Mark is the president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc. Mark is an international best selling author, leadership speaker and noted expert on team building, customer service and change. As a professional speaker, he has given over 2,600 presentations and is the author eight books. His book, The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary, is an international bestseller and appeared on the New York Times, Business Week,and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Mark is a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame and is a past president of the National Speakers Association. He touches on speaking funny in the context of professional speaking, and talks about the importance of the two Es – -expertise and eloquence — in your quest to be a good communicator.
Listen to Episode #23 here
Speaking Funny with Mark Sanborn
Our guest is Mark Sanborn. Mark is the President of Sanborn & Associates. Mark is an international best selling author, leadership speaker and noted expert on team building, customer service and change. As a professional speaker, he has given over 2,600 presentations and is the author of eight books. His book, The Fred Factor: How Passion in your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary, is an international bestseller, appearing on the New York Times, Business Week and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Mark is a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame and is a past president of the National Speakers Association. Welcome, Mark.
You’re one of the few non-comedic people who has qualified for this.
Most people would agree with that.
I want to know, if you weren’t working as an author, a professional speaker, as a consultant, what would you be doing with your life?
I kid around and say probably driving an Uber because that’s a pretty low cost of entry career. I enjoy talking to Uber drivers. Being a driver, just for grins, is a fun idea. I don’t know that it’s as profitable as I would like it to be. I became a speaker because when I was young I entered a speech contest and it was so bad, so abysmal that it challenged me to figure out the craft of speaking. I often thought that if I had done okay, if I’d have just been all right, I would have said, “I’ve tried that,” got the t-shirt and gone on to be an engineer or a lawyer or who knows what. I would be in the communication arts. The idea of educating, teaching, learning, that sphere of both being the provider and the recipient is where I would still be even if I wasn’t speaking per se or writing books.
Some form of educator performer, could you be in a band?
I’d love to be in the band if I could play an instrument. I can be in a bad band. The truth is I was in a lot of bad bands early on in my life. That’s how I decided not to pursue music by being in bad bands. Performance has melded into, when I say performance, not just performing your job but all your job work is a performance of sorts. It’s the way our culture has gone. My friend, Scott McKain, wrote a book called All Business is Show Business and he wrote the book some years ago. He’s right, show business and regular business have intertwined or morphed into one big body of work. When we do business, we look at the experience we have just as when you go to a concert. If the concert is two hours late, it takes away from the fact that it was a good band. If it’s a hassle to wait in line to get through the doors, it takes away from the fact that the concert started on time. Business increasingly has to look at the performing arts, whether it’s music or comedy and integrate that into how they interact with customers.
At one point, we were talking about professional speaking and you talked about big E and little E?
When I was President of the National Speakers Association, I had my theme for the year, the expertise to the power of eloquence. It’s funny because originally, I thought it would be clever to say E squared, except if you know anything about math. A square is times itself, so E squared would have expertise to the power of expertise. I used two different kinds of Es. I used a block E and a script E to show that what I was saying is if you have expertise with no eloquence you’ll be about as successful as if you have eloquence with no expertise. People want both. Sometimes if you think to the dry pastor or the dry professor or the boring teacher you had, you realized they had a lot of expertise, but their inability to be eloquent in the delivery of it and to engage prevented you from enjoying or learning much.
The other side of the coin is that person who’s a great communicator and they’ve got the chops, but they don’t say anything. When it’s all over, you haven’t learned anything. The two are important. In comedic arts, people aren’t looking for content per se, but they are looking for, that might be F to the power of E. They’re looking for funny delivery and maybe not a way that is eloquent but a way that is entertaining and engaging. Think about Steven Wright who’s still one of my favorite comics of all time. Who would have thought you could take a simple joke and deliver it absolutely dry, deadpan and make it hilarious? I would suggest that when I say eloquence, he has a form of eloquence. Maybe, it would be F to the power of A or funny to the power of artistry.
[bctt tweet=”You can find wisdom in unusual places.” username=””]
I don’t use your language but I use that sentiment in my MBA class. I talk about sizzle and steak. My students do a marketing pitch at the end of the semester and they’re graded largely on the steak, on the content, on the quality of the ideas, but they get a bonus if they sizzle. The idea is that you need to sell ideas in business. I have a board of evaluators come in. They are giving their time. They should have an enjoyable time. All things equal where you can’t make up for the lack of steak, but it can help.
That reminds me of a long time ago and since I’m old enough some of my illustrations aren’t shared by others. There was a political candidate and I’m talking a long time ago. He was a solid human being, decorated war veteran, an accomplished leader, but one of the commentators said he had made the cardinal mistake of being boring on TV. That points to the fact that regrettably, often people buy sizzle and find out later there’s much steak, especially in the business, you’ll find that out with startups. There are a lot of sexy startups but a year or two later all the money’s gone because they were big on sizzle, but they lacked the substance of the steak.
Back to the Uber thing. Suppose you retire, would you drive an Uber just to keep busy?
I wouldn’t drive it to keep busy. There are a lot of things that would keep me busy but I would drive it to meet some interesting people and mix things up. I don’t view retirement like most people do. To me, retirement is not retiring to do nothing but retiring to do something different. I’ve always talked to cab drivers, limo drivers and transportation people because I’ve traveled for 40 years and I find they have fascinating stories. Often you have to pull it out of them, they don’t always volunteer it, but there’s something about Uber. A taxi driver and a passenger or a fare are further apart than an Uber driver and an Uber rider. I haven’t thought about it that deeply but culturally, we realize we’re each other. I’m in his car or her car, we’re talking about our kids, a taxi driver, there’s that little bit of that perceptual space. I’ve got a little thing for Uber. I don’t know if they send it to everybody. I was one of the highest evaluated riders in Denver, which by the way, did you get one?
I have not.
It’s a cool thing because it’s like a little reward. It’s like keep being a nice guy and don’t be a dumb ass.
My Uber rating is 4.82 and yours must be 4.9.
It would be perfect except for one guy in Chicago who sank my boat because he couldn’t fine me, and I got pissed off. I finally said, “I’ll just walk,” and I’m sure that’s where I got. I may get a minus five on that one.
You travel a lot. This is a big digression but I agree with you. You can find wisdom in unusual places if you look for it. Who were the wise people that you came across in life, in your travels and so on? I think of barbers.
Bartenders for sure. Bartenders are worldly wise in my opinion. I’m sure some of them are just plain wise, but they have to be psychologists. They have to be good listeners and they have to have clever repartee. Certainly, barbers can be. What I have come to realize, and I would have never admitted it when I was much younger, is you can only be so wise depending on your age. Mark Zuckerberg is smart but even if he is the wisest 31-year-old guy on the planet, he still can only be 31-year-old wise. When I meet older people, and not all older people are wise just because of age. A lot of people that paid no attention and they’re as rock dumb as they were when they started. For the most part, thinking about people who pay attention, the years increase your wisdom. I have a mentor who’s coming up on 80 and he’s one of the smartest business people I’ve ever met. He’s always kind to share stories with me. He teaches me things through his experiences and he is truly wise. If I’d have met him when he was 40, he has still been wise, but he wouldn’t have been 80 years wise.
There are a lot of older folks, because of the bias against their age, people overlook them.
It works both ways. We were all young once and ages can work against us. When I started speaking full-time, I was 27. Back then in the Jurassic period, we used audio cassette tapes to get hired. There was no internet. We didn’t have videotapes. If someone was thinking about hiring you, you packaged up a little audio cassette, send it to them and they listen to it. If they liked it, they’ll hire you. I was only 27, I can remember one meeting planner for Montgomery Ward that just about passed out when I walked in. She was thinking, “There goes my career. As a meeting planner, I just hired a kid.” The good news is I worked hard to have a good program. I was as wise as I could be at 27, but I knew I wasn’t a 50-year-old guy who would have a long career in business. I worked doubly, triply hard to make sure that my message was right. I had to work hard to be taken seriously. It’s funny, you have to work hard to be taken seriously when you’re young and then when you’re older, a lot of times we don’t take old people seriously just because of the way they look. Sometimes I don’t take myself seriously when I look in the mirror. We have to get good at saying the old cliché, maybe we shouldn’t judge the book by its cover.
In terms of getting good, let’s talk about how you got good from this big E, little E standpoint. Let’s use that as a framework. Which do you start with? Do you start with the big E?
I started with the little E because I started speaking at a very young age. I was mostly given book reports, Zig Ziglar, Jim Roman, Denis Waitley. I was sharing the wisdom of others and I was doing it well for my age. I realized that was one of the reasons I went into business before I started speaking full-time. Obviously, if I started speaking full-time at 27, I didn’t spend two decades, but I started selling in college and then had brief sales in a marketing career. For the simple reason that I knew I needed to have something to talk about. I needed experience. One of the reasons that I started my own business and served on association boards was I didn’t want to talk about leadership in the abstract. Until you run a board meeting, until you make a payroll as an entrepreneur, you’re probably not going to have the depth of experience that will make you an effective speaker on leadership.
I learned how to speak and then I started focusing on what I spoke about. The third evolution was, after I brought the two together, the expertise and the eloquence, was becoming more organically funny. To me, comedy is an objective. In my work as a speaker, a comedy is icing on the cake. It’s a byproduct. People don’t hire me because I’m funny but after they’ve heard me, they were really happy that I was funny. If I said I’m a funny speaker, that would be fatal because their expectation would be that I’d be a comic or at the very least a humorist. They’d go, “No, you’re not that funny.” When they hire me and they’ve seen a little bit of humor in my video clips and my preview video.
[bctt tweet=”Nobody can prevent you from choosing to be extraordinary.” username=””]
What they have mostly seen is my ability to interact with the audience. When I have humor as part of that, the highest compliment I am paid or at least the one that I liked the most is when they say, “You’re the funniest non-funny speaker we’ve had.” That’s a smaller universe then, “You’re the funniest speaker in the world.” It’s like saying you’re the funniest guy on Rock Port Lane, which is a cul-de-sac in Highlands Ranch. I’ve always had a very bizarre wicked dry sense of humor that I got from my father. Offstage, I’ve always been darkly funny. I’ve got a dark sense of humor. It’s when I finally had enough confidence that I was going to get hired that I consistently started to let that seep into my work with audiences. We’re all afraid early on like when I say something wrong it would be the last speech I’ll ever give. I’ll be blackballed from the industry.
When you’re adding comedy to your talk, maybe that’s not even the right way to say it, what is the process? Do you work on your talk and then you’re like, “I’m going to punch this up,” or do you find that the jokes find their way in very early on?
Both. Sometimes there’s funny inherent that you don’t even know about. I’ve told stories and when the audience laughed, I made a note and said, this must be funny. It wasn’t necessarily that funny to me, but they laughed. It’s like operate conditioning or Pavlovian salivating dogs. They laugh as the bell’s ringing. I salivate and say another funny thing. The other part is you look for what you’re already saying, and you say, “What could be funny about that?” I had a guy who I’m a big fan of. He’s a humorous speaker and a very creative fellow named David Glickman. Dave and I were on a program together.
I was doing my speech and he sat in and gave me a page of a dozen ideas on how to make my speech funnier. I was delighted and I tried most of them. Some of them just didn’t fit me. It wasn’t that they weren’t potentially funny. There’s a line he gave me that to this day amazes me that people laugh. They do and I did it. It tells a story about getting good service at a Mexican restaurant and I say that the waitperson, her name was Alicia. Then her name was really Alicia. David says, “What you say is you say my waitperson’s name was Alicia, which is Spanish for Alicia.” Honest to goodness, it gets a laugh every time. It’s hacky but the proof is in the response.
We’ve all heard speakers who had later gone, “That was so cheesy,” but you still laughed. There’s that intentional look at what you’re saying. The reason he saw that, and I didn’t, is he’s a humorist and I’m not. That’s his craft. What could be funny about that? I learned early on that a lot of comics use the power of three. If you have one funny line, try to land at least two more so you’ve got a triad, often when you’re beginning a speech. I’ll sometimes say, “I’m from Denver, Colorado where it’s perfectly legal to get rocky mountain high.” It doesn’t work very well in Denver because it’s like, “We know that.” If you wanted to build that out, you say, “The other thing I like about Denver is you can see a $5,000 mountain bike on top of a $300 car.” The guys or gals that craft that would want shorter punchlines, but they would say if you can lay in three funny bits, that’s the ultimate combo rather than just the old, on the way to the speech a funny thing happened. That’s a joke. You want just three funny, funny, funny. I often think about that when I’m working on a story. I don’t put the funny three in a row but I’ll say if this is a pretty good size story, I want a couple three, anywhere from a smile, to a chuckle, to a laugh.
I normally ask people what they’re best at. Are you best at speaking?
I’m better at speaking than writing. I’ve gotten a lot better in writing mostly because I’ve done it now almost as long as I’ve been speaking. The two are different mediums. People erroneously think that if they’re a good speaker they should write a book and there’s a lot of proof that’s a bad idea. As my friend, Susan Royan, says, “Everyone says they have a book inside of them and for some, that’s where it should stay.” I started speaking but as I interned in college both in the sales and marketing side of the publishing business and I’ve always written but I didn’t get serious about my writing until the Fred Factor.
I had a guy on Amazon, a bad review who didn’t like me for whatever reason. He didn’t like the book. He said, “This is written in a seventh-grade level.” I thought, “I wonder if it is.” You can actually take a text, go on the internet, plop it into this little free software and it will tell you. I took a big piece of text and Fred Factor is not written in a seventh-grade level, it’s written in a fifth-grade level. I wanted to get back and say, “Idiot, that’s not true. It’s written at a fifth-grade level.” The book sold a million copies here and another million abroad and it’s because of the story. The writing’s just okay. It’s not Hemingway’s grading.
I’ve read the book. The writing is solid.
I appreciate it. Thank you. It’s not eloquent. It’s not like you read some writers and they just are so lyrical. I’ve gotten better as a writer. I haven’t had a book as big as The Fred Factor because I haven’t had a story as powerful as this. If you don’t tell the whole story like dissecting a frog, you learn about the frog but the frog still dies. This postal carrier, a real-life guy named Fred Shape, delivered my mail like an artist. The guy added so much value, we became friends. He was beloved by everybody on his street. He did things that took very little time but created real value for his customers. The whole premise of the book is nobody can prevent you from choosing to be extraordinary. I’m not speaking down on delivering the mail, but let’s be honest, it’s about putting mail in the box. It’s about sorting mail at the substation and then putting mail in the box. If a guy like Fred can make that artistry, then you and I have no excuse because we have a lot bigger canvas to paint on.
You were saying, you felt compelled to write the Fred Factor.
I’ve got rejected for a decade and I thought I was never getting to write it. Finally, a publisher said, “I want to do a book. What do you have for ideas?” I pitched about six ideas and he said no. He goes, “What about that Fred guy?” I’m like, “For ten years I’ve been turned away.” People said The Fred Factor doesn’t say anything. The secret of The Fred Factor is the subtitle does. The Fred Factor is catchy. The subtitle is, “How passion in your work and life can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.” I thought if you just read the book called The Fred Factor, probably it would not have done quite as well. People knew it was about work, passion, creativity and so there was enough there to pique their interest.
[bctt tweet=”The worst thing you can do is to try to make everybody happy.” username=””]
I want to ask you more rapid-fire questions. How do you spur creativity in your work? Do you have to work on your creative side?
It’s easy to be a stenographer in life. First of all, I will quote Isaac Asimov who wrote 500 plus books before he died. They said, how are you so prolific? He said, “I think and think and think until I want to kill myself.” It sounds a little harsh, but what he was saying is he did do the hard work of thinking and he did it far deeper than most writers or authors, which is why most haven’t written 500 books.
The first thing is you think a lot.
I tried to think a lot. I can’t lay claim to Isaac Asimov level of thinking, I don’t want to kill myself. I’ll put it that way. The second thing is I’m eclectic. If you write business books, one of the worst things you can do is read a lot of business books. This happens in business, it happens in comedy, you emulate to learn but you’ve got to innovate to earn, which is to say you learn your craft underneath the master. That goes back hundreds of years, whether you’re a blacksmith or you worked for another blacksmith and that’s how you learned. You could learn a basic skill or trade that way. If you only emulate others, you’ll never make any more than others make.
I’ll say if you overtly quote Tom Peters or Jim Collins or Simon Sinek, it will drive those guys fizzed up because everybody’s like, “That’s really good. I’ve got to go find the guy who said it and not the guy who repeated it.” I’m very eclectic and even the newspaper has to fodder for creativity. I have a pretty big rift about adding value without spending much money to do it. In the USA Today, there was an article about all the technology things that Domino’s is using to defeat Pizza Hut. Anybody could read the article. Anybody could quote from the article, but what’s interesting to me, the aspect I glommed onto is we used to think that technology lent itself well to processes, operations and analytics.
When you’ve got the food, what are you going to do, put a microchip in my burger? No. There’s a pizza company in the Middle East that has a little magnet you put on your refrigerator that is programmed in your pizza order. If you get hungry, you just literally push the button and twelve to fifteen minutes later the pizza arrives. It’s paid for. It’s the pizza that you prefer. We are putting technology into food. When I looked at that hit list of all the things that Domino’s is doing, they have tracking devices now, not in your pizza but on the box. They know, you call and you go, “It’s already the third quarter and I ordered my pizza at halftime.” They’ll go, “Right now it’s crossing Third and Pine, it will be there shortly.” Technology literally, if it isn’t driving something, I would say it’s riding. It’s either a driver or a rider because I can’t think of anything that isn’t impacted by technology. If I only read MIT’s review or Harvard Business Review and not this daily newspaper you give for free in your hotel room, I would have missed a wonderful potential illustration.
Speaking of barbers, I was having a conversation with mine and I was saying, “Why do I have to check out? Why can’t I just walk in, get my haircut and then shake your hand and walk out? Then my credit card gets debited with the fee, the tip and everything.” It’s always the same. I’m a repeat customer but it’s just these old legacy things that they’re used to have a cash register there. They’re still using that same thing. Maybe you couldn’t easily move to that model but if you did, I would love it.
You can move to a select group of higher-end users. That would be the same way. My biggest happiness was when the airlines allowed you to check in on online. It never made sense to me that you made a reservation and filled out all the form, then you went to the airport and stood in front of a man or woman who then literally looked like they were filling out the form again or at least confirming about what was in the form. Before it was online, you went to the kiosk and that made me mad because I’ve got to do the work. It’s like it’s not hard work. Any third grader could figure it out.
When it went online, my goal is I prefer not to interact with anybody except maybe the flight attendant to order my beverage. It’s not because I don’t like people but because it’s unnecessary. In my audience I say, “How many of you have ordered from Amazon?” which is a rhetorical question. Everybody’s ordered from Amazon. I say, “How many of you have spoken to a person in Amazon?” It varies between 5% and 10%. It’s gone up a bit, but a few years ago it was single digits. You can return stuff, get a refund and you never talked to anybody. I love that. It’s what we call frictionless business. If you’re a comedian or a comic, there’s some good material for dating and relationships in there too. What would happen if we didn’t have to interact with our spouses, which some people do and that didn’t end well? To me, there are a lot of funny things that just bubbled to the surface if you’re open to it and paying attention.
Do you have an unpopular opinion?
I have a lot of them and most of them I don’t share because I think we’ve lost the ability to think in dialogue civilly. I don’t invite crap into my life if I can help it. I’ll give you an example. In my speaking, I had a mentor who passed away and he was one of the first guys in the business. He has some classic lines that are quite funny. He probably didn’t even originate them all. He basically said to me, “Mark, go ahead and use them, I’m out.” One of the lines is, as somebody that studies the words, politics comes from two root words, poly meaning many and tics meaning bloodsuckers. It gets a laugh from pretty much everybody. That was a line that he used 50 years ago. Of course, I can say that because I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Republican. By the way, that line can be used if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Liberal, a Conservative, a Buddhist, it doesn’t matter. I was getting these vitriolic remarks and here’s what they’d say. Some clients will ask for your evaluation as the speaker, “I can’t believe he preached us his politics,” to which I want to go, “Dumb ass.” I made fun of my party and I’m not even that much of a staunch anymore. I don’t even know what a Republican is.
In the current age we live in, it’s a pretty bad label. What got me was, and here’s what I sometimes say, “Some of you woke up this morning looking to be pissed off, so it was a value add that I make it easy for you,” because that breaks the ice and says, “If you’re going to be jerky about it, you’re probably going to be offended by something I say.” My agent said, “Would you please quit using that Republican line?” I said, “I will.” Mostly because there was no upside. I got a laugh but these are corporate audiences.
[bctt tweet=”How you feel about the facts makes the facts right or wrong.” username=””]
You want to be uniting the group and not dividing them.
One of the weirder things that ever happened to me is I do a quiz and I tell people, “Don’t say anything, don’t talk out loud, don’t ask questions.” I used to say, “No matter how many times I say that, there’s always someone that has a Tourette-like outburst,” and it gets a laugh. I had this woman in my audience sent me this two-page letter. She was upset because her son had Tourette and I had no idea the pain that caused him. You should never use a terrible disease to get a laugh. I responded, and she did not respond back, which was a little disappointing because I was trying to be sensitive. We have kids, you know that’s hurtful when somebody says something that touches on that hurt.
I said to her, “I’m a cancer survivor and I hear the word cancer every day in non-medical terms such as that meeting or that process is cancer to society. That law is cancer to society.” We do use words like that. I’ve never thought about being upset that somebody said, “That’s like cancer on my soul.” Cancer means a bad thing, a malignant thing just like Tourette can mean a disease. I don’t say somebody has Tourette, I say it has a Tourette-like outburst and people laugh not at Tourette. They laugh because we all know there are people that just spout off, just come out of left field. You have to eventually say, “Where am I willing to draw the line? Am I willing to completely lose my identity and my style?” The worst thing you can do is try to make everybody happy. It’s impossible, it’s a losing proposition, and it will make you miserable.
I try to have a ‘do no harm’ approach to my teaching and speaking and things like that. It’s weirdly balanced by this idea that you can’t make everyone happy. There’s this wanting everyone to be happy and then also not wanting to be harmful. Sometimes those things come into conflict. In my world with cold-calling students, some of them have appreciated it, reveled in it and enjoyed it and many find it very difficult. They find it off-putting and threatening and then I’m now making them look bad. It’s hard for me to see that as harmful because the goal of cold-calling, one is to mirror what happens in the real world which happens. The second one is to provide an incentive to be prepared, pay attention and be involved.
I had a conversation with a comedian, he was having a conversation with other very famous prominent comedians and their take was, never has there been in their lives a feeling of such a big disconnect between public and private discourse. That is that the things that you would be willing to say, these unpopular opinions, for instance, with your mates, with your friends, that you wouldn’t say them in public because of the nature of the conversation and the amplification. I talk about this whenever I get interviewed about censorship and comedy, are there topics that you can’t tell jokes about? I find I’m always offering a cautionary tale or a cautionary comment which is, “The nice thing about everything being able to make jokes about it is that at least you can have a conversation about it.” You’re no longer driving it underground. I think that being able to have those kinds of conversations is useful. For instance, even just your private correspondence responding to that woman, now you’re having a conversation, at least.
Which is always my goal. It brings us back to the original question. Do I have unpopular opinions? Yes, I do. I missed the ability to have my thinking challenged in a respectful way or to challenge others thinking in a respectful way. I’m a left-brain guy, so I see a lot of stuff and I don’t post anything political on my Facebook page. There was no upside, but sometimes I’ll see something that’s just bogus. It’s not even fake news. It’s totally fabricated, and I’ll have the facts to back it up. What I learned is we’ve crossed over the rubicon where feelings trump facts, no pun intended, which is to say that how you feel about the facts makes the facts right or wrong. If I don’t like the fact that more people are killed by drunk drivers than by guns or by opioids, I’m just using that as an illustration, then I go, “You’re an animal because the killing by guns is far worse,” but if you’re killed, whether it’s by an opioid, a drunk driver, a gun, a cancer or your audience who didn’t like your choice of words. It’s no fun anymore, you’ve got to kick a butt.
I was around when Andrew Dice Clay made his debut and he made his debut by being as politically incorrect and as rude as possible. Then things got kinder and gentler. We found out that maybe he wasn’t a complete asshole in real life. Maybe he was just a guy doing an act. Then Louis C.K. started talking about stuff. What that says to me is that obviously, people feel that stuff or they wouldn’t go to laugh at it in the comedy club. I’m not going to say it’s right or wrong. That’s not my point. My point is it’s touching what a whole bunch of people crammed into a room, drinking overpriced drinks, want to hear. Louis C.K., if he started talking about how he felt about his kids, everybody talks about their kids lovingly, not there are times you’d like to sell them to Gypsy’s, he starts talking about it. There must be a lot of people frustrated because they think it’s funny.
You strike me as someone who’s got a motor, that you have a lot of energy, you’re highly motivated. Do you ever suffer from a lack of inspiration or a lack of motivation?
If you don’t take care of yourself physiologically, no matter how motivated you are psychologically, you’re headed for trouble. I’m working with executive leaders and I see that a lot. You see the physical toll, the travel, the meetings and the stress that take on people. I grew up in a negative environment. I’ve struggled on and off my entire life, which I just share as a public service, not to get sympathy with clinical depression. When people go, “You’re a speaker and you’re funny and you have a lot of energy.” I say, “I’m natural. I wasn’t a member of the lucky sperm club. I wasn’t born with this chipper attitude and this rosy outlook.”
I share that with people just for the simple reason, as corny as it sounds, to give them hope because I think there are some people that go, “I could never be me. I’m just not that way,” learned behaviors. I’m an introvert by nature, but I’m a situational extrovert. I could’ve said, “I’ll never make it in sales or speaking or management or leadership because at the end of the day, I’d prefer to be by myself or with a small group of friends.” That’s true, but I could learn to be an extrovert. I could learn to interact. I could learn to get energy from people. I always tell people, “Don’t think that there’s any genetic predisposition or circumstance that has slammed your door on optimism or humor or whatever it is that you want to do.”
How did you learn to be a situational extrovert?
I just watched successful people. I said, “That’s funny. Look at what they did,” and I did it.
You just started behaving like an extrovert.
I had a lot of self-confidence issues when I was younger. I was an overweight kid with no athletic ability who did well in school. I was a nerd before we had the word nerd because I had no hand-eye coordination. I wasn’t the last to get picked for a team. They’d argue over who had to take me. I’m over it. I’m not saying this with some weepy sadness in my soul, but I used that to say, “Screw this. I’m going to go on to figure out how to kick ass and take names.” I don’t mean physically, but to excel in business or to do well in school. I got past that idea of my first ten-year reunion when I went back, and the jock quarterback was three times his body weight in high school. I said, “There’s justice in the universe.”
Were you a fit guy? Do you work out?
I wasn’t always, but the same thing I was an unfit guy. I realized that if I wanted to be a fit guy I’m going to have to do some different stuff.
[bctt tweet=”Discipline is the ability to do what needs to be done even when you don’t feel like doing it.” username=””]
When you find yourself in a depressive episode, do you do these same things to try to get out of it? How does that work?
I’ll tell you it’s simple. I do what needs to be done. That’s my mantra. I called my wife once and I was just in the dumps. I have just had no energy, didn’t want to do anything. We’re all situationally depressed, but if you’ve never dealt with depression, it’s hard to explain, but your life force is gone. You could be in the middle of a candy store and it would mean nothing to you, even if you like candy. One day, I called Darla and said, “I’m just depressed.” She goes, “Why don’t you come home?” I said, “I’ve got stuff to do.” Maybe I learned that from the work ethic of my parents, but I never let how I felt prevent me from doing what I needed to do.
Was I as inspired? Did I bring as much energy and joy? Of course, not. I didn’t have any energy or joy to bring to it, but I got it done and that to me is discipline. Discipline is the ability to do what needs to be done even when you don’t feel like doing it. Discipline is not doing what needs to be done. Most of the time, you feel like doing it. Discipline is when people go, “You must really like to work out.” “Not really.” I could free up an hour a day to drink beer, bourbon and read, which would be three things that would maybe all at the same time make me happy, but I worked out. I feel good after I work out. I don’t know how it feels good when I got to drag my butt into the gym, but at the end, I’m like, “I am glad I worked out.”
I feel that way all the time. What are you working on these days?
A new book I’ve been in the business of speaking for 32 years. I’m not the flavor of the day. I’m not the new next best thing. I went through that phase, I was grateful for it but I realized that it’s the same in comedy. If you’re going to be in demand, eventually your old material is going to lose its luster and you’ve always got to be creating. The good news is I like to write new books about new things because it forces me to learn new things. I’m going to write a book about the importance of clarity in business and how that affects leadership. I’m going to write on some topics that are pretty original to me, if not completely original to me. That three or four years ago, the world wasn’t ready for them. The role of emotion in business and things like that. I continue to speak, and I love to speak. That’s the most fun I have. That’s why I put up with the airplane rides and the hotel room.
How much do you feel like you’re recreating yourself? You’re good so it’s not a matter of getting better with your presentation skills and these kinds of things. Your sales and marketing, your branding, all this stuff, but like you’re finding a new message that someone goes, “We should bring Mark back.”
If you think of a puzzle to create a metaphor, twenty years ago in business, maybe there were fifteen or twenty pieces in the puzzle. They were big pieces, you had your sales and marketing, your operations, your engineer, your production, your customer service. When you look at all of the nuances, we’ve got these complex puzzles. Speaking is the same way. I was on the phone with a friend of mine who’s an expert in website analysis. We have 80 videos on my website, but we didn’t uncheck a default box that YouTube uses to basically interject your competitor’s ad at the end of your videos. Here I am feeling pretty good about having 80 videos posted and if you watch to the end or pause, you see a half dozen of my competitors who’ve used my name, so they show up.
You know the old saying, it sounds stupid, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Now that I know what I didn’t know, the first thing I did was sent an email to my webmaster and said, “We have to fix this.” There’s no aspect of my business that I don’t have to tweak. You’d think, I’ve got to a good website and I’m good for a few years. I’ve got to get a good preview video, I’ve got to get a good digital brochure. You’ve got to be tweaking that stuff because somebody’s waking up this morning with a new overlay, a new nuance, a new technique or a new technology. If you’re sitting on your hands you’d better be retiring in the next twelve to 24 months.
[bctt tweet=”You don’t like it when it’s easy. You enjoy it when it’s easy.” username=””]
I have a saying that I use all the time with my MBAs and it’s, “Business is hard, business is hard, business is hard.” Every class I’d find myself saying it at some point because otherwise, if you think it’s easy, you’re in trouble.
I tell my audience, “You don’t like it when it’s easy. You enjoy it when it’s easy. You like it when it’s hard.” It took me a long time to figure that out. We confuse enjoyment with where we get our pride and satisfaction. You may have a great day and everything goes smoothly, but if you saw the big hairy problem or you landed a big account that you’ve been working on for nine months, that’s where you get your gratification from. Jordan Peterson said the same thing about life, and everybody either loves or hates Jordan Peterson, the professor out of Canada. He said, “Being a good person is hard work.” I think that we’ve got away from that.
We thought that as long as you didn’t kill someone and hit them with your car, abuse them, use them, you’re a good person. That doesn’t mean you’re a good person. It just means you’re not a bad person. I think you’re right, inadvertently we’ve created this sense that life should be easy, business should be easy, being a good person should be easy, and when people aren’t putting in the effort, it bites them in the ass. They’re going, “How come I’m not successful in business? How come I’m not considered a good person?” You didn’t do the work.
I call it wisdom. I don’t know what I would call it, but my recognition is almost anything that is good, that you want, comes with some price. Whenever there’s an upside, there’s a potential downside. For me, it’s almost a law. If I want to feel good, I need to do the hard work in the gym. Whatever that thing is, it’s just recognizing that there’s going to be some unpleasantness and challenge. The key is, this is the thing that people don’t often realize, is the challenges in of themselves can start to be something that you can take pleasure and enjoy.
I did not like my first public speaking contest. I was mortified, but it set me on a course that allowed me to have a fun life and speak all over the world and make a boatload of money. If I had to choose between liking that first speech and being propelled forward by being challenged by it, I’d still take the challenge. That’s honestly taking the path of some resistance. I spent most of my life trying to find the path of least resistance, but you don’t build mental or physical muscle without resistance. That’s why it worries me. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeonly old guy, but I’m sure I will when I say this. The whole idea of safe spaces, your ideas threatened me. The only way you can build mental chops is when you meet the resistance of an opposing idea. I’m not talking about being hateful or abusive, but I mean anymore, an idea that someone disagrees with me on, they label as hurtful. No, it’s different. It’s not hateful or hurtful if it’s an opposing opinion. How are you going to have any intellectual muscle if you just always look for safe zones and no resistance? Take the path of some resistance. You’ll develop strength.
In the world of academia, that’s the norm. You have to have opposition in order to publish your ideas. It’s actually the opposition that makes those ideas better. It’s the anticipation of that opposition that makes you work harder on the ideas. The people I feel who are the most successful invite opposition early on in the process and don’t try to find a way around it. It’s a lot like lifting weights and the effect that it has on your skeleton. You have to stress your skeleton in order for it to become stronger.
It’s cumulative too. The more resistance you deal with over time, even though it’s not always pleasant, the stronger you become and more prepared to deal with future resistance.
[bctt tweet=”The more resistance you deal with over time, the stronger you become.” username=””]
It doesn’t always feel good though. That’s the point. When I get critiques, it still doesn’t feel good, although I’ve learned to welcome it in the same way that I’ve welcome being out of breath on a run or something like that. You mentioned that you read very broadly. What are you reading, watching or listening to that stands out to you that you go, “That’s amazing?”
I read Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. Part of the reason I liked it is because I was already philosophically on the same page. Even before I read his work, I talked about some of the things he talked about, but I thought he unpacked it in a way that was masterful. I’ve always said, “Don’t ever confuse activity with accomplishment.” What he then said is, “Here’s how you can accomplish something significant and go beyond fluttering along the surface.” I read a lot of fiction, but I take a long time. I love Michael Connelly, if you like police procedural, he rarely writes bad books. Some of his books are better than others.
I like Jo Nesbo, the European author who writes about the crime war. I sometimes read Celeste Ng. She writes about a story set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, not far from where I grew up. Amazing stories. Little Fires Everywhere, I love that book. The problem with finding good books is I’d be desperate to go into a store at an airport and just pick up a James Patterson. James Patterson does well but that’s not the kind of books I like to read. I spent as much time researching what I read as I do in reading.
How do you figure out what books do?
I read a lot of reviews, talk to a lot of friends. I hang out in bookstores. Barnes and Nobles is on this jag to stay in business, but they stick people on you, you can’t look anymore. It’s like, “Can I help you? No, I’m just looking. What are you looking for? I’m looking for a book. What kind of books do you like to read? Books with words.” He recommended a few books with words. You’ve got to find that balance between selling and letting people find. That to me is the joy. I can’t do that on Amazon. I can look at the reviews, but I can’t, for the most part, come through the pages. I’ve bought books on Amazon that look great online and sucked in real life and vice versa.
As someone who’s written a book and says he’ll never write another. I still like going to bookstores and flipping through it and seeing what else is there. On college campuses, you don’t have to go to the library to catch your books, they’ll deliver them to you. At least as a faculty member, it’s a nice perk of the job. When I was an assistant professor and when I was a graduate student, I’d go pick up a book and then made it a habit that I would look at all the other books on that one particular shelf because usually, they’re of similar topics. Invariably I’d find one, two, three other books that were of interest that I didn’t know about.
Amazon’s done a good job of writing code so that you can still see what other people are reading about that book. Some of the best books I’ve ever found, I stumbled on. I just looked on a table. Maybe it was women studies, and somebody dropped a book that they had taken out of history and you go, “I had no idea.”
I’m working hard to find time to do even more reading. Last question. The secret to success. Everyone knows but can’t seem to do.
[bctt tweet=”Commitment without a plan is wishful thinking.” username=””]
I don’t want to be flip. I’ll go back to some little tidbit of research from my last book, The Potential Principle. We found that 58% of the people we interviewed had a commitment to getting better, the remaining 30% had a plan. I’ve come to believe, and I’ve always believed that commitment without a plan is wishful thinking. We all know what we want. Few of us know what we need to do and even fewer will do it. I’ll also quote Beer Founder, Tony Magee, the guy who founded Lagunitas. In his autobiography, he said, “You are what you did.” That’s a great statement. What I find comfort in it is that you become what you do. Who we are today is what we did but if you want to change who you are tomorrow, do something different.
This is connected to when we were talking about your situational extroversion. You’re a big behavior guy. You’re like, “If you want this thing to happen, you have to start behaving in the way that it’s going to get you to that place.” That’s nice. Mark, thanks so much for doing this.
It was great fun. Thank you.
- Sanborn & Associates
- The Fred Factor: How Passion in your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary
- National Speakers Association
- All Business is Show Business
- Andrew Dice Clay
- Louis C.K.
- Jordan Peterson
- Deep Work
- Michael Connelly
- Jo Nesbo
- Little Fires Everywhere
- The Potential Principle
About Mark Sanborn
Mark is the president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., As a professional speaker, he has given over 2,600 presentations and is the author 8 books. His book, “The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary Into the Extraordinary” is an international bestseller – and appeared on the New York Times, Business Week and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Mark is a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame and is a past president of the National Speakers Association.