For many, 2020 will not be remembered as a “best of” much. We don’t need to repeat the reasons here; it’s sufficient to point out that a 100-year pandemic was only one of many difficulties facing the world last year. But among the crises and political turmoil, our shelter-in-place existences did furbish some serviceable opportunities. And one of those was in learning and development.
At Big Think+, we hosted experts on an array of life and business topics. The late, great Ken Robinson taught us how to find our element. Wellness experts such as Nir Eyal and Sharon Salzberg helped us keep our minds healthy among the discordance. And BTE favorites Amy Cuddy, Jim Collins, and Tim Ferriss returned to show us how to continue moving our careers and businesses forward.
Here are our favorite lessons from 2020, each of which will pay dividends well into 2021.
Winner) “How to Find Your Element: A Two-Way Quest and Its Perils” with Sir Ken Robinson, Author, Finding Your Element
Sir Ken Robinson describes the search for your place in the world as a two-way quest—a dialogue between what you want to be when you grow up and what the world needs from you. In the “follow your dream” world of Disney and network TV, this kind of reasoning reeks of compromise. In the world of college and career prep, it seems silly and impractical. What it is, in fact, is a much-needed reminder that we are both social and solipsistic creatures, and that a life well-lived is likely to serve others while satisfying our inner passions.
Runner-up) “Lock-In Information: Boost Your Memory Power with These Mnemonic Techniques” with Derren Brown, Psychological Illusionist and Author, Tricks of the Mind
“Psychological illusionist” Derren Brown has been a performer for 20+ years on stage and screen, using his unique brand of mentalism and psychology to thrill audiences around the world. In this lesson, he explains how he incorporates mnemonic strategies into his daily life and work, and teaches us two classic techniques that we can use to join the ranks of super-memorizers.
Winner) “Leverage Urgency: Be More Creative by Embracing Deadlines” with Tina Brown, Founder, Women in the World Summit, and Former Editor, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker
Creative thinkers often struggle to get organized. In part, this is because creativity is the ability to make unlikely connections, and minds that manage this easily tend to bounce around a bit. But the other, crucial piece is that creative work is always a struggle. As Tina Brown puts it, left to our own devices we’ll do anything to avoid that battle. Enter the deadline. In her storied career as editor of the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, Tina Brown has learned that, scary as they are, deadlines are the creative mind’s best friend.
Runner-Up) “Beat Procrastination: Jedi Mind Tricks for Getting Things Done” with Tim Ferriss, Best-Selling Author and Entrepreneur
Procrastination is a near-universal problem, but it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who has trouble getting things done. And when you feel like that, getting things done only gets harder. A dedicated life hacker and frequent podcast interviewer of super-accomplished people, Tim Ferriss has some concrete tips to offer for escaping the procrastination quicksand: Keep tasks small and defined, rig the game in your favor, and embrace positive constraints.
Winner) “Dealing with the Cards You’re Dealt—Life Lessons from the Poker Table: How to Project Confidence by Expressing Uncertainty” with Annie Duke, Former Professional Poker Player and Author, Thinking in Bets
Confidence is a necessary ingredient of success. Unfortunately, our culture conflates confidence with certainty. That’s a problem because certainty breeds closed-mindedness, a state of being we should have no confidence in. Former professional poker player Annie Duke argues that we need to embrace uncertainty evangelicalism. We need to understand that hidden information abounds in any decision we face. We need to be open to gathering more data, collaborating with others, and implementing solutions based on that.
Runner-Up) “Fix Your Mistakes: How to Revisit Your Decisions and Realign Them to Your Values” with Roger McNamee, Investor and Author, Zucked
Investor Roger McNamee joined Facebook as an early investor when the company was two years old. In this lesson, he explains why he went from Facebook supporter to its public critic. Ultimately, McNamee called upon his training as a tech analyst to re-evaluate his investment decision along three critical lines: What are the assumptions in play? Does the information available confirm those assumptions? What biases could be compromising the decision-maker’s ability to think analytically?
Winner) “Jump-Start Creative Problem Solving: Six Steps for Building Your Team’s Innovation Prototyping Kit” with Luis Perez-Breva, Director, MIT Innovation Teams Program, and Author, Innovating: A Doer’s Manifesto
Writers, filmmakers, and mythologizing biographers imagine innovation originates with a lone genius who has “the spark,” that light-bulb moment when the path from inspiration to world-altering invention reveals itself. In reality, innovation is a process, one more akin to a high school engineering challenge than divine revelation. In this lesson, Luis Perez-Breva, director of the MIT Innovation Teams Program, teaches you how to create an innovation prototyping kit for your team, much like a high school engineering teacher would do for their students.
Runner-Up) “Ask the Right Questions and Measure the Right Things” with Michael Slaby, Chief Innovation Officer, Obama for America 2012
Big data on its own is meaningless. Human intuition on its own is deeply flawed and full of blind spots. But taken together, they can help us gain deep insights into complex systems. It’s not a question of “either/or”, says Michael Slaby, who wrestled with some of the most complex and fast-changing data sets imaginable as the CIO for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. It’s a question of applying intuition and big data in the ways they work best.
Winner) “Understand the Creative Process: Get Your Team in Touch with Their Best Hunches” with John Cleese, Actor, Screenwriter, and Producer
Creativity is often at its best in a group setting like brainstorming. But to work, the group creative process needs to be led by someone who understands it. This person can moderate, creating an open environment in which less extroverted or dominant members feel as safe to share their silliest ideas as the alphas do. This sense of deep trust—that no idea is too silly, that every creative impulse is worth voicing and considering—is essential to producing great work.
Runner-Up) “Empower Your People: Conversational Moves for Engaging Your Team in Creative Collaboration” with Diane Paulus, Tony Award-winning Director
Creating the conditions for team agility is the job of every manager and leader; left to its own devices, any organization will settle into a hierarchical structure in which the majority try to follow orders, resulting in disengagement and uninspired performance. No one understands this better than a theater director. A leader in her field, Diane Paulus emphasizes the importance of creating a structured environment that tolerates enough instability and “play” to produce the unexpected.
Winner) “Communicating to Transform: Use a Persuasive Story Pattern” with Nancy Duarte, CEO, Duarte Inc.
Whether you’re starting a new company or trying to keep a family vacation on track, good storytelling comes in handy. Nancy Duarte studies and teaches effective storytelling in business contexts, and she has observed that the principles really don’t vary from context to context. They’re so consistent that she and her partner have outlined a five-part “venturescape” to help you tell the story of any journey you’re on in a way that will get buy-in and follow-through from every member of your team.
Runner-Up) “Houston, Do You Copy? An Astronaut’s Guide to Deliberate Listening” with Chris Hadfield, Retired Canadian Astronaut and Author, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Because talking (and listening) are things we learn how to do from a very early age and without formal schooling, it’s easy to assume that we’re experts. But people’s minds move at different rates, our personalities differ, and at any given time we’re viewing the world through mood, priorities, and other lenses that may differ radically from those of the person we’re talking to. The risks of miscommunication are endless. In this lesson, Chris Hadfield teaches us how to listen deliberately.
Winner) “Heightening Presence: Achieving Presence” with Amy Cuddy, Social Psychologist and Author, Presence
American culture tends to emphasize acquisition. If there are things we want, we should be able to acquire them in some more-or-less permanent form. Presence doesn’t work like that, says Amy Cuddy. It’s not a Zen-like state you can achieve once and for all, nor is it an inborn talent. It’s a matter of committing over and over again, especially in stressful situations, to be emotionally and physically present, no matter what you’re feeling.
Runner-Up) “Strengthen Your Emotional Agility: A 4-Step Process for Getting Unhooked” with Susan David, Psychologist, Harvard Medical School, and Author, Emotional Agility
“Hooked” is how most of us spend most of our lives—outsourcing decision making to thoughts, emotions, and internal narratives that we’re only dimly aware of. Once you’ve learned to recognize the warning signs in yourself, you’re in a position to outgrow these unhelpful patterns and take back control. Susan David breaks this process down into four steps.
Winner) “The Power of Onlyness: Harness the Power of Ripple Effects with Virtual Collaboration” with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
Historically people in companies have tended to cling to their pet projects. While that was probably never the best strategy, it’s definitely not how you develop and scale ideas in a digital world. The “wiki” model is a better approach—with any new idea, you can create a kind of virtual watering hole that’s as public as you want it to be. Put the idea there and invite others to comment on and otherwise make it their own. Instead of dictating to your project managers, ask them to consider how any new project aligns with the shared idea.
Runner-Up) “How to Supercharge Collaboration: Get Big Things Done with Remote Teams” with Erica Dhawan, Collaboration Consultant and Co-Author, Get Big Things Done
Studies have shown that remote workers produce as much as their co-located peers if managed properly. They don’t slack off on social media or Netflix either—at least, no more than they did in the office. Even the fabled digital nomad requires discipline to succeed. But the reason more people and organizations should look into remote teams isn’t that they can be as effective as in-office ones. It’s that remote teams bring unique benefits. As Erica Dhawan explains, these go well beyond working at your favorite beachside café.
Winner) “Find Career Success: The Cranston Assessment of Projects System (CAPS)” with Bryan Cranston, Actor, Director, Producer, and Writer
Career success, as you’ve no doubt heard many times, is an admixture of talent, hard work, and luck. There are no guarantees, but if all goes well your trajectory might look like this: a number of early-career years spent plugging away, networking, taking smaller, less ideal opportunities. Mid-career, the hard work pays off and you find yourself in-demand, and the foundational energy comes back at you in the form of more opportunities than you can handle. What do you do then?
Runner-Up) “Getting Equality with Men: Plant the Seeds to Secure Your Financial Future” with Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-Founder, Ellevest
In a just world, people would be paid according to some objective measure of the value they add to their companies. In our world, discrimination against women is made worse by the fact that men tend to overestimate their value, asking for big raises while their female colleagues remain silent. While the lion’s share of responsibility for equal pay lies with employers, women can significantly advance their own interests by learning to advocate for their own raises and to invest their income wisely.
Health and Wellness
Winner) “Finding Real Happiness at Work: Purposeful Pauses” with Sharon Salzberg, Bestselling Author and Co-Founder, The Insight Meditation Society
Sharon Salzberg says that experiencing negative feelings is not a problem. Instead, the problem is acting on the wrong feelings. Mindfulness training’s purpose is to learn to be aware of your feelings quickly. In this lesson, Salzberg trains you in “purposeful pauses,” or simple “stealth meditations,” that you can use to create a space for yourself to act from a place of inner wisdom.
Runner-Up) “Help Your Kids Deal with Digital Distraction: Essential Questions for Addressing the Root Causes” with Nir Eyal, Author, Indistractable
In our perpetually distracted age, what parent hasn’t agonized over the decision to give their child a cellphone? How do we as parents set appropriate digital boundaries for our kids? Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable, tells parents to stop blaming technology and take heart: We can raise indiscractable kids by addressing distraction’s root causes, which are psychological, social, and emotional. In this lesson, you’ll explore essential questions for helping you do just that.
Winner) “Accept the Machines, Lead Like a Human: Two Leadership Truths for the Age of Automation” with Andrew Yang, CEO and Founder, Venture for America
Over the past two hundred years, technological tsunamis have occasionally crashed into the economic landscape and altered its topography—to the betterment of many but the devastation of others. As a leader and businessperson, how do you weather these changes? You’ll need to make tough decisions, and some of those decisions will favor technology over people. In this lesson, Andrew Yang offers his advice for how to lead your people with transparency and compassion through major upheavals to the workforce.
Runner-Up) “Seeing Around Corners: Inflection Points to Watch for Economic Paradigm Shifts” with Rita McGrath, Professor of Business Strategy, Columbia Business School, and Author, Seeing Around Corners
To stay on top in the business world, you have to make sure your business model matches the times. Digital has rendered many older business models less relevant. Because of this, many established companies are “pivoting” to the future with internal restructuring. In this lesson, Rita McGrath explains why tuning into potential market shifts is critical for your business and offers lessons learned from Adobe and Nike, two legacy brands that successfully shifted their business models to ride the digital revolution.
Winner) “Build a Team” with Jim Collins, Leadership Consultant and Author, Good to Great
Jim Collins has closely scrutinized the management practices of hundreds of businesses and served as an advisor to CEOs nationwide. The best leaders, he says, don’t worry about motivating people – they hire passionate employees and do not extinguish their passion. The challenge of the leader is to facilitate employees’ eagerness to play their part in working toward a shared goal. In this lesson, Collins teaches you how to build a motivated team – by not de-motivating already motivated people.
Runner-Up) “A Navy SEAL’s Guide to Winning the Fight for Change: The Fundamentals of Culture-Driven Transformation” with Brent Gleeson, Business Consultant, Former Navy SEAL, and Author, Taking Point
Businesses either adapt to the changing competitive landscape or they perish. The market’s unbudging dead vastly outnumber its success stories. As Brent Gleeson, business consultant and former Navy SEAL, reminds us, leaders have to evolve their companies, and they have to do so faster, with fewer resources, and among fierce competition. But knowing change is necessary and knowing how to catalyze that change are two different things. To get from the former to the latter, Gleeson recommends we look toward culture.
Winner) “Practice Servant Leadership: Let Your Audience Know They’re Not Alone” with Lisa Lampanelli, Comedian
On the stage, on the page, or even sitting around the table at a meeting, you want to be heard. You want to get your message across. And there’s no school for connecting with audiences more powerful or unforgiving than stand-up comedy. Lisa Lampanelli’s career has taught her a few basic principles—not tips or tricks, but guiding principles that you can use to connect with any audience, to any purpose. These include practicing servant leadership, choosing stories that fit your audience and light you up, being yourself, and speaking from the heart.
Runner-Up) “Use Criticism to Your Advantage: Navigate the Journey Toward Finding Your Authentic Voice” with Salman Rushdie, Author, Midnight’s Children, and Winner of the Booker Prize
Salman Rushdie’s a novelist. But whatever you’re pursuing, you can learn from his experience how to be the best whatever-it-is that you can be. His advice begins with the reassuring fact that you can’t be anyone other than yourself. But this isn’t license to rest on your laurels. You can only become your best self by committing to lifelong growth and learning. And you can only grow and learn through experience and by listening (strategically) to constructive criticism.
Winner) “Stopping Sexual Harassment: Recognizing Different Forms of Harassment in the Workplace” with Gretchen Carlson, Journalist, Advocate, and Author, Be Fierce
The vast majority of sexual harassment lawsuits concern overt acts most people would instantly recognize as horrific. But the myth persists in some quarters that #metoo culture will empower demon hordes of false accusers, offended because a man held the door open for them. In reality, there are two types of workplace sexual harassment, one more overt than the other, but both undeniably real.
Runner-Up) “Hire for Performance, Fit, and Results: Follow the Hiring Strategy of an Interview Master” with James Citrin, Partner, Spencer Stuart, and Author, The Career Playbook
While the interview is losing ground as the core of many companies’ hiring processes, it’s still an important piece of the puzzle. Many opinions are formed in the interview room, and the best companies structure their interviews with this in mind. They do this first by carefully structuring multiple rounds of interviews in which the candidate meets some of the same people several times.
Diversity & Inclusion
Winner) “Confronting Racism: Understanding What It Means to Be White, Challenging What It Means to Be Racist” with Robin DiAngelo, Associate Professor of Education, University of Washington, and Author, White Fragility
When racism is systemic, most of us learn it unconsciously. Studies show that children in America by the age of 4 have absorbed the idea that being white is better. In adulthood, this translates into “white spaces”—neighborhoods and schools understood as better or “less sketchy” based on the relative absence of people of color. White spaces make race and racism invisible to their inhabitants, making it possible to think of oneself as perfectly tolerant and inclusive and erasing all that’s lost through cultural homogeneity.
Runner-Up) “Lead Difficult Conversations: Design Discussion Programs to Address Unconscious Bias” with Claire Groen, VP, Litigation, and Deputy General Counsel, Amway
If half-understood, the phrase “unconscious bias” can easily become a political flashpoint. But it’s a psychological fact that no human is free of biases and blindspots. And the fact that many of these are unconscious can make them even more difficult to observe and accept in ourselves, though they may be blindingly obvious to others. That’s why inclusivity programs need to include difficult conversations and a clear framework for learning from them.
Winner) “How to Digitally Transform Your Organization: The 10-5-4-1 Model for Generating Disruptive Ideas” with Tony Saldanha, Former VP of Global Shared Services and IT, Proctor & Gamble, and Author, Why Digital Transformations Fail
Disruptive ideas are critical to facilitating digital transformations, arguably the most pressing challenge facing organizations today. But it’s easier to say generate ideas than to do it successfully. Few organizations are equipped to bring those ideas to fruition. In fact, 70 percent of attempts to digitally transform a business fail. The question then is not only, “How do we generate disruptive ideas?” It’s also, “How do we recognize which ideas will succeed?” Tony Saldanha, former VP of Global Shared Services and IT at Procter & Gamble, has an answer to both. It’s the 10-5-4-1 model.
Runner-Up) “Help Shape the Future of AI: Why We Need to Have Difficult Conversations Around Technology and Human Values” with Susan Schneider, Philosopher and Author, Artificial You
Artificial intelligence is this century’s gold rush. There’s a fortune to be made in data and silicon, and everyone is out to capture the potential scintillating in them there hills. But while everyone is busy setting up camp in Silicon Valley, it seems few of us have contemplated the nature of AI or weighed its potential moral consequences against the desired payouts. In this lesson, philosopher Susan Schneider asks us to weigh the philosophical and ethical issues.
Winner) “Be the Consumer: Identify a Need in the Marketplace” with Sara Blakely, Founder and CEO, Spanx, and Author, The Belly Art Project
Insider knowledge is a double-edged sword. The players in any industry need to stay on top of the jargon as well as emerging, market-driven trends. But industries can quickly become echo-chambers, endlessly tweaking a product that no longer fully serves the consumer. Better, says Sara Blakely, to think like a consumer. She should know. With her company Spanx, she single-handedly turned the ladies’ undergarment industry on its head.
Runner-Up) “Brainstorm like a Designer: Bring Your Ideas into Reality” with Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program, Stanford University
Brainstorming. At this point, even the most staid, old-fashioned, conservative companies in the world understand its value. But very few know how to brainstorm effectively, and what do with all those ideas afterward. Brainstorming sessions, often lead to a cellphone snapshot of the whiteboard. This, says Bill Burnett, is “where good ideas go to die.” But with a few simple guidelines, brainstorming can become a powerful tool to generate great ideas and bring the best ones into reality.
Winner) “Build Trust in a Crisis: Understand and Respond to People’s Emotions” with David Ropeik, Risk Perception Consultant and Author, How Risky Is it, Really?
Nothing makes us more irrational than risk. The sense of threat or harm to ourselves, our families, our communities sends us into “fight or flight” mode. This is doubly so in a crisis. Yet crisis management often misses this simple fact, offering canned “damage control” rather than sincere, trust-building empathy and remediation. The right approach to a crisis is to acknowledge and take care of the volatile emotions first.
Runner-Up) “Make Room for Innovation: Evaluate Risk” with Lisa Bodell, Founder and CEO, Futurethink
When it comes to innovation, there’s no reward without risk. In this lesson, FutureThink CEO Lisa Bodell explains how to evaluate risks, communicate what’s tolerable, and empower people to make decisions on their own with this knowledge in hand.
Winner) “Practice Uncommon Service: Create Scalable Excellence” with Frances Frei, Professor, Harvard Business School
Real leadership means creating the conditions that will enable every person in your organization to thrive, continually, even after you leave. In this lesson, Frances Frei of Harvard Business School provides concrete tips on how to manage organizational focus, funding mechanisms, employee job design, and customer expectations to achieve sustained, scalable excellence.
Runner-Up) “Lead Vibrant One-on-Ones: A Podcaster’s Techniques for Opening Up Dialogue with Reluctant People” with Pete Holmes, Comedian, Actor, and Author, Comedy Sex God
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in trying to achieve our goals more efficiently that we lose sight of the fact that collaboration is our species’ superpower. Most of the greatest things we’ve been able to achieve have been the result of the meeting of minds. After almost 300 episodes (as of this writing) of hosting his podcast You Made it Weird, Pete Holmes has learned a few precious things about how to have a great, open, present conversation.
Winner) “Selling with Insight: Create A Need that Your Client has Overlooked” with Matt Dixon, Global Head of Sales Force Effectiveness, Korn Ferry Hay Group
What differentiates your company from its closest competitors? And why is that a difference that should make a difference to your clients or customers? Most people’s ready response to these questions is superficial and hard to quantify. “We’re more people-centric!” “We go the extra mile!” Effective insight sales begins with finding better, more specific answers. In this lesson, Matt Dixon recommends starting with a three-circle Venn Diagram.
Runner-Up) “Knock on Lots of Doors: Earn Success Like a Salesperson” with John Paul DeJoria, Co-founder and CEO, John Paul Mitchell Systems; Co-founder, Patron Spirits
In the abstract, we all value “persistence”. We all know that not giving up is key to success. But what does real persistence actually look like? It looks like a door-to-door salesperson knocking on 100 doors to make 1 sale, keeping their energy upbeat and positive through 99 rejections. It looks like not taking “no” for an answer.
Winner) “Recalibrate Your Decision-Making: The Perils of Being Data Rich and Knowledge Poor” with Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CEO, Flywheel Sports and Former President, Gatorade
It’s human (and business) to chase trends, often losing sight of the baby for the bathwater. Big Data is one such trend. The power people and businesses now possess to track every aspect of life and work is an awesome power indeed. It unlocks incredible potential for innovation and growth. But data is only as useful as the mind that uses it, and the questions that mind is asking. In this lesson, Sarah Robb O’Hagan advocates for finding a middle ground between human intuition and data science.
Runner-Up) “Master Content Marketing: Build Your Audience” with Shane Snow, Chief Creative Officer & Co-Founder, Contently
The shift in the marketing industry from advertising to content marketing is the difference between trying to catch fish and owning the lake. With advertising, you pay to reach a specific group of people with a specific campaign, then move on to the next. Content marketing, on the other hand, is about relationship building, and Shane Snow of Contently sees it as a new kind of funnel – one that works in stages of increasing vulnerability, a little bit like dating.