| April 6, 2017

Personal Development & Philosophy, Podcast

Podcast #293: Doing More With Less

Have you ever told yourself, “If only I had more time, more money, or more connections, then I could put into action the big plans I have for my life?”

Well, my guest on the podcast is here to tell you that those extra resources might actually hurt you more in the long run than if you just embraced and used what you already have at hand. His hame is Scott Sonenshein, he’s a professor of business management at Rice University, and his latest book is Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. Scott highlights case studies from the world of business which show that companies that try to get more resources — like money or employees — actually have a higher failure rate than companies that try to make do with the resources they already have at their disposal. 

Today on the show, Scott and I discuss why chasing more resources often leads to failure, and why learning to stretch and use what you’ve got can give you a competitive advantage in business and in life. Scott then shares insights he’s gleaned from the world of business on how the stretching principle can help you achieve your personal goals. We then dig into the science of why constraints make us more creative and scrappy, why planning is overrated (and why you should put a premium on action), and why it’s so hard to stretch even though we intuitively know it comes with lots of benefits. 

Show Highlights

  • Chasers vs Stretchers and how each type of person/business sets out to achieve their goals
  • Resource accumulation vs resource allocation
  • The common excuses that come with Chasing
  • What it takes to stop Chasing, and move to Stretching
  • The attributes of Stretchers
  • Embracing constraints, and how they actually make us more creative
  • How even just thinking about constraints can help you succeed and solve problems
  • The difference between frugality and cheapness, and using resources wisely
  • How to not let frugality turn into miserliness
  • Why input from outsiders is important
  • The myth we tell ourselves about not knowing enough to jump into a certain goal or field of work
  • What food trucks can teach us about Stretching
  • Why plans are overrated, the importance of taking action, and how to balance the two
  • On keeping a journal of your actions and what you’ve learned along the way
  • Why it’s okay to have high, positive expectations for yourself
  • The power of small wins, and embracing what’s right in front of us
  • One thing a person can do today to become a Stretcher instead of a Chaser

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Stretch is crammed with fascinating case studies and intriguing research on how making do with less can lead to more success in business and life. The book really does a good job of eliminating the lame excuses you have for not getting going on those goals of yours.

Connect With Scott Sonenshein

Scott’s website

Scott on Twitter

Scott on Facebook

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Have you ever told yourself, “Man, if I only had more time, more money, or more connections, I could start putting into action those big plans I have for my life?” Well my guest today on the podcast is here to tell you that those extra resources might actually hurt you more in the long run than if you just embrace and use what you already have at hand. His name is Scott Sonenshein, he’s a professor of Business Management at Rice University, and in his latest book Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, he highlights case studies from the world of business that show that companies that try to get more resources like money or employees actually have a higher fail rate than companies that try to make do with the resources they already have at their disposal.

Today on the show, Scott and I discuss why chasing more resources often leads to failure and why learning to stretch and use what you’ve already got, Scott then shares insights he’s gleamed from the world of business and how this stretching principle can help you achieve your personal goals. We then dig into the science of why constraints makes us more creative and scrappy, why planning is overrated and why you should put a premium on action, and why it’s so hard to stretch even though we intuitively know that it comes with lots of benefits. Great show filled with actual insights. After the show is over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/stretch.

Scott Sonenshein, welcome to the show.

Sonenshein: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: You’re the author of a book called Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, and really it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. Just packed with all this useful information, and it’s just these interesting tidbits and case studies. So it’s all about how companies, individuals, go about being successful in their career or in their industry, and you start off the book, there are two ways. There’s stretching, which we’ll talk about here in a bit, and there’s chasing. And you argue that the way a lot of companies or individuals go about being productive in life, getting the success they want, is through chasing. Can you describe what are the traits of a chaser, and just kind of give us a walkthrough through that?

Sonenshein: Chasing is the idea that we need more resources in order to be successful. So we orient our entire lives, our entire business models about trying to suck up as many resources as fast as possible, and I learned this first hand. During the .com boom and subsequent bust in Silicon Valley, I went out there to join a startup and I was definitely chasing. I was promised a lot of wealth, everyone was going through these IPOs and I got out there and organizations were doing the same thing because the entire model was, “Let’s just raise as much money as we can, let’s bring in as many employees as we can,” and instead of building something sustainable, whether it be a sustainable business, a sustainable career, or even a sustainable life, this whole model just worked as long as someone wrote the check. And as people stopped writing checks and the market collapsed, you were left with not much.

And so that’s where I came up with the idea of chasing, and chasing is driven largely through what we call “social comparisons.” And that’s the sense that you look around at your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues at work, and you think that you need the same things in order to succeed. So you focus so much of your efforts on trying to get these things, meanwhile you overlook the most important goals right in front of you.

Brett McKay: Right, and you still see the chasing model today in Silicon Valley with the venture capital, right? It’s just companies who are just trying to get as much cash as they can. Like the whole mantra there is like, “Cash flow solves all problems,” spending it on high salaries, perks for their employees, but a lot of these companies … What’s the success rate for venture capital funded tech companies? It’s not that great is it?

Sonenshein: Well, yeah, we’ll see what it is in this most current cycle. To kind of quote a song, it does feel like 1999 all over again. But back in the boom and bust that I was in, roughly 50% of organizations that were founded went out of business in around 5 years or so. Those that survived took this very different approach around stretching, which is really about being resourceful and focusing on how do you get the most out of what you already have as opposed to trying to accumulate resources. You have to remember that resources are instrumental, they help us reach goals. They’re not the goal itself. But people forget that.

Brett McKay: And I mean, how does chasing play itself out in our personal lives? Is it just like, “Oh, if only this thing was different or I had this thing, I would be successful,” is that like a chasing mentality in our personal lives?

Sonenshein: Yeah, absolutely. “If I only had more money, or more connections, I could do all of these things.” And then of course you see chasing a lot when it comes to how we set up our households. So a lot of people move into larger homes than they necessarily would because they think that it’s a symbol of status, and their neighbor’s have it, and the problem is … I like to think of this as you’re on the treadmill and you’re trying to get somewhere, forward, and that’s what your goal is. But with a treadmill of course, you’re not moving any forward, you’re working hard and your legs are moving but you’re not making any progress. And then as you chase, you escalate those comparisons.

I talk about people in the book who are multi-millionaires who feel inadequate as they make comparisons to billionaires. So you turn up that dial on the treadmill and you’re running faster and faster and faster, but you’re still not making any more progress towards your goals. And that’s the challenge with chasing, it’s a rat race that people don’t want to play but they end up playing it, because they don’t have the courage to recognize and have a conversation with themselves about what it is they’re trying to accomplish in their lives.

Brett McKay: I think also chasing can be a roadblock to actually getting started with something, cause you use that as an excuse. Like, “Well, I would get in shape but I just don’t have time or the money for the gym.” So they just keep putting it off.

Sonenshein: Right, yeah. Exactly, it delays reaching your goals. I have a whole chapter in the book about that, and you take this … It’s a really convenient excuse to say, “Oh, you know, I don’t have a gym membership,” or “I have an inadequate set of weights in my house.” Well, just go for a walk, or go for a jog, or do something. And the idea with stretching is you reach your goals when you start doing something because our success comes not from what we think about or what we plan to do but from what we actually do, and chasing is the ultimate distraction and excuse to do nothing.

Brett McKay: All right, let’s talk about stretching. You’ve mentioned some of the attributes of stretchers, they see the resources and what they have and they start there instead of thinking about what they don’t have. Any other attributes of a good stretcher?

Sonenshein: A good stretcher is also going to embrace constraints. I think when a lot of people think about constraints, they want to run away from them because from the chasing mentality, constraints are bad because we think of ourselves as worthy people if we have a lot. That’s what comes from chasing. But with constraints, stretchers embrace constraints and they recognize that when their backs are against the wall, that’s when we can unleash that inner MacGyver that I think all of us have. So I like to think of stretchers as MacGyvering their entire life, not just the physical things and not just in the way that he does it, but to think about all of the problems that we face and ask not what I don’t have but what do I have and how can I think about those more creatively. And there’s a whole host of research in psychology that shows that when we face constraints, when we think about scarcity, we can get really creative with what we have, and it allows us to solve problems that we otherwise might need more resources for.

Brett McKay: And with these constraints, you talk a lot about a lot of research, you highlight a lot of research, how actually constraints can make us more creative. Any specific studies or experiments that stood out to you that showed that constraints actually make us more creative?

Sonenshein: Yeah, so I like this study that looks at simply thinking about constraints, because the reality is, is all of us probably face constraints in our lives at some time. And that’s often where we can get into the stretching mindset, but I think the bigger challenge is most people in this country are relatively fortunate, and how do we unleash this power of stretching when we’re in these types of situations? So in this research study they divided participants into two groups randomly. One group was told simply, “Think about a time when you were a child and you had a lot of things.” That’s the abundance group. Then another group was told, “Think about a time when you were a child and you didn’t have a lot.” That’s called the scarcity or constraint group. Then they were given a problem, computer lab had some extra bubble wrap and they needed to solve a problem related to the bubble wrap, and it turns out that simply just thinking about constraints allowed people to come up with more creative and innovative ideas.

And that’s one of the beauties of the stretching mindset, is it’s not that hard to get into. First of all, we have familiarity with stretching whenever we faced a real constraint. That’s where we can get into this. People who I profile, billionaires who grew up during hard times and they were able to build really successful businesses by using the lessons of stretching that they gained when they were under hard times. But even when we’re relatively fortunate, simply thinking about constraints can get us into a similar type of head space so we too can find success, at all times.

Brett McKay: So yeah, if you are in a fortunate position you have to be more thoughtful about establishing those constraints for yourself. That takes a little bit of willpower, I imagine.

Sonenshein: It takes willpower and it also I think really takes a lot of courage because, again, if we think that most people are operating out of this chasing mindset, by having constraints you’re trying to say, “Well maybe I’m inferior because I judge how valuable I am as a person or how important my business is based off of our resources. Why would I ever want to put myself under constraints?” You look at the way a lot of startup organizations evolved, they start as this scrappy garage startup, that’s the classic HP in Silicon Valley. And then they move into these really elaborate, beautiful headquarters because I think they want to show themselves and the rest of the world that they’ve made it really big. Meanwhile, they send all of these signals to their employees that says, “Hey, it’s okay to squander resources, look at all of the things that we have. We live in a land of abundance.” And the challenge is, and I’m talking about a lot of the unicorn startups you see right now, they don’t actually make any money. They spend a lot of money, but they don’t make a lot of money. And they send all of these signals and they create a culture of waste, and when someone stops writing the check, they’re going to have a really hard time adapting.

Brett McKay: I think there’s a quote, I forgot who said it, it’s something along the lines of like, “Great nations begin stoic and they die epicurean.”

Sonenshein: Yeah.

Brett McKay: They kind of begin very hardy and scrappy, but then the reason they die is because the success they got from that scrappiness eventually kills them.

Sonenshein: Yeah, they consider it inferior.

Brett McKay: Right. So besides constraints, any other attributes of a stretcher?

Sonenshein: Yeah, so another important part is this idea of ownership, and how stretchers embrace what they have from a psychological stance of ownership. So I’ve done some research that looks at retail employees, and you wouldn’t think of retail employees as those who have a lot of ownership. They’re barely paid above minimum wage, and they don’t have equity stakes or any of that stuff. But what I found in this research of this large chain of stores is if employees can get into that head space where they literally feel like they own the resources in their stores, they’re able to solve problems more creatively and effectively.

The challenge of course is we tend to strip away ownership from employees. We like to put on a dunce cap on them, we expect that people are not going to perform their best so we develop a lot of control mechanisms to monitor employees and take away discretion, and as a result we end up getting employees who are controlled and don’t take discretionary action that would help the organization. So ownership, when you feel like you own stuff around you. And that’s hard, that’s hard to grasp at work because most of us don’t work for ourselves, we work for other people and we don’t own the desk we’re working at, we don’t own the tools we’re working at, we don’t own the computer we’re working at. But if you can get into that space where you feel like you own these types of things, you’re able to come up with more creative solutions.

And then another important aspect of the mindset is frugality, and that’s all about how do you use resources in effective ways? Being good stewards. We tend to conflate frugality with cheapness, and they’re two very different things from a psychologist perspective. When people are cheap, they are pained from spending money. They have this bad reaction in their gut, so they can’t part with money. That is not the ticket to a successful life or a successful business because you’re not going to make indulgences and we like to indulge sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re also not going to invest in your business because you’re afraid to spend money. When we’re frugal however, it’s a very different psychology. We take pleasure in using money and other resources wisely. So it’s about getting a good deal, it’s about using resources efficiently. And that’s what tends to be the path to not only a good life, but a successful business.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s backtrack to this idea of ownership. So it’s an important aspect of a stretcher, and so if you’re an employer or you’re an employee and you’re listening to this and you’re like, “I want that, because I know it can make me more effective.” How do you go about creating that culture in a company? That culture of ownership?

Sonenshein: So it starts with trust, and trusting the front line that they can make decisions. Because if you think about it, the people who are closest to your products, closest to your customers, are your front line employees. Yet we take away so much of their ability to use that information because we don’t trust them. So starting a culture of ownership is really a leadership challenge, it’s a challenge that sets up an environment that says, “Hey we’re going to empower you, we’re going to trust you to make good decisions, and we’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt.” Now some people of course will take advantage of that, and that’s always going to be a negative outcome and there’s ways you can do that. But most people want to make contributions to work, they want to help their organizations, but we don’t trust them.

So in one part of my research, I went to the most successful store manager in this chain of stores, and it was a woman’s fashion boutique, and I was asking him, “What is it that allows you to be so successful?” And told me a story about the time when he got a piece of crap dress, no one wanted to buy it. The store had lots of it, it was falling off the hangers, and most people would resign themselves and say, ‘I can’t be successful in this type of environment, I have garbage to sell, so I’m just going to wait until something better comes along.” Well, what this guy did is he took a pair of scissors, he cut the straps off, he rolled it up, put a bow around it and made a sign that said “beach wear.” And it went from a last seller to a best seller. Now a lot of companies, that probably would get you fired. That would be called damaging the product, right? But what this company did is it empowered people like him to make these types of decisions that were good for his store, as well as the larger company.

Brett McKay: So that ownership, it sounds like, gives the person an internal locus of control, right? That they are in control of their-

Sonenshein: Exactly.

Brett McKay: So going back to frugality, I thought this was a really great section. Frugality is you enjoy spending money, but you enjoy it when it’s spent wisely, and saving money. So how do you avoid, cause I know when I’ve been in my frugal streaks, it often slips into miserly-ness where I’m just pinching every penny and it’s not enjoyable, but somehow I turn into this Scrooge McDuck where I enjoy counting my coins, right? How do you avoid frugality slipping into miserly-ness?

Sonenshein: I think you have to remind yourself of what your goals are, and it’s kind of ironic but if you think about it, the cheap person is really not that much different than the chaser because the chaser is so worried about accumulation and is going out and trying to acquire resources, counting those resources. On many respects, that’s what the cheap person is doing, they’re hoarding their resources, they’re hoarding their money, they’re counting, I mean you’re literally counting those coins, and meanwhile, the numbers might be increasing, you might have more money, you might have more coins or more of whatever you’re trying to maximize, but you’re not using those towards your goals. And again, at the end of the day, what we care about is using our resources to achieve goals. Not just to get more resources, that would be a pretty bizarre goal. Resources are instrumental. So if we remind ourselves what our actual goals are, we can get closer to the frugality part of the spectrum than the cheap part.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and you highlight I guess he’s a hedge-fund manager or some sort, but he was super … He’s a big penny pincher.

Sonenshein: Yeah, this is a guy who’s got millions and millions of dollars and he has his own investment bank, and he lives in this dilapidated house with a leaky roof. He doesn’t seem to want to get a professional to repair the roof, he’s been seen on his roof trying to repair it himself. The house is in such disrepair that mold has started to infest in it, so his wife doesn’t want to spend a night in that home. Meanwhile, this guy would easily be able to fix it. His business is run the same way where he didn’t want to fix the carpet, people were tripping all over the place. One of his regulators fined his company for compliance issues, not because there was any ill-will done, but because he was so cheap and didn’t invest in compliance. And so this is the classic example of someone being cheap. He’s counting his money, he’s not using it to focus on goals that I would argue would be his more meaningful goals, and it’s completely displaced him from living, I think, the type of life that most of us would consider wanting to live.

Brett McKay: And I guess to contrast him would be someone like Warren Buffett. The guy’s a billionaire but he seems pretty frugal, like he doesn’t mind spending money so long as it’s wisely spent.

Sonenshein: Yeah, that’s right. And he of course is donating most of his money to charity, and I think there’s a lot we can learn from successful business people who take this approach. There’s a couple of others I profile in the book, one is Dick Yuengling who founded a very successful beer company. It’s actually the largest domestic beer producer in America right now with domestic production, and he’s really frugal. He reuses styrofoam coffee cups and drives a very modest car. He’s one of the 500 richest men according to Forbes magazine, and he’s instilled his culture in his whole company.

And the same thing for this guy by the name of Bob Kierlin who, you know, does some pretty extreme things on the frugality side, such as not reimbursing expenses when employees travel, or not reimbursing meals when they travel because of course they need to eat. But the flip side of that is he takes that money and he invests it in his people, gives them better salaries, bonuses, lots of opportunities and he reasons, “Look, if I’m paying the bill when they eat, they’re going to end up eating in ways that they wouldn’t if it were their money, so let them spend their money and I’ll give it back to them in other ways.”

And by the way, this guy donates a lot of money to charity too, although often anonymously. And you can kind of compare that to people who want that glamor and they want all of the recognition, they want to put up the fancy buildings and get their names on things. You know, it’s a very different type of mindset about how you think about resources. One is really about thinking about those goals and what you want to live the best life, and the other I think is largely driven by this chasing mentality of status. So even gift giving becomes who can build the nicest building. I want to one-up my friend who just donated a lot of money and I want to build an even nicer building.

Brett McKay: So yeah, there’s some great case studies there about frugality, so folks need to check out the book to get that. Another attribute of stretchers, you mentioned in the book, is they put a premium on input from outsiders. So what makes an outsider an outsider first, let’s go there?

Sonenshein: An outsider is someone who doesn’t know a lot about a specific area that they’re asked to solve a problem in.

Brett McKay: Well, then how can outsiders solve problems if they don’t know very much about that area that they’re working in?

Sonenshein: Well, this again is one of the beauties of the power of the stretching framework. Because again, you’re right, our intuitions would be you would want people who know the most to be solving problems, to be on your teams. But it actually turns out, that’s not what the research shows. So there’s studies that look at ten different countries, 166 scientific labs and it was a very simple question the researchers were asking with a pretty straightforward prediction you would think. “How much scientific knowledge in a given domain does someone know? How much does that knowledge predict how well they can solve that problem in that domain?” Turns out that there’s a relationship, it’s a strong relationship, but it’s negative. The more that someone knew about a domain, the less likely they were to solve a problem. So the biologists were more likely to solve the chemistry problems and vice versa.

And there’s a reason for that. The reason is, when we have deep knowledge in an area, we tend to focus and try and solve problems in traditional ways. When we have less information, we’re able to import different perspectives and not be blinded by our expertise. That’s hard for people to grasp though, you think about there’s been a lot of popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s work in Outliers and he talks about how you need 10,000 hours to gain proficiency in doing something. And what I’m finding in my work, it’s called the multi-c or multi-context rule, and that the breadth of experience is what’s most important when you have complex problems.

So if you look at research that shows the relationship between the number of hours you spend practicing something and performance, so for games like chess, that relationship is about 26%. That’s not bad, but it’s probably a lot less than you would have predicted. When you get down to sports, it’s like 18%. Work and education, it’s under 5%. And the pattern is as we go for more structured activities where the rules of the game are always known to less structured activities but activities that we spend most of our lives doing, learning and working, the role of expertise and practice has less and less of an impact. And it’s that same reason why, experts approach problems in such specific ways that when the rules are always changing, they’re applying frameworks that might no longer make sense. And that’s why we need outsiders on teams.

Brett McKay: And this is like a really powerful idea, because going back to the chasing mentality, often times an excuse we use to start a business or to do something is like, “Well I just don’t know enough. I need to know more about this topic so I’m going to research it more,” a lot of people do that when they start a business. “I got to look into this business more and more and more,” and what you’re saying is that actually might not be helpful, and in fact it might be counter-productive.

Sonenshein: That’s right, and I spent a few years doing a study of gourmet food trucks which was one of the funnest research projects I ever had to do. I mean, I did gain 15 pounds doing this research which I had to work really hard to lose, but these are incredibly constrained organizations and you’d be surprised but most of them have very little experience cooking. They have very little experience in the restaurant business, a lot of them were trying to reinvent their careers, they came from IT, I interviewed teachers, people who were just serial entrepreneurs, a whole diversity of people, but a lot of them had zero restaurant experience. But what they realized is that lack of experience but the knowledge that they had from other areas allowed them to come up with new ways of thinking about their food, new ways of operating their business. So it’s not that they don’t know a lot, it’s that they know a little about lots of different things, and that gives them a very important perspective on not just starting a business but trying to solve any type of problem.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about in the book that bringing an outside perspective into your life or your business doesn’t require you necessarily to actually find physical beings who are outsiders, right? Like you can do that in your own life by just reading broadly from different domains, different perspectives, traveling, gaining new experiences yourself so you can bring that back to your own life.

Sonenshein: Yeah, or even at work. I mean, how many people would ever think about going to a conference in a different industry? But I mean a lot of the problems that we’re solving at work, they’re similar and parallel problems in neighboring industries, but we never talked to people in those industries. Or go have lunch with someone who has your same job in a different company. Imagine all of the things you can learn. But we tend to just like to talk to people who are just like us.

Brett McKay: Or as that big book about Dell labs and all the productivity they had during the ’50s and ’60s and one of the things they attributed to that productivity and all these developments like lasers, I mean it was crazy what they developed, was that there was this intermingling going on between different departments and they were able to combine these ideas just within their own workforce.

Sonenshein: Yeah, that’s a great example.

Brett McKay: So one of my favorite chapters in your book is about taking action and not putting a premium on plans. That’s one of the attributes of stretchers. They don’t actually plan all that much, they just start acting and then they kind of figure things out after they’ve taken action. But here’s the thing, it’s counter-intuitive because a lot of the business advice out there is you need to sit down, you need to create this detailed business plan. Before you do a project, you need to map out the steps you’re going to take to complete the project. So how do plans actually prevent us from getting the success that we want? How can it stop us from making progress?

Sonenshein: If you think where the stakes of planning are the highest, imagine you’re a big business and you’re going through your five year plan, strategic plan, the reality is, is what the research shows is those plans have very little impact on performance, and depending on the study you look at, sometimes they even harm performance. The challenge is, five years is a long time. It’s really hard to imagine two years from now where the world that we live in right now sometimes goes almost on an hourly basis in terms of what’s unfolding.

So when you live in a lot of uncertainty, plans are really misleading because what happens is you make assumptions about what the world is going to look like, what your life is going to look like, what your market is going to look like, what your competition is going to look like many, many years down the road. And the odds of that world or those markets or so on looking like how you think they’re going to look are pretty slim. But you trick yourself into thinking that’s how the world will work because that’s what you put in your plan. So you stick to your plan and you keep marching forward as if you’re living in a reality because you thought that reality is what’s going to happen. So when we’re stretching, we’re realizing that one, planning, in many respects, is a large waste of time. And two, what we want to focus on is more spontaneous action that allows us to learn about the present as opposed to going through the frivolous activity of trying to predict the future.

Brett McKay: I do a lot of planning. I try to plan my day out, and it never goes according to plan, ever. One of things I found with planning, the trap it can lead you into, is that it makes you feel like you’re doing something even though you’re not doing something. So you can pat yourself on the back because you made this awesome plan but then you end up not doing anything about it because you already felt like you accomplished something with your plan.

Sonenshein: Yeah, and we tend to think that we’re successful based off of our plans when the reality is, is we’re successful because of what we do, not what we plan to do, but we forget that.

Brett McKay: You do need to do a little planning, right? You talked about in the book that one of the downsides of this action over plans is not having direction, basically wandering around. So how do you strike a balance between taking action and doing a bit of planning so you’re not wandering around in the weeds?

Sonenshein: Yeah, it’s a really important balance to strike, and obviously there were some things in life you still need to plan for. You need to plan for retirement, you need to plan for your kids’ education. So these are things where planning is important. The point of the stretching framework is that we over-plan in many different aspects. So the way to really balance that is to make sure that we’re learning, and what separates those people who can act spontaneously successfully from those who don’t is that they learn, and that they make adjustments. And what I mean by that is if you think about, whether it be your business or your life, it’s all about trying different things and then reflecting on what just happened, and then making adjustments.

So I talk about one company, JC Penny, in the book, and Ron Johnson was their CEO, he had come from Apple and he was very successful in the Apple retail store. He was the one who invented the Genius Bar, and he was a very improvisational acter, he had this gut feeling about Genius Bar and he went with it and it turned out to be great. Well, our instincts also can be wrong, and in his case at JC Penny, he literally bet the farm on a new strategy around getting rid of the traditional discounts that you would have in department stores and going to everyday low pricing.

He then tested, he turned it all on at the same time, and as the day they were coming in it clearly was not working. And he doubled down, and we do that a lot when we’re chasing is we just start throwing good money after bad ideas because we think if we spend enough money on something we can eventually turn it around. Because he had this instinct that said everyday low pricing is the way that we’re going to go, and as more, and more, and more data kept coming in, he kept sticking to that until finally he was fired. You know, what he was doing is leaping, or kind of acting, but not learning. And if we’re not going to learn when we’re doing this spontaneous action we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. So we’ve got to get into a learning mindset if we’re going to abandon the plan.

Brett McKay: Right. I think one exercise you mentioned in the book that you can do, and you sort of alluded to it in your answer, was that, you know, keep a journal of what you did and then write what you learned from that, right? Like, “I took these actions and then here’s what I learned by taking those actions.” And then you basically have a record, it allows you to plan backwards in a way.

Sonenshein: Yeah, it gives you that backwards-looking plan, and what I like people to do is compare that backwards-looking plan to what their forward looking plan would have been. And my sense is what usually happens is they don’t look the same. But what you see is, there still tends to be structure towards your day, and that’s an important point to make, is that when I’m saying you should act spontaneously I’m not saying you should slide by the seat of your pants and you shouldn’t have any structure, and this backward-looking plan is that structure.

If you even look at jazz music which is often held up as the classic example of improvisation, there’s still a lot of structure that’s going on in that music, whether it be the rhythm, the way that they communicate and coordinate by looking at each other, and all of those things. So I’m not saying just kind of get out there and let things fly, what I’m saying is you’re going to learn that when you go through your day and you’re more spontaneous, it’s going to open you up to new experiences. But it’s so critical that you learn from those experiences and make adjustments so you can constantly be getting better. And when you create this backward-looking plan, it disciplines us to reflect on how our day just went, what we learned by acting more improvisationally.

Brett McKay: Another attribute of stretchers you talk about is having high expectations for yourself. So what does the research say about having high expectations for you, your company, or your employees?

Sonenshein: Expectations end up shaping a lot of our behavior. The challenge is we often set negative expectations. So let’s say we’re late for work one day. Or actually let’s say one of our employees is late for work one day. What do we immediately think? Well, they’re not responsible, they should have left early. Or if we’re in the store and we see a stranger slip, what do we think? We think, well they’re kind of clumsy. Now if we were in those same situations, we were late to work, we would have known we got caught in the freeway in a bad accident, or we would have known that there was a puddle on the ground that we didn’t look at. The challenge is when we’re looking at other people’s behaviors, we don’t have access to their situations. So we don’t know that they were stuck in traffic because of an accident, we don’t know that there was a puddle on the floor and that’s why they slipped.

So because we don’t have access to this, we explain their behavior based off of individual attributes. So when we’re observing bad behavior, you’re responsible and they’re clumsy. And that’s what we do with expectations a lot at work is, we assume the worst in people. We might hear, “Oh, this guy’s a jerk.” Haven’t met him, but what happens when we meet him? We’re going to interact with him in ways that self-fulfill that prophecy, that actually turn him into a jerk, whether it’s our body language or the way we’re looking at him or how curt we might be when we talk to him.

So with stretching, we want to replace these types of negative expectations with what I call positive prophecies. And positive prophecies are when we give people the benefit of the doubt and we expect them to be able to perform at the highest levels. And the important caveat here is we want to make sure that those expectations are believable because there’s a fine line that we can draw between setting positive expectations that create this nice positive prophecy and creating performance pressure. So there’s been a lot of interesting research in sports that have looked at the so-called home field advantage, and you often think, “Wow the home team is going to do better because of this advantage,” but what tends to happen is those expectations create this performance pressure.

So if you look at game 7 of the World Series, it turns out that the home team usually doesn’t win those games. Or you can look at free throw percentage during the playoffs in the NBA and the home team tends to do … well those tend to be equal until game 7 where the home team actually does worse, and it creates that performance pressure. So we want to set credible and positive expectations that are in that sweet spot where people feel capable that they can live up to those expectations but they don’t feel overburdened that it turns into pressure.

Brett McKay: So how do you create believable expectations, positive prophecies?

Sonenshein: Well, it starts with really knowing your employees and getting to understand where they can grow, and starting small. You know, if you go and you start with someone and it’s their first day at work and you tell them, “You’re going to be the absolute superstar here,” people might say, “Oh, that’s great, I love that they have such high expectations of me and that’s a really nice compliment.” But that creates an enormous pressure. So you want to start with what I call small winds. So instead of that type of message, you can come back with something like, “I know you’re going to do terrific on your first project,” and start with something that’s a less ambitious goal, and then gradually over time you can amp up expectations as people build up their confidence and then those expectations won’t be seen as performance pressure. So start small is the quick answer.

Brett McKay: Right, this seems like this could be good parenting advice too.

Sonenshein: Yeah, it would be absolutely good parenting advice. I have two daughters, four and nine years old, and we put enormous burdens on our children right now. I mean, we’re plotting out … You talk about planning, we’re not plotting out where they’re going to college anymore, we’re plotting out where they’re going to pre-k. It’s absolutely crazy what’s out there and kids are smart, they’re like sponges. They soak up this information and they see all of these enormous expectations that their parents are putting on them, and these kids, I think, tend to burn out as they get older and eventually they revolt because they just crack under the pressure. Who wants to setup a life of someone like that? So again, start small, you want good, positive expectations and a lot of this research is in education and it shows that you can make children smarter by giving them positive expectations, but just don’t overdo it.

Brett McKay: We’ve been talking about the benefits of stretching, right? Putting actions over planning, being frugal, thinking about the resources you have at hand right now instead of the resources you don’t have. There’s all these benefits to stretching, why do so many people chase? Cause I think people intuitively understand that, “Yeah, that’s a great idea,” but they don’t do it. Why is that?

Sonenshein: They don’t do it because they have so many signals in our culture and in our businesses that chasing is the, and the only way to success and satisfaction. You even think about concepts like the American Dream, and what that means in terms of how you’ve got to move up to the house with the white picket fence. Well maybe there’s people that don’t want to live in a house and they’d rather live in an apartment or something. There’s nothing wrong, when you’re achieving your goals you just have to think what those goals are.

Or social media plays a big role in chasing too. When we share information on social media, about 75% of what we share tends to be good news. So we keep escalating our social comparisons as we’re seeing all of these people, it could be on networks like LinkedIn, you’re always getting notices when people are getting promoted or when they’re moving to new jobs. You never see the other side of it, no one’s posting on LinkedIn, “Hey I just got canned.” So it creates this arms race where you feel like to have any meaningful impact and to have meaning yourself in the world, you need more resources because of all of these signals.

And people tend to associate stretching as something that you do only when your backs are against the wall. Stretching is something that is a necessity. And we can get that, you’re a poor college student without any income, you understand Ramen noodles and stretching. You’re an executive at a Fortune 500 company, you understand mahogany furniture and corporate jets. And that’s the kind of cultural signals we give to people, but the point of this book and why I think it’s so valuable is when you dive down into the research and you look at many of the most successful people and they’re successful, not just at work but successful in life, they’re going at it in the complete opposite direction. They’re recognizing that, “Yeah we can achieve really high goals and yeah we can be really satisfied, but we’re getting there not by chasing after resources but by embracing what’s right in front of us and just thinking about them much more creatively and in better ways.”

Brett McKay: This has been a great conversation. Last question. What do you think’s one thing that a person who’s listening to this podcast right now, that they can do today that will provide the most ROI in becoming a better stretcher? Is there like one thing you think they can do quick and it’ll give them a quick win?

Sonenshein: The quick win is to start small with a project and impose some artificial limitations on it. And this I think is going to be a little counter-intuitive also for people, if I said go with your boss and say, “You know what, give me a little less money or a little less time or one less person to deliver a project.” Most people would say, “That’s the exact opposite thing.” But again, we have to link that dependence on chasing and what happens when they try this out, they realize not only can they get the job done, but that those constraints help them do the job better, and that’s how you build up your confidence and experience to start stretching.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well Scott, where can people learn more about the book?

Sonenshein: Can go to my website, which is www.ScottSonenshein.com, S-C-O-T-T, S-O-N-E-N-S-H-E-I-N, and I’ve got great resources, videos, and articles that they can download, and the book is available wherever books are sold.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Scott Sonenshein, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Sonenshein: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Scott Sonenshein, his book is called Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find more information about Scott’s work at ScottSonenshein.com. Also check out our show notes at AOM.is/stretch where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoyed the show and you’ve got something out of the podcast, please consider giving us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: November 16, 2017

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