Ed Hess: Human Innovation, Smart Machines

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Well, Ed Hess, it’s great to have you on the show today. Welcome. I first read your book Learn or Die probably three years ago and I was really keen to get you on the podcast, and then when I learned that you’ve got a new book out Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, it feels like the time to get you on the show. So, welcome and very pleased to have you.


Thank you very much for having me, Mark. Looking forward to our conversation.


So, let’s get into it. You said before we started recording that you’ve been working in the area of learning for a number of years. Why is learning so important for us today?


It’s survival and I don’t say that jokingly. It’s organizational survival but also, it’s survival and it’s the gateway or the way that human beings can find meaning and purpose in life, the way human beings can flourish. It’s so important today because the pace of change and invention especially in technology in the world is at such a fast pace that the ability for humans to adapt, the ability for humans to evolve, the ability for humans to stay relevant all comes down to our ability to upgrade our internal operating systems, upgrade our mental models to better reflect reality, to update our ability to connect emotionally with other human beings because it’s only with other human beings that we can truly learn at our maximum capabilities, and so learning is, if you will, the fundamental skill that humans need to excel at in order to continue to thrive, find meaning, have purpose, live a good life, go all the way back to Greek philosophy – be happy.


It’s almost, there’s a Darwinian element to this. It’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive but those that are most responsive to change. Is learning the vehicle for change in that sense?


Learning is the main way that one can respond effectively and positively to change. Yes, learning is the fundamental behavior that basically at this time in our evolutionary period, human beings learning is the key adaptive evolutionary skill that every human being needs to be better at.


And human being, and also at sort of the next level up, organizations as well and you touched on that in the book Learn or Die, so maybe we can get into that. First of all, one of the themes is the link between operational excellence and innovation and learning so maybe you can just say a little bit about that, that’s the organizational context if you like?


Yeah. Most organizations have a business model that’s built around either operational excellence or innovation or a combination. Some organizations have a business model that’s built upon acquisition and, if you will, oversight, but generally speaking it’s operational excellence and innovation. Well, if you think about what is operational excellence? Well, operational excellence is being better, faster and cheaper. Well, how do you become better? Well, you figure out how to do what you’re doing better but what does that mean? What if I do this, what will happen? I don’t know. Will it make it better? I don’t know. So, what do I do? I think I try it. I try it and I see what happens. I explore and if it works I keep it and do more of it and if it doesn’t work, what happened? What surprised us? What does this mean? What if we tweak this or should we just forget this idea? That whole process is all about learning, and if you think about innovation, innovation by definition, at least my definition is a big new, something very different for you. Close-in innovations are really just higher-level improvements, but an innovation is something new, a new product, a new service, a new business model, a new way of delivering to customers, something that you’ve never done, something that’s not an add-on. Oh, my goodness, I’ve never done this so what do I do? Well, I’ve got to have the courage to go out there and let’s see, let’s do an experiment just like a scientific experiment. So, my hypothesis is if I do X, Y will happen. Let’s design an experiment and do that. All right. We do the experiment, we look and evaluate the results. What is that called? That is learning. Innovation is itself learning, so a learning culture can be the overarching or overriding culture in an organization that promotes both operational excellence and innovation. The company of the future in the smart machine age is basically going to be a company where the strategic differentiator is innovation because operational excellence is going to be primarily technology enabled and it’s going to become table stakes. You won’t be in business as a company in the future if you’re not operationally excellent. The difference is those that succeed or those that, if you will, stay in business for long periods of time are those that are continuously able to innovate. So, underlying both operational excellence and innovation is the concept of human learning, learning through experimentation because experimentation happens in operational excellence and in, if you will, innovation, the difference is some of the processes that you use and the tolerance for the risk of surprises or failures.


So, your hypothesis, Ed, is that because of the pace of change you alluded to earlier on, a lot of the SaaS, the enablers of operational excellence driven by technology will become standard and the only way then to compete will be how innovative is your culture and your organization?


That’s correct. Operational excellence will be table stakes. It will be commoditized because as you so correctly said the SaaS and also the big AI cloud platforms, we will ultimately move to a consolidation of having one or two large AI cloud platforms in each, we’ll call it industry ecosystem, and you know everybody will have access for fees but everybody’s going to have access to that type of information. You get down to, ‘All right, so what do the humans who have access do with it?’, and that’s where the human capability comes in and whether you call it imagination, creativity, or innovation, it’s all that exploration and discovery stuff.


And let’s dive into Bridgewater which was one of the great case studies that was written in the book. Obviously, Dalio has come out with a book about his principles subsequent to your book but I mean Bridgewater is a remarkable organization on a number of counts, and I think you’re one of the few people who were able to have sort of unfettered access to this organization to understand what does it actually look like in practice, because they use a lot of technology as well as the human behaviors required in order to, I suppose, get the results they’ve got. So, a long intro but maybe for those who don’t know about Bridgewater, can you just sort of explain, just tell a brief story of what they do and what you discovered when you spent your time with them?


Bridgewater Associates is the largest hedge fund in the world. They manage around $160 billion dollars primarily for large institutional governments, pension funds, corporate pension funds, and they are very successful. Probably out of the last 28 years they’ve been a highest performer in the hedge fund industry for 24/25 of those years, and they have a very unique culture and I was attracted to Bridgewater, and the reason that I wanted to get inside Bridgewater is that my intuition was that Bridgewater more than any company I had found up until that point and it is still the case, Bridgewater confronted the two big inhibitors of learning which are ego and fear. Bridgewater designed an internal system that was designed to mitigate ego and to mitigate fear, and how they did that I found fascinating as to how they were able to maintain over long periods of years and years, decades, maintain a system that was so, if you will, rigorous to which people were able to come into their system and if they liked the system to individually transform themselves, and so Bridgewater was the most advanced learning organization that I came across and that’s why I wanted to get inside and really understand how they did what they did and it was a fascinating learning experience, and I’m grateful that Ray Dalio, the founder, and I don’t know what reason in our talks, something clicked with him and he said, ‘Come on in,’ but what was real interesting, Mark, he said, ‘There is one condition,’ and I said, ‘OK, let me see if I can agree to that.’ He said, ‘You can only come in if you agree to do all of the work including take the test and be graded, all the work that a new employee does before they come in.’ And I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Well, there’ll be in effect lots of hours of watching films, taking tests, reading materials etcetera, and there were. There was, you know, I don’t remember the exact number of days but it was three or four days of work and I said yes, I would do that, and that was sort of also interesting because he was smart enough to know that one cannot understand that system if one doesn’t have some experience, and that’s not a lot three or four days for you to get some experience in living it and seeing it, and so I watched lots of films, engaged in lots of interactive tools. So that’s the reason I wanted to go explore and see what was there, where they really accomplishing what they said they were accomplishing personally?


It does attract, it’s not for everyone that culture. Having read about it I’ve often wondered whether I personally could exist not from an intellectual perspective in that kind of space but from an emotional perspective as it is all based on radical transparency and radical truth. How did you feel about it? What was in the back of your mind? Is this such a unique organization or is there stuff in here that could actually apply into broader industries that perhaps don’t have the margins, that don’t have the market share, that don’t have the success that Bridgewater has had?


That’s a good question. The Bridgewater culture and processes are totally transportable into any other company except, if you will, the things that give people pause. That’s the radical transparency. Many companies or people are not comfortable with having everything filmed, every meeting filmed, every conversation filmed, and everybody having access to that, and then the complete openness of everyone’s grading of behaviors and how people are graded by other people. At the time I was doing it, Bridgewater measured I believe it was 77 behaviors and everybody had a baseball card with everything, a summary of what they were good at, what they were not good at, their strengths, their weaknesses, how they did on certain tests, standardized tests, and that was public knowledge so that you knew your teammates, what their weaknesses were so that you could cover for them and you could put teams together that didn’t have the same weaknesses so you get people with diverse skills. That’s the part of the culture that most people that I’ve talked to, most students that I’ve talked to find challenging or difficult. When you put that on the side, just take that off the table, Mark, for a moment and look for the basics of how they run meetings, how they try to think, how they listen to each other, how they stress test their beliefs, how they collaborate, how supportive they are of each other emotionally, how caring that organization is. They have created an environment for those who choose to be part of it that it’s a psychologically safe environment that people are able to grow professionally and that people are able to become better thinkers, better listeners, much more emotionally intelligent, know how to manage their emotions, and the foundations that they use are based in science and go back really to the great philosophies, the eastern and western philosophies. A lot of what Ray built was based on his personal experience with meditation. So, is some of Bridgewater or is a lot of Bridgewater transferrable? Yes. In my Humility is the New Smart book which you referred to, in that book I focused on the cultures, and behaviors, and processes at Google, at Pixar Animation Studios, and I looked again and W. L. Gore, Ideo, and also at The United States Navy Seals Special Operations Forces. What was fascinating is if you put the Bridgewater processes, forget radical transparency, if you put the Bridgewater thinking processes, management processes, collaboration processes, and processes visa vi for being humble, humility, open-minded, stress testing, permission to speak freely, complete candor, seek the truth, an idea meritocracy, all of those organizations had innovation cultures or operational cultures built around the same fundamental principles, and so there was commonality of the basic principles and commonality of the basic processes. The exception was the radical transparency part. Candor, if you will, radical candor in the search for truth was just the same really at Google as it is at Bridgewater. The big difference, Google even has said publicly, ‘Our culture is pretty similar to Bridgewater. The difference is that we believe that people’s right to privacy is more important and we don’t wish to go the other way,’ but understand the thing about Bridgewater is nobody forces you to work there, people choose to be part of it and clearly those people that are part of it in a not so long winded answer…what was fascinating in the days that I spent inside of Bridgewater, I had senior people say stuff to me like I’d never heard at highly successful companies. I’ve been 16, almost 17 years on trying to discover the DNA of organizational and human excellence and I had people inside Bridgewater say, ‘I love the people I work with here.’ I says, ‘What do you mean by love?’ and he says, ‘I truly love them. They’re like my family,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ and he says, the guy said this then a woman independently said, ‘Because there is no greater love than caring enough about somebody that you help them be better and we all help each other be better here.’


Maybe we can get into, you mentioned humility versus ego and one of the companies you looked at in your earlier book, Intuit, this whole concept of ‘time to bury Caesar’. I’d love to sort of get into, maybe this is a way into the humility conversation but what do they mean by ‘time to bury Caesar’ and how did that play out in Intuit?


Well, it’s played out very well. What they were saying, ‘time to bury Caesar’, is that no longer is the highest-ranking person’s idea or decision because of rank going to be what calls the day. It’s the same philosophy that Google has that the highest paid person’s judgment or idea is no better than anyone else’s. What’s the data say? What’s the information say? The only time that the highest person’s opinion is better than anyone else’s is when that person is an expert and there’s not a lot of data and it gets down to intuition, and so it’s the devaluation of hierarchy and the empowerment of people to learn, if you will, to create an idea meritocracy, the best idea with the best data wins not whose idea, and you get to the best idea by having permission to speak freely, by being in a psychologically safe environment, by empowering people to do rapid experiments that are low risk and financially cheap. Intuit basically in many ways was trying to create a culture where people had the courage to try, the courage to innovate, the courage to experiment, the same type of culture if you will that Google has, that Pixar has, that Ideo has, that W. L. Gore has and there’s others but it was a good way of saying to all the employees that the CEO says, ‘I am no longer the all-knowing supreme decision maker.’


Because there’s also history as you mentioned in the book, there’s a history of this kind of behavior in East Asian organizations and cultures as well as in Scandinavian cultures, this concept of the ‘unboss’ or ‘unbossing’ your organization, it’s not just purely, I mean, your examples are American albeit global companies but there’s a track record of this kind of philosophy in other parts of the world as well.


Yes, you’re quite correct, you’re quite correct, and what’s so fascinating about companies that are on this journey in the United States, as you well know the United States has the most we’ll call it excessive individualistic survival of the fittest corporate culture of probably any developed economy, and so corporate America in many cases is saying now that system won’t work going forward where innovation is going to be the primary strategic differentiator, because innovation only really occurs in teams of people and teams of people can only be effective if people have or learn to cooperate and collaborate effectively, not compete, and it’s no longer who wins, it’s much more ‘What’s the best for our customer? What’s the best idea?’ So what’s going on? What’s so fascinating about technology and what’s happening with the technology, that the technology is going to dehumanize businesses in the sense that it is going to reduce human headcount but for those people remaining in the company technology’s going to humanize business because it’s going to make business become much more humanistic because only then emotionally are people able to overcome their internal limitations and be their best self to be highly creative, highly innovative, highly emotionally engaged with each other and with their customers, because I’ve come to inclusion after all these years that innovation is a highly emotional skill.


Yeah, and let’s pause that for a moment because I just wanted to go to something you were saying, the other piece I thought you were going to say and maybe you said it in different words but by being humble and being open minded I guess that means you’re far more open to diversity, cognitive diversity, to fresh ideas, to different perspectives on topics and on problems?


Absolutely and the reason that humility is so important. We tend to be very reflexive thinkers and we are basically confirmation seeking thinkers. We only process in our brain usually information which confirms what we already believe, our mental model, so we go through life once we reach adulthood seeking to confirm our mental models and to affirm our ego and all of that is contrary to what is needed in innovation, and so we have to confront that fact which means we have to not define ourselves by what we know. The magnitude of our knowledge, you know, we all went through school and we were told very early on that we were very, very smart and we were told we were smart because we made the highest grades on tests, we remembered more things, or we put them into better sentences, and the reality in the world today, knowledge has a shelf life of really only two to three years and so what you know is no longer that important. What is important is the ability to keep learning and you can’t do that unless you divorce your ego from what you know, unless you basically do not define yourself by how much you know but you define yourself by the quality of your thinking, listening, and collaboration skills, so you’ve got to redefine your ego strokes. You’re not your ideas, all right? You’ve got to decouple your beliefs, your ideas from your ego which allows you to be open-minded because only then can you perceive better, can you listen better, can you ideate better, can you be open to better insights from data. We’ve got to basically free ourselves from what Einstein called, we’re the prisoners of our mind. We’ve got to unlock those chains and it is mission critical now in the time we’re going into because it’s that newness, differentness, that ability to adapt and evolve that’s going to separate those that are able to add value and those that can’t.


So, what’s getting in the way? Just to play back what I think I heard there, I think what you’re saying is that what gets in the way, other people have talked about it in terms of systems one thinking, the kind of biases be it the confirmation or the availability bias, that’s what’s getting in the way, so if you’re able to interrupt the reflexes to take you there and to focus more on the emotional content, on the questioning, on asking and not telling, those kind of systems two thinking tools, that’s where the magic happens. Is that a fair kind of characterization?


Yes and, and I’m going to add something. I didn’t say yes but, I said yes and. And if you will, learning how to internally manage yourself emotionally and physically so you can basically increase your abilities to perceive the world as it is not as you want it to be or not as you think it is, so that’s totally open-mindedness, the clarity, and that comes from basically what I call inner peace, quiet mind, quiet body, quiet emotions, and quiet ego, and working on all of those things allows us to be more open to telling and making meaning with others because we can only change our mental models by changing our stories of how the world operates and we only can do that by really conversations with other people and that’s where the emotional engagement comes in, and so it’s a complex process of people sitting back and shutting off. I guess, I use this statement in a lot of my work, ‘In order to be your best self you have to become selfless,’ and it’s this becoming selfless which allows you to be a better processor, a better thinker, a better listener. Basically, this is not about me, this is not about you, and that allows us to be more open to more, if you will, not be so reactive, to not be on autopilot, so it’s all wrapped up in modifying ourselves cognitively and emotionally, and so it’s broader than just the sum of the biases, it’s actually operating internally much more totally in the moment, in control of what’s going on inside your body, your mind, and being totally open, opaque, clear, so that stuff can come in without the ego getting in the way and the fear of getting in the way. It all comes down to, ‘Can I remove ego and fear from my dailiness as to how I live?’


And then you’re writing about, you come across very open and transparent about some of the personal challenges you’ve faced on this journey and I think the reflective listening section around how you felt you were quite good at it until you actually reflected on your skills was quite profound. I think you said you were an awful listener both at home and at work but you’ve done things that have improved your ranking on that particular competency right?


Yeah. I was worse than an awful listener, I’m not even sure I listened, but yeah, I mean all of us, I’ve been on a journey for some years and I’m still on the journey. I’m not there and I’ve learned over the years that there is great joy in the journey and in making small advancements and every once in a while, the small advancements add up to a realization of, ‘Wow, I’m acting and behaving differently. I’m thinking differently,’ and most of what I’ve written about, most of it is in many ways in looking at the science, the research, I mean gosh, by now I don’t even know the number of academic articles, by leading academics it’s got to be over the last years 2000 or more academic articles and trying things that the research is sort of saying, but it’s a journey, Mark, yeah, I had a lot to work on and thankfully I’ve made a little progress. Do I still have a lot to work on? Yeah, I’m not where I want to be. I’m not where I want to be, I’m trying to get to a higher level of being able to access whatever the part of us human beings that’s our intuition, our subconscious, that large part which goes on inside of us, to tap into that to see if that can make me more innovative, more creative to come up with more different approaches but yeah, I was a poor listener, I had a big ego, I identified with being smart instead of identifying with the quality of my thinking. I was very successful, but I really was never trained in critical thinking, I really was never trained in how to emotionally connect with other people. It was amazing that I got as far and did as well as I did, but I’ve had to do a major overhaul, it’s still a work in process.


And so, Ed, for people who are listening and relating to some of that around the ego for instance or not being particularly good listeners, are there a couple of things that they can do to exercise these emotional muscles or these cognitive thinking muscles? You put some resources in the book but anything that jumps out as being a real game changer based on your experience?


Well, there’s two things. Number one, the big game changer is when I changed my attitude about meditation. Many, many years ago I thought of meditation as, excuse me, a sort of like a hippie California thing, but meditation, mindfulness meditation and in recent history adding to that loving, kindness, compassion meditation. Meditation probably more than anything has helped quiet my ego, has helped me be much more attentive and better at perceiving what is going on, less judgmental. It has allowed me to help me learn that emotions are not necessarily linked to behaviors, that there is choice in how you deal with emotions, and so meditation has been at least for me has played a major role. The second thing that’s really played a role is the science of human excellence, and the science of expertise or the best science in cognitive training and I’m very fortunate that my psychology mentor for over basically 37 years was one of the leading experts in the United States on training and learning and-


And who’s that? Do you mind?


Dr. Lyle Bourne Jr, and he’s Chairman Emeritus of the Psychology Department at the University of Colorado, and then when I was in the graduate program there Anders Ericcson who is Mr. Expertise, ten thousand hours, is now at Florida State, Anders was in the same department and I knew Anders and their work impacted me greatly because what I learned from their work was is the power of processes and daily rigor in that people only can change if they try to work on one of two things at a time very, very deliberately, and they measure themselves and hold themselves accountable, and they basically get down to what behaviors do you want to change, what do you want to do, what behaviors do you want to do less, and what behaviors do you want to do more, and to pick a few of those behaviors and work on them, and measure yourself frequently during the day, and use mental rehearsal at night to go back and replay your day and we’re not talking about spending three hours a night, and so the second thing that really helped me, Mark, was to become rigorous in having daily processes on what I was working on and then as I made progress to move on slowly, not try to do everything at one time.


Yeah, reasonable progress, or measurable progress in a reasonable period of time.




Yeah. I thought your answer, Ed, was going to be how you sign your email because that struck me as such a simple but also such a profound story in your book.


Yeah, you know, you’re very kind. That may have been the first nice statement I received about that point. A lot of people think that’s weird which is all right but no, I woke up one morning after I got into my meditation, and I woke up one morning because I was thinking about this, about what can I do every day that just sort of helps me reinforce during the day that it’s not all about me? And it just hit me, Why don’t I sign my name all in lower caps so literally little E instead of big E little D, and I said ‘How does that feel?’ and I said, ‘Well, it says to me that it’s sort of like my reminder each email, each letter, each engagement that it’s not all about me. I’m just a little speck in a great big planet Earth which is just a little speck in a great big galaxy, which is a little speck in a great big cosmos, I’m just a little speck, and while I’m here, it’s not all about me and what can I do to help other people and live a meaningful life and be a good person?’ So I started signing all my emails, and my letters, and my holiday cards etcetera with a little letter and to this day, it’s been years since I did this, to this day when I do that, when I’m typing my emails or typing on my iPhone and everything, each time it’s a reminder, it is now ingrained because when I type that something feels positive but it says, ‘Remember, whatever’s happening next it’s not about you.’


And it ties beautifully back into the overall subject of your current book around humility but it just struck me as very simple, something everyone can do and also as you articulated just now had very profound implications as well.


Yeah, you know everybody will do their own things and find the things that makes sense to them or make meaning for themselves and so you know it only works if you get to the point where automatically in your mind when you’re typing, I’ll just use you as an example, your first name and so it’s little M, little A, little R, little K instead of big M, it only happens as you’re typing it, you feel a sense of some joy and some affirmation about the positive aspect of what this means to you. It’s not about me and that’s OK, I’m not the center of the universe and I can be a better person, a better learner, a better thinker, a better innovator, a better parent, a better friend, a better colleague if it’s not all about me, and I’m more open so I’m perceiving the world better, I’m engaging with people better, I’m accessing more parts of my inner being, my creative, emotional, imaginative parts. I can get into flow easier when it’s not about me.


Yeah, love it, love it. Ed, time is almost out but we’ve got time for the three questions and I can’t wait to hear your answers to these because I know you’ve given them some thought, and you’ll recognize what’s behind this first question because as we discovered the other day when we first met you’re a Charlie Munger fan and this question came from something he said a few years ago, ‘A year in which you haven’t changed your mind about something important is a wasted year.’ So, what’s your answer to the question what have you changed your mind about recently?


Well, I have changed my mind about the possible, and I use the word possible, validity or reality for some people having mystical experiences. You know that’s been out there in the cognitive psychology world and it goes back to William James, all right, at least in the United States, the founder of the psychology. Whether you call him mystical or spiritual, religious, whatever experiences, James wrote a long time ago that maybe there was some reality based on his talking to people who said they’d experienced these things, and I’m much more into, I guess have been into science and I sort of have pooh-poohed that and never gone deep in it, and really the last couple of months I’ve gone into the scientific research that began at Harvard and was continued in Maryland and the research from around the world and I have changed my mind in the sense that I no longer believe it is made up, or necessarily made up, or fake etcetera, that it is people, I don’t want to say high possibility, there’s a good possibility that certain people when they’re sharing these types of experiences this is real, and I was into that research, Mark, and had an amazing experience. I have a close friend who is a senior executive in a major company and also a well-known innovator and we were talking one Sunday morning, about at least once a month I spend a couple of hours catching up and he said, and were very close so it’s very open, very candid, clearly you know I’m trying to make it obscure because – and he says, ‘Can I share something with you?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he shared with me the mystical experience, the first one he ever had, and I said to myself there’s no way in this world this person’s going to deceive me or basically try to blow smoke past me. Maybe this happened to him. Maybe all this science that I’m reading which is into the neuroscience of how it happens, maybe there is something here. So, I’ve now become more open to maybe there are things that certain humans can access in certain states of consciousness that are different than what most of us can access.


As you talk, Ed, well, thanks for the very open and transparent answer, that wasn’t what I was expecting but it’s great. One of my previous guests was a guy called Steven Kotler who wrote The Rise of Superman, and Flow, and Bold, he recommended a guest to me earlier on in the month and we got into an email and I was recommending a book called Bone Games because Steven’s big into sports, and this was all about mystical experiences of extreme sports people, and I had never met anyone who’s read this book and he said, ‘Oh well, that was the book that started me on my second career,’ after he recovered from Lyme disease, and I’m just making a connection now because I hadn’t thought about the mystical elements of that book, but I’ll send a copy as a thank you because I think you might enjoy it because it was very much looking at the subject but obviously from a different angle from your experience.


Yeah, and the thing that I would say is I spend a lot of time reading the research and there’s a recent book by one of the leading researchers who’s been at Hopkins and was at Harvard, William Richards, I think, called Sacred Knowledge that goes into the research and puts at least the neuroscience theories as to how something like this can happen in effect chemically in our body. It’s interesting so thank you for that.


Yeah, because I’m an anthropologist by training and obviously a lot of the texts that I studied early on talked about mystical experiences of shamans and of different cultures and so yeah, it’s fascinating that it’s found its way to a senior executive in a well-known company is experiencing that and we’re having this conversation. It’s not the conversation I was expecting to have, Ed, but yeah, we’ve got to be open to diversity and different perspectives, right?




So, the second question, where do you go to get fresh perspectives to stay innovative and creative?


Well, I’m an avid reader and I try to read broadly across the sciences and across – probably my fault is that almost all my reading is nonfiction. I don’t read a lot of fiction. I read a little bit of poetry, but I try to read broadly in areas that I don’t know and so I don’t know, on average I probably read two books a week at a minimum. Sometimes if I get into it I’ll read a book in a day. I’m fortunate to have a career that allows me to bunch my teaching time and then have time for exploration in writing etcetera.


And how do you decide what you read? Do you have a process to avoid remaining in sort of an echo chamber or a bubble? I mean, how do you avoid that?


I spend time each day online whether it’s on, the words not coming to my mouth, but when people bring disparate sources together under big topics. Aggregators. I look at aggregators and they’ll have lists of articles or short videos and so I’ll go through aggregators. I use Twitter that way, as an aggregator. I try to follow, we’ll call it people that are thoughtful that are in fields that I know nothing about and keep adding then what I’ll do is I’ll find somebody that seems to be a leading edge thinker, what I’ll do is do the research and see who she or he follows because that’s based on I’m making an assumption that they will follow people that maybe are thinking differently, and so I’ll do matrices of trying to find people that are, ‘OK, who’s way out there? Who’s into something that I know nothing about? Who’s into something that just emotionally may be fascinating that I can add something to it?’ and so I do daily probably, oh, anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes of scanning, and then I’ll research certain people and see what they’ve got out into the public sphere, and then decide to go down a new direction and I’m constantly filtering people out and filtering people in but I probably spend on average, between my reading new stuff and this, I probably spend on average trying to be totally going into the unknown for me, I try to spend at least two hours every day doing that.


Wow, wow. And that’s been a habit for a number?


Yes, yes, and it’s taken me to joyous places, and cosmology, and deep physics and, gosh, way back when before it was even ‘common’. I was into some AI stuff before when AI during the period that it was sort of out of favor, but I’m also into the cultural stuff and social justice stuff as to a lot of history, looking, trying to learn from history and so looking at why great empires fail, looking at the commonalities of the seven great religions of the world. I didn’t know a lot about Islam and so I studied Islam. I was up on Buddhist philosophy, I didn’t know a lot about Confucius. I knew a lot about Greek philosophy so go study, Confucius. So, it’s trying to basically round out certain areas also, and for me, it’s learning, it’s joyous to go explore because it just never ceases to amaze me as to how much there’s out there. I mean, the older I get the magnitude of my ignorance increases.


Wonderful, wonderful third and final question. What’s been your most significant failure or low, what have you learned from it and how have you applied that learning?


Well, I wrote about this in one of my books. My most significant failure was three failures in one week that happened to me and one was much more important than the others, but many, many years ago this was really probably getting close to 30 years ago. 30 years ago, I was living in Washington DC in Georgetown, and I walked down and our town hosts a breakfast and I was, I don’t say this by bragging or anything, I say this out of the facetiousness and out of embarrassment, I was a hot shot investment banker at that point in time and I walked down to breakfast and everything and my wife who was a very, very, and still is a very smart professional, looked across the breakfast table at me and said, ‘We have to talk,’ and I said, ‘OK, talk’ and she said, ‘You’re not the person I married, you’re not here emotionally when you’re here, you’re just consumed with yourself and consumed with your job, and this is not working for me and so I want to take a separation,’ and I’m embarrassed to say this for all your listeners and for you but this is how sick I was, and I looked at her and says, ‘This is very important. Can we talk about this tonight when I get home? I’ve got a meeting I need to go to.’


So, strike one to your reflective listening skills.


There was no listening skills. Also, strikeout emotional intelligence, strikeout making somebody feel like that what they were saying was important, and they were talking about something important, one’s marriage, and I came home that night and there was a note on the table and she was gone. And thankfully I got help and began a transformation, and we are happily married today now going on 37 years and she will say I’m still a work in progress but I will always be a work in progress improving but the fascinating thing, Mark that week was the week also two or three days later I made a large investment with my brother in an investment which for me was a large sum of money and that investment went under, and then on Friday of that week I was a top two finalist for the CEO of a major company and I really wanted that job and I was the most qualified I thought, so, the executive recruiter called me and said, ‘Let’s go to lunch,’ and I said to myself that’s a good sign. We go to lunch and he sits across the table and he says to me, ‘You’re the most qualified person for the job but I’m not recommending you for the job because I don’t think you will ever be happy in any job because you are so ambitious and self-centered that you always look for the next challenge, and you won’t be happy, you won’t be satisfied,’ and I looked at him and I said, ‘Whoa.’ So, in one week, the love of my life, two, I thought I was pretty shrewd financially, financially I lost, and then three, I was told that basically I was an egocentric workaholic again, and that was, excuse my French, that was a hell of a week, and so what did I learn? I learned basically that I wasn’t as smart as I thought. I learned that I needed to basically find myself that I had lost and got caught up into, I’ll call it the workaholic corporate game, and defining myself solely by business success instead of defining myself by many other things which are more important. I learned that change is hard. I learned that the better I got at emotionally connecting the more rewarding my life was, and also at work, the more emotionally I connected with the people that worked with me and that reported to me, the more I cared about them as a person emotionally the higher their performance was. And that is something that just was amazing to me because I always had high-performance teams, but I didn’t get the highest performance because people were not emotionally engaged, and I wasn’t meeting their emotional needs, and so I learned a lot in that week and I didn’t learn it all in one week, I’m going back, it took time but that was like you talk about a rude awakening. Three huge, one much bigger than the other, but the first failure in my life occurred in a week and in that week three of them occurred.


And all hitting you in different parts of your wallet or your ego or your heart if you like?


That’s right, that’s right, and I guess that the great mystery of life or the great spirit of life or whatever, the life energy force, I guess that life energy force felt like it would take that type of large force to dislodge me from the ego temple that I sat in.


Yeah, it reminds me of an expression, ‘Life doesn’t happen to you, it happens for you,’ and that’s probably quite a good way of describing that week.


Yes, that’s a very good, yes, and I will say to you in hindsight it is an absolutely outstanding way of describing that week.


Lovely, lovely. Ed, where can people get in touch with you because I’m sure that once they listen they’ll want to connect with you and your work. What’s the best place for them to find you?


I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Twitter. Those are the easiest social media places. Also, my email address is public on the faculty directory at the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia, I’m pretty easy to find.


Wonderful, wonderful. Well, we’ll put all that in the show notes. Ed, it was great. As I said at the beginning I was really looking forward, I first came across your work a long time ago, very keen to get you on the show. I’m glad that we’ve managed to connect and have this conversation. No doubt that this will resonate with a lot of our listeners so very, very great thanks for your time today.


Thank you for having me, and thank you for being interested in my work, and thank you for an engaging conversation and having the courage to take me to places that neither one of us knew where they were going to go.


Absolutely. Wonderful. Well, have a great day and thanks again, Ed.


Take care, same to you.







In this episode, we are joined by author and professor, Ed Hess. He has published several notable books on learning and innovation including Learn or Die and his most recent work, Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. Ed Hess is currently a professor, Batten Executive-in-Residence and Batten Faculty Fellow at the Darden Graduate Business School at the University of Virginia.

What is Covered

  • The company of the future in the smart machine age is one where innovation is the strategic differentiator – as operational excellence is going to be primarily technology enabled
  • How human learning underpins both operational excellence and innovation
  • Why mitigating and overcoming fear and ego is the key to becoming a better learner.

Key Takeaways and Learnings

  • ‘Unbossing’ and how to create an idea meritocracy by devaluing the hierarchy of empowerment.
  • How the future of technology will humanize business, help people to overcome their own personal limitations and develop as highly creative, intuitive, and innovative human beings.
  • How changing our mental models can help us develop listening and engagement skills to connect with others to drive innovation.

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

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