[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 three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we show you how to solve any problem in your life using a simple and no risk tool that you can start with right now. We dig into why you get stuck on problems and how we often deceive ourselves. We talk about why reasons are often a ruse and how they can become even more dangerous when they turn into excuses. We share these ideas and much more with our guest, Dr. Bernard Roth.
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In our previous episode, we showed you how to command your focus and attention. We discussed why many people have the wrong idea of what it means to be productive and how thinking that you need to boil your life down to spreadsheets and checklists is the wrong way to approach productivity. We shared the secret ingredient for true productivity and looked at exactly how you could implement it practically and realistically in your life with our previous guest, Chris Bailey. If you want to feel more focused and productive, listen to that episode.
Now, for our interview with Bernie. Please note, this episode contains profanity.
[0:02:53.6] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Bernie Roth. Bernie is the Co-Founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He's one of the world’s pioneers in robotics and the primary developer of the concept of the creativity workshop. He's the bestselling author of The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life. His work has been featured in Fortune, New York Times, Fast Company, Business Insider and more.
Bernie, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:19.8] BR: Hi. Glad to be here.
[0:03:21.3] MB: Well, we're very excited to have you on the show today. I think your message in your work is really going to resonate with our listeners. I'd love to start out with a simple question that I think is going to unpack a lot of the ideas and themes that you've written about. Why do people get stuck on problems in their lives?
[0:03:37.1] BR: Well, I'd say the main thing that I've come up with in my studies is they are trying to solve the wrong problem. It's not usually that the problem is beyond them, or very difficult. It's just that it's the wrong problem.
[0:03:50.5] MB: What does that mean?
[0:03:51.4] BR: I'll give you an example. I was working with a group and some woman had the problem of she couldn't get her boyfriend to stop snoring. They had gone through all sorts of medical procedures, at wit's end and she just wanted to somehow get him to stop snoring. The method I used to define the right problem is to ask them what would happen if they solve their problem? When I asked, “What would it do for you if his snoring would stop?” She said, “I could get a good night's sleep.”
Okay, well at that moment if she was willing to let go of the snoring issue and just look at the real problem is how do I get a good night's sleep? Well, there are lots of solutions to that. The minute she reframed the problem from snoring to sleep, the solution space opened up tremendously. One of the solutions would be to get the boyfriend to stop snoring, but that isn't working. Okay, so what are the others? Well, I had them of course the fun answer I could give her right away would be well, the way you could get a good night's sleep is change boyfriends. More seriously, she could get a good night's sleep by sleeping in another room, by getting your earplugs. There are many ways of handling getting a good night's sleep.
That's a very simple and trivial example, but that's really what happens all the time. We're fixated on something. Now the truth is we're all great problem solvers. Everybody who's in your audience, I don't know them, but I'm sure they solve hundreds and hundreds of problems every day. They don't have problems eating, they don't probably walking and getting dressed, meeting people, phoning, looking at their cellphone or doing their e-mail, it goes on and on and on all the things they solve.
Why is it the things that people lose sleep over are generally really simple things. They're not rocket science. If you think about that and I've looked at it a long time with a lot of people, it's that they're really stuck on the wrong problem. Even if they solved it, it might not be the right problem, like if the boyfriend stopped snoring he might be very active sexually and she would never get any sleep. Who knows?
The point simply is that it's – most of us are bright enough to solve all the problems that come in our lives. The fact that we get stuck on problem shows that they're just the wrong one. I'll give you another trivial example; in my life, I had a visitor from Slovenia and I want to show him the wine country north of Stanford. I didn't have a car available, so I rented a car. We drove and we had a great time. At some point, the car was running short on gasoline. I pulled into a gas station. Then I started to look for the button that would open the gas tank cover.
I looked for about three or four minutes and I was very frustrated; every place I looked, which was where I had been in all other cars I've been in, it wasn't there. I took out the manual and I started to look for where it is and then a car pulled into the gas station that was of similar make. I ran up to the woman, I said, “This is a stupid question, but can you please tell me where the button that releases the gas tank cover is?” She said there is none.
Okay, so what I was doing is I was dealing with the wrong problem. I was trying to look for the button, instead of trying to get the cover open. It's a simple example of the kinds of things we do. We think we work – we were actually working with a solution that doesn't work and we think it's a question. These kinds of issues go on all at a time, including very serious technical problems and I can give you some problems from industry, I can give you some problems from research. It comes up all the time.
Even in areas – I used to do a lot of research on robotics and I would be one of the world's leading experts in the area. I would give a student a problem to work on for their thesis and we work and we work and then after about a year or so, we defined that wasn't quite the right problem. Once we found the right problem, it became very easy for the students to finish up and graduate and write up their thesis. It really occurs in almost all phases of problem solving, both the professional and personal life.
[0:08:10.3] MB: I think you bring up a really important point, which is the examples that you've given are fun and easy to understand, but the reality is that this applies to much larger and bigger problems in our lives, not just things like snoring.
[0:08:21.8] BR: Yeah, yeah. I'll give you a really great one from industry. It's actually a TED talk your listeners should watch. The guy’s name is the Doug Dietz and he was a – he still is. He's a chief designer at General Electric Medical and he designed the MRI machine for children. After some time, he went down to a local clinic to look at the machine. Basically, he talked to a nurse and she said, “We love your machine. It’s so great,” and he was feeling very proud of what he had done.
Then a child is dragged in screaming and kicking and the nurse says, “You have to leave because we have to sedate the child.” He finds out at that point that about 85% of the children that go into his machine have to be sedated. He feels very depressed that he did a terrible thing in the world. When he looked at the machine from a child's eyes, it looked like a metal monster. The child was asked to crawl into. They realized there was something wrong.
He went and started to do some research with children. He interviewed children that are chronic patients and had a lot of them. He found one girl that had a lot of cancer issues and she was getting a lot of radiation. He realized she had no adventure in her life at all. She just was into this medical situation whereas her siblings had all this adventure.
He realized really the problem was how do I put some adventure in this woman's life, this girl's life? What he had do is they repainted the rooms where they had these machines in the clinic. They made adventure series. They made one like a pirate ship. They made one like going to camp. It changed – they made comic books, they reframed the whole experience from the child from a medical experience to an adventure experience.
Really the question he realized retrospectively, he should have asked himself how do I bring some adventure into these poor children's lives? Not how do I give them a medical experience. That's on a more abstract level, but that's really the bigger – when you see the TED talk, he cries. He feels like he totally misunderstood the problem he should have been working on.
That happens over and over again. We've had people go to Myanmar ostensibly to design the water pumps and they realized the real problem is lighting and they design LED lighting. When it's all done, they've affected the lives of 10 million people that they wouldn't have if they'd stayed with the original problem with the water pump.
It happens on all levels of where people come in, companies assign us problems, I'm invited in as a consultant and they know a solution. They give me half the answer. Unless, I'm clever enough to reframe the problem, I'm just wasting everyone's time because they don't need me if they know the answer. It's just all the time, if you’re stuck, reframe the problem.
The way to reframe it is really simple. It's just ask yourself what do we do for you to solve the problem? Then work on that as the problem, not the original one. It's very easy to execute. I cannot tell you how many e-mails I get from people who’ve read about it in my book or heard one of my lectures, who find it's a really great tool and it's a no-risk tool. I mean, if it doesn't work, reframe it again. The way to reframe it is just simple. What would it do for me if I solve this problem? That gives you your new problem.
[0:12:03.6] MB: I love that reframing tool and I wanted to get into it, but I want to come back. Can you explain and elaborate a little bit on this idea that if you're stuck on a problem, it's the wrong one. Why do we get so fixated on solving the wrong problems?
[0:12:16.8] BR: It's just because our mind picks a solution. We jump to – as your listeners probably know, the amount of information comes in through our senses is minute compared to the amount of information that our brain has. You're getting these visual things when you look at something and then your brain tells you what you're looking at really. We're working on our historical experience. We're using stuff that's happened before and we look that way.
A good example, I was doing a workshop over at Microsoft and there's a big crowd and the question I asked people, what do you lose sleep over? This one woman was bravely enough, she raised the hand and she said, “I can't find a good man,” as an example. I come and said, “What would it do for you if you found a good man?” “Well, I’d have a good life.”
Well see, she made that jump that somehow a good man will give her a good life. Well, that's a ridiculous jump. I mean, I'm a good man and I was there not with my wife. If she had a real good man, he'd be out in the world. He wouldn't be giving her companionship. The point simply is we have a need and we try and jump to figure out what's going to satisfy it and often, it's the wrong thing. It's the classic thing when people have anxiety and they stuck themselves with food and they get fatter. They get fatter, because they don't do the right thing.
This is a perfect example. There's a woman, she's a science writer for the New York Times and she wanted to do some projects for New Year's Eve for her own readers. Somehow she talked to someone who knew me and the person told that she wanted to talk to me, because at the school we do all sorts of problem-solving.
She called me up and she said, “Well, what would be a good problem?” I said, “Well, it doesn't work that way. The way it works is you have to ask people what they're working on and then reframe it.” She said, “Well, give me an example.” I said, “Well, okay. Tell me, what in your life is really troublesome?” She said, “Well to be frank, it's a little embarrassing, but I've put on so much weight that I don't go out anymore and I skipped my college reunion because I didn't want my former classmates to see how heavy I've gotten, so all I do is sit home and meet my deadlines and write and write.”
I said, “Well okay, so what would it do for you if you lost – I mean, have you tried to lose weight?” “Oh, I've tried everything.” “All right, well what would it do for you if you lose weight?” She said, “Well, I’d have a social life.” I said, “Okay, forget about losing weight. Just work on your social life.” She said, “Thank you. I'll think about that.” Then I didn't hear anything from two months or something and then I got an e-mail from her. It says, “Look at my next Tuesday's column.”
I look at the column when it comes out and it says – well, she tells the story and then she says what happened is I just ignored the losing weight. I have a social life and I lost 25 pounds. It's a really good example how she didn't face what the real issue was and that she saw a symptom of it and tried to treat the symptom, rather than the – not disease, but the thing that wasn't working.
Yeah, I sent her a thank you message and all that. She just sent back a short message saying, “Yeah, it really works. She was amazed by it.” It's really in every realm of life. We see the solution, because it's the easy thing to do. We don't know that it would really help us. We decide to get married, because of maybe social pressures, or things like that, but maybe that's not what we're really after. If you get married, that's fine. A lot of people get married, it doesn't work and they get divorced and they try again, they try again.
It's just a matter of getting to what is really you want to get at. Now that may be hard for some people, because we tend to lie to ourselves. We don't tell selves the truth. We have a certain self-image. It’s very complicated. Basically, if you're open-minded about it and you're willing to let go, it will work. People don't even want to let go of the problems. A lot of people hug their problems. They want to talk to their friends about. They pretend they want to be rid of them, but they want to have – it gives them conversational topics. Really, if you're willing to let go of a problem, it's very easy to get the real solution.
The one thing you have to be really careful of is some people don't understand the difference between disappearing a problem and solving a problem. If you disappear a problem, it's never in your life again. It's gone. It's just totally gone. That's much better than solving a problem, because if you solve it, may undo itself and it'll still be there. Really, that's what you wanted and if you have really troublesome things, you want to make them disappear from your life. If you do that, it doesn't matter what the original problem is.
Getting back to that woman at Microsoft, if she had companionship, it wouldn't matter if she found a good man or not. If she found a loving dog, or she went into the army or whatever she would do to get companionship, or she wouldn't have to worry about finding good men. That's a disappeared problem. Then she might find a good man in spite of it, but it wouldn't be dealing with the issue of companionship.
It's a little complicated. People as you know for sure are complex, but it's a very simple model. What would it do for you to solve the problem? Don't hold on to the idea that you need to worry about the original problem. If it's really not the right problem, forget about it. Disappear it from your life.
[0:17:48.6] MB: I love that analogy of solving the symptom, instead of solving the root cause. I think it really gets to this idea of as you touched on that we have to be super clear about what we actually want, but the end result is that we're trying to really achieve. How do we battle through as you say it's deceiving ourselves to really figure out what we actually want?
[0:18:10.9] BR: You’re right. It may take some iteration, but you're doing this all in your head, or at home. There's no risk in it. If you have the wrong thing, reframe again. It's a matter of being truthful to yourself and though you may not know. You try one or two things, sometimes if you say, “What would it do for me?” You come up with something. Try coming up with several other things. Usually when you get the right thing, you feel it in your belly, you know that's the right thing.
Often work with groups, people come up with all sorts of things which are nonsense, which are not the right thing at all. It's really hard for them to tell themselves. An example of that was some woman I worked with her lack of sleep was due to getting her daughter into a good college. Clearly when I worked with her, it wasn't that at all, because once she'd gotten her daughter into a good college, she'd worry about who her daughter's sleeping with, or what her daughter is majoring in. She'd have other things to worry about.
The real problem was have to her to not have anxiety about her daughter and to let her daughter live her life and to be a supportive mother, but not an [inaudible 0:19:18.6]. Nothing to do with getting the daughter into a good college, because as I said, once you got her in there'd be other things to worry about. It's a matter of telling yourself the truth that the problem is not the daughter in college. The problem is my anxiety and I have to learn how to get it more equilibrium in my life and think or whatever. It's that thing. As I say, if it's not – doesn't strike gold the first time around, just keep reframing, you'll get to it.
[0:19:47.9] MB: I want to dig in more to this notion of lying to yourself. Why do people deceive themselves and how can we move past it?
[0:19:57.1] BR: Well, we have a self-image and we try to support that self-image, or go against – it's complicated. I grew up in New York and I know a lot of shady characters. Some of them pride themselves as being nasty people. Their self-image is that they were nasty. If they would do a kind thing, they had to make it into something nasty to make them not be soft as they think. Most of us who are more normal, we want to be nice people, we want to have a nice life and so forth.
We all do things which we're not proud of. We all do a nasty thing and we have motivations, which we're not willing to tell ourselves. It's just a matter of supporting who we want to be, or who we built ourselves up to and some people have the issues, they drag themselves down. We don't have a realistic picture of who we are in general. Whatever picture we have, we generally try to support that picture.
That makes it us have to lie to ourselves, because our actions are never – not always in accord with who we want to believe we are. That's one cause for that thing of doing – I want to be Bernie. I'm not I'm not this nasty person. Once I do something nasty, I have to lie to myself about it and blame someone for it, or make excuses. Again, we’re very complex and it's a very complex system that controls us.
Though we think we control it, whatever that is up in our head or our mind or wherever you want it, but we are on automatic so many times that it's just – I cannot tell you why I'm – to just tell you that's the way the system works and you can – there are various models as to what we're trying to do and how we're trying to protect ourselves. It's reality. I mean, everybody lies to themselves in one way or another.
[0:21:58.6] MB: You write about and talk about this under the framework of saying – you used the tongue-in-cheek phrase ‘reasons are bullshit’. Tell me a little bit more about that.
[0:22:07.8] BR: Actually, I'm more serious about than you think. I wouldn't mean and can call it a tongue-in-cheek phrase. I'd call it a definite understanding of the world. It goes like this, if you think about it, what is the purpose of reasons in the world? What purpose do reasons serve? I'm going to answer that question, so you don't have to worry about it.
For me, that the only thing they serve is to let you be a reasonable person, or pretend to be a reasonable person. If I do something nasty and someone says, “Why did you do that?” I have no reason, then I'm not a reasonable person. If I give them some reason for my doing it, then I'm a reasonable person. That's what it comes up to leaving something nice. Why did you do it?
The truth is we’re so complex. We have DNA in us that's come back down from the generations back to the cave people. We’re so complex that there's no one – there's actually no one cause for anything we do. The minute we isolate one thing as the reason we did something, we're lying. Because we're putting weight on something of which there are many different things and we're just rating it in a way that will make us feel good, in terms of our self-image or whatever we’re trying to support.
I mean, people have done experiments. They put people into MRI machines and they've given them a physical task to do. They’ve asked them the reason, push a button, push the on or the off button or something like that. Then they ask them, “Tell us why you do and didn’t do it.” It turns out that the part of the brain that fires the motor control that does it, fires much earlier than the part of the brain that gives you the reason.
Really, the model is you do stuff and then you make up a reason for doing it. That's the way we work; we do what we do. I'm not thinking about what I'm saying to you now. It's just coming out of me automatically, okay. If you ask me why'd you say that? Well, I'll think of a reason to tell you. I don't want to be rude to you, Matt. I have no idea why I said it, it just came out of my mouth and my brain. That's the way we operate.
There's many reasons for everything, but we pick the one. I often tell groups, if I'm talking to a big group, or if my mouth gets dry when I talk about it and if I say – when I get to get to talk about reasons and I say, “If you ask me why my mouth is dry, I'll say I'm talking a lot,” which is true, but that's not why my mouth is dry. It's true I'm talking a lot and it's true my mouth is dry, but I don't tell them the rest of the story.
The rest of the story is I'm always dehydrated. My wife is always on my case I don't drink enough. Invariably, I may have drunk a bottle of wine the night before, I may have biked 10 miles; a whole bunch of factors why my mouth is dry. I don't really know which one it is, but the obvious one that makes me hide stuff about me, I don't want to tell the group and makes it obvious is I'm talking a lot that my mouth is drying. No one questions that that's a good reason.
I actually used the – I put five O’s if you read my book for good, meaning no reason is good. That's all I did. It's a good reason that my mouth is dry, but that's nonsense because my mouth is dry even when I'm not talking on times. It's that thing, we have a simple cause and effect model. It doesn't work that way. It's much more complicated. There's no one course for anything practically. It goes back in your history. You don't know most of these things and the ones you know, you're going to pick the one that is the most advantageous in your conversation.
Who cares, right? It's fine. What do I care what reasons you give me? Yeah, it's just conversation, right? The problem is with that if you use reasons, they're often excuses. That's the devastating thing with reasons; they're often excuses. If you don't – if you keep using the excuses and you keep believing, you'll never change your behavior. That's why I'm very concerned and I picked a strong phrase like reasons of bullshit, meaning that any reason for human behavior is bullshit, in the sense it's not the reason.
There's many reasons for everything you do and when you pick one reason, bullshit. I don't care. It doesn't matter. It does matter to you if in fact you want to change your behavior. It's often an excuse for not getting stuff done. It's an excuse for not delivering the way you want to and for not living the life you want to. It’s an excuse for not losing weight, it's an excuse for being late, it's an excuse for not getting the job done, it's an excuse for everything and you'll never change if you don't face the truth.
My epiphany came some years ago. I was on the board of directors of a company in Berkeley and I would be in very late to the board meeting invariably. I was never on time to a board meeting. I'd come in and I'd say, in those days the highway was called Highway 17. I say, “The traffic Highway 17 was terrible.” They'd say, “It's okay, Bernie.” At some point, I realized it isn't okay and these people have other things to do with their lives and they shouldn't be waiting on me.
I realized I should either get off the board, or I should shape up and be responsible and give it another veil into my life to be there on time. Once I did that, I just left earlier. It's not rocket science. Because before, I would always just leave just in time that if there was no traffic in Palo Alto and no traffic on the road up to Berkeley, no traffic in Berkeley I'd be there in time. There was traffic, could you imagine that? There’s traffic on the road and I was always late.
Once I left early, my whole life changed. I went from the person that was always late on everything to the pain-in-the-neck who always starts everything on time and is never late at all. My life is much better. I don't have to weave in and out of traffic risking everyone's life and I don't have to make excuses. It just works so much better.
Well, I would have never done that. I would have never changed if I had just believed my bullshit reason of the traffic. It was true there was traffic, but that was not the reason I was late, okay. There were many reasons, okay, including not leaving on time. Not leaving early enough and not giving enough for the concern for being there, for my responsibility to the board.
It's that simple thing. The minute I stopped lying to myself and I could tell myself the truth, it was easy to change the behavior. If I kept lying, I would have never done it. That's what's the important thing about just keeping in mind reasons of bullshit. I work with people in the D school, nobody gives a reason, that they start with – well, I'm not going to give you the reason, right? Just nobody gives a reason for anything. They just do what they do, or they don't do what they do and they just say what's happening and what's not happening.
Another great example is I get several e-mails a month from somewhere in the world. Nowadays, it's Iran and China, Pakistan, of students who want to come to Stanford to do a PhD with me. I don't have to answer any of these e-mails. I don't know these people, but often, they're very well-researched. It's not just their professor, but they know me and they've looked up my work and all that. I feel I should be nice and give them an answer.
What I used to do before my epiphany about reasons is I used to say, “I'm sorry. I can't take you, because I don't have any money. Or I'm sorry, I can't take you because I'm going on sabbatical.” Invariably, they would push back. If I don't have any money, they have a rich uncle. If I'm going on a sabbatical, they can wait another year. It went on like that until I was just so frustrated I would truncate.
Nowadays, I don't give them a reason. I just say, “Sorry, I can't help you. Good luck.” About 90% of the time, I get an e-mail back saying, “Thanks for answering my e-mail professor.” It's the end of the story. I find in my whole life if I don't give reasons, people don't – unless people ask me for it, I don't give them a reason. I just tell them what I'm doing, or what I'm not going to do and life goes on. It works much, much better.
The point is you don't need reasons at all. The home if you use them is you're going to get in your own way and you're never going to change your behavior. If you're happy and nothing's fine, use reasons, keep doing it. If you just try it out, you're going to see it's amazing. The problem is I always want anyone I tell to, you cannot do this at home. You cannot tell anyone in your life the reasons are bullshit, because they will not like you anymore.
I have never told my wife reason of bullshit. I’ve never told my children. I never tell my friend. I tell people who do my workshops and I tell my co-workers and it's okay to say, “Bernie says this is bullshit.” It's not okay to tell someone their reasons of bullshit, but it's okay to tell yourself. It's really important to understand this is a really important tool. It works. It works with thousands of people. It works in my work environment in several places at the university.
Everyone knows they won't use bullshit reasons around me. It's really great and it makes people work at a higher level. Do not tell anyone else. If you see people doing it, just smile, just fix yourself. Don't fix anyone else, or you’re going to get into trouble. That's a long answer for reasons.
[0:31:42.8] MB: No, that was great. How does self-image tie into this?
[0:31:46.1] BR: Yeah. Well again, you’re using your reasons to support your self-image. Let's say, I have a sense of Bernie being a very reliable person and I let you down, okay. I promised you something Matt and I screw up and I don't do it. I'm not going to say, unless I’m big enough about it, I'm not going to say, “Hey Matt. I screwed up.” I'm going to give you something like, “Matt, I couldn't do that because, you know.” I'll give you some bullshit reason. That will help me not feel I let you down, but it'll also make it so I'll never change. That's the problem with it.
What I find really what you do is if you have to give someone a reason, don't be a jerk, give him a reason. If I say to myself, “I'm never going to do that again.” If I say, “Matt I'd let you down. I didn't do it because I got – I had an emergency and I say to myself in my head, “Hey, that's bullshit. I'm never going to lie to Matt again.” I'll lie to you again, but eventually I'll stop. If I keep calling myself on, eventually I'll stop and I'll say, “Matt, I want you to know I let you down. I really feel sorry about it and tell me what I can do to make it up to you.” Okay, I'll just be upfront about it. That's the difference between just being about what you want and taking responsibility for what you do and then you can become a better person if you want to. It's really easy.
[0:33:08.1] MB: I think it makes so much sense that if you almost reframe reason and just substitute that with a word excuse, in many cases you can essentially plug-and-play that and yet it completely changes the context of the statement.
[0:33:21.8] BR: That's the value in the whole concept. To me, that's the most valuable part of the whole concept. Most people won't use the word excuse, but they’ll use the word reason. What I'm doing is by calling it out that way, I'm making myself just conscious of that and it does really work. It does really cut down to these nonsense reasons. They'd let you change. That's the main thing to me; the main advantage is you can change. That’s what I would like to do in my life. I'd like to be the best Bernie I possibly can and I'm working on it.
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[0:36:09.6] MB: I want to come back to the reframing question, because I think it's really important and I want to dig into that a little bit deeper. Just for listeners who might have missed it earlier, can you restate the question that you used to flip problems and to reframe them?
[0:36:24.7] BR: Sure. If I have a problem that I’m – We're all good problem solvers, but there are problems that we get stuck on and everyone has problems they will sleep over and they just don't go away. Those problems, if you ask yourself what do we do for you if you solve that problem? If that problem was gone for your life, what would it do? How would it change your life? What would it accomplish for you?
You take the thing that it would do for you and you make that the problem you want to solve, your reframed from the original thing to the thing that you really want to happen. You have a problem then that when you do that, it opens up the solution space tremendously, because it includes the original thing you're working on, with that it won't work for you, but it gives you a whole bunch of other things that will work and often, just very simple to be there and it's over. I had a classic example in my life; I was worried they changed the laws and it was an issue whether I should retire or not. I could not retire. I was losing sleep over it.
When I applied this method to myself I said, “What would it do for me if I could decide whether to retire or not?” I said, “I could stop worrying about it.” I said, “Well, how do I stop worrying about whether to retire or not?” It was like a lightbulb. I just stopped literally and it's – I don't want to tell you how many years ago it is, I never thought about it again. Whereas, I'd lost two months sleep worrying about this decision.
I didn't even have to make the decision. Nobody can. I have beaten myself up socially thinking I had to make that decision. Once I realized once I made the decision I would for me, it’s like stop worrying about. I stopped worrying about it without making the decision. I mean, it's so simple. It was I cannot tell you the feeling of excitement I had when that happened in my head. That was a simple example of when you reframe it, often the problem just disappears because you were working on the wrong problem. Not an issue. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's a hard problem. Now the solution space is bigger and you will find an answer.
[0:38:26.4] MB: The question is what would it do for me if I solve this problem? Then you take that result of that answer and you flip it and go to work on just achieving that result through any different avenue that you might think about.
[0:38:38.8] BR: You forget about your original problem statement. Just it's gone. You don't need that. It's gone. It's the wrong thing. You were working on the wrong thing. Oops, I didn't mean to waste all that time. Forget about it. Then go on the new thing. When you solve that, it will take care of what you thought you were going to take care of in the first place.
[0:38:57.4] MB: I think it was in your Google Talk, you mentioned the idea of never going more than two levels with that question. Can you explain that?
[0:39:04.8] BR: Sure. Yeah, well it's this whole idea of bullshitting yourself and lying to yourself. Keep going up, you’re going to get to the ultimate existence question. I've met people like that in India and they're blind from looking at the sun and they haven't talked to anyone in five years and they're naked in the woods. If you're going to stay in the game, you don't want to go up more than two levels because you get to these questions of existence. If you're going to play the game, usually one level is enough, but maybe you do it twice, so once you get to the first thing you would do for you, you ask yourself what that would do for you and you get another thing.
You can keep going on, but the truth is you've been lying to yourself because once you go up one level, or at most two, you have to know what the real question is. If it isn't, you have to just go back and start again. Because we have that workshops all the time; the people want to keep going and it's nonsense. There's never a need to go beyond one or most two iterations on that.
Then you've got the solution space and you got the problem. If you’re lying to yourself, of course you'll never be there because you're not really getting the thing you really need. You have to just go back and say, “Just imagine me,” or someone standing next to you saying, “Bullshit, bullshit. Give yourself the right reason.” You can try various reasons, but the problem is our self-image so we don't say the nasty things. I often get this thing. The problem is how do I get my company to do X, okay? Why would you want your company to do X? “Oh, well. It would be better for the company.”
Now I keep working on. It's all bullshit. They hope they're going to get a raise. They hope if they get the company to get X, they'll get recognized and their boss will give them a raise. The question is really now how to get the company to do exit questions, how do I get a raise? To tell a different question, they get the company to do X and they could even get fired. Who knows? It's that thing. People's self-images, they don't feel good that they want to get a raise or they want to better than their colleague. They make up some grandiose public thing, like something good for the company.
Well, that's never going to get you unstuck if you’re stuck, if you’re lying to yourself. That's what I'm talking about. You can go on to 10 levels and never get to the right answer if you don't tell yourself the truth, which may not be something that you're proud of. It's all done in your head. It's not much risk, except for yourself and learning more about yourself.
[0:41:40.4] MB: I want to get to the distinction between trying and doing. I know you've written and talked a lot about that as well and I think it's really important to share with the listeners.
[0:41:48.6] BR: Yeah. That's an important thing. I agree with you. I think it's a very important thing. The first thing is that Yoda aside in Star Wars who he says this, “No try, just only do.” There is a try and the trying is okay. There's nothing wrong with trying in the world and there's nothing wrong with doing. The problem is we conflate the two. We think they are the same thing and they're not.
The way I see it, if you're trying to do something it might or might not happen. If you're doing something, it's going to happen no matter what, okay? What happens is people think they're doing, but they're really only trying because they run into an obstacle and they're defeated. If people are easily defeated, that's called trying. It's not called doing. It's okay. Sometimes it's better to be to try and not to do – if you do, sometimes you might kill yourself, you might do harm to the world.
I'm not voting as to whether trying, or doing are better than the other, but I am voting and saying that do not confuse them. If you're doing, then you are going to make it happen no matter what. Within your moral stand, if I have to kill you to do it I might change my mind. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it – I'm not going to let an obstacle stop me. A trivial example is my wife and I we’re driving past a movie in San Francisco and I noticed a huge crowd in front of it. We drive past that movie theater many times and there never anyone in front of it.
I figured, “Wow, this is going to be a great show. We should go.” My wife was reluctant, but I convinced her. I told her to get out of the car and buy two tickets and I went to park the car. When I came back 10 minutes later, she was in front of the box office, but not on line. I asked her why wasn't she on line? She said, “They were sold out. She couldn't get tickets.” At that time, she was defeated, right?
The truth is she was trying to go. She didn't really have an investment going. She just was trying to please me. When they put an obstacle in her way with no tickets, she was over it. It was done. I was going to go, didn't matter what, so I went along the line and eventually I scrounged two tickets and we went and of course, she was right, it was terrible, we shouldn't have gone.
The point simply is it was the difference between trying and doing. She was trying, she hit an obstacle, she had a good reason for not going on, they were sold out. I was doing. The fact that they didn't have tickets didn't stop me one second. I just walked down a line and I got tickets. I bought some tickets from people. I was going to go in no matter what. I'm just going to spend, it wouldn't matter how much money. I actually bought the tickets at face value, but I would have spent a lot of money because I wanted to go. It's as simple as that, you understand?
I had another example, which is the opposite one. I was supposed to go to Dallas, Forth Worth for somebody to give me some research money. I was glad to have the money, but I really didn't want to go to the meeting. I got to the San Francisco Airport and it was a miracle, all the flights to Dallas, Forth Worth were cancelled because of snowstorms. I called up. I said, “I'm sorry. I can't come.” They said that's fine and that was the end of the story.
Now the truth is I was trying to get to Dallas and I got a good excuse not to go there. If I was really going to go to Dallas, if my life depended on getting to Dallas, Forth Worth, the fact that the airport was closed with a snowstorm would not have stopped me, okay. I still could've gotten if I really wanted to get there.
That's what you have to understand. The difference between trying and doing is there will be obstacles often. If you're trying, you'll stop and that's fine. Nothing’s wrong with it. Could be the best thing. If you really want to do it, the obstacle will not stop you. It's just an excuse if you use the obstacles of bullshit reason. It all ties together, bullshit reasons come up all the time in making us go from when we're trying – we’re doing something to trying to do it, they convert us because they stop us.
There are so many stories about miracles that happen by people transcending these obstacles and gets them to a much better solution than if there were no obstacles. In a way, the obstacles are in fact often a gift. They're not really deterrence, unless you let it be a deterrence, you see. That's what I mean with the difference between trying and doing.
[0:46:05.1] MB: I love the idea that this trying-doing distinction mirrors in many ways the same principle of moving beyond excuses and reasons and moving into execution.
[0:46:15.5] BR: Absolutely. It's actually, it's a good application of bullshit reasons, because often there – as I say, you're doing something and you get frustrated and you stop and then you have a reason, a good reason why you couldn't do it. My wife had a good reason why she couldn't do it; they were sold out. She wasn't lying. It was the truth. That's not why you can’t go to the theater. That's the same thing. These reasons are just, they’re nonsense because there are lots of ways of handling stuff.
I had a friend, I met him when he came to Stanford. He had a back injury in the shower. He was a swimmer and he had a back surgery and the surgeon told him he's never going to swim again competitively. He didn't listen. He actually went to the Olympics and he’s got a gold medal and set a world record. He's a serial entrepreneur and he told me that at a very early age that if you get an obstacle, it doesn't necessarily stop you. Walking around the obstacle can really be something, because he was a better swimmer than if he hadn't had that accident in his mind. It’s that kind of thing really, that it's just how determined you are.
You see it all the time around the university; students get frustrated with something, they walk away and some other student is more persevering, they go through and they get it. Some people just built into that. The minute they encounter a no, that means I can't do it. Other is the minute they encounter no, they get excited, “Now I'm going to do it in spite of that.” It's just your attitude towards life.
[0:47:50.0] MB: I love this idea that obstacles are gifts and sometimes they can even result in a stronger outcome, or a better result once you've transcended them.
[0:47:58.9] BR: Yeah. If you don't, you're doing a prosaic way if there's no obstacle and everything. It's just, you're going to do what everyone else would do. If you get the obstacle and you got something you know, if I had gone to Dallas, Forth Worth magically, I have a story for the rest of my life, instead of just going home reading a book, if I had chosen to take the road then, but I wasn't going. I mean, it's a gift because I was very glad to try to not get there.
It’s that way all the time. If you think about the things in your life that you're really proud of, usually it's because you got through an obstacle and you did something that was amazing for you.
[0:48:35.9] MB: You've also touched on this notion about the distinction between power and force and how that interacts with doing and trying.
[0:48:42.6] BR: Yeah. I think that's an important notion also. I think that if you – I do an exercise in my groups where I hold something and I have someone to try and take it away from me. Then I change the rule and they don't succeed. Then I ask them this time, it's a different instruction, take it away from me. Don't try to do it. Take it away from me. Oftentimes, they just try harder. They just try. What they do is they're trying to use force. The first time they’re using the little force, the next time they’re using a greater force.
If they're really want to take it away from me, they have to use power. They have to whisk it away that I don't even know what happened. It’s a Chito Davies exercises in your mind. If they exercise power, I wouldn't have a chance and they would just take it. Wouldn't even be a contest. It wouldn't be struggling over it. That whole analogy is really important, because in life it's much more better to be powerful than it is to be forceful.
If it really doesn't go and we try, we’re using force. It takes a lot of energy to try and use a lot of force and stuff. If you're powerful, you just do it. It's beyond worrying about the – just flow, just a flow is a good analogy to it. In one case it’s flows, in the other case it's effortful. In my case if it flows, it's powerful, it's a power, it's not a struggle, which is force. Now you might get me with force, but it's even you get it, it's not so elegant and it's fatiguing.
I think it is a really good notion to understand in life it's much better to be powerful than forceful. It's different. In my mind a different color, a different personality and all that. I could be – in the D school, I could be a forceful boss, but I think of myself as a powerful boss because I lead from the bottom and I don't want force anyone to do anything. I lead by example and I feel very powerful, because I know what's going to happen. Whereas, just forceful I have to watch them exactly. I don't watch anybody. I just feel it just the power exudes out of the place itself. It's both the organizational and it's personal, but it's really a good – a really good model to think in terms of.
[0:51:08.0] MB: How do we begin to operate out of a place of power, instead of a place of force?
[0:51:12.2] BR: Well, I think it has to do with integrity and not being an asshole. I think in general, people that are assholes try and be powerful, exert whatever it is. They may be in a position where they can do that, or they may not, but it doesn't work, it's not appropriate. I think, power comes – force comes from a negative instinct of pushing around instinct, and power comes from just a powerful being, just your own self, you exude what you're doing and you're confident in it, you know what your level is, you know what's appropriate for you and you work that way and well, you may recruit others, but it's done from a truly given thing, not from a forceful thing.
I would say that's my intuitive model of what I'm talking about there. It's a matter of having confidence in yourself and doing what feels the right thing for you. If it isn't, then you're working harder and you’re forcing them. Maybe you would have figure out some other way to be you and some other way to work. It's a subtle notion, but I think for me it's a powerful notion. In that one exercise that I mentioned to you about taking something away from me, I just feel it with people. I cannot tell you the difference between tugging and forcing and just the power of I can't even resist. I know don't there's no chance that I'm going to hold on to it. That happens very rarely, I might mention. It does happen on occasion. Most people use force all the time.
[0:52:51.5] MB: Overall, I think this seems like a winning formula for execution; reframing your problems, not letting bullshit reasons get in your way and operating from a place of doing. All of these seem like a really powerful combination for achieving any result that you have in front of you.
[0:53:08.0] BR: I agree. I agree. It works for my life. My book is basically based on my life experiences as a professor and as an engineer. I've been teaching this stuff for over 40 years way before there was a D school. I cannot tell you how many people are out there who I meet years later and they say, “That class changed my life. I'll never forget.” They always pick something, like reasons of bullshit, or trying or doing, or reframing. “I cannot tell you how much that helped me, professor. Thank you.”
Now we have the book, so I get all these e-mails from people I've had this problem for 30 years and my chapter three was gone. Thank you. It works. It all works. It’s like everything, not everything works every time and every moment for everyone. There's enough in it that is really useful for you to apply in your life. You have to use it. I mean, I have a colleague, he comes to workshop I do once a year. After workshop he says, “That reframing stuff is great. I just –” I do an exercise in the workshop. He said, “It just took care of my problem again.”
I'm nice to him. I hug him and I thank him, but I wonder why does he wait every year for the workshop to do it? Why doesn't he do it himself during the year when he has a problem? From that, I've got the idea that a lot of people they listen to things and they read things and they believe them. It's good, but they don't apply them. Well, to me it's useless if you don't apply it. It doesn't matter if you think it's a great idea, or a terrible idea. You have to apply it in your life and see how it works. Give it a chance and then why you experience, this stuff really works.
[0:54:46.3] MB: We call that the learning-doing gap. We have a couple podcast episodes about it. I'm curious, for listeners who want to concretely implement what we've talked about today, what would be one piece of homework that you would give them to start implementing some of these ideas?
[0:55:01.0] BR: Yeah, sure. Well, I'd say three; one is don't use reasons. It's as simple as that. Every time it's yourself using reason, attempt to stop doing it. Or if you do it, just tell yourself I'm not going to do it again, that's one. Another thing is if you find yourself losing sleep over problem several nights in a row, reframe it. That would be another thing. The third thing is next time you're doing something, ask yourself if you're really going to be doing it, or you're just trying to do it. Decide which one it is and then see what happens. Three simple things.
[0:55:38.0] MB: Great pieces of advice, all of them; easy to execute as you mentioned earlier, risk-free in the sense that there's no downside.
[0:55:45.2] BR: Absolutely. No downside at all, really.
[0:55:48.1] MB: Bernie, where can listeners find you and your work online?
[0:55:51.9] BR: Well, the best place – I have a webpage for my book, which is called – the title of the book is The Achievement Habit, but somebody grabbed that away from me. The web page is achievementhabit without the The. Just achievementhabit.com. You'll get a lot of examples and a lot of things about my book info. You'll see some of the workshops I've run. That's really a good place to refresh your mind on these things we talked about here.
[0:56:18.8] MB: Well Bernie, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all this knowledge and wisdom. Really great strategies for achieving the results that we want in life.
[0:56:26.9] BR: Thank you very much. It was my pleasure to be here. It was a nice conversation. I enjoyed it.
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