Matthew May Takes on Flawed Thinking
I loved Matthew May’s 2010 book, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. It was a seminal text for me. He now has a new book out, titled Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking. I can’t recommend it enough.
If you’re into neuroscience, if you want to figure out how to be more creative and more innovative, this podcast is for you. In it, we talk about how to stop feeling stuck and how to get beyond your own limitations.
We only get to two of the seven fatal flaws. But they’re two really good flaws. In this interview we cover:
- The most divisive, the most destructive, of the fatal flaws.
- Provocative mantras.
- A brain teaser (you have to listen to the end for the big reveal).
So if you’re up for a challenge, listen in!
You can follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewEMay.
Or you can bookmark it here to listen to later.
Michael: So Matthew May is a long-term friend of Box of Crayons. I’m going to say we’ve talked to him a number of times. I loved his 2010 book, which is called In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. And there’s a real seminal text for me. And I’m excited because Matthew has a new book out. It’s called Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the Seven Fatal Flaws of Thinking. So this is going to be really handy for you if you’re into neuroscience, if you want to figure out how to be more creative, more innovative, stop feeling stuck so many times and really kind of get beyond your own limitations in terms of going beyond the obvious and finding what’s useful, practical, exciting in terms of generating new ideas.
So we had a really good chat, Matt and I. We only get to two of the seven fatal flaws. But they’re two really good flaws. One of them is, I think, the most divisive, the most destructive of the fatal flaws. And we certainly have a chance to unpack some of that. And there’s a bit of a brain teaser in here for you as well. So if you’re up for a challenge, then this interview will be for you. Alright Matt, I’ve laid out who you are, what you’ve done, why you’re awesome. But let’s kick this off about what are you taking a stand against? I mean, what are you—what’s frustrated you that’s kind of got you to write this book? A book that in the introduction you said you almost didn’t write. What are you up against?
Matt: Well I’m up against sort of what’s in the subtitle, which is these seven fatal flaws of thinking. And I’m waging war on thinking flaws.
Michael: I love it. You know, that’s poetic as well, man. You’re, like, starting it like a rap(?) collective. I can almost see that. What was it in the work that you did that kind of made you become sensitive to or aware of these seven fatal flaws? Where did you start seeing it showing up in the work that you did?
Matt: God, it’s been over ten years. It was back in 2005. I was a fully retained advisor, lucky for me, to Toyota here in—I’m in Southern California. So the domestic headquarter of their sales and marketing operation is in Southern California. And golly, they bought all of my time for eight years in a row.
Michael: Nice work if you can get it.
Matt: It is, you know? And maybe we’ll talk about that later. But it was a life-changing decision for me to do that. But toward the end of my stint, I left in 2006, I had designed with some other folks a course for the University of Toyota, which is their corporate university. It was called Principled Problem Solving.
And it was about a half-day course and I had—was casting about looking for some icebreakers to get people sort of right-brained working for that session, for the seminar. And ran across a couple of problems that were real-world, but I turned them into thought exercises just to get everyone’s, you know, creative juices going. And funny thing was, not—you know, the problem was nowhere near as complex as what they were facing in their real job and their day-to-day operations. But gosh, they weren’t able to solve it. And the more that we did it, the more we were astounded by a couple of things. One, that people had trouble solving this little riddle. Number two, that they kept doing the same things over and over again. Which is really two parts. They were doing the same things, but they were doing them over and over and over again.
And at this point now, ten years later, you know, I took those exercises with me when I left Toyota. I’ve been doing it in seminars and speeches and workshops and what have you.
Matt: I’ve even introduced them in previous works. Nothing seems to change these kind of seven patterns that … I began at one point to say, “Okay, what is really behind this? What’s the human nature?” There’s something driving this that’s obviously beyond my ability to comprehend it, because I’m not a scientist. And that’s really where it all began.
Michael: Nice. So you’ve got these seven fatal flaws. You offer seven fixes for each one of the flaws. And we’re going to cover at least some of them in this conversation that we’ve got. But here’s what I want you to do. At the start of the book, you set up one of these thought exercises. The one about shampoo. And I want you to set that for the folks listening in now, and we’re going to reveal the answer towards the end. And I’m just going to say, just for the record, when I read this in the book, I figured out the answer by myself.
So I’m pretty—I’m feeling pretty stoked about that. But let’s share the exercise for folks now and then we’ll reveal it when we get towards the end of the interview.
Matt: Okay. Then you’re in the 5% of the success ratio there, so kudos to you. Awesome.
Michael: I thank you very much.
Matt: You genius.
Michael: It’s been said before, but mostly by me. So it’s nice to hear somebody else say that.
Matt: (Inaudible) for you so everyone listening can be assured. This is one of the original stories that I had heard. It’s about a luxury health club, a gym in Southern California. And they had a problem. And the problem was that they had about 40 shower stalls, 20 for men and 20 for women. Again, very upscale clientele. Costs a lot of money to go there. All the luxuries, you know, the soft fluffy towels, you name it. But gosh darn it, they had a theft problem. In all of those shower stalls they had a free-standing bottle of salon-level shampoo.
And, you know, guys out there listening, it probably doesn’t mean anything to them. But this is, like, a $75 bottle of shampoo that you essentially have to be a licensed cosmetologist to get a …
Matt: To buy. So—and the patrons loved it, right? It was shampoo …
Michael: They really loved it.
Matt: They loved it so much that they were sticking it in their gym bags and walking out with it. And to the extent that about a third of the patrons—there’s 33% theft rate. And when I heard this story, you know, from an employee, they said, “You know, we tried a bunch of stuff. You know, we had all these little reminders up and posters and signs and stickers. And we sold the bottles at the front desk. We tried penalizing people.” Nothing seemed to fix the problem. And I turned it into a thought challenge using the constraints that the manager had used, which basically that they didn’t want to interrupt the normal operation of the health club to make any kind of change.
They didn’t want to spend any money. They didn’t want to stop or alter the free-standing, you know, full size bottle of salon-level shampoo in each of the shower stalls because, face it. You know, 67% of the patrons loved it.
And, you know, the dissatisfaction came when they walked into the shower and the bottle of shampoo was gone. So zero dollars spent, you know, a simple thing to fix. But the big thing was, they wanted 100% theft elimination.
Zero theft. So it was quite a tight box that the employees were put in. And that’s the thoughts challenge that I give people, you know, ten minutes to work at, usually in teams.
Matt: And, you know, over the course of doing this for a decade, there’s probably, you know, a dozen and a half or so typical solutions that people come up with. We don’t need to go through all of those. But that’s the thought exercise.
Michael: That’s beautiful. So mull over this while Matt and I talked through his seven flaws and fixes. And we’ll reveal the answer at the end. Just to remind everybody, I already figured this out, okay? No pressure, but if I can figure this out, pretty much everybody should be able to get pretty close to it. Now I’m not going to go in order through these fixes because we’ve probably got too many to cover in the time that we have. I want to go to number five. Number five is about downgrading. And you know why I’m picking this? Because you have two of my favourite people on it. You have Cliff Young, an Australian ultramarathoner that almost nobody outside of Australia has ever heard of. And I want you to tell that story. And also Adam Morgan, who I know from my time in England, who’s written a number of great books about innovation. And his big thing is called Eating the Big Fish, which is about how do you take on the dominant person in your brand category, if you’re a number two. So let’s talk about what downgrading is as a thinking flaw and maybe throw in the story about Cliff Young there as well.
Matt: Okay. So downgrading is almost like a pre-emptive surrender. It’s when you formally back off a stated goal, you revise it backwards simply so that you can declare victory. And the way …
Michael: I love how you put that.
Matt: Well, I mean, it’s kind of perverse in nature, if you think about it. But I see this—because my day job is working with teams. I see this a lot in project teams. Their eyes are bigger than they’re tummy at the get-go, because we have this bias for optimism.
So we set these high bars, these high goals. In the context of the little thought challenge that I just went through, it was a pretty high bar. 100% theft elimination. But downgrading, for example in that thought challenge, would go something like this. Well 100% is not possible. It’s just not possible. We have …
Michael: That’s a crazy goal.
Matt: Yeah, that’s a crazy goal. “Matt, you know, I don’t know what planet you’re on, but that’s just not even in the realm of consideration. We believe you can achieve 90% and here’s our solution for it.”
Matt: And so you almost immediately back off the stated goal, revise it, so that you can say that you won by saying, “Well here’s our—we said we could do 90% and gosh, here’s our 90% solution.” So that’s what downgrading is. And I see it happen a lot when you get in the throes of a project and rather than revise the goal in a smart and intelligent way or try different things before automatically giving up, the easiest thing to do is to simply, when things get tough, back off it or quit take a different direction, rather than sticking with it.
Michael: And I suspect part of this also comes from not just the experience in the moment, but just kind of assumptions you have about what is and is not possible.
You know, you just go, “That’s never possible anyway, so why don’t we set this revised, easiest, simpler, ‘Oh I could do that’ sort of goal.”
Matt: Yeah, you’re right. And, you know, one of my mantras actually uses much of the language that you just covered, which is, what appears to be impossible, isn’t.
Michael: Yeah, and I love this. You talk about the mantras a few times in the book. It’s the opening thing in the book. And I’m going to read them out to people because I love these. “What appears to be the problem, isn’t. What appears to be the solution, isn’t. What appears to be impossible, isn’t.” I love that. They’re so provocative that they really, you know, you’ve already got me curious and interested as soon as you started reading those mantras out.
Matt: Yeah and I’d love to say that I came up with it. I simply wrote about it about ten years ago when I learned that at Toyota. It was an informal mantra, but I’ve adopted it as my mindset.
But that’s what downgrading is. And in the opening story, the opening story that I used to introduce downgrading, is the story of Cliffy(?). And you probably know the story better than I do.
Michael: Yeah. Alright Matt, we’re taking a short break from the interview. And I’ve got three questions that I love to ask my guests. And the first is this. What’s the decision that you made that changed everything? You came to the crossroads. It was either this way or that way. And everything’s changed as a result. What’s that for you?
Matt: I think the life-changing—and there’ve been a couple. But I guess the biggest one was taking the traditional educational route through graduate school and getting my MBA at Wharton and then deciding upon graduation that I would not take a job.
I’ve never had a real job. I decided to be a single, shingle, solo practitioner and I’ve never to this day—you know, I graduated, what, in ’85. So 31 years later, I’ve never had a real job. But it has allowed me to have the opportunity to do what I’m doing today. Had I had a real job, I never would have gotten to meet Toyota. And they never would have hired me as an advisor.
And I wouldn’t have stayed there for eight years. And I wouldn’t have been able to write a book ten years ago and another and another. So that was the crossroads, is completely—and I think they even called out in my, you know, the class report of where everyone went. “And then—and one individual decided to throw his education away.”
Michael: I love it.
Matt: And not take a job with a consulting firm or an investment bank. That’s what everyone else was doing.
Michael: Yeah. That’s awesome. Good answer. Alright, second question. Whose thinking has influenced your thinking? Be it an author, a role model, a peer, a friend. Who’s shaped the way you think these days?
Matt: Most recently, it has been Roger Martin. University of Toronto, former dean of the Rotman School. Has become a fairly close mentor and co-advisor to an organization that I introduced him to here in Southern California. And he comes in a few times a year and advises on matters of strategy. But he taught me a framework for thinking about strategy, thinking about assumptions and just in general thinking better. And I guess over the last three years, if anyone has influenced my approach, my thinking, it would be he.
Michael: Yeah, lovely. And, I mean, in my book The Coaching Habit, there’s a very explicit shout-out to his book on strategy, Playing to Win, which I think is terrific. Third and final question. You know at Box of Crayons we’re all about helping people do less good work and more great work, work that has more impact, work that has more meaning. So what’s the great work you’re up to at the moment?
Matt: Well the great work really is—it’s about helping people think better. And sorry to borrow Apple’s tagline, but, think different.
I really do—the biggest charge I get, the biggest lift I get personally, professionally and in terms of value added, is helping people think about their businesses and their lives in new and different and hopefully better ways. It’s just an uplifting experience. So that’s my great work, is helping others think better, think different.
Michael: Yeah, love it. Brilliant, Matt. Let’s get back to the interview. The story is this. So you write in the early days of his kind of extreme athletics, so ultramarathon. You know, where it’s, like, “I’m not just going to run a marathon.” It’s, like, it’s the first person who can run 450 miles or some ridiculous piece like that. And it—this as a sport in general has exploded over the last, you know, 20 years or so.
But in this time it was just like a very few, very weird people did this. And they were, kind of, this is the rules. This is how you do it. This is how the best athletes manage to go this. And when his first race happened in Australia as well as the kind of small group of elite athletes that had shown up, there was this random guy, like, a farmer who was in gumboots, who had shown up. And he was, like, 30 years older than anybody else. And, you know, the gun went off. Everybody raced into the distance. This guy Cliff Young started ambling around in his gumboots. Well, the thing is he never stopped. He just kind of in this kind of creaky way just kept running and running and running. And where all the other athletes going—here’s the thing about being an athlete. You need to sleep.
So I sleep, you know, six hours a night or maybe four hours a night if I’m feeling really aggressive. Cliff Young just kept running and running and running. And he won the race by, I think, what is it, ten hours or something extreme.
Michael: And he just became this hero in Australia overnight because this guy just ran for four days without really stopping.
Matt: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, he did not know that you were supposed to stop. When he did stop and he tried to sleep a little bit, his alarm went off incorrectly two hours early and he just kept going.
Matt: And he didn’t even look like—you can see video of him. But it doesn’t even look like he’s running. He’s almost, like, shuffling.
Matt: It’s the old, you know, tortoise and the hare story brought to life. But no one told him that you’re supposed to do it this way, so he didn’t stop running. And he beat all these elite athletes by, you know, half a day almost.
Michael: Yeah. So you talk about the solution to downgrading being jumpstarting. So talk to us about what jumpstarting is.
Matt: Well jumpstarting is simply a way to get back on your original track so that you don’t downgrade, so that you don’t quit. And this sort of brings up the other gentleman that you mentioned. Because when I was at Toyota, one of the divisions I worked with there was Lexus. And Adam Morgan had come in just around the time of the book that you mentioned, Eating the Big Fish.
To work with Lexus on a complete rebrand, almost a re-launch of the brand. It had been 15 years since the brand came out. It was time to rethink it. And one of the techniques that he introduces is turning something—when a situation appears to be impossible, the language that we use goes something like, “Well we can’t do that because.”
Matt: So it’s, “Can’t because.”
Matt: And you hear that all the time. “Well we can’t do that because.” And he turns that around and plays complete—you know, inverts it completely and says, “Well why don’t you try different language? Why don’t you try, well we can if.”
Matt: So “can’t because” turns into “can if”. And—well what that does is turn on the thinking that you had originally when your eyes were bigger than your tummy, perhaps. But you had this bias for optimism that’s been deluded by the throes of the challenge once you got into it. And it’s a notion of jumpstarting, which is bringing the energy back. It’s, you know, don’t need to redefine the term. It’s, like, jumpstarting any battery. You use an alternative source to kick start it, right?
Matt: To get it going again. And what “can if” does is do that, because now you’re thinking not about surrender. But you’re thinking, “Well how could I win? What would be the conditions that I would need to invoke in order to reach that goal?” And that’s a completely different way of thinking than downgrading.
Michael: Yeah. Very nice. Okay, let’s go to the final of the fatal flaws of thinking, the self-censoring flaw. Because you actually say that of all the seven, this is perhaps the deadliest. And it’s certainly one of the most pervasive in that you just see there’s immediately kind of a colouring, a process, that might be about generating new ideas or new alternatives or new possibilities.
So talk to us—I mean, expand for us what self-censoring is and then let’s get into the solution to that, the fix, which is self-distancing, which is an intriguing concept.
Matt: Sure. And self-censoring is—it’s my term for what other people have called, you know, the inner voice, judgment, your inner critic.
Michael: Yeah, the gremlin.
Michael: (Inaudible) a number of different talks and labels around this.
Matt: Absolutely. So—but to me it’s the notion of editing yourself before an idea is even born. And you can imagine why it happens, you know? It sort of arises out of fear. It arises out of aversion to pain in any way. You know, from—gosh, from touching a hot stove. You’re not going to do that again. To running too quickly on the cement, falling and skinning your knees when you were a kid. Well not going to do that again.
And then just over the course of growing up, where you’ve been perhaps embarrassed or ridiculed by your peers or perhaps the teacher singled you out for a not a particularly good answer in class. And so you’re reticent to speak your mind. You’re reticent to rock the boat. You judge yourself stricter often.
More strictly than others do. So self-censoring is that notion of killing an idea, and I call it ideacide too. Killing an idea before it ever sees the light of day. And this really came to light when I was working with these teams and giving them this thought challenge. It often would be the case that the answer or the solution was at the table but it never saw the light of day.
Matt: It was never brought up. Or if it was, it was squelched quite quickly. But I had people coming up to me afterwards saying, “You know, I had that idea. But it just seemed like it was too simple. It couldn’t possibly be the answer. So I didn’t say anything.”
Michael: Right, right.
Matt: And that is self-censorship at its finest. Which if you think about it, is mindless.
Matt: It’s a—you’ve turned off your mind. And the reason I say it’s the most fatal, not the most prevalent but the most fatal, is because it shuts off your own creativity.
Matt: It shuts off the creativity that you were born with. Which I think is tragic.
Michael: So if that’s the challenge, how do we get beyond that? You talk about self-distancing. What does that mean?
Matt: Self-distancing is an actual psychological term. So I borrow it. But the challenge is, well how do you use it in a practical way? Because what I’m all about is coming up with a fix that actually works in the real world. And there are a couple of different techniques. One is to talk to yourself as you would an objective advisor or an onlooker or a friend.
I’m sure you’ve—I think we’ve all experienced this, where other people’s problems seem so easy to solve. And we’re so, so quick to advise them.
Matt: Oh how—on their solution and how they should proceed. Yet if the identical problem presented itself to us, we would probably struggle with it.
Michael: I might ask myself, so how would Michael Bungay solve this?
Matt: Absolutely. And that—what you just did is the actual technique, which is, talk to yourself as a third person. Rather than, how would I do this? Or, oh my gosh, this is so stressful. Or, oh my gosh, I’m so afraid of this. What would Michael do? What would Michael say? And when you do that, when you talk to yourself in the third person, you put distance, emotional distance, intellectual distance, mental distance, between yourself and the problem that you’re so close to and so attached to that you can almost advise yourself. And this is a—self-distancing as a term is relatively new. But the concept is hundreds of years old. And I read about it in Adam Smith’s book, the one that came right before the one that he’s most well known for, which is Wealth of Nations.
But there’s a book before it called A Theory of Moral Sentiments. And he introduces the notion of what he calls the impartial spectator.
Matt: We all, as human beings, have this ability to stand beside ourselves and look at ourselves as an objective and impartial spectator or observer. And it’s really the notion of when you travel to a new place. You look at things through a lens of innocence. You’re not attached to it. You’re there but you’re not of the place. You notice the details that others are taking for granted. And you naturally become more mindful and sort of in the moment, because everything is foreign to you. It’s unfamiliar. It’s uncertain. You’re attuned to all these things going on around you.
Matt: And if you do something, you know, some sort of faux pas, you sort of laugh at yourself. You don’t get all upset the way you would if you were a native in that land. So that’s what self-distancing is all about, is removing sort of that too close for comfort emotion, using that third person technique and, gosh.
Michael: Yeah. I like it.
Matt: You just did it. You did it. And there are other techniques too that are reminiscent of that that I learned from a …
Matt: … a psychologist named Ellen Langer. But we can talk about that later if you want.
Michael: You know, the other thing about self-distancing that—it came to me. Part of it is distancing yourself, so you kind of get that more objective point of view and what you’re working through. But for me it also brought up that idea of distancing yourself from the ideas you have. Like, it’s not really my idea. It’s just an idea. And it just kind of—you’re less attached to the ideas that you throw out, which means that you just throw them out and go, “I don’t really mind—I don’t care if you say no or yes or maybe to these. I’m just putting them out there because they just happen to be ideas that have shown up in my head.” And that depersonalizing of the idea is, for me anyway is one of the ways that keeps my courage up in terms of not falling back into self-censoring.
Matt: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that’s a wonderful insight, I think, that it is just an idea. There are millions of ideas out there. Why wouldn’t you bring one up?
Matt: Why spend the mental energy, because it is a heavy load, of evaluating that idea when it’s just an idea?
Michael: So Matt, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this book. And I love how accessible and practical it is. I also love how many people whose thinking you’ve drawn on, everybody from Warren Berger—and we’ve talked to Warren about his fantastic book, A Beautiful Question. Roger Martin, who we’re both fans of, of course. And he’s written a number of books and we’ve spoken to Roger on this show as well. Adam Morgan, David Rock in neuroscience. There’s a bunch of things that you draw on, I think, that are really influential. So this book does, to me, feel like kind of the modern idea-generating, brain-flaw-overcoming book.
In a minute I’m going to get you to share where they can find out more about you and the book. But we need to tell people how to deal with the shampoo solution. So what’s the answer?
Matt: You tell us. You figured it out.
Michael: I will tell you, okay. So here’s the simple answer. And the way I got to it was not worrying about the shampoo, but was thinking about if they’re stealing it, how do they get it out of the building? And the obvious thing is to just get back the bottle and just slip it into your purse or your bag or whatever it might be. So this is the insight for me, is the simple answer is you just take the cap off the shampoo. Then it becomes unstealable, because nobody’s going to have an open bottle of shampoo in their bag. That’s a recipe for disaster. So simple, costs no money. 100% failure rate down. Boom. Drops the mic. Walks off the stage.
Matt: Thank you very much. Good job.
Michael: Thank you.
Matt: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.
Michael: Thank you, thank you.
Matt: Yeah, that’s it. That is it. And theft stopped immediately. Now, boy, you know, people are taking issue with that solution left and right in the Internet. “Whoa, the water’s going to get in the shampoo bottle and da da da da.” And that just allows me to say, “Well I think you’re overthinking it.”
Matt: Because really what you’re doing when you say something like that is, you’re now putting a constraint on there that I never put, which is the water had to be kept out of the bottle.
Matt: You’ve now complicated the problem for yourself. You’ve over-thought it. But that was the solution that they came up with. Now it wasn’t a permanent solution, obviously. And again, I never said it had to be a permanent solution. So people over-think that, right? You make that assumption. They wanted theft stopped immediately and it did. Interestingly enough, I was talking to another interviewer not too long ago. And he’s a member of one of these upscale health clubs now.
Matt: And he says, “You know, I think we have the same problem. We have the lock, you know, the lock things in the shower.”
Matt: Where the bottle is behind the dispenser and you can’t get it out.”
Matt: “And you know what people are doing? They’re coming in with empty bottles of shampoo.”
Matt: “And they’re filling it up with the shampoo, because it’s so expensive and they love it so much.”
Michael: That’s funny.
Matt: So that’s another realm. So it is a real world problem. But, you know, congratulations. That is …
Michael: Alright Matt. So enough about me.
Michael: Tell us about you. You know, if they want to find more about your work, if they want to find more about the book, where can they go on the Internet to find you?
Matt: You know, headquarters really is my website. And from there you can get anywhere. It’s matthewemay.com. Two T’s. And from there you can get to—I think my username is the same no matter where you go, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, it’s all matthewemay.
Michael: Perfect. Matthew, it’s been a real pleasure. Thanks for sharing the insights about the book. The book, Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the Seven Fatal Flaws of Thinking.