Only Curious Leaders Escape The Advice Trap with Michael Bungay Stanier

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I’m pleased to welcome back to Outside Voices Michael Bungay Stanier, a coach, author and founder of his own business, a Box of Crayons, whose purpose is to help organizations harness the power of curiosity to drive culture. Both curiosity and culture are two topics that are very close to my heart, as I’m sure you’ll be aware if you’ve listened to some of my previous podcasts. So without further ado, here is Michael.

Michael, very good to have you back on the show. And since we last spoke, you covered a lot of ground from a business point of view. But maybe we can just start, for those of my listeners who haven’t heard the earlier episode, a little bit about your background. You studied Law and Literature. And you went from there to being one of the world’s most respected coaches. I mean, how did that happen?

I wish I knew. There is a saying, which I love and I say often enough, which is – inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense. And there’s a way that you can look back and you can put the pieces together going, oh, here’s how I leapt from here to there and there to other. But if you’d taken me five years ago, ten years ago, or thirty years ago, it would be basically impossible to predict that I’ve ended up the person I am today doing the things that I’m doing today. So if you want to kind of quickly chart the hopscotch approach to how I ended up here, so you’re right I’m Australian by birth, as undergraduate degrees I did both Literature and Law in Canberra, my hometown. I had the good fortune to be a Rhodes Scholar, which meant I left Australia and went to Oxford to study. Good fortune because it did two things. It stopped me becoming a lawyer. So it saved me and the legal profession from that misery. And I’ve met my wife almost 30 years ago now in Oxford, so that was a big win.

Was she a Rhodes Scholar as well or not?

She wasn’t. She has her own amazing story. She was a high school dropout, did all sorts of things, everything from being a gardener to being a puppeteer to being a librarian. And in her 30s, went back to school and just rocked it and ended up at Oxford on a scholarship doing a PhD in Renaissance literature. So she’s got her own amazing, amazing adventure. And she lived in a house with a couple of other Rhodes Scholars. So me, in my first days at Oxford, not knowing anybody and trying to find other peers to build friendships with. We were thrown together as Rhodes Scholars and therefore the Rhodes Scholars held a party, that’s how I met Marcella and within six weeks of arriving at Oxford, she and I were living together as we have been doing since. So it was a good fast win. After I finished university, I’ve been in university for eight years, I still have absolutely no idea what I’m good for or what job I want. And I have the fortune again to fall in with an innovation company. And they were right at the beginning of their story. The founders have been going for a year or maybe a little longer. And I spent my first years working in the world of innovation, helping invent products and services, which I loved on a number of levels. I loved on a process level. I love the experience of brainstorming. I loved their general approach to business which is like – most business is terrible and boring and soul sucking and unhuman and inhuman. Let’s do things differently. So they encouraged the fact that I had long hair and I had earrings and I made my own clothes and was a bit weird. They’re like, yeah, you’re smart and weird, we kind of like that mix. But you know, Mark, at a certain point, I was like, you know, I’m in this world of innovation. And honestly, nothing is actually getting done. We have all these great ideas, we take them through the process, we come up with stuff for them. Typically, for a big company to market and sell. And the idea would wander into that organization and then die. It would just never make it out the other side. And it took me into wanting to understand how organizations worked and how organizational change worked. Because it was not enough to have a good idea, even an idea that you’ve innovated around and it’s consumer based. You’ve got to know how to navigate an organization which is absolutely set up to promote homeostasis. Let’s not change anything. Let’s water down every idea we can, let’s make sure that we are safe, which means just change as little as possible. So that took me into the current mode of management, consulting and change management. And that took me from London, where I was living at the time, to Boston, where we helped set up an office for that firm. It didn’t work very well, we failed. Then after three years that that office got kind of closed down, and I moved to Toronto. So this is in 2001. I had a job lined up, more consulting, but my departure date from Boston was 9/11.

So the world changed.

The world changed and the job I had lined up as a consultant never materialized. It forced me to start Box of Crayons. And Box of Crayons is now a really substantial learning and development company with a mission to help organizations shift from advice driven to curiosity led. When I started it, it was me just trying to earn a buck. Doing all the stuff that I could do – market research, innovation training, coaching training, coaching. My business model was to find somebody with a wallet and see if we could hopefully get out a way of taking a little bit of their money and earning it. Four years ago thereabouts The Coaching Habit came out and, as you said, that’s been a big success that sold close to 800,000 copies now and really been an unexpected and delightful success. And that meant the Box of Crayons has grown. And about a year ago, I stepped away from being the CEO of Box of Crayons and handed it over to somebody far more capable and talented than I’d ever be. And that’s kind of where I’ve ended up now, which is like a new book came out two or three months ago and Box of Crayons is rolling along under other leadership and I’m in this moment of this liminal space of going okay, now what?

One of my questions towards the end will dig into that. But I’m curious. Innovation consulting, brainstorming, then change management, presumably to address the fact that some, whether it was explicitly or implicitly address, the fact that some of these ideas weren’t happening. So how do you actually…

All of the ideas weren’t happening. I mean, I’d worked there for four years, I didn’t have a single story to tell about a successful product we’d launched. And I’m like, there’s only so much tap dancing around that you can do. What is going on? And why are we so naive as an organization to think that our job is just to throw ideas over the wall and hope that they survive?

But then, where I was going on this, Michael, was that then into the coaching, the space of coaching, which are one that you can look at as being a, not a sideline, but very tangential to implementation. But on the other hand, if you take a bigger picture view, which I think is your approach, it’s actually at the very heart of, as you said, what the mission of a Box of Crayons is – to harness the power of curiosity to drive culture. And I guess, coaching is the engine that drives that, right?

The way I would frame it is this. And I’ve been really influenced by a book I’ve been reading recently, which I can thoroughly recommend to people called Brave New Work by a guy called Aaron Dignan. And he situates the most interesting types of companies, the companies of the future, I hope, and he hopes, as having two poles to them. Two kind of core, core principles. The first is being people positive. So you don’t forget the humans that work in your organization. And it recognizes in the subtext there that actually most organizations are set up to dehumanize rather than humanize people. It’s an echo of the Industrial Revolution, which is we’re all being trained to work in factories. If you want to make one correlation, the org chart from an 1870s factory and the org chart from the 2020s firm, not very dissimilar quite frankly. So being people positive is one of the key poles for him. And the other key pole for him is being complexity conscious. Which is to say, it’s naive to think that our organizations are this kind of linear machines where you press a button, and the desired result comes out. And it puts paid to the kind of illusions of things like five year strategy plans and these fantasies around, we’ll just predict our own future and then we’ll control it in such a way. Well, we all buy into it on this intellectual level, but if you stop and think about it, you’re like, okay, so show me a five year plan that’s worked. And it hasn’t, because it’s complex, it’s emergent, with this swell of influences. And it’s far more like, the common metaphor is like a flock of starlings, that kind of murmuration of this shape that evolves and changes and you have myriad parts playing their small roles, and a greater whole emerges from that. Rather than the belief that a lot of organizations are build on which is like everything is controllable. So, for Dignan, he’s bringing together in his book a lot of really practical stories plus some thinking based on complexity theory and alike. And being complexity conscious means working as much by principle, and granting autonomy and shifting the nexus of control to people within organization, rather than under VP of whatever, I’m trying to control the people underneath my piece.

And you have all the answers and you’re sitting, exactly. So this is where coaching, I guess, unlocks out or disables that kind of behavior?

I think coaching is a key technology in allowing the best of ourselves to show up and do our best work within an organizational context. So innovation is part of that. Innovation, at its best, it’s an ongoing part of how we all work all the time. It’s not that – we’ve got an innovation department and we’ve locked them in the basement, and we’ll see how they go. And meantime, the rest of us won’t innovate, but we’ll just stay the course. That’s, I think, a model that’s been proven not to be that successful.

And so, let’s come back to the book very quickly. What was interesting about the book, not just the content, but the process, which I learned subsequent to our first conversation, was that you innovated around, not so much the writing of it, but certainly the launching of it and the marketing of it, which enabled you to generate the success that you have generated from that book. Can you say a little bit about that, cause you weren’t going down the traditional path?

Oh, I tried. I spent three years pitching this book to a firm that had published another book of mine in New York, you know, a fancy new publisher. And they just didn’t get it and didn’t want it and I was stuck in this loop of misery with them. And at a certain point, I just went, okay, you know what, I’m willing to back myself on this. So there was an ultimatum, will you publish this or not? This is the book I’m offering you. Take it or leave it. And actually, to my surprise, they left it. I really didn’t think they’d call my bluff, but they called my bluff. They’re like, no, we’re not going to take it. I’m like, okay. And that was discouraging for a moment. But it then made me go, okay, I’m self publishing, because that world is better than it’s ever been. But I had a real commitment to say, look, if I’m self publishing this, I’m gonna do it as a professional, not as an amateur. There’s a lot of amateurish books out there. Not as well edited, not as well written, not as well designed as they should be. And quite frankly, that’s not just self published books. There’s lots of bad books out there that publishing houses put out as well. I had a commitment – self publish as a professional and try and make this a classic, which meant that I was less interested in trying to knock it out of the park on launch day, which is nearly impossible. But I did want in five years time or ten years time for it still to be regarded as one of the seminal texts on coaching and being more coach like. So, I saw it as advantages. The first is I’d written like five versions of this book in an attempt to get it published. By the time I finally came up with the last version of it, I’d worked it and worked it and worked it. I kneaded that dough a lot. So it is succinct, elegant, eloquent, well written, not a whole lot of fluff there. There’s a whole bunch of things that help the word of mouth around that spread. It’s really practical. And I had a really clear person in mind that I was writing it for. It was the busy Team Leader going: look, I like doing my job. I like my team. I’m committed to my company. I feel a bit stuck. How do I get myself out of this business rut? How do I get my team elevated and doing their best stuff so they’re more autonomous and more competent and more confident? And then, I wrote a long article, which I think you’re referring to, around how I went around marketing this book. What worked, what didn’t work. And honestly, I’m not sure I innovated a whole lot there. A little bit, but not a whole lot. Part of the winning strategy was persistence, which was – I’m going to market this for at least a year. And actually, I ended up being a committed marketer for two years around that book. And, secondly, a more targeted approach to try and get the book in the right people’s hands. But thirdly, you know, the book has gone on to sell so many copies that actually goes beyond the quality of the book, and it goes beyond anything I did for marketing. It just means that it got lucky. And there’s a sprinkle of fairy dust in there somewhere. That means that this book has taken off in a way that, you know, I could write exactly the same book of exactly the same quality and it wouldn’t sell nearly as nothing. Just because luck is part of the equation.

So the latest book, The Advice Trap – are you playing around with that recipe at all? Or is it exactly the same?

I’m playing around with it. Partly, I’m sitting here going – it turns out launching a book in a pandemic is not necessarily a strong strategy. So, I’m thinking about bookmarking. Now here’s the thing. I feel a little burnt out, if I’m honest about all the stuff I did for the previous book. I was on a lot of podcasts. And some of them were great like this, you know, me coming back is an example of a podcast that was fun and enjoyable, and I felt that I was useful to a specific audience. And there are some where I’m like, that was just a waste of my time. And I don’t think I’m wasting anybody else’s time because I don’t think anybody else is listening to this particular episode. So I’m not sure I’m up for that again. And I’m also just interested in going – what’s the way of doing this that would be the fun, different, interesting way. So, what I’m finding is, and this is kind of an innovation tactic, language matters. The language you use to define a challenge will often curtail or limit the results you get as ideas. So, when you ask, how can you market this book in a different way, the word marketing carries a gravity to it that pulls you in a certain direction immediately. What’s been helpful for me – I’ve got two things that have been helpful. The first is to go, I’m more interested in teaching the ideas from this book. So – how do I set the ideas in this book free? -becomes a much more exciting question for me to answer. The other thing that I’m playing around with, I’m sure you know this. Brian Eno, years ago, put up a set of cards called Oblique Strategies. It was designed to help the musicians that he was producing, I think in the 80s particularly, to break out of their ruts. So I’m trying to provoke myself with Oblique Strategies to think differently about what do I do and how do I do it? It turns out the thing that I’m motivated in is having some fun innovating and learning, rather than actually so much going – am I selling a bazillion books?

Let’s have a crack at setting some of those ideas free. The first idea I’d love just to dig into Michael is, the book is called The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever. I’d like to double click on the word curiosity. Because, you know, as kids we’re told – curiosity killed the cat, we’re told curious George. So it’s kind of, not necessarily beaten out of us, but certainly it’s seen as being a childish quality out of which we grow over time. And yet, more and more, it’s appearing in business language far more frequently now. What’s going on?

First to acknowledge what you said, which is, there’s a systematized process of trying to make us less curious as we get older. And part of that is through the systems we move through in our lives, where you’re rewarded for – do you know the answer? And – do you have the expertise? Rather than – can you ask a good question? Another part of us that gets in the way of curiosity as well, which is just our brain. And particularly our unconscious brain near the amygdala, that lizard brain part of us that’s designed to keep us safe. It scans the environment five times a second going, is it safe here or is it dangerous? And it feels much safer if it knows what’s happening. And it feels less safe if it doesn’t know what happens. And when you’re being curious, you’re deliberately putting yourself into a space where you don’t know what’s happening. So weirdly enough to your brain, you’re deliberately endangering yourself. So you’ve got to give yourself acknowledgement that curiosity is, in some ways, trying to transcend your primitive brain. And get beyond that. Your primitive brain is like – I’m carrying on, because I’m unconscious, I’m carrying on scanning the environment, and you can do all you want, but there’s gonna be a nagging sense of doubt, to some extent as you plunge into this unknown space. But at the same time, just to your point, there’s this rise of recognition about the power of curiosity. I think less than a year ago that HBR had a whole volume dedicated to the power of curiosity. And this is kind of my stand, my belief – why is curiosity this leadership superpower? Why now? Well, I think, in terms of our increasingly complex world, we just start seeing the limits of our knowledge, even more apparently. Because all the stuff we do know, you can find in under a 10th of a second on Google in a way that’s far better articulated. We stood The Wisdom of Crowds and all of that sort of stuff, saying like, okay, the bit you do know is redundant. And all the bits you don’t know or you think you know, you’re probably wrong. Because we’ve also become much more conscious of our own cognitive biases. I’m sure some of the listeners know the Dunning Kruger effect, which is, as somebody put it really bluntly and I love this, stupid people are too stupid to know that they’re stupid. And there’s kind of weirdness which is – the more confident you are around your answer, or your certainty around a topic, almost the more likely you are to be wrong. There’s that quote, I can’t remember who said it, which is – for every problem, there’s an answer that is simple, clear, direct and wrong. But even though we know this, we see an expert show up on TV or wherever, telling us the simple, clear, direct answer. We’re like, oh, that’s good. That’s a relief. There’s a beacon of light in this confusing ambiguous times. And the science will tell you that statistically, they’re more likely to be wrong, then the person who goes – well, you know, it’s complicated. It could be this, it could be that, on balance, it might be this. Everyone’s like, yeah, you’re an expert? You don’t know what you’re talking about. And paradoxically, that’s actually reversed. I think, curiosity also speaks to the power of managing overwhelm. So if anybody feels overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that’s on their plate, and with this friction free way of communicating, so everybody can email, everybody can do this. I’m willing to bet there’s a very small percentage of people listening here who have an empty inbox right now. Everyone’s a bit overcrowded. Curiosity, amongst other things, allows you to figure out where the real challenge is, what’s the real thing for us to be working on? And in the context of innovation, the hardest thing often enough in innovation is trying to figure out what is the real problem we’re trying to solve here. Because it’s really easy to come up with fast answers that solve the wrong problem. It just isn’t that helpful.

It’s also, beyond innovation, it’s a core leadership skill, I guess. Because, as you say, in this VUCA world, which is characterized by ambiguity, there isn’t a straightforward answer. And curiosity is, I suppose, the fuel that gives you the confidence or gives you some of the tools to actually start exploring where those alternative, maybe less obvious answers might lie.

Yeah. And it’s worth continuing to remember that it’s not the only leadership style. I buy in thoroughly to Daniel Goleman’s research of 20 years ago that says – look, there’s 6 different types of leadership and they all have their moments. This is in a HBR article called “Leadership that gets results”, came out in the year 2000. And there are times when giving the answer is the right thing to do. There are times when being democratic is the right thing to do. In Goleman’s research, he labeled coaching as a leadership skill, one of the six. And he said even though you can see it has a significant and important effect on profit, on culture, on employee engagement, it was the least utilized of the six leadership skills. So whereas it’s really important to say, hey, look, don’t take this conversation to mean that the only thing you do in your life is to ask questions. It does mean that almost certainly your advice giving muscle is overdeveloped and you’re asking questions muscle is underdeveloped.

Particularly the old model of the pacesetting executive who rarely pauses to ask those questions because he or she might feel they got the answers anyway or supposed to have the answers. I think in the Goleman’s work, it’s as much about having a breadth of tools that you can identify which one to use in which context as opposed to being very strong on one or the other.

Exactly right. And the way my company Box of Crayons ends up talking about being more coach-like because it deliberately is not about trying to train people to be coaches. It’s like, how do you make being coach-like one of your leadership behaviors? This is the definition we give people. Can you stay curious a little bit longer? Can you rush to action and advice giving a little bit more slowly? And that tension – the tensions are always where the interesting thing is. Don’t abandon black for white or white for black. Just see if you can hold curiosity in your conversations for an additional couple of minutes. Take a two minute curiosity challenge and say, look, before I offer up advice, I’m staying curious for a couple of minutes. Let’s see what happens when I do that. And interesting stuff changes.

I’d love the quote on the back of the book. “This is the book of advice about not giving advice. It shouldn’t work, but it does.” So we’ve got the pause there which is you know, staying curious for little bit longer. What else is happening in that space that that pause or that curiosity creates? There’s no such thing as a typical coaching conversation, but in your experience, what else happens?

What you’re doing is you’re reducing the fail spots for where your advice often shows up and often doesn’t work. And there are three places where advice giving fails, typically. The first is, and we’ve talked about this a bit already, you’re often busy trying to solve the wrong problem. Because if you’re trying to tackle the first challenge that gets put on the table, it’s probably not the real challenge. It almost never is. When somebody comes to you with a challenge of any substance at all, any difficulty at all, it’s almost never the real thing. It’s their best guess, it’s a half articulation, sometimes it’s a solution without a problem attached to it. “Curious a bit longer” increases the odds that you actually figure out what the real challenge is to be solved. The second place advice goes wrong is that, and we’ve talked a bit about this already as well, which is – it turns out your advice just isn’t as good as you think it is. And you have all these cognitive biases that are there screaming at you going – no, don’t listen to Michael, your advice is amazing. You’re amazing. You’re a font of wisdom, dispenser of gold plated awesomeness. But it’s just not. So often your advice comes loaded with your own ignorance, your own misunderstanding, your own biases, your need for approval, your own need to rescue people. It’s got all of that entangled in it. But even if you have this moment where you go, okay, actually, I know that this challenge is the real challenge. It’s the real thing that we’ve got to solve. And actually, I know that I have a stonkingly good idea here, something that’s really good. It’s a really good solution to the real problem. Even if you have all of that, I do think you can ask yourself – is the right thing for me as a leader to provide that answer? Because you’re at that crossroads where one act of leadership is to give them the answer. And there are prizes and punishments. Prizes – you give them the good answer, and they get to act on it. Punishments – people are less likely to act on somebody else’s idea rather than their own. And more systematically, or systemically, you’re training people to come to you always for the answer. And there’s a subtle message that if this is a recurring behavior, the message you give people is you’re not good enough to figure this out yourself. I’m the person with the answers around here. This is the way the hierarchy works. And your alternative is to say, look, even though I know the problem, and even though I have the answer, what if I slow down the rush to give the answer and to move to action? What if I ask some questions instead? And the punishment for that is you take a little bit more time, often not a whole lot more time, but sometimes a little bit more time. Secondly, their idea probably won’t be as good as your idea, or at least as good as you think your idea is, but the prizes are manifold. And prizes are: A) they own the idea that they come up with. B) their idea is probably good enough. In other words, it’ll get the job done. C) and this is where it really starts making a difference. You are increasing competence and confidence and self sufficiency and autonomy. You are building intelligence and wisdom and capacity in those around you so that you, amongst other things, get to work less hard, because you have smarter, better people taking on more of their share of the work moving forward. So, even if you know all the answers, and you’re genius at figuring out what the real problem is, there’s a leadership question for you, which is, is it worth it?

It doesn’t scale. It doesn’t enable you to be lazy and it doesn’t scale, as well, right?

Exactly. But to do that you have to step aside from a degree of, let’s call it ego driven behavior. In the new book, I talk about them as the three advice monsters, and the three advice monsters are “tell it”, “save it” and “control it”. And each one of those points to a reason why we were going to give advice. “Tell it” is – I want to be the smart person. I want to be the person who knows and I want to be the person who is clearly and unambiguously, and I’m doing air quotes now, “adding value” to this conversation. “Save it” is that ego state going – it’s my job to save everybody, to keep everybody safe, to make sure that nobody struggles or stumbles or fails or finds it difficult. I’m going to wrap everybody in cotton wool and take responsibility for everybody else’s lives. Exhausting, frustrating, impossible, but that’s another state. Then the third one – “control it” is just as it says, it’s – you know what, I like to stay in control. I like to have my hands on the steering wheel. And they will remain on the steering wheel, which means I’m not that interested in your idea. Because giving you the autonomy to have ideas and to go with ideas and run with your ideas, that’s me giving up control. And I don’t want that. So there’s a degree to which you’re like, needing to manage that. That’s some of the more profound work that’s being called forth to do with this new book.

What struck me, I was just reflecting, having read through the book and also read through the transcripts of our interview of a couple of years ago. The model, the leader who emerges from this process, having absorbed and integrated and acted on the masterclass elements of the book, they look like the leader that’s required to get the world or business out of some of the problems that they’re in now. So it’s a very different kind of model of leadership. Some of the words that I scribbled down – it’s about humility and modesty. It’s about being open to very diverse perspectives, even though it might be uncomfortable, and creating a space to have those conversations. It’s about being reflective. The Josh Waitzkin book, being the learner …

Yeah. It’s terrific book.

It’s a terrific book. It’s changed my life, actually. I don’t know if you heard his most recent podcast with Tim Ferriss about some of his new edges of learning. It is extraordinary. Highly recommended. I’ll share that with you afterwards, if you’re interested. But, it seems there’s a different type of leader emerging that is able to solve the wicked problems that we’re facing across the board. But, the on ramp into that is coaching and is asking questions, and is pausing, and is creating a space. And that struck for me a real chord because it seems so relevant, the messages. And on a far, far deeper level than the presenting issue that often has people bring coaches into organizations.

Part of what you’re pointing to, Mark, is to be this new type of leader that you’re speaking to, and I certainly buy into the idea that this is the more interesting style of leadership for the future, this is a leadership that is more humane and more scalable and makes more of a difference. And coming back to the Dignan work, it’s better suited to shape organizations around these poles of being people positive and complexity conscious. What you realize is that it takes personal work to do that. Not just a question of whip or no whip, shouting orders and getting people to obey you. That form of command and control, everybody’s known for ages that doesn’t really work. And yet it continues. And sometimes people would put lipstick on the pig, and so it’s like, okay, I’m gonna ask fake questions. We’re gonna have a mandated once a month coaching session, and hope that that’s going to change things. But actually the work for leaders is this idea of what am I willing to let go of, in terms of control? What must I hold on to? Where am I willing to share power? Where am I willing to allow people to own their own lives, to be adults in their own lives? I came across this concept recently of sovereignty, it’s a bit of a loaded word because it’s getting into monikers and the like. But the way it was articulated in this particular book was helping people moving towards sovereignty. Somebody with sovereignty is somebody who has agency, able to make their choices and also holds responsibility, takes responsibility for the choices that they make. And that’s such a hard thing to do. That’s the work of becoming a fully expressed human being. And I do think coaching and being more coach-like, staying curious a little bit longer is a key way you get to do that work for yourself and you enable others to step forward and do work as well. Because it’s working both of you. Ask a question. They’re working, often on an intellectual level to try and figure stuff out, but also on an emotional level, because you’re saying, there’s a message, I trust you to figure this out. Let’s use your big brain, your high potential and see where we get with that. But that question is working you as well, because you’re like, okay, this is where I step aside from my hunger to be the smart person, have the answer, and have the status, and be the savior and keep control. I’m willing to step into a place of more subtle ambiguity in service of the bigger win.

I love the section on self coaching. There’s not much in there. You haven’t written a huge amount about it. What you described is when you’re in relationship with someone, but probably is much harder when you’re actually self coaching. I think you talk about journaling as being the vehicle for that. But that’s where the real work begins, that’s another place you can do some real work on yourself.

I’ve ebbed and flowed on journaling my whole life. I’m on a flow at the moment. A friend of mine, Neil Pasricha, he’s written a number of books, but his latest is called You Are Awesome. And he combines an enthusiasm for life plus lots of science. He talks about a two minute morning routine and this two minute routine has helped me. So let me share it with people. Three questions. And you just spend two minutes or less answering those questions. One is – what will I let go off? Second is – what am I grateful for? And the third is – I will focus upon? And each one of those has a very specific psychological goal. “I would let go” which is to stop, get you out of your anxiety. Gnawing on a bone, tugging on a thread, worry, worry, worry thing. I’m going to label it, and I’m going to let it go. It’s a very powerful release of stress and anxiety. “I’m grateful for” – there’s just so much research that says an attitude of gratitude, it just makes you enjoy life more.

Well, it’s impossible to be depressed. If you actually ask that question correctly. It overcomes all sorts of negativity. We have a family routine at the dinner table. No one eats until everyone’s answered that question.

It’s pretty cool. And there’s a way that when you keep asking yourself that question, you quickly get through all the obvious stuff. I’ve heard of a variation on that, which is that you have to be grateful for three things. And by the third one, you’re like – okay, I’m gonna think about this now. And it helps you see the small moments of joy that are all around you. And then the focus piece, it kind of comes down to that piece. We’re all overwhelmed. We’ve all got too many things tugging us either way. Have you focused on the stuff that matters most to you and to your world? And it calls you to attention every morning.

Michael, I’m very aware of timing and there are some questions I do want to get to.

The time is almost up so we’re gonna have to rattle through the questions.

So, Mike, the first one is, you said, right at the beginning, you’re in this liminal state. The question I’ve got around that is – I’m curious about your liminal state. Can you say a little bit more about it?

So, I’ve stepped away from having much direct day-to-day stuff with Box of Crayons which is a B2B company, serves organizations. And now I’m asking myself – how do I best serve the world in a way that brings me joy and uses my strengths and makes the planet a better place? And I’m trying to resist filling up my life with business. I’m now in my 50s, so I can do a whole bunch of stuff. I’ve just been around long enough that I can be busy. That’s not a particularly glorious victory, though. The new site for my work is What I know for now is that it’s a site that serves individuals, is to help individuals have better lives. But what I’m still exploring is what’s the problem that I help solve. Who do I best help? Who is kind of the ideal people who could be students for me?

What’s your unfair advantage is one of the ways, I’ve heard it. Well, who do you want to be a hero for?

That’s right. It’s an interesting mix around focus on yourself – what are you good at? What do you love doing? I’ve got some sense around that. I’m a good teacher. I’m a good translator of concepts. I’m a good encourager, and helping people be more confident in themselves. But then, you’ve also got to move to the other side of the equation, going – that’s not enough. That’s just you. What’s the, the jargon is pain point? What’s the problem you’re actually solving here, so that people go – yeah, that is what I’m up against. That is the hard thing I’m up against. And you look like you might be able to help me with that. And that’s what I’m still playing around with, in terms of not really wanting to rush it, but just let me see what emerges.

I guess we’ll see what emerges by keeping an eye on your website, I guess that’s the place to go.

Yeah, that’s a really good place to go. To encourage people to go there, one of the things on the front page of the is something called The Year of Living Brilliantly. And it’s actually a 52-week 52 teachers video based course to provoke and encourage you to think differently and do things differently. And in many ways, it’s a terrible, the jargon is lead magnet. It’s a terrible way to get people to sign up for stuff. Because it’s basically a full on year of free, awesome content. And part of my job is to try and sell people additional bits and pieces I can help them with. So I can generate revenue and support myself. I’ve already fueled them to last up till the next year. You didn’t think that through. But at the same time, it is a really great program for people. I’m excited for people to get there and take that and explore that.

I’m going to sign up for it. I’ve seen a number of the people and there’s some great thinkers and doers there. Anything in particular, without calling out and embarrassing anyone, anything really shifted? Are there any of those who really shook your world in terms of how you think about things?

Some people, this will be true for everybody who signs up, there are some people whose lessons made me go – yeah, I get that, but I’m not that interested. It could be useful for other people, but it’s not that useful for me. And then there are some people – I just really appreciate the way they put it out in the world. And very early on in the course, I think it’s lesson three or four, there’s a guy called Dr. Jason Fox. And he talks about how to navigate in your life. And he offers up an alternative to the usual vision, goals, task list. And offers something much more profound about how you want to show up in the world. And that was really helpful for me.

I’ll check that out. What have you changed your mind about recently?

In some ways, that’s an easy question for me, because it turns out I have such fluid opinions on a whole bunch of stuff. Often my stance of expertise is – I’m probably wrong about this anyway. So what’s changing my mind, or what’s in flux at the moment, is conversations around who my audience is, who my tribe is, what content I produce, what’s actually useful? Why do I produce content? And that’s all uprooted at the moment. I’m not sure what I’ve changed my mind to around that. All I know is that everything that I thought I knew I’m deliberately digging up.

Is that as a result of some external stimuli or because you’re in this reflective process of planning the back nine?

Well, it’s both of those. And one of the questions that I’ve sat with for the last three months or so is who are my new teachers? Because I’ve got very comfortable with lots of people, you get into that sort of echo chamber, listening to and talking to people who have a degree of expertise that you have, and have a similar point of view that you have. So partly I’m trying to bring in new stimulus into my life to provoke me and think differently around stuff.

I’ve gone back to my anthropological roots for that very purpose because A) there’s a wellspring for me which I’ve kind of ignored for a number of years, and B) because it just does bring a very different perspective to have on things, and also, as you said earlier on, the narrative of the arc of one’s life. So maybe you need to go back and blow the dust off your law.

Exactly. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I’m thrilled some of my friends are doing so well in the world of law, but that’s not for me.

Thank you very much for your time. We’ve got the details in terms of where you are – is the main site, but also Box of Crayons, the links to the book. Wonderful to reconnect and best of luck with the next stage.

Mark, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

Wonderful. Have a good day.

You too.


We are pleased to welcome Michael Bungay Stanier back on the show. He is one of the world’s most respected coaches, author of The Coaching Habit, and founder of Box of Crayons, which helps organisations harness the power of curiosity to drive culture. Since we last spoke, Michael published a new book called The Advice Trap, and stepped away from the leading position at the Box of Crayons to explore new routes in his business and life.

What is Covered

  • Why coaching and self-coaching are key leadership skills for the future of work and business
  • How curiosity helps us manage overload and identify the real challenges in front of us
  • What is the ‘advice trap’ and how to successfully avoid it in order to really help your coachees

Key Learnings and Takeaways

  • Coaching is a key technology which allows the best of ourselves to show up and do our best work, and innovation is an ongoing part of how we work all the time.
  • The new style of leadership for the future is more humane, scalable, and requires deep personal work to build your coaching muscle and stay curious.
  • Working less hard but smarter as a coach has multiple benefits in increasing competence, confidence, wisdom and building capacity in others.

Links And Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Mark Bidwell

Mark Bidwell

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