What’s the best way to use all this information to be more interesting?
1) First, Don’t Be Boring
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Look at it like the Hippocratic Oath of conversations: Do no harm.
We’re all terrible at realizing when we bore others because, well, we all think we’re just fascinating.
If you’re always to the point and stay upbeat, it’s extremely hard for anyone to accuse you of being poor company.
But sometimes you do need to speak a little longer to make sure things don’t get stilted.
The Art of Civilized Conversation offers another good tip: Is anyone asking you questions about what you’re saying?
If not, maybe it’s time to end the story or ask the other person a question.
(More rapport building techniques are here.)
2) The Most Captivating People Are Often Good Listeners
Impressing people can be great but it can also devolve into status jockeying, one-upmanship and envy.
People love to talk about themselves and there are a dearth of good listeners.
Let the other person talk. It gives their brain as much pleasure as food or money:
Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money…
You can make an excellent impression by saying amazingly little. Ironically, the people we like the most often say the least.
(Learn how to listen like a hostage negotiator here.)
3) Talk About The Other Person’s Interests
This is straight from Dale Carnegie and if you’re not that socially adept, this is as straightforward as it gets.
Why struggle to guess what most people might find generically interesting?
Ask people what they’ve been up to or what their hobbies are. Then talk about that. You’re now 80% of the way there.
If you know about the subject the similarity will bond you.
If you don’t, ask them to explain and be a great listener as they talk about something they love.
(More on the science behind Dale Carnegie’s classic here.)
4) Have Three Good Stories
Comedians don’t just talk about anything when they’re onstage. They have their act rehearsed.
You don’t just trot into a job interview and say whatever’s on your mind.
Always have three good stories on hand that reliably entertain, inform or engage.
Another tip from Scott Adams: People are generally more interested in stories about people rather than things.
Drama, gossip and reality TV are successful for a reason. We all find human behavior fascinating.
On the other hand, most people don’t want to hear about the features on your new iPhone.
(More on how to tell good stories here.)
5) Don’t Forget Charisma
It’s not all about the words. Some people are engaging but if what they said was transcribed, it would be unimpressive.
When you’re speaking emotionally, the words only account for 7% of what get conveyed. Seven percent.
Voice tone and body language are far more important.
One often quoted study (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967) found that of all the information conveyed to another person when we say something that is emotional (not informational), only 7 percent is contained in the actual meaning of the words we use.
Laugh. Smile. Be passionate. Gesture. Modulate your voice. Don’t just sweat the words.
(Here’s how to be charismatic.)
6) Be Somewhere Interesting
Got a say in where you’ll be at, as with a date or meeting?
Pick someplace stimulating. Context matters.
In general, we’re lousy about realizing where our feelings are coming from.
Research shows excitement from any source is often associated with the person you’re with — even if they’re not the cause of it.
Why do people find musicians so captivating? The music and the crowd stimulates emotions — and we viscerally associate those with the band.
Why does this happen? Ariely thinks it might have something to do with “misattribution of emotions”: “Sometimes we have an emotion and we don’t know where it’s coming from, so we kind of stick it on something that seems sensible.” In other words, your strong feelings about the music might make you think you’re having strong feelings about the lead singer.
(More on the power of context here.)
7) And Most Importantly: Live An Interesting Life
Remember the theme of Don Quixote: If you want to be a knight, act like a knight.
If you don’t read, watch and think about generic things, generic things are less likely to come out of your mouth.
This doesn’t need to be expensive or difficult. Hang out more often with the most interesting people you know.
The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death had this to say:
The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become.
In The Start-up of You, Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha talk about how the best way to improve particular qualities in yourself is to spend time with people who are already like that.
The best and most reliable way to appear interesting is to live an interesting life.
And to pursue that ends up being far more rewarding than merely making a good impression on others.
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Yes, It’s This Simple
Many of the fixes for our problems aren’t complex — something that’s clear in the things I recommend people do every day.
What’s a scientifically validated way to get smarter, happier, healthier and calmer?
Stop reading this right now and go for a walk.
It’s that simple.
Exercise Powers The Body — And The Mind
They used to say you don’t grow new brain cells. They were wrong.
As an illustration of just how new this territory is, I’ll go back to the story of neurogenesis, the once-heretical theory that the brain grows new nerve cells throughout life. “Ten years ago people weren’t even convinced that it happened,” says neurologist Scott Small. It was at his Columbia University lab, in 2007, where they witnessed telltale signs of neurogenesis for the first time in live humans. “Five years ago people said, OK, it might happen, but is it really meaningful? Now there isn’t a week that goes by where there’s not another study that shows neurogenesis has some kind of effect on the brain.”
What really feeds those baby brain cells? Hitting the gym.
A 3 month exercise regimen increased bloodflow to the part of your brain focused on memory and learning by 30%.
In his study, Small put a group of volunteers on a three-month exercise regimen and then took pictures of their brains. By manipulating a standard MRI machine’s processing— essentially zooming in and cocking the shutter open— he captured images of the newly formed capillaries required for nascent neurons to survive. What he saw was that the capillary volume in the memory area of the hippocampus increased by 30 percent, a truly remarkable change.
The Dumb Jock Is A Myth
Being in good shape increases your ability to learn. After exercise people pick up new vocabulary words 20% faster.
“One of the prominent features of exercise, which is sometimes not appreciated in studies, is an improvement in the rate of learning, and I think that’s a really cool take-home message,” Cotman says. “Because it suggests that if you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently.”
Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF.
Want to be more creative? Sweating for about a half hour on the treadmill notably increases cognitive flexibility.
A notable experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility improves after just one thirty-five-minute treadmill session at either 60 percent or 70 percent of maximum heart rate… Cognitive flexibility is an important executive function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers as opposed to a regurgitation of the usual responses.
Fine, you can see differences on an MRI and with nerdy tests. Does it make a difference in the real world?
Office workers who exercised at lunch were more productive, less stressed and had more energy.
In 2004 researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University in England found that workers who used their company’s gym were more productive and felt better able to handle their workloads. Most of the 210 participants in the study took an aerobics class at lunchtime, for forty-five minutes to an hour, but others lifted weights or practiced yoga for thirty minutes to an hour. They filled out questionnaires at the end of every workday about how well they interacted with colleagues, managed their time, and met deadlines. Some 65 percent fared better in all three categories on days they exercised. Overall, they felt better about their work and less stressed when they exercised. And they felt less fatigued in the afternoon, despite expending energy at lunchtime.
That super-productive co-worker who runs every day might not exercise because they have energy — they might have energy because they exercise.
Sweating Increases Smiling
Can’t make it simpler than this: Research from Duke University shows exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.
In a landmark study affectionately called SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise), James Blumenthal and his colleagues pitted exercise against the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft) in a sixteen-week trial… Blumenthal concluded that exercise was as effective as medication.
It also reduces anxiety.
One interesting study in 2005 measured the physical and mental effects of exercise in a group of Chilean high school students for nine months… The experimental group’s anxiety scores dropped 14 percent versus a statistically insignificant 3 percent for the control group (an improvement that could be explained by the placebo effect).
What if you’re not depressed or anxious? Stay sedentary and you’re 1.5x more likely to eventually become depressed.
Researchers tracked 8,023 people for twenty-six years, surveying them about a number of factors related to lifestyle habits and healthiness starting in 1965. They checked back in with the participants in 1974 and in 1983. Of all the people with no signs of depression at the beginning, those who became inactive over the next nine years were 1.5 times more likely to have depression by 1983 than their active counterparts.
Still not convinced? People who exercise are, across the board, mentally healthier: less depression, anger, stress, and distrust.
A massive Dutch study of 19,288 twins and their families published in 2006 showed that exercisers are less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, and also more socially outgoing. A Finnish study of 3,403 people in 1999 showed that those who exercise at least two to three times a week experience significantly less depression, anger, stress, and “cynical distrust” than those who exercise less or not at all.
Okay, Okay — How Much Do I Need To Do?
What’s optimal? Exercise 6 days a week, 45 minutes to an hour per day.
The best, however, based on everything I’ve read and seen, would be to do some form of aerobic activity six days a week, for forty-five minutes to an hour… In total, I’m talking about committing six hours a week to your brain. That works out to 5 percent of your waking hours.
Stop rolling your eyes. It’s not all or nothing.
Regarding body health and brain health, experts and neuroscientists agree: “A little is good, and more is better.”
Here’s something proven to make you smarter, healthier, and happier. What could be a better investment of your time?
You might ask: If it’s obviously so great, why don’t we all do it?
And, in general, we don’t do what makes us happy — we do what’s easy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What’s the best first step? Go here.
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I’ve posted a ton of research about how conscientiousness may be the most important personality trait out there.
What’s conscientiousness? Having your act together. Neat and tidy. Organized and on time.
Which can be really depressing because, frankly, I’m not all that conscientious.
But this begs the question: are there benefits to not being conscientious?
Yes, as a matter of fact, there are.
My Spaghetti Abilities Are Unstoppable
Peter Skillman created a design exercise called “The Spaghetti Problem.”
Groups get 20 pieces of spaghetti, tape, some string and a marshmallow.
The group that creates the tallest freestanding structure that will support the marshmallow’s weight within 18 minutes, wins.
He tested groups of engineers, managers, MBA students, etc.
Did tons of planning help? Nope.
Really thinking things through provide an advantage? Nope.
You know who outperformed everyone?
Who crushed the engineers and decimated the MBA students?
Skillman explains. (Watch from 1:17 mins to 4:04 mins):
Conscientiousness correlates with a lot of good things — but creativity isn’t one of them.
Teachers rewarded repressed drones, according to Bowles and Gintis; they found that the students with the highest GPA’s were the ones who scored lowest on measures of creativity and independence, and the highest on measures of punctuality, delay of gratification, predictability, and dependability.
There are not many best practices for constructing freestanding spaghetti structures. No planning was going to help here.
What was the kindergarteners secret?
They just jumped in. They started failing immediately — and learning quickly.
This was their system: Prototype and test. Prototype and test. Prototype and test — until the time was up.
The engineers had years of schooling and work experience to teach them how to build sound structures. But the kindergarteners had something even more powerful: they were not afraid of failure. By trying and failing, they learned what didn’t work–which, it turned out, was all the knowledge they needed to figure out what did.
This also works for people over four feet tall. Like you.
All Geniuses Use The Same System
All creative people arrive at greatness by the same system: trial and error. Prototype and test. Just like the kindergarteners.
How does Chris Rock create great comedy? By bombing repeatedly onstage to see what works before he goes on TV.
Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, explains:
The term for these people is “experimental innovators” – those who learn from each little mistake and piece together what ends up being something great, whether it’s a comedy act or a building or a piece of music. It just doesn’t come without lots of setback and toil.
And that’s exactly what Skillman found. Multiple iterations win in the end.
“Multiple iterations,” Skillman told the audience, “almost always beats single-minded focus around a single idea.” The people who were planning weren’t learning. The people who were trying and failing were.
“If you have a short amount of time, it’s more important that you fail,” he said minutes later. “You fail early to succeed soon.”
If I read one more article about how companies can’t innovate I’m going to throw up.
You can’t be risk-averse, prone to punishing failure and expect creativity.
In his acclaimed bestseller The Lean Startup Eric Ries makes it very clear:
…if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.
I’ve seen this myself.
When I was writing in Hollywood no one ever told me “Don’t make mistakes.” They told me to make my mistakes early.
One very successful writer told me: “Every writer has three bad screenplays in them. Get those out of the way as quickly as possible.”
Failing Is Dangerous — Here’s How To Do It Right
We’ve all read articles that say “Don’t be afraid to fail.” Yeah, that’s BS.
There are very good reasons to be afraid of failure. You can look stupid. You can get fired.
There’s a reason why conscientiousness is prized, but it’s an inherently conservative strategy.
How do you bridge the gap and fail well so you can be creative and improve? Here are 3 tips:
1) “Little Bets”
Baby steps. Test theories with experiments that aren’t too expensive or risky.
A small experiment that tests a theory. It’s just big enough to give you the answer you need but not so big that it wastes too much precious time, money or resources.
2) Give your ideas time
Many of the greats used notebooks to let their ideas evolve and grow until they were perfect. Eureka moments are a myth.
A great idea comes into the world by drips and drabs, false starts, and rough sketches.
Creativity started with the notebooks’ sketches and jottings, and only later resulted in a pure, powerful idea. The one characteristic that all of these creatives shared— whether they were painters, actors, or scientists— was how often they put their early thoughts and inklings out into the world, in sketches, dashed-off phrases and observations, bits of dialogue, and quick prototypes. Instead of arriving in one giant leap, great creations emerged by zigs and zags as their creators engaged over and over again with these externalized images.
3) Hide From The Boss
When you’re testing, avoid situations where you’ll be judged. They can be paralyzing.
…when a group does creative work, a large body of research shows that the more that authority figures hang around, the more questions they ask, and especially the more feedback they give their people, the less creative the work will be.Why? Because doing creative work entails constant setbacks and failure, and people want to succeed when the boss is watching–which means doing proven, less creative things that are sure to work.
Megan McArdle quotes Alain de Botton as saying:
Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.
How To Get Started
Maybe you’re already an impulsive risk-taker. Congrats, you’re a born innovator.
What if you’ve had that whipped out of you by years of schooling and performance reviews? Where do you start? How do you get a little of it back?
All you need to do is remember who ruled at the spaghetti experiment: Children.
Research shows that merely pretending to be a child again increases creativity:
Individuals imagining themselves as children subsequently produced more original responses on the TTCT. Further results showed that the manipulation was particularly effective among more introverted individuals, who are typically less spontaneous and more inhibited in their daily lives. The results thus establish that there is a benefit in thinking like a child to subsequent creative originality, particularly among introverted individuals.
When you need a breakthrough, when planning and preparation won’t help — it’s time to act like a kid again.
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40% of what a team does ends up as “process loss.” It’s overhead that wouldn’t exist if everything could be done by one person. Wasted effort.
Obviously, many projects require teams. But how can you create, manage or be part of a team that is more efficient?
Here are 4 things that can make a big difference in how effective your team is.
1) The Formula For A Great Team: The 60/30/10 Rule
60 percent of a team’s success is “Who’s on the team?” And 30 percent of it is how you set up your team. And 10 percent, at most, is leadership.
That 60 percent means you want stars on your team. The notion of having a team of equals doesn’t really bear out in the science. In physics, basketball, immunology… stars rub off. Having to train and compete or work with stars, raises the whole team up.
If you clarify what everybody does, you get the most out of that 30 percent. The science of teams in a business context says that pretty much the number one thing you can do to improve a team performance, is to clarify roles. Ask each member “What’s your job? How do these jobs work together? Who covers for who? How do we handle it?”
2) Sometimes Teams Are A Very Bad Idea
There’s this mystical idea that teams are always a solution. But unfortunately, so many teams are dysfunctional: 49 percent of software projects are delivered late, 60 percent are over-budget.
We have this idea that a team should have a lot of voices on it. And that doesn’t really work. Teams should be as small as possible to get the job done. Every person has to be able to develop a relationship with every other person on the team.
Teams do give you a positive component, but they inherently have, on average, a 40 percent process loss. That comes from all the wasted energy in emails, organizing, logistics, etc. So, you get a boost from being a team, but you also get a negative effect.
3) The Best Teams Are Managed… Occasionally
Today’s intrinsically motivated, self-driven knowledge worker doesn’t need to be looked after all the time. Our mutual friend Dan Pink has helped popularize an idea, a really inspired idea, which has origins in this IBM telecommuting study which showed that, telecommuters were actually more productive, not less.
On average, the most effective balance is intermittent monitoring. If you watch over someone’s shoulder all the time, they’re just going to feel like they’re being bossed around. It’s going to lower the morale and work rate.
If you totally never check in on the kids, they will, on average, at some point, start goofing off in the warehouse. But what works is intermittent monitoring. Occasionally be checking in.
4) Great Teams Need People Who Aren’t Team Players
For orchestras, the better they sounded during performance, the more chaos there was behind the scenes. A great opera on stage is a soap opera backstage.
So, there is curiously, an argument that in many cases, a really successful team needs at lest one person who is not a team player. Someone who’s willing to stand up to authority, to rock the boat. To not make everybody happy. To not pat everybody on the back.
Being great is full of unexpected hurdles. So, what you have to have on a team is people who are willing to say “We’re screwing up.” “You’re doing that wrong.” “We need to change.” “We have to do something different — and here’s my idea.”
More from Po on how you can improve your team here.
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1) Peer Pressure Can Be A Good Thing
Myth: Peer pressure is always bad, just leading kids to drinking, drugs and vandalism.
Fact: The same instinct that makes some kids so vulnerable to peer pressure also makes them better students, friends and, eventually, partners.
The same kids who were very vulnerable to peer pressure turn out to have great grades, do well in high school, and go to college. As they get older in life they have great relationships with their best friends, their partners, and their parents.
It turns out that thing that makes a kid in seventh grade very attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others around them is what makes them feel peer pressure. It turned out that peer pressure was dragging kids toward risk behaviors but it is also dragging them to do well at school, to care what their teachers thought, to care what their parents thought, to care what the school thought, and to care what society thinks.
These kids that are invulnerable to peer pressure turn out to have low GPAs. Their motivation to study just wasn’t strong enough. It was entirely based upon themselves because they didn’t care what society thought.
2) It’s Okay — Even Good — To Fight In Front Of Your Kids
Myth: It’s bad for kids to see their parents fighting.
Fact: It’s good for kids to see parents fight — as long as they also see them resolve the problem. This is how children learn to stand up for themselves while also preserving a relationship.
The kids who see conflicts resolved in their homes are ones that are able to do that with their peers, with their teachers. It empowers them terrifically for their life.
Most kids never see their parents making up. Even if that never happens, it’s really important for parents to say, “I know you saw us arguing and that’s fine.” On the ride to school. “I want you to know how we resolved it. Mom said this. Dad said this. We resolved to do it this way. We worked it out.”
3) Teens Who Argue Are Good Teens
Myth: Teens who argue are rebellious and need to learn their place.
Fact: Teens need to learn to negotiate and they need to be rewarded for being reasonable. Parents with zero tolerance for “talking back” teach kids that lying is the only way to get what you want.
We have a generation of parents who were raised on Dr. Phil. “No must mean no.” Which is fine if we are talking about a three year-old talking about getting his binky or something. We are talking about teenagers who are mature human beings who need to know how to compromise and reconcile.
Actually, the scientists are the opposite of Dr. Phil: “If your child is negotiating with you in a reasonable way and they are earnest and make a really good point, give in.” Giving in rewards them for being reasonable and you will have an increasingly reasonable teenager instead of an unreasonable one. It’s when you don’t give in even when they are being reasonable that you are denying them the power of reason itself and the power of being friendly. You are not rewarding them for this good negotiating behavior and it leads them to try other drastic stuff.
In families where there is less lying to the parents, there is more arguing. Arguing is the opposite of lying. Arguing is the way the kid decides not to lie. “I could lie to my parents and just do it. Or I can tell the truth and argue it out.” Those are the choices the teen has.
What The Research Taught Him About Being A Dad
Like a lot of parents, I was trying to manipulate my child’s perception of the world so that it would be for his or her own advantage. It was still manipulative. I could get caught at one point. I just realized the most important thing was that my children see me as a parent as credible, as telling the truth and being honestly able to help them. Not being full of gas or inflated statements or using scare tactics but to have integrity and honesty to be the rule of that relationship.
Maybe a kid would be asking about something that was much more adult. You don’t have to tell them everything. You give them an appropriate amount. Tell the truth. If you tell the kids the truth they will love you for it. You build the foundation of that relationship. That’s what is guiding me. I have tried mostly not to lie to my kids. Use honesty first. In the long term that is what has guided me.
Po interviewed about NurtureShock on WNYC:
Curious to learn more?
For my extended interview with Po, join my free weekly email update here. In the extended interview Po explains:
- The simplest method for boosting a baby’s verbal ability.
- A technique that reduces child lying by 75%.
- Why teaching your kids about gratitude may backfire.