Category Archives: Podcast

Deep Focus

A glacier has cut through the mountains to create a fjord, not just anywhere, but right in that picture.  Right. There.  

I was flipping through – a great term from a past way of reading – the Tropical MBA archives when I found Dan Andrews’ thoughts about John Mayer.  In an interview Mayer says that if Facebook and Twitter had existed years ago, he might not become the great guitar player he is.  Mayer needed time to devote to just playing the guitar, and look where it got him.   This reminded me of the strongest voice for deep practice that I’ve heard, Cal Newport.  Newport suggests that to get any meaningful work done, we need to focus intently on one things and one thing only.  

Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant). (11/21/12)

Does that sound familiar?  We rip through email to get to inbox zero or we check industry – but often personal – news on Twitter.  We don’t focus on work.  In writing just the first few hundred words on this post I hopped on to Twitter to ask someone a question.   How do we get anything meaningful done then?  

We should lock the door and focus on one thing until we solve a problem.  James Altucher is famous for making lists and he says that when making a list “you want your brain to sweat.”

Newport echoes this idea,  but in a more academic way, that we need to pursue “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.”  Newport says that he might put a Do Not Disturb sign on his door, but Stephen King forgets the sign and just closes his.  In On Writing:

The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

After you shut the door and begin pursuing your word count, King writes “the door stays closed until that goal is met.”  He isn’t the only author to do this, to sit down and get work done.  When William Faulkner was writing and there was no lock, he removed the door knob instead.

Despite Dan Andrews and Cal Newport starting with the same idea, that to be successful you need to have a sharp focus on something, their next actions are complete opposites.

In the post Andrews writes, “I didn’t understand something John (Mayer) seemed to get early on– that finding work you love is a better success strategy than finding benefits you love.”  Andrews is saying that if we find the work we love, we’ll be happy and that will trump the benefits you get from it.  Tony Subblebine echoes this idea in an interview with Pat Flynn.  Stubblebine said at one job he was working for money to buy a big tv, at his new job though, he’s so busy he doesn’t even want to watch tv.   

Newport on the other hand has spent some of his deep focus time trying to convince people that this is not the case, if fact, it’s flat out wrong.  His archcase is that of Steve Jobs.  What did Steve Jobs love about computers?  What did Steve Jobs love about marketing?  Newports conclusion is that Jobs didn’t love any of these things until he was good at them and that we get the order flipped.  Newport thinks that instead of finding a job we love, we get great at a job and we’ll love being good at it.

Whether Andrews or Newport is right about pursuing your passions I don’t know, but either catalyst will probably work to get more great work done.  If our brains are – like Altucher says – muscles we need to exercise, then the field of exercise may also give us a clue for spending our time in the most beneficial way.  

The New York Times reported that high intensity interval training provides many of the same fitness benefits as endurance training.   The article suggests that if we take seven minutes to do a variety of exercises with the most intensity we can manage, then we’ll see health gains comparable to “a long run and a visit to the weight room.”  

This also reminds me of a story about Jerry Rice, a hero of my youth.  Rice is universally considered the best wide receiver but he had a training routine that differed from what many football players were doing at the time – he ran on hills.  Rice and his running buddy Rodger Craig found that these workouts contributed more to their success on the field than any other off field activity would.  

What do we get then, after deep focus on something we are pursuing – we get to view what’s next.  It’s like we have two choices about moving through an unknown landscape.  The first is that we circle around where we are, we keep our current place in our peripheral vision and slowly move away from our choice.  We are doing a backward path of circling the drain.  Or we can strike out, move away and forward and discover what’s beyond our field of vision.


The Power of Stories

What do stories mean and why do we tell them?  You have a story, I do too, and so should your business. Stories are things that connect us on multiple levels; spiritually, mentally, psychologically, socially.  Stories help us find our place in the world, hold that place when we find it, and tell others while we are there.

In Crush It!, Gary Vaynerchuk says that “Storytelling is by far the most underrated skill in business.”  Another internet entrepreneur, Chris Guillebeau wrote, “If you want people to pay attention to you, the first step is to establish a compelling story.”  

Stories help us understand things.  Vaynerchuk’s newest book title is Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook.  In the title there is a story.  It’s the story of a fight, of work, of effort.  It’s strategy, it’s a story within a story within a story. It’s a good title.

In the excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast (YANSS), David McRaney interviews professor Melanie Green.  Melanie says that when we consume a narrative world, we enter into it.  “We take the information from the stories and bring it into the real world with us” and she says that these stories don’t even need to be true.  If we can find a story that we relate to, it draws us in and causes us to empathize with the characters.  Once we have an emotional response to the characters we see ourselves as part of the story.  

Apple’s Misunderstood and Samsung’s Are You Geared Up serve as a good dichotomy of stories.  In the Apple commercial a boy, about thirteen, is seen through most of the commercial with his phone out. He’s got it out while walking into Grandma’s house, he’s got it out while decorating the tree, and while people are eating.  The early idea is that we’re all visiting with people who have their phones out, especially teens.  The commercial brings us into the story because it’s ground we’ve walked before, and some we know the outcome of.  As commercial concludes though, the boy shares the family video he’s been taking the entire time.  It’s a lovely series of tree ornaments, sledding wipeouts, and sleeping kids.  It’s very cute and it resonates because there’s a feeling of family we can relate to.  I can empathize with the people in the commercial even though it’s not a great reflection of our Christmas.

In the Samsung commercial – Are You Geared Up? – there’s a heavy handedness to it.  The Apple commercial editing is light and crisp and closer to home movie while Samsung’s is heavy from the music to the lighting.  Immediately it’s harder to enter that world.  Our real world view is closer to that of the Apple commercial, but that’s central the problem with Samsung’s commercial, the problem is that it’s a bad story.  Apple’s commercial is about the everyman – the teen who, maybe doesn’t save Christmas but at least serves it.  Samsung’s commercial is about meeting a girl on the ski slopes, and while I wanted to visualize myself in the gadget wearing shoes of the guy who gets the girl, I felt more like the guy who doesn’t.  I drop my phone all the time, I dig through my pockets to find it, I have clumsy fingers that make me re-type things.  I have sympathy and empathy for the goof.  Instead of seeing the Samsung Gear – the smartwatch that links with my phone – as a solution to my problems, I saw it as irrelevant.  In the commercial I related to the other guy and related to his product, not the one I was being sold.  

Ultimately, Apple’s commercial succeeds because viewers empathized with making snowmen with family, instead of meeting snow bunnies in Europe.  If we were jet-setting east coasters who could, and do head to Europe to ski, then we might relate.  Ironically enough, it’s Apple products that are typically framed as more expensive or elite, but if you compare only these commercials you would think the opposite.  

Dr. Green says that empathizing with the story is is important because the more we relate to a story, the less counterarguing we do toward it.  This happens to me quite often.  I’ll get an email, phone call, or a stranger approaching me, and they’ll start to ask if I have problem they can solve.  Immediately my guard rises and I begin thinking about reasons to avoid this sales tactic.  If there is a story to enter through and we see parts of ourselves there, then that links us to the things in the story.  Imagine the feeling entering a stranger’s home compared to your own, our brain does that with stories.

In the YANSS podcast Dr. Green also suggests that stories we relate to have an evolutionary advantage.  Our abilities to reflect on memories and project them to things that might happen has helped us survive.  As we evolved we learned to remember how to get to a berry patch without being attacked by bears.  We return to these memories while walking along the berry path, and they served us well.  Green suggests that stories might be the way we use other people’s experiences to figure out the world.  We enter the world of their story, to try and incorporate it into our memories to use as projections for the future.  We know the way to the berry patch to avoid the bear, the stories people tell advise us how to climb an apples tree and not get stung by bees.  We now have twice the understanding for how to get food, thanks to stories.  

The Apple commercial peels back our psychological layers and guards to sneak into this primal portion of of our brain.  We watch the commercial, we experience the story, and we think about that – and some people I would guess actually did it. Some people probably did exactly that this Christmas, after seeing the commercial.  

There’s another aspect with stories, between finding fruit and buying iPhones.  Stories help us understand who they are.  The authors of both The Secrets of Happy Families and How Children Succeed, write about the value of stories in helping us identify who we are and how we’ve succeeded.  The story of each, is that we need to know about times our family – Uncle Dad, Grandma Nancy, Cousin Bert – faced a challenge and succeeded.  When the younger generations know this, then they too are more likely to successfully face challenges and overcome them.  

One other video from the end of December that shared the power of stories was The Christmas Scale.  It’s a short, two and a half minutes and moving if you ascribe to a certain spiritual path, but it also works as a story.  

The voice sounds old and wise, like if an oak tree in your yard was giving you advice.  The narrator tells the story about his mother’s attempts to teach him to play the piano, and his failures to do so.  She even told him that the piano scale could tell the “greatest story ever told” but he forwent and forget her advice until one day after she had passed, when he sat down at the piano again.  

The video is the story of generations and how the older ones try to teach us things but the younger ones seldom listen.  The best teachings though are those that stick with us, those instructions for things – like the one in the video – so that we can remember the lesson when we’re ready to learn it.  This video has empathy in spades and hearts.  

Stories matter.  When you’re telling a story to people outside your core group (family, business, team) then in those stories you want to create empathy.  You want those people to feel related to you.  You can do this through shared experiences (like the iPhone commercial) or relate to them though common history.  Commercials for minivans do this well, showing the fit and active mother who’s running kids around town.  Look around your town and that’s what you see in minivans.

The second important way we use stories is as learning moments within our group. In families and teams we need to have a shared history, a feeling of connection.  We need to have stories that show us how to persevere because we are people who do that sort of thing.  Think about your family, do you have any of these things that Johnsons do?  Do Millers never give up?  Do Watsons stay until the job’s done?  Those phrases should be rooted in stories so they aren’t just phrases.  

What then should your business be doing?  You should be working on two types of stories, your external ones and internal ones.  Externally you should be writing case studies about how a customer uses your product.  Internally you need to have stories about perseverance and if it’s just you they can be personal stories, if it’s more than you they should be team stories.

Michael Hyatt on Things Taking Time

Feb1712In Smart Passive Income, episode 93, Michael Hyatt talks about his journey from CEO to blogger to successful blogger.

Hyatt says that it took four years for him to get 1,000 blog subscribers.  (7:00) and that a common failure point of people who are starting out is that they have an inability to persist. (27:00)

This refrain is similar to what Dan Andrews writes about in his 1,000 Day Rule;

You’ll be doing worse than you were at your job for 1000 days after you start your muse business. I’ve seen it happen a bunch of times. For many of us it’s been almost exactly those 1000 days it took for us to get back to the level of income we enjoyed in our corporate days.

Stephen King wrote Carrie on a typewriter that he rested on his knees in a double-wide trailer.  Steven Pressfield faced similar challenges, what did he do to combat them?  In an Art of Manliness interview, Pressfield says to “put your ass where your heart wants to be.”  If you want to be a writer, you write, if you want to make sales, you make calls.  You need to take the actions required to do it.

In Manage Your Day-To-Day Pressfield outlines three steps that anyone has to take. Step one is doing something productive for one hour.  Step two is doing it for another hour, for another day, for another year.  There is no short-cut, no bypass.  Step three is crossing a finish line, like hitting 1K in revenue for a month.

If your project takes time, then your time becomes more valuable, are you using it wisely?

Five Tips for Working in Asia, advice from Tropical MBA

In Episode 225 of Tropical MBA, Dan Andrews is joined by Jon Myers for a “jam session” of ideas about living and working in Asia.  The episode is a different limb than what Dan and Ian typically discuss, but it has some solid stuff, especially toward the end of the episode.

The beginning includes some stories about Asia including the crazy motorbike traffic, the kindergarten education (9:40), and that being close – but not in – China is important. (12:30)   The key part of the episode is when Andrews and Myers jump into their five success tips for working in Asia.

Tip 1: “Thou shall not do local business.”

Andrews and Myers talk about why you don’t want to just jump into an area  you know nothing about and try to fix things.  “Don’t think you’re clever and do Groupon for Vietnam” Andrews says (16:00) – often our ideas need deeper thought.  Pat Flynn has a technique he calls 777 brainstorming to help him find businesses in areas he cares about.  Flynn notes that “By targeting a market that involves a passion, problem and/or fear that I or someone I know has, I can be sure I’ll be interested in it enough to put forth the extra effort needed for it to become a potentially high profit site.”  Pat’s personal connection is important, if you try to jump in to something you don’t understand at all you miss the currents.  Dan warns, “You tend to underestimate the inherent intelligence of a place.” (17:15)

Early in the episode the guys talk about how there’s no Whole Foods and no formal gyms (7:30) and while these things would be nice, they don’t get started because the existing ethos of the place has adapted to not needing those things.  It reminds me that McDonalds has 10 million pounds of chicken wings in unused inventory. McDonalds thought that adding chicken wings to a menu that already featured chicken would work. It apparently didn’t.

Tip 2: You need a purpose and a vision.

Dan and Jon both have personal and professional reasons to be in Asia.  It’s not just the cost of living perks, like maid services.  If they didn’t need to be there for work, they probably wouldn’t be there at all.  Later in the episode Jon remarks that you could probably be doing the same thing in Detroit.

You hear about this dichotomy of perception time and again from entrepreneurs who have left their traditional jobs for new ones.  Working for yourself might look nice from the outside, but so does a snow covered landscape.  Once you get out in the metaphorical snow, things are different.  Out there includes long hours, doubts, and fears.  The irregular paychecks, the sometimes huge self-insurance deductibles, and the need to maintain a razor sharp focus are all inherent challenges that have to be aligned with your purpose and vision.

Tip 3: You must have an insatiable curiosity for where you’re going. & Tip 4: Get connected and get inspired.

These tips both stem from – I think – Dan’s environment.  He often talks on the podcast about connecting to entrepreneurs, expats mostly, who are moving and shaking in the region.  He loves living and breathing both the culture and the business that is Asia – but not the air –  and while he would probably be successful in doing these things elsewhere, doing them in Asia really appeals to him.  He says, “you’re writing the story,” and for him, Asia is a great place to do it.

Working in Asia means that there is a fluidity to what can happen and this appeals to Dan and Jon.  Deal making is more fluid, it happens with only a handshake (28:10), but to survive and thrive you gotta be tough.  At 25:30 Dan says:

You gotta have that grit and that long-term view that I’m going to hang for 24 months, and I’m gonna make it happen, and I’m not gonna demand that everything is the same as it was back home.

Tip 5: You must be mindful and have an attitude of gratitude

Dan says, “It feels exciting that I’m doing something different.” (27:00)  and you need to be ready for things, when they’re ready to happen.  During this exchange, Jon gives my favorite quote of the episode:

You have to be the engineer of your own serendipity.

How does being ready to seize that happen?  In Manage Your Day-To-Day, Scott Belsky – CEO of Behance before its acquisition by Adobe – wrote that he gets his ideas by unplugging. He tells a story about a camping trip where at first he was bored, but on the second day, “my brain suddenly reactivated.  My creativity and imagination reached a new velocity as soon as I unplugged.”  In the same article Belsky suggests you, “open yourself up to serendipity.”

Belsky isn’t the only one, Cal Newport blogged about trying to make a deeper connection between two ideas he was mentally wrangling.  Newport writes, “In my experience, this type of connection making is well-served by three ingredients: quiet, movement, and time. So I left my building and hiked onto a network of trails that abuts the Georgetown campus.”  Walking seems to be a common way to bring inspiration – serendipitously or not.  In Daily Rituals many writers went for walks after a morning work session.  Beethoven even walked with a pencil and music sheets to “record chance musical thoughts.”

In the episode Dan and Jon don’t mention unplugging but throughout they are talking about the spirit of unplugging.  They’ve unplugged from certain culture things. They don’t have CNN in front of a treadmill, they have a public track with a basketball court.  They don’t have TV to watch, they have cheap flights to Shanghai.

I enjoyed the episode, especially the part about Asia.  It’s an area that I can’t see myself in but their discussion included lessons that I can myself needing.

Michael Hyatt on Beyond the To-Do List

On Beyond the To-Do list, episode 53, Erik Fisher talks to Michael Hyatt about goal setting.  Hyatt is promoting his course, 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever.  Here are a few features of the episode

When Hyatt and Fisher are talking about successes and failures, Hyatt mentions that he doesn’t see anything as a failure (9:50).   Each time he doesn’t succeed, he at least learns something about the process and if his gains aren’t in book sales or dollar amounts, they’re in the knowledge about what to do next time. This aligns with the three year view and Dan Andrews 1000 Day Rule.

At 12:30 Hyatt says that sometimes we take care of what is urgent rather than what is important.  In Manage Your Day-To-Day Dan Ariely suggests that this is when we start to tackle our email because it feels urgent and productive.  What we need instead are performance markers for our big projects.  Instead of clearing out three emails, what are three boxes to mark as done on a big project.  In the book Ariely writes that there is  a cost to checking email, “Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else.  Email is easy to compared to the project that takes 50 hours.”  We do a poor job of having this list of things to do and a good job of having our email inboxes at the ready.

Ariely has one solution, “It would probably be best if managers went to the IT department and asked that email not be distributed between eight and eleven every morning.”  If memory serves, Michael Hyatt does some version of this where he takes care of his spiritual and physical needs first thing in the morning before he even thinks about tacking email.

Founder of many companies, Penelope Trunk knows this.  She writes, “Each of us is only as effective as the questions we ask. So understanding the process of asking good questions is essential to our success.”  She understands that Ariely is saying we should focus on the big things, but she’s taking it one step further and asking how we identify what the big things are.  From her same post:

Netflix doesn’t track vacation time because they don’t care about vacation. They track results because they care about results. So they have a hard-core performance standard but no vacation policy .  The term for this type of thinking is key performance indicators , or KPIs. It’s a trendy way to zero-in on what you care about; my investors always ask me about KPIs. At Quistic , I measure sales, because at my last company, Brazen Careerist , I measured traffic and realized that it doesn’t matter how much traffic you get if people don’t buy stuff.

In Manage, Ariely calls these performance markers and while he doesn’t lay them out like Trunk does, he connects to our mental need to do things, “How do we make ourselves feel like we’re making progress?”

I don’t know about Hyatt’s Best Year Ever course but if you want to get started get out of email and find a few markers.


In TMBA 225 Asia, Dan Andrews and Jon Myers talk about the benefits of working in Asia.  The episode is lighter in business content than what Dan and Ian typically have, but it’s still got some good stuff.

In the episode Dan talks about why some people might not work well in Asia. (25:14)

You gotta have that grit and that long-term view that I’m gonna hang for twenty-four months.

This idea is also in the title of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Tough writes, “What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”