Overcome Adversity Without Fighting It

Hello and welcome back to my newsletter! Last time I was thinking about how the world is moving fast enough as it is, and we should stop telling each other how incredible busy we are. After all, we become the stories we tell ourselves. Be careful what you wish for, and all that.

This week I’m thinking about Faisal Hoque’s new book, LIFT. We recently finished a big project with him to create a learning documentary about his new bestseller LIFT. The book is about the rapidity of change, misinformation, and what we can do, each and every day, to make sense of the world, to uplift each other and transform our families, communities, and world into a more positive, and vibrant future. Here are some previews of the learning documentary course we made for him.

If this all sounds a bit optimistic to you, read on. Here is a recent interview with Faisal on how he finds that optimism, and what the path forward might look like. Take. this to heart – we need all the positive collaborative and vision we can get these days.

Shawn: Hello Faisal, and thank you for your new book. In my mind, it’s a blueprint for how all of us can confront the uncertainty and chaos around us, and make sense of the world in a positive way. How did you start on this journey to understanding adversity and overcoming it?

Faisal: It is our human nature that when we face adversity, we fight. It’s our very nature is to get ready for a battle when we are confronted. But accepting the battle means that you have to accept your current situation. And you have to prepare accordingly, because most of the current situation is not actually in your control.

One great learning I have had is from a book by Randy Pausch called “The Last Lecture“. Randy Pausch was a Carnegie Mellon professor and he gave his last lecture after he found out that he had cancer. And what he said is that it is his ability to accept the battle, and his ability to look at things from a negative point of view, and prepare for the challenges that he’s going to be facing that actually made him optimistic.

It’s the plan of action in the face of adversity, that allowed him to be prepared for the challenges that he would be facing. So when all hell breaks loose, it’s that mentality of being prepared which allowed him to deal with his adversity.

When all hell breaks loose, it’s that mentality of preparation which allows us to deal with adversity.

And because of that mental approach, he lived a very fulfilling life to the last day of his life, precisely because he accepted his battle that he was going to die from cancer, with the recognition that whatever he did, in the time he had remaining he was determined to share this message of making a difference with realistic optimism and determination. And he inspired millions with his message in “The Last Lecture”.

So it’s an example and a learning of how you accept a very bad situation and yet come out of it without thinking of the outcome, but instead focusing on what you can do on a daily basis, the kind of changes we can make daily to make a lasting impact, while dealing with adversity.

So you live and lead the best of your life when you have plans in place. Overcoming adversity is not fighting the adversity. It is accepting the adversity and working towards a plan that allows us to overcome the challenges that we are facing.

It starts with acceptance, not with fighting.

Shawn: That’s a powerful message about personal transformation, and making a dent in the world. But what about our collective efforts, and enlisting whole communities to join a particular mission or objective?

Faisal: The best thing we can do about controlling anything is controlling our mind. Our mind manifests what we see and how we react and what we do. So what happens is that when a collective group of people thinks positively, the chance of their collective success is a lot higher than it’ll be otherwise, right?

So this way of guiding your energy kind of helps you, how you behave, how you take actions and how you react to things. Every reaction that you have from your thought process makes things better or makes things worse, right?

Guiding our energy in a positive way, in a calm way is the path forward to deal with any kind of change, and to enroll others in our vision and mission. This takes a sense of fluidity to deal with changing circumstances, and it takes calm persistence.

Guiding our energy in a positive way, in a calm way, is the path forward to deal with any kind of change.

Let’s use water as a metaphor. Water is very soft and very fluid and it wears out all the rocks in the river and it somehow weaves in and out of whatever the obstacle that’s in front of that rolling fluid water.

So if you look from that as a metaphorical point of view, if we’re fluid and we’re flexible, we can kind of like weave through ups and downs of life and ups and downs of changes. And that flexibility allows us not just lead ourselves but also lead other people in a flexible and in an adaptive manner.

When we are flexible and we are taking a softer approach and we are not reactive, we are more adapting to situations. That calmness allows us to be more resilient because when you’re calm, you think better. So that energy that we are reflecting inside and out is what makes the difference in the enduring power of our social influence.

Here is a short teaser from the learning documentary series we built for the book. Learn more here.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

Let’s Stop Telling Each Other How Busy We Are

“If you’re racing to the next moment, what happens to the moment you’re in?”
– Nanette Mathews

Do you remember what you did last Tuesday? Where were you? Who did you talk to? Did anything memorable happen? Sometimes our days blend into one another. It can often feel like the clock is spinning furiously. Days come and go, and what do we remember? What happened to the time?

Did you know the word “time” is the most used noun in the english language? We are obsessed with time, and cherish those languid moments that seem to go on and on. It’s quite easy to recollect your family camping trip, or the time you learned to surf while on vacation. Novel experiences feel elastic in our minds.

Deep conversations can also be like travel, if you let them. Think of a conversation as an opportunity to venture into new experiences. This also explains why often your best conversation partner is the person who knows how to ask good questions. They know how to get you to explore ideas in more meaningful ways.

If our days become more routine, and our habits more ingrained, we experience less novelty. As a result, we often seek out experiences and interactions that reinforce what we know. And what we do, and experience, can start to feel like same ‘ol, same ‘ol. And the reason it feels like same ‘ol is because we’re not creating new memories. We’re having the same conversations, seeing the same sights, enduring the same meetings.

“I like cancelled plans. And empty bookstores. I like rainy days and thunderstorms. And quiet coffee shops. I like messy beds and over-worn pajamas. Most of all, I like the small joys that a simple life brings.”

Several years ago, a couple friends and I took our teenage kids cycling across America. After only a few days into our two month journey, time started to elongate such that each moment, each conversation was expansive, indelible. And why? Because literally everything we were experiencing was new. We were recreating those childhood experiences of novelty.

To slow down time, try to build novelty into your day. Talk to someone new, cook something unusual, take the dogs walking someplace different. Researchers have found that we remember familiar experiences as shorter, and unfamiliar experiences as longer.

“Unless people experience major changes that break the routine in their lives and provide them with anchors to retrieve from memory, life can become one short, timeless sequence of routine inaction.”
– Avni-Babad and Ritov

Another activity that will slow time, is to dig into a meaningful project. Pick a project in your life and lean into it – your painting, your running, your writing, your French lessons, whatever. When we begin to make meaningful progress in something that is important to us, we get closer and closer to that elusive Flow State when time slows down, and things start to feel fluid and easy.

Most of all, breathe.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

Oh, There You Are!

David Sedaris wanted to quit smoking. So he moved to Japan for three months. It worked, and it only cost him $23,000. He read a book that told him the best way to change a habit is to change the environment. The author suggested that if you wanted to stop doing something difficult, perhaps addictive, you should move to another location temporarily. Change the environment, change your surroundings. Either that, or the author suggested move your couch.

We know that willpower can only take us so far. Willpower is so fragile, that the people who are best at self-regulation seldom use willpower as a lone tactic. Two researchers at the University of Toronto did a series of studies and concluded that willpower didn’t even help participants achieve their stated goals, it mostly just exhausted them from the effort of resistance.

Which explains why David Sedaris moved to Tokyo, where everything was not only strange and new, but also officials have banned almost all smoking in the city, except in specifically designated areas (which don’t look very inviting…).

Sedaris didn’t have to use willpower. He removed the temptation. Just like avoiding the bakery section at the grocery store. And while you should always be wary of your triggers, also seek out your glimmers. A glimmer is a sign, a cairn, you may find on the road to Future You. It could be a thoughtful conversation, a beautiful sky, or a quiet walk. It’s something that is representative of where you are going.

Changing your environment is similar to the advice of pruning your social environment as well. You may have to do some careful peer de-selection, at least for the short term. If you have a goal of losing weight, its hard to have a group of friends who want to go out for pizza and beer every Friday night. You could go, but then there you are having water and a salad with your friends and their pizza and beer. For some people that works, but likely not at the beginning when the goal is still fresh, and the temptation still strong.

Stopping something, or avoiding an ingrained behavior is also harder than starting something, particularly if you make that new something very easy. James Clear calls this the Two-Minute Rule. If you want to stop sitting on the couch and start running, a Two Minute rule might be “pick out what to wear for my run.” That’s it. You don’t even have to run. Or if the goal is to do more cooking, in two minutes you could probably read a couple recipes. That’s it. It’s about getting on the path. It’s about slowly becoming the kind of person who goes for a run, or cooks a meal.

Change your mental landscape, show yourself more self-compassion, and recognize that your gratitude practice is only partially about expressing thanks, and more about committing to an enhanced version of a future you. Your gratitude toward someone else is an expression of who you want to become in the future.

All of which – if you’re still reading – brings me to the point I’ve been trying to get to. When we get on the path, the path of starting something, pushing through, persevering, finishing the thing, or perhaps stopping some poisonous relationship or detrimental habit, we should do so in plain sight, out loud. And the reason for living out loud with your progress open for your friends and family to see, is because then they will see what you see.

When you can envision your future you, and you tell those you love, they will see it too. They will recognize who you are becoming.

In the movie Hook, there is a scene in which Robin Williams goes back to Neverland, and tries to convince the lost boys that he really is Peter Pan. No one believes him, until one small boy goes up to Robin Williams, takes the glasses from his face and starts to smush, and stretch Robin’s face and look deeply into his eyes, until he finally exclaims, “Oh, there you are Peter!”

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

Every Big Thing You Have Ever Done Required This

Hello and welcome back to my newsletter! Last week I was musing about ultrarunning Japanese monks. How they can possibly fathom their own astonishing goals? Not to oversimplify it, but basically they don’t. They just take it one step at a time.

This week I’m thinking about how our attention is fracturing. Our eroding focus is not only robbing us of our own big goals, but our loss of attention is making it harder for us, as a community, to collectively solve some of the big problems we face together.

While writing this post, I’ve started, stopped, then started writing again, many times over the past week. I took a break to clean the kitchen, got distracted by a news article on the counter, distracted again attending to the dogs who wanted to come in, then go out again, then my phone rings, then I wonder what to cook for dinner, then forget what I was thinking about, and then start listening to another podcast with Johann Hari, discussing his new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.

At this moment in time, the average office worker focuses on one thing for just 3 minutes, before switching to some other shiny distraction. Often the narrative we tell ourselves is that either we are suffering a personal failure of grit and tenacity, and if only we could muster the discipline, we could maintain our focus. In other words, we tell ourselves that we are failing.

Or we tell ourselves that it isn’t really our fault at all. It’s just the ubiquity of technology and devices which overwhelms our ability to focus. But the truth is that our willpower is no match for an army of engineers focused on designing systems that prey on our limbic brain response. Programming techniques like pull-to-refresh act like a slot machine to keep us “playing” even when nothing’s there. Infinite scroll designs remove natural stopping cues and breaks so users don’t realize when to stop, because there is no end. Which is the point of the design.

“You can try having self-control, but there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.” – Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology testifying to U.S. Senate

As Johann Hari points out repeatedly in his book, and interview discussions, we aren’t simply surrendering our attention to facebook, snapchat, tiktok, etc., our attention is systematically, and intentionally being stolen from us. We all know this. On “free” social media platforms, we are the product being sold. We the humans are the commodity being sold to the highest bidder, who again is advertising to us in order to, yet again, steal our attention.

Every click, every scroll, every like and post is scraped by artificial intelligence and algorithms to form a profile of us, which is packaged and sold to advertisers. When Google released Gmail, they were scraping your email content with artificial intelligence to form a profile of you. In order to sell to you. It’s the business model.

 — But here’s why this really matters. Here’s why our focus and attention is so critical. —

Think of any major accomplishment in your life – a business you started, a degree you earned, a promotion you worked for, a book you published or a big project you delivered. Or even consider your strong relationships with your partner, your children, your friends and family.

The one single thread among all of these accomplishments and strong relationships is that it required your sustained attention. You had to focus. You had to stay on task, on message, on point. You had to write the content, rehearse the presentation, read the material. And with your meaningful relationships, you had to slow down. You had to listen.

If your attention breaks down you are less able to achieve your goals. Period. Accomplishing anything momentous or valuable, requires your focus and attention.

People who can’t focus, will be drawn to simplistic, authoritarian solutions, and less likely to see clearly when they fail. – Johann Hari

The problem compounds when the task of problem solving requires the collaboration of many people. In this era of distracted, segmented attention, we are less able, as a community, to focus collaboratively on big problems which require the sustained attention of many people.

An example Johann Hari uses is the ozone layer degradation first discovered in the 1980s. Susan Solomon led a series of expeditions to Antarctica in 1986 and 1987 to take readings of the ozone and discovered that a hole was rapidly expanding because of chlorine dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. The principle culprit was CFCs commonly used in aerosol spray cans, and refrigerants.

Her work expanded the scientific understanding of CFCs and the importance of the protective ozone layer in shielding us from ultraviolet radiation. This was all patiently explained by scientists to global communities of government legislators, business leaders, and consumers. We, common non-scientist people listened, understood the problem explained to us, and then collectively decided to cease use of CFCs and to ban their use in consumer products.

It worked, and since then the ozone layer has been healing to continue to protect species.

Hari worries about our collective ability now to focus on scientific truths, and respond rationally, and in unison, to the realities of climate change, threatened democracy, misinformation, and more.

Hari argues that if we were confronted with the same ozone dilemma now we would fracture in the same ways we do today. As he believes, “You would get people who would film themselves spraying CFCs into the atmosphere to own the libs and make them cry. You would get people saying, ‘How do we even know the ozone layer exists? Maybe George Soros made the hole in the ozone layer.’ We would become lost.”

We would not be able to summon the collective attention required to solve this dilemma that requires critical thinking, sustained attention and collaboration.

How can we solve the world’s most urgent problems if we’ve downgraded our attention spans, downgraded our capacity for complexity and nuance, downgraded our shared truth, downgraded our beliefs into conspiracy theory thinking that we can’t construct shared agendas to solve our problems? This is destroying our sense-making at a time we need it the most.
– Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

Well, if you’ve read this far – even while perhaps checking your email or texts – you must be wondering what to do about it. Johann Hari has a lot of advice and hacks to take back your attention and focus, but I’ll give you just one I use which works.

Do something every day which requires your total attention. Go to an exercise class. Shop and prepare a new recipe. Go for a run. Schedule a coffee with a friend and leave your phone in the car. Engage in an activity which demands your total attention. In other words create situations in which you know you will have total presence. It’s called “pre-commitment”.

Another way to ensure you won’t check your DMs and likes is to lock up your phone. Seriously. Grab yourself a K-Safe and set the timer. The research backs it up. You’ll have your focus back for that duration.

Here, just for you, have a micro-learning course we recently published on Being an Agile Critical Thinker.
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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

Better Questions Build Friendships

Hello and welcome back to my newsletter! Last week I was writing about how most of the successful people I know don’t focus on being successful. Instead they focus on taking on projects that help them become a better version of themselves, which then leads to (sometimes surprising) successes.

Here’s my question this week: In this holiday season, how do we deepen and grow our relationships with friends and family? Because our relationships are among the most important parts of our lives. 

We tried a social experiment recently. My wife and I hosted a few friends for dinner. After people arrived and got situated and caught up with greetings and small talk, we introduced a conversation game.

In the days leading up to our gathering, my wife and I composed a stack of questions designed to help us learn more about one another. Keep in mind all of us have known each other for years — at least fifteen years or more. I had a bowl of cards with light and fun questions such as “Do you have an amusing or embarrassing Thanksgiving story?” and “If you could go back in time, what year would you like to visit?

We also had a deeper set of questions which asked things such as, “What is one of the biggest risks you have taken in life? How did it turn out?” And “What’s a memorable experience from childhood that you think shaped who you are today?

Everyone agreed the game was a success. We took turns asking each other questions we had never asked before, and as a result we had meaningful conversations, everyone had a balanced opportunity to contribute and listen, and we all learned something new about our friends.

I’ve been enjoying Kat Vellos’ book We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships. She points out that there’s nothing wrong with small talk. Small talk is fine as an on-ramp to more meaningful conversations, but small talk alone doesn’t allow relationships to deepen and grow.

We often fall into conversational habits in which we ask the same questions, and provide the same answers. To build meaningful relationships and friendships, we can accelerate that by asking more powerful questions. Powerful questions are open ended and allow the person responding to choose the direction of the conversation. Powerful questions create possibilities and encourage discovery, understanding, and insight.

“The importance of friendship has been hiding in plain sight.”

Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond

Friendship is as important as diet and exercise for our mental and physical health. We often think of friendship as enjoyable, nice, and comforting, but we don’t often think of friendship and social connection as being essential to our ability to thrive. We don’t think of our friendships as critical to boosting our immune system or staving off long-term mental ailments.

Chasing health and longevity, we puree kale smoothies, listen to meditation apps, read Brené Brown, and wake up for morning boot camp classes. But the secret sauce to long term mental and physical health might not just be the planks you do in your workout class, but the friends you see and spend time with.

According to author Lydia Denworth, the reason friendship and social connection has largely been ignored by scientists, until recently, is because it has been hard to define what friendship is. Scientists like to measure things they can define, and pin down. In her research, Denworth interviewed biologists and anthropologists, and found that their agreed definition of friendship is a relationship which is stable, positive and reciprocal.

Friends make time for each other consistently, leave others feeling buoyed and uplifted, and have their past interactions to build upon. In this way, the layers of a friendship are built over time such that with each repeated contact we get to reinforce past interactions, and then add new stories, ideas and values to edify one another.

For the holidays, ask the kinds of questions that bring us closer together. Looking for ideas? Try Vertellis. They have awesome questions you can try out. Happy New Year!

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

Why Successful People Don’t Focus on Success

Hello and welcome back to my newsletter! Last week I was writing about how gratitude is more about defining our future and who we will become, not only celebrating the past. This week I’m thinking about a mind shift to focusing on projects we can control, instead of big successes we can’t control.

Here’s my question this week: If most successful people say they never predicted their own successes, what did they do to get there?

You know the 1973 song “Ooh La La” by The Faces. Yes, you do. With that famous refrain:

I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger

It’s a great song. But there’s something wrong with that lyric. No, you don’t really want your younger self to know what you know now, do you? Right now, I don’t want to know what 80-year old me knows. Not yet anyway.

We persevere on projects because we don’t know yet what is going to stick and what isn’t. And even if we try to predict what’s going to work, how do we know it wasn’t the series of projects that came first which set the stage, built our experience, honed our craft? We don’t want to skip to the end. We want to live the best version of our life that’s happening now.

Stick to Your Short-Term Choices

We don’t know what we don’t know. And not knowing is both the angst, and supreme joy, of being 10, or 20, or 30 or __ years old.

My Dad had this bit of advice I always remember: When you think of where you are right now, you can easily trace it back in time. At school I met this teacher, who gave me a job, where I met Andre, who I went camping with, and we met those travelers from New Zealand…

It’s like cairns in a forest, breadcrumbs on the path. It’s so obvious from where you stand now. The opportunities and situations of your childhood, the choices you make in your teens and twenties, the schools you attend, the clubs and sports you participate in, the teachers, coaches, pastors, and mentors you listen to, all lead to the long line of choices that bring you to now.

And while each choice takes you down a path, you can’t really foresee where it will go. You don’t know who you will meet, what you will learn. So see it through – the adventure, the school, the class, the project you’re on at the moment. Commit. Or at least micro-commit to the experience.

Dan Gilbert and his colleagues did an experiment years ago at Harvard. They created a photography course, and invited the students to go around campus and take 12 black and white photos of their favorite people and places – faculty, buildings, classmates, etc.. Then they set up a dark room and invited the students to develop their own photographs and enlarge just two of them into big beautiful prints.

Then the teacher said, “OK, one of the photos you can take with you to keep. The other photo stays with the school and goes into the archives.” Half the group were told they had to decide immediately, and the choice would be final. The other half of the group was given fours days to think about it, and they could change their mind at any time. If they wanted the other photo instead, no problem. They could switch if they wanted to.

Those who had to make an immediate, irrevocable choice, reported that they were much happier with their choice than the other half of the students who had the opportunity to change their mind over the next few days.

If you can bail out, change your mind, second guess yourself, you can rationalize that decision and it can make you crazy. Stick with your choice, and see it as a small project, an experiment, a building block for something bigger to come.

You Can Control Projects, Not Outcomes

Instead of focusing on the goals you want to accomplish, start asking who you want to become.

Reframe the story you tell yourself. Stop focusing on running a 4-hour marathon, instead become a runner. Stop focusing on publishing a bestseller, instead become a writer. Goals aren’t a bad thing, but set it aside. Instead of focusing on the end result, focus on becoming the kind of person who can accomplish that goal. Ask yourself, what are the types of projects this person would take on?

“Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, but a lifestyle to be lived.” – James Clear

Neil Gaiman, the fabulous writer, said once that when he sits down to write, he gives himself just two choices. Write, or look out the window. That’s it. There’s no choice called scroll through twitter, check email, call Mom, or clean the kitchen.

The control he sets on his writing process is: Write, or look out the window. That’s it. It’s what he can control. He wrote great books by becoming a writer, not by focusing on writing a great book.

Stop focusing on the goal itself. Become the kind of person who accomplishes the goal you envision.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

Think of Conversation as Travel

Within every individual, there is an entire world within them, a universe of experiences, knowledge, joy and adversity. Think of conversation as travel, as an exploration. And just like actual travel, a deep conversation is also an adventure, an opening to new ideas and other ways of seeing the world.

“Almost every crisis we’re facing right now is a crisis of belonging.”

—Joe Keohane

I haven’t always talked to strangers, but I try more often now. At our local grocery store, the kind person bagging groceries always asks the same series of questions. “How heavy would you like your bags?” “Would you like your milk in a bag?” “Would you like your cleaning products in the same bag with your produce?” “Would you like your ice cream in a separate bag?”

I understand they are being polite. I usually tell them, “You can decide. You’re an expert. You have much more experience. I trust you.” Then I can go back to asking the clerk about her tattoo. That’s another level of interaction. Try asking a complete stranger about their tattoo. A few years ago I never would have done this. Are you kidding? For many people a tattoo is a sacred icon, a cherished memory, a badge of identity. I wouldn’t dare.

I was wrong to assume people don’t want to talk about their tattoos. A tattoo is a powerful and permanent reminder of an event or expression of identity. In my experience, people light up with enthusiasm if I ask. It’s their daughter’s birthday, their life motto, their favorite quote, an ancient symbol. Tattoos reflect powerful emotions and life choices. I’ve never yet met anyone unwilling to tell me the story of their tattoo.

There’s an expression in social psychology called the Lesser Minds Problem, which is short-hand for the common, impatient and reflexive assumption we make about unknown people. Namely that strangers:

  1. Have less world experience than we do (“They’re so foolish!”)
  2. Make decisions that are less informed because of their lack of experience (“They don’t know what they’re doing!”)
  3. Have a less nuanced and unrefined understanding if the world because of their lack of experience (“They don’t understand how the world works! Idiots!”).

If I have a headache and it is painfully debilitating, and then you tell me you have a headache, I may likely think, “Sure but it’s nothing like this headache!” Our own subjective pain is usually more painful than someone else’s. Which is why almost everyone buys “extra strength” pain medication. We believe our experiences are deeper, more meaningful, more enlightening, than other’s experiences.

In a research paper called “More Human Than You”, Nick Haslam and his colleagues show that we ascribe more human characteristics to ourselves than strangers. When asked to evaluate how curioussympathetic or imaginative a stranger was compared to themselves, participants consistently described themselves as possessing more of these human nature traits. People tend to see themselves as more dimensional, and more mentally complex, than the strangers we encounter in the world.

The obvious secret to finding the humanity in others is to talk to strangers so they’re not so strange any longer. When you interact with people, their humanity becomes undeniable.

With over 60% of younger people (18-25 years old) now experiencing moderate to severe loneliness, we need to recognize that connecting with other humans is an essential human need, like breathing, exercising and thinking. In Joe Keohane’s new book The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, he offers ideas on how to break the silence, connect with others, and enrich understanding.

Start by finding safe places to start a conversation with a stranger. The “cosmopolitan canopy” is an expression coined by sociologist Elijah Anderson at Yale University to mean safe public and semi-public places where starting a conversation isn’t considered weird or too out of place. Coffee shops, libraries, grocery stores, public squares and markets are all environments where initiating a conversation isn’t too odd or off-putting.

Shared experiences are also good environments. If you’re both watching a baseball team winning, or your local high school team losing, you have a shared point of departure.

Answer greetings honestly. A few years ago my mom died of cancer. Within an hour of hearing the news I went for a walk by myself. A neighbor walked by and asked, “Hi, how are you?” I hesitated and then told her the truth. My mom had just died. My neighbor gave me a hug and we spoke about the fragility of life. It’s the most meaningful brief interaction we have ever had, and yet to this day we always share a kind moment when we see each other in the community. And I believe that kindness can be traced back to that one moment of human honesty.

Perhaps one of the most accessible tips Keohane gives is to break the script. Our script is the pro forma things we say every day to talk, and yet not talk. We say Hello, how are you? as a throwaway comment to fill dead air. We don’t actually intend someone to answer. Try breaking the script and actually answering the question truthfully. “Oh, I’m alright. I didn’t sleep too well but I had a fun yoga class. I’d say I’m about a 6 or 7 right now.

When you answer truthfully, it’s a cue to the other person that this could be interesting. This could go somewhere. It’s playful, audacious, and an invitation to deepen the conversation. Take a chance. Open a conversation with someone new.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

It’s OK, You Should Ask. They Will Say Yes.

Welcome back! If you prefer, you can receive this newsletter when first published over here on LinkedIn. This week I show that you can – and should – ask for help, along with a few tips on how to ask from the research of Vanessa Bohns.

Recently my wife and I wanted to visit our son, a first year student at a university about a 7-hour drive away. He had only been there a few weeks, and we thought it would be nice to visit him at school for parent’s weekend, meet his new friends, and take in the fall college scene in New England.

In the end, we didn’t go. We have two dogs who would not have enjoyed 14 hours in a car, and a younger daughter who would need a place to stay for the weekend. She certainly wasn’t interested in a getaway with her parents on a long car ride, just to visit her brother. Yuck.

So what happened? We didn’t ask for help. It would have been easy. When I explained this to some friends, every single person said they would have taken our dogs for the weekend, including our old sweet yellow lab who we couldn’t bear to leave at a dog boarding kennel. Our daughter could have easily spent the night with friends. It would have taken two phone calls. We just didn’t ask.

In general, people hate to ask for help, or ask favors from other people. Our aversion to even interrupting someone else can be so strong, Vanessa Bohn has demonstrated in her research that we don’t like to approach strangers just to give them compliments (“Your sweater looks great on you!”), because we are concerned we might not express ourselves well to others. We believe we might appear awkward, strike the wrong tone, or be misinterpreted. So we say nothing. We ask for nothing.

But we shouldn’t be so worried. People will agree to requests more often than we think, particularly if the request is benign, or well-intentioned.

There’s a guy named Jia Jiang who tested this theory by spending 100 days asking random people for pretty benign, but often unusual requests. He called his experiment Rejection Therapy, and during the experiment, he made many requests of strangers. He went to a high school track and asked a random person to race him (yes), asked a police officer if he could sit in the squad car (yes), asked a Wal-Mart greeter if he could hug her (yes), asked a Subway sandwich maker if he could go behind the counter and make his own sandwich (no), asked a car salesperson if he could test drive an $80k BMW (yes), and even asked if he could give the flight safety announcement on a SouthWest flight (sort of).

The point is that people are more agreeable, and more willing to say Yes to our requests than we think they are. And because of this fact, we should be careful of the requests that we do make, and ensure they are well-intentioned, and designed for positive outcomes.

So, once you’ve figured out what you want to ask for, that comes from a place of good intent, here are a few tips from Vanessa Bohn’s research on how to make a successful ask.

Be direct: A mistake we often make is that we think it will be more polite to hint at the request, or drop clues that the other person is supposed to understand and interpret, to allow them to intuit our request, and volunteer to help. So instead of asking outright, we suggest or hint at it. People don’t always pick up on our hints. Be direct, and plain, in your requests instead.

Don’t overthink the ask: We often think we need to craft the perfect email, with compelling arguments, and carefully selected words, to gain their attention and get someone else to Yes. Actually, you don’t. The most compelling asks are direct, simple, and in-person.

Ask in-person, or at least by phone: It is very difficult for people to say No to someone else in person. Our default response is to agree, mostly because we don’t want to create conflict, adversity or disappoint someone else. And emails are easily ignored.

Don’t water down your request: In a series of studies at Columbia Business School, participants engaged in negotiations who thought they were being too assertive, or too pushy in their requests ( the “line-crossing illusion”), were more often viewed by the other person as being appropriate, and fair, in their ask. So don’t ask for half of what you actually want.

It’s OK. You can, and should, ask for help. Asking strengthens relationships, expands connections, and gives someone else a chance to give. Because giving someone an opportunity to give is a good thing.

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Still trying to figure out what you want? We wrote a 5-minute microlearning course on that. Enjoy!

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences to drive the human change that propels your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

And if you want to learn to apply some of these ideas and be an effective coach for your team, we wrote a course on that too. It’s called Coaching for Managers available over at UDEMY for Business.

You Are More Influential Than You Think

Hello there! I have a new-newsletter I’m publishing over at LinkedIn. It’s about how we show up, interact with people, and make a difference every day with small changes. I will post it here on my site, but you can also subscribe over here to receive it on LinkedIn. Enjoy!

Most of us walk through our daily lives thinking no one really pays attention to us. At the sandwich shop, standing in the grocery checkout line, attending the same weekly meeting, or watching the middle school soccer game, we often think we don’t have much influence over people and circumstances. Sometimes we even think we’re invisible.

Yet simply being present and sharing an event, a meal, a checkout line, or a meeting – even if you don’t say anything – will deepen the experience for everyone and make it more memorable.

Showing up can change the outcome of events, influence how other people think, and even change the way you think.

When two violins are placed in a room
if a chord on one violin is struck
the other violin will sound that same note.
Know how powerful you are.
Know you can make music in the people
around you, simply by playing your own strings.
   – Andrea Gibson

The truth is that people are paying attention to you more than you are aware of. But the other strange truth is that people aren’t paying attention to what you think they’re paying attention to. If you are having a bad hair day, wearing the wrong shoes, or worried about your complexion, that’s not what other people are noticing at all. Other people don’t really care about the t-shirt you decided to wear or the zit on your forehead. At least not in the way you think the t-shirt is ridiculous and the zit is enormous.

Studies show that when you are watching a movie with someone else, attending a high school sports event, or just sitting in a meeting with other people, your mere presence with others intensifies the experience and makes it more memorable for everyone.

The reason is that when you show up, others will tune their messages and ideas to you to reflect what they think you want to hear, or try to influence you. When you attend that weekly team meeting, your boss is tuning her message to the group taking into account that you are there and listening. In this way your mere presence is affecting the outcome of the dialogue and events to come. Your presence is affecting what other people say.

We also tend to underestimate how much other people will ruminate on conversations and interactions other people have with us. When we leave a meeting, or a conversation, we often think about the friend, the boss, the colleague that we just met – what they said, how they made us feel, who they are – but we don’t often think that they are likely doing the same thing.

Meanwhile, they are reflecting on their conversation with us. This is something called the thought-gap bias. We tend to underestimate how much others are thinking about us after we leave an interaction. We think about them, but we don’t consider they are doing the same thing.

It happened to me just this morning. I was walking my dog in the forest and bumped into my friend Dominique. We started talking about this idea, and the notion that we have more influence than we believe. She told me a story of walking into a Goodwill store and discovering a beautiful, lightly-used set of Calloway golf clubs that would be perfect for her son.  She chatted with the clerk, asked about her day, and then inquired how much for the golf clubs? The clerk said, “How about six dollars for the set?”

Dominique was stunned. The golf clubs were worth hundreds of dollars. She asked, “Why would you let them go so cheaply?” The clerk said, “Because you are the first person today to be nice to me.”

You have more influence that you think. Use your superpowers for good.

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful online micro-learning experiences designed to drive the human change that will propel your team. You can find our catalog of high-impact courses here. And if you want something more tailored, you can learn about our custom work here.

My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

Why You Should Talk About Your Positive Actions

You know what the bystander effect is. It’s a social phenomena in which people fail to intervene or act on someone else’s behalf because no one else is doing anything. Your boss has a ridiculous idea but you don’t say anything because no one else does.

Imagine, for example, you are sitting in a waiting room with two other people. You glance up to see a young woman hobbling toward the glass door of the waiting room, on crutches with a cast on her foot. She struggles with the door, greets the receptionist with a wince, and is asked to wait her turn to be called. But all the chairs in the waiting room are taken. What do you do? Do you help her with the door? Do you offer her your chair?

This is a real study by David DeSteno and his colleagues at Northeastern University. The other people in the waiting room are actors, including the receptionist and the woman with the cast on her foot. Everyone is watching what you will do, how you will act in that moment.

I like to share this scenario in my presentations, and ask the question: What percentage of study participants do you think stood up, and offered help? People always guess a high number of 60%, 70%, 80%. Everyone has high hopes for humanity. I tell the audience the actual number is 15%. At which point people groan and sigh, and insist they would have done something. Well, maybe.

And you know who Dan Price is. He’s the guy who slashed his personal CEO salary to give at least 70K a year to every employee in his company. He was ridiculed, scorned, and called a fool. Pundits said he would be broke within the year, and his employees “on bread lines.”

That was six years ago. Recently on twitter he posted:

6 years ago today I raised my company’s min wage to $70k. Fox News called me a socialist whose employees would be on bread lines. Since then our revenue tripled, we’re a Harvard Business School case study & our employees had a 10x boom in homes bought. Always invest in people.

  • Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments

Dan is a special guy, but he’s not unique. There are lots of people all over the world doing good things right where they are – at the intersection of their skill, passion, and impact. One important difference is that he is talking about his work. He’s vocal about his impact. He didn’t just provide a minimum salary to his employees and quietly watch the results. He has been an outspoken public defender of his actions in the news, and social media.

It’s important to not only do the thing you believe in, it’s important to talk about it. Not in a self-important yay-me humble-brag kind of way, but instead because you understand the power of your actions to be a force for good, and inspire others. That’s how your movement starts. That’s how the tribe is built.

For example, in the United States less than 20% of the population is either doubtful or dismissive about climate change. Over 80% of the population is alarmed, actively concerned, or at least cautiously accepting that it’s happening. In the other words, the overwhelming majority of Americans have some degree of education, concern, and personal experience with climate change. But they still don’t talk about it.

Many of us still don’t talk about it because that small minority can be expressively vocal in dismissing the science. The critics are loud, and we sense their population is bigger than it is. We are uncertain about the views of the person we are speaking with. What if we offend them? What if we say something that contradicts their belief system?

So we say nothing, but maybe we do something – something we understand is a nudge, a gesture in the right direction. We make a personal high impact, low cost, life change to adjust our carbon footprint. We travel less on airplanes, or eat lower on the food chain. Those changes cost nothing. Maybe we even spend a little money on electric vehicles or a home energy audit.

And it’s true that even if you do those things and you get your own family CO2 footprint down from the average 16 tons a year to 12 tons a year, it still won’t make a difference on the planet. Your own personal carbon footprint is less than .0000000003% of the 43 billion tons a year that the world emits. It’s less than a rounding error.

Still reading? This is why it’s important to talk about your actions. Because while what you do personally on climate change might be negligible, talking about it with your family, your neighbors, your community, and demonstrating your commitment through your actions inspires others to act.

I used climate change as an example, but it could be anything you care about that moves the needle toward a kinder, more livable world. It could be bullying, suicide prevention, humanitarian relief, or dog shelters. The point is that if you aren’t a bully, that’s great. But a more powerful gesture is intervening a bullying event you witness, and explaining why. Or adopting a rescue dog, and then communicating with your friends and family why it was important to you.

Our actions are invitations to change. Our actions are demonstrations and assurances to others of how to behave in the face of uncertainty.

Are you stuck? Trying to figure out what you want to do? Or paralyzed by too many choices? Here is a sample lesson from our new series Making It Happen: How to Figure Out What You Want

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Our company Mindscaling, is busy building powerful human and digital learning experiences for companies of all sizes. My book Small Acts of Leadership, is a Washington Post bestseller! You can grab a copy now.

In other news, our son and I bicycled across America with two other dads and their teenagers. We published a new book about it called Chasing Dawn. I co-authored the book with my cycling companion, the artist, photographer, and wonderful human jon holloway. Buy a copy. I’ll sign it and send it to your doorstep.