[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than two million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the self-help for smart people podcast network.
In this episode, we discuss the science of talent. We look at how great talent is built into the very physical structure of the brain itself; explore the incredible importance of striving at the edge of your ability and staying there as long as possible, the vital importance of mistakes in the learning process, how a group of kindergarteners beat a bunch of CEOs at a simple team-building exercise, a powerful tool Navy SEALs use to make better decisions that you can apply to your life right now and much more with our guest, Daniel Coyle.
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You're also going to get exclusive content that's only available to our e-mail subscribers. We recently pre-released an episode in an interview to our e-mail subscribers a week before it went live to our broader audience, and that had tremendous implications because there is a limited offer in there with only 50 available spots that got eaten up by the people who were on the e-mail list first.
With that same interview, we also offered an exclusive opportunity for people on our e-mail list to engage one-on-one for over an hour with one of our guests in a live exclusive interview just for e-mail subscribers. There's some amazing stuff that's available only to e-mail subscribers that's only going on if you subscribe and sign up to the e-mail list. You can do that by going to successpodcast.com and signing up right on the homepage. Or if you're driving around right now, if you're out and about and you're on the go, you don't have time, just text the word “smarter” to the number 44-222. That’s S-M-A-R-T-E-R to the number 44-222.
In our previous episode, we discussed the foundations of evidence-based thinking, the important balance between habits and decisions and how each of them shapes who you ultimately become and dug into the idea that your decisions set their trajectory of your life, but your habits determine how far you walk on that journey.
From there, we explored how to build high-impact habits, what you need to do to determine the best habits to focus on first, how you can harness the power of the aggregation of marginal gains and much more with our guest, James Clear. If you want to crush procrastination and overwhelm, be sure to check out our previous episode with James.
Now, for our interview with Daniel.
[0:03:08.3] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Daniel Coyle. Daniel is the New York Times bestselling author of The Talent Code, The Culture Code and several other books. He's a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and works as a special adviser to the Cleveland Indians. His most recent work focuses on how we can build cultures that last and be highly productive. His works been featured on the TED stage and much more. Daniel, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:33.9] DC: Hey Matt. It's good to be here with you.
[0:03:35.4] MB: Well, we're very excited to have you on the show. I'd love to get started with, I mean, I think both of your – two of your biggest books, The Talent Code, The Culture Code have so much wisdom. I'd love to start with maybe this idea of individual talent and then when you move to looking at how we can collaborate and work in groups and build culture.
[0:03:54.8] DC: Yeah. Well, that's funny. That's how I started on this little journey. Got interested in his talent hotbeds and it sent me on this long trip I've been on for the last 10 years. I'd love to start there.
[0:04:05.1] MB: I think, even that statement is a great place to dig in. When you say talent hotbed, what is that and how did that spark this this journey?
[0:04:14.1] DC: We've all heard of these places and they're real. There are little places that produce statistically impossible numbers of talented performers. There's a place in Russia with chess players, there's a music camp in the Adirondacks that produces unbelievable players, there's a tennis club outside of Moscow called Spartak that produces more top 20 women than all of America did for a period of about 10 years.
We're all familiar with this idea, the little town in the Dominican that all the shortstops come from, we're all familiar with that and how unlikely it is. That mystery is what sent me on this journey with The Talent Code, where I went to find out what the hell's going on there? What's that all about? Is it something in the water? Is it something more?
The journey took me on this this deep dive into basically how the brain learns, and what great practice looks like, feels like, smells like, what great motivation looks like, feels like, smells like and what great coaching looks like. I found there was a pattern, that they all shared a pattern that is really clear when you look at the human brain. There's a certain practice that's happening there that improves your learning velocity. The subtitle of the book is that greatness isn't born, it's built. That's what I found out to be pretty much true.
[0:05:23.2] MB: There's so many ways I want to go from that and unpack what you said. Let's start with this simple idea of how the brain learns, in that journey to uncover these talent hotbeds, how did you start to peel back the layers and really understand how our brain really functions?
[0:05:40.4] DC: It started with going there, going to these places and seeing them involved in this certain practice that puts you on the edge of your ability. There's a story that I tell early in the book and it's of a clarinet player. Her name is Clarissa and she's part of this larger study that attract improvement for over years.
They were able identified these extraordinary moments where her learning velocity increased, where she learned. In this case, it was a month's worth of practice in five minutes. I was able to look at the videotape. What does that five minutes look like? We typically think of talent as something that just blooms and happens with effortlessness. What I found was exactly the opposite.
I mean, she's making mistakes, she's playing and then it's almost like she wants to drop her clarinet. She feels that mistake so intensely. She's so aware of what right is and what wrong is and she repeatedly goes to that edge of her ability, fails, notices the failure, learns from it and then moves again. That moment, which is really called deep practice is where her brain is being built, where she is building that brain.
Then you go a little deeper. I went to this fantastic doctor, Dr. Douglas fields who studies the brain and learning and a bunch of other stuff at the National Institute of Health in Maryland. He showed me this picture of something and it looked like electrical tape wrapping a wire. It was this spiral around a wire, and he started telling me about myelin.
Myelin is a brain substance that was thought to be inert for many years. It's basically the insulation around your wires of your brain. Like your brain is a bunch of wires and myelin is the insulation that lets the signal go from one spot to another. If you didn't have it, the signal would leak out and it's the same reason we got myelin on the cords that we're using to talk right now that insulates the wires.
He started telling me that modern science actually got it deeply wrong when it came to myelin. It wasn't inert. It grows and it grows in response to practice. They've actually done these brain studies where they can look at brains of say a piano player after 50 hours of practice, after a 100 hours of practice, after 200 hours of practice, and the myelin on those circuits in the brain grows in proportion to the hours that you spend.
In other words, every effortful rep earns you some new connections, every effort rep earns you another wrap of this insulation. When you get more insulation, I don't know if your audience is into electrical engineering, but the thicker insulation is, the faster the signal speed becomes. The thicker that myelin gets, the more you earn another wrap and earn another wrap and earn another wrap, you get better signal speed, which means you get better skill; this this idea of – we always talk about muscle memory. “Oh, he’s got great muscle memory.”
That's actually a deep misnomer. Muscles don't have any memory. They don't. All the memory comes in your wires of your brain. The faster and more accurately you build that machine between your years through deep practice, through going to the edge of your ability and repeating and learning, the better brain you build.
[0:08:34.2] MB: I love that idea of essentially cramming a month's worth of learning into five minutes by really being at the edge of your ability. That's really interesting.
[0:08:43.3] DC: It's beautiful to watch actually, because it's really ugly. It is not a pretty place to hang out, and it's very effortful to hang out there, which is why you can't do it in for five hours a day. You can't do it for 10 hours a day. Most the places I visited had really intensive practice for between one and three hours a day, and that's where they could really get the most done.
This idea that we have, and I think it's been fueled a little bit by the 10,000-hour number and this idea of great world-class experts, and so will only have to take 10,000 hours. That gives you a sense like, “Well, I just need to put more hours in, right? Now you were measuring hours.” It's actually a bad nudge, because don't measure hours, measure quality reps, measure – we often measure our practices by, “Oh, I spend an hour doing X.”
Don't measure it that way actually. Measure it by how many intensive reps you can get. For example, if you want to memorize part of a book, don't highlight it and go over it. That's been shown it doesn't work very well. The best way to do it is to read the book once, close it and then try to regenerate what's in the book. Actively put yourself in that [inaudible 0:09:48.6] spot of like, “Oh, I don't quite have it. I'm failing, but I've almost got it,” and try to generate that. As much as you can, make your rep active and reaching. The keyword is really reach, like to get to the edge ability and reach just past it. The more you can do that, the more effective your practice will be.
[0:10:05.7] MB: I think it's another really critical idea, this notion that talent is I mean, not something necessarily that you're born with, but it’s literally something that’s built into the physical structure of your brain through this, so this reach through this deep or deliberate practice.
[0:10:23.0] DC: It is. It’s liberating idea, and it comes with a few caveats. If we're talking about talent as pure speed, or pure ability to leap, no. Genes matter, you know what I mean? Genes are not important, right? We've always thought of this as nature versus nurture, right? Is this a nature or is a nurture? What the science is increasingly telling us is it’s nature times nurture. It's a multiplier. If you've got some natural proclivities and what you can do with quality practice is really deeply accelerate those through the active reaching.
[0:10:55.7] MB: Tell me a little bit more about this idea of reaching, or being at the edge of our growth zone.
[0:11:01.9] DC: Well, it's interesting. All reaching is not created equal, Matt. If I remember the first time I went downhill skiing, I was definitely reaching. I was 15-years-old, never really been on downhill skis before. I just flopped my way down the mountain. It was not pretty. I was definitely reaching, but I was way, way away from my target, and I didn't learn anything except how to fall really well.
What you should be aiming for is anything between – and it varies according to task, but aiming between making it between 70% and 80% of the time. You should be failing 20% to 30% of the time. That's a reach. If it's too easy and you're making it 90% percent of the time, you're probably not learning enough. If it's too hard and you're making it 10% at the time, you need to move the target closer, so that you can more accurately get it.
When you think about that reach, it really makes you reinterpret another word, which is the word mistake. When we fail, it feels really bad, and it feels we should stop and it feels it's a problem and it makes you turn away from it. What happens in these talent op eds and in other high learner environments is people really lean into that, because they realize that mistake is not a verdict. That mistake that you made is information. It's information that you can use for your next try.
It's like you're building a map, right? I'm trying to find Wichita on the map and if I reach toward Wichita and I have no idea where I am, it's hard to find where the right path is. If I know that I went to Kansas City, then I can go toward Wichita. I can use that to triangulate. Those mistakes are gifts, because they give you the edges in the field that you need and the information literally that you need to make us a more accurate reach next time.
[0:12:48.2] MB: The many ways that it almost seems like mistakes are where the learning is really taking place essentially.
[0:12:53.4] DC: Oh, my God. Mistakes are the gift. That is the moment. There's a really key moment. They've actually shown this on brain scans. I'm sure your listeners are familiar with Carol Dweck's work with Growth Mindset. They can actually identify the moment. It happens like 0.2 seconds after you make a mistake. In some people's brains they look intently at the mistake. What the hell happened there? I want to know, right? In other people's brains, they shut down and look elsewhere.
It's really a provocative question for all of us, like which one are we, right? When we make a mistake, there's that tendency to flinch and close your eyes. If you do that, you're losing a huge opportunity. If you make a mistake and you really get more interested, that's where the growth is going to happen.
[0:13:34.1] MB: Yeah. I mean, we're huge, huge fans of Carol Dweck. She's a previous guest on the show and her book Mindset, probably was one of the most transformational books that I ever read personally. I couldn't agree more about the theme that if you delude yourself into thinking that you haven't made a mistake, or you don't learn from your mistakes, there is so much self-sabotage happens, and it really all realms of learning and personal development.
[0:13:57.3] DC: Totally. We always think of that as being a moral point like, “Oh, you should learn from your mistakes, because it's the right thing to do.” It's actually also a neural point, right? You're actually having that opportunity to build – an unbelievable opportunity to build your brain that you're walking past. It's the right thing to do from being a better person point of view, but also from being a better learner.
[0:14:18.6] MB: I really like the way you phrase that. I mean, from the perspective of the myelin structures inside of your brain, if you're not learning from your mistakes, you're not allowing your brain to get wired in a way that's going to make you more talented and ultimately help you become more successful.
[0:14:31.7] DC: You're building habits, myelinating and building better wires for you to look away. All these things grow on each other. That's the other thing that got me interested as I went through the individual stuff, if we can in some ways make the turn toward culture here, because the power of a culture to create an environment where everybody is learning is incredibly cool.
The idea that certain leaders can send signals to say, “All right, we're going to make that safe. We're going to make it safe to really make mistakes and learn,” can have a huge effects on the overall learning of a group. I saw that. That's what got me interested in groups in the first place, because you'd walk into these hot beds and some of them just – they felt different, right? They felt really cool. They felt really connected.
We talk about that term chemistry, like that group has really great chemistry. We feel that when you walk into a great school, you walk around it, be around a great family, be around a great sports team, be around a great business. You walk in you feel that chemistry. We've always thought of that as magic, right? But it ain't. It's not magic. It's human signaling. They're aligned their behaviors with really powerful wires in our brain that help us generate closeness and connection and cohesion.
[0:15:39.5] MB: Absolutely want to dig in to all of that. There's one other thing I want to come back to before we go too deep down the culture rabbit hole, which is something that I constantly think about and struggle with. As somebody who's really done a lot of homework on this, I'm curious what your perspective would be. I can easily see how this deep practice and knowing when you're at the edge of your growth zone and all these things apply to things, like chess, or tennis, or discrete skills where it's easy to get feedback and measure the results. How do you think about applying this to things like business, or larger fields of interaction where there's really unclear long-term, murky feedback, or no feedback, or there's a huge amount of noise between action and feedback?
[0:16:23.4] DC: Right. Now that's a really cool question, and it's one that actually we faced a little bit in terms of some of the work I've done with the Cleveland Indians. Not with the baseball players so much, but with the on the baseball operations side, because we're trying to do what you're talking about, which is the big challenge there that I think you're speaking to is the fact that the world, especially the business world it's this really mushy place, right?
Like, did that meeting go well? Did that meeting not go well? How am I doing? If I'm shooting free-throws, I can add that up. I know my free-throw percentage, but what's my percentage on having good conversations with people, right?
I think the way to think about that space is exactly in-line with sports. You have to define your scoreboard, right? You have to create moments of reflection where you assess yourself on how you're doing against a clear standard. A lot of successful people I've seen build that standard for themselves. I've seen it like three or four times recently where people will build their own dashboard, right? It's a piece of paper that sits on their desk and it's got the key things they want to get done for the day and might have to do with learning this, it might be relational, might be connecting with a spouse, it might be something completely different, but the idea of constantly holding yourself accountable to some really specific metrics on what you want to do and really specific standards.
Making a bar really clear, this is where language ends up being massively important in defining what you want. Any improvement comes down to three things; you got to figure out where you're at, you got to figure out where you want to go, and you got to figure out how you're going to get there. Those first two pieces are really a lot of reflection.
In modern life, all learning is made of a loop. On the top you have experience, on the bottom is reflection. In our world, the world is filled with experiences. Carving out time to reflect, to really figure out, “Okay, where am I with my skills? Let's say my sales skills, or my skills at giving a pitch? Where am I with those skills? How can I assess that? Where do I want to be? Give me a really clear windshield of specifically the skills that I need to build.” Then I need to build a process for getting there.
I think a lot of times, we give a lot of credence to experience and a lot of lines of work. How do I become a better lawyer? Well, you just have to have a lot of experiences. How do I become a better baseball scout? Well, you just have to have a lot of experiences. That's what we're told. That's not actually true. You can build your own system, but it really hinges on figure out where you're at with reflection, figure out where you want to go by staring at greatness, who is great in your environment? How can you quantify that greatness and describe it? Then, build yourself a plan of daily habits for getting there.
[0:19:08.4] MB: I think that's a great answer, and especially the piece of both thinking about reflection and using those contemplative routines, or contemplative time, whether it's journaling, or thinking, or whatever to really step back and figure out how do I tie my experiences to what I want to take away from them and how I'm going to improve on them. Then I think marrying that with this notion of really measurable process-driven goals is a really comprehensive way to think about that. Thank you for such an insightful answer.
[0:19:36.7] DC: You bet.
[0:19:37.9] MB: Let's get back to this idea of culture now. I want to come back to something you touched on a moment ago, which is this notion that building great cultures isn't magic. It's not this voodoo thing. It's something that there's very practical, specific actions that you can take, and you've actually been out in the field and studied people like pro basketball teams and Navy SEALs and all these different realms of endeavor and found that it's not this impenetrable mystical force. It's something that's really practical and specific.
[0:20:11.0] DC: Mystical force. I love that, because that's exactly how we perceive it, right? Like, “Oh, man. Apples just got that thing, or Amazon, or whoever.” That idea is very sexy and pervasive, that they've got it and it's something they're born with. It's the group version of genes, right? They've just got that magical thing that lets them be awesome and we don't.
When you look closer at that – well, it's quite ironic actually that we view it with such – through such a mystical lens, because by far, when you look at the studies, there was a cool Harvard study that took 200 paired organizations, they were identical in every respect, except for one. One had a strong culture, one had a weak culture. Then they tracked them for 11 years. The difference in net revenue between strong culture and weak culture was 756%. Culture was worth that much 756% in that revenue, in performance basically.
Culture, it's this ironic thing because culture is by far the most important thing you do in a group. Ut's the most important asset that you have, it's your Achilles heel potentially. Yet, we regard it like it's some mystical smoke, which is crazy, because when you look underneath the smoke, what you see is this very old, very simple set of signals. Signal, they're called signaling behaviors.
There's certain behaviors that caused these ancient wires in our brains to light up and they have to do with some very fundamental evolutionary things, like safety. Am I safe? Am I not? Then the other one has to do with sharing risk. Are we sharing risk here, or are we not sharing risk together? The third has to do with where are we going?
A good visual for your listeners, if you're trying to think about what a great group looks like, picture a flock of birds moving through a forest, or maybe better, like a school of fish moving to a coral reef, thousands of fish altogether moving through this really complicated environment in real-time. That's what great culture is. When you look – watch Pixar make a movie, when you watch the Navy SEALs operate, it's connection, it's sharing of information. They're not hiding information. They're showing where each other is and it's clear direction of where the goal is, where are we going.
That image of those – of that school of silvery fish moving through the coral reef is exactly what they're achieving by sending these signaling behaviors of safety, like it's safe to be connected here, of sharing vulnerability, sharing risk and of purpose. This fundamental language is what the book is about.
[0:22:42.5] MB: I think it's great that you bring it back to how evolution has shaped our psychology. It's funny, the very first episode we ever did of the Science of Success many years ago was called The Biological Limits of the Human Mind and it was all about how evolution has baked in certain biases and behaviors into our brains. In most cases, they work really well, but occasionally especially in modern society which is not necessarily what our brains were designed for, they can often short-circuit.
[0:23:10.5] DC: Super exactly, exactly. One of the big ways it does that is around this notion of vulnerability. Typically, we're taught. If you and I are going to trust each other that we've got to build-up trust in order to be vulnerable, right? We're going to work together. We've got to build trust and then we can be vulnerable together.
In fact when you look at the science and you look at the experiments, we've got it exactly backwards. Being vulnerable together builds trust, being open together. There's some really cool experiments I talk about in the book where they pair people and ask them questions, one set of questions, one group gets one set of questions designed to create vulnerability. It asks something like, “When was the last time you sang in the shower?” People have to ask each other. Or, “Tell me one thing that you've always wanted to do and why haven't you done it?”
Another one it's just the other group just gets factual questions like, “Who's your favorite movie star?” At the end, they have them all do a cooperative act. The team that got vulnerable together performs better. They're better at cooperating and which really shows how backwards we've got it. Vulnerability, sharing weakness together is what builds trust. Great groups operationalize this.
They purposely create with the intent of an athlete training. They purposely create moments where people can get real and where people can be vulnerable and tell each other the truth about what's really happening. I mean, when the SEALs do a mission, whether it's a training mission, or whether it's Bin Laden. For the book, actually I end up talking to the guy who trained the people who got Bin Laden. They do something called an AAR, which is called an after-action review.
They get off the helicopter and they circle up and they start having a hard conversation about what went wrong, and about what went right, and about what they're going to do different next time. It can be a five or 10-minute thing. It's incredibly powerful. It's a hard conversation. It's really hard to admit, “Yep, I totally screwed that up.” It's the thing that lets them build a shared mental model of what they're doing. It’s the thing that lets than cooperate, just like the people in the experiment, cooperate better.
Actually, one of the commander that I spent time with, his name is Dave Cooper, he put it this way, he said, “The most important four words a leader can say are I screwed that up,” which was it was shocking to me in some ways. I thought Navy SEALs were supposed to be confident, and they are. The real confidence they have is that they can share weakness together. Groups that share their weaknesses are strong, and groups that hide their weaknesses are weak.
[0:25:34.8] MB: It's funny, that example about the Navy SEALs I thought was one of my favorite anecdotes from culture code, and especially that phrase, “I screwed up,” right? It's so often in our culture that we try to hide, or minimize and it comes back to what we're talking about earlier, right? Minimizing our mistakes, when in reality the best thing you can usually do is to take responsibility and own up to it.
[0:25:56.6] DC: Totally. For your sake, for the sake of your brain, but also for the sake of the culture because it makes it safe for others to do the same thing, and there's such – we're wired for status. We've got all of this impulses to preserve our status. It's really, what I saw in the places that I visited where that leader – world leaders who constantly radiated what you might call a backbone of humility.
We think of humility as being just a quality on its own. Like, “Oh, it's so humble.” Actually, it takes great strength. That's why it's really a backbone of humility, that it takes strength to be able to say, “Hey, I need you. I really need your help on this. Or, I do not know how to do that.” There's really cool ways to do that. I mean, especially for women, it ends up being sometimes hard to be vulnerable at work because it can be perceived as weakness and it would perceived with bias. The leaders I saw always framed their vulnerability around the learning.
There was a cool moment, an engineer at Google told me about he had used to work at Pixar. One day, they were hanging out as a bunch of young engineers and the head of Pixar came by, this guy named Ed Catmull who is a co-founder with Steve Jobs at Pixar. He came by and he just watched them. They got nervous. These are 20-something engineers working on a problem, and then Ed Catmull speaks up and he says, “Hey, when you guys are done, could you come up to my office and teach me how to do that?”
It was a really cool moment. The guy got goosebumps telling me about it happened 15 years before, but that way of expressing vulnerability around learning. We're not just going to say that were, “Oh, I'm not good at that. I'm done with that.” It's, “I want to learn that.” For a leader to send that signal is incredibly powerful.
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[0:29:54.0] MB: I want to dig into – dig into the vulnerability a little bit more. Tell me about some of the – I think that that's a great way of framing around learning, but I'm curious what are some of the other – as you call them, ideas for action around cultivating vulnerability in a group setting and building a culture around, making a vulnerability acceptable?
[0:30:13.7] DC: Yeah. Really making sure that the leader is vulnerable first and often ends up being really important. Another related thing is delivering negative stuff in person. There's a lot of times when you got to give someone a no that you’re tempted to hide behind a text, or an e-mail, or a memo, or something like that. What I saw in good culture is a willingness to have that moment, where you're saying, “Look, this is a hard conversation to have, but we're going to have it.”
Actually at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg asks her people, “Have you had a difficult conversation today?” Which is really pretty cool question. That ends up being a nice way to have vulnerability. Another way they could get sent is through something called the two line e-mail, and this is an idea that comes from Laszlo Bock who was former head of People Analytics at Google, now works for a startup called Humu. Laszlo says, “Send an e-mail to all your people. Make a habit of it saying, ‘Hey, tell me one thing you want me to keep doing and one thing you want me to stop doing.’” It's a really short e-mail, but it sends an extraordinary signal of connection and vulnerability and learning, willingness to learn. Tell me. I want to get better.
Another way to think about it is when you're talking about vulnerability and having real conversations is to aim for warm candor and avoid brutal honesty. When you talk about okay, we're going to have real conversations and tell each other the truth. There's a certain person in some organizations who gets real excited about that and like, “All right, we're going to be brutally honest together.” When you are brutally honest, you enforce a culture of brutality. What you should aim for instead is warm candor, which is when you send a signal of connection and I'm giving you this because I care about you, I'm interested in your development and also candor, I'm telling you the truth. Aim for warm candor and avoid brutal honesty.
[0:32:06.5] MB: I want to dig into that a little bit more, because I mean, being somebody who has read up on things like Principles by Ray Dalio and gone super deep into a lot of these rabbit holes, I think I may personally have a tendency to lean more towards the brutal honesty side of things. How do you think about really switching that, or cultivating warm candor instead of brutal honesty?
[0:32:28.1] DC: Use the camera. Deliver one signal, deliver a candor signal, but also pull the camera back to show the connections. One great example of that I saw – I studied Danny Meyer's restaurants. Danny Meyer runs some of the top restaurants in the world, known as a Gramercy Tavern.
I watched a woman named Whitney. It was her first day. She trained for six months to be a front-of-the-house waiter. She done all this training, this is her first day at the front of the house. Right before she was about to go out, her manager leaned over and said something to her. What did he say? Like, “Go get them. You can do it.” What he said was, “If you don't ask for help 10 times today, it's going to be a bad day,” which is really like a high candor.
I winced little bit when I heard it. That's high candor. You're going to make 10 mistakes today is basically what he’s saying. He’s also saying, “Look for me. Ask me for help 10 times today.” That’s a warm message. He delivered both. He gave her the truth. We expect he made mistakes safe. He put her on her learning edge. It wasn't like, “You better not make a mistake today.” It wasn't just mindless, good luck today, go get him. It was this in-between ground, which is uncomfortable to stand on, but it's like, you're going to make mistakes, and when you do, I'm here to help. We're a team.
It's really pulling that camera back and not just delivering the truth, but showing the interconnection between the people in the room, showing the interconnection between people who are there to support each other when they do fail. Makes that failure safe and makes the learning happen.
[0:33:56.2] MB: That's a great example. Correct me if I'm wrong, but am I thinking about this, it's almost like bring some emotional intelligence into that, into that honesty and think about how it's going to impact the other person and frame it more from perspective of caring about them and also being a resource for them to help them with whatever that particular issue is.
[0:34:17.9] DC: Exactly.
[0:34:18.8] MB: I want to come back to the concept of safety. We touched on it and then really went deep down the vulnerability rabbit hole, but I think that's a really important element as well. I know you tell story of these kindergarteners and how they defeated CEOs. Can you share that anecdote?
[0:34:38.0] DC: Yeah. This is my favorite one. I mean, this guy came up – Peter Skillman, he's this engineer and designer came for this contest. It was a super simple contest, right? Who can build the tallest tower with 20 pieces of raw spaghetti, a yard a tape and they had 18 minutes and a single standard-size marshmallow that had to go on top of the tower, right? Ready, set, go.
The interesting thing that he got was some CEO, some lawyers, some MBAs and groups of kindergartens, four-person teams, and they all start. Question is which one's going to win? They all start. All the adult groups start the same way. They talk, right? They're all talking. Then they suggest some ideas and then they hone those ideas and then they divide up roles and it's super smooth. It looks gorgeous. It looks so cooperative. It looks so polite. It looks so lovely.
Then over here you have the kindergartens and they're basically just eating marshmallows and it's complete chaos, right? They're taking stuff together and it's – if you had to bet your life savings on which one is going to win, most of us would bet on one of the adult groups, right? Because that's our mental model of group performance. When we see – it focuses on what we can see, which are individuals. When we see smooth, verbal, cooperative teams, we think it's going to be – it's going to work. When we see total chaos, we think it's not going to work well.
What ends up happening is the kindergartners win like every time. They beat the MBAs, they beat the lawyers, they beat the CEOs, and that's because our mental model of group performance is wrong, because it doesn't include safety. We’re built to care about status. Deeply wired in us is this worry of where we fit in, and that starts churning the second you put any human being in a group.
They're talking smoothly, but underneath their talking is this whisper, “Where do I fit in? Who's in charge here? Is it okay to say that?” It slows ideation, it slows creativity, it slows performance. Over with the kindergartners, they do not care. They do not care about status. They just are shoulder to shoulder, cramming stuff together, making it happen, building something, it falls down. What better feedback can you get to go back to where we started this conversation, than from making a great mistake together?
They learn from that mistake. They're able to churn out more tries and they get a better result. The adults usually do one try and it usually falls over, because they haven't anticipated how complicated this actually is.
It really gives you a new way to think about group performance, because it's ain’t about how smart you are. It really is not. It's not about how verbal you are, how well you talk. It is about how safe you are. Can you go shoulder-to-shoulder? Can you just start cramming stuff together and see what happens? That's what a good group does.
When you look deeply at the early days of Google, when you look deeply at the success of the San Antonio Spurs and the Navy SEALs, what you see are people who do not care about status, who are working shoulder-to-shoulder because they've created this atmosphere of safety, where their brains can relax and work together.
[0:37:38.6] MB: How do we start to think about creating that culture environment of safety with people that we work with?
[0:37:45.8] DC: Yeah, the first is to understand how the amygdala works, right? The amygdala is at the center your brain and it's the part that's a fight-or-flight alarm system. To understand how that works, you got to understand that it is super vigilant, it is constantly looking for micro-signals that you're not safe. When it does, it checks you out. It will start looking for the exit doors.
Understanding how important it is to over-communicate safety. That starts the first day, ends up being way more important I think than people think, the first hour. Delivering a really clear signal of connection early on that the previews further future connection that cares about the whole person – there was a cool experiment at a place called Wipro, which was a call center. They capture some of these lessons. They were struggling at Wipro. As a call center, they lost a huge percentage of their people every year. They figured, what can we do?
They tried this crazy experiment, where they changed training by one hour. The one hour – two groups. One group got the standard training. The other group got this training where instead of telling them about Wipro, they flipped it and they used the hour to ask questions. Like tell me new hire, what happens on your best day? What happens on your worst day? They asked them, if we were on a desert island and marooned, what skills would you bring to our survival?
Then they hired them all and then they went back seven months later and retention went up 270% in that second group. 270%, because they received a really clear signal that said, “I see you. We’re connected.” They over-communicated safety and they demonstrated that safety with behavior. Smart groups use that first day, that first hour to continually signal these very, very basic human connective signals.
When you get hired at Pixar, whether you're the barista, or a new director, you get brought into a room and the head of Pixar comes out and says the following sentence; he says, “Whatever you did before, you're a movie maker now. We need you to make our films better.” Then they have a meeting called The Daily, where they show the footage from the previous day, and anybody in the company can speak up and make an improvement or a suggestion. Anybody. A barista can raise their hand and say, “I think that color is off. I think those clouds look fake,” whatever. It ain't just the messaging, it's the messaging plus the behavior and the set of organizational habits that reinforce this very, very basic signal like, “Look, we're connected.”
[0:40:18.7] MB: I'm just clarifying this for the listeners, but it's essentially not a physical safety. It's more like, you're part of this community. We see you as a human and you're welcome here to express yourself and be yourself and you don't have to worry about your status.
[0:40:35.4] DC: Yes. Exactly right.
[0:40:37.1] MB: Let's move on to the concept of establishing purpose, which I know is the third building block of creating strong cultures. How do you think about what that means and how organizations can strive to do it?
[0:40:50.1] DC: Yeah. Somebody, when I start out on this journey I thought, “What purpose is something that seems to come from the organization's hearts and from their guts?” I didn't expect that they would talk much about it, especially the Navy SEALs. I thought they'd be quiet about their purpose. It turns out when you spend time in those communities, they over-communicate that stuff by a factor of 50.
The SEALs talk all the time about how they're the quiet professionals, which is funny because they talk all the time about how quiet they are. They talk all the time about shoot, move and communicate, and they talk all the time about how the only easy day was yesterday. They almost fill their windshield with these mantras. It ends up functioning like a mantra map, where they’ve distilled what matters into a cohesive set of emotional GPS signals, that really show what matters, that really, really show what matters.
The best the best story about purpose that I bumped into had to do with an event that happened in 80s, the Tylenol poisonings in 1983. Johnson & Johnson the maker of Tylenol got a call one day that, “Hey, your product just killed people in Chicago,” and some madman had replaced the capsules with poison and it killed innocent people. What happened next is Tylenol, just like that school of fish we were talking about before swung into action. They voluntarily pulled millions of dollars’ worth of product from the shelves. They dealt with total openness with the press against the advice of their lawyers. They went against the advice of the FBI to pull even more product from their shelves. They've developed safety packaging in a matter of weeks. I mean, it was absolutely incredible.
As a result, Tylenol still around. When you roll the clock back on that story like, why were they able to do that? That's amazing. Tylenol shouldn't exist today and yet, it does, because there was a leader at Johnson & Johnson, a guy named James Burke who a few years before had started to worry that his people lacked the purpose, that there wasn't a clear sense of direction of true north. He had created a series of what he called credo challenges, where people got together and had these intensive discussions around the question of what comes first.
Any business that anybody – you could have 10 things come first, right? Shareholder price comes first, quarterly report comes first. In Tylenol’s case, it could have been their relationships with hospitals, or their research and development. What they decided in those meetings was the patient comes first, the health of the patient comes first. They created this tremendous vivid consensus around what true north was.
As a result of those intensive conversations, when the crisis came, they all knew what true north was. Okay, should we pull the product? Yes. Should we develop safety packaging? Yes. They didn't have to debate it, they didn’t have to hesitate. They could act just like one giant brain. That to me illuminates how to use purpose in an organization.
You got to build a map. You got to build a map that shows what true north is and also what true south is, like what you definitely don't want to do, and be as vivid, explicit and flood the zone with really clear signals. Those signals can take the form of stories, parables, they can take the form of catchphrases, they can take the form of images, they can take the form of people, but to really over-communicate those – whatever 10 words matter most, whatever ten images matter most. Flood the zone, flood the windshield with that clear sense of purpose.
[0:44:21.6] MB: You also talked about in our pre-show conversation, you mentioned this idea that many people think that organizations that have a really healthy culture are conflict-free and yet, that wasn't necessarily what you uncovered in your research.
[0:44:35.9] DC: Totally. That's funny. When I got into this, I thought, “I'm going to get to Pixar and the SEALs and San Antonio Spurs and I'm going to find these magical places that transcend,” right? They're just awesome. I actually didn't find that at all. They have conflicts. These are incredibly successful places. They probably have more conflicts because of the way, because of the honesty with which they confront their core tensions.
Every organization – there's no such thing as over the rainbow where you'll ever get to a place where tensions will go away. What you can do though is face toward them. Face toward the real problems that you have, and that's what makes those groups I think unique, and it ultimately gives them a strong culture. The idea that continually being aware of those tensions that they face and those problems that they face and never hiding from them, but instead creating honest conversation around them.
[0:45:29.6] MB: I think that comes back to the same theme in many ways we've been talking about throughout this conversation, this idea that owning up to your challenges, facing reality, facing your mistakes is one of the core components of not only individual performance, but the performance of high-functioning groups as well.
[0:45:46.4] DC: It's so true. It really is. We have this powerful instinct to hide away from those moments, and to flinch away from them as organizations and as individuals. It doesn't mean they don't hurt. They still hurt, but leaning into that pain and using it. It's funny, because it's only in recent years, like I'll do a metaphor with physical fitness, right?
For many years, it was thought it was unhealthy to run long distances, or unhealthy to lift heavy weights, right? Until about the 70s when we discovered how the aerobic and anaerobic engines work. It turns out, pain is a good thing in a way, because it tells you where the edge is and by experiencing it and pushing your body to the edge, you actually get stronger.
I think what a lot of the science that we have now shows us that cultures and groups are built exactly the same way, by experiencing that vulnerability and risk and pain together, that is what makes groups stronger too. Leaning into that moment as painful as it is, ends up being the place where growth happens.
[0:46:49.8] MB: For listeners who want to concretely start implementing some of these ideas into their lives, what would be one piece of homework that you would give them as an action item to begin implementing some of these ideas?
[0:47:03.0] DC: Yeah. I think the main action item, I've heard it described would be WSD, which stands for write shit down. I think in our lives, we often have a lot of experiences and we presume that learning is going to take place, but actually having a place at a time every day where you can get away from things and reflect on what happened today, whether that's what your individual skills are with your group, to actually have a cool calm place where you can really reflect and see and start tracing the threads and start connecting dots and start setting goals and start reflecting on your performance and figuring out what where you want to go and how you're going to get there. To me, that that's the most powerful thing.
I haven't met any really high-performers that didn't have some way of capturing experience. Some way of really WSD and giving you an opportunity to layer on and reflect and see and learn, and that's what it's all about.
[0:47:54.8] MB: For listeners who want to find you, your work, etc., online, what's the best place to do that?
[0:47:59.7] DC: danielcoyle.com would be a good place to start.
[0:48:03.7] MB: Awesome. Well Daniel, thank you so much for coming on the show sharing all this wisdom. Really, really fascinating work and researches you've done and some great conclusions from all of that research.
[0:48:14.9] DC: It’s fun spending time with you, Matt. Let's do it again sometime.
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