Overcome Obstacles, Stop Overthinking & Why SMART Goals Aren’t that Smart
Do you want to know how to start doing what matters to you? Today on Anxiety at Work podcast, we discuss how to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals. I’m Chester Elton, and this is my co-author and friend Adrian Gostick.
Thank you, Ches. We all have a desire to make a difference, but sometimes we feel stuck or distracted. Our guest today is an amazing executive coach who can teach us how to be curious and creative.
He is Michael Bungay Stanier, the founder of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations become more curious. He is also the author of the best-selling book The Coaching Habit. He was a Rhodes scholar and the number one thought leader in coaching. He has a diverse background in consulting and agency work. He has lived and worked in Australia, the UK, the US, and now resides in Toronto, Canada. He has a master’s degree from Oxford and a law degree from the Australian National University. He is our friend, and we are thrilled to have him on our podcast. Welcome, Michael.
MBS: Thank you for having me. Before we started recording, you asked me how to pronounce my complicated name. I thought you were going to introduce me as “Have you ever wondered how to say Michael Bungay Stanier’s name?” You’re not the only one who struggles with it. When I got married, my wife and I combined our surnames. I was Michael Stanier, and she was Marcella Bungay. Now we are Bungay Stanier. I’ve heard many variations of it, but my favorite is Michael Banging Spaniel. That’s a memorable one. A high point and a low point at the same time.
That’s hilarious, Michael. Adrian, you said this podcast wouldn’t be funny. I’m glad you changed your mind and joined us.
We appreciate your time, Michael. We are big fans of your book The Coaching Habit. Now you have a new book called How to Begin. In it, you challenge the idea of smart goals. Why do you think they are not so smart?
Well, smart goals are the most common way of setting goals. But most people don’t remember what smart stands for. Is it specific or significant? Is it realistic or relevant? It’s confusing. But my main problem with smart goals is that they don’t inspire you to be ambitious. Smart goals are about making your goals neat, tidy, measurable, and achievable. That’s fine, but not enough. When I wrote this book, I wanted to help people set goals that are ambitious for themselves and the world. Goals that bring out their best and make an impact. So, I propose a different approach: thrilling, important, and daunting. Those are the three qualities of a worthy goal.
You know, it’s interesting. You are a coach of coaches, and that’s awesome. Adrian and I love your book. It’s been so helpful for us as executive coaches. You talk about asking good questions. How did you learn that skill? What did you find out from your research and writing? How do you use good questions to take care of the people you coach? And you know, our podcast is about anxiety at work. I think your approach to asking questions is great for that. Because when you coach an executive, they might feel anxious, right? They want to improve, but they don’t know how this coaching thing will work out. Especially at the beginning. But I’ve noticed that when you ask good questions at the start, it lowers the anxiety of the whole coaching process. How do you do that? What are those good questions? Sorry for the long question, but I’m really curious. Go ahead.
That was a long question with many sub-questions. I’ll try to answer some of them. You’re right that coaching can cause anxiety for both parties. The coach might wonder if they are helping, adding value, or going in the right direction. The coachee might feel uncertain, lost, or alone. That’s why I like the name of your podcast and books. They recognize that anxiety is real and can affect our performance. How do you deal with that anxiety? I think questions can help a lot. Questions are a way to discover new things. If you’re the coach, asking questions can relieve you from the pressure of knowing everything, saving everyone, or controlling everything. It can allow you to invite the other person to share their thoughts and insights. If you’re the coachee, answering questions can create space for you to figure things out. What we often face is people giving us advice too soon, before they understand what’s going on or what we need. Advice can be useful, but not if it’s premature or irrelevant. So questions can help us slow down and explore the situation more deeply. A great question can also reduce anxiety by giving the other person space and support to solve their own problems. Sometimes we get advice that we don’t need or want, because the other person doesn’t know what we already know, what we care about, or what we’re facing. A good question can help us slow down and explore our own situation more deeply.
If only there was a term for that advice Michael?
You’re setting me up, Adrian. You know I wrote The Coaching Habit, which has sold a lot of copies and helped many people use the questions I teach. But some people still struggle with giving advice. They ask me what’s going on. So, I wrote The Advice Trap, which is about taming your advice monster. Your advice monster is the part of you that wants to give answers all the time. There are three types of advice monsters: tell it, save it, and control it. ‘Tell it’ thinks it has to know everything. ‘Save it’ thinks it has to protect everyone. ‘Control it’ thinks it has to manage everything. These are the ego states that drive us to give advice. So, knowing questions is not enough. You also need to tame your advice monster. That’s the bigger challenge.
How do you coach an executive who wants to fix things? How do you help them resist their advice monster?
The first thing I do is explain what coaching means to me. It’s simple but hard. The goal is to be curious longer and to give advice slower. It’s not about never giving advice, that’s silly. It’s about slowing down and noticing how fast you jump to solutions. And then we talk about the costs of giving advice too quickly. For the executive, it means being tired, overwhelmed, responsible, and busy. She doesn’t have time for her own work or for developing her people. For the others, it means being disempowered and dependent. They don’t get to grow or learn or contribute. Giving advice all the time is like saying I’m better than you, I know more than you. That’s not helpful or respectful. Advice has its place, but not as soon as you think.
That’s fascinating. Just slow down. We’re often too eager to give advice. Where can people learn more about your work? What’s your website?
If you want to train your organization to be more curious, check out boxofcrayons.com. We offer corporate solutions for coaching. If you want to improve your own coaching skills or find your next big goal, go to mbs.works. That’s where you can find my books and resources.
You know, Michael is a great friend. He calls me randomly and it’s always fun. I smile when I see his name on my phone.
Or you sweat because you can’t say his name.
How do you say your name again? Bungay Stanier? That’s tricky. You know what I like to do? I like to listen to your audiobook of The Coaching Habit. It’s a great book and you have a lovely voice. I listen to it when I go for walks in the morning. It helps me stay connected to you. But let’s get back to our topic. Sometimes we need to be more bold and brave. But it’s hard when we’re stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. How do you find the courage to face those moments? I have an idea, but I want to hear from you first. You’re a champion of courage. You and Adrian are always going after big things. Chester, how do you reconnect to your courage when you lose it?
That’s a great question. You know, I had a similar experience recently. I was doing a virtual presentation that I had prepared well for. But I was feeling very nervous and anxious. I didn’t know why. So I decided to ask for help. I texted some of my close friends and told them I was anxious. I asked them to send me something positive and reassuring. And they did. Most of them replied right away. They were so kind and supportive. One of them even called me to check on me. It made me feel better and more confident. It also reminded me that I have a wonderful support group around me. And one of them said that asking for help was a good leadership example. I thought that was true. I don’t ask for help enough. So that’s how I deal with anxiety sometimes. How do you like that answer?
That’s a great answer. You know, we always say that vulnerability is strength. But we don’t always do it ourselves. We think it’s good for others, but not for us. We hide behind our armor. But you showed us how to ask for help. And that’s a gift. People love to help you. They feel good about it. How about you, Adrian? How do you find your courage when you lose it?
That’s a hard question for me. I don’t think about courage a lot. But I know I’m not very good at it. I often hesitate when I face something new. I say let me think about it or I say no. Chester calls me Dr No sometimes. He knows I’m scared of change and work. I don’t like to leap into things. I like to be careful and thoughtful.
That’s interesting to see how you work together. You’re such a great team. My wife and I have a similar dynamic. I’m a yes person. I like adventures and stories. I say let’s go for it. She’s a no person. She likes certainty and safety. She says let’s not do that. Today is our 30th anniversary of our first date. It took us a long time to figure out our dynamic and how to deal with it. How to handle my enthusiasm and her resistance. So I think it’s important to find the right people in your life. People who support you but also challenge you. People who don’t tell you what to do, but who love you for who you are.
That’s such a lovely answer, don’t you think? Yes, it really is. And Adrian, we didn’t need 30 years to figure it out, did we? No, we didn’t. Maybe 15 or 20. And I always tell Ches that I’m right and he’s not. When will he learn that?
Yeah, that makes sense. I like your honest feedback. And you know, I had a similar conversation with someone else who agreed with my answer.
By the way, we’re huge fans of gratitude. We wrote a book about it called Leading with Gratitude. And you mentioned how gratitude is important for coaching and overcoming obstacles. So, can you tell us more about how gratitude helps us and the people we care about in the coaching process?
For me, the power of coaching comes from two things. The first one is more practical. It’s just having time to think. You know, life is so busy that we hardly ever pause and reflect. But when we have a coaching session, we can explore things more deeply. And sometimes, even if the coach doesn’t show up, just having that hour to think is amazing. But the second thing is deeper. It’s based on this idea from a philosopher named Martin Buber. He said that there are two kinds of relationships: I-it and I-thou. I-it relationships are more like transactions. You don’t really see the other person as a whole. You just see what you can give or get or take from them. They’re like a part of your machine in the world. But I-thou relationships are different. They’re deeper. You see the other person as a whole, and they see you as a whole. You see their beauty and their flaws, their humanity, and their divinity. I don’t believe in God, but I still like that word for this. And I think gratitude is a way to connect to the I-thou relationship. When you say what you appreciate or love about someone, you go beyond the transaction. You say this is what they bring to the world, and I see it and I name it to myself or to them. And I think that’s important for coaching, but also for life in general. Gratitude is more than just coaching, obviously it is an act of love. I always enjoy seeing Chester’s posts on social media about what he’s grateful for. It’s like he’s connecting to the beauty and the wonder of the world and the people in it. I know I’m using some religious words here, but that’s how I feel about it.
I feel like I should have more demonstratively walked off stage.
by the way for anybody listening both of us had our heads down taking notes
Wow, that’s deep. Oh, it’s my turn now? Well, I think you’re right about gratitude. It really connects us with something bigger than ourselves, don’t you think? I mean, we have so much to be thankful for. Just look at us. We’re so lucky to be here, doing what we love. Most people in the world would love to be in our shoes. We have amazing opportunities and advantages that we didn’t choose or earn. It’s just a matter of chance and grace. So yeah, I totally agree with you on that.
But let’s talk about self-care for a minute. You know, I’ve noticed that successful people are often the most stressed-out ones. They put so much pressure on themselves to do more and better all the time. Like you said, if you sell a million books, you have to sell two million next time. How do you cope with that? What do you do to keep your sanity and happiness in this crazy world? I’m curious to hear your tips and tricks.
You know, I don’t really stress about the next big thing. I mean, I’m not expecting to write another bestseller like The Coaching Habit. That was a fluke. I mean, I did my best to write a great book and promote it everywhere, but it was also a lot of luck and timing. It just took off and people started talking about it and recommending it. It was amazing.
But that’s not how I measure my success. I don’t set goals based on numbers or rankings or awards. I set goals based on what’s meaningful and exciting to me right now. And then I try to figure out the best project to work on that aligns with that. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But the point is to do the work that matters to me and give it my all.
Like, I just finished writing my new book. It’s coming out next June. And I’m really proud of it. It took me a lot of drafts and revisions to get it right. I even shared it with some early readers to get their feedback. And you know what? Some of them hated it. They said it was awful. One of them even suggested that I should copy another author’s style or use more data. Can you believe that?
But I didn’t let that get to me. I know that my book is good. I know that I wrote it the way I wanted to write it. And I know that some people will love it and some people will hate it. And that’s okay. Because I did the work that mattered to me.
But that’s not the end of the story. I didn’t just ignore their feedback. I used it to make my book better. I basically rewrote the whole thing from scratch. And now I have a book that I’m really happy with. It’s coming out in June, and I can’t wait to share it with the world.
Of course, I still have to market it. And that’s another challenge. But I’m going to do it in a way that’s fun and creative and authentic to me. And hopefully, it will reach the people who need it and appreciate it.
But I’m not going to obsess over the numbers. I don’t have a sales target or a ranking goal. I just want to sell enough copies to make it worth my while. And maybe make some impact along the way.
I mean, come on. It has to sell more than 50 copies, right? I know at least 50 people who would buy it.
Or maybe not. Who knows?
That’s right. Exactly. I mean, I’m hoping that my mom will buy a bunch of copies and give them to her friends. But other than that, I don’t have any expectations. Any number I come up with is just arbitrary. So I don’t worry about that. I just focus on the process and the value.
And I also think about the risks and the rewards. What’s the worst that can happen? I lose some money and some time and some reputation. But that’s not a big deal. The money is already spent. The time is already invested. And the reputation is not that important. I mean, most people don’t even know who I am or how to say my name. It’s a mystery.
So, I don’t have much to lose. And that gives me freedom. Freedom to do what I love and what I believe in.
And that’s how I take care of myself and my work. I commit to the process, not the outcome.
I really appreciate that answer. I’m always about daily rituals that that you have. I’m a big fan of symbols and rituals. I want to point one of the things that you have to bring stress levels down and make people feel comfortable is a ridiculously good sense of humor. You really do find the humor in everything. That’s not a daily ritual. It’s a gift you have. Do you have any daily rituals that you can share with us?
Sure, I’ll tell you about my daily rituals. They’re pretty simple, but they work for me.
Every morning, I start with a cup of espresso. I love espresso. We have a nice machine downstairs, so I make one for me and one for my wife if she’s up. Then I come up to my office, where I have two desks.
One desk is for working. That’s where I do my podcast, write emails, newsletters, and stuff like that. The other desk is for thinking. That’s where I look out the window and try to figure stuff out.
And that’s where I open my journal and answer three questions. The first question is: What do I notice? I ask myself this because I tend to live in my head and in the future. I want to be more present and aware of what’s going on around me and inside me. How do I feel? What do I think? What do I worry about? What do I look forward to? I write down whatever comes to mind.
The second question is: What am I grateful for? You probably know why this is important. There’s so much research that shows that gratitude is the key to happiness. So I write down a few things that I appreciate and feel thankful for.
The third question is: What’s the one thing I need to do today to make this a good day? You see, I have a long to-do list that never seems to end. And I always take on more than I can handle. It’s a bad habit that I’m trying to break. So I ask myself what’s the most important thing that I need to get done today. Like today, the one thing I must do is write some newsletters for my team. We’re going to close the company down from the 13th of December until the new year, so we need to get them ready in advance.
I answer those three questions and every day, I set an alarm on my phone to remind me to stop working and celebrate the day. It goes off at 5:24 from Monday to Thursday, and at 3:47 on Friday. I don’t know why I chose those times. They just feel right to me.
Anyway, when the alarm goes off, I ask myself: What did I accomplish today? What did I make progress on? What can I be proud of? And I write it down in my journal. Or if I don’t have a pen and paper handy, I just say it in my head.
I do this because I read a book by Teresa Amabile called The Progress Principle. She says that people find meaning and motivation by making small daily progress on things that matter to them. And I agree with that. But sometimes I forget what I’ve done during the day. So this ritual helps me remember and celebrate it.
Love that! This has been such a fun and insightful conversation, Michael. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and experience with us. I’m sure our listeners have learned a lot from you.
But before we wrap up, let me ask you this: What are the main points that you want our listeners to remember from today? What are the key takeaways that you want them to apply in their lives and work?
Well, first of all, let me tell you the most important thing that you need to know from this whole podcast series. Not just from my interview, but from everything. And that is: How to say my name. It’s Bungay Stanier. Got it? Good.
But if you want something more than that, something more useful and profound, then I would say this: Focus on the process, not the outcome. And try to build ‘I thou’ relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding. That’s what I try to do in my life and work. And I think it makes a difference.
Thank you so much for your advice and genius that you give to coaches and people all over the world. I really enjoyed talking to you, and laughing with you.
But more than that, I appreciate your friendship. You know, you’re one of those rare people who actually cares and reaches out. You’re a good and true friend. And that’s the best thing anyone can say about me. That’s what I want to be remembered for.
So thank you for your time and your friendship. It means a lot to me.
You’re very welcome. It was a pleasure.
Wow, that was such a great conversation with MBS. He always challenges us and makes us think differently. Like, how he said that we should forget about smart goals and go for goals that are thrilling, important, and daunting. That’s such a cool way to look at it.
Yeah, I agree. He really inspires us to think about what’s next for us. What’s going to make us excited and motivated and scared at the same time. You know, I was talking to this young guy that I mentor sometimes. And he wants to change his job just for the sake of changing. And I’m like, dude, is that really going to make you happy? Is that really going to be thrilling? He just needs some perspective.
And I also loved how he talked about the advice trap. How we need to slow down and listen more and ask more questions. And not just jump in and give advice all the time. Because that can send the wrong message. It can make people feel like we’re smarter than them or we know better than them. And that’s not helpful at all.
Yeah, and I love how he calls it the advice monster. That thing that pops up and makes us want to give advice right away. But he says that when we ask questions instead, we actually reduce our anxiety. Because we don’t have to know everything. And we all want to feel less anxious, right? So he says, just be curious a little longer. And notice how fast you jump to advice. And ask yourself, what’s the cost of doing that? Are you making people feel less capable? Are you taking on too much responsibility? Are you missing out on learning something new?
Yeah, yeah. The questions are amazing. He’s so good at asking questions. And I love how he says that questions are the portal to discovery. That’s such a powerful way to think about it. And when you think about being curious and opening that portal and asking questions and listening and pausing and slowing down, it just makes you feel more relaxed and confident. It makes you feel like you can be a better coach and a better advisor.
And I think the last thing that really struck me was the I-It versus the I-Thou relationships. You know, how some people treat others as objects or means to an end. Like, what can I get from you or what can I give you? And how that’s so different from treating others as subjects or ends in themselves. Like, how do I respect you and appreciate you and love you? And how do we see more of that in our world? How do we reconnect with that level of humanity in our lives?
Yeah, I also loved the three questions he asks himself every morning. What do I notice? What am I grateful for? And what’s the one thing I need to do today? And then he also has this alarm on his phone that tells him to stop working and celebrate something he did that day. That’s awesome. What a great way to start and end the day.
Okay, well, that was a lot of learning and a lot of takeaways. Next on the podcast, we have Eliza Knox. She wrote a book called Don’t Quit Your Day Job. And she talks about how we need to change our mindset to succeed and thrive at work. So that’s going to be really interesting and relevant.
We want to thank you for listening today. Thanks to our producer Brent Klein, to Christy Lawrence who helps us find amazing guests, and to all of you who tune in.
Yeah, and if you like the podcast, please share it with your friends and family. We’d love it if you could download it and give us five stars. We’d also love it if you could visit thecultureworks.com for some more free resources for you and your team. And if you’re looking for a fun and engaging speaker who can talk to you about culture, teamwork, resilience, anxiety, and happiness at work, please give us a call. We’d love to speak at your event. And don’t forget to buy our books: Leading with Gratitude and Anxiety at Work. They’re great reads and well worth your time.
That’s right. And you get to hear our voices on the audiobooks too. So hey, thanks everyone for joining us today. And until next time, we wish you the best of mental health.