and we wait until we have a directive from the boss, or till we have a bullet-proof gameplan, or till we have ideal conditions, and the risk is that we just miss the opportunity altogether.

So, innovators of all shapes and sizes do the opposite. They just say, “Okay, I’m going to get started,” recognizing full well they don’t have all the answers. They recognize full well they need to pivot and adapt and adjust to changing conditions, and figure it out as they go but they don’t wait. They just get started and find their way.

Another one, again, most of these are counterintuitive, fall in love with the problem. A lot of times we’re all solution-oriented. We see a problem, and we’re like, “Okay, what’s the fastest idea that I could think of to solve the problem?” But then we become fixated on our solution rather than the problem itself and it may or may not be the best way to solve it.

The best innovators do the opposite. They become fixated on the problem they’re trying to solve. They bathe in it. They study it from all different angles. They look at it from all different lenses, and they are willing to quickly forego one potential solution in favor of a better one. So, they remain committed to solving the problem by whatever means necessary and that allows them to actually discover more innovative routes in doing so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Josh Linkner
One of them, there’s a couple fun ones. One of them is called don’t forget the dinner mint. And the idea behind the dinner mint, I’m sure you’ve been to a nice dinner, and at the end there’s, “Oh, here’s something, chocolate. Compliments of the chef.” And if you had ordered it, it would be nice, but because it was unexpected, it made all the difference in the world. And as a proportion of the restaurant’s overall cost structure, it was negligible, but that little dinner mint made a difference for you.

So, the translation for us as innovators, as everyday innovators, is when you ship a piece of work product, when you send an email, when you give a presentation, you say, “Okay, now that I’ve done what’s expected, what can I add? What’s a dinner mint that I could add? Maybe it’s a new fresh idea. Maybe it’s an extra formatting. Maybe it’s an over-delivery or a time saving.” But the idea is plus-ing it up with something unexpected to make it transcendent.

The root issue is that competence is not a competitive advantage with organization or a person. So, if you’re trying to get a promotion, you’re competing with four other people, just doing the job well and doing it on time and being pleasant, that’s table stakes. So, if you really want to get the promotion, you want to beat people to the punch, you have to look for what’s that little extra creative edge that you can add, extra little dose of creativity that can make you separated from the competitive pack.

And one other fun one, while we’re talking about fun ones, it’s called reach for weird. Most of us tend to gravitate toward the obvious tried and true approaches. Reach for weird is challenging us to find that bizarre, unexpected, unorthodox approach because sometimes those make all the difference in the world.

There’s a really fun example of that. There’s a little town in Iceland, and they were facing a problem in that traffic incidents involving pedestrians had risen 41% over a 10-year period. That’s people getting hit by cars. And so, how do you normally solve that? Well, you install more traffic lights, you hire more police officers, you issue bigger fines. The reach for weird approach, instead, is here’s what they did. They painted the crosswalks as an optical illusion.

So, as people are driving their car up, it looks like there’s slabs floating in thin air. And so, it completely encourages people to slam on the brakes instead of barrel through the intersection, solved the traffic problem, and it’s pretty fun for taking selfies. So, the little weird solutions that we may discard at first can ultimately lead to great gains.

Pete Mockaitis
That also reminds me of Katy Milkman. In her book, It’s somewhere in Europe, they wanted more people to take stairs instead of the escalator. And so, they turned the staircase into a piano, so like you’re making notes, and now it becomes just a whole lot of fun. You’re like do, do, do, do to utilize those. And that’s weird, no one had done it before, but it made the impact in terms of folks naturally think it’s now more fun to use those stairs because it’s a piano.

Josh Linkner
That’s a perfect example. I love her book, by the way. It’s a wonderful book. So, the other thing is the minds just interact. So, another one is called use every drop of toothpaste. So, the notion there is around being scrappy and resourceful. Even if we’re in a resource-constrained environment, because most of us don’t have billions of dollars to play around with, we can still be creative. And sometimes being that every drop of toothpaste can combine with being weird.

A quick example of that, you probably had this dilemma, I certainly had. You go to the market. You want to buy bananas. So, what do you do? Do you buy the yellow bananas or the green ones? If you buy the yellow bananas, they’re good today, four days later, the rest of the bunch is all mushy. You buy the green bananas, you have to wait like a month for a decent banana.

So, anyway, if you were in the banana business, what can you do about that? Not much. Well, this is the kind of fun one, it was a reach for weird approach, also using every drop of toothpaste because it cost them zero. They basically took the bananas off of the bunch and put them in a package organized by ripeness. So, imagine seven bananas next to each other, ranging from bright yellow to green. And as each day goes by, they’re perfectly timed, so your banana for that day is ripe.

And so, here’s the deal. First of all, they crushed the competition in terms of sales volume. Second of all, they’re charging three times per ounce of banana compared to the competitive set. So, really, it’s amazing. Weird is fun but weird simply works.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Josh, what’s so funny is I have actually plucked bananas across multiple bunches to get that same gradation from green to yellow, and never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that, “Oh, they should just do this for me and charge me more.” I maybe even communicated that instruction to an Instacart shopper, or maybe I censored myself, it’s like, “This poor person already has enough on their mind. I’m not going to make their job any harder with my weird banana preferences,” but I thought about it.

So, okay, cool. So, those are some obsessions, some mindsets. And as you adopt those, and play, and role with those, it seems like you just get more ideas naturally because that’s what’s going on. I think, in particular, fall in love with the problem resonates because if you find that it’s enjoyable to explore and play with, as oppose to get rid of the darn thing as fast as possible, then you get more kind of reps or more minutes on engaged in the thing than kind of hurry up and find the answer and knock it out now, now, now, now.

Josh Linkner
That’s exactly right. And so, if you think about it, again, these three things, you got mindsets, we talked about a few of them; habits, we talked about a couple habits; and then we start to move into tactics. And, for me, I wanted this book to be a very pragmatic guide. It’s not just about your head in the clouds, go do be creative, draw all over the walls with crayons. It’s not that. It’s really saying, “Okay, how can we harness a skillset, human creativity, and deploy it for effective results?” And so, you get into tactics. Most of us, when we get together to come up with ideas, what do we do? What is it called?

Pete Mockaitis
Brainstorming.

Josh Linkner
Brainstorming. Here’s the problem. Brainstorming was invented in 1958, and I’m sorry, a lot has changed since 1958. And so, I kind of view brainstorming as outdated technology, an outdated tactic, because, actually, brainstorming is wildly ineffective. We tend to share our safe ideas; we hold our crazy ones back because we don’t want to look foolish.

So, the whole dynamic of brainstorming, where you’re spitting out ideas and everybody else judges them simultaneously and shoots you down and tells you, like everybody else becomes the idea police, and then you’re responsible if an idea doesn’t work out. It really, at best, yields mediocre ideas.

So, over the last many years, and I’ve interviewed people all over the world, I’ve developed a toolkit of 13 way-better techniques to generate ideas. I call them idea jamming because I don’t like brainstorming. And I’d be happy to share a couple of them. They’re actually really fun and they’re way more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty.

Josh Linkner
Here’s one that works beautifully. It’s called role storming. So, role storming is brainstorming but in character. In other words, you’re pretending that you’re somebody else. Here’s a thing, if I’m in a normal brainstorming session and I’m brainstorming as me, and everybody else is judging me, again, I’ll share my safe ideas, hold my crazy ones back out of fear. But if I’m role storming, in other words I’m pretending I’m somebody else, I’m free.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m playing the role of Steve Jobs. No one’s going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a big idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a small one. So, now I’m liberated. I’m playing Steve Jobs, I’m not responsible, I can say anything I want.

And it’s funny, man, I did this with a group of executives one time at Sony Japan. I met this guy. He was the stiffest human being I’ve ever met – dark suit, white shirt, his tie is strangling him. Anyway, we got him role storming as Yoda.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Josh Linkner
I’ve never seen personal transformation like this. This guy’s jacket is off, his tie is undone, he’s like leaping around the room, and the whiteboards were filled with ideas. And I didn’t teach him to be creative. He had that inside him but we needed to liberate him. He was in a role that forbid it.

So, the technique is actually really simple. Everybody in the room gets to choose anyone they want. You can be a hero. You can be a villain. You can be a movie star or a supermodel. You can be a sports legend or a literary figure. Anyone you want but you got to stay in character. And when you stay in character, attacking a real-world problem or opportunity, you’ll be blown away with the creative results.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so let’s hear a tactic or two.

Josh Linkner
Sure. Another fun one, I recommend people trying, this is called a bad idea. It’s a bad idea brainstorm. So, presumably, we get together, we got a problem to solve, we’re responsible for coming up with good ideas. But the problem is, again, all this pressure, we get consumed with incrementalism. So, instead, here’s a way you do it. It’s a two-part brainstorm.

Step number one, set a timer for like 10 minutes and everybody in the room starts by coming up with bad ideas. What’s a terrible way to solve the problem? What’s the worst thing you can think of? What’s immoral or illegal or unethical? Again, you’re not going to do them. You’re just coming up with bad ideas.

Now, part two, crucially, is you then stop and examine the bad ideas, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a little kernel? Is there a nugget in the bad idea that I can flip around to make it a good legitimate idea?” And so, what happens is you push your creativities so far to the limit, way beyond what you would ordinarily think, then, yeah, you need to ratchet it back to reality a bit, but it’s better going all the way and having to ratchet it back than trying to push spaghetti up a hill. So, that’s a fun one.

One that’s really simple, I call it the judo flip. So, let’s say, again, you’re trying to seize an opportunity or solve a problem. Start by taking an inventory. What have you always done before? What does conventional wisdom dictate? What is traditional thinking? How are things have normally been done in our industry on a problem like this?

Then you draw a line down the page, and next to every previous entry you simply ask the question, “What would it look like if I judo flip it? What would it look like if I did the polar opposite?” And what happens is that oppositional thinking can unlock really fresh ideas and help you break free from traditionalism.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so I’m curious, those are some great things to do. What are some things we should stop doing?

Josh Linkner
One thing we need to stop doing is, really, the ideation process. Again, I call it idea jamming, really needs to be separate from the executional process, and we tend to squish them together. As mentioned, I come up with an idea, and the first thing you say, if you’re in the room, is, “Oh, that’s not going to fit in the PowerPoint slide. And, Jim, the boss, is never going to support it. That’s going to break the budget.” And so, we get so focused on the executional challenges that we extinguish our ideas prematurely.

A better approach would be to send your analytical brain out for Starbucks and let the ideas really fly. One of the things I like to do is I call it idea spewing. So, in other words, if you have an idea almost, or even call it idea sparking sometimes. An idea, it sort of means, “Oh, it’s an idea.” So, that merits scrutiny. But a spark or a spew, that implies that it’s early version. It’s the clay that has yet been molded to perfection.

And so, that helps us prevent the premature extinguishing of a good idea because, often, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the idea that leads to the idea that leads to the next idea that’s the killer. And if you extinguish it prematurely, you can really cut yourself short.

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

Josh Linkner
Sure. The core thing I would really reinforce to people is that every single person on this planet has creative capacity. Period. And, again, I’ve researched every academic journal neuroscience up and down. We all have the ability to be creative. And we can do so in our own ways.

Like, I play jazz guitar pretty well. I can’t draw a stick figure if I try. So, just because, if you’re listening, you can’t paint on canvas, doesn’t mean you’re not a creative person. You might express your creativity in the way you interact with a colleague or the way you solve a problem on a project. But, truthfully, we can all harness and build this.

And I always like to think about it like this. If you’re outside your home had an oil well, like you just learned that, oh, good news, in your backyard, on the property that you own, there’s a billion dollars of oil sitting under there. Pretty sure you wouldn’t be like, “Nah, forget it. I don’t really have time for that.” You’d be like, “Yeah, I’m going to go buy a drill and suck that, get that resource to the surface and use it.”

Well, I would suggest to everybody listening that we have that oil well and it’s inside of us right now. That’s dormant creative capacity. I have it, you have it, we all have it. And so, that’s our oil well. It’s waiting to be tapped. And when we bring it to the surface, we can unlock fresh possibilities which manifest in terms of winning more customers, and getting the promotion that you want, and making more money, and pursuing your calling, and driving impact. All those things that we crave, gaining competitive advantage, etc.

So, I just feel like if that dormant capacity is there, and we know we all have the ability to bring it to the surface, why not learn the mindsets, habits, and tactics to fully deploy it so that we can enjoy the results?

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

Josh Linkner
One of my favorites is a Chinese proverb, “Man who says it can’t be done, should not interrupt man doing it.” I’ve always loved that. It’s just so impactful.

And I have my own quotes, and I don’t really boast or anything. I say this with humility, but I’ve said this again and again as I was building my own company so much that my people got sick of hearing it, is that, “Someday, a company will come along and put us out of business. It might as well be us.” And that applies to us personally, too. Like, I feel that someday, like the Josh of tomorrow is going to put me out of business. Might as well be me.

And the notion there is that challenging ourselves and our organizations to proactively reinvent, to rethink our approach, to be the one to put ourselves out of business rather than waiting for someone else to do it. And that also ties to another quick quote, “If you don’t like change, you’re probably going to like irrelevance even less.” That’s from General Eric Shinseki.

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

Josh Linkner
One thing that’s so cool to me is that the littlest adjustments can actually unlock the biggest gains. So, there’s one study that I read about out of a university in Italy, where they brought people together, same demographics, age, education levels, divided them in two, and they showed each group a video, and then asked them to take a standardized creativity test.

The only difference was the video they were shown. One group was shown a really boring video, like sheep grazing in a meadow. The other group was shown an awe-inspiring video, majestic, cliffs, and soaring eagles, and all kinds of stuff. That was the only difference. They gave them the same test. The awe-inspired group outperformed the boring group by 80%. And it wasn’t like they learned a new skill in that three-minute video. It’s just that the brains that we have, we are hardwired to be creative, and the slightest adjustments can unlock fresh possibility as evidence in that example.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that makes me feel better about paying more for the office space with a great view.

Josh Linkner
Totally. I mean, think about that. Artists, musicians, playwrights went to inspiring places for years to do inspiring work, but most of our offices look like a sensory deprivation chamber, and then we wonder why we’re not delivering great creative work. So, yeah, you’re right. Environment matters for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Josh Linkner
Recently, I thought Adam Grant’s new book Think is excellent. Jon Acuff’s new book Soundtracks is excellent. One of my all-time favorites is by Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari which is excellent and spiritually inspiring to me. So, it’s always hard to choose one. I guess one that I’ll just add to the list is Grit by Angela Duckworth which is also incredible.

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

Josh Linkner
Yeah, my favorite tool, I think, is really having a guitar in my hand. And I think the nice thing is we all can have our own muse. But the notion is whatever your muse is, whether it’s a painting or music, it’s just like having it nearby. So, when I’m stuck on a problem, I like grab my guitar and start noodling. And, of course, the guitar doesn’t solve the problem but it helps me solve the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, you already did one, that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and they quote it back to you frequently?

Josh Linkner
You know, I hear a lot about this concept of judo flipping, taking the traditional approach and flipping it upside down. I’ve had people come. I’ve been sharing that nugget for years and people come up to me years later, and like, “Hey, I was just in a board meeting and we couldn’t figure out what to do, and we judo flipped it.” So, that’s what I do hear frequently.

I think the other one I talk about often is this concept of option X. The general idea is that when we make decisions, when we’re trying to solve a problem, we very quickly go from unlimited possible ideas to a very short list. I think about it as A, B, and C. Somehow it becomes a multiple choice. And your A, B, and C choices are based on historical reference, they’re generally really safe, and we pursue those.

And I always just say, before you choose A, B, and C, just pause for one second, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a D? Is there an E?” Or, I say, “Is there an option X?” which is that bold and provocative and unexpected idea that might make all the difference in the world.

One other quick add, I’ve written about this and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, speaking of letters, reminded me. So, most of us pursue a career, and often it’s pretty safe, like we’re taught to play it safe. And then we build a secondary plan called a plan B, which is what happens if everything goes wrong, then that’s your plan B.

I would encourage people not to discard their plan B but have an extra plan, and it’s not what happens if everything goes wrong. It’s what happens if everything goes right. I call it your plan Z. So, the plan Z is expecting a good outcome instead of a bad one. And it’s like, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you do if you had a magic wand? What would you do if you’re pursuing your true calling?” And I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. Have a plan B. Awesome. But let’s not do that at the expense of also having a plan Z.

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

Josh Linkner
I would suggest you check out BigLittleBreakthroughs.com. Certainly, you can learn more about the book. But even if you don’t choose to buy the book, there’s a lot of free resources. There’s a free creativity assessment you can take, there’s a quick start guide, there’s all these downloadable worksheets on habits, mindsets, and tactics. So, it’s a good place. It’s a resource library, really, if you want to get your creativity on and take your game to the next level.

If you want to reach me, I’m on all social channels at my name Josh Linkner, and my personal website is just JoshLinkner.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Josh, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you all the best in your creative adventures.

Josh Linkner
Thank you. You as well. I really appreciate the impact that you’re creating for everybody listening.