Thinking About Thinking

Finding Joy In the Mud

Life is hard. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

A few weeks ago I ran my third Tough Mudder. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it was an 11 mile course with 25 ridiculous obstacles, including ice water (big bin filled chest high with so much ice that it slowed me down wading through), electric shock station (there’s no way to avoid the live wires hanging down, you get shocked and keep moving), a 20 foot jump into water, and all sorts of walls and monkey bars and, of course, giant mud pits. Like I said: ridiculous.



So why would I do something that hard even once, let alone three times? Because it’s hard. I have discovered joy in overcoming obstacles. There is a thrill when facing a new problem (Tough Mudder changes their obstacles every year). Bonds form when helping a friend and being helped (I have always run Tough Mudder with someone else). And there is deep satisfaction in overcoming. There’s nothing quite like the moment after you conquer an obstacle—and double that when you finish the course. Plus, I get to act like a ten year old boy again. Big mud pit? Jump in! See a wall? Climb it! Ice tub? I dare you swim through it!

Sometimes we do need to rest. We can’t be on the course all year long. But we can’t rest all year long either. We aren’t fully alive without some challenges to overcome. Maybe you’ve just come through a major obstacle course in your life. If so, enjoy your rest. But maybe you’ve been resting for a while. If so, it might be time to enjoy some obstacles.

We thrive in a rhythm of rest and challenge. Both are needed. And both can be fun. Tweet This So if life is throwing a challenge at you, bring a friend, jump in with both feet, and embrace the joy of overcoming.

read more
Scott WozniakFinding Joy In the Mud

The Crucial Difference Between Expert and Expert Beginner

We’ve all encountered a hardheaded, stubborn know-it-all. This kind of boss or neighbor is a stereotype, it’s so common. Especially as kids, we all promised each other we would never end up like that cranky adult (insert your childhood example here). But I realized as I became an adult that attitude is actually the default destination.

stubborn man

As a child my natural state was not knowing—needing to learn. Just in case I wasn’t sure, grown ups constantly reminded me. But as I grew and learned, I earned respect. Eventually, people paid me for my knowledge—even gave me awards. And I remember the day, years ago, when I put down a cool looking book on leadership, thinking to myself, I know this stuff already. But a few months later a friend of mine told me what they learned form the book and I realized the price of my arrogance.

In his classic book, The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin says the primary barrier to progress is the illusion of knowledge and a dedication to expertise (or at least the appearance of it). Tweet This The best discoverers, Boorstin asserts, are not the smartest or most talented, but those who either have the discipline to remain “expert beginners” in their field.

And I’ve found the more I learn, the harder I have to work to keep learning. Tweet This Our tendency is to rest in our knowledge. The posture of a learner must be chosen.

As a parent, you can decided you already know your child. But today, when they tell you stories and show off their scribbling, what if you choose to discover who they are as if they are new to you? How would that change the way you interact?

As a leader, do you already know the best way to solve your team’s problem or your team’s vision? Or will you choose to open yourself up to learning new methods or even choosing a new path? Are you finished learning? Or can you humble yourself and walk today with open eyes and a curious heart? Are you an expert or an expert beginner? What posture do you choose today?

photo credit: Stubborn. via photopin (license)

read more
Scott WozniakThe Crucial Difference Between Expert and Expert Beginner

How A Bad Grade Made Me A Better Man

My latest book (which launches in 2 weeks!) has the unusual title, How to Fail as a Leader. Partly, that’s tongue in cheek—I want you to succeed, of course. But partly it’s about the power of learning from our failures. Many of the greatest learning moments in my life were right after I failed. Tweet This

sad man

For example, I have a vivid memory of sitting at my desk in my college dorm room, staring at a paper with my first truly bad grade at the end of a class. I was valedictorian of my high school and I planned to repeat those grades in college. Despite my diligence to play Axis & Allies (epic war board game) at least once a week, I somehow hadn’t gotten perfect grades.

I remember leaning forward in my chair, looking closely at the paper one more time, thinking, “What do I do now?” My dream for perfect college grades was over. Permanently. And I still had three and a half years to go. I had failed already.

Then I heard God’s voice in the quiet of my heart: “Why do you like yourself?”

My answer changed my life. In the pain of that moment, I realized that I had depended on being smart to like myself. And I used grades to validate that I was smart enough to be worth liking. In that moment I realized how dangerous and unhealthy it was to depend on perfect grades in order to like myself.

For the first time in my life, I released myself from the pressure of being perfect in school. Thankfully, I didn’t stop trying to do well in my classes. I even learned how to study better (not that I stopped playing board games).

Over the years I’ve come back to this question again and again, each time uncovering another aspect of my identity that needed adjustment. Failure has often been the catalyst.

And now I’m asking you: Why do you you like yourself?

In the game of life it’s a good idea to have a few early losses, which relieves you of the pressure of trying to maintain an undefeated season. ~Bill Vaughan Tweet This

photo credit: Sad Man via photopin (license)

read more
Scott WozniakHow A Bad Grade Made Me A Better Man

Famous Failures Who Won

On April 25th, my new book hits the stores. It’s titled How to Fail as a Leader: A fast-paced fable about leaders who totally biff strategy and execution but learn enough to win in the end. It’s an adventure story embedded with practical and profound leadership lessons. It’s a story of two leaders who learn about leadership the hard way—so you won’t have to.

Obviously, the title is tongue in cheek. I want you to win as a leader. But the fastest road to success runs right through failure. Tweet This My path certainly included fruitful fails. Many of the most successful people in the world, from JK Rowling to Abraham Lincoln, credit their failures as crucial to their eventual success. In fact, a friend of mine just created this sweet infographic on that. Enjoy!

Without Fail Infographic


read more
Scott WozniakFamous Failures Who Won

The Unique Power of Good Discussions

Last night, I had a great phone call with my personal leadership coach. Yes, everyone benefits from coaching, even leadership coaches. Tweet This It’s not just about learning from someone who knows more in a field than you. Teachers are valuable, too. But great leadership coaching helps differently than great teaching. Coaching is more about asking the right questions and creating a safe place to discuss things at a deeper level.

Discussion at TED salon

And a good discussion is more valuable than most people realize. Humans thrive when interacting with each other. We grow through deep discussions in ways no other situation can stimulate. Tweet This

I’m a leadership coach. I even train others to be leadership coaches. You might think I already know the answers—or at least the questions. But in discussion with my coach I experienced a mini-breakthrough last night, realizing for the last few weeks I’ve been coping with a stressful situation the wrong way.

This isn’t an introvert or extrovert things. This is how Jesus developed his disciples. He taught the crowds and he coached his disciples. This is why one of the central design principles of all my leadership workshops is sparking meaningful discussions between the participants. Those discussion sessions are often the highlight of the workshop.

And this is why my new leadership book, How to Fail as a Leader, includes a discussion guide at the end of each chapter. Because while I hope many people read the book, I’m even more hopeful that they will discuss the book with each other. Because a good discussion is more valuable than most people realize. Tweet This

Do you want to accelerate your growth? Find a good discussion partner. One way is to hire a personal coach. I provide that for others and work with one myself. But you can also create a lot of the same dynamic talking with a good friend.

Who do you discuss the deep things in your life with? What would it look like to do that more often?

photo credit: TEDxSKE salon: 10.03.16 via photopin (license)

read more
Scott WozniakThe Unique Power of Good Discussions

Thinking Too Big Could Be Your Problem

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today. -Chinese Proverb


Have you ever had a dream? Something you think would be awesome to do, that you would be so proud to have done? I have. And I still do.

Grand goals like ours can feel so far away, too big and too hard to get done. Many times, I’ve felt both inspired and overwhelmed. And the dream stays on the horizon, unfulfilled. It’s very size and awesomeness keeps it from fitting into my little life.

But I’ve learned as a leadership coach that this is a common mistake. Thinking too big can actually get in the way of doing big things. In fact, all you have to ask is: What would get you one step closer to living your dream? Tweet This

Just one step. You can do that. You can do that today.

Leaders, great organizations aren’t built overnight. My years at Chick-fil-A taught me what one man can do if he invests day after day, year after year. When Truett Cathy was in his sixties, when his peers were retiring, he wasn’t a world-changing, famous businessman. But day after day, he planted seeds. And by the end of his days, he had grown a great forest of trees that is still changing the world today.

I wish I could grow a towering tree today. But that’s too big and too hard. However, I can plant a seed today. What’s your next step? When will you take that step?

read more
Scott WozniakThinking Too Big Could Be Your Problem

What Happened When Water Got In My Gas Tank

Every Christmas, my family loads up our minivan to drive thirteen hours to visit extended family. This year we almost made it. Around 1:00am, I exited the interstate to refuel our gas tank. The kids were still asleep, a minor miracle for my family. And as I drove away from the pump, the car died. Steering onto the shoulder next to the gas station, I rolled to a stop. Even with the help of a friendly stranger and jumper cables we couldn’t get the car started. It took until 3:30am to get our car to the shop and us to Grandpa’s house.

gas station at night

The repair shop confirmed what we feared: bad gas had damaged our engine. (I’m tempted to make a burrito joke here, but I’m way too mature for that.) I learned the hard way that the quality of your fuel determines the story of your journey. Tweet This

And a great life requires more than adding good ideas. We also have to filter out contaminants. Good fuel mixed with bad fuel equals bad fuel. I put the correct grade of petroleum in our gas tank, but the groundwater that snuck along drowned out the benefits of the good fuel.

What contaminants do you need to protect yourself from?

As an individual, it could be a TV show or music album with seductive lies or a bad relationship or junk food or even a particular place. As a leader, it might be your highly skilled, but bad attitude employee or even that toxic customer.

Maybe the key to your growth this year is not more good ideas, but stronger protections from the “groundwater” trying to get in.

photo credit: in the desert via photopin (license)

read more
Scott WozniakWhat Happened When Water Got In My Gas Tank

Cautiously Aggressive: Learning From John D Rockefeller

I recently read the biography of John D Rockefeller, who grew up dirt floor poor just before the American Civil War (born 1839), founded Standard Oil Company, created one of the first major monopolies, and ended up one of the wealthiest men in the world.

It was well written, full of quirky characters and surprising strategies. I recommend it: Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Rockefeller was a complicated man. On more than one occasion, when a small town general store wouldn’t agree to sell only Standard Oil kerosene, he authorized the opening of another general store across the street that sold everything at cost, making no profit until the other store went out of business. Then he raised rates back to normal and this new store only sold his brand of kerosene. It was not illegal, but it wasn’t very nice either. This, and many more clever, nasty things he did to grow his business.

Book Cover Titan John D Rockefeller

But before you write him off as a total jerk, you should know he was a tender, faithful family man and was also one of the greatest philanthropists of his time. But he hid his personal life including his giving, keeping the press away with walls and guards. So all the stories in his time were lopsided, written by his enemies. One example among literally hundreds of epic gifts: he gave the money enabling the founding of many of the traditionally black colleges and universities in America but asked them to name them after other people.

Some of what I saw showed me what not to do. But some of what he did inspired me, too. One example among many: Rockefeller’s life revealed that I held to a false competition between being aggressive and being cautious. I thought that being cautious meant moving slowly (among other things) and being aggressive meant moving quickly. But he showed that by paying attention to all the details and having plans to handle problems, he could move very quickly and do so with great caution. You can be aggressive and cautious at the same time. It just requires more effort. Tweet This

It’s easier to be cautious when you move slowly. And it’s easier to move quickly if you don’t check all the details. But if you’re willing to do the hard work, you can do both. You don’t have to choose between aggressive and cautious. It turns out the real choice is between working hard and taking it easy. And that’s a choice I made a long time ago.

read more
Scott WozniakCautiously Aggressive: Learning From John D Rockefeller

Facing Our Fears with the De Minimus Test

Fear is a powerful motivation. And influencers today know it. We are bombarded with messages of danger, trouble, and risk all day long. The news tells stories of accident and assault. Commercials show what calamity will befall you, unless you buy their product. Even non-profit causes tug our hearts with the terrible danger we are in, explaining how taking action with their cause is the way out of our trouble.

So one of the keys to a healthy life is learning to filter all these fear messages. How do we know when it’s a legitimate danger? How do we know when to dismiss the message being sent to us?

One way: apply the de minimus test.

Based on the same latin root for the words “minimal” and “mini”, lawyers and doctors use this term for risks that are “too trivial or minor to merit consideration.” They refer to this as a “virtually safe” level.

Quick example, a tiny asteroid could fall from the sky and hit me on the head. But while the outcome would be terrible, the chances of that happening are so small that I would be foolish to stay inside for the rest of my life to avoid it. The risk of being killed by asteroid strike is de minimus.

When others want us to do something, they describe what could happen if we don’t act the way they suggest. They paint vivid pictures of how awful it will be and stir up as much fear as they can. But they rarely tell us how likely it to happen.

Shark attacks are a great example of this. (This part is for you, Rachel.) Imagining a shark biting your ankle is vivid and terrifying. It’s easy to get trapped in the fear of what could be while ignoring how likely it is—or isn’t. But actual risk levels of a shark attack are really, really low. In fact, twice as many people have died from hitting a deer while driving than from shark attacks.

shark attack from Feudal Tales

We should be more afraid of Bambi than Jaws. But Shark Week is much better TV than Deer Week. The stories are more dramatic and sharks have way uglier teeth.

After growing up on the beach and reading the reports, I can assure you that (unless you are swimming at certain beaches where certain types of sharks live) the risk of shark attack doesn’t pass the de minimus test. It’s too trivial to be worth considering when making decisions.

We could apply this rule to medicines that have “twice as much chance” of causing complications as their competitors (be wary of relative percentages given without absolute outcomes included). When you get the actual numbers, you discover one is 0.003% to cause a problem and one is 0.0015% likely to cause the same problem. Both risks are de minimus.

My favorite example, though, is from the movie Dumb and Dumber. Lloyd, a total idiot, has a crush on the girl he just saved.

He works up his nerve to ask, “What are my chances?”
“Not good,” she replies.
“Not good, like one out of a hundred?”
“I’d say more like one out of a million,” she declares.
His mouth drops open. Then he slowly nods. “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”

He clearly doesn’t know how to apply the de minimus test. But hopefully you do, now.

photo credit: Image taken from page 145 of ‘Feudal Tales, being a collection of romantic narratives and other poems. [With coloured plates.]’ via photopin (license)

read more
Scott WozniakFacing Our Fears with the De Minimus Test

Single-Round Brainstorming Is Weak

I love a good brainstorming session. But a handful of years ago I learned I’d been doing it all wrong. My approach had been to get a small group together, preferably with a big white board, and then take turns shouting out as many ideas as we could think of. After writing down lots of “blue sky” ideas, our reservoir of ideas would dry up. Then we’d pat ourselves on the back and capture all the ideas we generated.

User Journey Map Brainistorming

What I know now is that we stopped at exactly the wrong time. That first round of brainstorming produces the weakest ideas. While fun, very few of the ideas in this stage are different than what you could have gotten by simply asking each person to email in their best ideas.

But if we press on we have the chance to generate truly creative, potentially breakthrough ideas. Only after collecting all the surface ideas can we see deeper into the pool of creativity. Tweet This

Here’s what it looks like practically when I lead brainstorming these days. First, we unload as many ideas as we can—just like before. It’s still fun. On average, this phase takes 45 min. (The more people you involve, the longer this phase takes.) Then, we use some brainstorming exercises to push us to combine some of the surface ideas or push an idea even further or reverse an idea. On average this phase takes 45 more minutes.

[You can google search to find examples of these exercises. Or feel free to email me and I can send you some of my favorites.]

This does take more time and more discipline. But all the best ideas are beneath the surface. As fun as the first phase is, the second phase is at least twice as satisfying to me. You can do this improve your work (crafting 2016 project plans) or even with your kids (making a science fair project).

Next time you need a good idea, don’t quit right on the edge of creativity. Your best idea yet could be just a little further out, if you’ll only reach for it.

photo credit: User Journey Map / Mental Model via photopin (license)

read more
Scott WozniakSingle-Round Brainstorming Is Weak