The Blog of Robin P. Zander

Habits for Combatting Resistance

As I discussed in last week’s article, “Resistance” was coined by Steven Pressfield to describe the inertia that gets in the way of our most important work. If you missed last week’s article on recognizing Resistance, read it here.

My own personal story: I’ve long had a writing habit. I like how I feel when I write regularly. Writing clarifies my thinking and makes the rest of my work better. And yet I haven’t written anything publicly since my last book in 2017. Why not? Because of Resistance. Here are some habits that can help.

Ask yourself “why”

Ask yourself why you are resisting. Despite writing on the Internet since 2007, I don’t create nearly as much as I want to. Among other things, I have a handful of books that have never been published. 

One reason I don’t share more is shame. I’m avoiding the shame I’ll feel when I publish this newsletter and find a typo immediately after, or when I declare something that, looking back a decade later, I’ll cringe upon re-reading. For me, examining that shame has been a key to unlocking Resistance. 

Another reason I don’t create more is that I frequently compare myself to other people. My father is a better writer than I am. My friend Todd is more even-tempered.  Ryan Holiday reads more than me. These comparisons put me down, without motivating me towards a path towards greater efficacy or change. 

What are the reasons that you aren’t doing your most important work?  The underlying reasons will be different for you, but the better you can get to understanding those emotions or motivations, the closer you’ll be to overcoming Resistance.

Make it tiny

I’m currently writing 2 hours every day, but I didn’t start there. A few months ago, I challenged myself to write for 10 minutes each day. That escalated pretty quickly to 20 minutes, and then eventually into an hour, then two. 

The key, throughout this process, though, is that my baseline has remained the same: 10 minutes a day counts as success. Otherwise, it is too easy to fall out of the habit and not come back again tomorrow.

For more on this idea, watch BJ Fogg’s Tedx talk on flossing one tooth.

Make the tiny habit inevitable

As my friend Michelle says, the goal is to make a habit so small, so tiny, that you can’t help but to achieve it.

  • Instead of trying to go for a three mile run, make a habit of stepping foot outside.
  • In lieu of aiming to clean out your entire closet, pick one item to donate each day. 
  • Rather than answering all your email, just read one.

I’ve been journaling for 30 minutes each morning for years. To start writing for a wider audience again, I substituted 10 minutes of journaling for 10 minutes of writing instead.

Make the small habit so small that accomplishing it is practically inevitable.

Stack your habits

To start a new habit, especially one you’ve been avoiding, add the new habit you just after something you already do regularly.  This is “habit stacking.”

For me, my writing habit comes just after journaling. I journal each morning, so it wasn’t all that difficult to add 10 minutes of writing immediately after my journaling habits. By stacking the new habit immediately after a pre-established habit you are better able to do it.

Decide what you are going to give up

I learned during my 30 days of mediation that to add something substantial into your life requires that you also give something up. 

To begin writing every day, I removed 10 minutes of journaling, so as to carve out the time. What are you going to give up in order to take on something new?

Whether you call it Resistance, writer’s block, or inertia, we all have habits we want to pursue and that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid. Identify those obstacles and then take small steps to combat Resistance, and maybe you’ll finally be able to begin. Thanks for following along! 

See you next week,

How to Create an Ideal Environment for Learning

In the fall of 2003 I broke my neck on a trampoline. (That sounds dramatic, I know, but isn’t uncommon in gymnastics). To heal, I began to study with a woman who specialized in working with kids with autism.

While her work focused on helping parents help their special needs children, I found it also helped me with my injury. Pretty soon, I too began working with autistic kids and traveling around the world to teach parents how to help their children flourish. In the process, I became a student of how different variables create a supportive learning environment for these children and families.

Even more than the rest of us, kids with autism respond to their environment – to the emotions of the people around them and the situations they are in. They don’t respond to pressure.

Learning is a vulnerable process that requires that we try new and uncomfortable things. But just like any other skill, you can get better at learning with practice. Today I want to share how to create an ideal learning environment. While most of us don’t require ideal conditions for learning, these tools are applicable everywhere.

Attention – paying attention to what is happening while it is going on

I found that kids’ attention was the deciding factor in their ability to learn. What we attend to, we make bigger, and this single notion is the bedrock for learning.

We live in a world where everyone, and everything, is vying for our time and attention. Advertisements, social media, push notifications all interrupt our focus for their own agendas.

Practice channeling your attention – whether for a few minutes or a few hours. Direct your attention to the things you are most interested in improving. The more concentrated attention you can bring, the faster you’ll be able to learn.

Slow – “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”

Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the somatic discipline the Feldenkrais Method, said, “Fast, we can only do what we already know.” Learning demands that we stretch outside our comfort zones, and that is much harder under pressure, urgency, or force. Learning benefits from spaciousness and safety.

While it is counter-intuitive in today’s fast-moving world, slowing down is the best way to get faster. A similar idea comes from the Navy SEALS: “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.” Moving slowly means moving with intention and attention; it reduces the risk of making the kinds of mistakes that then would take more time to undo and correct.

Consider how you’d approach a skittish horse or a nervous child. The best way isn’t with force or aggression, it’s instead to approach gently and from the side. To move your hand slowly towards the horse’s muzzle or ask the child, in a quiet tone, how their day has gone.

In slowing down you are better able to absorb and make sense of novel information. You’ll create better conditions for learning and deeper integration.

Variation – playing with the variety of options available

When I was in university, I studied the impacts of variable practice. Here’s how it works:

You and I are on a basketball court, taking turns shooting hoops. You shoot from the free throw line while I shoot from all over the court. In effect, you are learning to shoot free throws – and only free throws – while I’m learning to shoot baskets.

Assuming we are starting from a similar baseline, your free throws will outperform mine during this practice period. You are shooting from a single location while I am shooting from all over, so you get more practice at the specific task.

But when we test at the end of the trial period – even as little as 30 minutes later – I have better performance. My performance is still better several days later, and from a variety of conditions around the court. Practicing with variation results in more learning.

This concept extends beyond the basketball court. When you are feeling stuck, try variations around the edges of what you can currently do to learn more thoroughly. Approaching the problem from a different angle offers the opportunity for more connections and perspectives.

Enthusiasm – enjoy the process

During the years I worked with autistic kids, I often attended training programs for parents of special needs children.

One day at a workshop, I walked into the dinning hall to see my friend Stan in the center of a circle of attentive parents. As I walked up, Stan paused what he was talking about and asked: “Robin, why did you come up?” I responded that I was curious what was going on.

Stan explained that he was being enthusiastic deliberately, so that the parents in the room would be excited to learn from him. He went on to share that this was what each of us needed to do to create the conditions for success and learning for the children in our lives.

It worked: when I was engaged, excited, and energetic, the kids I worked with were more engaged with me and our shared activities.

Even when you aren’t trying to teach or inspire someone else, you can be deliberately enthusiastic about what you’re learning. Excitement reinforces positive feelings about the process, which, as I’ve discussed in this essay about celebration, is a great way to incentivize behavior change.

Flexible Goals – be flexible in how you define “success,” especially during the learning process

Goals are great. They give you direction and motivation. But your goals need to be reevaluated regularly because every step you take provides more information about whether that goal is realistic or even worth your effort.

Most often, you are learning something new with a clear objective in mind. I worked with kids with autism to help them function more effectively. You practice shooting basketball with the goal of making baskets. We practice for the outcomes that practice gets us.

But if the metric of success is too narrow, it sets us up for a win/lose binary. Instead, working towards a goal is ultimately about practicing the skill of learning.

Growth is a vulnerable process. Take the pressure off and you’re better able to absorb new information!

I’ve long since recovered from my trampoline injury, and the years of working with autistic kids are also behind me. But when I’m feeling stuck or not learning as fast as I want, I incorporate more enthusiasm, flexible goals or variation into my daily practice. I invite you to do the same.

Everything Is Sales & You’re Doing It Wrong

Everything in life is sales. From inviting your child to do her homework, to deciding where to go for dinner, to encouraging a colleague at work, the situations we encounter daily are filled with the dynamic of sales and persuasion. And, unfortunately, most of what you know about sales is wrong.

What is Sales?

My favorite example of sales comes from a scene from the classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street.

In Miracle, the Macy’s department store Santa asks each child who sits on his lap what they want for Christmas. Santa then tells the family where they can purchase that toy at the best price, even if it means at a competing department store. At first, the store manager is outraged that Santa is supporting his competitors – until he sees enthusiastic customers returning to Macy’s because of the excellent customer service. The value to Macy’s of Santa’s recommendations is greater than the sale of a single children’s toy; it’s customer loyalty.

Sales is having a clear solution – a service, opportunity or opinion – that can help to solve somebody’s problem. Like Santa, good sales means aligning yourself with the interests of the person you are talking to, to discover if your solution is a good fit for them. If it is, invite them toward your solution, and if not, move on. 

How to Do It Wrong

Sales and persuasion are most often practiced with pressure and urgency.

Think of the reputation of a car salesman – pushy, fast-talking, deceptive. They aren’t considering what is best for the customer. They only want to sell a specific car at the best possible price. The result: nobody enjoys the experience and the customer won’t recommend that product or service in the future.

Pressure and urgency can work, but only in the short-term. They don’t increase trust or loyalty.

How to Do It Right

A Process of Discovery

Done well, sales and persuasion should be a process of discovery. Instead of using force, inquire about what your friend wants to eat for dinner. Get curious about why your colleague doesn’t want to do the work assigned to them.

When you start by asking questions about what someone is looking to solve – for themselves, their business, or their family – you’ll discover if what you are selling is a good fit for the other person.

People relate through the stories that you tell them, so share your experience, too. As I discussed in “Everything is Storytelling,” your story should be brief, personal and relatable. 

Useful Beliefs About Sales

Abundance – If the person you are talking to doesn’t want the solution you are offering, somebody else will. There are between 7 and 8 billion people in the world today. If the person you are talking to is not a good fit, move on.

Believe it – Believe in what you are selling. That doesn’t mean that it is valuable to every single prospective buyer, only they can tell you that. But believing that it is valuable in the world makes closing easier, genuine, and fun.

Decrease the stakes – There are very few game changing moments in life, and this specific sale isn’t likely to be one of them. Whether or not you make this sale today isn’t likely to matter over the course of your or your customer’s life.

Autonomy – Foster the belief that everybody knows what’s best for themselves. You aren’t trying to convince anyone, but rather inviting them to entertain if what you’re offering is a good fit for them.

Look for “What I’ve learned” – It is useful to hold that even if you don’t close a sale, you will have learned a lot along the way. This practice of iteration and repeated repetitions will make you better at closing future sales.

Put in the Reps

Improving at sales is a matter of practice and incremental improvement. Many of the most successful salespeople and deal makers in the world have practiced tens of thousands of times. Sales is as much a performance as trying out for a sport or auditioning for a play, and practice makes for consistency.

Your Attitude Closes Deals

Who you are and how you show up with a prospective customer is what will determine whether they buy. Who you are closes deals.

Maintain an attitude of enthusiasm and want what is best for the other person. You’ll have a better chance of having things go your way.

Next time you are debating with your spouse about the dishes, trying to get your child to do their homework, or asking an employee to fill out their hours, think of Santa, sitting in Macy’s department store, referring customers to the competition.

Until next time, Robin

How to Reframe Failure

There are a lot of things about being an entrepreneur that I avoid, but one of the silliest is opening physical mail. When I was starting Robin’s Cafe, I got a lot of mail – plans from the San Francisco planning department, legal documents, food permitting, alcohol permitting, pest control notifications, more.

I was so busy figuring out the day-to-day of running the business that I developed the bad habit of just ignoring mail and leaving the pile to build up on my desk for weeks on end.

When I finally got around to dealing with the pile, there was always a notice that I’d ignored for too long – a vendor I was late to pay, an IRS document I’d missed, etc. As we all do when a task is too big, I came to dread opening my mail.

Failure as discouragement

When you fail at a task, the experience is often one of discouragement, and that discouragement leads to a diminished desire to attempt that same task in the future. As I discussed recently, success is usually tied to positive feelings and the release of dopamine. Negative feelings often have the opposite effect and result in a feedback loop of negativity and failure. For me, that meant avoiding the mail until I discovered late bills, which meant I’d continue to dread opening mail and let it pile up further.

Failure is often a sign that the task you are trying to undertake is too big. A trick, then, is to leverage the cue of the negative feelings of “I can’t do this” into action and try again, but make the next attempt different. One way to do this is to break the task down into smaller parts.

Make the next step smaller

When you are overwhelmed by a new behavior, the easiest way to tackle it is by making the next step smaller.

I don’t need to open and respond to all of my mail on the day it arrives. A small step is to open every envelope, even if I don’t take the mail out right away. This small step moves things forward and makes the next steps – removing the contents, reading them, responding – easier.

Take your large goal and just take one small step in the right direction.

Create positive associations

I have a letter opener that I really love – it is a beautiful folding knife with an olivewood handle. I’ve learned, in the years since Robin’s Cafe, that I derive a particular delight in opening mail with this knife.

Look for ways that you can create positive associations around the edges of the habit you’ve been avoiding. Positive feelings equate to feelings of success.

Play more

Play and self-judgment are antithetical. When we are being playful or curious with a habit, it is impossible to regard an outcome as a “failure.”

The best way I know how to play – especially when I’m not feeling playful – is to get profoundly curious about the task I’m trying to accomplish. Another is to make a game of the process. Personally, I get delighted when I see weeks worth of dealt-with mail pile up in my recycling bin!

Look for a step by step breakdown

You can almost always find a step-by-step breakdown of the task you are trying to accomplish. Google “how to do x” or interview someone better at that thing than you are. If you’ve hit a roadblock and aren’t sure how to make a task more manageable, someone else has likely solved this problem before you. In writing this article, I asked a few friends about how they handled their daily deluge of mail and got some interesting ideas I’ll try in the future!

At Zander Media, I receive 10x less physical mail than I did at the cafe. And while there are still remnants of my avoidant behavior, I’m excited to reframe failure as a cue for novel action. These days, I look for areas of my life where I’ve historically failed and replace the cue of failure with the understanding that I haven’t made that behavior small enough, yet.

Until next time,

What Should You Study Next?

When I am asked today about my movement practice, typically while I’m doing handstands in the park, I just say “circus acrobat.”

The truth, though, is more complex – ever since I dropped out of cross country in high school, I have practiced a wide range of physical disciplines ranging from surfing to swing dance, Brazilian jiu jitsu to classical ballet.

One coach I met along the way (incidentally, while doing handstands in the park) was Johnny Sapinoso, who offered me words I now apply well beyond my daily movement practice.

When asked how he structured his daily practice, Johnny advised:

“Follow the thread of your interest.”

There is more to learn than any of us can complete in a lifetime. Whether it’s a movement practice or a professional skill like sales, part of the joy of learning is that the learning never ends. But one result of these never ending possibilities is that the decision of where to focus next can be crippling.

In my business, I’ve recently been applying this mindset to sales and persuasion. My company Zander Media’s historical close rate is greater than 90%, but in the last three months for 2022, we were rejected by more than two dozen clients. Understandably, I was feeling really down about sales!

This business necessity has fueled my desire to re-evaluate and improve my ability to sell. Where I could be feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of sales advice and strategy that exists out in the world, I instead heard Johnny’s words and connected to my curiosity to learn and solve this problem.

Follow the Thread of Your Interest

Know your “why” – Know why you are pursuing a discipline of study. Without a clear understanding of your purpose, it is much more difficult to stay engaged. Sales was something that I needed to improve in order to keep Zander Media going during a difficult economic time. Even more so, though, the ability to sell will help me in the future, and provides a fascinating glimpse into human psychology.

Study around a theme – Choose your theme. If you are trying to learn too many different disciplines in the same period, you probably won’t have enough time or focus to learn any of them well. When you are trying to decide what book to read next, what movie to watch, or who to interview, explore in more detail what was most interesting to you about the subject you’ve just been exploring.

Flexible Goals – Life is too unpredictable to commit to hard-and-fast curriculum or outcomes. If I get out of bed with a sore shoulder, I shouldn’t do handstands that day. That said, if my plan was to do handstands, I’ll still go to the gym and explore what’s possible given this unexpected limitation. Maintaining flexible goals gives you the ability to adapt to a changing learning environment.

Relevant Inputs – When I’m trying to learn something new (for example, to develop better habits around sales and persuasion), I surround myself with that subject matter in both my work time and my personal time. I don’t set out my curriculum entirely in advance. Instead, I surround myself with books, podcasts, and email newsletters that help me keep thinking about the topics, actively and passively.

Structure Your Time – I find it helpful to pick between one and three disciplines, and shift focus between them when I feel overwhelmed or uninspired. Every four to six weeks, I re-evaluate and consider which, if any of these disciplines I want to swap for something different.

I carve out between 30 and 90 minutes each day to read or otherwise learn about the subject, and I also make a point to deliberately digest that information. (I suggest journaling about the subject in the early morning or just before bed.)

Enjoy the Process – if you don’t enjoy the process of learning, you won’t stick with it. That doesn’t mean every moment is pleasurable, but look for some joy in the process. My favorite technique is to deliberately celebrate as a way to reinforce your desired behaviors.

If you’re reading Evolve, then chances are you have areas you’re interested in growing and learning. By deciding on a subject matter and then “following the thread of your interest” for a specific period, learning becomes much more deliberate and you can avoid the pitfalls of information overload and sputtering enthusiasm.

Let me know how it goes!

The Unexpected Benefits of Celebration

Special Announcement!

My book Responsive: What It Takes To Create a Thriving Organization is free today on Amazon! Responsive chronicles the stories of organizations from around the world that are designed to thrive amidst chaos. Today only, Responsive is free on Amazon. Get it here!

August 2016 was a wild time for me. Three months prior, with no experience and little idea what I was getting myself into, I opened Robin’s Cafe. We were just figuring out how to operate the restaurant and August was our busiest month so far.

I also was just one month out from hosting Responsive Conference, my first convening about the future of work.

But one thing stands out from that time more than any other: a phone call to my father at the end of each day to report on the numbers. While so much of sales is dominated by aggression and pressure, the call with my father developed into a sweet habit. “We sold two tickets to Responsive!” I’d report, or “Today, we broke $10,000 at the restaurant for the first time!” During one of the most stressful months of my life, those short phone calls are a reason I came to love selling and the thing I remember the most. 

Knowing now what I do about behavior change, it makes sense that those celebratory phone calls made a difference. Celebration, as it happens, is a secret trick for forming new habits quickly and easily.

Emotions create habits

Here’s how it works: when we have a pleasurable experience, dopamine is released in the brain. Over time, we learn to repeat that behavior for the resulting dopamine hit. 

We tend to think that emotions occur as a result of a behavior. I do something successfully and then feel good as a result. Behavior -> dopamine.

But actually this pattern works in reverse, too. I can deliberately decide to feel good and that good feeling triggers dopamine, which reinforces the behavior. Dopamine -> behavior.

This reversal of the typical f behavior -> dopamine pattern opens up a hack for reinforcing desired behaviors quickly and easily. By cultivating a feeling of success and confidence (in other words, by celebrating), we manufacture an internal state in which we’re more likely to repeat a new behavior and turn it into a habit.

Learn to Celebrate

Celebration can take many forms. 

When I get out of my 39 degree cold plunge, I scream like The Hulk. At other times, I just say “yes” to myself in the mirror, pump my fist, or tell myself I’ve done a good job. During that memorable month in August 2016, I phoned my father to celebrate the day’s numbers. 

The key is to feel good about ourselves, intentionally, for a few moments.

Celebrate Together

Celebrating with another person is an easy path towards solidifying habits. I can’t say for sure that Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference wouldn’t have been a success without those nightly celebratory calls with my dad, but I do know those phone calls ingrained my sales habit, which contributed to the success of those businesses.

One of my favorite practices is the “What went well” exercise, coined by the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman in his book Flourish. Phone a friend and celebrate one thing that’s gone well today. That simple act of celebrating changes your state and reinforces the celebrated behavior.

Practice Celebrating

One additional trick to use celebration to create a dopamine pathway and thus to cultivate new habits is to practice, multiple times and in quick iteration the new behavior we want and to celebrate the behavior each time.

For instance, one habit I’m cultivating is taking a supplement called Glycemic Health after every meal. I can celebrate, explicitly, whenever I take Glycemic Health after a meal, but I can also open the bottle of Glycemic Health and celebrate, close the bottle, put it away, then come back mere moments later and repeat this behavior and the celebration. 

Doing this 10 times in a row will give me a lot of practice celebrating this new behavior (I.e. opening my bottle of Glycemic Health), which will then encode the sensation of feeling good with having opened the bottle. As a result, I’m much more likely to reach for the supplement.

Looking back seven years later, I’m proud of all that I accomplished building Robin’s Cafe and Responsive Conference. Mostly, though, what I remember is the good feeling I manufactured through celebrating each evening with my father. Amidst a trying time, I found solace in a nightly routine and felt good about myself, reinforced a sales habit that has served me well ever since, and strengthened my relationship with my father.

Further Reading

Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg – I’m biased because I had the chance to work closely with BJ Fogg and his behavior change lab at Stanford, but he’s written more thoughtfully about the value of celebration in habit formation than anyone else I’ve seen.

Here’s an article BJ wrote for on how to use celebration for habit formation, specifically.

Flourish by Martin Seligman – Marty Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology, the branch of psychology dedicated to improving wellbeing. Flourish is his seminal work on happiness and wellbeing, summarizing 10 years of research into what actually works to improve the human condition.

Responsive: What It Takes To Create a Thriving OrganizationFrom Navy SEALs in Iraq to technology giants experimenting in Silicon Valley, from the inner workings of a sex cult to how a group of anonymous activists can change politics, I wrote this book to distilled tactics from forward-thinking practitioners about building resilient organizations. And if you get it today, Responsive is free on Amazon!

How to Build a Creative Habit

The Artist’s Job

My mother is a professional artist. She has been making art, paintings and mezzotints, for more than 40 years. Every day, for my entire life, I’ve watched my mother get up, go out to her studio, and paint. That’s her work: to put brush to canvas and create.

But when I compare my own creative habits to the clockwork regularity of my mother’s practice, I realize that I’ll go to great lengths to avoid my own creative work.

A painter paints. A writer writes. An entrepreneur builds a business. That’s the job.

Start Small

I’ve been intending to write regularly since I published Responsive: What It Takes To Create a Thriving Organization. But I’ve been avoiding writing, because writing is really hard work. Creating feels risky, my inner critic is loud, and a new project can be hard to fit into my already busy days. To combat this, I started small, tiny even—writing just a few minutes every day to build up my confidence.

The process of creating, whether a cafe, YouTube channel, or new musical instrument, begins by putting one foot in front of the other. Start smaller than you currently think possible. As an old teacher of mine used to say: “Decrease your ambition.”

Trust you will eventually grow your tiny habit, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting the bar too high. Make your creative habit so small that today’s success feels almost inevitable.

Manage the Inner Critic

One reason you aren’t starting might be, as Ira Glass explains, that you have taste. Having a strong aesthetic sense or creative vision is great. But don’t let your taste stop you from getting started. High standards make for a mean inner critic and you censor yourself before you even begin.

If you have something that you want to express, but you aren’t sure how to convey it, don’t let perfection hold you back from starting. The best way to overcome the inner critic is just to begin.

What Feels Good After?

When something is hard, that’s a sign that it might be worth doing.

I’ve been moving every day for 20 years, and there are still days that I don’t want to exercise. I never get up in the morning eager to get into my 39 degree cold plunge. Fasting for 5 days is as difficult a project as I’ve ever undertaken.

I don’t do these things because they feel good in the moment. I do them because I feel great after I’m done.

Habits, even uncomfortable ones, are an investment in your future. The feel-good results aren’t always immediate, but remembering those results will come is one way to motivate yourself to get started.

Further Reading

There has been a lot written about Creative Habits and getting unstuck. Here are a few more books to get started:

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Twyla is one of the most famous modern dance choreographers, but this book is about much more than dance. She outlines her creative process, and tactics for anyone to create, consistently, over a lifetime.

The Dip by Seth Godin. I’ve never regretted reading a book by Seth Godin, but The Dip stands out as a must-read for anyone attempting something difficult. It is important to know when to quit and when to persist, and this book shows the way.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I’m a raving fan of Steven Pressfield, and I’ve given this book as a gift dozens of times. Steve coined the term “Resistance,” giving the enemy of creativity a name.

Everything is Storytelling

I’ve told the story of Robin’s Cafe – how I started it in 3 weeks and eventually sold it on Craigslist – hundreds of times. I love talking about the incredible culture we built behind the counter and the amount of learning I went through to start a restaurant But time and time again, when I mention selling a restaurant on Craigslist, I invariably get a laugh. “Craigslist?” They ask, incredulous.

Over time, I’ve iterated on this story so that I both get to share what I most care about while also setting up this great punchline. And as a result, this story never fails to kick off a great conversation.

As humans, we’re social animals and we live and die by the stories we tell each other. And yet we forget that storytelling—or if you want to sound more sophisticated, “narrative strategy”—is what shapes the work we do, why we do it, and who we work alongside.

In today’s newsletter, I thought I’d share some habits of storytelling that have helped me leverage this skill to foster more meaningful connections with every audience: from the conference stage to the board room, and even with friends and partners.

A good story fosters an emotional connection

We like to tell ourselves that we are highly rational creatures, but ultimately, a lot of our decision-making comes down to our emotions. And nothing is more emotion-laden than our relationships and connections with other humans

I recently read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, about the founding story of Nike. One of the world’s most iconic brands, Nike’s marketing focuses on helping people connect, not only with the athletes Nike represents, but also with the athlete inside each of us. Nike accomplishes this by telling great stories in their advertising of athletic challenges and triumphs, instead of just marketing their newest product line. They’ve built a brand association based on connection and inspiration, and the product sales follow. 

A good story matters to both you and your audience

During the COVID pandemic, I moved in with a partner, and within a couple of weeks, they were able to parrot back to me the handful of stories that, apparently, I told over and over in the course of all of my Zoom calls. The stories that come up the most frequently are the stories worth your focus because they speak strongly to you.

In addition, when I am telling a story I pay special attention to the reaction of my audience. My story about Robin’s Cafe gets a predictable chuckle whenever I mention selling the restaurant on Craigslist, and so I’ve used it to break the ice in conversations and have refined the story over time to set up this moment as the punchline. I focus my stories on what is interesting and engaging to my audience, and thus my audience is interested and engaged.

A good story takes practice

We’ve all been there at a holiday dinner table when a relative rambles on and we think, “I wish they would get to the point!” We take for granted that actors rehearse their lines before a performance and athletes run drills before playing games, but storytelling is no different. It’s a refined craft that you can get better at with time, and it especially takes practice to make your story feel natural and organic.

Taking the time to really think about your story can help you hone it in. What are the main milestones of your story, and what details do you include to move seamlessly from beginning, middle, and end? Where are there superfluous details that distract from your main point? What’s the punchline, and how do you want people to respond to it? 

Until next time,

How to Extinguish Unwanted Behaviors – or Why Dog Training is Like Riding a Bike

3 Things I’ve Loved This Week

Podcast I’m listening to: Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast. These folks are absolute pros when it comes to the nuances of dog training. Whenever I’m preparing to tackle a new element of dog training, I look for an episode on that topic on this podcast. 

There are fewer episodes, but I also love the tone and approach of Dog Talk with Dr. Jen.

Tactic I’m revisiting: Clicker training was originally developed with dolphins, since it is pretty damn difficult to negatively reinforce aquatic mammals. What’s a trainer to do? Jump into the pool and chase them around? But the idea of a clicker or marker to queue a future positive reinforcement has broad application. In particular, I’m wondering how I can mark positive behavior for myself! (Look out for an upcoming essay on the value of celebration.)

Quote I’m pondering: “It is a crowded bar. Tip with twenties.” 

I originally heard this quote applied to dog training in reference to using high quality treats. In a world where there are a million interesting smells, but you want to control a dog’s attention, it pays to use high quality rewards. But that same advice can be applied well beyond the context of dog training!

How to Extinguish Unwanted Behaviors – or Why Dog Training is Like Riding a Bike

I originally heard this quote applied to dog training in reference to using high quality treats. In a world where there are a million interesting smells, but you want to control a dog’s attention, it pays to use high quality rewards. But that same advice can be applied well beyond the context of dog training!

I have always enjoyed training dogs. Dog training is about reinforcing good habits, both for the dogs and ourselves. And I’ve found that we have a lot to learn about habits, and ourselves, from the process.

I was working with a dog recently; he is 100 pounds, and a complete love. Unfortunately, he had some traumatic experiences as a puppy and can be reactive. But this was the first time he was reactive with me: teeth bared, snapping. He alternately wanted my attention and was scared that I might hurt him. 

In all fairness, he had just been to the vet and had to be sedated. The next day – still recovering – he snapped at me and wouldn’t let me pet him, as usual. I had a moment of despair: I sure as hell don’t want to interact with a reactive dog! But also, up until this incident, I’d thought of this dog as a friend. And I began thinking about how likely it is that a dog can ever be completely trained out of unwanted behaviors. 

How completely, how thoroughly, can behavior really change? As I was considering this dog, I realized that changing behavior is like riding a bicycle.

When I first learned to ride a bike, I fell off hundreds of times. But in the thousands of hours I’ve logged since, I can count the number of tumbles I’ve taken, including barreling down city streets at 45 miles an hour.

And accidents do happen. We do sometimes make mistakes or revert to unwanted behaviors. It can be tempting to avoid making mistakes by removing the conditions that led to them or ceasing the activity altogether. A way to ensure I never fall off my bike again would be to never get on it in the first place. I could take the same approach with this dog. He and I could never interact, or he could stay locked in his house alone. But these aren’t viable solutions. All are based on fear, perfectionism, and a fixed mindset.

We all have unwanted behaviors and habits we want to change. But, that’s not really how learning works. Put anyone in a stressful enough situation and they can revert back to earlier patterns. I eat a lot of mint ice cream, and would like to change this behavior. Offer me mint ice cream when I’m hungry and I’ll probably eat it. Put me on my bike, on a bad road, amidst distracted drivers, and I might get into an accident.

Even if we never, for the rest of our lives, repeat a habit we’re trying to extinguish, we always have the capacity to do so.

What this means is that, instead of looking for perfection, the solution is to look for learning. When I repeat a habit I want to avoid – when this dog snaps at me when he’s scared, when I eat too much ice cream, or when I fall off my bicycle – there’s only one option: get back up and try again.

Build from where you are

Building from where you are is usually the best option, since it adds on to what we already do and increases the range of what’s possible. With this dog, that means first acknowledging that he’s reactive today, and not letting my ego get in the way. Staying frustrated, or even feeling betrayed (“We were friends yesterday!”) clouds judgment. Working with where he is today means not denying the reactive state he’s in, which in turn allows me to avoid repeating interactions that will reinforce the undesirable behaviors.

Don’t try to remove unwanted behaviors.

I have some counterintuitive advice: don’t try to remove unwanted behaviors. You may want to remove unwanted behaviors, but it is rarely that simple. Habits and behaviors can’t simply be turned off; that’s not how neuroplasticity works. Change comes by rewiring the brain and building upon what is currently possible. We crowd out undesirable behaviors by positively reinforcing desirable ones. Focus on the behaviors you want to encourage and the habits you want to cultivate. 

Reinforce what you want

In interacting with a reactive dog, I want calm and gentle behavior towards me, other people, and other animals. My goal, then, is to positively reinforce the dog every time he offers me, or anyone else, the slightest bit of gentleness. Getting him to focus on treats and positive interactions is a much stronger incentive than yelling at him (and thus scaring him further).

Work around the edges

Instead of trying to repress unwanted behaviors, work around the edges of what is currently available. Take what is currently easy and try small variations. With the dog, that might mean that petting is off the table at first, and I have to begin training with a bit more distance than I’m used to. With my current addiction to mint ice cream that might be:

  • Trying a different flavor of ice cream (to get me out of my habitual rut)
  • Eating out of a bowl  (because then I’ll demolish the whole pint)
  • Drinking water before I have ice cream (I’ve learned that I sometimes reach for ice cream when I’m thirsty)
  • Making a fruit smoothie instead of ice cream (it comes close to the temperature and texture that I’m seeking)

Failure isn’t failure

Progress isn’t linear. One moment of reactivity isn’t indicative of how an interaction is going to go tomorrow. When I eat too much ice cream, it often feels like I’m repeating a “bad” habit and failing to practice a “good” one. But a moment of failure is just that: one moment. 

The real mistake is to consider one misstep a mark of complete failure. In times of stress we revert back to more primitive versions of ourselves. For me, that might be stress eating ice cream as a form of self-soothing. For a dog, that can mean protecting himself the best way he knows how.

Learning happens like a ball repeatedly rolling down a hill of sand. With every iteration, the grooves of the ball’s path become deeper and deeper and increase the ball’s tendency to follow a similar pattern. That doesn’t mean that the ball will sometimes roll along a different route, but the more a pattern is reinforced, the more consistent that habit will be.

My consumption of mint ice cream is something I’m working on. I eat more ice cream when I’m stressed, hungry, and it is readily available. But I’ve begun iterating on habits to change my relationship and these habits.

I’ve never trained a reactive dog before and I’m nervous! But I know that change is not only possible, but  – given the right prompts, patterning, and reinforcement – it is almost inevitable. 

Behavior change, however minor or significant, is the culmination of millions of small influences, moments, and habits. Regression isn’t necessarily going backwards. I’ve got nothing but excitement for all of the behavior change ahead.

Until next time,

How to Get Someone Your Love To Change (Spoiler: You Can’t)

Last month, I went for a hike to celebrate my father’s 74th birthday. My father is a botanist, and it was with profound joy that I watched him meticulously bend over to identify flowers amidst the California bloom. Aside from being happy to see my father doing something he loved, I was moved because this simple habit, walking and bending down, was almost impossible for him 5 short years ago. 

For most of the last two decades, my father suffered chronic back pain – the result of years of pounding concrete as a runner. It pained me to see him suffer and I desperately wanted to help him. I tried everything I could think of to get him to change his habits and improve his back pain.

Nothing I did had a lasting impact. Hard as I might try, I couldn’t “fix” him and my father would inevitably return to the habits that caused pain in the first place. Moreover, my judgments and pressure created a wedge between us.

Then,  after decades of worsening pain, my father underwent back surgery, which resolved the back pain. 

Early in his recovery, I lent him my Concept 2 Rower and a few free weights. I’d recently taken up rowing, and built out a home gym. While I had no expectation that he’d adopt a new physical routine, I enthusiastically shared what I’d been learning. I taught him a few simple exercises: how to row with good form, how to lift some basic weights, and how to hang from a bar.

When I came back to reclaim my Concept 2 Rower a month later, he was rowing and practicing the exercises I taught him every day. In the two years since, I’ve helped him continue to build on his exercise habits until he’s exercising for two hours most days!

My father’s transformation has been profound. He is out of pain, working in his garden, and exercising several hours a day. I am immensely proud, but ultimately can’t take much credit for his recovery.


They have to want it

I have some tough news: you can’t change people. People have to want change in order to make progress. 

If they don’t want to change their behavior, that’s where to begin. You can start with data, with a personal appeal, or any other approach that you think will work to help them want to change. But without the core desire – their “why” – change is impossible.

Let go of the outcome

My biggest learning, and one that I’ve had to confront again and again, is that in order to help someone we love, we have to let go of the need for them to change. You have to let go of the outcome.

You don’t have to care less, but we all know when we’re being pressured, even if it isn’t explicit. And – I don’t know about you – but when I’m pressured, I dig in my heels and resist change all the more! 

To encourage someone you love to change their behavior, you have to first get comfortable with the fact that they may not ever change.

Attitude is everything

I spent many years helping kids with autism build better habits and learned an invaluable lesson: attitude trumps everything. 

Many of the kids I worked with were non-verbal, and they, and their families, would often be bossed around by therapists and specialists who believed things should only be done a certain way. 

These kids learned to respond, primarily, to a caregiver’s attitude. And I learned that when I showed up with a loving presence, we’d be able to connect much more easily.

This same approach holds true for everyone. To help someone you love change, showing up with a kind and gentle attitude is more than half the battle.

Be like gravity

The best invitations feel like gravity; impossible to resist

We’ve all been sold to by pushy salespeople. Gravity is the opposite. 

Instead of pushing and pressuring, be so engaging, so inviting, that people want to gravitate towards you, and towards the changes you’re asking for.

Start where they are

For someone to change, you have to begin with where they are right now. 

That’s true for any of us in pursuing any kind of behavior change. And it is particularly true when you’re wanting someone else to make progress.

We can’t run a marathon tomorrow if today we’re healing a sprained ankle. We can only build small habits from where we are right now.

Change takes the time that it takes 

This comes back, full circle, to “we can’t control people.” 

Change takes time, usually more than we want to give it. This is as true of change in others as it is for change within ourselves!

Helping someone we love takes the time that it takes. We can’t dictate how long a transformation will take. Impatience can not only create a negative atmosphere of pressure that slows down progress, but it also can mean that we miss important markers of progress along the way or lose the opportunity to be part of someone’s journey as they come back from a setback.

During a conversation with author and conflict resolution specialist Dana Caspersen, she said to me, “Not only can you not change people, but it is none of your damned business.” 

My judgment of the habits that led to my father’s injury and pressure for him to change did not help him recover, but actually got in the way of us having a healthy relationship.

Trying to get anyone to do something that they don’t already want to do is wasted effort. All that we can do is support and celebrate where someone is, and encourage them to take incrementally small steps in the direction we’ll hope they’ll go.

Until next time,