Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
– Mary Oliver, American poet
I’ve been to a lot of business conferences and reported on a lot of sessions in the last decade for my work. Sometimes I’m fortunate when conference sponsors secure a big name as their keynote speaker. I’ve been close enough to snap a photo of President Clinton’s nose (yes, it was red) after his opening speech at a conference in Las Vegas many years ago. I heard Mitt Romney at the same conference a few years later when there were whisperings of him being a potential presidential candidate for 2008. I had the privilege of hearing Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen, who coined the term disruptive technology. I got to talk with Steven D. Levitt, economist and author of Freakonomics after his speech when he was signing books. I reported on a speech given by Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker staff writer, journalist, and author of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
At this particular Las Vegas conference, Daniel Pink, author of Drive and his recently released book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, and Jeffrey Ma, business strategist and author, were the featured speakers. I eagerly attended both events, though I was not reporting on them, because I knew I would come away with lessons from their research that I could apply to my everyday life.
How to move people
Though I was familiar with the book Drive, which was published in 2009, I have not read it. In the book, Pink argues that we are motivated not by carrots and sticks but by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The book’s intent is to change the way we motivate ourselves and others. In his new book, Pink makes a case for all of us being a salesperson. A survey conducted in 2000 revealed that 1 in 9 people in the U.S. workforce identify themselves as sales people. When asked, however, if in their jobs they have to convince or persuade people to give up something they value for something they can offer – be it attention, commitment, time, and so on – the number shot up to 41 percent. Everyone at some point engages in this activity. It’s essentially selling but without money trading hands.
In this activity, people are trying to move others. Pink gave some pointers on how to move people, without coming across as a sleazy, untrustworthy sales person. (He also noted that we should move away from thinking negatively of salespeople and consider it a positive skill that can be honed when both buyer and seller have information parity.) Pink identified three fundamental qualities to effectively move people: attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. In order to have common ground with the people whom you’re trying to move, you need to be able to see their perspective; you need to be attuned to them. In a sea of constant rejection, you have to find a way to stay afloat. Instead of pumping yourself up, Pink encourages questioning yourself, which at first seems counterintuitive. However, he says we should think of failure as external rather than internal, temporary rather than permanent, and temporal rather than constant. When you approach failure as an intellectual exercise rather than a pep rally, you’ll actually be stronger in the face of adversity. Lastly, you need to pull the signal from the noise, curate the relevant information from the mountain of data that assaults us on a daily basis, so that when you present your argument to those whom you want to move, they have the right information and nothing more.
Pink cited a study in which “ambiverts,” a term from the 1920s, were more successful selling a product than extroverts and introverts. Being in the middle on the spectrum, ambiverts know when to push and when to hold back, when to talk and when to be silent. In other words, they know how to modulate themselves. We can learn from ambiverts and we can work towards becoming ambidextrous ourselves, so to speak.
Lastly, when trying to move people, make it purposeful – at the core, you’re trying to help people – and make it personal – put a human face on it. People are persuaded by this. “Make it real,” Pink concluded. In moving people, we are serving people, so we should always look upon ourselves as role models and therefore act as role models.
Learning from blackjack
Jeffrey Ma is better known as the subject of Ben Mezrich’s New York Times bestseller Bringing Down the House, published in 2003, which chronicles how Ma and five of his classmates from MIT used statistics to win big – as in hundreds of thousands of dollars – at blackjack. (He has since been barred from playing in Vegas.) Ma contends that we can learn how to make decisions by taking a page from blackjack.
Given that I don’t know how to play blackjack, I’m going to dispense with the references to the game peppered throughout his talk. Ma cited a study about why people put off making difficult decisions. Ma put his spin on it, pushing us to carry on and make those difficult decisions. We have the data to make the right decisions, so don’t count on dumb luck. Don’t be afraid – “be okay with risk,” so long as you understand the risk and what the upside is. And don’t subject yourself to “loss aversion,” which is making decisions based on what could be lost rather than on the potential gain.
The biggest lesson Ma imparted was to embrace failure. Stick with the data-driven decision, even if it means a poor outcome. When we try to innovate, no matter what the innovation is, oftentimes we encounter poor outcomes, but Ma encourages us to stick with it, if we truly believe in what we’re doing.
My “I Love Lucy” moment
So I’m compelled to conclude this blog entry with what I call my “I Love Lucy” moment. I left the luncheon soon after Ma stepped off stage. It turns out he was right outside the ballroom, talking with a woman, with his assistant or handler toting his luggage. I stood by the bathroom entrance across the hall for several seconds, trying to figure out if I should go up and ask to take his picture or have our picture taken. On the one hand, is having my picture taken with him on par with having my picture taken with, say, Daniel Day-Lewis? On the other hand, the opportunity to have my picture with someone who is somewhat famous – depending upon who you hang out with – was right under my nose. And lastly, he’ll never see me again, so why not be that crazy person who asks for your picture at a healthcare supply-chain management conference.
While this internal argument continued to play out in my head, Ma and his assistant walked down the hallway. They were several hundred yards away when I decided I was going to make a fool out of myself – because now I was stalking him – and walk quickly after him. He turned around one corner, and then another. It was two long hallways before I could catch up. Ma was surprised, but amiable, as I blurted out that it looked like I was stalking him but, well, never mind. He obliged my request for a photograph. After several attempts of turning the flash on and off and on again, his assistant took a few decent shots with my iPhone, and then we went our separate ways. Here is the picture of the crazy lady and the Vegas-banned card-counting blackjack player:
Just remember: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Not.