The following is a conversation between Stefan Falk, author of Intrinsic Motivation: Learn to Love Your Work and Succeed as Never Before, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: The true solution to becoming happier, healthier, and more productive is to become intrinsically motivated to stop wasting time on activities that don’t really contribute to your career or your organization’s success, but instead find ways to take pleasure in what you do, and do it well.

That’s the message of my next guest. He’s Stefan Falk, internationally recognized executive coach and author of a splendid new book titled Intrinsic Motivation: Learn to Love Your Work and Succeed as Never Before.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Stefan.

Stefan Falk, author of Intrinsic Motivation: Learn to Love Your Work and Succeed as Never Before

Stefan: Thank you so much, Denver. A pleasure being here.

Denver: Let me ask you about this interview we’re about to conduct. You may enjoy doing them, but if you didn’t, what mindset would you adopt and what process would you go through, Stefan, to help you become engaged and make this interview interesting and rewarding?

Stefan: I think it’s actually… it’s very close to the name of your podcast. And that’s the way I usually think about most of the stuff I do, is: what is the potential value I can bring to someone else? Which in this case would mean that I need to understand a little bit better who your audience is and what keeps them up at night.

And if there is anything from my experience, limited or vast, or whatever you want to call it, and my way of thinking, that could potentially benefit them, I find that when it comes to intrinsic motivation, the best aphrodisiac ever– and it’s instant– is to think about: What can I bring to others that’s useful for them?

Denver: Mm-hmm. That’s great. So you sort of get away from thinking about yourself, which is only going to be paralyzing very often, and then really focus on the audience and what you can do for them. And that basically is, it sounds to me, almost very freeing.

Stefan: Yeah. I mean, it is. And I think that if we look… and obviously I don’t have a perfect view of today’s society, but I have some kind of sense of it based on the people I meet and what you read in the media.

And I think that there is such a negative, I think, around focusing on yourself and finding yourself, and finding self-actualization, and following your own needs and whatever it is. And I just think that given the complexity of the existence and how we actually function as human beings, it’s mission impossible to figure those things out.

It is virtually impossible because one o’clock you think you have these needs; two o’clock, something completely different, and then three o’clock you have conflicting needs. I just find it so beautiful to try to find yourself by helping others because you mirror yourself, and you get also your self-worth through that.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really a matter of focus. I mentioned to you before we started, I played a lot of golf, and I remember some of the difficulty I had with golf is when I was thinking about my swing, when I was thinking about where my weight was… and am I going back far enough? Am I going too fast?

And when I changed my focus just to the hole and not thinking about myself and my swing, my game changed dramatically. And that’s a lot, as you say, in terms of looking at the audience and thinking about them; you’re just going to perform at such a higher level.

Stefan: Oh, yeah. And I have the same type of thing. It’s very interesting. That’s an experiment. I play piano a lot, which is basically how I started my journey into this area when I was eight years old. And if I start to think about when I play a piece of music: What’s next? What’s the next part of this song? I start to make mistakes.

But when I really put myself in a mode of just being, becoming one with what I’m doing, everything just flows.

“Because the trick with intrinsic motivation is to have some kind of mental plan for how you do things. That’s what happens. And that also makes it possible to basically enjoy any type of activity because it’s not the activity itself that matters, it is the outcome and the plan you have for it.”

Denver: Being present, nothing like it. Absolutely. Well, a central principle to intrinsic motivation is something which you refer to as FEO, Focus on Exciting Outcomes. How does that work, Stefan?

Stefan: Well, it’s pretty simple. If you have a task or a situation where you feel, for instance, doesn’t interest me, or is boring, or whatever it is, or maybe you feel that: Hmm, you can up your game… you can do something better, a really smart way to think about that is to spend some time reflecting on what is it that I really would like to achieve here?

Something that really would make me feel excitement about it, okay? And the point of doing that is that then you are much more likely to spend sufficient time thinking about how to achieve that. That means that you have, either you take a lot of time and you write some plan down, or you just have it in your head.

Because the trick with intrinsic motivation is to have some kind of mental plan for how you do things. That’s what happens. And that also makes it possible to basically enjoy any type of activity because it’s not the activity itself that matters, it is the outcome and the plan you have for it.

Denver: Yeah. Well, that’s really a question I guess of means and ends. If you can make that activity a means, not an end, but keep the end in mind, you’ll be in a whole different place. So you can track that, that FEO with activity-focused behavior. And is that what we’re basically doing? What is activity-focused behavior?

Stefan: Well, activity-focused behavior… and unfortunately I would say this is actually what most people engage in at work, based on my experience, and I’ve sort of met a few thousand people, and I’ve studied employee satisfaction data and performance data for probably a couple of million people.

So activity-based behavior is: you start to perform your tasks basically on habit. When you have learned how to do something, you basically intellectually log out, and you start to perform these tasks on habits, which means that you don’t think very much when you perform the tasks.

What happens very soon into this is two things. First of all, your level of effort goes down, maybe … habit. So almost subconsciously, we started to make shortcuts in how we do things, which leads to a lot of errors. We actually perform worse over time. And the second thing is that things start to get boring for us.

Denver: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Stefan: And I would say that the activity-based behavior is probably one of the main reasons why people end up with work dissatisfaction and stress because…. it’s interesting, it’s almost like mass hysteria. Oh, I have too much to do, I have too much to do.

I still have not met any person that has too much to do because when I sit down, okay, which I do, okay, let’s write down everything you’re supposed to do. Let’s take item one. What’s the purpose of item one? What do you want to achieve? In what order do you execute that? What’s difficult? What’s easy? And so forth…

Most people are clueless. They cannot even describe what they do, and that’s not because they are unintelligent, that’s because they actually operate on habit. Because when we operate on habit and don’t think about how we do things, we actually don’t know how we do it.

So imagine then a new CEO comes in and says, Hey, listen! This is zombie land. We need to rethink how we do things here. And then you’re asked to do, to perform better, perform more or faster, or whatever it is. it’s super stressful because you don’t even know where you’re going to start

Denver: Yeah. That’s right.

Stefan: So I would say… I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but I would say you basically have a choice when you work. Either you will have an approach to your work that makes you successful and happy. And I’m not talking about successful in any sort of, you know, super commercial transactional way.

I mean, successful– what you want to achieve, you actually achieve. And then you feel accomplished and happy, or you actually become sick and unsuccessful. That’s the two outcomes. And I think activity-based behaviors leads to the latter.

“Human beings, we are an energy game. Our natural inclination is to save energy. That’s a key survival strategy. So is this a person that has a proven track record of actually being able to use mental energy actively or not? And most people are not really strong in that.”

Denver: Yeah. And activity-focused behavior is really, I always correspond it with that to-do list. You’re just going down that to-do list. You’re really not thinking; you’re just doing checks.

But you know what? We’re kind of habituated to that. So the idea of moving from there to thinking and outcomes can be a little tricky. What advice do you have in terms of trying to change that mindset from activity to outcome?

Stefan: Yeah. When I work with clients, I’m meticulous about understanding their starting point, basically mentally. And the question I ask me is: Okay, to what extent does this person, my client, the executive, have a sufficient level of control of how he or she spends their mental energy? Because that’s what it’s about.

Human beings, we are an energy game. Our natural inclination is to save energy. That’s a key survival strategy. So is this a person that had a proven track record of actually being able to use mental energy actively or not? And most people are not really strong in that.

People that have an elite athlete background, they have it because they know that they had to be in this place, to actually become, you know, have mastery of it. So I have a variety of different sort of approaches to it. If you take a person that has, today, sort of a low capability in dealing with mental energy, it could be too much for that person to do, for instance, what I call daily goals– which is basically you look in your work week, and then you try to identify at least two or three things every day– tasks or meetings or whatever it is– where you try to define these like exciting outcomes and make a plan for it.

If that is too demanding for my client, I use simple tricks like at the end of every day, you write down the mistakes you made. That’s one way to awaken the mind because we should know that the average person makes three mistakes an hour. There’s 5,328 mistakes a year.

So if you don’t think that you make any mistakes, and if that’s true, I will write a book about you because then you’re completely unique. So you understand, I have a lot of sort of energy-saving, energy-efficient habits to start the process of rewiring the brain, and writing down mistakes is one way.

Another approach I use is to do risk assessment to think about all the items you have in your calendar the upcoming week. What could potentially go wrong here? Most people, they operate on some kind of unreflective notion that they live in stability, which is not true. It’s not true.

It’s just that they are ignorant toward whatever variations and specificities that their environment actually entails. So there’s a few things I can do that is very energy efficient to start the process. And then as a step two, then you can take more charge of your mental energy, if it makes sense.

Denver: No, it does make sense. I mean, a lot of what you’re saying is that there is no learning that goes on without reflection. And we do not live in a society that people take a moment and reflect on what they’ve done. It’s just do, do, do. Get down that list. Got to be busy, busy. And you have to take that pregnant pause. Take a moment, and just think about what you’ve just done.  And is there a way to do it better?

Now, is intrinsic motivation something that you can switch on? I mean, it’s not probably with you every moment. Is there like a trigger that when you need to reach down for that intrinsic motivation, there’s a way to have it come to the surface?

Stefan: Yeah. I get this question a lot. So like, for instance, it could be, there’s certain things I don’t like in my job. So is it the end of the world if I don’t try to find a way to make them more enjoyable? Well, I think there are two perspectives.

One is that if you allow yourself to dislike things, your brain is going to be an expert on disliking things. That’s how it works because the brain strives for energy efficiency. So if you allow it working in one way, it will perfect the way it works like that.

And another question is… also you can ask yourself, I remember I met this guy on a retreat, in a yoga retreat, and he was an entrepreneur. And he said to me that, oh, he understood that I was a coach and said, “Well, I built this business. But one of the things that really I’m not interested in is the whole area of people management,” he said. “And how should I think about that?”

And I said to him,  “Well, people management is not rocket science, that’s number one. And number two, the most important question you need to ask yourself is, Okay, what is my dream? What is my aspiration? Who do I want to become? What do I want to achieve in my life?”

And when you have that one figured out, you can ask yourself then, “Is it important or less important in that view for me to master the area of people management?” If it’s not, forget about it. But I mean, in general, to come back to your question, can you unlock your intrinsic motivation? Yeah, definitely. Definitely you can do that.

Do you need to do it? Yes. You need to do it because any type of job will have things that don’t naturally interest you, over time becomes boring, feels difficult, feels scary, and all these things. But there are things that you have to do. So if you don’t figure out a way to do them in a more enjoyable fashion, you will either try to avoid them, which will lead to very bad things for yourself.

Denver: Bad outcomes. That’s a bad outcome.

Stefan: Yeah. Yeah. Or you will perform them in a very bad way. So for me, when I wrote the book, I asked my son, I need to write something about myself. And then he said, “Yeah, and I think you should be honest.” And I said,  That’s my plan. “Well, then I think you should write that you’re crazy.”

And I’m, So what do you mean with that?  “Well, you’re the only person in this universe, you can’t ever be bored.” And that’s true. I can even be excited about doing my tax return. That might even sound a little bit sick, but because I know when I’m…

Denver: Crazy is a good word.

Stefan: Yes. So when I’m in that mood of being bored, I just think that I’m not honoring the gift I’ve gotten, which is life. So I can’t be in that, and I know that I will perform super badly, so I need to find this way. And then we go back to: How do you do it? Well, the exciting outcomes is a perfect way to think about it, when you have a task that you think is too difficult or boring.

Denver: As I think you say in the book, no task has any inherent trait associated with it. It’s a mindset you’re going to bring to it, and maybe you can try to do it in different ways, make a game out of it. Enjoy it. You got to do it, so gamify  it,  or do something along those lines.

You offer so many wonderful strategies and hacks throughout the book. Let me go through five or six of them and maybe ask you to say a word about each. One would be “proactively seek feedback.” Tell us about that.

Stefan: Oh, yeah. I find this fascinating. I mean, we all know that the deepest sense of purpose that we can feel is when we understand that: I’ve really helped Denver to do something, to do something that was very important to him. My value, I contributed to that in some way or form.

And in an organization, everything I do, the basic purpose of that is to enable someone else to do something else. In the simplest form, enable the person to avoid to do my work, but it is on purpose. And if I really want to understand how well I’m doing, understand what I can improve, and by that, also shape my own destiny, I should ask for feedback to the people dependent on my work.

So if you have a meeting with the person that you prepared something for the meeting or whatever it is, you can ask: Was this helpful to you? Was this what you expected? Is there anything I can think about that could make this better before?

Or if you deliver something to someone, even if you answer an email. Someone sends you a question saying, Hey, how should we do with this? And then you write an answer back and you say, “Is this what you asked for? Does this help you?” I promise anyone, if you start to practice this, your view of work will just change overnight.

“Well, I would say that this is probably the top universal challenge for all human beings, to deal with uncertainty. And our wet dream is certainty. That makes us feel so good. The problem with reality is that there is no certainty. Everything is uncertain. But the brain associates uncertainty with danger because that’s the evolutionary where we come from. Not being certain about things could lead to death. That’s when we’re Stone Age and all these things.”

Denver: Yeah. It’s a great piece of advice. It makes sense to really just map out everybody you touch, everybody you influence, and then keep that in mind, and try to get as broad an array of feedback as you possibly can.

Second thing you talk about is: uncertainties are killing us. Stefan, why do we hate uncertainties, and how can you eliminate them?

Stefan: Well, I would say that this is probably the top universal challenge for all human beings, to deal with uncertainty. And our wet dream is certainty. That makes us feel so good.

The problem with reality is that there is no certainty. Everything is uncertain. But the brain associates uncertainty with danger because that’s the evolutionary where we come from. Not being certain about things could lead to death. That’s when we’re Stone Age and all these things.

How do you deal with uncertainty? Well, first of all, don’t leave it hanging in your head. Try to figure out as much as you can about the things you feel uncertain about. And I have this like bulletproof simple framework for dealing with any type of uncertainty. So let’s say, What do I feel uncertain about?

Well, I feel uncertain about podcasts, for instance, doing that because it’s not like I’ve done them since I was like two years old or anything. So my routine is like, you can hear that I’m rambling a little bit and whatever. So I can then do… and now I’m going to talk… I’m going to meet Denver.

So in terms of how I’m going to behave and what I want to say here, what am I certain about that is always good for me to try to emphasize if it happens that this topic comes up? What do I believe I should talk about that I’m not completely certain about? And what am I potentially clueless about?

So when I look at that, it’s almost you can turn the page upside down, and then you get the * short. And then you see that, Oh my God, there’s so many things I’m certain about and fewer things I just believe I’m uncertain about and very few things I’m clueless about.

That in itself gives you a sense of your actual uncertainty because the brain, it can hijack you when you sort of experience uncertainty. That’s the only thing you can think about. So everything else, whether you actually live a life that is much more secure than this uncertainty, just goes away.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. So what you do is, really, you disaggregate it because otherwise the prevailing feeling of being uncertain will apply to everything when it’s really only applying to 15%. And you can dance for 15% of this podcast, you know? Go with the other 85% that you got stone cold. That’s really interesting.

Stefan: Yeah. And it works also… it’s common I work with new executives that come in, like a new CEO, whatever. And the CEO is going to have the first board meeting. And obviously in all boards, there are at least one or two people that are so nitty-gritty and into the details and everything.

And obviously, a new CEO cannot answer all the questions. And the CEO is nervous because, of course, the CEO wants to show that he or she is on top of things and whatever it is, even though it’s only maybe one month into the tenure.

So a very good way to spin the story is to say, Well, today I’m going to talk about the situation in the company, and I’m going to talk about it in three aspects. The first aspect is: What am I certain about is the situation in the company and what implications that has. I will also explain to you why I’m certain about it.

The second things are like more of the hypothesis I have about some of the managements here, and I will explain to you why I have those hypotheses, and what the implications would be if those are true, but also what I’m going to do in order to figure out whether they are true or not.

And then there are a few things here I still don’t have my head around, and we can have a discussion around those. That just sends a signal, Oh, this person is really on top of things.

Denver: Absolutely. It reminds me of a client I used to have, Stefan, which was in the stuttering field. And one of the things that they did to people who, young men mostly who stuttered, was to advertise.

And when you basically were meeting someone, just tell them that you have a bit of a stutter, and please be patient, or whatever the case may be. And essentially what you’re talking about, the CEO there, he’s advertising.

Stefan: Yeah.

Denver: Once you advertise, then there’s no way… You pretty much, you neutralize the entire situation that is only going to make you feel more certain about the entire meeting.

Stefan: Yeah. And that thing is super brilliant that you said because I’ve used the exact same thing with leaders that have had some kind of difficulty with their mood. I mean, they could be very upset or whatever, and then basically share that proactively with the people around and say, So listen, I’m working on one thing here, and that is to be much more mindful about how I react to things.

Because when the leader goes overboard, there is some kind of expectation that that can happen. And then, Yeah, okay, now Denver is going overboard. Okay. So it’s not that hurtful because you have an expectation. So it’s so, so smart.

Denver: It really does work. The third thing I want to touch on… you did a little bit already, but time, because that is such at the core of so much of what we’re talking about. And I come across, probably not as many people as you do because of the work you do, but they have a difficult, difficult relationship with time.

And this gets back to a little bit we were talking about– I’m too busy, I’m too stressed, I can’t take on another thing. How should leaders think about time?

Stefan: Well, there is no sort of, I would say, silver bullet in doing this. I think you need to design a little bit of a portfolio of tricks and stuff here. And one thing is to, first of all, become aware of how much time you spend on stuff. And a very, very smart… if you have a sense that I don’t have any work-life balance.It’s constantly nights are too long and blah, blah, blah, always behind or whatever, I find it very effective way and I’ve used this in truly high-pressure environments like finance and a few others and where people have a tendency to do all-nighters and whatever. 

One very good way is to, first of all, you start… you measure the actual work time you have to get the sense of: Is it really as much as I think it is? If it is…

Denver: I’ve done that, and it’s a lot less than I thought it was.

Stefan: Yeah. Yeah. Because the mind, whenever we have something negative, like I said, it inflates it. It inflates it all the time. So first, just like track your time during a week. Is this a typical week? Yeah, it is. How many hours did I put in this week?

And then a step two, you say, Okay, is that good or is it bad? Ah, that’s not good. I really would like  to push down my hours. What you do then is you decide, on a rough time budget: this is the total amount of time I would like to spend on my work.

And then you distribute that time over a week. You call that an ideal week. And very well aware that very few weeks, you will be able to hit that ideal week, but it’s sort of a proxy, it’s sort of a benchmark. You benchmark it. And then basically what you do is that you track your stop and start time and compare it to the actual plan time you have for the day.

And every time you have a deviation, whether it’s positive or negative, you need to sit down and think about why is that? Why is that? And that will lead to two things, self-awareness, how you yourself actually caused unnecessary time by not preparing well for certain things, or by not executing things a certain way.So you will surface a lot of improvement opportunities there. 

And then it will also lead to contextual awareness, the people around you, because they also drive time. So for instance, if you have a boss and you’re sending stuff to the boss, you will figure out, Oh, he has a typical response time.

So that means if I want to leave the office at this time, and I want the response from him, that means that I need to send the material to him much earlier. And I have people that have basically been able to cut 20% of their work time using this, and in environments that that is very unusual.

On top of this, I would suggest another thing, and that is to live by the principle: Always deliver on all deadlines, and keep all promises without exception. Or no excuses… because it’s such a smart little thing that drives your planning skills and your self-awareness.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And so much of that I think is just doing those little tasks right away. Because what we do is we put them on our to-do list and they are on our to-do list for nine straight days, when if you just took the 10 minutes to get it done. It’s your reputation, too. People say, Wow, I sent this email, I got an answer. It just changes the way people perceive you.

Stefan: I’ll tell you one thing. I’m in a client session, and then let’s say we decide that if I have a cadence that is weekly, but there’s a major issue around the business problem, whatever it is, that we need to go deep on, and then we decide on additional time. And then the client’s supposed to send me an invite for that meeting.

I have to say, tell the client three times at the end of that meeting: Send me an invite right away after this meeting. Send me an invite right away after this meeting. Send me an invite right away after this meeting. And I would say it happens 50% of the time.

It takes a day or two before this meeting gets out. Why? I don’t understand it. It’s like when someone sends you an email, say, can you send me this information? And you have the information. No. I’m going to wait to…. It’s like… so you save so much time, but just like performing, like you say, all brainless, simple tasks right away.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And you know what, it takes up a lot of energy and psychic RAM not to have done that. You’re always thinking, I still have to do that, and you just free up that space to say: that’s already been taken care of. So it makes no sense whatsoever.

Stefan: No. And I think I find that this way of just like keeping your house, so to speak, clean and neat from this like more brainless simple tasks. Even if a day was not that good, you can be proud of yourself because you didn’t create a backlog. You did these small little things.

Because the sense of accomplishment, it doesn’t have to be tied to, Oh my God, I changed the direction of the company. No, it can be these tiny things. I sent them all the materials I was asked to send on time. I did this, I did that, and that. It’s a good day.

Denver: That’s right. If you’re in a little bit of a hole, little things like that can dig yourself out of that hole to say, Okay, I got this done, I got this one, instead of just reinforcing that sense I can’t do anything. Everything is out there hanging.

 One that I really like, that makes this the last one here, is: theme for the day. I love that idea. Tell me about it.

Stefan: Oh, yeah. And unfortunately, it’s not my idea. When my son started first grade, and he started at a really good school, and the school had won a few awards as being a really good school, and we all knew… parents… we got a letter from the principal and saying something like that.

 And also, please share something from your world with your child every day from work that was exciting and fun.

Denver: Great idea.

Stefan: Because we really want your children to grow up and have a positive expectation of how it is to be a grownup. And I just like: this is probably one of the smartest, simplest thing I’ve ever read.

So if you are a person that… if you’re prone to dissatisfaction, being indifferent to your work, promise yourself that every day, when you come home and then you have dinner with your loved ones, or you talk with a friend or whatever, share something that was exciting that day.

Because what happens very quickly is that you actually program your brain to look for these things. And then all of a sudden, it starts to proactively think about what could be exciting. So when you brush your teeth before bed, you can think about tomorrow, Hmm, what could be exciting tomorrow?

Well, I’m going to meet Denver tomorrow, and that’s the first time now in three weeks we actually get together in a meeting. Oh, this is super. I’d really want to understand how he managed to deal with those issues we talked about three weeks ago. It doesn’t have to be anything profound, but just finding that source of excitement.

And I did that with my son, and then all of a sudden, I just found it’s also like I created a platform together with my son when he was a kid to talk about what I was doing. And then I could also say that he got more interested. He could ask me, By the way, Daddy, what happened to that thing you did like two weeks ago that you were looking forward to. It’s just like a magnificent dynamic.

“And it’s very important for people to understand: Why do we have this capability of intrinsic motivation? Why do we have it? Well, we have it because of purposeful design, because intrinsic motivation leads to mastery. Because when we like to do something, we like to do it a lot. And when we do it a lot, we become good at it. But to keep liking it, we need to increase the complexity of it. So we have it, it’s by design.”

Denver: It is. It reminds me a little bit about buying the red car and having the only red car like this until you drive out of the showroom, and every third car is a red car just like it. And it’s amazing when you train the brain to look for certain things, you’ll see it everywhere and things you’ve never seen before.

And if you have that positive North Star and you’re looking for it, it’s going to be all around you. And…

Stefan: I know.

Denver: …conversely, if you’re looking for things that are bad and going wrong, that’s all you’re going to see as well.

Stefan: But I also think it is sort of when we… fundamental intrinsic motivation, it happens when we engage ourselves in solving a challenging problem that interests us. And the problem in a work environment is that we have, in many cases, to create those challenging, interesting problems for ourselves in order to keep going with our excitement.

And if you think about this: Why do we have this? And it’s very important for people to understand: Why do we have this capability of intrinsic motivation? Why do we have it? Well, we have it because of purposeful design, because intrinsic motivation leads to mastery. Because when we like to do something, we like to do it a lot. And when we do it a lot, we become good at it.

But to keep liking it, we need to increase the complexity of it. So we have it, it’s by design. So we have it by purposeful design. It is purposeful design also why rabbits have these massive ears for thermal regulation. We have intrinsic motivation to actually build mastery.

The problem is that it requires mental energy. And we are fundamentally lazy. Not lazy when it comes to our bodies, but lazy when it comes to using our brain because it draws a lot of energy to think.

Denver: Yeah. Picking up on your point, I really think we have lost the sense of craft in this country. And the problem that I have, let’s say with nonprofits, is that people will say, Well, to have purpose, you have to have a nonprofit organization or some great end. No, no, no, no, no. You can write an HR manual and make it the most exquisite, perfect HR manual ever, and that’s purposeful.

You could be a chef and do a meal, and be so proud of the display and the food there that you’ve… it’s a craft, and we’ve gone from the craft to the functional, very unimaginative and basic way. And it’s taken, I think, a lot of that joy out of what you’re talking about in terms of work.

Stefan: Yeah. I honestly think that if you look at the skyrocketing levels of mental health problems people have, I mean, look at the generations born from the ’70s up until today, it’s just like straight up.

And I actually think that this is part of the reason we have lost this sense of purpose by making sure that our first priority is to bring good to other people. If you would ever contemplate changing the name on this, like, Fantastic, The Business of Giving, I would change it to The Bulletproof Way to Mental Health.

Because it is. I mean, if you think about it, why do I do what I do? And I’ve helped people all my life– my friends, everything. I’m a helper. Well, first of all, I forget a little bit about myself and my own worries and stuff. And when I manage to help someone else, it’s such a rewarding experience, but it also sends a signal to me that I’m capable; I can do stuff.

So if I would reenter as an executive today, I did a lot of good stuff when I was an executive, that’s why I could turn these companies around pretty effectively, and it was in this space. I would just like make sure that everyone in the organization, if they could not tell me or their leaders or whoever is asking for it: What are the feedback you have gotten this week on what you have done for them?,  you cannot be in this company, end of story.

Making people feel well about themselves is not rocket science. It’s just a question of doing the smart few things you have to do. And this is one of the things.

Denver: Let’s turn our attention to leadership for a second, Stefan, and you believe it’s important that leaders understand what leadership is about. In your opinion, what is leadership about?

Stefan: It’s only about one thing, and that is to lead and specifically develop your people. Anything else you have time to do is a bonus. And I know what I’m talking about, and I had at one point 37 direct reports.

Denver: Whoa.

Stefan: So you can imagine. And everybody had super clear individual goals that they were supposed to integrate in everyday work. Because I had, in all my situations as an executive, I had a requirement of people that every day, you need to develop yourself. Not the whole day, but some aspect of how you do things needs to improve every day.

If you don’t want to play that game, you cannot be here. And I explained that from two angles. One was that from neuroscience. I always educated people on how the brain works, and I think that’s a paradox that leaders and organizations don’t understand, that that’s a vital insight they need to incorporate in how they think about themselves.

But the other thing I did, which I think we all understand, is that our goals, what we aspire to achieve will always be secondary. The first thing will be the personal and professional development daily because our goals are beyond where we are today. We are where we are because of how we do things and what we know how to do today.

If we want to be in another place, obviously we need to do what we do today in different ways, and maybe also do some new stuff, and maybe stop doing some other stuff we do today. That’s why you need to address this every day. And that this whole… for me, it’s such a no-brainer that this is the case.

But most organizations, I saw something on LinkedIn, which is… some of the stuff is so shallow…some research aiming to prove how important people are to an organization. It’s like imagine NHL team, New York Rangers thinking about, How are we going to win Stanley Cup?

Let’s say the levers we have. We have the Zamboni machines. We have the equipment, the helmets, we have the ice, we have the arena, and then we have the players. What should we invest in here? I think we should invest in Madison Square Garden; rebuild that.

Denver: Absolutely. Maybe ticket sales would be a good idea. Maybe it’d make it simpler for people to buy the tickets. That would be Stanley Cup.

Stefan: Yeah. It’s like, I don’t even understand. This is perfect asymmetry. So I think leadership is about that. And the way I thought about leadership, and this is the way I think about myself too, is very similar to what I view as good parenting.

And what’s the end game of good parenting? End game is that your kids grew up to become like individuals, strong individuals with good judgment. They can actually shape their own destiny. Same thing with leadership, same thing with leadership.

“…when it comes to grownups compared to kids, we are basically the same. We are born incomplete, and we will pass incomplete. The difference between grownups and real kids is that grownups are not that well-intentioned, not that charming, and not that creative, but that’s the only difference.”

Denver: And also fearless enough to call their father crazy. That’s always good, too, you know?

Stefan: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. But it’s such a beautiful, I think for me, very useful metaphor because what happens, when I was an executive and I thought about everybody, and by the way, when it comes to grownups compared to kids, we are basically the same. We are born incomplete, and we will pass incomplete.

The difference between grownups and real kids is that grownups are not that well-intentioned, not that charming, and not that creative, but that’s the only difference. But it’s like… so when I think about this, that my direct reports, even my colleagues, even my boss, is my kid.

First of all, I have compassion for them, obviously. But they’re always on my mind, too. Always on my mind without any effort. So if I sit at home, and I watch television or whatever, and then, Oh, this is something really interesting for Bob, one of my clients. So it is effortless.

But also, it means that, yes, support is important, but tough love is also support…

Denver: No question. Yeah.

Stefan: To call people out. And mostly, they are what I call one-trick ponies. They know one trick. They are in the same way, and I mean that you need to work with your mood as a leader. Sometimes you need to be almost like, I would say, an asshole to people. You be straightforward; say this is piss poor.

We talked about this three times, and you still keep coming with this delivery. Either I’m stupid or something is going on here, but you have to explain to me what’s going on here. I mean, you need to have that ability to be that and the very opposite. So like a pussycat, and you’re super nice and you give people freedom, whatever it is. That’s it. So…

“I view it as a bank account. When I give support, that’s a deposit. When I need to exercise tough love, that’s sort of a withdrawal from it. So as long as it’s a plus, it’s fine.”

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I think a lot of leaders think tough love and caring are mutually exclusive, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Stefan: No, no, no. I…

Denver: That they go hand-in-hand.

Stefan: No, no, no. I view it as a bank account. When I give support, that’s a deposit. When I need to exercise tough love, that’s sort of a withdrawal from it. So as long as it’s a plus, it’s fine.

Denver: You coach and deal with so many different executives. We’ve mentioned uncertainty already, but do you find a pattern, a common theme of two or three things that come up that seems to be on everyone’s list?

Stefan: Yes. Yes, it is. Obviously, their own time management is something. Always walking around and thinking that I don’t have time for things, which is not true. So just time, to start. And then another area is, I would say, dealing with relationships at the workplace.

It’s fascinating to see how grownup people, and many of them are men, are completely incapable of establishing good working collaborative relationships across the board. I don’t know how many reorganizations I have seen, but actually you do a reorganization instead of saying that, Okay, Denver and Stefan, they don’t really work well together.

Well, how do we do that? Well, Mmm, let’s do a reorganization. We do a build around them instead of saying, “Stefan and Denver, can you explain to us why it’s in the best interest of the organization that you cannot collaborate when you need to collaborate?”

Obviously, you don’t have a good answer for that, so solve the problem. So that’s one. And then I think the third area is dealing with people that they think are not performing. How do you elevate a person’s performance?

Denver: Do you have a favorite question or two that you ask clients?

Stefan: Oh, always. Always. I always start my sessions with, “So what’s new and exciting?” And that’s beyond the agenda we’re going to talk about. And my clients, they learn very quickly that if they don’t have anything new and exciting to report…

Denver: That’s right.

Stefan: …I will simply ask them if they’re idiots.

Denver: Yeah, except that they didn’t read the letter that came home from school, apparently.

Stefan: No, no.

Denver: That was the assignment.

Stefan: No, no, no. When I work with clients, I try to… you create a little bit of a bubble around you and the clients. And that bubble needs to have, of course, perfect transparency. My clients need to feel that they can leave their life in my hands because I need to understand what’s going on from the basic fears of whatever it is to help them.

But we also have to have a little bit fun together. And I would say the more demanding in what they are trying to achieve is, the more fun we need to have.

Denver: Yeah, absolutely.

Stefan: Yeah.

Denver: Get a balance there.

Stefan: Yeah. Yeah.

Denver: Finally, Stefan, when you write a book like this, there’s always lessons that the author walks away with for himself. And with all the insights and guidance you provide the readers within the pages of Intrinsic Motivation, was there one insight that had the greatest impact on you?

Stefan: I think the greatest insight when I wrote the book was the following, Oh my god, these methods are so relevant for me also because I’m a human being, and if you look at what I… but I have sort of a pretty developed brain because of what I worked with.

So I have all these like red alerts that come up in my head. But one thing that I struggled with for many years is that when I felt completely certain about something that Denver should really do this and whatever it is, I became emotionally intoxicated with my own ideas.

I didn’t see any shortcomings on my idea or whatever because perfect certainty… doesn’t matter how much research I do on an idea. I will never do anything. So one of the most that I work a lot with is to keep my excitement, but still be open to accept that it looks really good, but it could actually be completely wrong.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really falling in love with the problem and not that solution that you…

Stefan: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Denver: …you have. That will keep you looking.

Tell listeners about your website and the information that they’ll find on it.

Stefan: Well, on my website, which is what,, they’d find a little bit of brief information about me and my coaching services. And then there is some media stuff on it, basically. And then they can read about the book there, and they can also…

Denver: Go ahead, I’m sorry.

Stefan: And they can contact me also through that, from my website.

Denver: And the book again is Intrinsic Motivation: Learn to Love Your Work and Succeed as Never Before. A splendid work, I might add. Thanks so much for doing this, Stefan. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Stefan: Thank you, Denver. The pleasure is mine, all mine.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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