Michael Simmons is an award-winning author, and his writing in publications like Forbes, Fortune, Inc., Entrepreneur, Time, Business Insider, and Harvard Business Review has been read tens of millions of times. He is an expert in learning how to...
Michael Simmons is an award-winning author, and his writing in publications like Forbes, Fortune, Inc., Entrepreneur, Time, Business Insider, and Harvard Business Review has been read tens of millions of times. He is an expert in learning how to learn, mental models, and thought leadership.
you are a professional thought leader, right? So number one, how would you define thought leadership? Let's start there and then can go down the rabbit hole.
Yeah, that's a really good question. I actually have never been asked that before. And, one thing I feel like we're moving towards is a world where thoughts is becomes a parent. That thoughts become control more and more of our reality. When you think about, our world and that we can just press a button and suddenly there's a cab five minutes away of the amount of, we could have the idea.
And then that reality happens. I think we're going to a world where that things like that become more and more possible. And then. Even to the world where we have brain implants and things like that we just literally have the thought and then something happens in the physical world. And so in a way, I think just that sense, if you can have thoughts that are rare and valuable, you can really shape the world in a lot of different ways.
Got it. So for you thought leadership means rare and valuable ideas that people can understand and grab onto. Is that accurate?
Exactly. And so you could put it in a speech, you can put it in an article, you can put it in a video, but that underlying part comes in finding that rare and valuable idea that naming it, that creates a thought space for other stuff now thinking.
let me ask you this, in terms of lifestyle, what is the pros? What is the cons of being a professional thought leader?
Yeah. I think it's awesome from a lifestyle perspective and especially, it depends on how you set it up.
So in my previous company, we did a road tour. my wife and I, after graduating college, we basically purchased an RV and we did events in all 40 States. our company did, we do over 450 half day conferences. We also play a thousand keynote speakers and I love the impact of that business. But on the negative side of it, it was doing the same talk over and over.
And so it wasn't as fulfilling intellectually now with something like the mental model club or the writing, I'm constantly exploring new ideas.
And so I love it from a lifestyle perspective.
Cause number one, I get to learn something that I'm curious about and then apply it to my life. So that just even if that was it, I'd be really happy.
And then I get paid for it. which means I could do more of it. And, I could build a team of people who are also involved in that.
And then part of I can have an impact and I can also build a community of other people who want to learn that same thing.
and also the fact that you learn so much by teaching someone else and explain to someone else that, from a self growth perspective, if you value that in your career path, it is something where you get way more growth than other areas of my experience.
so the pros is you get to learn more, you get the, deepen your understanding. You get to also teach, share your learning and your style learning with others. You get to constantly be immersing new knowledge. So if there's something that you're like, that's the pros of being a professional thought leader.
Yeah, I would say the other part is scalability that by writing an article. The cost in terms of hosting the webpage and other things is the same, whether it's true and people are million or even 10 million people. And so it's exciting that if you really take the time to perfect this craft that with just a little bit of effort, page millions and tens of millions of people, which is just a crazy amount of leverage.
I've had a lot of different points in my career where that hasn't benefited. And part of it is that I'm someone who's curious and I like learning and being put in new environments. And I realized I was self sabotaging myself as an entrepreneur because as soon as I figured out something that business and in charge to become all more about operations, I became less interested for whatever reason, just how I'm wired.
I liked that newness. And it's a career that can fulfill if you're a polymath and like learning across different areas.
And I would say for someone who doesn't like constantly learning or going to us different across different areas or teaching, or they find writing tedious, then it would be a nightmare career people, people don't enjoy reading or writing.
Aye. Aye. There's a reason why we're talking.
Yes. So what are some of the cons if you don't mind going into it from your perspective, right? Cons of being right professional thought leader.
maybe I can kickstart us. From our conversation and our work together, one of the things that could be considered as a con is that you constantly go through that creative struggle. You stare into the abyss, you stare into that blank screen, right?
So you need to be comfortable. with that discomfort, that's perhaps one of the cons, right? And then perhaps the con of being a professional thought leader is you're alone a lot. So if you enjoy that great. But if you don't then perhaps not. So obviously there's different ways to get around it.
But as a thought leader, that. Silent space is really important. So these are some of the things that I see. Are there things that as potential
visual elastic? Because the things that you mentioned are also one of the reasons I really like it, right? Learning how to learn. There's this idea of desirable difficulty.
That's one of the things that one of the ways we learned something more, is it by having it being difficult and our body and our brains struggling to remember it or to use a concept that actually helps it sink deeper. So I actually really like the hard parts of the process of, with an idea of like, all right, how do I narrow down?
Or how do I really say this correctly? It doesn't come across as a struggle where for me, what comes across as a struggle is more just the operational parts and that's my weakness that I have to, and to have a team that helps on that. And that's what they love.
Cool. So all pros, no con
it feels really weird to say, but for me at this point, it's not to say there's not challenges, but I feel really good. I feel good. And it's worthwhile versus the suffering where you're just challenges and you don't see where it's going and you feel like it's going backwards.
Yeah. so that, I think that's a really good indicator, right? If you speak about it in an authentic way, not in a posturing and my, but in an authentic way, that means there's that sole market fit, that you are actually on your path, on your Dharma to do the things that your soul wants to do.
Yeah. I used to not believe in that. Cause I remember during the tour, I came to a conclusion that I have to really force myself to do things and be really disciplined. And that. Okay. I guess I'm not following through as much on some areas, so I guess I'm not disciplined is where I came to, or I've read something like Warren buffet says he's like a kid in the candy store or is dancing to work.
I'm just like, is that really true or not? And so now, knowing what I know, I could really see that there's certain types of businesses and ways of starting them or running the company. Where that strength. That's that thing that is normally a weakness could be a strength to it. Cause in this area I am very disciplined.
I think one thing is there's Steve jobs has the quote that the dots in your life don't connect, looking forward, they connect looking backwards. And so a lot of times we take people we're attracted to the past where there's the most certainty and prestige and short term clarity.
So when I went to business school, Most of the people literally 95% or more majored in finance and investment banking. And even though you have to work a hundred hours per week, it was one of the most prestigious and highest paying short term. And even the people who are undecided, that's where they went. And so I could see that sort of way of making decisions a lot. it's very easy to fall into that.
And then there's this other path of when you find those things that you're really uniquely curious about that you enjoy doing. Sometimes there's a perfect market fit for that, where you can see, okay, if I do this, it's going to work out well, you get a job in this, but sometimes there's not clear what that's going to pay off.
And I think one is really valuable to give yourself permission to follow those things. And you almost have to have faith that the dots will connect. And I really believe that the dots do connect. And if you let it compound over time and you keep getting better and better, more and more options grow for you.
I think the hard thing about being a thought leader is that it's a winner take all winner, take most market. So there's incredible scale for the top people writing articles, but for most people they're getting like three shares, which means friends and family are seeing it, but not much else. For their content and their ideas.
So what that means is you have to be willing to suck and not get results for a long time or get less than you like to keep going. And also, another thing that happens in thought leadership is all of the way that information is distributed to us through social media is through algorithmic newsfeeds. So they're designed to highlight the things that are most engaging, that get the most engagement and bury the things that get the least engagement.
So when you log into Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, and you're seeing people's engagements, you're just seeing the very best of all the hundreds or thousands of posts they could have showed you. They're showing you the top 1% or 5%. And so it's easy to judge yourself against those and then assume that, okay, there must be not good at this.
And just give up too soon.
Yeah. you mentioned, there's a, there are a few different topics that can go into, so one thing that I want to say that you said to me, I thought was super helpful is just think about the internet. You go into this mega store and you have infinite shelf space, and then the one that captured the most attention is the one that's the best. And then I think that's what you meant by winner take all. can you say a little bit more about the winner take all or winner take most?
Yeah. Yeah. I think one of the things is that once things become digital, they become winter taking most.
So one belt, one way of looking at the distribution of results is as a bell curve. So Heights is an example of that, where. I'm six, five. How tall are you? Five, 10, five, 10. Okay. So you're about the average height and I'm higher than the Belker, but you never gonna find someone who is 10 feet tall, but in the world of wealth, you have someone like Jeff Bezos, I think, is worth more than like the bottom a hundred million Americans combined or something the wealth wise.
So you have things that happen like that. And when something becomes digital. Yeah. number one, it could spread globally right away at zero cost. And that's part of it, and then there's other effects that can happen. But, so when you find yourself, a lot of people are in winter, take most markets and they don't realize it.
And so in order to take the most market, you have the extreme people at the high end and relatively few of them compared to the most people who try to become the best at it, or try to do something there and then don't get any results. in economics, there's this idea of overcrowding in these markets as well.
There's these huge success stories let's say in basketball or something, and everyone wants to be the next basketball player or the next musician. And you don't realize. And so there's huge competition and small rewards. And so in those markets, I feel like you want to go into those markets with a strategy to be one of the best. And if you're not willing to do that, then you should just really lower your expectations.
a big turning point for me from a learning perspective was deciding who to learn. And it's very, a lot of results that happen in the world. Are because of randomness, but they're assigned because of someone's expertise or you picture there's a hundred people flipping a coin, or what are the odds of flipping a coin a hundred times heads if it's really low.
But if you have, I don't remember what the odds are, but if you have 10,000 people flip the coin, you'd expect one or a few of them to actually have high a hundred gun times. That number could be way off, but you get the idea. And so in the world of starting a business and people's going for it, you're going to have a large percentage of people who are success full primarily because of luck.
And for me in starting that first business, I think that was a large part of it. We have to be, you have, things like persistence and like pushing forward. Those are the table stakes, but what really, the luck was a big factor. And so when I had that, is that okay alive? Is this a lot? How do I find the people that are successful because of skill not because of luck.
Then I really start to narrow down who I look for. I look for people who are against the odds of successful multiple times in multiple industries, and or where they're starting from scratch. And, yeah, narrow it down. I started to study people like Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger.
Investors are really interesting because their track record is public. So you could see their records going back for decades and they constantly have to be making these investment decisions. And, and so I found this group of people and one of the patterns that I saw was just a longterm thinking.
And when you make, when you think longterm, you're fundamentally willing to make bets that other people aren't.
And one of the things that Linda many of the best bets to make. They don't even pay off for five years, 10 years. Amazon, I think has a seven year window of when they expect an idea to pay off when most other companies that just as much smaller window.
So they're not even a go for certain of the best ideas. And It's harder to hear this message. If you're earlier in your career, cause counterintuitively, you should have more patience because you have a lot more time, but you want things a lot sooner. And so that was definitely my case that I didn't fully have this in some ways, but there's a, in terms of becoming a top performer, world-class at something is you'd have to have realized that part of the process is not being good for awhile.
And be okay with that and get started and just, most people are not willing to even get started. And those who do just give up way too soon.
I've become to really question goal setting. I think the idea with goal setting is you're in a way predicting the future of yourself in the world. And you're thinking, okay, here's what I want in 10 years. And you're assuming that you're going to be the same person almost 10 years.
And but the reality is you're gonna have to probably change very dramatically in those 10 years. So you're gonna have different values and things like that. And the version of you said seven years from now might not even want that goal. It might feel obligated to pursue that goal because as you've already put in so much time into it.
So I think, and then also it's just hard to predict what the world is going to be like. And so I've, they switched to more of an emergent paradigm of trying to give myself the space to grow and to follow my curiosity. And it sounds imagine your future self as a different person, as like a child for
you want that your child version to have the freedom to explore what they think is best and the moment, and not feel like okay. You're giving them the family business and they want to run it or don't wanna run it, something like that. So that frame was very helpful for me and choosing this business with the mental model club, for example, because I very consciously structured it for my personality.
Every month, Eben and I have been pagan and I, a role model investor, a friend, co-founded the mental model club, but every month we get to do a new mental model.
And so we're constantly able to do choose what we think is the highest value and curiosity at it at a given point for us. So I would say that's one thing.
And before I was always thinking, okay, I want to cement who I am and I just going to do this. I'm assuming I'm going to do this forever. And then another thing that helped, was looking back at all of myself and my career. And there was some passions that were fleeting, but that there's other passions that have always been enduring
and betting on those enduring passions. The things for me, I've just loved ever since I was 16 in high school, I was spending hundreds of dollars per month of my own money buying books. I would go to Barnes and noble and get like a pile of 10 books and hang out there for hours at a time.
And I found that works really well, that if you've been passionate about something for 20 years, like a kid in a candy store is likely that will continue. Versus if you happen to be passionate about something in the last month. you'll get value from it, but it's probably not going to be something you're passionate about in five years.
Got it. so few criteria, I wanted to underline this right, by the way, this is my style. So one is, what are you curious about it right now? And at the same time, dig deep and really look at what are the enduring curiosities that you have. You've been just interested for whatever reason. It doesn't matter why I'm just interested in. Okay, great.
Then take a mark there. And at the same time, I also hear you didn't say this, but I hear is how do I design my life such that I have maximum flexibility in options. As I grow five years, seven years, 10 years, 20 years from now. Am I projecting or did I actually hear that?
Yeah. And it's not just building options to have options. It's just giving space for your future self, like a as if you think about as your child to emerge.
What are the criteria from quote unquote right teacher?
Yeah. Okay. I feel like this is really fundamental because it's had such a big impact, I think the first thing is really getting to the, that people who are successful cause a skill versus luck.
And when I got into that vein of people right away, just the knowledge is very different, the insights. And so that was higher. Then I would say you to find someone who's really good at teaching. And coaching. And let's see with teaching, there's a lot of people who are really good at something are doing it implicitly through skills.
It's hard for them to explain it. It's hard to know exactly what they're doing and there's other people who are very conscious about it and are good at teaching others. They've had feedback loops. They're good at explaining it to others. And so you definitely want to try to find the people who are good at explaining.
And then a coaching. I think one thing that really Eban's really good, that is huge. We're really good at chemo to give me any advice for six months. I didn't even want the advice, but he was really listening, observing how I was acting. And then when he gave advice, it was very much designed to be at the fundamental level.
And so it would have the biggest impact rather than giving lots of advice on the surface level. And in order to do that, you have to get to know me. and one of the big things that shows how holistically he thinks his wife, Annie, is amazing. And she's a marriage coach and she emailed me one day and saying Hey, part of Eban investing in companies is you get me, I hadn't mentioned anything about my marriage at that point.
And so at first, and I felt uncomfortable accepting that at first and. but part of the idea is that any of the challenges you have personally will impact you professionally and vice versa. And so if you really, the deeper you go, the more it's going to impact your business, your marriage you as a parent.
So those are harder to find obviously if somebody would be willing to do that, but that was really transformative. and then There's obviously having a rapport with them, it's hard to force something where there's not a connection. The good news now is that so much of things are online now. So even if you don't have a personal relationship with someone, you can really still get a lot of value from what they've written online.
You can get a taste of their energetic transmission in addition to the content.
Yeah. And yeah, you mentioned the energetic transmission. I think that's really important as well. And that is really hard to copy someone whose values you do disagree with. And so things that was hard for me, why I didn't learn marketing or sales for a long time is because the ones that I was exposed to people doing marketing pretty with the values of it.
So learning from Eben and seeing the marketing at a deeper, more humanistic level. Was what finally allowed me to be able to learn it. And if somebody has a different style, then you're just not going to, you're going to feel weird. You're not gonna able to copy that. And if you do, it's going to be authentic to who you are.
Yeah. I resonate with that. Beautiful. Anything else around choosing the right teacher for you?
I guess I would think, one thing I did in college, I was, I think a good decision was. you, haven't just asking a lot of people out to lunch at the time and setting up those informational interviews at the end of every informational interview, I would just really thank them and share the impact that had and send them a thank you letter.
I would ask if there's anybody else that they knew, and then I, and until I got introductions to more meetings, and then if they recommend that I do something, I said, okay, once I read this book that you recommend it. Would it be okay if I circle back and just let you know how I applied it in a few months.
So I kept the relationship open and expand the network and deepen that relationship. And, it's dating as well. That there's some relationships that just go deeper. And Eban is one of those relationships. And previously, in college, I shadowed Steve Mariotti did the network for teaching entrepreneurship, which is amazing nonprofit that helps low income high school students in inner cities start businesses and still very close friends. And at the time, like he would just really transform my life. So I would work out of the office. He let me use the office space on the weekends. I'd work out of the office. He invited me on business trips, got to co-speak at conferences with him. He made introductions. He let me read his mail and just understand the business world from that perspective. And he's, he's raising funding from billionaires, the largest foundation. So just seeing how communication happened was really helpful.
And, even just one or two of those types of relationships where it's just an open, deep relationship like that is really to make your life or career.
Without those two relationships, I would just be in a very different person.
for you, are there disciplines that you implement, such that you can ensure that people who are important in your life don't just fall out of priority list because you have some other urgent things. That's happening in your life.
it's a good question. I've actually, we really thought very deeply on this. I used to write for Forbes and I would write about this topic and interview a lot of people and that should go deep on the social network science related to it. And my thinking has actually changed a lot, number one, I go to this idea of the 80 20 rule that applies to loss across a lot of areas.
So in relationships, 20% of the relationships might give you 80% of the feeling of connection or the learning or growth, things like that or introductions. And so it's good to have a phase where you're going really broad, but I think it's also really valuable to really. Invest in the high and it might just be five relationships and invest in those.
So when I was younger, your, I did a really good job of going very broad, constantly going to conferences and things like that. And, but also came to the point where. it felt like overwhelming to keep in touch with people. And I was just keep, Hey, we haven't talked in a year. Let's just talk. I moved away from that sub and really focused on some of the top five to 10 people.
And we're talking, multiple times a day or a week. And, And that feels really good. It doesn't feel like, Oh, I have to catch up. But there's that feels like
it feels like a chore, like a to do
exactly. It never feels like it. And it's so connected to, so I guess one thing is I found people, some of the people I resonate with the most they're hardcore learners.
So they're constantly drawing and most relationships. If somebody is not a learner in beginning, there's going to be a lot of learning. But over time, there's gonna be less and less learning. You're going to know what they're going to think or say. And so if you're talking to someone as a learner, then you know, you don't talk for a month.
It's only there like a they've studied a whole discipline or learned a lot. Then number two is. I have a friend, Emerson Spartz who literally, he's been a very successful entrepreneur. He really understands ideas and how they spread online as his sites have generated billions of views and maybe even tens of billions.
And, so he's exited his last company, maybe two or three years ago, and he's just been traveling full time learning and literally wakes up at 5:00 AM and is just hardcore learning until evening.
And so if I don't talk to him for a month, literally one month, he's literally going through trying to get to the equivalent of a medical school degree over a period of this was a few months, but cause he's just focusing on full time and using all his learning hacks or another month, he's gone into an esoteric field of science as an example.
So polymath learner, somebody, and then I'm naturally a giver. Somebody else who's a giver as well. So you give an idea and you get more back. And I feel like those relationships are really exciting where it's just, you're almost like out competing each other to share more, give more, and just build off of each other.
And other relationships, the energy isn't there as much, or it's just neutral where you feel okay after talking to them, or you feel energy drain, but in these relationships you feel like man, I'm alive, you feel alive basically.
And so on a tactical level with those relationships, if you feel like somebody might be like that, and you want to explore that more.
The big thing is for me, has been moving it from formal. Like we have to schedule a call to informal. So I'll give people permission if they're on their commute or just driving somewhere, Hey, just give me a call. And I might do the same for you. If that's something you interested in.
And then I use an app called Voxer and the officers you could send asynchronous audio messages, and then listen to them at the two to three X speed.
So somebody could really ramble or just really express themselves for awhile. And then they don't have to feel guilty that they're rambling. And then the I'm listening can really listen to it quickly and respond. And so I have a few of those I do each day . I'm not using discipline to be like, okay, I have to respond to this person today. Or, I haven't kept up with my quota.
what are the fundamental skills that if you just do this, that you will be on your way to be a thought leader?
I would say one is value hook. So the way people discover content online is through algorithmic newsfeeds.
And so a value hook in that context will be the title, the image and the subtitle. That people are going to see. That's where a lot of the competition is. And a lot of people aren't even putting any time into becoming good at identifying the title and the image.
Then number two, I'd say is research that the something like 90% of all living scientists, all scientists, the living scientist today, California, 90% of the science to say that I've ever lived and that the amount of academic research papers that have been published as doubling every seven years. So being able to wade through that and find the needle in the haystack, there's a huge skill.
and then I would say naming things that the ability to, as you're doing that research, to find these areas where of white space, where there should be an idea, but there isn't, or conventional wisdom says this, but it's actually this other thing.
And then having a name for that is once. Names really help people think better, differently, or communicate with each other. And it's another area where most thought leaders don't even think about that as a category of skills to learn.
What are some of the questions that you've seen people struggle with, but I didn't ask you about
one thing I've noticed more a lot of times when people buy a course, they're trying to buy us. they want to get a result and they think that the learning the skill and the course is what's going to get them the result. And for a live times, it's actually a deeper transformation that needs to happen where it's not just the intellectual skill for writing.
There's a huge amount of stuff around imposter syndrome, going down rabbit holes. Is this going to pay off? A fear of judgment, fear of wasting your time. I have a list of about 30 different of these emotions. And when I observed people stopping, there's two things that come most people to fail fundamentally in all areas.
This one is you stop trying and then too stop improving. So you're just doing the same thing over. And so I think the emotions are often what causes to stop trying or stop improving.
are there ways that you have tactically to help people manage their emotions?
I'd say one is looking at the emotions as part of the curriculum. Most of the time, we just think about intellectual parts as part of it and realize that emotions often accompany different parts of the learning process. There's a good book. I think it's called like moves and learning how to learn.
but the main idea from that is that, if you're just learning something, you're more likely to get overwhelmed, let's say. And so that's an emotion that comes up cause there's so much stuff. And what should you do first and charge the distance that maybe another part you've made some progress, but you're hitting a plateau.
And so there's emotions that come up around the plateau. And so one, I think is just normalizing that a lot of times when people have the emotion, they assume, it seems like I'm doing worse than everyone else. So there must be something wrong with me. I'm going to give up basically versus being like, okay, this is about the time I should be feeling overwhelmed.
This means I'm about as I'm forcing myself to learn a new thing and I'm going to come up with a better schema, that's going to really help me. So it's almost a positive thing that you're feeling these emotions, because that shows that it's part of the learning you're learning in the process.
I love that.
when the visual that comes to mind is the flow chart. Where there's a middle of where a flow happens. If you're not stimulated enough, then you're bored. But if you stimulated too much, Oh, you're overwhelmed. You're anxious. So the idea I love, what you share is being internally cognizant about what's happening within, if you are two bored, chances are, you need to just step it up a little bit.
If you are totally overwhelmed, that's okay. Step it down and take a break. Then you come back so you can continue that flow, ride that wave. So I love that. Thank you.
yeah. And then there's patience , I think one basic thing that we can all do better is come up with whatever we're trying to do, come up with a better model of it.
So if you start off thinking that, you're going to become really good, really fast. And that doesn't happen, then you feel really bad and you might, and the model I have of how it works is that it takes a lot of work, but with deliberate practice, the odds are very much in my favor because most people just aren't willing to put it in as one example,
mentally change how you react to the events that happen.
So I also have a better understanding of luck and probability and randomness. So before something bad happened, I assumed, okay, I must've made a bad decision or something's wrong with me, but sometimes you can actually make the right decision and at bad event happens or it could just be bad luck.
And one thing I didn't understand is that, the roads to success is paved with failure. So you're failing, and then something works. And then that like pays for all of the other failures and way more than the cost of them. But. It's counterintuitive because you feel like if things aren't working a lot, it feels okay, something must not be working.
I'm doing this wrong.
What about inner struggles?
So I'm staring at the screen. I'm intimidated as hell. How do I overcome that inner struggle?
I would say to write for yourself. And to just not sense of yourself and do your first drafts that way and just to get out of your head.
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