Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. We’re back, we’re back. And I’ll tell you this, summer has got to be about flexibility in order for summer to work, and we said that we were going to start with “The Hardest Feedback I’ve Ever Received,” but change of plans, because I’m writing the hardest book I’ve ever written. Lord have mercy, this book is kicking my ass. So, interestingly, I’m trying to… I’m like doing this thing where I am thinking about the book and the new research and writing, and also thinking about, “Am I engaged in habits that are getting in my way of being more productive?” So lifeline to my friend Charles Duhigg, who is just so prolific and smart around habits and productivity. So we’re going to talk in this episode to Charles Duhigg, who is a New York Times bestselling author on productivity. You know, it’s interesting because summer is a great time for us to rest our brains and rest our bodies and have fun and lean into some joy, especially as we’re hopefully coming out of COVID in a safe and thoughtful way. But I also think it’s an interesting time in this space to think more big picture about what we’re doing well, what we’d like to work on, sometimes creating that summer clearing for me is when I dig in.
BB: So, I’m excited that you’re here. I’m so happy to be back. I really, I really missed y’all, I have to say, I wish all of y’all could just come sit on my couch with me and write this damn book, but I’m doing it and like the title of his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life, I am a little bit smarter, a tad bit faster, I don’t know about better, but I am being more productive, and he also writes The Power of Habit. So welcome to, Charles Duhigg, and I’m glad y’all are here.[music]
Before we jump into this conversation, let me tell you a little bit about Charles Duhigg, his book, The Power of Habit, spent three years on the New York Times Best Seller list, and let me just tell you that is rarefied air, that’s incredible. His latest best-selling book is Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and currently writes for The New Yorker, he is the founding host of the How To podcast with Slate magazine. He’s the recipient of the George Polk award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors medal, the Robert F. Kennedy journalism award and many other honors.
BB: He was also, he’d like all of us to know, for one terrifying day in 1999, a bike messenger in San Francisco (laughter) I just can’t… I wish I would have known that before I had the conversation with him because I would have really given him a hard time about that. Who signs up to ride a bike in San Francisco? Just saying. He’s a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School. Welcome, Charles Duhigg. [music] Okay, let me just start with a big huge welcome to you, Charles.
Charles Duhigg: Thank you so much and thanks for having me. It’s such a delight to be here and to get a chance to chat with you.
BB: I have about seven hours worth of questions, I’m going to curate on the go. (laughter)
CD: Good, and I might warn you. I might ask you some questions back if that’s okay.
BB: Oh that’s totally cool. I love that.
CD: Oh good, good.
BB: Yeah, we’re big fans of the convo more than anything, so, yeah.
BB: So I want to give you a little overview because, okay, so I’m surprising Charles with what we’re going to talk about today. I want to dig into your work, both Smarter, Faster, Better, and The Power of Habit through a COVID recovering lens.
BB: I want to talk about the things in the book that really changed me, and if you’ve learned anything about habits and productivity through this terrible period that we’ve been through, so I would love to do that. Are you open to that?
CD: Absolutely, I think about this all the time. Yeah, I think we have lived through this amazing and tragic laboratory, and we have just learned so much about ourselves, and two or three years from now, think about how much we’re going to know from all these natural experiments that are occurring right now, it is awful that this happened, but hopefully, we’ll make this crisis into a real learning opportunity.
BB: Yeah, there’s going to be a lot to learn, a lot to reckon with, a lot to repair, for sure. Okay, so before we get started, I always like the first question, always. Tell us your story.
CD: That is a great question. So I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have actually nine siblings, which is kind of unusual, right? If we were having this conversation 100 years ago, I would say that and everyone would say, “Oh, me too,” but nowadays, having nine siblings is a very unusual thing. And so I grew up in Albuquerque, which I loved and when I was in high school, I discovered debate as this thing that I became very obsessed with, and so I debated, and it was like this sort of wonderful lifestyle because you have this immediate feedback loop in your life to tell you whether you’re doing good or doing bad. And whether you won or lost. And then I got into Yale. And I will say my family is not a family that went to a lot of Ivy League schools. My father’s a lawyer, so it’s not like we didn’t value education, but we were a solidly middle class or lower middle class family, and I got into Yale and went to Yale. And that was this life-changing experience for me, and I think I probably got in because I’m from New Mexico, so there weren’t a lot of other applicants from Albuquerque. But when I got to Yale, it was like meeting this world probably, I would imagine you had something similar, but I think most of the people on your show probably had some similar experience where you find this world of ideas and suddenly you have this whole new concept of what is possible. And so I went to Yale, actually met my wife at Yale, and then we moved to Egypt for a year afterwards. And then I came back and I started a company in Albuquerque with my dad, we were building medical education campuses, basically to train nurse practitioners and physician assistants to work in medically underserved areas. And I realized two years in, I had no idea what I was doing, and so I applied to business schools and I got in to Harvard Business School. And I went to Harvard Business School. And it’s two years long and between your first and second year you’re supposed to do an internship with a place that’s going to hire you, and so I went and I did an internship in Albuquerque with this real estate private equity group. And I was basically trying to figure out, “Am I going to go back to New Mexico and go into politics? Right, be a businessman, go into politics.” Or “Am I going to become a journalist?” Because I had been a journalist at Yale, and I had thought it was so much fun, and so I would… Every day I’d come into this office, of this internship that I was doing, and I would sit down, and my job was to basically make these models, these financial models. And so I start making model after model, and I would let myself listen to an episode of This American Life when it got to 11 o’clock. And if it was a really tough day, and I was just bored out of my mind, I would let myself listen to two episodes. But I didn’t want to go through all of them because I was worried I was going to run out of them. And at the end of the summer, I was like, “Look, if the best part of my day is listening to This American Life, compared to the boredom of building financial models, I think I should probably try and go make episodes of This American Life.” This was like a bright blinking sign that I should become a journalist. And so my second year of business school, that’s what I did. I focused on becoming a journalist. And when we graduated, I was like the lowest paid member of my class. Graduated from Harvard Business School, I think my first job, I earned $32,000 a year. And honestly, it has been amazing, I’ve loved being a journalist, I’ve loved being a writer, and so it worked out to my great fortune and luck.
BB: God, I love this story. Okay, so I want to go back and ask some questions.
BB: Birth order, where are you?
CD: So I’m third from the bottom. I have seven older siblings.
BB: Okay, wow. Okay.
CD: And can I ask, do you have siblings?
BB: I’m the oldest of four.
CD: You’re the oldest of four and boys or girls. How does that break down?
BB: It’s me, my brother and then twin sisters.
CD: Okay. And do you think you’re a different person because you were the oldest?
BB: Oh, yes.
CD: Yeah. How so?
BB: There’s not a ton of compelling hard data on birth order theory, but I think there are good data around the oldest over-indexing in certain areas. Yeah, I think I grew up with a great sense of responsibility, a great sense of caregiving, an inflated sense of my choices being… I always laugh about my over-functioning anxiety, “Don’t leave the toilet seat up, your sisters might drown,” and so everything I do I’m like, “What are the consequences of this choice, what are the consequences of this choice?” And so I think there’s some truth in it.
CD: That’s really, really interesting because all of my older siblings, there’s a big gap between me and my next sibling, and the older siblings are all half-siblings, my father was married before he married my mom. And to your point, and I have two kids now, and I think about the oldest versus the youngest, because I was kind of the oldest in a sense, because of that gap and that issue of responsibility, I think is a really interesting one, because I think that we’re constantly trying to empower our kids, to give them that sense of responsibility, but also that sense of agency and I think you’re right, I think it falls on the eldest more easily than it does on the others.
CD: Which has some drawbacks and positives, but it does raise this interesting question, “How do we empower each of our kids that way?” I’m thinking about this particularly, because today is my oldest son’s birthday, I have two kids now, 13-year-old, and a soon to be 10-year-old. My second son’s birthday is in two days, so they were born three years and two days apart. And so the younger son always has the also ran birthday because it’s two days after the big brother’s birthday, and we’re constantly trying to give him this special day, but it is hard, It’s these challenges of parenting that I never thought about.
BB: Yeah, I look at my daughter and my husband’s also a first born, and our first born Ellen, is getting ready to graduate from college. And I remember, she came home and she said, “I made Captain of the safety patrol.” And we were both like, “Oh, hell yes, you did.” And then we started digging out our Safety Patrol Captain pictures. And my kids are six years apart, and so you can factor in residency and my PhD program in between, and we’re like, “Do you want to go out for safety patrol?” And he’s like, “No, man, I just kind of walk when the mood strikes,” so it’s…(laughter)
CD: I have had that conversation so many times, right. But you also don’t want to be like, “No, no, no, no. You should definitely do safety patrol. You need to be the A-type personality,” because you have to love them at who they are.
BB: And he’s a creative and a musician and a super athlete, and so… But I do think… I think we’re experimenting on our first a lot. I was very like “oooh,” So, yeah.
Okay, so let me go back, I want to ask another question.
BB: What were you like in high school?
CD: What was it like in high school? So I’ll answer that in two ways. Growing up in Albuquerque is kind of interesting, because the school that I went to was 92% Hispanic, and I’m not. I’m a white kid. It was a public school in the valley of Albuquerque. And so I was already kind of an outsider, not because anyone was mean to me, just because I was different. And in many ways, that was absolutely amazing. There was no scripts around me. And so as a result, it was this enormous freedom. I had a lot of freedom, and it was social freedom. It was freedom from the expectations, and it’s a little bit lonely. I didn’t get invited to a lot of the parties. I never had a girlfriend really in high school because people just… Didn’t think of…
BB: You were debating.
CD: I was debating but also… And this is a weird thing to say, but at that time, people didn’t think of the white kids that way. It was a hard community to access, and so it was a little bit lonely, but there was this enormous freedom that it afforded me, and that’s what… As I think about it today, and particularly this debate around racial justice that we’re going through, giving people that sense of freedom, particularly early in life, making them feel like there really are no limits on who they can become, is so empowering and so valuable, and sometimes in the conversation is lost how much we rob kids when, because of systemic racism or because of economic prejudice or structures, when kids don’t feel that way, I think it’s such a loss for them.
BB: Yeah, as someone who studies… You more than me, who studies potential, it’s the grief that goes along with the opportunity that’s squandered when we don’t check the systems in place and we don’t pay attention to representation and opportunity and… Yeah, it’s hard.
CD: I think for some part of America, this phrase white privilege is very alienating. It sounds like an attack on people who are white, and they react poorly to it. And I think a better way of saying it is to say, at least in my case, white privilege was this sense of infinite opportunity, and many successful people have felt that at some time in their life, and they know how rewarding that is, and whether it’s white or whether it’s rich privilege or whatever it is, to be able to say to someone, “Look, that time that you had that you felt like you could be anyone,” when kids don’t have that, that’s the privilege that they’re missing out on. I think that’s the type of thing that all of us can get behind, and say like every kid should feel that at some point in their life, before life tells you how many limitations you have.
BB: Yeah, before it shows you the closed doors, yeah.
BB: Yeah that’s a very difficult thing because it puts parents in a very difficult situation about having to reality check and prepare and protect kids from systems that are invisible to many, but exist very clearly for others.
CD: Absolutely, absolutely, I think about my black friends who have kids, and they talk about the talk that they have to have with their kids, and I think that there’s some amount of grief just having to have that conversation, but there’s also some amount of grief because that conversation is the antithesis of this sense of possibility.
BB: No it is. And I do think infinite possibility should just not be afforded to a few. I think you’re right, and especially with kids and especially around education. When you got to Yale, were you anxious about it or were you just excited or were you…
CD: Oh man, I was so out of touch with myself. [chuckle] Yes, I was completely anxious and totally incapable of admitting that to myself. And I remember there was actually this big moment, my freshman year. I was taking a course, a History course, and I love history. I ended up being an intellectual history major, and I turned in an essay and I got it back and I got a B plus, and I was like, “You know what, I got a B plus, I can hack it here,” and my roommate, he was taking the same course he got his paper back and he got an A minus, and I was like, “What’d you get?” And he said, “An A minus.” I was like, “All right!” and he’s like, “Yeah, man, I worked really hard and I clearly have got to step it up, if I want to do well here, I have got to like work” … And this difference in perspective that we were both equally anxious. He could tap into his anxiety, I could not, I was in denial. [laughter]
BB: Yeah, you’re like, “Woo, I got it, crushed it.” (laughter)
CD: Right, right, “I’m crushing it, a B plus at Yale.” Yeah, so I was anxious. And the thing that was interesting to me, and this is a very different experience that I had at Yale than what my wife had. Was that one of the reasons I loved Yale was that I felt it to be intensely competitive and to teach me how to be competitive, but also how to be a good friend. And so that really just spoke to me, but I think that that was unique to my experience. Where did you go to college?
BB: I went to UT, University of Texas, Austin.
CD: You did. Okay, and was that a transformative experience for you? I mean, as a Texas native, did it just feel like another step or…
BB: No, because I didn’t finish college, until I was 29, so I hitch-hiked across Europe, I worked for AT&T for six years. I bartended and waited a lot of tables, and I had a really crazy route and then I went into social work, and so social work was more of the transformational experience than UT… Although I loved UT and grew up a Longhorn fan, so that’s kind of a thing here in Texas, as you know. Yeah, I think finding social work for me, and I was actually… Interestingly, we share this in common. I was just walking through the social work building to find the history building, because I wanted to be a history major. And so when I walked through the social work building, they were having some kind of protest where the students were in a work stoppage because of faculty salaries and benefits, and there were all these flyers for all these different cool jobs. I didn’t even know social work was a thing, and then when I got to the history department finally for my interview, it was a lot of white men, over 65, with extremely large bulbous foreheads, and I just remember thinking…(laughter)
BB: I remember really thinking, “I’m not going to be able to rock this forehead look, for sure. So if this is part of the thing for history, I can’t do this,” but then I just saw when I was in the social work building, it was incredibly inclusive and diverse and people were again, just advocating and organizing, and so I thought… Yeah, I remember tapping someone on the shoulder and saying, “Excuse me, is this a major?” And she’s like, “This is Social Work.” And I was like, “Okay.” So then I got my Bachelor’s, Master’s and my PhD in Social Work. So that was the transformative part for me.
CD: One thing that you said, which I think is really interesting, is that you are able to identify what was transformative in like a moment, that there was a narrative associated within your mind. And one of the things I noticed when I went to business school, I went to Harvard Business School, and a number of my classmates there were people who had gone to whatever their local college was, or they had been in the military, and for them, HBS was this transformative moment, and they all had a story about how HBS was a tran… What happened in that transformation? A narrative around it. HBS for me was not a transformative moment. I mean, it was interesting, I liked it, but it’s not like my life changed or my world view changed. Yale for me was that, and I have a story about how so, and I think that something happens in our 20s, that we all have a transformative moment, and I think we encode that as a transformative moment for ourselves by creating a story about ourselves around it. So it’s interesting to me that you say “college wasn’t a transformative moment, finding social work was this transformative moment.”
BB: Yeah. That’s interesting.
CD: Because another way of saying it could be, “when I was at UT, it was transformative because I found social work there.” But it’s interesting how we create this narrative in our 20s of what is transformative, and I think it’s real. I think it’s genuine, but it’s such a special time.
BB: Yeah, it is. I wonder if the narrative in your 20s… No data here, just spitballing, folks. I wonder if the narrative in your 20s, around transformation is, finding a sense of home after leaving home.
CD: Oh, that’s interesting.
BB: For me, I would always say, “I found my home when I found Social Work.” And I think, part of being in your 20s, it can feel very untethered. I was in a different apartment every six months, or one year, whatever the lease was, I was also kind of a wonder, so… But I do wonder if it’s a sense of place, a sense of… It’s like you listening to This American Life and just thinking, “Where am I going to hang my heart? In financial models?”
CD: Right. What is the tribe that I choose to belong to, rather than the one that I’m born into? I think that’s really astute. And I think it’s really interesting, because I don’t think it has to end in our 20s. I think this is something I’ve drawn from your work is, the capacity for reinvention, and the capacity for change, draws a lot on our ability to try and replicate that experience of our 20s, to say, “Actually, the home that I’ve been living in, doesn’t work for me anymore. I want to expand it. I want to build new wings,” and believing that you can do that.
BB: And always tied to two things, I think. Tied first, to the question of “What no longer serves?” And then also tied to the power of narrative, “What story am I telling myself, about needing to stay here, versus taking the great big adventure, that’s next?”
CD: Yes, absolutely.
BB: All right, so let’s jump in. I want to start with… Can I go in weird order?
BB: Okay. I want to start with Smarter, Faster, Better. We’re in love here, in our organization, with your definition of productivity.
CD: (laughter) Oh, good. That’s nice to hear.
BB: Yeah. It’s always a risk, when I ask someone to share, because I’m like, “Maybe I highlighted the wrong one, maybe I highlighted the wrong one.” But let’s give it a shot. What is your definition of productivity?
CD: So my definition of productivity, and I struggled with this a lot, writing Smarter, Faster, Better, and I think it’s actually kind of evolved since I published the book, but it’s basically being able to first identify your goals, what actually matters most to you, and then being able to achieve those, without stress and strife and a sense of incompleteness in chasing them. Not necessarily getting everything you want, but not having that thing sitting on your shoulders, about whether you’re ever going to be able to get close to what you actually want. So I think that productivity changes from day to day, for people, right. There’s a general productivity. But on a Wednesday, taking your kid to school and getting your kid to school as fast as possible, and then getting to your office and being able to plow through your emails and then getting to do the thing you really are looking forward to, that could be your definition of productivity. Whereas on a Friday morning, productivity could be, walking with your kid to school, taking as much time as you need, having a conversation with them. But I think the difference there is, people thinking and asking themselves what productivity means to them at this moment, and clearing everything else off their mental agenda, that is not the most important thing.
BB: Oh my God, that’s hard.
CD: And I think that’s a habit. It’s a habit we have to get into, because otherwise, what you do is, you come up with a to-do list on Monday and on Thursday, you’re still doing that same to-do list, right, without asking yourself, “Should this be updated? Are these really the most important tasks for me today?” And so, having the mental freedom to think more deeply. Throughout history, there has only been one killer productivity app, and that has been thinking more deeply, training ourselves…
BB: Wait, say that again. Say that again. Throughout history…
CD: Throughout history, there’s only been one killer productivity app, and it is, thinking more deeply, training ourselves to think more deeply about the choices that we are making, to make sure that what I am doing right now, aligns with what I think is most important, and acknowledging that it might be different yesterday and it might be different tomorrow, but at least right now, I’m thinking about that and I’m making a choice to get closer to it.
BB: Okay, I want to dig into this for a minute. I just need to hover here. So what I underlined in the book was, “productivity is about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.” Which is exactly what you just said, but you dug a little deeper for us here, right?
CD: Yeah, right. I think that those align. What we care about, is what’s most important to us.
BB: But help me understand something, because I really have a lot of personal questions, I’m going to use this as my therapy session. (laughter) Okay. Monday, I got a lot of stuff to do for this week and I have my to-do list, and there’s still expectations around those deliverables on Thursday, but I’m tired of this shit now, I don’t want to look at it anymore, I know I told you you’re going to have it by Friday, but I just want to catch my son’s game and have a long dinner and talk to my family at the table. Where is the line between commitment and responsibility? How do we get to this place, where Monday, I understand what I need to do, I understand some of it’s directly connected with my why, some of I need to give other people so they can do their why. How do we stay away from the place, where we’re in tears on Thursday and saying to ourselves, “Everything in my effing life is half due.”?
CD: I think it’s a really, really good question, and I think it’s a thing that we’re all struggling with, particularly now, during the pandemic, because it feels like you can work all the time. And what I would say is, I don’t know that there is one answer to that. I do know that each person has an answer, but that the only way you get to that answer, is to force yourself to ask the question and think about it. So I think, if every Thursday, when I say that your productivity and your goals might change from Monday to Thursday, that does not mean that we should be mercurial, that doesn’t mean that we should sort of choose whatever seems most fun that day. It means that we should be in a place where we’re asking ourselves on Monday, “This list of things I’ve come up with, do they actually connect to my why or other people’s whys? Do I think that they are genuinely important?” And if they are genuinely important, when you get to Thursday, you might say, “Okay, I’m just sick of this and I need to question whether I’m taking on too much, I need to question whether I should be responsible for other people’s whys, maybe I should question whether I have too many whys.”
BB: God, stop. That’s painful. Okay.
CD: But I think that’s at the core of it, right? Is this question of, there is not an answer for everyone, there is a process for everyone.
:25:06.2 BB: Oh my God. Okay.
CD: And that process is questioning yourself again and again and again. We think of productivity as something that will make me faster or smarter or better. The title is a little bit of a joke that I don’t think anyone really realized, because I think real productivity is actually about slowing down a half-measure, so that you can ask yourself whether you’re doing the right thing or whether you’re just following some choice you came up with on Monday, on a Thursday, without bothering to question whether Monday’s choices were right.
BB: Never in my life, I have to tell you, and I’ve got a lot of years stacked up there, have I heard that the greatest productivity app is thinking more deeply. I mean because people are selling the shit out of productivity apps, that are just about rearranging the same color blocks in different ways.
CD: Exactly, or doing your email faster. And actually, Peter Drucker once said this, Peter Drucker once said, “There is nothing more wasteful in this world, than optimizing what never should have been done in the first place.”
BB: Ooh, that hurts. That’s so painful.
CD: Right, and I think for you and for other people who I look at, and I marvel at how much they get done. We know how easy it is, to fall into a trap, where we stop thinking about what we ought to do, and we just do it. In fact, it feels super relaxing, and we know that there’s this cognitive need for closure, that we actually have a psychology built around trying to conserve energy, being an energy miser in our brain and looking for heuristics so that we don’t have to make choices ourselves. We just rely on previous choices, and what that means is that, on Monday or last year, we decided that something was productive and good, and here we are, a year later, doing it without stopping and saying, “Actually, has the world changed or do I have new data now, that’s told me that actually, there’s something else that’s better or more important?” and if you’re not doing that, then you’re not actually being productive, you’re just getting things done. And getting things done does not necessarily mean they’re the right things.
BB: Yeah, I can’t even make eye contact with Barrett, who’s in the room right now. She’s just sitting back here, looking at me, shaking her… I just want to start sliding her post-it notes that say, “I have too many”… For the record, Barrett, I’ve got too many whys, and they’re not in the right priority list. Okay.
CD: Can I ask you a question on this? Because you are incredibly productive.
BB: Maybe you can. Let’s see.
CD: I also think, as a corollary to this, this doesn’t mean that every day has to be fun and pleasant and feel like you’re on top of everything. I would imagine that you, particularly over the last couple of years, as you’ve launched your podcast, as you’ve built your company, there’s probably a number of weeks where you felt like you had taken on too much and it was impacting your life in a negative way. But now, now you get to sort of see this thing you’ve built, which I’m sure is deeply rewarding. How do you think about that? How do you think about the trade-off between the short-term pain and the long-term sense of accomplishment meaning?
BB: I think tenacity is both my super power and my kryptonite. And so, I’m very tenacious and I’m very good at setting long-term goals and working towards them very judiciously. I think I can get to a place, though, if it’s not painful and hard and exhausting, “Is it even worth it, doing? Is it good?” And so, I think I have too many whys sometimes, and I think… Yeah, I have a hard time delegating. It’s the same old stuff. Somehow, in my mind, I have made thinking deeply, which is kind of what I would say I do for a living, I have made thinking deeply and productivity, mutually exclusive.
BB: So I think, when I am thinking deeply, when I’m off the grid and my team knows I’m off the grid, writing or coding data or collecting data, and I’m thinking deeply, I feel like I’m not getting the shit done, that I need to get done, even though the whole reason we’re all here, is because I’m doing research. And so, it’s weird. Why do you think we think of thinking deeply and productivity as mutually exclusive? Or is it just me?
CD: No, no, no, I think a lot of people do. I think, first of all, there’s a mind frame sort of way of looking at this, but I think, equally to that point, that they often are mutually exclusive because we haven’t built cognitive routines into our life, that make thinking deeply, easier. And we make it hard to access the flow of state, of thinking deeply, because it hasn’t become routine.
BB: You have to say that one more time and slow it down and break it down.
CD: So I think there’s a lot of people who think deeply, every day, and I think that they have built it into their life. And the way they’ve built it into their life is, they’ve come up with some type of habits, some type of cognitive routine that forces them to think deeply, and I’m actually certain you do this too, and I’ll sort of show you how. And because it’s more automatic, because it’s a habitual behavior, it’s easier to do and so, that first step is easier to take. And so, to give you an example, in Smarter, Faster, Better, I tell the story of the making of West Side Story, and in particular, the choreographer, this guy who forced himself to think more deeply, every single day.
CD: And the way that he would do it was, he was super curious. He’d go to these Jitterbug contests all over New York City, every night. He’d go to these meetings of the Communist party, not because he was a communist, he just liked it when people yelled at each other. He was openly bisexual when homosexuality was illegal. He would read these dime-store novels, but also Shakespeare. So he was very curious, but then every night what he would do is, he would come home from whatever he had been at, and he would sit down and he would write a 10 to 15 page letter to a friend. And the letters are terrible, the letters are so boring. He would send them to his friends and his friends would write back and say, “I read the first couple of pages and then just stopped reading, because it’s just drivel.”
CD: But he wasn’t writing them for his friends, he was writing them for himself, because by forcing himself to write what he had done that day and what he thought about it, he was seeing the connection between a Jitterbug contest and a Salsa concert he had gone to, and this latest version of Romeo and Juliet analysis that he had read. That’s where West Side Story comes from, is him writing these letters and seeing these connections between ideas.
CD: And what’s interesting is that, it wasn’t hard for him to write these letters because it was a habit. He had gotten into the habit of doing it every single night. You know writing a 10 or 15-page letter, it makes your hand cramp,
BB: It’s no joke, yeah.
CD: Like, it’s work. But he had a cognitive routine that forced him to think about what he had seen that day, and make connections. My guess is, that when you come home, you and your husband say to each other, “What did you do today?” This is what I do with my wife, I come home and I say, “What’d you do today?” listen to her, and then she says, “What did you do today?” And for the next 10 minutes, I tell her what I did that day and she’s bored out of her mind. But again, I’m not telling her that for her benefit, I’m basically using her as a way to force myself to think about my day. And so, that’s an aspect of thinking deeply, that’s easy, because I’ve habitualized it. And my guess is, you do the same thing, that you have cognitive routines that actually do push you to think more deeply.
BB: God, that’s really interesting. So I’m going to share a habitual practice that we put into place, probably a year ago, that has really changed our organization. So just like from Jitterbug to Romeo and Juliet, to the dime-store novel, to this. That’s how my mind works. I’ll see an episode of Law and Order, it will remind me of a data set that I saw, then I’ll go look at the data set, and then I’ll read something by Bauman, and then I’ll say, “That’s how I work.” And so, a lot of times, for the people around me, they’re like, “What are you thinking? Why are you making this decision?” So now we have this thing called the five Cs. So when we make a decision or we’re thinking about something, or we’re sharing a point of view, we’ll say, “What are the five Cs?”
BB: And so, it’s context, color, connective tissue, cost and consequence. And so, that’s how we reconnect the seemingly unconnectable for people, so that’s how we force deep thinking. I don’t have just an opinion on this, let me tell you how I think about the connective tissue with what we’re doing, in the context in which it’s happening, the cost, the consequences. And I have seen it change our organization just… Really, it changed it over night, and as it’s become a habit, the change has deepened in a way that is incredible.
CD: I think that’s amazing. And what I love about that, because I think you’re exactly right, the fact that you came up with the five Cs, you could have called it anything, but it’s so easy to remember, the five Cs. And that’s probably not its strength, except that it makes it easy to remember. I remember, I once saw you give a speech, and you said something in the speech where you said, “The culture of our organization is, there’s no meeting after the meeting,” and as soon as you said that, I was like, “Of course.” It never even occurred to me, that the meeting after the meeting, which happens at every place I’ve ever worked, The New York Times, there’s seven meetings after the meeting. It never occurred to me that that’s a cultural artifact, but of course, once you put a name to it, it is, and once I can put a name to it, it’s so much easier for me to hold it and to think about it and to dismantle it. And the five Cs, just to give yourself a rubric to make deeper thinking a little bit easier, that’s all we need. Every study sort of shows that the first step is usually the hardest in any type of cognitive activity, and so, the whole goal is just to make that first step easier, because then you’ll slide into it.
BB: Okay. I want to read a couple of things to you from your book. May I?
BB: Okay. “Productivity isn’t about working more or sweating harder, it’s not about spending longer hours at your desk, or making bigger sacrifices. Rather, the difference between being merely busy and genuinely productive, is about taking control of how we think and making better choices, instead of simply reacting to constant demands. The most productive people create habits that force them to think.” So, can you talk to us about responding to demands and reacting as a great threat to thinking deeply? Is it?
CD: Absolutely, absolutely. It constantly is, and I think even more so now, because we live in this world where our computer is dinging, and our cell phone is giving those little alerts about texts, and there’s somebody asking for something and someone just come into your office and said, “Can I just have 10 minutes of your time?” You could literally fill… All of us could fill our entire days simply responding to other people. And there’s a feeling of completeness that comes from that. When you have an inbox with 100 emails in it, and at the end of the day, it has zero in it, you reward yourself, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.
CD: The problem is, is that all you did was reply to emails and you’re now going to have 200 emails tomorrow. Because we know, that if you reply to emails, all you’re doing is creating more emails for yourself. So I think the question then is, “How do we build cultures or how do we build practices for ourself, cognitive routines, that allow us to not be purely responsive?”
CD: And in the book, there’s this story that… And I actually love this story, it’s a story of Qantas Flight 32, which is the worst mid-air mechanical disaster in modern aviation. It’s basically this plane that took off from Singapore, headed to Sydney, Australia, and because of this awful thing that happened, one of the jet engines essentially exploded and it punched a huge hole in the wing of the plane. And the captain, this guy named Richard de Crespigny, is sitting in the cockpit, he’s reaching over to turn on the auto pilot and suddenly, his entire dashboard lights up with all of these alarms. Now, in a situation like that, your instinct and correctly, at first, is to respond. There’s an alarm, so I’m going to try and fix that alarm, I’m going to do whatever the computer is telling me to do. The problem with this flight was that there were so many broken systems on this plane, that as soon as they put out one alarm, 10 new alarms would start, and they put out two of those and now they’ve got 20 new alarms. And Richard de Crespigny, a couple of minutes into this emergency, he realizes that he’s falling into what’s known as a cognitive tunnel.
CD: A cognitive tunnel is when our brain feels overwhelmed, and its instinct is to focus on the most observable stimuli. We’ve all felt this. When you’re driving down the freeway and you see a cop car out of the corner of your eye, and even if you’re going the speed limit, you suddenly hit the brake and slow down. That’s because you’re suddenly in a cognitive tunnel. You’re purely reacting because your brain feels overwhelmed by new information. And as a result, what it does is it looks for the most obvious stimuli, focuses on it, tunnels you in on that and forces you to respond immediately.
CD: And so de Crespigny is sitting in this cockpit, he’s seeing all these alarms, he starts tunneling. He feels himself getting drawn into this tunnel. There’s an alarm. I’m going to put out that alarm. Here’s another alarm. I’m going to put that out. He’s never stopped and asked himself, “What’s the most important thing to do here?” Instead of responding, he ought to be thinking, but all he’s doing is responding. So he does this kind of interesting thing.
CD: In the middle of this emergency, all these bells are going off, there’s red lights flashing, he takes his hands off of the controls, he puts them in his lap, he closes his eyes and he says to himself, “I am falling into a cognitive tunnel. I need to come up with a new story in my head that makes me feel like I am in control. Because if I feel in control, I will start making choices instead of responding.” And so at that moment, he decides to start pretending like he’s flying. At this point, he’s flying an Airbus A380, basically one of the most complicated airplanes on earth.
CD: He decides to start pretending that he is flying a Cessna. Which is the plane, he learned to fly on, the plane he knows best. And they end up landing the plane without an incident, there’s not one injury of anyone on board that plane. And what’s interesting is that if you ask him why he was able to land that plane, what he’ll say is, “I don’t really know. My habits took over. I was able to make the right choices. But I think what was most important was that I wasn’t actually flying a Cessna. I didn’t even believe I was flying a Cessna. But the act of telling myself…Choosing to tell myself a new story, choosing to say, I am going to decide how to behave… That changed everything. I stopped reacting and I started thinking.”
CD: And I think that when we go into our office, it’s clearly not the cockpit of a plane that is about to crash, but it’s not that far off. Because there’s so much stimulus coming in, right. There are so many people asking for help, there are so many emails, there’s so much you can just react to. You can fall into that cognitive tunnel without recognizing it. And so how do we break ourselves out of that? We have to be in a culture where we second guess the story we’re telling ourselves in our brain. We second guess the mental model that we’re building, and that’s hard to do.
CD: In order to do that, you have to be surrounded by other people who teach you to second guess. Which means when you’re in a meeting and someone second guesses the decision you’re making, instead of being annoyed, we should say…
BB: Thank you.
CD: Thank you for doing that. Thank you for helping me remember to second guess myself. Or when we’re working on something, and we have that team member who drives us crazy because they keep on seeing things differently, they can’t get with the program. What we want is we want to say to them, “Thank you.” And when we go home and we tell our spouse the story of our day… In the middle of the story our day, we should say, “You know what? Let me think about how I could have done this differently.” Maybe worse… But just getting in the habit of changing the story in our head helps us feel in control, and from that control comes decision-making and agency rather than reactivity.
BB: Okay, so I want to talk about the crazy transferability of this cognitive tunnel thing that you just shared with us. This is going to be a very dumb example, but… Okay, so I have recently become an obsessive competitive pickleball player…
BB: Okay, but no, really… This is true.
CD: I love it.
BB: Yeah, I’m an ex-tennis player, but I’m really into pickleball, like I play it four times a week. So I was playing yesterday in Austin, and this guy came to join us. I was in a lesson. And it was me, my sister, and then the coach and this guy came and said, “Hey, y’all, want a fourth for doubles?” And he’s a ranked, really incredible pickleball player. So when I was up at the net…or up at the kitchen, which is kind of like being up at the net in tennis… Right before his partner would serve, he would step over toward the center of the court, and I would just step over with him no matter where the ball was coming. And I would keep missing the shot. I was so pissed off. And finally after the third time, he said, “I’m waiting right before the serve and I’m moving and I’m owning you on this court.”
CD: That’s so interesting.
BB: And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re responding to me moving and not thinking about your game at all.” And I kind of walked back because it was my serve and my partner who was the tennis coach said, “What are you saying right now to yourself about this game? You’ve got game. We can win this point.” And so it was such an example of, I got out of position because I just responded to the biggest first thing that was moving on the other side of the court.
BB: And not even thinking about my plan, my strategy, what I’m good at doing, what I suck at doing. I needed to put my paddle down, close my eyes and say, “I’m playing my game.”
BB: I’m not playing…
CD: I love that.
BB: But he just kept moving me. I was doing Simon Says like a mime. I was like, “Wherever you go, I go.” And then I effing miss the ball.
CD: Which is actually an inborn trait. There’s an evolutionarial drive to mimic the people around us. What I love about that is I hear two things in it. Number one, on that court, there was a culture of other people challenging you and pointing out things to you…
BB: Oh yes.
CD: That you can’t see yourself. Which is great. That’s a learning environment.
BB: Yes. That’s coaching. Yeah.
CD: But I’m curious, number two… So given that, how do you systematize that? What do you do differently going forward to help yourself see you when you’re reacting rather than thinking.
BB: I don’t know. I could have played across from people who have been doing that for the last month, I don’t know. Unless he’s a really top rated person, like a professional pickleball player, and so he was helping me. I can’t believe I let that pull my focus.
CD: I know.
BB: What is the relationship between focus and productivity.
CD: It’s essential. We know that the people who tend to be able to set goals and get the most done are the people who are able to focus best on them and ignore distractions.
BB: How are you defining focus?
CD: There’s a technical definition that I can’t remember right now, word for word. But basically the ability to systematize very quickly what is core to the goal and what is a distraction to the goal. Because it’s not obvious at first. You probably have an overriding goal to share your knowledge with the world. And so when someone emails you and they say, “Hey Brené, can you solve this problem for me so that I can help get your podcast out.” It’s very easy to tell yourself, “Oh, that’s a sub-goal of this bigger goal that I have,” without necessarily correctly classifying it as a distraction.
CD: And saying, “If I don’t respond to this email, this person is going to figure it out on their own.” So the best thing I should do is see this as a distraction and hit delete. So I think that’s what focus is. Is this sorting ability that’s very, very fast around what is helpful to my goal and what is a distraction from my goal, because it’s hard to tell. This guy through practice knew that if he stepped over, it was helpful to his goal, because it would make you step over.
CD: Whereas to everyone else, it would just look like he’s getting out of position. And so I think that the question then becomes… And part of this is just learning, is how do we put ourselves in situations where people draw our attention to it. Because no one will ever be able to do that to you again.
CD: Once you’re aware of it, it enters your system. Is this closer to my goal or is this a distraction from my goal. But it’s the awareness that is the really hard part. And to be totally honest with you the only way I think we systematize it and we get into a system that makes us more aware is honestly, to have other people around us.
BB: In a learning culture, right?
CD: In a learning culture. In a learning culture. People who are forcing us to see things that we’re not seeing on our own. I don’t know how much you can do it on your own because we’re blind to what we’re blind to.
BB: Yeah. Wow.
BB: Okay, it’s interesting because I’ll be celebrating 25 years sober, which is a really exciting thing.
CD: Oh, wow.
BB: Yeah, it’s neat. And it’s a big part of my life, but one of the things that I did five years ago. I was doing a lot of coaching and leadership coaching and work. Trying to figure out how to be a leader in a way that reflected my work. And so the Serenity Prayer. It’s a big prayer for those of us who work a program. But I always change the prayers. Even when I’m at church, I’ll change the prayers.
BB: And my kids are always like, “Oh God, not out loud, Mom. Please come on… ” When I say the Lord… I don’t ever say, “deliver us from fear and evil,” because that always reminds me of the bad guy in Frosty the Snowman with the mustache and the hat. So I’ll always say , “Deliver us from fear and shame.” That makes more sense to me. And my kids are like, “It’s so embarrassing when you got your own words.” But when I say the Serenity Prayer, I always ask for the gift of discernment, because it says, “And give us the wisdom to know the difference.”
BB: And I always say, “And grant me the wisdom and the discernment to know the difference.” And so I think when I read your books, both The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better… Man is discernment an under-valued skill set. What matters? What doesn’t matter? What’s important? What’s unimportant? What’s reactive? What’s proactive? What are your thoughts on discernment? If you just step back… Just not quoting from your book, but if you just step back as Charles…
BB: And think about the body of work, the work that you’re working on now. What have you observed about people who have really meticulous discernment skills?
CD: That’s a really interesting question. And I’m going to ask you a question about that word in a second. But to answer your question, I actually think that’s at the core of everything I want to do. One of the reasons I became a journalist is because I want to expose these systems in the world that shape who we are and how we behave, but are so hard to see…
BB: Invisible, right. Yeah.
CD: Yeah. So I’m a reporter at The New Yorker now. I used to be at the New York Times. The work I did at the New York Times, it ended up winning the Pulitzer, was about Apple. And basically how do iPhones get made and the tax systems that Apple use. And my whole goal with that was to say, “You put this thing in your pocket and you don’t understand that it’s tapped into these invisible structures around you.” Some of which are great. They give us amazing technology. Some of which actually would make most people discomforted because someone in China died to make the product that you’re holding right now.
CD: And just exposing you to those systems, I think will increase your discernment. You might still make the same choices. You might still buy an iPhone. And I have an iPhone, but at least you’re making that choice consciously. You’re discerning the options in front of you. And so for me discernment is about seeing more options. Because at the end of the day, when most people fail, or when they fail to live up to what they hope for, it’s not because they’ve made bad choices, it’s because they didn’t see other choices that were available to them.
CD: I mean, there are some people who make bad choices. There are some people who choose to use drugs or… But for most adults, if you look at the path they’re on that didn’t get to where they wanted to be, it’s not that they made a bunch of bad choices, it’s that they made the third best choice because they didn’t recognize the first and second best choice, was dangling in front of them and they couldn’t see it.
BB: So it’s a consideration set issue.
CD: Exactly. And it’s the fact that we haven’t been trained to see that bigger consideration set. Or nobody has given us the vocabulary to recognize them by saying, the meeting after the meeting suddenly makes me realize, actually, the meeting after the meeting is an option. I can say what I believe in the first meeting. And just identifying and categorizing how the world works structurally gives us more options. Now… Okay, so here’s my question for you. And I love that this is part of your Serenity Prayer, which obviously is deeply meaningful to you. What’s the emotion that you feel when you say discernment… In that prayer. You added that into that prayer. When you say that, what does it do to you to say that word in this almost holy phrase?
BB: Yeah, I mean it is, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can.” And then what I usually add to the end is “the wisdom, the grace and the gift of discernment to know the difference.” And it’s normally just the wisdom to know the difference. But I think I can’t always depend on cognition and wisdom and experience, because I don’t always have it. So sometimes it’s got to be just some grace. And then discernment for me is a practice.
CD: That’s interesting.
BB: Yeah, discernment is a practice. It’s not luck. It’s not a one-time big data dig in, it’s the practice of slowing down. I feel, when I think about discernment, I think about relief. I think about feeling tethered. I think about a deep breath. I think I am playing my game. I’m not on the defensive.
BB: If you think about sports. I’m controlling the court. It’s discernment for me. It’s not making decisions out of scarcity or fear, or not taking enough time to get the most expansive considerations that I can come up with, with other people helping. So I think it’s, for me discernment means growth. It epitomizes for me, growth, equanimity and feeling grounded, really grounded. What does it mean to you?
CD: Well, I’m going to put out a hypothesis. You tell me if you think this is right, based on what you just said. And I think what you just said is beautiful, because I think it captures so much of why taking that prayer and changing it is powerful. What I hear you saying is that by adding grace, which is essentially kind of reminding yourself to be humble
CD: To say things are outside of my control and adding discernment and removing tension. That prayer, I think for you, does what that other player did on the pickleball court. Which is, it’s a way of interrupting this prayer. A prayer becomes a series of words that we don’t even think about when we’re saying it, because we say it so much.
CD: That word interrupts the prayer just enough to force you to say, “Look, what are the things I’m not thinking about? Am I paying attention to how that guy is moving?” That I think is your cognitive routine. And it feels more authentic and important because you took the Serenity Prayer. This thing that’s like, cut in stone, you made it your own by adding your own words, and it reminds you, I’m guessing each time, actually, this is not just a phrase, this is a set of rules that I set for myself. This is a cognitive routine to force me to take a second and say, “Am I actually feeling the way I want to feel?” And if I’m not that’s a warning sign, that I need to take a second and look at the choices.
BB: Yes. Yes.
CD: Is that right, you think?
BB: Yes. And for me it gets to something you write about a lot and it gets to control. And I’ll tell you why. The first time I said it and added those words. I’m a super anxious flyer and I fly like you all the time. And every time I land, I think I’ve defied death. It never gets easier. I keep getting on the plane, so it doesn’t control my life. And it was one of those flights where the captain came on and I think she said something like, “Look, folks, we’re going to come in through some serious wind shears. It’s going to be a really tough landing. I need you to go ahead and secure everything right now. We’re going to pick up drinks early.”
BB: And a part of me is like, “What the shit? Why are they saying this?” I don’t want to know this in advance. And so I started doing my Serenity Prayer, doing my Serenity Prayer, but it wasn’t helping. And then so that’s when I said, “I need the gift of discernment, here.” I need to have some control over how I choose to respond right now. Discernment to me means I’m in, not the pilot seat in this case, but I am in my own emotional driver’s seat.
BB: I can choose to just lose my shit right now, or I can choose to think about… I can tell you the engineering of a plane more than probably most aviation engineers, because I have to know it to know. So I do think it is about what happened on the court. But we don’t talk about it, Charles. We don’t teach discernment.
CD: No. And what I hear you saying, that I think is really, really interesting and invaluable is you center that in a physical sensation of tension. In an emotional sense of tension. You’re feeling scared, you feel tense. And we know and you’ve written about this so beautifully, emotions are a way of us telling ourselves what’s actually going on inside our brains. They’re signals to us.
CD: And so I think you’re right. Not only do we not talk about discernment, we don’t talk enough about saying pay attention to your body and pay attention to how you’re feeling because it might be telling you actually what’s going on inside your brain. It’s hard to access our own brain.
BB: It’s so hard.
CD: And that sense of tension. I mean, what’s fascinating to me is that this came to you in a moment when literally you had no control.
CD: You’re not flying the plane. You can’t do anything. The only thing you can control is whether you are anxious about what’s happening, or whether you let yourself relax. And you found a way to put yourself in control, and then you drew on that to expand the Serenity Prayer that you can use in any situation. And I will say, and I’m curious as someone who’s in recovery, I have found… I’m not in recovery, but meaning your background… I have found that people who have struggled with addictions or have struggled with anything that’s physical, that they’re actually more attuned to this. They’ve learned to listen to their body in a way that many other people haven’t. Is that right? Do you think that that’s true?
BB: I don’t know. I think I can say for me, for sure. That’s for sure my case.
CD: Is it?
BB: Yeah, I don’t know any data on it, but I do know that part of my work. And I don’t think it’s just my recovery work, it’s even the work I do with my therapist, which is, if I get scared, I can get critical. I’m one of those people that can get scary when they’re scared. So if there’s something like COVID’s going on, and Steve and I disagree… he’s a pediatrician…about whether we should let our daughter do something or not do it because of COVID, and I can get really shitty and critical, because I’m scared.
BB: And so one of the things I have to pay attention to is, “Oh, this is fear.” And now instead of being critical, I’ll use some of the Gottman’s work and I’ll say, “I’m feeling scared. I need to understand more about your thinking and about why you think this is okay.”
BB: And so I think part of just general not being an asshole-ness is me trying to be aware of what I’m feeling and how that’s forcing how I show up.
CD: It’s so hard though, because when you are an asshole, you feel totally, or at least I do. When I’m an asshole, I feel totally self-justified in my asshole-ness. At no point, am I like, “You know, maybe you’re being an asshole.” No, I’m like, “You know what I’m doing, I’m helping other people figure out how to raise their game.” (laughter) It’s like fear or taking a step on the court and pushing me to match them, and I’m in denial of it. I don’t even see it.
BB: Yeah, it’s really what I do. And I’ll tell you, one of the reasons why I do it is because I got some hard feedback as a leader in the beginning, I remember people kind of, an intervention with me, and they said, “Look, we get your passion, we get how much you care about the work. But when you’re feeling super intense about something and we’re in a meeting and someone’s across from you on the receiving end of your intensity, it’s like a wind tunnel. It’s like the Brené wind tunnel and people are just holding on to their stuff and holding on to the edge of the table and waiting for it to be over.”
CD: Can I ask? Why were those people comfortable enough to say that to you? What was going on, that they were able to say that? Because that must have been a terrifying thing for them to say.
BB: Oh, it’s very much our culture. I mean ,we really live the work. I bet we say, “the story I’m telling myself right now” or “I need to circle back with you on something,” or “can we rumble on this.” I bet we say that collectively 100 times a day. We live that culture very much, and so, I think I had asked, “No one’s saying anything right now about this idea, but I can tell by the look on your faces, that y’all are concerned about us moving forward,” and that’s when someone said, “It’s hard to match your intensity right now, it’s hard. You have a lot of power in the room and you’re super excited and intense about this, and here’s what that experience is like, on the other side of it sometimes for us.”
CD: So what do you do differently now? If you feel that intensity and you feel that enthusiasm, how do you express that in a different way now?
BB: I don’t, usually, because it’s just part of me. So what I usually do is say, “You know what? I’m feeling super intense. Can we have a 10 minute time out?” And they’re like, “You take all the time you need.” And then, I mean, I walk the parking lot or I do some deep breathing, and I’ll come back. But I’m super aware of it because I think, in my research, I have not really worked with, or interviewed, or spent time with a leader I would consider deeply transformational, that did not have very high levels of self-awareness, about how they show up, affects other people. But we have a lot of psychological safety. And you write about psychological safety. I wish I had a dollar for every time I quoted Project Aristotle or something. When we’re talking about productivity on teams, how important is psychological safety?
CD: I think it’s the most important.
BB: How important are the conversations?
CD: I think it’s essential, and I’d be curious if you disagree, but I feel like, and we have lots of data to support this, in the book. Google basically spent three years trying to figure out what makes teams succeed, and the only thing they could find that really mattered the most, was psychological safety. Coming into a room and feeling like I can say anything and it’s not going to be held against me, it’s not going to be weaponized to be used against me. And that I can bring my whole self to work. Which doesn’t mean I say offensive things or I try to attack other people, because I want them to feel like they can bring their whole selves to work too. But we’ve all felt that. Again, I worked at the New York Times, and The New York Times is wonderful in many, many ways. The product is amazing, the organization’s culture is a challenging culture, and I think, in a lot of places, there’s not necessarily psychological safety, and it’s just debilitating. If you feel like you’re walking on glass, you’re never going to do your best work.
CD: And, you’re denying other people their best work.
BB: Yes, everyday.
CD: Because without your inputs, they can’t succeed. I think it’s everything. Now, the hard question though is, how do you create psychological safety? Nobody ever says, “I hate psychological safety.” The question is, how do we operationalize it? How do we make it something that even folks who are not talented at leadership, who don’t think about this, that they can do? And I’m curious what your thoughts are. I’ll just say it really quickly. What Google… Basically, Google found that there was a couple of things that they could do. Number one, if they had a quality and conversational turn-taking. So they would tell leaders, “Put everyone’s name on a list in the meeting and put a check next to their name, after they speak, and make sure that everyone has at least one or two checks next to their name. And if somebody doesn’t call on them, draw them into the conversation.” And then the other rule is, ostentatiously listen, perform your listening, because everyone else in that room will begin mirroring you. And so if you say, “You know, Jim, I remember you said that a couple of minutes ago, X,” or you say, “ Brené, that was a great idea. Let me tell you what I think about that idea.”
CD: If you ostentatiously listen, everyone else will start doing it, and that’ll help create psychological safety. And I think Google uses those because of two very simple things to do, it’s obviously, a set of behaviors that’s bigger than that. But I’m curious. How do you… For your company… Because… How many employees do you guys have, at this point? It’s a big group.
BB: We have 30.
CD: Okay, that’s a lot of people.
BB: Yeah, it’s what we teach. It’s the heart of Dare to Lead. The big finding from that work was that courage building, how to create courageous cultures, where… I think it’s probably a different way of thinking about psychological safety, but it’s not just safety, but it’s about the ability to have difficult conversations, it’s about the ability to understand how you’re showing up when you give and receive feedback. So we found it’s just skill sets, and we teach it. I mean we teach it to places like Google. And it’s surprising to me, what we expect people to do at work, that is not about character, but is really about skill. I don’t think you can have psychological safety if you have a bunch of people who can’t tolerate vulnerability. So we teach people how to be in uncertainty, we teach people real sentence stems to use. Because one of the things that gets really hard about some of the hacks around psychological safety, I think, is they’re transactional, not relational.
CD: That’s interesting.
BB: Yeah, and I think the deepest forms of psychological safety are the voice piece, checking off how many times someone has spoke.
BB: That gets really into Ethan Burris research on voice, on employee voice and being heard. But you have to do that transactionally, if there are not deep relationships in place. But if relationships are in place, it’s a much more organic way to do it.
CD: I absolutely agree.
BB: And it’s less performative, especially, kind of the audacious listening. I think those are great starts, but I think we have to skill up people in areas where we just don’t have skills. I mean when we teach people simple things like, “What are your values?” and then, “What are three behaviors you’re engaging in right now, when you get hard feedback that are outside of those three values?” down to, “It’s probably outside of my values actually, to cross my arms across my chest. It’s probably outside of my values to roll my eyes, because respect is one of my values.” I think it’s really trying to teach self-awareness, is a big part of psychological safety.
CD: I absolutely agree. And I think that’s a really good point, that when Google has tried to operationalize these, they’re basically trying to create these behaviors that hopefully lead to this relational building and it’s… particularly for engineers, I think that they need rules or it’s helpful to provide rules. So I’m working on a book right now, about the science of conversation. Basically, why do some conversations work and others don’t. And one of the things that I’ve really, and you’re probably familiar with this research, really fallen in love with, is this concept of neural entrainment. That we know that when people begin conversing with each other, their brains actually start matching each other, particularly…
BB: Syncing. Yeah.
CD: Syncing. Yeah. And so, in one way, you can say that the goal of conversation is to sync, is to find ways to sync with the person that you’re talking to. And I think, in that… When we start thinking about it that way, for me at least, it’s been really revelatory, because it means that all these rules I think about, “When do I ask a question? When do I let someone else speak?” It puts it in a framework where I say, “Oh, actually, the answer is always, to get us more similar.”
CD: So sometimes, acknowledging differences helps us sync. If I say to you, “Look, we’re talking about race, or we’re talking about gender,” if I say, “I can’t understand your experiences, I’m not going to tell you what it’s like to be a woman,” but I actually think that helps us sync. It’s not the conventional wisdom of finding common ground, it’s acknowledging the differences between us.
CD: But the reason why it works is because it syncs us on respect, it shows that we have mutual respect and it helps us sync up. And so, I think that when we talk about what is a relationship, I think, in some senses, a relationship is the desire on both people, to sync, regardless of the means.
BB: Yeah, I agree, and I think you can use… It’s an overused word, so I like sync better, because sync speaks a little bit more accurately, probably to the neurobiology of mirror neurons and everything that’s happening during conversations, where there’s that kind of relationship, but I think connection, and I think What kind of greases the wheels, to me, of that syncing, that is again, I think, a skill set learned, taught, measurable, observable, are maybe a couple of things. Curiosity, empathy and self-awareness.
BB: I don’t know, it’s a complicated debate over nurture-nature, around those three things. Just because we’re wired for empathy doesn’t mean that we have the skill set for it. Teresa’s Weissman’s research would say, “The reason that acknowledging difference works to build connective trust, is because perspective-taking is one of the four functions of empathy.” And so, when you say right off the bat, “I’m not going to claim to know your experience, but I am going to state my curiosity about it.” That is empathic in its DNA.
CD: Yeah, absolutely. So can I ask you something? So I don’t know if you’ve ever had this situation within your company, or your organization. When you find someone who’s talented and you’re trying to teach them these skills, and for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem like the skills are sticking or they’re just struggling with the skills more than you’re used to, what do you do? What have you found, helps someone kind of break through, when it’s not natural?
BB: Yeah, and I can speak to this because we’ve actually taken, I think the latest number I saw was 58,000 people through this training.
CD: Wow. That’s a lot of people.
BB: Yeah, it’s a lot of people. And we collect a lot of data. And so, I think the short, most relevant answer is, “What is the narrative that’s getting in the way of the skills building?” I’ve never run into a capacity issue around this. The four skill sets are very simply, being able to manage vulnerability, understanding your values and what it looks like to operationalize those into behaviors, building trust, behaviorally building trust, and then understanding how to get back up after a failure, setback or disappointment. These are kind of the four skill sets of courage. And what ends up happening, I mean you talk about engineers, and I loved reading about engineers, in here. That’s a tough one for us always, because systemic vulnerability is why engineers exist, to get rid of that, right? (laughter) And so, when I come in as the vulnerability researcher, they’re like, “Man, here comes trouble.”
BB: But what’s interesting, we did this work with a group of mostly PhD-level engineers at Shell, who worked in the most precarious, dangerous… They were part of a SURF unit. So, Subliminal Underwater Risers and Floaters. So these were engineers that work thousands of feet down.
CD: Oh my gosh.
BB: And it was so interesting to go in, because there were crayons and we were going to do all this stuff, and right away I observed how many of them took the crayons out of the boxes, they kind of ordered them by color cue, and these were serious engineers. But as we started to do the work, what I realized as what was getting in the way, was not delineating the differences between systemic vulnerability and relational vulnerability.
CD: Oh that’s interesting.
BB: Because what they said was, the toughest thing about their job was the people part, and having such high risk. And then I said, “I’m not asking you to increase systemic vulnerability, I’m asking you to increase relational vulnerability.”
BB: And same thing with surgeons and some people who… Military, I do a lot of work with special forces in the military, and they’re like, “Whoa, vulnerable perimeters equal death.” I think a lot of times, the barrier to the work is where we started our conversation, actually, Charles. Narrative.
BB: What’s the story? What’s the story that you’re telling yourself? And is that a narrative of self-protection that still serves you right now, or is it getting in the way?
CD: Absolutely. And I think that gets into this deeper thinking part, right. That oftentimes, when you train yourself to think deeper, when you build these cognitive routines that force you to think a little bit deeper, what you’re really thinking about is, questioning the narrative that you’re telling yourself and the narrative that’s around you.
BB: That’s right
CD: And one of the things that’s interesting is, you mentioned, basically, by breaking this categorization, from vulnerability and breaking it into two types of vulnerability, one of the things that I love about Malcolm Gladwell’s work is, Malcolm is so good at taking what looks like one story and breaking it into two very different stories. And simply the creation of categories, again, it’s that first step towards telling a new story. When I know the beginning of two stories, it’s really easy for me to tell two stories. And so, simply breaking things into finer categories, I think, gives us this tool for generating new stories, because we know that humans are story-generating machines…
BB: Yeah, that’s what we do.
CD: That’s what we do. And we just need to give people more seeds, to say, “Imagine what this place would be like, if you could be relationally vulnerable,” and it didn’t change all of the institutional vulnerability. You’re still going to be a zero air organization. I think it’s so powerful. I think, in some respects, when I think about the work I do, and the work you do, and the work, this little group of us, who are writing these books basically, about how to live better lives, Adam Grant and a lot of the folks that you’ve had on your show, and I question, “What is it that we’re doing?” Some of you guys, like yourself, are actual researchers, so you’re going out, you’re generating new information. But as a journalist, all I do is I just steal other people’s information and then repackage it, right. I’m trying to figure out a new way to explain it, that fits into people’s lives.
BB: I would not say that.
BB: No. I’ll tell you why. I’m a big Jim Collins person, and so I had this great two and a half hour, three-hour nerd out with him on the podcast, and he and I are both grounded theory researchers. And to me, a lot of what you do, feels very much like. I don’t know if you know anything about that methodology, but feels very much like grounded theory methodology, where you’re finding themes and patterns and systems and connections, between things that are seemingly not related, but completely related, and then you’re naming them in ways they give people a cognitive handle on what they are and how they work.
CD: I absolutely agree. Right. I think that’s what you and I, and Adam and Malcom do, we find a way to take an idea and make it easy for someone to carry around, and apply to their own life. And that makes the idea real.
CD: And I think part of it is, giving it this nomenclature, being able to give us phrases. Part of it, in my case, and I think this is true of your work, it’s certainly true of Malcolm’s work, is also just coming up with literally stories, anecdotes, because it’s so much easier to remember an idea, if you say, “I remember that story about West Side Story, I remember that story about that airplane that almost crashed.” For whatever reason, it’s a little suitcase that makes it easier for us to unpack, when we need that suitcase.
BB: Yes. I think that is neuro-biologically, because we are a meaning-making species and we think in terms of narrative format, a beginning, middle, end, first act, second act, third act. I think we think like that.
CD: So this actually goes back to talking about why I decided to become a journalist. One of the big things was that when I was doing that job, sitting in that office, making those models, what I realized is that, in business, you get paid when you get better and better at doing the same thing, you can do it faster and faster, you can do it more quickly. But in journalism, you get paid for doing something different every single day. And the only thing that at the time, and I still think this is true, the only thing that I thought might still be super interesting to me when I’m 60 years old is, why do some stories work and others don’t. How do I tell a story that makes people desperate to get to the end of it? Because you’re right. A big part of it, is this beginning, middle, end, but as we know, that’s like 101, and then you read these things.
CD: Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite novelists, and she wrote that book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and the narrative structure in it is so fascinating. Or you read George Saunders, who writes about these things that are almost alienating, and yet you can’t stop reading them because they’re so deeply felt and they’re so beautiful. What do they do with their stories, that make us desperate to read things that sometimes don’t even look like a story. That, I think, when people crack that problem, then they can change the world. That’s how you become President of the United States, that’s how you start a religion, that’s how you convince people.
BB: Yeah. I was going to say, for better or worse.
CD: Yeah. I think that is the greatest power. And it is so complicated.
BB: It is. I mean you and I have both spent time inside of Pixar, and you really start to understand the complexity of compelling narrative.
BB: It’s just an art form. It’s science, it’s art, it’s neurobiology, and sometimes it’s weird, because it’s like ballet, the more simple it seems, the harder they’re working.
CD: Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly, and one of the things I actually love about podcasts, is that I think podcasts are forcing us to come up with new narrative structures. Like for this show, do you guys edit it or do you just basically sort of structure the conversation and then do light editing? Because I’ve listened to a number of them, and it sounds like the conversation.
BB: No, it’s just the conversation. A lot of Malcolm stuff is really edited and we don’t do that. It’s conversation and sometimes people are like, “Wow, that was amazing. You were pinging around” and the other times people are like, “Wow, are you on drugs?” (laughter ) And, No. I’m not, but we just let it go because there’s a real intimacy to our community of listeners, and so they go with us on these kind of ping abouts.
CD: And what I love about it is that, and I’ve noticed this listening to this show, you don’t get to eavesdrop on a lot of other people having conversations prior to podcasts, there was a little bit.
CD: Like radio, but it was heavily edited, there was more like Malcom stuff, and just listening to how other people have conversations, actually teaches new narrative forms, I think.
BB: I think that’s true.
CD: Because I think in your head that there’s a narrative to the conversation we just had, and in my head there is too, and they’re probably pretty similar, but as a listener, it could be surprising how we got from topic to topic or why we went from topic to topic, and it just exposes you to more possibilities of what a story can look like, because even though everyone that.
BB: I think that’s true.
CD: All of them have a beginning and a middle and an end, but beyond that, there’s 10,000 options.
BB: It’s like, “you choose your adventure thing,” it’s like it could have gone a million ways and I don’t go into it, I have this incredible document and it has everything, and we’ve hit on. It’s almost like when I give a talk, I have just usually seven or eight slides for an hour that are the beats that I want to hit, but I have no idea what I’m going to say. (laughter) It just depends on what’s looking back at me in the audience, because if I’m just going to say what I plan to say, it’s in no way connective with the people in the audience. And so if I get to beat number two and people are like, “What the hell is she saying?” Then I unpack that for the rest of the time, and I may not even share my slides or people are like, “Oh my God, yeah, more of that,” then I might, you know, and so.
CD: How do you pick up on that? Can I ask you, and this might be less interesting to listeners, but you and I give a lot of speeches, so one of the things that I’ve had trouble doing is reading the audience. How do you pick up on them being confused or them., besides laughter.
BB: Contractually in the contracts, house lights can never be below 50%.
CD: Oh, that’s fascinating.
BB: Yeah, so I have to see them, I have to be able to look in people’s eyes and then they’ll say, “Well, that’s not good for recording,” and I’m like, That’s great, because in the next paragraph, you’ll see that you’re not going to be able to record it because this is a moment in time for me and a group of people, and I’m there to serve them, I’m not there to serve people who will watch it in some other point, and we’re going to talk about proprietary stuff and we’re going to talk about whatever they want to talk about, and I’m not going to follow anything that you can vet for sure. And so I really make it about serving the people in the audience and being able to see them and be connected with them, and I think when you can do that it comes pretty naturally.
CD: I think I’m going to steal that from you. That’s fascinating.
BB: Oh, please. Yeah, no, I have to see them. I can’t talk into the void because it’s not connective.
CD: That is really, really interesting.
BB: It really works.
CD: Yeah, yeah, I’m definitely going to start stealing that and it probably makes it more interesting for you too.
BB: Oh God, yes. I think people who give great talks are generous people, and they make it about the audience, and then I think always the gift is for me in the end, I’ve usually learned more. I can learn more about my work talking to an audience that is not talking back, but is responding. And I’ll say something like, “even if you’re working really closely with an asshole,” and then I’ll see, I’m like, “Y’all stop elbowing each other and stop whispering because that person is probably in the row behind you” and they’re like, “Oh.” We’re in relationship.
CD: Yeah, it sounds like giving speeches is actually a cognitive routine for you to push deeper thoughts, because I do the same thing.
BB: Oh, for sure.
CD: That is fascinating. And very productive.
BB: And very productive. All right, are you ready? I have so many questions. Are you ready for the rapid fire now that we’re in deep cognitive place. Okay, I’m mixing this one up because I’m curious about different things. All right. Fill in the blank for me, vulnerability is.
CD: I’m actually embarrassed, I can’t answer that easily.
BB: That’s good.
CD: I think vulnerability is humility, like positive, like that great feeling of humility.
BB: What’s something that people often get wrong about you?
CD: I think that they think, I’m a white dude who went to Yale and Harvard, and I’m pudgy and I don’t think I come across as this. You know you talk to Malcolm, and he’s got the crazy hair and everything he says is so smart, and so I think people often both overestimate me because I have this educational background, and underestimate me because I don’t come off that impressively, I think. (laughter)
BB: Oh my God, okay. So here’s an interesting one. What’s one piece of leadership advice that you’ve been given that’s so great that you need to share it with us, or so shitty that you need to warn us.
CD: It’s a great piece of advice, and it actually comes from the guy in Hollywood, I can’t remember his name, who basically said, “The only truly toxic thing you can do is show someone that you don’t respect them, and if you do, they will do everything within their power to destroy you.”
CD: And I think that’s true.
BB: Yeah, it’s a wound.
CD: It’s a wound and once you do that, they’ll hurt themselves to try and hurt you.
BB: To hurt you. Yeah. Who said that?
CD: Judd Apatow.
BB: Oh, Judd Apatow. I had him on Unlocking Us. I could see that. He’s a good observer of human nature.
CD: Well, and it was clear that he must have done that at some point, and it bit him and I’ve done that. I think that when I look back at every leadership mistake I’ve made, it’s because I didn’t respect someone enough, I didn’t force myself to find a way to respect them, and I showed them that I didn’t respect them, and once I did, it was like dropping poison into the well, and eventually I’m going to drink it.
BB: Yeah. Okay, what is the hard leadership lesson that the universe just keeps putting in front of you and you have to keep re-learning, unlearning, learning again.
CD: That any time I do something and I’m not doing it for love, it’s going to end up badly.
BB: Ooooh, that’s so painful.
CD: (laughter) So speaking of speeches, for a long time, I was giving speeches because of the money, and I didn’t give great speeches, and any time I do something because it seems like the smart career thing to do or because I’m getting a lot of money for it, or because I think it’ll impress other people, it never works out well for me.
BB: Oh God.
CD: No matter how smart I am, I can’t make it work.
CD: So I just have to do something because I love doing that thing.
BB: I’m with you 100%. Last thing you watched on TV, binged and loved.
CD: The last thing I loved. Okay, this is crazy, but there’s this TV show called Legion, so it’s two shows. It’s Fargo, I love Fargo, the guy who made Fargo, Noah Hawley, it’s an amazing show. He made this crazy show about superheroes named Legion, nobody liked it. It’s the most inventive creative thing on Earth.
CD: It’s mind-blowingly creative, it’s hard to even believe that people could sit down and take these ideas and turn it into a script, and so it’s deeply unsatisfying in some ways, Fargo is much more satisfying, but I loved Legion. I just thought it was.
BB: Okay, I’m going to have to ask my son and my husband. They watch a lot of that, so I’m going to have to ask, okay.
CD: Good, and if they don’t like it, I actually want to know why too.
BB: Okay, is it like Tenet? Kind of weird, that kind of innovation?
CD: It’s even weirder than that.
BB: Oh lord.
CD: Yeah, it’s like Tenet-weird, but then on a whole other level of being like, I can’t understand what’s going on. So I’ll answer that question a little bit differently, which is, what’s a book that I love? Very smart. So Wolf Hall, I love Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, the Hilary Mantel books about Cromwell. And the reason why is because they’re super hard to understand what’s going on, it challenges me as a reader. Legion is a show that challenges me as a watcher. And it’s about superheroes, and that’s fun.
BB: So I’m just going to have to do the natural segue here, what’s one of your favorite films?
CD: Oh, I don’t know. And then I want to ask you these same questions like What TV shows I should be watching, but what’s one of my favorite films? Quiz Show, remember that? That movie?
BB: Oh God, oh Jesus, that was so good. Yes.
CD: It’s great, right?
BB: No, it was brilliant. It was so brilliantly acted and Ray Fiennes was in that, who did the whole thing was just… It was great.
CD: And the core of the story of saying honesty is its own virtue, that seems powerful to me.
BB: It was good. Oh God, it was good. Okay, what’s one thing that you’re really excited about right now.
CD: I am so excited about coming out of the pandemic and being in a world that is different. I just think it’s going to be fascinating. I don’t know where the story is going. I don’t know how this script ends.
BB: I know. We’re right in the middle of act two, the writing is not on the wall.
CD: No, not at all, not at all. And I think it’s going to be different in these ways, some of which are bad and some of which are good, but that are all fascinating.
BB: Okay, what’s one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now?
CD: I am deeply grateful that I have healthy children.
BB: Amen brother me, too.
BB: Yeah. Okay, last one. This was very interesting. Okay, we make mini mixtapes for all of our podcast guests, so we asked you for five songs you can’t live without. You gave us Victor Vito by The Laurie Berkner Band. What’s the Miles Davis song? Concierto de… How do you pronounce it?
CD: I don’t even know how to pronounce it, to be honest. [chuckle]
BB: Concierto de Aranjuez by Miles Davis. I’m going to do a pick-up on that, you can bet. Charles Mingus. II B.S.?
CD: BS. Yeah, II B.S. It’s a wonderful song. I don’t know if the B.S actually stands for bullshit, but it’s an amazing piece of music.
BB: Okay. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips.
CD: A Good Texas band.
BB: Yeah, well, the Flaming Lips are great, I don’t know the song I have to say. And Carmelita by Warren Zevon? Okay. What in the hell? In one sentence, you’re a writer, you’re a journalist, in one sentence, what is this mini mixtape say about you, Charles Duhigg?
CD: Oh man.
BB: One sentence and don’t give me the journalistic semi-colons either.
CD: I think what it says is I love playfulness and surprises, but the surprises have to be real.
BB: “I love playfulness and surprises, but the surprises have to be real.” You might be a dark, deep guy, Charles. I’m now really. (laughter0 I’m going to watch, is it Legend or Legion that I’m watching?
BB: Legion. Okay.
CD: By the way, my wife would disagree with you. [laughter] She would say I just fake it really good.
BB: Oh man, thank you so much for this. This was so much fun.
CD: Thank you. Oh, this was amazing, thank you so much. There’s so many questions I want to ask you, some other time. Sometimes we’ll go get a drink. After.
BB: That would be awesome. I’d love that.
CD: I would love that. Thank you Brené, this is so wonderful.
BB: Thank you, appreciate it.
BB: I loved this conversation, I just. It was so interesting to me and so helpful, and I mean, come on, I got to work in a pickle ball analogy, so can I get some points there? Can I get some pickle ball points, please? [chuckle] Yeah I actually need them for my game. I love that productivity isn’t about working more or sweating harder, and the difference between being busy and genuinely productive is about taking control of how we think and making better choices instead of reacting to constant demands. And oh my God, I think I do this thing where there’s a million demands on me when I’m trying to write, and instead of just saying “No,” or even stopping them before they become demands, I do them, and then I might blame other people, but I do them as a way to like springboard out of the writing of the book. That’s going to be another episode, it’ll involve my therapist, but I’ll be back with what I learned about myself. You can find all of Charles’s books wherever you like to buy books, we’ll also link to them on our episode page, don’t forget that we have an episode page for every podcast, that includes mini mixtapes, links, social links.
BB: Charles is at charlesduhigg.com. He’s Cduhigg, which is C-D-U-H-I-G-G on Twitter, Facebook, he’s Charles Duhigg, really appreciate y’all being here with us on Spotify for both Dare To Lead and for Unlocking Us. If you haven’t checked out the Brené Brown page on Spotify with all the episodes, mixtapes, playlists, you can find everything in one spot. And I have to tell you, Laura Mayes, who produces this podcast for us and has been a friend of mine for, I don’t know. Oh, I do know, we met when the kids were 18 months old in a Montessori school, because we both pulled up on two wheels, shit falling out of our cars to pick up our kids like at the last minute before you go into kid overtime. So 16 years, no, 15 years now, she makes the most incredible playlists for us, and she does one for every month, and they are incredible, they’re just the best. They are on our Spotify hub, so check those out. All right, y’all, awkward, brave and kind. I will see you next week.
BB: The Dare To Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and Andy Waits, and the music is by The Suffers.
© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.