Stop the Busywork, and Start the Work that Matters — the subtitle of Do More Great Work, a book by Michael Bungay Stanier — gets right to the point about how we should do more of what we love and be the best versions of ourselves. In this episode of Rule Breaker Investing, Motley Fool co-founder David Garner chats with Michael and gets to the roots of great work — what it is and how it changes you.
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This video was recorded on August 10, 2021.
David Gardner: In 2010, via Workman Publishing, Executive Coach and author Michael Bungay Stanier published Do More Great Work. My own Amazon purchase history shows me buying a copy for myself that spring, and then buying another to share with my wife in 2011, another for a friend in February 2017, don’t remember which one. Another for a different friend that same August, and then two more purchases for mentees in the fall of 2019. Now, as a sample size of one, if I’m any indicator, this is a book people love and share around. Well, Michael’s book reads quick, fast, and fun. It makes you smarter as you go and it’s really a workbook. The author introduces us to exercises he calls maps. There are 15 of them in the book and you’re guided along to fill them out as you go. Together, they’re designed to help you do more great work. “Stop the busy work,” the subtitle goes, and “Start the work that matters.” I believe this is a book that anyone can pick up at any point in life, and through some introspection and a little elbow grease, chart their way forward. Maybe get back on the path you once were on, maybe find a new path, eyes wide open, maybe a mix.
If last week’s look at Positive Intelligence gives you an operating system to be a better version of yourself, Do More Great Work puts you on a path, partly of your own design, a higher path than you were probably initially taking. So taken together, read one after the other in the same sequence that this month’s podcasts bring you, I believe that Positive Intelligence and Do More Great Work will give clear eyes and a full heart, and I say, you can’t lose. Get ready for high energy and yes, high excitement about your potential new future that we may just help you find only on this week’s Rule Breaker Investing.
Gardner: Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. I sure did have a lot of fun with Shirzad Chamine last week on his book, Positive Intelligence. A return appearance for Shirzad on this podcast, he first joined us in October of last year. Maybe it’s something about executive coaches that’s on my mind here. In August of 2021, I’m not sure why exactly, but this week’s author, Michael Bungay Stanier is also a world-class coach. In addition to being an author and a personality that I know you’re going to enjoy with me this week. Before I welcome Michael, I would like to mention next week’s author in what we’re doing. It will be a horse of a different color. The third week in August, Charles King and his book, Gods of the Upper Air. In Gods of the Upper Air, Charles will introduce you to some amazing rule breakers of the past century, and that would be the women and men who effectively started a new science at the time called anthropology, cultural anthropology, Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, etc. So I’m looking forward next week to a riveting discussion with Charles right along the lines of his book’s subtitle, how a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex and gender in the 20th century. That’s next week.
I doubt you’ll be able to buy the book and read it before then. But some of you, no doubt, will and the rest of us can be inspired and learn and maybe want to learn a lot more looking backward to understand our present day. Looking forward to that, but without any further ado. Michael Bungay Stanier has written books that have sold about a million copies all told, including his book, The Coaching Habit. We won’t be talking about that this week unless he wants to, we can. That’s a self-published book that became the best-selling book on coaching this century. Michael founded a training and development comedy, I love the title, Box of Crayons. How could you not want to work with Box of Crayons? That has taught coaching skills to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Michael adds, by the way, “I love that it’s a human-centered place to work, and that it practices what it preaches.” But wait, there’s more. He’s been happily married for 30 years or so. He was a road scholar. He created a booking partnership with Seth Godin, a previous Authors in August guest for this podcast. August 2018 actually, but Michael and Seth raised $400,000 for Malaria No More through that effort. Michael has also been named No. 1 thought leader in coaching and the Coaching Guru. That’s with a capital C and a capital G, by the way. He’s launched several podcasts, and occasionally joins in on others. I’m so glad to have you with us this week, Michael Bungay Stanier.
Michael Bungay Stanier: David, thank you so much. I’m quite exhausted having had that introduction. I’m going to take a quick lie down, but I really appreciate being here. Honestly, I know your previous week’s guest. I haven’t heard of your guest next week, but they sound amazing. I’m glad to be the filler in between these people.
Gardner: Yes, you are that marshmallow that we love in between the Oreo cookies. Was it a marshmallow or something like that? Let me ask you a completely offbeat question first. I hadn’t planned this, but not all of us use that middle name in our full name. It feels very 19th century to me, and yours, I didn’t initially know how to pronounce Michael, it’s Bungay. I got that right, right?
Bungay Stanier: Yeah, you got it right. But here’s the twist. It’s actually not my middle name. It’s actually my married name. When I got married, my wife and I combined our names together. I was Michael Stanier, I became Michael Bungay Stanier. But there’s no hyphen in it so it gets tricky for people. It’s like I keep going. It’s like an invisible hyphen. Of course, it freaks people out a little bit trying to pronounce it just as you were saying. In fact, I once got to let her address to actually professor Michael Banging Spaniel. It was the most outstanding wrong version of my name. When people are going for my name, I’m like if it’s better than Banging Spaniel, you’re already ahead of the game.
Gardner: But the choice to take your wife’s name into your name, that’s a real intentional decision. Not everybody does that. What was your thinking at the time?
Bungay Stanier: Well, I would say, it’s two-fold. First of all, my wife has grown up in the world of academia, and it’s common in academia, particularly for women to have double-barreled names. They’re like, “I’m not trading my identity for my married partner’s name. I’m going to keep my own pre-married name as part of who I am.” Actually, a lot of my early work, particularly in university, was around feminism. I was like, you know what, I’m really engaged in the sense of what does it mean to have gender equality? What does it mean to think about the patriarchy? How does the shadow of the patriarchy fall? It just felt like one of those small statements that says look, I’m not asking the woman I’m marrying to give up her name to take my name. We can combine our names and confuse people for the next 30-50 years, and I think we’ve successfully done that.
Gardner: Well, you just untangled my own personal confusion and I love the story. Thank you for sharing that, Michael.
Bungay Stanier: Sure.
Gardner: Let’s go to the book, Do More Great Work. First off, your title. Many business books require you to read the subtitles to really figure out what’s going on here, but not yours. Do More Great Work. Obviously, I love the directness of it. But with map No. 1 in your book, you’re asking us, readers, to make a pie chart of how we spend our time in three categories. The bad work we do, the good work we do, and the great work. Michael, would you coach us a bit on what these three categories mean?
Bungay Stanier: Sure. I’ll start off by just saying there’s a saying out there, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” This is just a wrong useful model to take a snapshot in terms of how you’re showing up in your life. Work is really the whole enchilada here. It’s not just your business or your corporate responsibility. It’s like how you are showing up in life. Everything you do falls into one of three different brackets, bad, good, and great work, just as David said. Here we go. Bad work; it is mind-numbing, soul-sucking, life-crushing work. It makes you want to pick up a pen and stab yourself in the eye. It’s the work that makes you go, “This is my one and precious life, what the hell am I doing here? How did I end up doing this?” It’s different for all of us, but if you’re somebody who works in corporations, you definitely know what this is like. It’s the bureaucracy. It’s the two-hour meetings that you go to where you’re like, “That’s two hours of my life I’m never getting back again.” I was running that meeting. It’s all of that stuff where you’re like, oh my goodness, why has my life deteriorated into this? So bad work, and everybody listening will go, I know exactly what that is for me.
Good work; the fastest description I figured out for this, David, is good work is your job description. This is true whether you have an official job in a company, whether you’re an entrepreneur and you’re running your own thing, whether you’re working directly for a profit or a non-profit organization, you’re housekeeper, whatever. It’s about how you spend your day. So good work is productive, efficient, and getting things done. What you’re good at, what you’ve been trained to do, you don’t screw it up too often. It is a key part of happiness and a key part of contribution. But the challenge with good work, David, is it is seductive. It is also overwhelming. There’s always too much good work to get done. There is always more stuff. Nobody is coming up on Friday afternoons and going, I’ll just play tetris for a while. Everyone is like, I still haven’t got to the bottom of my email. I still haven’t got that thing outstanding. For most people, even if they never sleep again, they’ll never get to the end of their good work. But good work is an essential part of the mix. It generates meaning, it makes you feel good, and it often gives you the shorter-term rewards around what your boss wants you to do and what your boss’s boss wants you to do.
Then that leaves us with great work. Great work is the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. It’s this entwined definition that I think is so powerful. It is the work externally that you focus on to say, this is the stuff that makes the difference. If you know the Pareto principle, it’s like the 20% that gives you the 80%. It’s like, of all the stuff you could be focusing on, which will really move the needle, tip the domino, whatever you want to say. But it’s not just about impact, it’s actually about what lights you up. What do you care about? What is more meaningful for you? What speaks to your values and who you want to be in this world? What speaks to legacy? We all have this mix of bad work, good work, and great work in our life. Very few people have too much great work. Honestly, David, over the years, I’ve probably stood in front of 100,000 people in various stages, through a screen, on a stage and gone, hands up everybody who has too much great work right now. Too much work that is meaningful and making a difference.
Bungay Stanier: Maybe five or six people have stuck up their hands and I don’t think they really understood the question. Honestly, I think for all of us, we’ve got too much bad work for sure, we’ve got too much good work, and we’re hungry for a little bit more great work. Now it’s not trying to replace everything to do 100% great work because that would just make your head explode, but it’s about going, what choices can I make to find the right balance between good work and great work for me, for my team, for my organization, for my family. All of that.
Gardner: The surprising bit of that, because once we here at great work explained and bad work explained I think we get those pretty intuitively, but you just said it’s the good work that can overwhelm us and take away a lot of the great work opportunity. Michael, your book subtitles Stop the Busy Work, Start the Work that Matters, was there a time in your life for you just switched on and suddenly realized you needed to do this?
Bungay Stanier: Yeah. In fact, it’s an ongoing discipline for me, because I suffer from shiny object syndrome, and I’m constantly going, “What’s over here, what’s over there?” I’ve worked in big companies and I’ve worked in small companies. Your life fills up with the tridus. I remember 20 years ago a friend of mine going, “Michael, let’s focus. The secret is focus.” But I’m like, but no, I’m a doubler. I want to do a whole bunch of things in a small way.” He’s like, “You can do that, that’s fine.” But if you’re looking to make an impact, if you’re already making a difference, if you’re looking to amplify the best version of yourself, then it’s about having the courage to make a choice to say yes to something and in saying yes, being able to say no to the other things that you need to say no to, to give you a yes, some shape and some purpose and some impact. You mentioned the end malaria book than I did with Seth Godin, which I’m really proud of. It’s like 60 people that wrote short articles. We partnered with Amazon and made all the revenue from the book, not just the profit, but absolutely everything went to this Malaria No More charity. It came about because I had written this book, Do More Great Work and it’s really helpful to define a great work project and I’m like I probably should be doing a great work project now if I’m not a total hypocrite and the End Malaria book was the distillation of that. I sat in your coffee shop for a while. What are my strengths and what do I care about? What impact do I want to have in the world and End Malaria grew out of that. That’s a direct line of sight from writing the book.
Gardner: Eating our own dog food, which is awfully good advice most of the time, and I hope it doesn’t taste like dog food, but the truth is that there’s, especially as authors and I’ve done this before, it’s helpful to make sure that we still agree with what we wrote and indeed exemplified and embody it, which is what the world needs from us.
Bungay Stanier: Too often it’s my advice, because I’m not using it and I like actually taking my advice because I’m trying to follow it myself.
Gardner: That’s something we all need to go out against. In the book […] for me, map No. 3, where I want to spend some time here, probably my personal favorites. I want to go deeper on this one and encourage all my fellow Fools to do that right along with us. It’s entitled, what are you like at your best? Let me start by asking Michael, why is what I like at my best, an important question?
Bungay Stanier: Yes. It is no small thing to say, I’m up for more great work. It calls on the very best of you to step forward into that space, not just to find out, because at your very best, you’re finding stuff that reflects your values, but to have the courage to say yes to it, to start it and to have the courage and the resilience to continue it. Because when you do more great work, you’re typically stepping out into the unknown, into the unexpected. You’re going to meet resistance from a whole bunch of people going, what are you doing? Go back into your safe box or I understand this is a crazy talk. It’s going to call on the very best of you to come forward and it’s really helpful to get grounded in what that sense of who you are like at your best so that you can find great work that’s resonated to that and you can sustain yourself going through it and I’m really delighted that you choose map No.3, I didn’t know you even picked that because it’s one of my favorites as well. I’ve got holding up my little this note that thing which is laminated and I carry it around with me and I have done for 15 years since this book has come out as a way of actually not just remembering who I am at my best, which is part of it, but the secret of map No. 3, it’s called that this note that exercise. It’s also remembering what I’m like when I’m not quite at my best, when I’m like 15% off my game because what that does is it helps me navigate back from being off my game, being back to what I can be at my very best. I think that’s part of the power of the exercise.
Gardner: Indeed, the exercise starts by asking the reader, our listeners right now too and I’ll quote, “remember a time when you were, at your very best, a time when you felt you were being most authentic, most yourself, most natural, most in the zone up peak moment, playing to strengths, doing great work” Dear listeners, do you have one in mind? Then Michael makes us write down 20 words that evoke how we were at this time and then you do it again, you make us build-out a bigger list of words Michael. We’re up to 30 words now, and then you have us narrow those down to just 10. Why?
Bungay Stanier: Because choice is really at the essence of great work and I want to give you a tool that is helpful for you. If you have 30 pairs of words, it’s like having 30 key KPIs and, I don’t know what to do with that. It’s too much. What I love about this exercise, David, is it takes like 20 minutes to do a first draft, but then another 20 iterations to polish it and get it really so it feels like a really helpful tool for you as you refine the language, refining the pairs, maybe evolve as you go through it, but yes, it’s like making choices. Part of my early background is in the world of innovation and creativity. I know a bit about running a brainstorm and I found out the other day that I was in this new product development agency, I played a very small role in helping to invent stuff crust pizza, which became very clear to me that this is no way my great work. That was part of what moves me on from that job and I also helped […] invent a single-mode Whiskey which I read on whiskey review site just the other month, is now considered possibly the worst single malt whiskey ever worst crust pizza, and the worst single malt whiskey ever invented, that’s a proud boast. This brainstorming approach which is like go get a lot and then trim and get clear on what really matters. Just keep it easy to edit once you’ve got too much on the page. It just helps you make choices around that.
Gardner: Absolutely. After amping up that language a little bit, you now have us and you mentioned this, pair those words with ones that express when we’re not at our best, not at our peak, maybe falling out of doing great work. Let me give an example and people can’t see us. You and I can see each other because we’re using video, but I also have mine right up at my desk. So yours are laminated. I have a laminated copy, but yes, I’m amazed to think that you are still eating your own dog food, following your own exercise, still have your paired list of 10 as do, I am not going to share them all but a couple of examples so listeners know what we’re talking about. From my own list, one of mine, 10 one of them is showcasing, not burying my talents. Another one is dreaming big, not focusing on small things. You essentially have us create a personal set of almost branding statements that help us remind ourselves of the 10 ways we are at our best and specifically the opposite when we’re not. I did this 11 years ago. When did you first do it, Michael?
Bungay Stanier: I did it as a branding exercise for a product. That’s actually the root of that. I love that you’re pointing to that. I did this prior to writing the book and the book is 11 years old now, so I probably would’ve done my first one around 14 or 15 years ago and so pairs for me or things like loose, not tight. That means a lot to me. That resonates at a physical level. It resonates in terms of how I am after interacting in a relationship.
Bungay Stanier: That pair of words won’t mean much to some people, but for me, I get an immediate physical hit around what that means. Provocative, not sycophantic. I was sycophantic, it means basically sucking up to people, whereas I want to stir people and I remember once being in Detroit giving a speech for a whole bunch of carmakers and honestly I walked into this room and it’s for me, one of my toughest crowds. It was basically all alpha males. Like they’re all 6’4”, they’re all steel gray hair, steel gray suits, white shirts, red ties, hand crushing handshakes. I could feel myself shrinking because I’m not really an alpha male. I don’t really understand that world that much. I was like, man, I want them to like me because they are all powerful auto executives and I could just feel whatever magic I have draining away. I’m like, ooh, I’m feeling the need to be sycophantic.
My job is to be provocative and it won’t allow me to have the coverage to go out and you give my talk and run my thinking the best way I can and go look, I’m trying to free myself a little bit from what the audience is expecting. I’m trying to be the best version of me because that’s why they hired me. One of the ways into this David is for sure thinking of a peak moment and then generating words, another way into it is thinking of off peak moments like that speech in Detroit where I’m like, oh, this is me, I’m not failing but just being 15% below who I want to be. What do I learn from that? What are the words there and how might I get moved from there into a more full expression of who I am.
Gardner: It is just a really great reminder that sometimes it’s one thing to have an example and I think we all need those. I think back to college literature courses, at university, we’re studying the great books, a lot of times and for good reasons. But what I always wanted and I never did take this course, I wanted my professor to include a horrible book. A horrendously bad piece of literature because that also educates, because we get the contrast that without which we don’t know what that looks like.
Bungay Stanier: Yeah. There is a lot of wisdom for this, emotional intelligence, which is being able to notice yourself and go, are you happy with how you’re showing up right now? Sometimes you can float outside just helping go, man, this is awesome, you did a great job and sometimes you can look at yourself and go, are you selling yourself short here? What does it take for you to get back to being the best version you can be at this moment? Because that unlocks all sorts of great things.
Gardner: The first part of the book, Michael, basically focused on knowing one self, thinking through our peak experiences, our purpose, what we stand for. That sets up the next part of the book where you uncover your great work down. My favorite map in that section is map No. 6, and it’s entitled What’s Broken. Let’s talk about this a little bit. The visuals are great. It works pretty well even in audio format on this podcast, I think, but it involves concentric circles, starting with what’s right in front of you and progressing out where in the question is what could be improved or changed? For example, the first concentric circle, and I’m sitting at my desk right now, is around my desk. You encourage us to ask, what would you or I like to change or fix around our desk? By the way, when I first filled that out 11 years ago, I looked with some annoyance at my printer because it had this awkward cable and I was conscious, printers are going wireless. Why do I have a ugly wire coming on at the printer? Anyway, from your desk, you take us outward concentrically to your office, your workload, your team, your division, your organization, what’s broken or could be fixed for any of our organizations, your neighborhood, country, and then world. Michael for the fun of it, what’s something that you think is broken about either your desk or office where you’re working today or about our world?
Bungay Stanier: Well, I can tell you what’s broken right now about my office. It’s summer in Toronto, and this little room, and it’s a small room, it’s like 100 square foot, doesn’t have air conditioning. Part of why I’m grateful around just being audio, no video as if it was video, people will be watching sweat drifting down my through and me fanning myself. There’s something around that. I just went through this exercise just the other day and I’m like, what needs to be true for me to be delighted about the space in which I’m working? That’s a question that I got from a guy called Roger Martin, who is a wonderful writer and thinker. What needs to be true about a future state that you’re aspiring to doesn’t then make you go, is it a yes or no to that future state? It’s just asking you what would have to happen for you to get there and it starts out with a host of interesting possibilities. Then in terms of what’s broken about the world? Well, I mean, yesterday the UN put out their latest report on climate change. Just going this is it. We’re rubbing right up against that and it is very scary. I mean, connected to me sweating here in my office, which is like an over hot summer but really, for the most part in Toronto, I’m protected from climate change and climate disaster. I have friends on the Pacific islands. I know Pacific islands aren’t going to be there for much longer unless something happens. That’s pretty big and overwhelming.
Gardner: Very well said and I’m thinking a little bit about you being in Canada. You told me just before we started today that you are a citizen of three nations. You’re a citizen of Australia, your native land, you are a citizen of the U.K. and of course of Canada, where you work and have bred then married into the country 20-some years ago?
Bungay Stanier: Yeah, 25 years ago.
Gardner: Wonderful. I was just thinking and then hearing now, the U.S. and Canada, we haven’t been able to go across each other’s borders much for the last year-and-a-half except that I think it just started opening so that we can visit you.
Bungay Stanier: I think that’s right. We’re getting Americans coming through our airports starting today, I think. It’s quite exciting that we’re finally opening up. I think you have to be fully vaccinated, which is great and I think we’re opening it up more broadly in a matter of months to other fully vaccinated people from around the world. Slowly maybe things are getting back together again. But I mean, you’re probably experiencing this too David, which is like traveling ain’t what it used to be.
Gardner: Well, and I’m curious, Mike, how much traveling do you do? I’m thinking about you as an executive coach and entrepreneur, author, speaker. Is that a big part of your life and what have you done over these last 18 months?
Bungay Stanier: Yeah. It was a big part of my life and some of that travel I loved and some of that travel, I went, who booked me on this flight? Oh wait, I booked myself on the flight. This isn’t my great work. What am I doing saying yes to this? But for the last 18 months, it’s been an interesting mix. I’m in my 50s, my dad died a couple of weeks ago and I spent the last four months in Australia with my mom and dad as he lived through his terminal illness and last year I spent another three months there. In fact, in the last 12 months, I have had seven months back in Australia living in my childhood bedroom which is a whole other thing for a therapist on a couch at some stage. It’s been a really interesting mix whereas in previous years my life with my wife would have been, I’m away for a bit, I’m back for a bit, I’m away for a bit, I’m back for a bit. Over the last 18 months it’s, I’m either fully away or I am fully back and both of those new ways of living together needed adjustment. We had to figure out what it’s like when Michael doesn’t go away.
Bungay Stanier: We’re not given a break from each other and how do we reset around that, and then what’s it like when Michael is away for months? How do you sustain a relationship, and intimacy, and love, and connection? Four months is a very long time to be away from a spouse, somebody who you love.
Gardner: Very well said, I’m so sorry to hear that about your father. I’m so glad that you had that time with him and made that time with him. That wasn’t that easy to do probably. In fact, last month, I did the second half of the mailbag two weeks ago just dedicated to parents and thinking about the importance of what they mean to us and how we should treasure them. You’re a living example of that and thank you for that. Before we move back to the book, do you have a tip for any of us who might have a spouse or partner going the equivalent of Michael’s around full-time now, that means things need to change. Have you learned something you can share, coach?
Bungay Stanier: Well, I am a really big fan of something, originally it was called social contracting. I started to think of it as our operating manual, which is having a conversation about how we work together, not what we’re working on. Most of the time when you’re pulled together and this is true with your spouse or is true with people you work with at work and the like, the seduction is to talk about the thing, the project that needs to be sorted, that external third thing that you’re both looking at going how are we going to deal with this? It can be really powerful. I just had a conversation about how we are working together. What do you love about what I do? What drives you nuts about who I am, and what I do? Because trust me, there will be something there, and then you answer the same question that they’re answering. It just gives you a greater sense of, I want to be the best version of myself for you, which is true in theory.
In practice, I forget that all the time. But let me give you some clues as to what helps me be the best version of myself for you. If you could do the same for me, so that I can wind you up less and I can be the type of person that you’re hoping for, or at least I can understand what you’re hoping for, that conversation at that level about how do we be with each other rather than what are we working on together can make a difference. It’s awkward as anything, but it can be really powerful. As an example of this David, my dad’s illness involved him coming home and living at home for the last two months, which was a great bonus for us because we didn’t think he would make it. But he was in a hospital bed in our home, and he was attached to oxygen. Suddenly, a man who had been a very equal contributor to a household and did most of the cooking and this and the other, was now being looked after by my mom as his caregiver. This is a really great couple who had been together for 55 years, and they were just an outstanding role model in terms of a shared partnership. Really tight, really loving, very lucky to have the role model and that is parents. They were just getting irritated with each other. Dad is irritated because he can’t do what he used to do and the service isn’t what he was expecting. Mom’s irritated because there’s a standard of service expected here which just wasn’t there, which she wasn’t signed up for. I sat down and facilitated a conversation around these topics, which is how do you want to now live with each other because things have shifted in how your relationship works? I got to tell you, this was so awkward. I don’t want anybody to think that I just said, “Oh, this should be fun.” I was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst thing ever.” I don’t want mom’s last two months’ memory of her relationship with my dad to be damaged because of the recency effect, it means it will stay in her whole memory of the relationship. I want this relationship to have its best chance, to be as strong as po! ssible, even in this really impossible time. Mom’s like, “Do I have to be here for this?” I’m like, “I think you have to be here for this.” Dad’s like, “I think this will be good, perhaps.”
We had a conversation around it and it was pretty good. We didn’t answer all the questions, and we just talked about the relationship. In talking about it, it meant that we could keep talking about it and they could keep reorienting around each other and they could give each other permission to do things and they could make requests to not do things. Honestly, I feel very proud of that moment because when you’re a coach or you teach coaching, it’s much easier to teach the stuff and actually deliver it yourself, but to actually have made that conversation take place, felt like a really great contribution to my parents’ happiness.
Gardner: What a loving son and what a platform that you gave them, even if it was awkward, and not easy to do to be able to talk with each other afterward and reflect back on that. I do love the meta of conversation. In fact, we went off book for this part and it’s one of my favorite things that we talked about. I’m so grateful that you shared that. But it’s funny, I was having a conversation with a mentee who is a rising college sophomore this morning and his first question was, “How did I start my business? I asked him back, “Why are you asking that question?” That was awkward. The reason wasn’t because I was trying to create an awkward moment, it’s because it really matters why people ask the questions that they ask. They’re in a sense, not telling you, but they’re willing to know where it comes from and that should change your answer. That’s why I awkwardly interrupted him, and asked him why he asked me that question.
Bungay Stanier: What do you want to really know? I’d be really curious to know that because you can look that up. There’s a thousand articles written about why you started the company. You can look that up. What are you really looking to find out here? What’s the real question behind your question?
Bungay Stanier: That would have taken the conversation to a much richer place.
Gardner: Yes. What else? I heard you deliver the AWE in a TEDx Talk recently. We’re not going to talk about the advice monster this time, but anybody can go and listen to Michael talk about shackling one zone advice monster in service of better conversation.
Bungay Stanier: My favorite comment on that TEDx Talk is, “I tried to watch this but his trousers were too tight.” If you’re not interested in the advice monster, but you’re interested in really tight trousers, then that is the TEDx Talk for you.
Gardner: Well, you should have shown them your laminated piece that says lose that tight.
Bungay Stanier: Exactly, that’s perfect. Nice connection.
Gardner: Back to the book. We were just talking about map No. 6 and it’s about what’s broken, and you answered some good questions there. All I want to reflect briefly on is that it’s one of my favorite questions to ask in business. It’s really the way businesses get started. You have somebody who has a lover’s quarrel with his or her industry, and they had a bad experience. They didn’t return that video, that DVD on time and they paid $23, so they decided to create a streaming service where you wouldn’t have to do that anymore and the list goes on. I think of Robert Frost, it was his poem, Lover’s Quarrel With The World. It’s on his gravestone, I had a lover’s quarrel with the world. What’s broken when asked right, and when asked out of a good place, from a good place with a clean conscience, clean heart can really lead to some of the great innovations of our time.
Bungay Stanier: Absolutely. I haven’t heard that phrase, the Lover’s Quarrel, but it is perfect David because when I talk about coaching people, I’ll often talk about fierce love, meaning the relationship I want if I’m coaching you or mentoring you is love. I want you to feel that I’m with you and I’ve got your back and I just want the best for you. A bit of fierceness means I’m just not going to put up with any BS around it either. I’m going to be blunt, I’m going to be provocative, I’m going to push as well as hug. There’s something in that which is similar to a lover’s quarrel, which is like I am so committed to this but this will not stand. Things need to be different here because this matters too much for me to tolerate this mess.
Gardner: Well, you have a wonderful sidebar in the book, because you begin to encourage us as readers to pick a project to go after some new great work. The section deciphers about how to say no, how to say no when you can’t say no? Because a lot of us, me included, feel a lot of pressure externally or sometimes internally to say yes, probably too often. Michael Bungay Stanier coached millions, can you give us the short course right now on how to say no?
Bungay Stanier: Sure. I think the starting point is to say you got permission to say no because there’s lots of people I think who go, “I’m not even allowed to say no. Why are we even having this conversation” and I’m like you do actually have permission to say no. Then I think there are different tactics that you can use depending on what’s going on. Sometimes, it’s just helpful to have a script. I have a little text expander thing that I type in which is semicolon fully and I type that in, and it just types out a three or four sentence message that says, I really appreciate the invitation, it’s kind of you to think of me. Unfortunately, I’m fully committed to other projects, so I’ll respectfully have to say no. It means I don’t have to think about crafting a no thing because every time it’s like, “This is awkward” and I want to say yes because I’m trying to be a nice guy and this person sounds like they’re a good person. I think just having a script can be part of it.
Another way to do it is to say not now, which is like, “You know what, this is a great invitation. I can’t do it now. Would you be willing to ask me again in a week or a month or in three months?” Part of what I love about that is people will typically forget, not always. When I’m invited onto a podcast or something and I’m like, “I can’t do it now, do you want to ask me that in three months?” When that person comes back in three months, I’m like good on you, you have a system that works and you’re going to actually ask me, so just for that alone, I’m going to do the thing you want me to do. This is the other side of it, which is a persistence in making the request.
Often, we assume that silence equals no. Silence often means I just haven’t gotten around to answering and then I’ve lost your email. I always knock three times before I tend to walk away. Then I think the final one is to go help me understand what I need to say no to, so that I can say yes to your request. This is particularly if you’re in a working relationship. David’s working for a boss like me, who is a classic visionary boss in a kind of a Les McKeown style because I know you and I both love Les McKeown’s work. I’m a visionary and visionaries are full of good ideas, and are untethered from reality in terms of how long it takes and what people can do which is really helpful and also a nightmare to work with at times, so I’ve got all of that. I’d say to Einsley who works in my team, I’m like, “Einsley, great. I went for a walk and I’ve got three really good ideas. Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now Einsley, well she has a couple of things, she goes, “Tell me where this sense of urgency is coming from?”
Bungay Stanier: Yeah. Actually, there is no sense of urgency, and then she goes, “Okay. But if you want me to take this on, what should I stop doing?” I’m like, “Don’t stop doing anything. Everything you’re doing right now is critical and vital. You’re right. I’ll come back to you if this is still a good idea in a month, or two months, or three months.”
Bungay Stanier: So that force helps people see that there’s an opportunity cost to saying yes and making clear the opportunity cost means that people are making more thoughtful choices.
Gardner: In the book, you have a few questions that you encourage us to ask back and these are great. There are three, I’m just going to share them right now because I need to be reminded of this myself. The first thing he says is, “May I ask why you’re asking me?” That’s a great one.
Bungay Stanier: They’re asking you because you showed up and you have a pulse.
Bungay Stanier: You’re like, you’re the first person I thought of.
Gardner: Yeah. The second question you have us ask is, “Have you asked anyone else?” The third question is, “Have you considered asking X? He’s got some experience with this.” But as you said earlier, I love that the person often will respond to the questions back from you this way.
Bungay Stanier: Yeah.
Gardner: Good questions. Let me get back to you when I’ve got some answers. As you pointed out, often they never do because they found somebody else who would say yes faster or yes just as easily.
Bungay Stanier: David, there’s something deeper behind this, which is about power and how power works in relationships and within the organizations. This is maybe a bit of a tenuous link, but for the same reason I changed my surname, which is about understanding the power of language and the power of names and the power of having a shared surname. There’s something about, if you are listening to this, your ability to be a negotiator and a co-creator in these conversations rather than an order taker is you claiming power. That’s hard and necessary because if we’re trying to create organizations which are more human centered and if we’re trying to create organizations where the very best of people is allowed to flourish and come forth, people need agency and autonomy and self-sufficiency. This ability to say no is one of the key questions that is at the heart of that. This isn’t just about serving you, it’s about role modeling this for other people in your organization. Your organization benefits from you being the best version of yourself even if it’s irritating for your boss who’s like, I just wish they take the order. It’s a call for bigger games here.
Gardner: That is a wonderful meta point. Let’s proceed forward then, we’ve said no enough times.
Bungay Stanier: Yes.
Gardner: We’ve now enabled ourselves to say yes. I want to skip ahead past a few wonderful maps of great importance. Comprehensively thinking about what is possible or thinking backward from the future to no, you’re right.
Bungay Stanier: Yes.
Gardner: But you close up that section talking about courage, the courage to make stuff happen. Now one of my favorite Seth Code lines and I’m paraphrasing it, “Especially the world doesn’t need another great idea, the world doesn’t necessarily need your great idea. The world needs people who can actually do great work.” We’re all buried by ideas.
Bungay Stanier: Yeah.
Gardner: This thought goes and we need heroes who actually turn ideas and plans into action. Michael, your emphasis on courage is in map 11 where you encouraged us in map 11 to take our encouragement with spinals up. Up to 11 it goes to 11, so I take it you agree with Seth?
Bungay Stanier: I do agree with Seth. I do agree with most of the things Seth goes on about, because he is a brilliant guy. It’s one thing to know what your great work is, it is another thing to cross the threshold and start on this journey. Because you’re not just typing in the destination of your great work into your Google Map and it’s giving you a straightforward, it’s 12 minutes to get here, 14 minutes if you detour past this coffee shop. It’s more like you’re standing on a mountain and there’s a mist-covered value in front of you and there is a peak on the other side that may or may not be your actual target, you’re not quite sure yet, and you’re trying to figure out your way to get there. You just don’t walk in a straight line at a steady pace, you’re feeling you’re way forward. You’re going to have some dead-ends and cul-de-sacs that you go down. You’re going to take some guesses that are wrong, you’re going to take some guesses that are right, but not in the way that you expected.
This connects back to one of your very first questions, why do we do this exercise about who I am at my best? It’s because when you’re at your best, you’re more likely to be able to tap into the courage that it takes to move forward. The courage that it takes to ask for help. The courage it takes you to stop and go, that was a disaster that didn’t work at all. How do I regather myself and rethink about this and push forward on this? All of this movement and this progress, and action, which is when your great work manifests and becomes something. Possibly doesn’t become something, might fail, it’s like the courage to try something that you would be willing to fail at. One of the poems that I’m loving at the moment is by a German poet, Rilker, and the poem is called The Man Watching. The final lines of it are, “To be deeply defeated by ever-greater things as I call forth.” I’m like, I love that. That is in part what’s at heart of great work, which is a willingness to be defeated by ever-greater things. Because when you do great work, you don’t guarantee a win, you guarantee doing work that matters and doing work that lights you up, and possibly having an impact and that’s why you need courage.
Gardner: I love that quote too and one of my big themes and anybody who’s listened to Rule Breaker Investing for any meaningful portion of time will know how often we lose. When we pick stocks we are going to be right maybe half the time.
Bungay Stanier: Right.
Gardner: The key is to be really right a few times but boy, our venture capitalists wrong most of the time, and are all of us humans muddling through from one day to the next losing constantly, but I view it as losing to win.
Bungay Stanier: Yeah.
Gardner: I really love that Rilker quote, I need to read that poem. Map 15 provides a wonderful conclusion to the book in part because you adjust the problem of people like me. I think you were also self-identifying this by who may be amazing.
Bungay Stanier: The whole way through.
Gardner: Amazing. A lot of the reason I have laughed somewhat through these hours is because I can relate to every ounce of it’s humor too, but I’m laughing at myself a lot of the time based on what you’re saying.
Bungay Stanier: Yes.
Gardner: I will do it here again too because I’m pretty amazing and getting things going, but then all of a sudden for whatever reason, squirrel.
Bungay Stanier: Exactly.
Gardner: We find ourselves distracted, straying, not following through. The map you provide, map 15 to close the book has a bunch of reasons why that might be happening. A bunch of thoughtful ones. After we as readers self diagnose which ones pertain to us, the book then links from that issue directly to one of the other maps or sections.
Bungay Stanier: Right.
Gardner: Earlier in the book to get you back on the path. I think that’s brilliant.
Bungay Stanier: Thank you. There is a great saying that you probably heard, there are two types of people in the world. The people who start things.
Gardner: I do know that one.
Bungay Stanier: Exactly.
Gardner: It still makes me laugh.
Bungay Stanier: This connects to the courage around which is, it is impossible not to stumble when you’re doing great work. It’s just isn’t impossible. I’m not really saying keep grinding and be relentless, and never give up, and flog yourself because that’s actually a bit of a miserable journey as well.
Bungay Stanier: I’m saying that there’s a place for kindness, there’s a place for sadness when you fail, and if this great work matters enough then it’s like how do you get back again? There are different strategies depending on why you’ve struggled. If it failed, have you just lost momentum, have you lost your mojo around it, the moment has changed, there’s all sorts of reasons why the great work may have stopped. I just think the world needs more people who are, I am going to be brave enough to actually try and do work that is great work. For our sake as much as for your sake, please get up again and begin the journey again.
Gardner: Well said. Shirzad Chamine is still ringing and our ears from last week talking about how failure is, it’s up to you and to me. But if we are determined ahead of time to make it a gift and an opportunity, his phrase, you really can and so you can fail in some smaller earlier context, learned from that and all of a sudden be up on the big stage and now you’re ready.
Bungay Stanier: I’ll give you one of the tools that my team and I use for failure because we do that as often as anybody else. This comes from Ross and Ben Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility, and it is this, when something’s going off the rails, you throw your hands in the air and you go, how fascinating. Now Ben Zander is British, so when he says that it sounds even better, but how fascinating it stands a lot because it does a few things. First of all, it physically shifts you. Physically shifting actually helps because it just gets you up and gets you moving, getting your ideas literally out of a slump. But how fascinating it puts you into a place of curiosity and a place of this too will pass and a place to “What can I learn from here?” Rather than “We’re doomed and this is it.” Then, “What was the point?”
Bungay Stanier: When Einsley and I are working together, who I work with most in this new business I’ve got. How fascinating is a recurrent theme?
Gardner: Well, thank you for a wonderful book which I recommend all humans and indeed have gifted to a number of humans connected.
Bungay Stanier: Thank you.
Gardner: To me, including my wife Margaret, who went through the exercises with me to our mutual benefit. If you have a few more minutes, Michael, I want to open things up. Just ask you some stuff that’s not about the book. You’re game?
Bungay Stanier: Sure. Yeah, for sure.
Gardner: Great. You are a coach by profession, you’ve started a business that coaches. I gather that you’ve started a number of businesses. But specifically thinking about coaching as a profession, did you emerge from your Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford saying, “I’m going to be a coach?” Or how did you get there and what do you make of it?
Bungay Stanier: When I was at university in Australia, actually before I worked at university, I found myself sitting with my friends, listening to my teenage angst stories a lot, and going, “You know what, I’m pretty good at listening but I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know if this is helping or hindering.” When I first went to university, I did telephone crisis counseling. As my first training and what does it mean to listen and listen for more that’s being said, being present. I moved to England to be a Road Scholar and got my first job and started noticing.
Gardner: What did you study by the way? What did you study there?
Bungay Stanier: I did a master’s degree in Modern Literature. I was reading James Joyce and a British writer called Angela Carter and I loved it. It stopped me being a lawyer as well which is the real bonus. I did a law degree in Australia, finished law school being sued by one of my law lecturers for defamation. I was saved from a —
Gardner: Oh, my.
Bungay Stanier: Miserable experience on that. I noticed coaching arising, basically from California and I was like, “California is typical.” Because I was living in London at the time so we’re all cynical and skeptical. But it felt like there was something there and there’s that saying David, inspiration is when your path suddenly starts making sense. I started going, “You know what, the stuff that I’ve done in the past that makes it feel like coaching could be a thing for me.” I started just calling myself a coach in my relationships with clients and consulting clients I was working with. I moved to Toronto in 2001, I did some training as a coach and then actually built a coaching practice and then dismantled it. I do very little coaching now because it wasn’t my great work and I was really surprised by that because I was so sure it would be. But it turns out that I’m better as a teacher and I want to democratize the idea of coaching. I want unweird coaching so that everybody goes, “I can be more coach-like with the people in my life because it means I am going to stay curious a little bit longer. Rush to action and advice-giving a little bit more slowly.” That feels like a bigger calling for me than the coaching that I do with people which I do. I do add hawks with people but I don’t have a group of coaching clients anymore because to my surprise, that turned out to not be my great work.
Gardner: Well, you’ve coached a lot of people listening to you this week and we thank you for that free coaching.
Bungay Stanier: My pleasure.
Gardner: Which is really appreciated. Michael, tell me a little bit about how you spend your time today. Are you running a business? It sounds like Einsley and you have some new gig, new side hustle going on.
Bungay Stanier: Yeah. Box of Crayons, I found it about 20 years ago and it’s a B2B corporate training company. We train with Fortune 500 companies typically, so Microsoft and Salesforce and Gucci and Telus in Canada, helping organizations shift from advice-driven to curiosity led to practical coaching skills for managers and leaders and individual contributors. We train tens of thousands of people every year in these big companies. Two years ago, I stepped away from being CEO of that which is like another hour’s worth of podcast conversation about what it means to found something.
Gardner: I can relate.
Bungay Stanier: Because as a founder, most founder transitions fail because founders are a nightmare and prima-donnas and they’ve got so much of themselves tied up in the company that they started that it’s actually quite difficult to mend the transition. But fingers crossed, two years into this, the new CEO of Box of Crayons, which she’s not new anymore, Shannon. She’s brilliant. Oh, David, she is so good.
Gardner: I’m so happy for you.
Bungay Stanier: The great thing was I hired her from behind the burrow of my local pizzeria as her first job and four years later, she’s running the company. So it turned out to be possibly the best move I did.
Bungay Stanier: The new gig is MBS.works and it’s more B2C and it’s about helping people be a force for change. It’s about giving them a chance to come back to my demo great work route which is like how’d you give people the coverage and the focus on the community to do work that makes a difference in the world.
Gardner: One or two more questions for you, Michael. One of them has to be, are you working on a new book?
Bungay Stanier: I am working on a new book. In fact, I just got an email today saying that it’s going into typesetting which means that I’ve got no more fiddling around to do with it which is so exciting.
Gardner: You’ve done your job then. You’re done.
Bungay Stanier: I’ve done my job, exactly. It’s called, “How to Begin Start Something that Matters.” In some ways the evolution of doing more great work. It’s about what it means to set a worthy goal, something that is thrilling, important, and daunting. Just like Do More Great Work, it’s a really practical book taking people through exercises, helping people get even clearer about where should I put my time and my focus and my energy and what does it take to be courageous enough to step into doing that?
Gardner: Was it natural for you to write books that involve a lot of extra effort on your reader by doing exercises? These are very interactive, they are different from most books. I enjoy it a lot but did that come to you naturally?
Bungay Stanier: Yeah. In some ways, the best description of what I am is as a facilitator. I’m trying to move people and I’m good at translating concepts and ideas into ways that feel simple and practical and doable for people and it’s not enough for me to just have people go, “That sounds interesting. ” I’m like, “I want it to be different as a result of this.” I’m constantly trying to ask myself, “What does it take for people to shift their behavior and as best you can do it through a book?” That’s what I try to write about. It’s like, here’s how you work yourself through this. You can do this by yourself if you need to.
Gardner: What are you reading now or what inspires you, Michael?
Bungay Stanier: I read a lot. My wife has a Ph.D. in Literature and a master’s degree as a Librarian. She’s constantly feeding me books and I have a master’s degree in Literature as well. So we are both huge readers and I particularly read very broadly. I read fiction and non-fiction, I read science, I write business, I read literature, I read young and adult. Honestly, the thing that I’ve just finished reading and I’m looking to remember the name of it but it’s written by an Englishman. He was the children’s Poet Laureate in the U.K. and it describes his experience of getting COVID and being so close to death. First of all, an insight as to just how many people looked after him in his 60 days in the ICU in a hospital in England and then what it took for him to recover. He lost sight in his eyes, he lost hearing, he lost physically a lot, and what does it take to recover from that? It was a very human, beautifully written experience of just COVID thing that is terrible and life-altering and also just a celebration of the people who are working so hard to get us through it.
Gardner: You’ve actually read the book, Michael, I’m just googling it furiously as you speak but I think you’re talking about a book that I had not previously heard of and it sounds amazing. It’s entitled Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS by Michael Rosen.
Bungay Stanier: That’s it. Perfect. It’s a fast rear rather than a single bust because it’s an approach poet. This is what it means to struggle with COVID at its worst and face death.
Gardner: Well, as somebody who himself was an English major, English literature, who started a business with his brother, who also was an English literature major and in my case, married a woman who was an English literature master’s. I think we can all agree that these degrees can lead to good things.
Bungay Stanier: Exactly.
Gardner: Up with the humanities, yes?
Bungay Stanier: Exactly. What are you reading that’s caught your attention at the moment?
Gardner: I am reading and I am reading it aloud, which is what I love to do because my wife Margaret cooks and loves to be read too. I don’t cook and I love to showcase and not bury my talents. I’m reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which is her favorite novel. I have previously never read it, to my shame, and she had not read it in 30 years so we’re enjoying all 1000+ pages together of The Count of Monte Cristo.
Bungay Stanier: So great. I’m listening to an audio version of Don Quixote at the same time, because I have a similarly long rambling classic, so it’s fantastic.
Gardner: Well, this is a perfect way to end this episode of Authors in August, talking not just about your book, Michael, although it’s a great book, Do More Great Work, and I’m looking forward to the birth of a new book in 2022 from you. But also here we are just talking about books. You’ve been very gracious with your time, very open with us, and one rule breaker to another, I say sir, fool on.
Bungay Stanier: Thank you.
Gardner: Well, dear listener, I hope you had at least half as much fun as I just did. As I mentioned, I found myself laughing throughout because Michael has a very good sense of humor and I felt guilty as charged at a number of different points which I guess makes me laugh. While speaking of next week, we’re going to get a little bit more serious but very thinky. Charles King wrote a book called Gods of the Upper Air, where he introduces us to what I like to think of as real rule breakers, those who really founded Modern Anthropology in the 20th century. This is a little bit of a step away from what you might expect from Rule Breaker Investing that we’ve done that before for good books with other authors. One-third of this podcast is about life, not just business or investing. But I think you’ll be fascinated by his discussion, especially of race, especially in light of discussion of race in our society here in the United States and worldwide, over the last year or two. Anthropologists have a really interesting viewpoint not just about race, but sex, gender and coming to us from the 20th century, Charles King, an historian, and a very fine writer. Looking forward to sharing him with you next week. In the meantime, have a Foolish week. Fool on!
This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the official recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. Were motley! Questioning an investing thesis — even one of our own — helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.