Joshua Wong and the Power of Speaking Up

October 2nd, 2014

One man with courage makes a majority

One man with courage makes a majority

Whether the current protests in Hong Kong turn out to be a flash in the pan that is soon squelched and forgotten, or explode into a major challenge to the Chinese government, is impossible to tell at this point. But one thing is certain, they have captured much of the world’s attention.

Improbably enough, one of the main leaders of the protests is a skinny 17-year-old kid with geeky glasses, Joshua Wong. As this article in today’s New York Times tells it, He has “been at the center of the democracy movement that has rattled the Chinese government’s hold on this city”. Ironically, at his young age Wong is already a veteran activist, who gained prominence at age 14(!) for founding a movement to fight—and defeat—the “patriotic education” that Beijing wanted to impose in Hong Kong’s schools.

I fervently hope that Joshua comes out of this alright. He has already been arrested for two days, and his fate realistically rests in the decisions of a few powerful men in Beijing.

But he has shown the incredible influence that anyone can command if they have the courage to speak out.

He has shown that leadership doesn’t have an age limit.

He has shown that leadership is not something that has to be given to you by the authorities.

How many 17-year-olds do you know that would have the courage to get up to speak in front of thousands of people, especially when stage fright may be the least of his worries? Have you ever had an idea but didn’t want to make waves? Have you ever seen an injustice but decided to go with the flow? I know I have; we probably all have. I’m just thankful that the world has people who can show us a better way.

Book Recommendation: Curious, by Ian Leslie

September 29th, 2014

curiousPiggybacking off last week’s article about personal renewal and the importance of staying curious, I would like to recommend Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It. Why should a blog dedicated to persuasive communication care about a book on curiosity? I guess you’ll have to read the rest of this to find out…

For starters, being curious makes you easier to talk to. Actually caring enough to want to know about the other person is what gets us to ask questions and thus use our ears more than our mouths. Curiosity focuses attention and shows caring… If you want to be interesting to other people, show an interest in them; when you’re curious about them, and about the things that they care about, you will find that they will talk to you at length.

That’s called empathic curiosity, by the way, and it’s one of the three forms of curiosity that Leslie describes in his book.

Empathic curiosity is a key quality for successful salespeople as well. It’s the central ingredient in outside-in thinking, in which you strive to get what you want by helping the other person get what they want. You can find out a lot about the other person because it’s part of your job, or you can be intrinsically curious about who they are and what makes them tick—and people can tell the difference.

Besides showing you care, your curiosity is what prompts you not to accept the easy, surface answers, and to dig deeper into situations—to ask why with the tenacity of a four-year-old until you get to the real issues. This can be extremely useful in consultative selling, and especially in negotiations, where the ability to understand others’ perspectives can help uncover their true interests behind their declared positions.

Persuasion also depends to a large extent on having something useful or important to say, and that requires a mind filled with knowledge about the world, which you can only get if you are truly and deeply curious about how things work and how people think. This is called epistemic curiosity, and it’s the mechanism that drives us to learn for the sake of learning. Epistemic curiosity built our modern world because it led humans to explore outside the safety of their fire, to sail out of sight of land, and to question what the authorities called wisdom.

Epistemic curiosity is what the book is mostly about. It’s what drives us to dig deep into the details and nuances of a topic. The big difference between epistemic curiosity and the shallower sort is that it requires effort, and that effort is repaid through deeper learning and greater understanding. Of course, when you’re truly curious, the effort is not work, it is joy. It’s also curiosity with a specific direction, where you are in control of your own effort and learning, not pulled along by the latest shiny distraction that comes your way.

However, curiosity is not all good. While it may not kill you, it can certainly kill your productivity. The form of curiosity that fills your otherwise productive time is diversive curiosity, and unfortunately it’s probably the most common. It’s what attracts us to novelty; it’s shallow and strives for instant gratification. Unlike epistemic curiosity, diversive curiosity controls you. As Leslie tells us, imagine what you would tell someone from fifty years ago about the future:

“I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. The internet can make you smarter or dumber, depending on how you use it. Be careful what you put in your mind. Just as you are what you eat; you are what you read.

Curious is a fascinating blend of history and science. Chapter 2 explores the development—or lack thereof—of curiosity in children. Kids ask up to 100 questions per hour. Until about 30 months, their questions focus on what and where, and then they move on to why and how questions. Curiosity continues to flourish when adults answer the question and engage them with questions of their own, and dies when they don’t.

For me, the best chapter is the one in which Leslie demolishes the trendy idea that we don’t have to learn anything deeply anymore because we can Google it. We’re told that it’s more important to think critically and be creative than to stuff our minds with facts. The problem is that critical thinking and creativity require a deep database, because that’s the only way our mind can make the meaningful connections. In his words, ”Creativity starts in combination”, and you need a lot of useful information in your mind to make the necessary combinations.

Today we’re in the Age of Answers. The thing about Google is that it is very good at finding answers to things you specifically want to know, but it’s terrible at helping you stumble across things you don’t even know yet that you want to know more about.

The benefit of building your store of knowledge is why, according to recent research cited in this book, curiosity may be as important to success as intelligence and grit. It provides the intrinsic motivation to learn that keeps you engaged. To the curious, every day and every encounter is a new opportunity for growth.

Fortunately, curiosity is a state, not a trait. This means you can increase your general level of curiosity. Leslie provides seven suggestions.

7 ways to stay curious:

Stay foolish: don’t let success quench your curiosity.

Build the database: Facts are not separate bits of knowledge, they are nodes in a network of knowledge. “knowledge loves knowledge”.

Forage like a foxhog: Is it better to have deep or broad knowledge? Leslie’s take on the comparisons between hedgehogs and foxes is that you need t-shaped knowledge: deep in one area combined with breadth.

Ask the big Why. Understanding others’ motivations will make you a better negotiator and influencer.

Be a thinkerer. Ideas are nothing without hard work to make them come to fruition. Thinking and action have to go together, so you need both the big picture and the small details.

Question your teaspoons. Anything can be interesting if you study it closely enough.

Turn puzzles into mysteries. Turn puzzles into mysteries. Puzzles can lose their interest when solved. Mysteries can intrigue forever.


Well-researched and well-written, Curious is a fascinating book, which I strongly recommend[1].



[1] The only thing I did not like is the poor quality of the citations, because they make it difficult for those of us who are curious to dig even deeper into the topic.


Finding a Passion for Selling

September 26th, 2014

passion for salesI gave a speech yesterday in Aspen about the four major lessons I have accidentally learned about selling during my career: thinking outside-in, delivering value through knowledge, the critical importance of preparation, and being real.

As I worked on my remarks, however, I discovered a fifth lesson: it occurred to me that somewhere along my journey, I have found a passion for selling—for the practice, study, and teaching of the craft—that I never would have anticipated when I was younger.

In fact, I did everything I could early in my career to avoid selling. I thought it was beneath me, and I was also a little afraid of it because I thought I had no talent for it.

But life makes unexpected demands on us, and selling became a part of my job description despite my wishes. I flailed around in it for a bit (because the bank that said I had to do it didn’t provide any training), but gradually worked my way up to at least mediocrity just through trial and error and trying to use common sense.

As I’ve written before, I stumbled on the idea of outside-in thinking during a sales call on a prospect when I had to admit that I didn’t know why he should do business with me; to recover, I was forced to quickly think up some good questions and he opened right up. I soon learned that asking questions, while a good start, is not enough. At some point you need to take what you’ve learned about your customer and combine it with your own specialized knowledge to teach them something new that improves their situation.

I think it’s the first two lessons that seeded my passion for selling. By taking a genuine interest in my client’s success and studying hard to learn new ways to add value, I’ve gained the satisfaction of knowing I’m helping others; I’ve grown from the constant challenge; I’ve met thousands of interesting people.

Psychologists tell us that intrinsic motivation comes from autonomy, purpose and mastery. Selling has given me the first two and the chance daily to pursue the third. Incidentally, I’ve also made a decent living doing it.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else, which would be quite a surprise to my younger self.

That’s one reason that I think the well-intentioned advice we give to young people today—to follow their passions—may be misguided. At their age, most don’t know what their passions are. Maybe it’s better to do the best job you can where you can, and find your passion in that.

Personal Renewal

September 23rd, 2014

sunrise2Is your clock running?

This question is prompted by a speech that John W. Gardner, a noted educator, delivered to McKinsey and Co. in 1990. His audience was composed of highly successful people in the prime of their lives, (people just like those who read these posts), yet he felt compelled to deliver an urgent message about avoiding complacency and staleness.

Gardner said,

“We can’t write off the danger of complacency, growing rigidity, imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions. Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves –are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits? A famous French writer said “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.”

We all know people like this, people who have stopped learning and growing, who haven’t had an original thought since maybe their twenties, who are counting the diminishing number of years until they can retire and really stagnate. Some have checked out because they’re satisfied with where they are, or because they have learned their jobs so well they can basically do them in their sleep. Some less fortunate ones have simply learned to accept their dissatisfaction, defeated by apathy, bureaucracy or boredom. My Dad worked in the private sector all his life, and in retirement went to work for a county agency. After a week on the job his coworkers pulled him aside and told him to stop working so hard, because it made them look bad. He went with the flow at work, but his clock kept running and he kept his zeal for learning. The week he died, at 86, he had just attended a class to learn how to use yoga to improve his golf game.

The good news is that your clock does not have to stop, and even if it has, you can rewind it and start it again. As Gardner explains, life is not a mountain that has a summit, or a game with a final score.

“Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”

The important thing is not to lose your zest for learning and growing. No matter how old or how young you are, it is never too late.

Although it’s an extreme example, a story that I read recently in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel illustrates this well. As described in the article, Tom Galjour has Stage 4 metastatic small cell lung cancer. Two and a half years ago, he was told he had at most a few weeks to live. Soon thereafter, he was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors prescribed hospice and morphine. His friend Ted Owens called Galjour’s ex-wife and said, “You better come, too—it’s time”, at which point Tom said, “Time? Time for what? This is bull___!” as he ripped off the wires connecting him to monitors. He refused hospice and left to die at home. After suffering in bed for two weeks, he told Ted, “Hand me my guitar. Screw this, I’m not ready to go today.”

Tom managed to get out of bed and restart his life. He decided to supplement his medical care with his own approach, which included buying a $4,000 sniper rifle (hey, everybody has their own way of enjoying life) and lifting weights. At 64, weighing 150 pounds and hooked to an oxygen machine, he recently benched 240 pounds, and now is aiming for 260.

As the article says, medical research hasn’t found a correlation between “fighting spirit” and survival rates. Maybe Galjour would have survived this long even without this attitude – but would that life have contained the same level of zest and richness? He is one man who has refused to let his clock stop…

I’ve written before about one of my favorite books, Mindset by Carol Dweck. Dweck’s research has found that children grow up either with a fixed mindset and believe that intelligence and ability are innate and unchangeable, or a growth mindset which holds that we can improve and grow through effort. Her studies have shown that children with a fixed mindset, even those who are very bright, tend to protect their status as “smart” and are less likely to risk their self-image by trying difficult things; they also give up faster. In some small way, even at an early age they are at risk of letting their clocks run down.

Fortunately, a growth mindset can be taught to children at an early age; maybe it’s important to teach and reteach that lesson to adults as well. For starters, we can dispel the myth that entrepreneurship is for the young. Research has shown that there are twice as many entrepreneurs over 50 as there are under 25. In fact, adults who have a ton of life experiences under their belts may be better positioned to make wise choices about how and where to spend their energies.

I’m not referring to working harder; if you’ve gotten to the point where you can still be effective with less work, you’ve earned it. But you will do yourself a favor if you channel that extra time and energy into keeping your clock running, either through maintaining curiosity or increasing commitment to something that is important and is bigger than just you. A good example is John Spence, who recently wrote about his own effort, now that he has turned 50, to devote a part of his time over the next decade to learn how to paint.

Regardless of how successful you are, you have far more capacity in you than you have yet realized. I’ll let Gardner have the last word on this:

The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges –and the challenges keep changing. Life pulls things out of you.

Keep the clock running: stay challenged, curious and committed.