In this episode, we talk about Michael’s career as an author what makes a worthy goal, how to clear space for your worthy goals, and why striving for simplicity helps you be more effective.
Michael Bungay Stanier has written books that have sold about a million copies all told, including The Coaching Habit, a self-published book that’s become the best-selling book on coaching this century. He was a Rhodes Scholar, and he founded a training and development company, Box of Crayons, that has taught coaching skills to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
His new book How to Begin: Start Doing Something that Matters will help you find, define and start your own Worthy Goal.
In this episode, we talk about Michael’s career as an author what makes a worthy goal, how to clear space for your worthy goals, and why striving for simplicity helps you be more effective.
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Michael Bungay Stanier 00:00
You get to do one big project every five years. So, according to my actuarial tables, I've got about 22 years left. That's for big projects. Don't, don't fritter away your choices around that and if you're going to use a quote from Napoleon, if you're going to take Rome take Rome.
Jay Clouse 00:19
Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show. Hello, my friend, welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. I got a lot of positive feedback from last week's episode of Jay talking with Jay Acunzo. So it's likely that we'll be returning with a little bit of a mini series over the coming months. So thanks to everyone who shared some feedback. And thank you to everyone who shared their results of their Spotify wrapped that included Creative Elements. Spotify tells me that more than 100 people listened to Creative Elements more than any other podcast. And that's just listeners who actually use Spotify, which I know for my data is not the majority. So it means a lot to me to think that Creative Elements is anybody's favorite podcast, let alone hundreds or maybe even over 1000 people in sharing your Spotify wrapped results with creative elements helps the show grow as well. So thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who did that and tag me on Instagram. As a reminder, there is a Creative Elements Instagram account now, if you search for creativeelements.fm or go to the link in the show notes, you can find me on Instagram, I share a little bit about each episode every week. And that's a great place to tag me if you're listening to the show. Back in 2017, I took part in Seth Godin's altMBA program. And as part of enrolling in that four week cohort based course, I was mailed a whole bunch of goodies, including several books that Seth himself recommends. The book that stands out to me the most is called the Coaching Habit Say Less Ask More & Change The Way You Lead Forever. The Coaching Habit is written by Michael Bungay Stanier and provides seven questions that encourage deeper listening, lead to better dialogue, and have truly helped me to have more productive conversations with clients and even loved ones. And I'm not alone because that book was a big commercial success.
Michael Bungay Stanier 02:23
So The Coaching Habit is the book that I'm best known for it came out 2016, so five years ago and sold a million copies and has been this amazing runaway self published success so that's been thrilling. But in fact, I had published four books before then get convinced I can get going, which is you realize kids flip books, Jay where you have like ballerinas heads as soccer players bodies and scuba divers legs.
Jay Clouse 02:46
Michael Bungay Stanier 02:47
Well, it bought that structure to coaching. So you'd have a quoting of a story and if something else and each flip section had a question on it. So you'd bring a challenge to the book and you'd open it randomly at one of the 100,000 combinations. And you'd get three questions to provoke you to think differently about whatever your challenge was. And then I self published a book called Find Your Great Work, which then got picked up by a New York publisher and became Do More Great Work. So had you do more of the work that has more impact and more meaning. Then I did a partnership with Seth Godin a book called End Malaria where we, I curated 50 essays around great work. And with all the money not just the profit but all the money from the books went to Malaria No More, we raised $400,000 from Malaria No More, and the bucket number two on Amazon, you know, out of everything so that was pretty exciting. And then a kind of, quote of the day textile book as well so I've dabbled in a bunch of stuff.
Jay Clouse 03:43
Michael has certainly dabbled in a bunch of stuff as he just shared with you. He's written several books but not only that, he's also created a training and development company called Box of Crayons, which is taught coaching skills to hundreds of 1000s of people around the world. He's also a Rhodes Scholar and if you're not familiar with what a Rhodes Scholar is, is an international postgraduate award for students to study at the University of Oxford. It was established in 1903. It is the oldest graduate scholarship in the world. In fact, it is considered among the most prestigious international scholarship programs in the world, with only 32 Americans receiving the Rhodes Scholarship each year. And today, Michael wraps his creative projects under the umbrella of his website and brand, mbs.works MBS being his initials.
Michael Bungay Stanier 04:32
The vision for mbs.works is to help people be a force for change. And I want as best I can to give people tools for themselves so that they can use the tools.
Jay Clouse 04:45
And that brings us to today's conversation. Michael has written a new book, which he sent me an advanced copy of, thank you, Michael, called How To Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters. The book is designed to help you find, define and start what he calls a worthy goal.
Michael Bungay Stanier 05:02
Hey, it's MBS here. Well, here it is finally, the new book How To Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters. This is a book that is about claiming ambition for yourself and for the world. It's about unlocking your greatness by doing stuff that matters. And ultimately, practically, it's about giving you a really good process to set worthy goals, goals that are thrilling, and important and daunting.
Jay Clouse 05:26
The use of the phrase worthy goal is very intentional and very specifically explained inside How To Begin. He says in chapter one, the idea of a worthy goal is less about an abstract moral writing, and more about whether it's worthy enough for you to be committing to it. I love this idea because I often find myself over committed, there are all kinds of things I could do with my time, and often they seem like a good idea. But what how to begin helps you to do is really identify whether a good idea is truly one worth dedicating years of your life to, it's a workbook with areas to fill out your ideas, wrestle with them, even score them. It's incredibly unique. And I'm not being hyperbolic when I say it's the most practical book on goal setting that I've ever read. So in this episode, we talk about Michael's career as an author, what makes a worthy goal, how to clear space for your worthy goals, and why striving for simplicity helps you to be more effective. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can tag me on Twitter or Instagram @jayclouse tag me, say hello, let me know that you're listening. And now let's talk with Michael.
Michael Bungay Stanier 06:37
Well, the way way back history is growing up in a house of books and being a reader. So I was I loved English at high school, and I did a BA in literature, I did a master's degree in literature. So there's something about just being a reader already kind of helps. And my grandmother, her name is Maida Eufemia Kerr was a writer, she literally wrote a column in her local towns newspaper, and she had both adult and children's books out in the wild and I thought that was pretty cool as well. And then, very shortly after starting my company, finding, leaving having job and trying to build my own thing, I went to a talk by a guy who founded a company called Strategic Coach, his name has temporarily escaped me, but he's all about scale and being successful. He said something that was very powerful for you right at the start, Jay, he said, look, there are three phases you go through, and people listening will know this, but I love the way how he broke this out. He said, first of all, you say, I'm a dentist. And you're identified with the skill that you have. Secondly, you go, I'm an entrepreneur who practices dentistry. So now you need to understand what it means to have a business and market and sell and perhaps sell beyond my own capacity. And thirdly, he says, the final phase, the most scalable one is I create intellectual property around dentistry. And I was like, oh, that's interesting. And when I when I start, so that happened, then when I also started, I got, I was trying to start my own business, cuz I've been fired from my job. And I took a psychic like two or three days a week working for a market research company. They hired me to develop models and structures for stuff and it turned out that I was good at it. I was like, oh, that's handy, wait a minute, it's all coming together. You know that saying inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense. I started to see my inspiration came to. So I came up with this idea for this book, because I had I got irritated about something around coaching around how woowoo and obscure it was, I think I can teach people how to self coach. So I had this idea for a book and I made a, I wrote it out, I've made a prototype of it because it's complicated. And then I kind of lost my mojo around it. It's like 2004 or something, I don't know how to publish a book so I put it away in a drawer forgot about it. And then my cousin caught up two years later when so I noticed you're not using this idea for your book, which I loved. I thought I would take it because I told my boss about it and she sounded really interested and I was like, no, why exactly no. So that became my first book get on second year going. So it was a combination of a little bit of inspiration and a little bit of threat response. And and also my grandfather died left me $25,000 and my wife kindly said that we could lose that. I'm trying to self publish this book so I invested that money in putting the book out. We made the money back pretty much and that kind of that was the first book of I think now seven or maybe eight or something books that I've written.
Jay Clouse 09:44
And that book was The Coaching Habit, correct?
Michael Bungay Stanier 09:46
No, that book was called Get Unstuck & Get Going on the stuff that matters.
Jay Clouse 09:50
So with those four books before The Coaching Habit, when did Box of Crayons get started?
Michael Bungay Stanier 09:57
Yes, the Box of Crayons get started in 2002. So the very kind of quick history beforehand is, I'd been working in Boston and moved over with a startup. It was terrible. They didn't like me, I didn't like them, I was struggling. My wife could only do certain amount of things in the US because she's Canadian so I quit. I got another job locked in Toronto and then 9/11 happened. And so my job up in Toronto vanish so I arrived going, okay, now what? Got a temporary job, got fired from that temporary job, well, I wasn't very good at it so started Box of Crayons out of necessity, going, okay, it's clear that both the universe doesn't want me to get hired and I'm almost unhireable now, so I started Box of Crayons. And the first book appeared like three years after I'd started Box of Crayons.
Jay Clouse 10:46
Okay, I heard this story in your conversation with Brene Brown, actually, about your intended job in Toronto that got lost due to timing with 9/11. So at that point in your life, you weren't necessarily thinking, I'm a dentist who's starting a business, you're taking a job. So how did you begin to embrace this creative entrepreneurial side of yourself?
Michael Bungay Stanier 11:10
Well, I had the good luck, Jay to the very first job I had, I started with a small startup, basically, in the world of new product development. Sometimes when you start a career, you kind of you spend the first two years being called how to behave, being trained to be a corporate citizen. And part of what was lovely about working as first company is we're kind of trying not to be a corporate citizen, they're like, we want you to be different, we want, we want you to be a bit weird, because that's part of our brand. So that was the first time I felt I had permission to even think about being an entrepreneur myself, because it really wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise. And so that seed had been just there for maybe four or five years, it's going on, maybe I should, but you know, it's scary, starting your own thing. And circumstances kind of played my hand for me, which is like, alright, the job I had lined up, my fly out of Boston was on 9/11. So the job disappeared, that I got fired from the temporary job that they found for me. So I was like, I could try and find another job or maybe this is it, maybe this is the the chance to leap.
Jay Clouse 12:16
I went to a state school here in Ohio. And even at that state school, you know, the path was middle management at a company out of business school, you went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, what was the culture like there in regards to employment or entrepreneurship?
Michael Bungay Stanier 12:33
It didn't feel very entrepreneurial. So you had a bunch of American Rhodes scholars who are the ones who show up with the kind of the biggest badge of I'm a leader of the free world, because a lot of them come become leaders of the free world. And a lot of them, it seemed like the Rhodes Scholarship was our notch in the belt for a career. Like you get a Rhodes scholarship, you then go to Yale or Harvard Law School, and you do something there and then you move into politics or whatever. What happens to a lot of people is they get swept up by McKinsey and the likes, which is like, you know, that's part of the McKinsey brand is we have the smartest people around and Rhodes Scholars are allegedly that. So there was a degree to which some people were definitely headed to academia, some people we're definitely headed to politics, and kind of, you know, ruling the world. So for those of people who follow US politics, you know, I was at school with Cory Booker, Booker the guy who is a Democrat, presidential hopeful, the slightly awful guy who was the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. He was he was in my class and a couple of other people who are, you know, influential on this one, I'm like, wow, these are leaders of the free world. But you know, they were, they were on that path already. Whereas I was at a Rhodes Scholar going, I have no idea what I'm doing here. I was, I was living in a living in a house with 15 other people doing PhDs and actually, that made me go, don't think I want to do a PhD because this is the most depressed house in the universe. I mean, everybody's in this kind of cesspit of self loathing and confusion. And it just didn't feel like academia was going to be right for me, because I'm just too scatterbrained and I'm just not that level of smart that some of the people I knew who were going to be great academics were I went to a info session at McKinsey and I just went I don't think that's going to work because I'm a bit like a law firm. And I finished law school being sued by one of my law school lecturers for defamation. So I kind of had already figured out that that kind of professional services career might not be something that I'm going to fit into. So honestly, it's a it felt like a case of stumbling forward into the into the future, just trying to figure stuff out because I I kind of sucked a lot of things that didn't, didn't taste right until I finally figured out that, to my own surprise and my parents confusion being a kind of entrepreneur was, I don't even think of myself as an entrepreneur, it's more like a guy who somehow runs his own businesses, or maybe more specifically, a guy who is unemployable and can't have a boss, other than himself, is the path that I needed to take.
Jay Clouse 15:15
After a quick break, Michael and I talk about how he manages a portfolio of creative projects, while building his company Box of Crayons at the same time, and a little later, we dig out some of the specific steps you can take when evaluating whether or not to begin a new project. So stick around and we'll be right back. Welcome back to my conversation with Michael Bungay Stanier. Michael started his training and development company Box of Crayons about 18 years ago, and he's been authoring these books all along the way. He's had a lot of success with both of these efforts. So I asked him how he thinks about his creative portfolio. And when he prioritizes his own creative projects over the business, or vice versa.
Michael Bungay Stanier 15:57
I, I'm hesitating, Jay because because it's such a good question because we both we have these two things pulling us in which it's like, what do I just follow my passion and do the thing that lights me up or am I doing it because it's a business call and am I doing it because of that? So I'm feeling my way into this answer. A concept that was helpful for me, I'd heard about some years earlier was a portfolio career, which is like you don't get everything you want from a single thing, you have to build a portfolio to find, to have all your needs answered. So that was already helpful because I could then look and go, look, there's some things I'm going to be doing for the money. They may not be the thing that I really want to be doing, but it's it, they take enough for the boxes, and they pay me enough that it will fund my life and it might fund space and time as well. So that's one type of thing that I'd say yes to. The other type of thing to say yes to is the stuff where I went, I'm not sure this is going to be commercial, but it could be. So all of the books that I've or the key books that I've written, Do More Great Work, The Coaching Habit, The Advice Trap, with every single one of those I've gone, I can see away from making this grow my business, even if nobody buys the book. So you know, with The Coaching Habit, I mean, it's had this ridiculous success as a book. But you're on a business level, I can also point to 11 people who bought the book, who have bought a Box of Crayons, well north of $10 million in revenue combined as a result of that. And there's a way of me going look, actually, and I kept him to remind myself early on, like, I'm actually not trying to sell books, I'm trying to get the books in the hands of people who buy what Box of Crayons has to offer. So with all of those things, there's, there's a way going look, this feels like the best expression of what I can do. And I can see how it might be part of of a commercial plan, it might work. And then there's a third type of project, which is like I'm doing this because it's an expression of creativity. And if it doesn't make money, that's okay, because it's contributing to self happiness and probably building a brand in some way. And you just got to experiment a bit with a bunch of stuff to figure out whether anything is any good.
Jay Clouse 18:14
And the second point there, were you talking about, well, this book can at least feed the business if it doesn't become you know, a New York Times bestseller.
Michael Bungay Stanier 18:21
Jay Clouse 18:21
it sounds like you're speaking to kind of like a measured weighing of risk reward here, because you see that there are multiple paths to reward, even if the risk is the time and resources required to create the thing.
Michael Bungay Stanier 18:35
Yeah, that's, it's a really important conversation, Jay, around risk. I think you make better decisions, if you've had a chance to weigh up, you know, the prizes and the punishments of doing something. And also, at the same time, the prizes and punishments of not doing something because those are your choices to do it or not do it. And there are benefits and costs to to either one of those choices. So you just want to go overall, how do things tip. So, you know, with most of the books, I've also got to a point where I'm like, you know what, I'm just damn proud of this book. You know, it's just a, it's a really good expression of something that I believe in. And it gives me permission for the book to fail because I'm like, I can sit with this and go, it's a contribution to my body of work. But I'm not actually a high risk person, like, I don't like going out. It's only $100,000 of somebody else's money. I'll just gamble it and see what happens. I can't I'm not wired for that at all. But I am going okay, so this book, look, if I just get 1000 copies printed, and I commit to the work, which is like knocking on doors and going you're a person who I'd like to read this book, can you can you read the book, and I'm sure I can make this money back over time. Or if we're only printing 1000 copies, you know, with the coaching as an example, it cost me the say $40,000 to get it created as a self published author who's working in partnership in the kind of hybrid model with a company called Page Two. Plus, it cost me another $5,000 to get 1000 books printed. So now I'm like, okay, so let's round up 50 grands is going to cost plus a bunch of times. That wasn't, you know, am I willing to lose all of that? And I'm like, yeah, I can afford to lose all of that because I also would back myself to not not losing 100% of 50k, I'd lose some of it, not 100% of it. So yeah, it's trying to weigh that risk off as part of it for me.
Jay Clouse 20:43
At the risk of getting a little too in the weeds, I'm always fascinated to hear how authors budget time for actually writing the book, because most authors that I have on the show are doing other things, whether it's a business, the style of Box of Crayons, or whether it's other creative projects, it just fascinates me like, how did you write a several 100 page book that has been edited and revised and published? How did you fit that in? So how did how does that work for you typically?
Michael Bungay Stanier 21:08
It goes in waves so The Coaching Habit, one of the reasons I think it succeeded, above and beyond the lack of just being the right book at the right time, is I spent five years trying to get this published by The New York publisher who published Do More Great Work. And I kept turning it down so I kept going away. And I kept rewriting the book and having I put it in a drawer for a while because I said, no, for the third time, I'm like, screw you. And I was I put it away and damnit, it still hasn't, it's calling me back. So I go back and I go, okay, can I reimagine it? Can I rewrite it? Can I try and give them what they're looking for? So it went through waves over five years of writing and rewriting and rewriting. And then when I when they called my bluff, because at one stage with workman, I went, alright, look, I've got clear again, what the vision of this book is, and this is it, I'm not going to do a rewrite. It's like buy this proposal or not. I don't mind, which, of course, is code for I do mind, please buy this proposal. And they went, okay, no, we're gonna pass on that. I was so taken aback. I mean, honestly, I was a bit shocked, because Do More Great Work had been a solid B list book for them and sold almost 100,000 copies. So I was like, you know, I can, I can sell some books, I've got a tiny bit of a reputation. And like, no, come like, went away, cried a bit in the corner, and then went right, I'm going to self publish it. So I came to this agreement with Page Two, company out in Vancouver. And I now have milestones and deadlines to get this book written. And then I start trying to clear calendars and managing calendars in a more active way. And I typically just try to write in the morning, sometimes I will have a coach to just provide accountability for me to write the first book I wrote, I hired a woman called LA and her only job was to not have me skive off. Because when you're writing a book you like, anything sounds better than writing this book right now. I'm like, I think this office needs a good vacuum. Like, I'm like, I hate vacuuming. But I'm like, but you know what, compared to a book writing, I love vacuuming. So then it became part of that. So that also when it's really helpful to have other people around you where you can say, take this on. And it's also helpful when you can say this stuff just doesn't get sorted for a while. I'm trying to do one thing here so I'm just gonna let this burn or let it stink up in the corner and just go man, it's killing me that this isn't fixed. But writing this book is more important than fixing that thing.
Jay Clouse 23:51
That's something that I struggle with sometimes with creative projects, especially in the early stages is almost guilt around, it seems like there are more responsible decisions to make for where to allocate my time on existing machinery and existing things that are bringing in revenue or supporting other people. I feel like guilt when I'm just kind of like, hiding away and working on something new that's exciting. Do you ever feel that?
Michael Bungay Stanier 24:14
No. Guilt isn't quite the right word for me, Jay. But it is an anxiety around not keeping things tidy. Like, I mean, I'm not that good at the details. I'm more of a big picture person. But at the same time it like a meter of stuff that is broken, or failing or I just need to say no to. Yeah, I struggled with that a little bit. But I do have a wiring that has inside once I'm committed to it, I'm committed to it. And I don't, I don't second guess my decisions too often because I've just come to realize that you never know. So the best thing to do is take your best guess, commit, go for a while, and then at a certain point, stop and go. Is this a good decision or was this a terrible decision?
Jay Clouse 25:06
Well, let's talk about How To Begin your newest book.
Michael Bungay Stanier 25:09
Jay Clouse 25:09
Which you you sent me an advance copy so thank you for that.
Michael Bungay Stanier 25:13
Jay Clouse 25:14
I thought I would zip through it. And I found myself constantly stopping and doing the exercises.
Michael Bungay Stanier 25:19
Oh, I love it, thank you.
Jay Clouse 25:20
All along the way. So what called to you to write this book?
Michael Bungay Stanier 25:25
Well, I thought I was writing a different book. I started writing a book, which I thought was gonna be more about change and how change works, because I wrote about it in the advice trap. And I'm like, I still haven't cracked this. I need to, I really want I think I'm getting closer to try and articulate an accessible way of people understanding difficult change. So I started writing this book, gave it to some people to read. And my friend Misha emailed me when I'm 40 pages into this draft, I have no idea what this stupid book is about. I was like, oh, man, that is that is harsh but it's fair.
Jay Clouse 26:02
That's a helpful friend, though.
Michael Bungay Stanier 26:03
It's a, so helpful. I mean, totally helpful. So I kind of picked my way through the rubble of this book, this draft. And there was a phrase that seemed to litter in the rubble. And the phrase was, we unlock our greatness by working on the hard things. And two years ago, I stepped away from being the CEO at Box of Crayons and started my own next door company, and Ainslie who I work with in mbs.works. You know, she and I have just built a number of systems and structures to keep us focused on the important projects, I'm like, you may be actually there's something about that, that this book is turning into. So you know, like so many creative projects, it's like, you start doing something, the first thing sucks. And it isn't actually the thing you want to be building anyway, it's something completely different. But when I landed on that phrase, and trying to trying to have people be ambitious, not just for themselves, but for the world, no holding this, look, I want to do something great for me, and I want to make the world a bit better as well. I'm like, that's a, that's a really good legacy that I can I can try and contribute to.
Jay Clouse 27:08
One of the conscious decisions you had to have made while writing this book was to make this a workbook to have all these exercises all throughout. And I imagine that didn't necessarily come as an easy decision, because I could see how that would create friction for the reader to finish the book. So talk to me about that decision.
Michael Bungay Stanier 27:28
Look, I've come to realize that what I'm good at as a as a creator, so both as a writer and designer and a facilitator is creating simplicity on the other side of complexity. So taking stuff that is otherwise a bit abstract and a bit theoretical, and making it feel understandable, to thing a fire to somebody when sent to it, which is like to give these ideas, a metaphor or a shape so that people go, oh, I get that I get what you're talking about with that. And then to show them how this thing, this idea can engage in reality. So it's not just oh, that sounds really interesting, I wonder how you do that. It's like, actually, I want you to feel that you can do this. So all of my books have had a degree of this, Jay, which is like, look, I don't want you to have a, I just don't want you to have the ideas. I want you to have a sense that you can act on this idea, that's really important to me. So I want people to shift as part of reading this book. And that's quite difficult to do with a book. I mean, books, often are a catalyst for change, but they're often not sustainable catalyst so I just tried to make it a bit more of that.
Jay Clouse 28:36
Yeah, it's easy to read a book and get kind of a thrill of, I did it, I completed it, I feel smarter. And now I can quote this in conversation. But like you're saying it doesn't necessarily lead to intrinsic deep work. Like I literally found myself thinking, gosh, I need to just go downstairs and print this off and actually, like fill in these blanks.
Michael Bungay Stanier 28:57
Thanks, Jay. That means a lot. You know, this is we're recording this before the books come out. So this is really the first conversation I've had with somebody going, I read the book, and I've been working through it and it's been helpful so it means a lot to hear it from you. Thank you.
Jay Clouse 29:10
Well, step one of this, you have as set a worthy goal. And I think a lot of people listening to this were artists, were creatives, we get sparks of ideas, and we say that sounds fun, that sounds cool, that seems like a good idea.
Michael Bungay Stanier 29:23
Jay Clouse 29:24
I know that I haven't run my ideas through a lens of is this a worthy goal? Or is there even a goal to it? Or is it just seemed like something that I want to create? So can you introduce this concept of what a worthy goal is?
Michael Bungay Stanier 29:37
Yeah, of course, and you know, I'm that I'm that type of person as well. Like, I'm actually quite good at half assed ideas. I know this sounds interesting. Jot in down in a bit of a paper and I'm going to process where I put all my, if I have ideas just to get them out of my head, I'll sketch them on a bit of paper, throw them in my folder down there called the ideas folder and then basically, every couple of months I'll take it out, read through these ideas. They're all they're either all the same idea, because I seem to have just had the same idea over and over again, or they're just not very good ideas. So I think so often we get in our own way, when we don't interrogate that initial spark of inspiration and excitement a little more rigorously. So I think there's a couple of ways of interrogating it. One is to make sure that your stool has three sturdy legs. So the three sturdy legs are, is this worthy goal thrilling, is it important and is it daunting? So thrilling is the, does it let you up? Do you care about it? Does it speak to who you are, who you want to be in the world? Who you are, you know who you are, where you are? And where you where you want the horizon you want to head to? Is it is it the thing that you would sit down with your kids or with some random kid you've kidnapped off the street and gone, let me tell you what I've been doing because I'm proud of it. It's kind of that legacy thing. But I don't want your worthy goal just to be you following your bliss. I also wanted to be important. I read a book a year ago or so by Jacqueline Novogratz called a Manifesto for a Moral Revolution. She started a basically, it's a nonprofit venture capitalist fund called acumen and the heart of this book, and there's a TED talk about this as well. She says, look, it's about asking yourself, have I given more to the world than I've taken? Can we give more to love than we take? And I think that's such a great phrase. So important is, you know, is there why to this work? Does it make the world a little bit better? Are you serving something other than your own ambition? And then the third element is daunting. And daunting is, does this help you learn and grow? Does it stretch you?
Jay Clouse 31:43
When we come back, we dive deeper into Michael's three part framework of thrilling, important and daunting and how we apply these lenses to the projects that we think about taking on right after this. Hey, welcome back. Before the break, Michael laid out the three criteria for a worthy goal, thrilling, important, and daunting. Thrilling speaks to the excitement you feel around an idea whether it really lights you up or not. Important speaks to the broader implications beyond your own sense of satisfaction or gratification. And daunting speaks to the flutter in your stomach that something feels challenging, as if it might stretch you.
Michael Bungay Stanier 32:22
There's a business author called Liz Wiseman, best known for a book called Multipliers, although she's got a brand new book out, which is great, called Impact Players, which is about what do those people do who have an outsized impact in the work that they do? Why are they different? What do they do differently than the rest of us? And Liz said, look daunting for me as I know how to start the project, I just don't know how to finish it. And I'm like, oh, that's good. Yeah because that that really resonates, which is like, there's a lot of things I'm like, I have no idea how this story ends, or even how I get across the abyss, I just know that the first steps of the path are visible for me and I can start the journey. So the first question is to as you as you look at your worthy goal, first of all, go look, it's going to be helpful to put it through these three lenses and test it against those three lenses. And it's also helpful to know that your first draft of your goal is probably not the best version of your goal. So playing with it, tightening up strengthening it, making it so robust, so that it has both internal and external motivation to pull you forward. Because I know for me, I think this is true for others as well. If your goal doesn't have this, when it gets hard, it's easy to walk away from it. And sometimes that's the right thing to do. But so often, it's an opportunity lost, because you didn't quite figure out the best way to articulate a worthy goal that would help you get through the hard things.
Jay Clouse 33:51
I love that and I think a lot of people listening to this can relate to this. And actually a note that I took under each of those points. The thrilling, important, daunting points is the countermeasure that you noted.
Michael Bungay Stanier 34:00
Jay Clouse 34:01
You said that thrilling is a countermeasure against a sense of obligation, important as a countermeasure against selfishness, daunting as a countermeasure against the comfort zone. And all three of those things are definitely things that I felt when I'm stalling out on a creative idea.
Michael Bungay Stanier 34:17
Right, exactly. I think people probably when they first come up with an idea, they can see how it will take one or two of those boxes, but not three of those boxes. And this stuff is hard enough to do. Even when you got the worthy goal really clearly defined that, you know, everybody listening to this podcast knows the struggle of being a creator and trying to start something new and to see it through. It's really hard. Give yourself the best chance of success by finding a worthy goal that has that rigor to it. That just means that you've just got a better chance of maintaining momentum.
Jay Clouse 34:52
I like the word you used interrogate like interrogating these ideas.
Michael Bungay Stanier 34:57
Jay Clouse 34:57
And if I think about the ideas that I have, or the goal that I have and I hold them up through these lenses of is this thrilling, is this important, is this daunting? I'm curious to know whether you think I should use those lenses right off the bat, or I guess if there's any danger in reverse engineering answers for myself along those lines just to justify doing the project?
Michael Bungay Stanier 35:21
Well, we constantly face our own slipperiness. At least I do, I'm just gonna make it up. It's true for everybody else as well, like I am now. I am slippery and tricksy, and, and hard to pin down and self justifying and all of that sort of stuff, post rationalizing. So I think, yeah, I think there is a danger that that can happen. You know, in the book, I asked people to go through three drafts of their worthy goal. And once I asked people to, to just, you know, honestly, score your worthy goal out of 21. So, out of seven, you know, kind of one to seven, how thrilling is this really for you? I mean, be honest, you're on you're, like talking to yourself here, you don't have to prove anything. How important is that going one to seven, how daunting is at one to seven? So people come up with a total somewhere between, I mean, in theory between 3 and 21. Normally, it's between about 12 and 21 in practice. And my take is, if this isn't at least 18 out of 21, it may not yet have the rigor to pull you forward. And what it also does is you go okay, so look, it's 6 out of 7 for important, it's 7 out of 7 for daunting, it's 4 out of 7 for thrilling. What would need to be true for this to become more thrilling for me? And that question is a really good one. I'll say it again, what needs to be true for and you know, I got this from a guy called Roger Martin, who's a Toronto guy, great writer, as well, a great strategic thinker. And what I love about that question, Jay, is it's not is this thrilling enough, yes or no? Because that's not a very interesting question. You just go, I'm imagining into the future, what would need to be true for this to be thrilling 7 out of 7? And it creates possibilities, and it helps you understand what, what, what's there. And it helps you understand really the opportunity, the opportunity cost of committing to something that would make it that thrilling for you.
Jay Clouse 37:24
Yeah, I think there's some important self discovery and excavation here because you're not just saying like, did this hit the target right now? It's good this hit the target. And how could it and do you want it to?
Michael Bungay Stanier 37:37
Right, I think that's exactly right because it is just speaking for yourself, it is so easy to, to make the thing that you came up with sound good to yourself. And you are kind of post justifying it and post rationalizing it. So by kind of almost separating yourself out from the goal and saying this is actually not personal, it's not about me, I'm just trying to hold this goal up and see it objectively. Just give it a better chance to just her product a bit and go, yeah, I'm up for it. This sounds like a thing that I want to invest time and effort and money and reputation and resource into because that's what's about to happen.
Jay Clouse 38:16
Let's say that we we got a score that's higher than 18, where we've got a goal that we're really excited about. For me when I was working through this, I was using the exercise of my goal being turning this podcast into a top 10 careers podcast that's specific, it gets me excited, it does feel daunting. Next, you kind of introduce the idea.
Michael Bungay Stanier 38:34
Why is it important, if I can ask?
Jay Clouse 38:36
Because it helps so many people, it encourages so many people to do exactly what we're talking about here, which is to keep going to not only get started, but to push through the challenging times. And like this slog for the first couple of years often
Michael Bungay Stanier 38:51
Jay Clouse 38:52
to get in front of enough people for your work to like really take off.
Michael Bungay Stanier 38:56
And let me ask you another question if I can Jay, how does that connect, if at all, to the biggest sense of purpose you have around the work that you do?
Jay Clouse 39:06
I love being able to help people find what I call creative independence. A lot of people focus on financial independence. And they do that and they achieve it and they think okay, I guess now I can express myself in the way that I want. And I think people can do that before ,you know, they've saved 25x of what their costs are.
Michael Bungay Stanier 39:25
Right, right. And what I love about hearing you say that Jay, it's really helpful for people listening is this is part of the interrogating of a goal, which is like, do you have something behind the goal? The goal is just one brick. You know, it's a significant brick, but it's one brick in the thing that you're building. And so Jay's like, look, I'm committed to enabling creative independence, really powerful. And here's the thing with Jay, we know he's super talented. He's, you know, he's a triple threat, whatever that means. So the thing that Jay has to weigh up is like, well, of all the things I could do, what's the thing that would be most thrilling, important and daunting for me to commit the next year to five years to, to really build something? Because there's you have choices. And what I love about what Jay's taking us through is is like, you know what this feels like it could be the thing to double down on because it commits to my wife so I've got an important thing, and it's thrilling, and it's daunting. And what he's also doing in saying that is saying, and that means I'm taking some other projects that I could do off the table, but I can't do all of them, I'm committing to possibly doing the podcast.
Jay Clouse 40:36
The next step here was fall starts, which I want to talk about, but for the sake of time, I want to go the thing that actually hit me even harder, which is the idea of noticing your mosquitoes because once I did articulate this goal of making Creative Elements a top 10 careers podcast, and I read about noticing your mosquitoes, I thought, oh my gosh, if I'm committing to this for the next 1 to 5 years, as you're saying, I've got a lot of mosquitoes so can you talk a little bit about mosquitoes?
Michael Bungay Stanier 41:01
So the the the intellectual get to this comes from a book called the Immunity to Change by Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, which has its own debt to oh, what's his name? A Harvard guy, Heifetz, Ron Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers. And it's this when you're tacking on something that is difficult tricky to do, we so often find ourselves with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake and it's really annoying. But I love this metaphor because immediately get it you're like, oh, man, what is what is wrong with me? I am so wanting to make this happen, I am pumping the gas but if I if I actually stop and notice I'm colluding against myself, what is going on here? And that's what noticing the mosquitoes is about. It just says, almost certainly for something that matters this much. There are things that you are doing and not doing that are contrary to the very goal that you're setting out to do. And it's really helpful to actually look and take an audit and just see how you're getting in your own way. And it will surprise you and it will embarrass you. And it will kind of I mean, humiliation is perhaps too strong a word. But I don't know, I'd say probably it will shame you in a certain way where you're like, I don't know what's wrong with me. The good news is there's nothing wrong with you. You're just human.
Jay Clouse 42:30
Can you give some examples of common mosquitoes that you see with artists and creatives?
Michael Bungay Stanier 42:35
Sure. I want my work to be known. I'm not going to let anybody know about my work. I want my work to be financially valued. I will systematically undervalue and underprice everything I'm trying to sell. I mean, those are two pretty big, pretty big ones. I like I know them because I have had them.
Jay Clouse 42:58
Yeah. What about, what about just competing priorities? That's something that I really started to realize as I was looking at this, like, okay, so if this is my goal, what are the other things that I'm doing right now actively as projects even that could have their own worthy goal that I just can't do all of them justice?
Michael Bungay Stanier 43:16
Well, I think I'm not sure if there's a mosquito or that that's, you know, a horsefly because I think there's, I think there's a there's just a big thing that most of us try and take on too many projects and do too many things at the same time. It's a combination of ambition and lack of discipline and anxiety because you're like maybe if I do a whole bunch of things, one of these will take off. And unfortunately, you're not a venture capitalist, you don't have the ability to invest across a portfolio of 12 different projects and hope that one or two strike bet. You got to kind of take your best guess and go for it. So i think, Jay, there's just a significant insight. This is from The Coaching Habit book. It's called the strategy question, the strategic question. If you're saying yes to this, what must you say no to? And you got to you've got to kill some things off. I mean, we've all heard the phrase kill your darlings or kill your babies or whatever study graphic saying is, but you're like you just do, you just got to go, I can't do that, you're kidding? I mean, I keep failing to learn this myself, Jay. I keep going maybe I can do two or three of these and I'm like, no, you can't you're an idiot Michael, you like really you can commit to one worthy goal. That's why you need to think hard about what you commit to.
Jay Clouse 44:35
Yeah, two phrases that I think about a lot, one of the friend of mine who just said you can have as many cats as you want, but you have to feed all of them. And another person who put another way was like, I get six kicks of the ball per day and I can either kick six different balls one time or you can kick one ball six times and it's like really illustrates like wow, you could do so much more with focus.
Michael Bungay Stanier 44:56
And another scale, you know, the book openings I'm talking about Kevin Kelley and about setting your death date, because with actuarial tables, you can figure out when you die and that's helpful for me. But also, what's helpful from that article with Kevin Kelley is that you get to do one big project every five years. So, according to my actuarial tables, I've got about 22 years left, that's for big projects, you know, don't fritter away your choices around that. And if you're going to use a quote from Napoleon, if you're going to take Rome, take Rome. So it's like, you know, if you're gonna, if you've got, if you've done this work to figure it out, do the thing. But that actually requires work and self awareness. And really, that's what this book is trying to get out, which is like, see your choices, see the way you're going to get in your own way, commit fully, and then cross the threshold and begin the journey.
Jay Clouse 45:48
How do you think about big projects yourself? Because there's like a subjective measure of scale here, right? Like, is this book a big project or is mbs.works and the change you're trying to create a big project, you know, how do you think?
Michael Bungay Stanier 46:02
I think about it in two ways. I think about it and this is the poem my quote at the very end of the book Jay, a poem from Roca. The translated title as the man watching, and the last lines of the poem, ah, I've got these slightly wrong, because embarrassing delay should know that by now, it's like, his goal is not to win. His goal is to be defeated by ever greater things. And I, you know, I'm now in my 50s, I've had some success. I'm like, I don't want to keep winning games, I can know how to win, I want to be defeated by ever greater things. So there's just a moral calling to, as it says in the poem, to wrestle with the angel, the angel doesn't wrestle with everybody so do something where it's like, worth wrestling with the angel for. And then I try and think about scale and trying to make a difference in the world. So for me, the book is not a great work project, but the how to begin business is. So it's like, okay, so how do I build an ecosystem that allows and supports people on an ongoing basis being a force for change and taking on worthy goals? So that's a combination of a book and a program, and then a membership site, you know, based on circle, just like SBI is and the like, which is like, how do we build a community of people doing this work together so they have community and they have momentum, and they have encouragement? Because for me to, it works as one of my big projects, to try and build, you know, a 1000 people working on worthy goals and supporting each other.
Jay Clouse 47:40
If I'm listening to this and I'm in the middle of a project, or I'm, I'm post start, but I feel like, you know, I'm in this not moving phase that you talked about, how do you encourage that person to decide on their next step?
Michael Bungay Stanier 47:57
Well, you've got options so I guess it's right, have a think about some of the options and decide on one. Almost doesn't matter which one, pick one though. You know, one is go back and revisit the project and go, is this the right project? You know, interrogator, thrilling, important and daunting? Do I need to recast it slightly, reframe it, tighten it, loosen it or do I need to walk away from it? Is there actually something saying here that this is a project you've inherited some way and you know, the shadow has fallen and the love is gone. The second option is if you like, if you like, I think this is pretty much the right project, I would say, look, it's one of the things that often happens is we think we have to travel alone. So it's like find some people to travel with. Just get some help, you know, and you can make that formal and hire a coach. You can make it informal and just go look, I'm calling up these two buds I have and I'm like, let's just talk once a week to just do nothing but to go, what did you say you're going to do? What did you do? What are you celebrating? What did you learn? See you next week. So just create a group of people who put their hand at the small of your back and just move you forward. And if you're like, yeah, but I hate people. And I'm like, okay, I kind of get that I'm a little bit like that myself although I, I really encourage you to get other people to help you out. Just do a burst of work, you know, and there's 1000 different tools to sort of go, how do you do a little bit every day? I find the period of time that's really helpful for me is six weeks. Six weeks is long enough to make progress, real progress on something. And it's short enough that if it's been a complete waste of time, it doesn't feel like a huge loss. It's only six weeks. So it has a kind of magical quality. It's like that dress on the internet. It's like some lights, it's blue, and sometimes it's gold. Well, six weeks it's like, the loss isn't too great, but the benefit could be really enough. So can I tell look, give this six good weeks work just say what your capacity for but do work every day or most days for six weeks. And you'll just be in a different place. And after six weeks stop and go, where the hell am I now? And what does this tell me about this project and about me and what I need to be doing?
Jay Clouse 50:14
I've shared this in a previous episode before, but I'm extremely picky about the authors who come on this show, it would be really easy for me to interview any author coming out with any new book, and justify it as a creative piece worth diving into. But a lot of other podcasts do that. And I made a promise to myself that this show would be different. Since reading How To Begin, I've adopted the thrilling, important and daunting framework into my own decision making about whether or not I take on a new project. And it has in fact had a big impact on some projects that have considered already. I've already started a project and then shut it down because it just wasn't thrilling enough. There are a lot of books out there related to goal setting, and I've read a good number of them. But very sincerely this book, How To Begin stands out as a very helpful and practical guide for goal setting, and frankly, helping you interrogate whether a project is truly a worthwhile pursuit or not. The book releases on January 11, but you can preorder the book now to get some special bonuses, just visit howtobegin.com which I've linked to in the show notes. If you want to learn more about Michael you can visit his website at mbs.works. That is also in the show notes. Thank you to Michael for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you like this episode, you can tweet @jayclouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please leave a review on Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.