in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #418: How to Get Unstuck

Do you feel stuck in moving forward with your plans and goals in life? Well my guest today has some no-nonsense advice on how to shift out of neutral and get going again.

His name is Bernie Roth. He’s the co-founder of the Stanford design school and the author of The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your LifeToday on the show, Bernie explains to us what “design thinking” is and how its principles can be used to create a flourishing life for ourselves. We discuss how suspending the belief that everything has meaning can help you find new meaning, why reasons are just excuses, how to really get at the root of our problems, the difference between trying to do something and doing it, and how action is the best form of learning. We end our conversation discussing how you build true confidence by consistently taking small steps towards your goal and making the achievement habit a part of your life.

If you need help in getting unstuck in life, you’re really going to enjoy this podcast.

Show Highlights

  • What is design thinking?
  • What Bernie means by “achievement” 
  • The power in not imbuing everything with meaning
  • Why do humans tend toward thinking about the problems in our way rather than the opportunities? 
  • Why obstacles are actually very important on the path to success
  • Why excuses and reasons are BS 
  • How to reframe problems in order to solve them 
  • Differentiating between “trying” and “doing” 
  • The way our internal dialogue affects whether we’re trying or doing 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Book cover of The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth.

Connect With Bernie 

Bernie on Twitter

Achievement Habit website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Do you feel stuck in moving forward with your plans and goals in life? If so, my guest today has some no-nonsense advice on how to shift that in neutral and get going again. His name is Bernie Roth. He’s the co-founder of the Stanford Design School and the author of the book, The Achievement Habit, Stop Wishing, Start Doing and Take Command of Your Life.

Today on the show, Bernie explains to us what design thinking is, and how its principles can be used to create a flourishing life for ourselves. We discuss how suspending the belief that everything has meaning can help you find new meaning, why reasons are just excuses, how to really get at the root of our problems, the difference between trying to do something and actually doing it, and how action is the best form of learning. We end our conversation discussing how you build true confidence by consistently taking small steps toward your goal, and making the achievement habit a part of your life.

Need help getting unstuck in your life? You’re really going to enjoy this podcast. After the show is over, check out the show notes at AOM.IS/AchievementHabit.

Bernie Roth, welcome to the show.

Bernie Roth: Thank you.

Brett McKay: So you just published a book, The Achievement Habit. You have a really interesting background, because you’re a professor at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. It’s the D School. For listeners who aren’t familiar with design theory, what do you teach students at the D School, and what do people who specialize in design go on to do later on?

Bernie Roth: Yeah. Well, it’s a little deceiving, the name, so the thing to understand is we don’t really teach professional designers at all, although some professional designers do work here. What we’re doing is something called design thinking, which is a broad problem-solving methodology that evolved from people who originally did what you think designers do, which is they worry about artifacts. They worry about different things in the world. We’re interested not only in things, but, also, in people, and organizations, and behavior. We’re interested in all sorts of problems.

And we find that these methodologies, which are a little bit different then the normal problem-solving methodologies are very effective, especially the whole idea of being human centered and being concerned with the people you’re working for. It’s a new twist on an old thing, which is getting stuff done in the world. So we give the students an experience that way.

My Institute is not really a department, so we can’t admit anyone to Stanford and we can’t give degrees, but we do give courses, and this year, for example, we’re giving 70 courses and we have over a thousand Stanford students taking them, and they’re mainly graduate students, masters and PhD students in all the departments in the university, and when they get done, they go back to doing what they were doing

So it’s mainly just giving them extra tools in their life. Now, some flip. A few become just so enamored by what they’ve gotten in the new method that they become the professional so-called design thinkers. But basically think of it in terms of a learning by doing methodology that’s useful in almost any walk of life.

Brett McKay: Right. So it could be designing product or designing a system that human use that makes it-

Bernie Roth: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not tied to a physical product, although it might include that, but in general, it could be the way a hospital works. It could be the way your life works. It could be the way your organization functions to accomplish something. It could be the way the government hires people. It could be the way you give Social Security benefits to people. It’s almost any issue dealing with people that we’re interested in.

Brett McKay: So for a big picture overview, you don’t have to get into the details, but I mean what is the process of design thinking? What goes on when you’re looking at a problem and how you solve that?

Bernie Roth: Yeah. Well, the process itself is not that unique. It’s more a set of mindsets that go with it. So first, there’s not a process. There are many processes. And the thing is, it’s not very linear. But for purposes of teaching and explaining, we have a process that we advertise, although not everyone uses it, of course, and that is if you get an issue, first of all, get acquainted with what the problem is, which seems, of course, you have to do that. Get as much information as you can, and then define what the real problem is. We call that a point of view, and then once you get that, you IDA, and you test, and you produce a solution. Well, almost everyone does that one way or another, whether they call it design thinking or not if you’re problem-solving.

So really what the difference is, we’re much more human centered than most problem solvers are. Most people, when they solve problems, just talk to other professionals. They don’t really talk to the people they’re actually doing the thing for, and I can give you some good examples of that later.

We, also, have what’s called the bias towards action. We don’t over-think and over-plan. In fact, we tend to avoid planning. We just learn by doing. So that’s something which you’re going to make mistakes. If you just do something without thinking about, you’re surely going to, at some point, make some mistakes, and our whole mindset is to learn from your mistakes, and that may be a better and faster way to learn than just sitting around thinking, hoping you’re going to get it perfect the first time.

So we have what’s called the bias towards action. We have the human centeredness I mentioned. We have the notion of radical collaboration, which is to involve many more voices than are usually involved in getting the job done.

So all our classes, which are project based classes, are very inter-disciplinary. So it’s not unusual for us to have a team of four, where one person is in the Graduate School of Business. One person may be in medicine or law. One person is in engineering. One person is in the humanities, and those four people are working on the same issue.

So we get different perspectives, and it’s very enriching. So we have this whole idea of radical collaboration. We don’t let any one course be taught by just one person. So I myself, even though I’m one of the originators, cannot go into a classroom just by myself. I have to have some other people in there, also, helping lead the class.

So we have this whole idea of multiple voices, and then there a few other things we do. But that’s the whole idea, is to just have an action based approach to problem-solving, where you learn by doing and you learn from what happens, and you don’t worry about making mistakes, because you can correct it and maybe it’s the best thing that happens to you during the process.

Brett McKay: Okay. So what you’ve done in The Achievement Habit is you’ve taken this design thinking and help people apply it to the most human of activities, is designing your life, right, in a way that’s-

Bernie Roth: Yeah. It’s kind of funny, because when I started to do that, I thought I’d get a lot of push back from you people in the business, because one of our mantras is design for someone else. Don’t design for yourself. But actually it’s been very well accepted by the people, and now there are those who actually talk about designing your life.

My book is not really a design your life book. It’s a design your every day thing. People who talk about designing your life, they’re talking about future planning and things of that nature. My belief is you can’t really plan … Everything that happened in my life that’s great happened by happenstance. It was an accident. It was a phone call. It was meeting someone. It wasn’t something I could have planned out at all.

So I’m a firm believer in getting your act together day to day, having a decent life as you go along, and the long run will take care of yourself if the short term is moving correctly.

Brett McKay: I was going to say, the book’s called Achievement Habit. So with what you just said, what is it that you mean by achievement?

Bernie Roth: Well, I do not mean being queen or king of the universe, and I actually have a friend who said to me, “Bernie, I would never buy a book with achievement in the title.” But really what I mean about it is to have a good life, and I say the ultimate achievement is if when you die and your friends eulogize you, they don’t have to lie, and if they can tell the truth about you and be proud of it, that’s a good measure of it.

But it’s really the whole idea of being a decent human being, and feeling comfortable about your life, being comfortable about being in your skin, and having the people around you feel good about you, and being part of a functioning society. So I think that’s what achievement is. That’s achieving a good life to me.

Brett McKay: So as I was reading about what design thinkers do, in a lot of ways you guys are meaning makers. You’re trying to create a system or product that when a human interacts with it, it makes sense to them, right? They intuitively know how to use it. It provides some structure. What’s interesting, you talk about one of the things that designer thinkers do is they suspend all sense of meaning to create more meaning. So what’s going on there? Why is it important for designers to suspend all sense of meaning, so they can create more effective systems?

Bernie Roth: Well, I would say it a little bit differently. I think the first thing is to realize you give everything in your life its meaning basically. Nothing has an intrinsic meaning that you haven’t given it, and because of that, you’re sort of a powerful person. You’re sort of godlike, if I might say, because you’re giving everything in your life its meaning. So that’s both wonderful and that’s a little dangerous, because you might give it a meaning which is destructive in terms of getting the problem solved, or getting what you want to do handled. So, at that point, you can reframe it and give it a slightly different meaning.

So the whole idea is to be flexible and to realize that not everything means exactly what you think it means in your life, and you can use it in different ways, and you can do different things, and you can see the same situation from many different viewpoints, and that’s a very powerful thing, because it gets you unstuck if you’re stuck in this pigeonhole. It can get you into trouble.

But I think in general, I find that’s a very powerful emotion for me. People think if everything doesn’t have a set meaning, that’s terrible. It’s nihilistic. I actually see it as very powerful. I see it as it empowers me, because I can choose the meaning of all the stuff that happens in my life. So this interview, I can make it the best thing in my life that ever happened or the worst thing in my life that ever happened, and we might both come up with different meanings for it. I don’t know.

But you get to play these things out, and it’s so interesting. Here is an example. If you make a mistake, if something terrible happens, you can become suicidal about it, or you can say, “Wow. I really learned. I’m never going to do that again. That was really exciting. That’s such a valuable experience I got out of it.”

So, as I said, I don’t want to be extreme about it, but it’s really important to realize that. In fact, people who do great inventions and things, I mean there’s nothing new in the world. So people who make great inventions, they just combine things in different ways. So in a way, they’re seeing the same thing in a different way that other’s haven’t seen it, and that leads to the magic of great accomplishments and in getting things done that you feel proud of.

So that’s what I mean by giving things its meaning, and I find it a very positive aspect of life.

Brett McKay: Right. I can see how they can increase creativity, because I’ve read studies where they’ll do these things, where they’ll get a bunch of adults, and then give them just random objects, and they have to solve a problem. So they’ll have a hammer, a knife, et cetera, and the adults, they just tend to think of a hammer, like, “Well, you just hammer a nail with it. It’s what you do with it.” But when they do this to kids, kids don’t have that, so they’re like, “Oh, a hammer could, also, be a weight. It could be …” Yeah, by not looking at this typical pigeonholed meaning of something, it allows you to get more creative with things.

Bernie Roth: Exactly, yes. That’s exactly what I’m talking about, and it’s not only for physical objects. It’s, of course, behavioral and with just other people and our families. It’s all over the place to realize that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean I can see that when you were describing applying it to your life. It seemed like a very stoic approach, like the stoics were all about … It’s not the thing itself that’s causing you harm. It’s how you’re thinking about the thing that’s causing this harm.

Bernie Roth: Sure, yes. Definitely.

Brett McKay: So I’ve encountered … Whenever I’m designing something, whether it’s a plan for a vacation, or planning my day, or if it’s some big project, there’s a tendency that I typically fall into, and I think a lot of people do, too, is you focus on the things that prevent you from achieving your end. I’m curious. With your experience, why do you think it’s our default that humans go to? Like why do we always think about the problems that prevent us from getting to our end goal?

Bernie Roth: I think humans are basically problem solvers. I mean it’s somewhere in our DNA, and if you’re not a problem solver, you wouldn’t live long on the earth. So everyone solves hundreds of problems every day, just getting connected to make the call, by getting into the office, by getting dressed, and most of them we do automatically. We don’t even think about them. We learned how to do them. As a child, you don’t eat so automatically. You have to learn how to not get food all over the floor, and you have to learn how to get dressed. So we’ve learned all these things, and we solve those problems, and then as we move on, we get problems which we haven’t solved before, and we tend to get stuck sometimes in those things, and those are the things that occupy us. What you don’t have is always more important than what you have.

So people tend to look at the things that aren’t working, rather than the things that are working. So I think that’s part of the human condition, and I think it’s not a bad one. It’s just a matter of how you approach it, and what you do with the frustration of being thwarted for a moment. That’s the opportunity.

I have a friend. He’s an Olympic medal winner. He’s done a lot of things, and he’s started many companies, and he says to me all the time, “Every time I’ve started a company in general, I’ve had some big obstacle, and in getting around that obstacle, that was the magic. If I hadn’t encountered the obstacle, I would have done this prosaic thing, and then I just was so thwarted. I just was blocked, and I found this magic way around it, and that made the thing really much better than it would have been to begin with.”

So being blocked is not a bad thing. It’s just part of the process of solving problems, and if not, you don’t even notice it. If it just goes automatically, which most of our lives do, and most people who function pretty well, their life just flows. They don’t worry about problems during the day. At night, they may lose sleep over stuff, but during the day, they just have mastery in what they’re doing.

So it’s a kind of complex question you’re asking, but I would say, yeah, it’s okay to get frustrated, and the magic is to figure out ways around it, and not let it beat you down and deter you from moving forward.

Brett McKay: You, also, make the bold claim in the book that oftentimes when we give reasons why something can’t be done. They’re basically excuses, right? They really aren’t reasons. Those are just excuses. There’s always a solution there if you think creatively.

Bernie Roth: So what I claim is that there’s no single reason for any human behavior. But if someone asks you what the reason is or you’re the kind of person who needs a reason, you will, of course, do that.

It’s so funny. I just had this thing with my wife. She has some cousins in France, and we don’t have much contact with them, but they were nice enough to send us an email inviting us to a daughter’s wedding, and we were not going to go. My wife says, “Well, what should I send?” I said, “Well, just say thanks for the invitation. Sorry we can’t make it.” She says, “No. I’ve got to give them a reason. Should I tell them because you’re working, or because we’re going to Corsica?” I said, “Just say what you’re doing,” and it’s so funny. We’re so different in that way.

But it’s really true. I have come to this statement. The radical statement is reasonable basically. Because there’s no one reason for anything. You asked me to be on this podcast. If you said to me, “Why did you say yes? Why are you on the podcast,” I’d say, “Because you invited me.” But it’s not that simple, because a lot of people invited me on podcasts. It has to do with a lot of things in my life, and if I asked you, “Why did you invite me,” you’d say, “Well, I liked your book.” But it’s, also, not that simple, because you’ve liked a lot of books in your life, I’m sure.

Brett McKay: Right, right.

Bernie Roth: We’re very complicated people, and a lot of stuff goes on that makes us do the behavior we do. Most of the time, we just act automatically. There have been tests. They have put people in MRI machines, have them do a task and ask them why they’ve done the task, and what happens is the part of the brain that deals with the actual physical doing fires long before the part of the brain that deals with the reason. So essentially, we’re on automatic. We do stuff, and then we make up reasons for doing it if someone asks us, and that’s in order to be a reasonable person. So if you ask me a reason and I don’t give you a reason, I’m not a reasonable person.

So the only thing that reasons are good for is to be seen as a reasonable person. The bad thing is they’re mainly excuses. They’re often ways for us not to live up to what we want to do. I mean I don’t care if a reason is bullsh*t or not. What I do care about is that it prevents you from doing what you want to do, because you’re just relying on the reason.

In the book, I give this example, which is where I got the epiphany. I was on the board of directors of a company up in Berkeley, which is normally about an hour away from Stanford, and I was invariably late. Every board of directors meeting, I was late, and I’d come in there and I’d blame the traffic on the highway, and it is true there was traffic on the highway. But, in fact, I was being abusive to these people, because I was keeping them waiting, and I got this realization that I should either quit the board, or give it more valance in my life and get there on time, and what it meant was just leaving more time in the trip, as simple as that.

Before I did that, I did a few things extra before I left, and I got to my car just in time. There was no traffic. I would get there. And, of course, there was always traffic, so I blamed the traffic. But, of course, the real … Many different things, and one was how I held that, my membership, my sense of belonging, my sense of obligation, and it totally changed my life, to someone who is now totally on time for everything, because if I make an obligation, I honor it, and it’s just a matter of giving it enough priority in your life.

So people who are late all the time, it’s just they’re not giving the thing that they’re supposed to be in any priority. It’s insulting to the people they’re going to. So it’s that kind of a thing. If you realize it, reasons are not helpful at all, and they’re often destructive.

Another example I love is I get requests from around the world to come to Stanford and do a PhD, from China, or Pakistan, Iran, and some of these requests are quite lengthy and they’ve researched me and all that, and I feel bad not answering. So I would give them excuses. I’m sorry I can’t take you, because I don’t have any money. I’m sorry I can’t take you, because I’m going on sabbatical, and whenever I gave them a reason, they pushed back with, “Well, if you don’t have money, I have a rich uncle. If you’re going on sabbatical, I can wait a year,” and the conversation would go back and forth until I just truncated because of frustration.

                                    Nowadays that I have this enlightenment, I just say, “Sorry I can’t help you. Good luck,” and what happens is about 90% of the time I get back an email, “Thank you, Professor, for answering my email.” That’s the end of the story.

So don’t give them a reason. They have nothing to push back against. It’s as simple as that. Just say what you do. Say what you don’t do. Don’t worry about the reasons. No one needs the reasons, and they’re very destructive to you.

Brett McKay: So one of the things you talk about, we were talking about getting stuck in a problem, and I love this one solution you gave, because it’s changed the way I am looking at things, is that oftentimes the problem we think is the problem isn’t really the problem, and we can often go to a higher level to really find out what the problem is. Can you walk us through what that get to a higher level method is, and how that can help people get unstuck?

Bernie Roth: Sure. Well, the way to get to what I call a higher level, which is just a name for reframing the problem to something more functional, is ask yourself what it would do if you solved the problem. So you’re stuck with something, and you think you have to do something, and then ask yourself what it would do for you if you solved it, and when you do that, that gives you a new problem.

I’ll give you an example. The one I love, the funniest one is I was working with a group of Stanford alumna, and this woman’s problem was that her boyfriend snored at night and they’d gone to all sorts of medical specialists, and they can’t cure or eliminate his snoring. So I asked her, “What would it do for your boyfriend stopped snoring?” She said, “I would be able to get a good night’s sleep.” So now I say, “Well, the new problem is how do you get a good night’s sleep?”

Well, when you’re getting a good night’s sleep, you’re opening up the solution space tremendously. One solution might be to get your boyfriend to stop snoring, but there are many others, including change the boyfriend, right, or put on earplugs, or sleep in a different room.

So what happens is by reframing it, she’s opened up the solution space, and before she was just fixated on this one thing, getting this poor guy to stop snoring, and it’s a really interesting example of the kind of thing we do all the time. We so fixate on what we think the right answer is, we don’t see the big picture as what it is we want to really accomplish, and even if he stops snoring, maybe she wouldn’t get as much sleep as she thought.

So it’s that kind of idea. But that happens to technical problems all the time. It happens in my life many times. It’s sort of magic. When you reframe it, you realize, aha, that real problem is not the one I’ve been working on.

Brett McKay: No. Yeah. It’s been super powerful. Whenever I get frustrated or a sticking point, I’ll ask, “What am I trying to solve here,” which as you said, sometimes the answer, it means I don’t do this thing, like I don’t need to do this thing, because you think you do, but you really don’t, and then you delete it or delegate it.

Bernie Roth: And often even if you solve the wrong problem, it won’t help you. Another example is some woman I worked with, she was worried about getting her daughter into a good college, and she was losing sleep over it, and the question is what would it do for you if you got your daughter into a good college? I could stop worrying about her daughter. Well, the whole idea is to stop worrying about it, because if her daughter got into a good college, she’d worry about who her daughter is sleeping with, or what her daughter’s majoring in, or what is she going to do when she graduates. The problem is not the daughter to go to college. The problem is the mother’s neuroses, and not being able to handle uncertainty in life and things like that.

So even if you solve the thing, if it’s not the right thing, it doesn’t help you at all. It doesn’t handle it. If you solve the right thing, it basically disappears, the problem, and that’s a much higher state to be in than the one that is just solving it, because it can come back and get you, especially if it’s the wrong problem. It will still be in your life.

So you want to do with something, which just makes it no longer an issue in your life, because you’ve handled it so well that it disappears.

Brett McKay: So, as you said earlier, with design thinking there’s a bias towards action. I think most people when they design, they think some guy over some blueprints drawing something out. But you guys are learning by doing. But you make the point that oftentimes people, when they think they’re doing and taking action, they really aren’t. They’re just merely trying. How do you differentiate between trying and doing?

Bernie Roth: Yeah. Well, first of all, whenever I get to this, I get nervous thinking Yoda is going to strike me dead, because of that famous line in Star Wars, there is no try. Just do. But basically there is a try. In real life try is fine, and I think trying is just as good as doing. I think the problem is that people conflate the two. They think they’re the same thing and they’re not, and they’re just two different states.

So if you’re trying to do something, it might or might not happen, and if you get an obstacle in the way, it will probably stop you and you won’t get it to happen. If you’re doing something, nothing is going to stop you. The obstacle, if you get it, you’re going to figure out a way around it, and you’re going to actually handle it, and that’s the difference. It’s okay to try. It could be a lot of fun to try, but it’s totally different if you do.

It’s in my book, which says it all. My wife and I were driving home from San Francisco. I noticed a movie theater that plays very special movies, and it had a huge line around it, and I’ve passed it many times and never saw a line that large around it, and it turns out the movie was about a music group, and the group was going to be there, and it was obviously very popular because of this big line.

So I said to my wife, “Let’s go see the movie,” and she said, “No, no. I’m tired. I want to go home. Let’s go home.” We talked back and forth. Eventually she relented, and I said, “Okay. Jump out in front of the theater. You buy the tickets. I’ll go find a parking place.” I came back 10 minutes later. She’s not on line. She’s just standing in front of the ticket booth, and I said, “What happened?” She said, “They were sold out. I couldn’t get …” I said, “Well, why aren’t you in line?” She’s like, “I couldn’t get tickets. Did you hear me? They were sold out,” and I said, “Just wait here,” and I worked my way down the line. I ended up with two tickets, and we went.

It was a great example of several things. One is that my wife is always right, because it was a terrible show. But the real thing is she was trying. She was trying to accommodate me, and as soon as she got an obstacle, they were sold out, she was frustrated. That was the end. That she’s not doing. I was going to do whatever it took. I was going to get two tickets to get us in there, and that’s the difference. The fact that they were sold out was irrelevant to me. There’s no way it slowed me down for a minute. I was going to get these tickets, whatever it took to get them.

So it’s an example of the difference between trying and doing. Now it doesn’t make my wife wrong, and it doesn’t make me right. It just shows the different kind of actions that you have.

Another example I had . . . I had gotten some money for some research, and part of the obligation was to go to Houston for a meeting. I’m sorry, to Dallas for a meeting. I went to San Francisco Airport reluctantly to take the flight, and when I got there, it was a miracle. There was a sign up, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport is closed, because of a snowstorm. All flights are canceled. So I called the people up, said, “I’m sorry. I can’t make it. It’s a snowstorm,” and they said, “It’s okay,” and I went home very happily.

Now I was trying to get there, and I was glad not to do it. If my life depended on getting to Dallas-Fort Worth, even if the airport was closed with the snowstorm, I would have gotten there. See, and that’s the difference between trying and doing.

Now, if I have to kill someone to do, I might change. I don’t have to be so fixated that no matter what I’m going to lose my morality or things like that. I can switch from one to the other. But it’s important to realize which state you’re in, and not be frustrated in the trying state and stop doing it. It’s as simple as that.

There’s a funny story. We do a lot of exec ed trainings at the D school, and these three guys from some company took it together, and I have a little exercise where I have the participant try to take something away from me, and then they actually take something away from me, and they went back. They got an idea, and they went to the manager and they said they’d like to do this little project, and he said, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any room. We don’t have any physical room. You guys can’t do that.” So they huddled and they said, “Let’s take it away from Bernie,” and they actually set up a little office in the hallway, and they actually worked the project, and eventually the manager relented and gave them space, and they were very successful in it.

But this whole idea, just because the manager said no, they weren’t going to stop doing it, is this whole idea of doing, and not using bullsh*t reasons, “Well, the manager said we can’t do it. Therefore, we can’t do it.”

So it all ties in with reasons and whether you’re trying and doing, and it’s just good to know that you have control of all that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. No. Yeah. As I was listening to that, it sounds like the trying people have the mindset of … They’re fixed on the meaning that’s presented to them, whereas the doers, they don’t just see that. They see other options as well.

Bernie Roth: Yes. They want to do it as easily as the trying people do, but they’re not stopped. They don’t have a reason not to do it. The reasons are bull. They’re going to do it no matter what, and they’re going to transcend the obvious things that come in the way of doing it. It’s so empowering if you do it, but, as I say, sometimes it’s great to try, and sometimes it’s better not to succeed. You might get killed if you succeed.

Brett McKay: Right.

Bernie Roth: It’s okay to think. So I want to do two things. I want to rehabilitate trying. In spite of what Yoda said, trying is okay, but I think it’s really important to realize trying to not the same as doing, and you get to choose, and you can switch from one to the other. Just don’t kid yourself, which state you’re in.

Brett McKay: And you have this great section in the book that I found really beneficial. It was this idea of how we talk to ourselves can influence whether we’re doers and triers. How do doers talk to themselves, like that internal monologue we all have going on in our head?

Bernie Roth: Yeah. Well, I think it’s a kind of power we call personal efficacy, this whole idea of having confidence in yourself, and the way you get it is by lots of little successes. People want to train people to get rid of phobias. They give you a little guided exposures that are safe, and eventually you get to pick up the snake or whatever you’re afraid of.

But the point simply is by learning little steps at a time, you build the strength of doing, and that’s the magic we do in the D School. People are learning by doing. They’re not learning by memorizing and passing tests, and if you learn by doing, it’s really empowering. If you do something for someone … We do a lot of stuff, and people earn less than $2 a day all over the world. If you go and you’re in the heart of some farmers in Myanmar and you can help these people have test lighting or something like that, it’s so inspiring. It’s so empowering for the rest of your life that you’ve done these things. It gives you confidence to go on.

And that’s what life is about, having confidence to do more and more things, and having successes in it, and learning from your failures. And so it’s a kind of doing existence that we have, and if you just lay in bed all day and you think about your problems, nothing is going to happen. Most of us have like, I don’t know, 80,000 or 60,000 thoughts a day, and 80% of them are repeated thoughts. If you haven’t figured it out by the third day, get out of bed. It’s not going to happen. You got to go and do something.

So that’s really the point of it, is to start to do, and that leads to more doing, and I know in my life, when I was a teenager, I was not capable of doing many things. I lived a kind of non-directed life, and as I got more involved and had some successes academically, they built on it, and built on it, and before I knew it, I was the world’s expert in something. But I didn’t get there by being born with it. I got there by doing lots of things and putting them all together.

So it’s really just this learning by doing is a very powerful tool.

Brett McKay: Right. And that’s the achievement habit. You do this so often that it becomes just second nature to you.

Bernie Roth: Yeah. Yeah. It just becomes who you are. You change. Nobody’s brain is fixed for life. Your brain is a very malleable thing, and by doing stuff, you make different connections and you switch your synapses and stuff, and you remodel your brain.

We’ve done tests where we’ve put people into little simple kind of creativity problem workshop, just very short, for an hour or two, and we do that for a couple of weeks, and we put them in an MRI machine before and we put them in an MRI machine afterward, and we find the part of your brain which does the creativity has changed because of these simple exercises. It’s so hard to imagine, but the change, it stays for a long time.

So anything you do changes who you are. So it’s this whole idea of changing and the way you want you go, and you can change. There’s addiction that’s really hard to get rid of if one’s brain is changed that way. But there’s other ways. You can get addicted to good things, also. You don’t have to get addicted to bad things, although addiction is not great no matter how you have it.

But basically it’s a matter of using the experience. So there are manual things of learning. It’s even funny if you take people who are the world’s greatest musician in some thing. These people are practicing all the time. Life is practicing. All these people who are world renown, they’re not sitting around dawdling all day long. They’re practicing. They’re practicing and they’re practicing. Athletes, the same way. They’re practicing.

So it’s the same thing in anything in life. If you want to have good skills and you want to go on, you have to keep doing it, and as you keep doing it, you reinforce that part of your brain or your musculature once you do it, and so you build on your successes.

Brett McKay: Love it. Well, Bernie, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work and the book?

Bernie Roth: Well, the book is available all over the place, in libraries and you can buy it if you want to. It’s called The Achievement Habit. It’s published by Harper Collins, and I have a website that you can see various lectures I’ve given at different companies, and the name of the book, except without the the. So it’s, and you can get more of me than you ever would want there and learn more about the book.

Brett McKay: Well, Bernie Roth, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Bernie Roth: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure, too.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Bernie Roth. He’s the author of the book, The Achievement Habit. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/AchievementHabit, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into the topic.

And if you’re looking to develop the achievement habit and get unstuck out of a rut, check out our online platform, The Strenuous Life at Basically it’s a scouting program for grown men. I know it might sound kind of silly, but it’s worked. Over 3,000 guys have signed up. Develop new habits in fitness. They’re learning new skills. It’s really been a kick in the pants for a lot of guys. So for more information, check out

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, and if you enjoyed this show, you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the podcast with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it.

As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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