Think For Yourself with Dr. Vikram Mansharamani

Dr. Vikram Mansharamani is a global trend-watcher who shows people how to anticipate the future, manage risk, and spot opportunities. He is the author of the recently-released THINK FOR YOURSELF: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence and BOOMBUSTOLOGY: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst.

He has a PhD and two Masters degrees from MIT and a bachelors from Yale.  In addition to having been a lecturer at Yale, and currently lecturing at Harvard, Vikram advises Fortune 500 CEOs to help them navigate uncertainty.  His ideas and writings have appeared in Bloomberg, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, among many others.  He also shares his ideas on his Think For Yourself Podcast.





Dr. Mansharamani's Books


Baba Shiv's TEDx (Mentioned by Dr. Mansharamani):

Inside This Episode

  • Why We Outsource Our Thinking
  • The Risk of Being A Specialist
  • Finding Data-Driven Insights
  • The Double-Edged Sword of Focus
  • Knowing When NOT to Focus
  • Discovering The Shadow of Your Attention
  • The Blind Spots of Expertise
  • The Downside of Cohesiveness & The Need for Outside Partners
  • Make Better Decisions By Focusing On What You Don’t Know
  • They Simple Secret to Strengthen Your Thinking and Broaden Your Mind
  • When Planning For Success, Focus on Failure
  • When You Might Want to Outsource Your Thinking
  • Ethics, Empathy, and a Chance Meeting with Bob Woodward

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John Ryan
You're listening to key conversations for leaders. This is episode number 33. Welcome everybody. In today's episode, we'll be discussing how to think for yourself with Dr. Vikram. Mansharamani. We talk about why we outsource our thinking why when we're planning for success, we should focus on failure, as well as ethics, empathy and a chance meeting with Bob Woodward, and much, much more.

John Ryan 0:27
In times of great change, we need great leaders, those willing to step up, to take responsibility to create a vision and inspire others to join them in fulfilling that vision. A key part of that is having conversations with yourself and those who lead. That's what this show is about better conversations for better leaders.

John Ryan 0:47
Hey, everybody, and welcome to key conversations for leaders. I'm your host John Ryan, and today we have a very special guest, Dr. Vikram Malhotra money. He is a global trend watcher who shows people how to anticipate the future, manage risk and spot opportunities. He is the author of the recently released thing for yourself, restoring common sense and an age of experts in artificial intelligence and boot mythology, spotting financial bubbles before they burst. He has a PhD in two master's degrees from MIT, a Bachelor's from Yale. In addition to having been a lecturer at Yale and currently lecturing at Harvard, Vikram advises fortune 500 CEOs to help them navigate uncertainty. His ideas and writings have appeared in Bloomberg fortune, Forbes and New York Times, among many others. And he also shares his ideas on his Think for yourself podcasts. And today, we have the great fortune of having him here on the show. Welcome to the show, Vikram.

Vikram Manssharamani 1:38
John, thanks for having me. I'm thrilled to be with you.

John Ryan 1:40
Thank you so much. And I want to thank you for writing this book, it could not be more timely in the world that we live in. And I want to start by asking you about that, you know, in your book, Think for yourself, you talk about how we outsource our decision making? What are some of the symptoms that we need to look for, to identify if we're outsourcing our thinking to someone or something else?

Vikram Manssharamani 2:05
So let's start with why we outsource, john, if you don't mind, let me give a little context here. I think it all boils down to the fact that we are drowning in information, something we all viscerally understand and feel right, there's a data deluge, there's more information, we can't keep up. And then we know we're being asked to make choices in all walks of life. The result is that we feel because there are so many choices in so many options, and so much data and so much information that we can make the perfect choice, why couldn't wait the informations there, we have every option available under the sun. And so what do we do?

Vikram Manssharamani 2:44
We stop thinking, sounds counterintuitive, but what we end up doing is we run headlong into the arms of experts and technologies for the explicit purpose of getting an optimal decision advice from them. So I don't know how to make the perfect choice. But you mister PhD specialist, MD, Doctor, you probably know the best choice. So just tell me here, right? So we stop thinking we outsource our thinking to those who know more about the particular domain we're worried about than we do. And the ultimate reason I think this is problematic, and we can get into this if you want is the decisions are taking place in a context that is broader than the silo of expertise from whom we're getting advice. And so we lose the context and all the things that matter to us as individuals, when we turn to someone who's running around with expertise in a narrow silo.

John Ryan 3:43
Well, that's really fascinating. And it goes back to your TEDx talk about Foxy thinking. Nice victims pointing to his picture in the back of a fox and the Fox has the the generalist knowledge if I remember correctly, in that analogy, and it goes back to an ancient poem that you quoted in that highly recommend package, check out that Ted Talk. And the specialist versus the generalist. That's kind of one of the major things that you focus on. And I think what you're saying is that the problem with a specialist is that they're missing the forest for the trees, they're not seeing the bigger scope. And so we were not making the best decisions as a result of that.

Vikram Manssharamani 4:22
Yeah, look, I mean, there's a lot of value in being specialized. There's a lot of value and expertise. There's a lot of value and having depth, right of knowledge. I don't want to dismiss it. I'm not going to sit here and bash experts or specialists. But when it comes to navigating uncertainty, or going through dynamics that may not have a sort of pre determined path or we don't actually know even the range of possible outcomes. Well, then I'm going to suggest it's better to be a generalist that what we find specially when Facing a complex environment, a complex adaptive environment is that it's far more important to connect the dots than it is to generate the dots, specialists and experts do a great job of generating the dots.

Vikram Manssharamani 5:17
But at times, particularly when navigating uncertainty that it's it becomes really important to connect the dots so that you get a mosaic of the world you're in, and possible trajectories possible scenarios possible outcomes. At heart, what I really am suggesting here is that every single perspective is limited. Every single perspective is biased, and therefore, every single perspective is incomplete. So instead of adopting one perspective, why not use multiple perspectives? And if being a generalist is not that I don't know what a generalist is, right? a generalist is one who has an appreciation for multiple perspectives. One who can empathize This is okay, maybe I understand economics, maybe I understand a little bit of politics, maybe I understand a little bit of sociology, I can understand a little bit of demography. And I can sort of pieced together a mosaic where I tap into the appropriate forms of expertise to help me build out each one of those dots if you will. But the connecting of the dots in a unique way is a skill that I as a generalist need to bring. So it's a little bit of responsibility for owning the decision context and owning the sort of domain in which you were navigating, as opposed to the narrow domain that the expert is providing advice on.

John Ryan 6:41
The dots. And the idea of data is the generalist that they look for meaning significance and patterns, versus just information like the power of data versus actually intelligence.

Vikram Manssharamani 6:54
Yeah, it's interesting, john, I'm back. Almost 20 years ago, when I was working on my PhD., the nature of my research was focused on taking data and analyzing it to get information value, and then eventually insight that you can act on. And you're hinting at a very key distinction, which is data doesn't think data is their inputs. But the outputs are usually actions or some form of analysis that leads to a new insight. And there is a divide between data and what you do with data. And that interpretation of the data, etc, is really critical. And so it's in that process of taking data, which is good, I'm not suggesting data is bad. Data is good. We want to use data to make decisions. But it's the interpretation and contextualize ation of that data that really provides the value to help. So yeah, I think you're right, that the data is something we don't want to dismiss. But at the same time, we also don't want to slavish Lee depend on it.

John Ryan 8:02
You mentioned the fact that, you know, every perspective is limited, which goes to something you also referenced in your book with the gorilla video, and based on the invisible visible gorilla, I believe was the original book, based on the research and his name escapes me. Such a great video, and it was in the brain games video. And I know you also mentioned working and interviewing Apollo Robbins, and perception. And what was really interesting is, you know, because he uses that principle of the grill, and that we don't see everything and distracting focus. How do we know when we're missing the gorilla versus seeing a useful enough amount of reality? Jeff, I could say it that way.

Vikram Manssharamani 8:47
Yeah. So for for your listeners that may not know much about the sort of gorilla problem. It's really a wonderful example, I think of illustrating the sort of two edged sword of focus, right. So we all think about focus as historically and most of us and sort of general connotation of focus is that it's a good thing. Right? more focus is better, right? In fact, I'm looking at my computer. Microsoft Word has a focus setting against a sort of turn on all the distractions, that focus is good, who doesn't like focus? Except if you stop and think about what focus means. It means screening out, it means getting rid of what's happening outside of the area that you're focused upon. What it means you can easily say deep focus is the same thing as broad ignoring. And when you say broad ignoring, wait, hold on, john, you don't like to broadly ignore that. But I'm telling you the same thing deeply focused broadly ignore the same dynamic. And so we in one context, when it's framed for us as focus, we say, Oh, that's great. We need to focus more. I need more focus I need to destroy.

Vikram Manssharamani 9:58
If I tell you well, you're you know, You're broadly ignoring, well, that doesn't sound good either I need to sort of not ignore as much as I do. So that's really the, the, what they call inattentional or selective in attentional biases since in sort of blindness. So yeah, you can definitely find find more information on that. But it's it's fascinating and exciting to me that you bring up Apollo Apollo is turned into become an interesting person. I've gotten to know pretty well, he's a friend. You know, I've thought about collaboration on a couple projects. We've got a couple ideas we've been kicking around. But Apollo is a by by training by background almost a professional pickpocket. Right. So what does he do? He plays in the shadows, you've got your spotlight of focus, you know what you're doing. He's playing in the shadows.

Vikram Manssharamani 10:48
He's probably one of the best students of focus in the world. And you know, he was a professional pickpocket, they became an entertainer in Las Vegas. He's actually he actually advised Warner Brothers on the movie focus. So he taught a Will Smith and Margot Robbie, how to act like Bob pickpockets. He taught him how to do it. And so if you get a chance to watch the movie focus, I think it's fabulous, because it illustrates a lot of these points. And no, behind the scenes, it was really Apollo Robbins, who was teaching some of those tidbits. But But the point I think, is really interesting that you're raising here, focus, and blindness, and sort of where you focus and where you ignore and what you ignore, are all really important things that many of us just stop thinking about, which is it just happens in the background. Right? Imagine you're walking out of an airport in a foreign country, john, you come out of the airport, and it's there's a big sign there that says warning pickpockets in the area. So what are you going to do? First, you're going to grab your chest, make sure your chest pocket of your jackets, okay, got my wallet, you're going to touch this, okay, here's my passport, you're going to say, double look in your opener, pull out your money clip, okay, I got my mind over that I'm okay.

Vikram Manssharamani 12:10
That's one way to think about it, you've now focused on what you need. However, if you were to take another perspective, and say, Well, if I was a pickpocket, Damn, that's a pretty good spot to be at, I could sit there, and John's gonna come out, he's gonna just give me a map of where everything of value is. Right. And so you turn around, and I'm like, hold on a sec, we focus on ourselves missing the context in which things are happening. Likewise, if you actually try to adopt a different perspective, ie scatter your brain zoom out. And a lot of ways I describe this, maybe value there and sort of seeing a different role, different perspective. And maybe ignoring is not the right thing, maybe focus isn't always good.

John Ryan 12:54
So many Mic drop moments there on shifting paradigms where you just said, so thank you, first of all, on really the two sides of the coin of focus, and in deletion, and really ignoring it was abroad like so defocus and broad deletion or broad ignorance in that manner. When you're trying to gain focus to work on a project writing or doing something? Do you intend to focus on something? Or do you actually take a moment and step back and figure out what you want to not pay attention to? Is that something that comes into your awareness?

Vikram Manssharamani 13:25
Yeah, so look, however, when works, I think that's very individualistic thing and different times a day, different ways, etc. So I do find myself needing to work at times where the distraction risk is lower. Right? Look, I've got a couple of kids, I've got an office with some people that work with me and others. And so I find, you know, it's, it's hard for me to write during the middle of an afternoon, for instance, whereas early morning, I find it easier to write, I find it easier to write in the evenings, I find it easier to write when there's less distraction, possibilities. And part of the reason for that is I don't view the distractions as distractions. I view the distractions as potential insight. And so I don't dismiss anomalies, I sort of explore anomalies, etc.

Vikram Manssharamani 14:09
And so that's a different paradigm of thinking. And so, you know, yeah, I think I do focus. But there are times to focus, there's times not to, there's domains in which focus is useful. And, you know, we'd like to think of it as binary or either specialist or a generalist, either you're narrowly focused, or you're not, there are gradations. And there's a time element, I can be really focused on something now and then zoom out on a personal level and sort of see the context in which decisions are happening. But I can be a PhD scientists exploring a piece of research very narrowly and deeply here. And then I zoom back out. So it's a there are gradations. It's not a binary, either A or B. There are times it's a dynamic also, it's not just your app, your one thing and you stay that you migrate you in, out, up, down over time.

John Ryan 15:00
So behind that is his intention. It sounds like in that moment what is required and being willing for you, especially being more generalist focus to embrace those anomalies and figure out what insights are available there when they pop up as well.

Vikram Manssharamani 15:14
Yeah, you use the word intention. I use the word mindful. Yes, yes, perfect. In fact, there's a chapter in the book called mindfully managed focus, first chapter of what do we do here in this situation? And that's the chapter I think we're have Apollo Robbins in there. But it's, the key is to be mindful to think for yourself by actually sounds crazy and very meta. But focus on where you focus, right? I mean, actually take a step back, zoom out and say, What is it I want to focus on? And what am i ignoring by doing so? And just be intentional or mindful of it, not saying it's bad, don't focus. I'm just saying, if you let people focus you without being aware of it, well, then you're getting taken for a ride. And maybe it's a good ride, man, it's a bad ride. But you're not in control. You put yourself on autopilot. Somebody else's choosing the destination.

John Ryan 16:07
With Apollo Robbins, of course, and you mentioned is potentially the greatest student ever on unfocus. What are some of the more powerful things he shared about managing other people's focus?

Vikram Manssharamani 16:17
Yeah, so it's interesting. I mean, so again, if anyone doesn't know Apollo, and my guess is a lot of people don't know. He was really drawn to fame as sort of made very publicly accomplished accomplish, because he was I think it was at Caesars Entertainment, I forget which Las Vegas venue, he was at doing a magic show. And he was told that Well, actually, you know, Jimmy Carter is going to be in the audience. And so just so you know, former president is just be aware, and he's, you know, great.

Vikram Manssharamani 16:48
So he goes out, and he finds the Secret Service detail. And while he's with the Secret Service detail, he's just making conversation. And what he does is, in fact, there's a part of my book where I talk about it. He literally takes out a copy of Jimmy Carter's itinerary from one of their pockets. He pulls the keys to the motorcade out, and he gets like badges at these agents and stuff like that. And he starts offering them back to them. And they're all like, what are you you can't have you're not authorized, etc. But anyway, that's just a fun tidbit. The reason I bring that up is oftentimes, it's the most audacious sort of attempts, where people are not expecting things, that focus management becomes really interesting. And really something you can do. So it's actually and I think, I think Apollo is the one who told me this, it might have been someone else. It's actually easier to pickpocket someone when they're worried about being pickpocketed.

John Ryan 17:51
Why? Yeah, why is that?

Vikram Manssharamani 17:53
Yeah. So here, here's the thing. So it turns out, think of focus as being something we have a set amount of, right, you got to set him out of focus. And you I pull you up on stage. I mean, I couldn't do this job. But Apollo could pull you up on stage in front of 40 people, hundred people, 500 people corporate event, big venue doesn't matter. I pull you up on stage. And I'm telling you, all right, you know, you know, I'm a professional but but you're on high alert. And you're paying close attention right here to you know, your your wallet is on your inside chest pocket of your blazer, you've got it, you're watching it, you're you're like intensely focused here.

Vikram Manssharamani 18:32
As a result, Apollo could touch your shoulder, your intention, your focus, everything is on your shoulder pocket area, during which time he takes your watch off. Because you've Miss channeled your energy towards where the stimulus has been either in the form of torture, your mental energy, etc. And so you've ignored so the gorilla is he's going after your watch. You're watching the balls bounce here in your pocket in your shoulder. And so think of focus as being something that we have a set amount over and where you allocate it becomes important. And in this case, if you overly allocate in an area where you think you're focused on the right topic, you're broadly ignoring other areas that may be just as important. And so that creates the shadow for professionals like Apollo to jump in the shadows and act there.

John Ryan 19:23
So that's another data point leaning towards the generalist versus the specialist, because when you're so blinded, then you miss the other other data points that could be changed the entire narrative of what you're talking about.

Vikram Manssharamani 19:36
That's right. That's right. Think about I mean, look, there's storied examples here. Steve bomber suggesting there'd be no market for the iPhone. Right. Okay. Right. Or even McKinsey saying, you know, the market for cell phones will be limited, or, you know, IBM and there were some computer executives that said, you know, there'll be a market for like, five personal computers or some small number back In the 50s, you know, what happens is when you're focused on one area, you fail to realize possibilities outside. You know, Irving Fisher back in 1929 said the stock market reached a permanently high plateau. Well, it turns out it went ahead and plunged a ton rightly, shortly after he said that, you know, and there's a lot of reasons for this recency bias, people that end up focusing too much on their area tend not to look broadly at areas that can be coming from adjacent domains or adjacent developments that can affect what they're predicting. And here, the the scholar who I think is really worthy of reading up on and has done some brilliant research.

Vikram Manssharamani 20:39
So I'm very fond of, is Philip Tetlock, Philip Tetlock, he's written several books, my favorite of which is expert political judgment. where he's, you know, over 20 years, he analyzes something like, hundreds of thousands of predictions to come to the conclusion that people are more accurate in predicting, you know, sorry, non experts are more accurate predictors than experts in a specific domain. So if your areas of expertise is, I don't know, economic growth forecasting, turns out non economic actors that were that's not their focus are better at predicting economic growth than you are. Wow. And it's sort of like a very disturbing development in so many levels. And in fact, the research is gigantic. I mean, he's done some brilliant work over long periods of time. I mean, that study had 284 professional forecasters. And I think he had data on over 80,000 actual predictions and forecasts curve and concluded that and the conclusion was literally conclusion was, it's more realistic to turn to non experts and experts. And that has to do with the focus, and sort of seeing things that may come into effect you and not sit back.

John Ryan 22:03
Because as the amateur, I'm not as biased on my own theories, and not putting weight on my own ideas about what's supposed to happen is that,

Vikram Manssharamani 22:11
Yeah, I think I'm a journalist, I don't know what I don't know. You literally as a generalist, I try to pride myself on this, which is I think of myself as a generalist. And that means when I walk into a room, I know there are people who know more than I do about everything. I'm not, I'm not the final word, on anything. And so what do I do? I listen, I'm open minded, I'm aware that someone knows more than whereas, you know, john, if I throw you on stage and say, You're the leadership expert, you're the best person in the world. You're the leadership person. You've written books on leadership, you are done studies on leadership. Now, you enter this corporate boardroom, and, you know, CEOs like well, what am I supposed to do?

Vikram Manssharamani 22:52
And you believe everything you say, and not saying it's wrong, but there could be someone who's not a leadership expert was a zero chance, actually, the context matters more than the person's activity? Is it possible that like, a huge financial crisis will derail all of your leadership plans? Or is it possible that a global pandemic like, you know, that's not going to enter your world of thinking, because you in, you know, you're focused on what you do. And you've been given all these, you know, accolades for how well you do it, and you get all this prestige, and you actually start to believe yourself and not wrongfully, but, you know, at the expense of seeing other possibilities,

John Ryan 23:32
Kind of wrongfully in that particular context, right, because we're limiting ourselves.

Vikram Manssharamani 23:37
Yeah, well, not not wrongfully but incompletely. I think just the way I would say, write in great word. Yeah, it's not wrong, because you want people doing that. But you need to compliment people like that with people who think the outside view so you know, all of my consulting and advisory practice all the work I do. In fact, in the in, Think for yourself, there's a section where I've worked with United Technologies and their merger with Raytheon. But, you know, I get hired by boards and their CEOs to come in and play that role. Because they all know that there it's impossible for them not to think what they think, right there in their world. They're seeing the world through their own eyes. It's impossible to bring an outsider's perspective, when you are in fact, an insider. Like it's you've got history, it structurally, it's not that I'm smarter. It's not that I'm better. It's not that it's just I'm not in that day to day trench battle, that they are fighting their business decisions. I get to sit back and look broadly and come back as a Hey, ask the naive questions that result in questioning assumptions that may lead them to insights that could be helpful. So I think there's a huge role for outside thinking partners, especially for leaders that are very mindful about the risks to their own framing and the data they receive and sort of how it gets filtered before it reaches them, to have a independent external thinking. partner that they trust is big picture broader, wider for them to just bounce ideas off of and to get new input from. So that's a role I played in several boards and C suites. And it's, it's a fun one, actually, I enjoy it.

John Ryan 25:17
Can you talk a little bit about meta knowledge and how it relates to successful leaders?

Vikram Manssharamani 25:22
Yeah. So, um, it's funny, we talked about meta focus. Now we talk about meta knowledge, very meta. So yet meta knowledge, knowledge about your knowledge is critical. In fact, in my first book, boom, bust ology, I have actually a meta knowledge test that, you know, readers can take to gauge how much they know about how much they know. And the reason this is important is, oftentimes, we know what we know, that's fine. We sometimes are aware of things that are out there that we just don't know about, you know, you know, there's complex physics and launching a satellite and Okay, great. I don't know love was physics. I know, I don't know those physics and that math and etc. But I know it exists, but I just don't know it. Right. Then there's a whole domain of things? I don't know. I don't know. Right? That's where it gets pernicious. And it gets really problematic. I mean, Donald Rumsfeld is famous for his unknown unknowns, right? And is known known known unknowns and unknown unknowns. And, you know, he goes through these the matrix and thinks about it that way. But really, what I think is quite interesting, and worthy of spending more time for all of us to think about is understanding what we don't know.

Vikram Manssharamani 26:50
And spending more time thinking about what we don't know, we don't know if that makes sense. I realized that once we figure that out, then we know we don't know it. But what I'm trying to do is expand the horizon. So one way this comes into play, is if you don't have an appreciation for what you don't know, then it ends up manifesting itself very directly. And all the psychology research as overconfidence, and overconfidence ties very nicely to hubris, which correlates with closed mindedness and the inability to navigate uncertainty because you're on you're not open to seeing different scenarios or possibilities. So there's a link, it gets weaker with every stage, but there is a link between not appreciating what you don't know. And your inability to navigate uncertainty.

John Ryan 27:44
Within certainty, of course, there's going to be a huge piece of that pie that we don't know what's going to happen. And so would you say that the first step then is to acknowledge that and and then seek extra data points to bring in a bigger, better picture of what's going on?

Unknown Speaker 27:59
Yeah, look, when it's uncertain you, yeah, a great example. I've done this and tons of corporate environments, junk. People tend to come up with forecasts, right? Or what are your sales going to be next year? Well, I've got this spreadsheet, I got the sales pipeline, it pops out. And so my midpoint, my I think I'm going to do a 10%, larger number and revenue. So I'll do $1.7 million of revenue as my sales quarter next year. Great. That's just one point. We don't know. How about we say one five to one nine, is that possible? Can we do a range instead of a point estimate? When you get a point estimate, you got all sorts of anchoring biases that come into play, people insufficiently adjust? When you force them to put a range? Now you can have a conversation about the uncertainty, what's going to drive it towards the higher end, what's going to drive it towards the lower end? What don't we know? Right? So that's one thing. The other thing I encourage folks to do is, don't get anchored on a point estimate, think in terms of ranges. But another thing I tell a lot of leaders to do is read fiction. And you can say why? Yeah, yeah, I want people to read fiction. Wait, hold on, I'm too busy. I've got to read the latest business book, I have this book on data analytics, I go learn. I've got this quarterly strategy update coming up. I want to understand this consultants thinking, I'm meeting this person as a potential board candidate, they wrote a book, I got to read their book, I don't have time to read fiction.

Unknown Speaker 29:26
Well, I want to suggest to you that fiction is actually what helps broaden the mind actually helps you widen your horizon of possibility actually gets you thinking differently, actually helps you even in domains that you're not thinking about, in the course of reading that fiction, helps you think about things in your domain of interest. And so there's a lot of really interesting work on fiction and how it could be helpful to enhancing creativity, awareness, empathy, all sorts of things that are useful for navigating uncertainty. So I become a big believer that reading fiction and different scenarios is useful. And by the way that that applies then to watching movies. If I'm in a rut of thinking, or I feel like I'm not coming up with interesting answer, I will occasionally and I don't apologize for it. Especially since I work for myself, I don't have to. But I'll occasionally just go watch a movie. In the middle of diagram, I'm just gonna write I can't get there. Fine. Yeah, I'm gonna go back and turn on a movie about some fantastic scenario. You know, right. That's okay.

John Ryan 30:30
So one, one central theme that seems to come up a little bit when we're becoming aware of our own biases. What we know what we don't know, acknowledging that becoming med on our thoughts is really self awareness, like going back to the word you said before, which is mindful. So if we're as a leader in that space of being mindful and being open, not having hubris, not getting focused on how much how great I am, and how much I know, how do we create a culture where people are okay, in in challenging assumptions and looking at different perspectives, rather than being fearful of being wrong.

Vikram Manssharamani 31:06
Failure has to be seen as positive, not negative. Right. So that's the first thing I say is you celebrate failure rather than than then sort of castigate those who have failed. So failure is really critical, because that's where the opportunity for learning takes place. In fact, one of the suggestions I made john is that, you know, when planning for success, focus on failure is something I've written here. And the reason I say that is, a lot of us can make a scenario, hey, we, as a team are going to make this decision, I want my boss to know I'm making this decision, this is the direction and this is my scenario. That's the plan. And this is where I think we're gonna get fine. Maybe you get there, maybe you don't, but to acknowledge the uncertainty, and to take the value of learning from failure, before you actually fail. There's something called a pre mortem analysis. It's speculative hindsight.

Vikram Manssharamani 31:59
So what you do or prospective hindsight, excuse me, you put yourself in the future five years forward. And you look back to the present, and you say, oh, john made this decision for us to go in that direction. God, that was a horrible decision. Why? Let's think about why we failed. With that decision. What happened, oh, global recession hit sales plunged, or you know, what three of our key team members left, we were so overly dependent there, there was technological disruption in the business from a different angle. Turns out government regulation changed, or there was a new trade flow pattern that resulted in a competitive threat we hadn't thought about all of these dynamics, could have made John's great decision today fail five years from now. So let's just do that with every decision. We're thinking about, let's imagine ourselves five years forward, and how we failed. I think doing it that way, takes the pressure off us as a team saying with you, john, in the conversation, and I as the leader, sort of saying, I'm trying to encourage a thought process that's more open minded, more willing to think about failure. If we make it personal about you, that sort of doesn't feel right, sort of, you're going to be less likely to step forward with ideas in the future. But if instead we say, you know, this is just part of our process, we just always evaluate five years forward, this has failed, why that's something we do for every possible decision, we're going to put on the table. And we as a team have to set a leader who sets up that framework, that context is more likely to feel like they get better idea flow. Alternatively, one other thing I've done with, with with group decision making, which is a different domain, and we can get into the complexities there if you want to.

Vikram Manssharamani 33:45
But when you go into the domain of groups, sometimes having a structural devil's advocate is actually really important. It's because you know, it's not personal, john, but my job is to tell you why your idea is horrible. It's not going to work. Here's why. It's not personal. If it's not a structural person whose job it is to always say no, when now we got conflict during Jesus, what the hell is Vikram always got in from my ideas for you know, that Vikram guys really a pain, I don't like him, he's always shooting down my ideas. And then you see you get counterproductive dynamics in the social sense of management. But a leader who sort of encourages a context where failure can be openly discussed and is not deemed personal, or offensive to individuals. But it's instead discussed in the sort of context of seeking better outcomes for all. Well, that's a healthy development, I think.

John Ryan 34:42
I think so too. I think there's sometimes an overemphasis on focus on the positive that can happen, especially in the personal growth and development industry, but you're saying looking at it, realistically, let's either create a role or credit as part of the structure where decision making so that we all encompass that role, while we're making those decisions. That's a very powerful one at the time.

Vikram Manssharamani 35:02
And it's also true on the personal development side, too, right? I mean, so you're gonna make a career move. Someone's thinking about a career move. Oh, you know what, I'm currently a manager in this department, I think I have an opportunity to become a vice president at that company in the same department doing last? Is that a good thing or bad thing? Let's do the same process. Five years forward, horrible decision. Why? Well, the company went to went out of business. And you were seen as the person that led to their failure because you were in that vertical which had problems to begin with. There was a lawsuit there was regularly you can do the same thing and see how it affects you in your career.

John Ryan 35:39
So really jumping, you're doing lateral thinking, you're doing retroactive thinking you're doing proactive thinking, being present in the moment at the same time and managing what you focus on and what you don't pay attention to, like, but but either we're doing that, either. We're being mindful, as was really what we're saying, or you're outsourcing your thinking. And if you really want to, let's go back to that first question. What are some of the symptoms when we're not doing those things that that causes people harm?

Vikram Manssharamani 36:07
Yeah. Well, let me let me begin by saying, I don't think outsourcing is always bad. As you hinted at, it's hard work to think for yourself. It's not easy. It takes effort. It's mindful, it's energized, is uses energy. It's, you know, it's a it's a process. It's not something that just happens. And so that can be really taxing. If you have to think for yourself on every decision that takes place in life. There's a story in the book about my wife and I tried to choose a movie, right? Between Netflix, Hulu, Comcast, XFINITY, all these things. We probably have a million on demand movies done our fair Apple TV. Probably no joke to say it's a million plus movies on demand available does instantaneously.

Vikram Manssharamani 36:55
I mean, something like that. surely, surely there is a perfect movie for my mood for her mood for the humidity level for the temperature for the lighting for the dogs barking or not barking? persona, like whatever it is, there's a perfect movie for that. How the hell am I gonna find that part of my language? That's a search like, for me to you want me to go to Rotten Tomatoes? You want me to go the Internet Movie Database, you want me to screen based on actors? You want me to screen based on emotional outcome of people who have fall?

Vikram Manssharamani 37:27
Look, are you kidding me? I just want to watch a movie. You know what, I'm going to outsource my thinking to the Netflix recommendation. That's okay. It's low cost to an hour and 45 minutes, done the couch, this low stakes, but I don't like it was fine. Next time I go find something else. Alright, whatever, low stakes decision. Now.

Vikram Manssharamani 37:49
Now instead, you've got a major medical issue that's been presented to you. You've got a couple courses of action, some of which come with really high risks, but offer really nice rewards of elimination of potential issues. Others you live with a nascent risk that may be there for a while and produces an anxiety for you, your family, etc. Here's an example where I don't need you, putting yourself on autopilot. Here are the example you need to engage. The stakes are high enough, you it's important enough, yes, you're going to talk to your doctor, but you might actually go get a second first opinion, as I referred to, I don't call them second opinions.

Vikram Manssharamani 38:30
Because oftentimes a second opinion is you take your existing file and you go see another doctor. And that exact next doctor reads the first file and says, Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Great. I agree. I'm not gonna disagree with my esteemed colleague down the street. Instead, you go find a true Second Opinion. A second first opinion is what I describe it us. Because you want independent thinking not, you know, connected thinking. In that case, you really do want to connect the dots, Think for yourself, explore adjacent domains, okay, you're going to potentially take this, have this procedure, take some medication for your heart? What does it do to your risk of diabetes? What does it do to your sort of other conditions that you may have? Are there other sort of interconnections that are worthy of thinking about?

Vikram Manssharamani 39:16
And so you know, there's a situation where the default may in fact be to just that doctor knows best lemmings blindly follow. And I want to say, you can do so make sure you're doing so acknowledging that you're doing so. Okay. This is to high stress. I can't keep up with it. I don't want to try even. So I'm just going to let this doctor take over in my book, there's an example where a Stanford University Professor Baba shiv, he and his wife had a cancer diagnosis and they proactively decided to take the backseat to get out of the driver's seat of the decision making process. They said it was too emotional. Difficult to hard we knew it. And so they proactively mindfully and that's why I'm okay with it mindfully said, you know what we know, we could get engaged. We know we could ask the pros and cons, we know, we could see where and how else this might matter. But this is too emotional. We're just going to find the right person to outsource or thinking to. And they did that way. He's actually got a TED talk on the topic.

John Ryan 40:25
I haven't checked that out, I

Vikram Manssharamani 40:27
think it's when it's okay to give up the driver's seat or something like that.

John Ryan 40:31
So the reason people because you said when the stakes are high, it makes more sense to make that decision for yourself, because it's not right or wrong, to take the driver's seat or give up the driver's seat. But you have to be mindful. And what we have is probably a default right now with the overwhelm that we have to outsource. And we just need to make that decision for ourselves.

Unknown Speaker 40:52
That's right. Yeah, in fact, I found the link here and it's a TED talk by Baba Shiv, It's entitled, sometimes it's good to give up the driver's seat to short talk, which is Stanford University Professor describes how he and his wife handled a cancer diagnosis by consciously giving up control their decisions to a doctor. They bring deliberate intentionality in that process.

John Ryan 41:12
You know, I know that you spent a lot of your time, you know, at conferences and doing public speaking and consulting. And you've had to meet incredible number of people, and many of them, those interviews are in your book. And one that really caught my attention was was Bob Woodward who and not to go into political discussion, but you actually invited him to come and join you in in one of your classes? What were some of the insights that you were hoping your students would walk away with? With the conversation with Bob Woodward?

Vikram Manssharamani 41:39
Yeah, no, that was just a really fun. So I've gotten to know Bob and his family pretty well. Sheer dumb luck not planned. But I was giving a speech down in Chile, in Santiago, and I had a couple of days between events. And so I ended up flying up to the Atacama desert to take a couple days of just, you know, off the grid relaxing, and turns out, Bob and I were sharing the same speaker manager for some years. And he says, you know, Bob's up there, and I'd known Bob because he'd come to my class, and I spent time having lunch with him at his house in Washington. And so there was Bob and his wife and his daughter, right there in the middle of the desert of Chile, where he and I got to spend some time together for a couple days.

Vikram Manssharamani 42:25
But anyway, what did I want Bob to teach my students, um, empathy, and empathy at the highest levels, and the fact that no one is above questions that you can ask questions of anyone and everyone and he should. So it was in the context of a business ethics class that I was teaching at Yale to undergraduates as well as business school students. And one of the key things that I wanted everyone to do was say, look, we all have a responsibility to call out wrongdoing when if we see it. And so the, the way I set up the classes, I had him read Woodward and Bernstein his papers. Then I had him read the Panama Papers that had just come out at the time of the class. And I had him read the work of other investigative journalists. And the idea was, investigative journalists are really great at calling out wrongdoing by researching because it's not obvious. And they do some work, they connect dots, and they present a story to the world. And so I had them come to class prepared, I did not tell them in advance that Bob would would be coming. I said, Bob, let's just have breakfast, we'll come walk off the clothes, did it. I bring in my friend Bob, who happens to be in town and just wants to, to listen. And so we're going around the room, we're talking to the students about different forms of asking questions, the work of investigative journalists, and, and, you know, a couple of we're like, wow, you know, it's kind of like naive to think you could call out a president, sort of tough to be able to do that.

Vikram Manssharamani 44:00
And, and Bob couldn't help himself. He said, Well, actually, you know, when I called out Nixon, and next thing, you know, they're like, what we just bob woodward, like, Are you kidding me? Like, yes, and they all connected the dots quickly and figured it out. And, you know, it was a great session. But now he's a living example of, you know, realizing that dot connecting is a critical exercise. The way you get really interesting connections to dots is by treating people as seriously as they think of themselves. And you know, he's given a tremendous amount of respect to every president he's ever interviewed. His preparation for those interviews is probably as intense as my PhD work was. In fact, he was able to gave me a portion of his transcript in his prep for, for his interview with Obama. And at the end of his interview with Obama, Obama asked Bob, if he wanted to be head of the CIA Or whether he's ever thought about being in the CIA said, because your sources are better than mine. And part of it is Bob is just remarkably diligent. Remarkable. I mean, we like to think there's there's profound insight in there is he does a good job of connecting dots. But he's also doing the blocking and tackling in a way that is thorough, comprehensive, thoughtful. You know, it's been a real joy and pleasure in my life to be able to spend so much time talking to him and getting to know him a little bit.

John Ryan 45:32
Oh, that's fantastic. So sounds like a great reveal for the students as well. That's amazing.

Vikram Manssharamani 45:37
Yeah, they had fun with it. Yeah, it's fun, fun class.

John Ryan 45:40
You know, I think, you know, part of my hypothesis is that conversations are a huge aspect of leadership, communication, and even to ourselves with thinking in relation to we're talking about now. Can you recall a conversation that you would point to that may have had a significant impact on your direction and ultimate destination in your career or personally?

Vikram Manssharamani 46:00
Yeah, It's a great question. John, thanks for asking. You know, so I was very, I've always had a contrarian instinct, to me I you know, people go and right, I want to go left people going up, I want to go down. People say finance, I say, let's go management. People say man, and man, I say, let's go policy is a policy, let's say let's go education, whatever it is, like I'm, there's a good I want to zag. That's my instinct. And so back in the early 90s, when I was in college, as an undergrad, everyone wanted to study Japan, Japan was going to overtake the world. Fabulous, it's gonna be the rising superpower that just did her. And she's so ice and William kind of interested by East Asia, I want to learn still a study East Asian Studies, but if everyone's studying Japan, I'm gonna study China. And so I was an East Asian Studies major. I worked for a US ambassador, Jim Lilly, down at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. as an intern, I went over to China traveled the country and, you know, learn the language pretty thoroughly at the time, worked at the US embassy in Beijing. And I thought I was going to come out.

Vikram Manssharamani 47:11
And then I said, you know, what I got my Chinese isn't great. I want to spend a couple years really learning Chinese intensely. And here's the answer to your question. I had a conversation with Ambassador Lilly. And he's since passed away, unfortunately, but he's been he was a real mentor of mine. And he said, Vikram, you can compete on a lot of things. The language is not one of them. They're not said, Look, you can spend the time on that. And maybe it proves useful and valuable to you. But better instead, to connect dots, where language is not the key skill set. So focus on where you can bring something of interest value and differentiation, rather than competing on something that you know, you will, even if you're best at it, you do an amazing job at it, that the best you're going to be is the same as others, is like that doesn't seem like a good battle to fight and energy to deploy in that way.

Vikram Manssharamani 48:08
But he said, Louis, spend time thinking about China, study the politics, study the history, connect the dots, look at the economics, look at the culture, look at the International Relations, look at their philosophy Connect dots in ways that could be helpful. That would be interesting. spending years studying the language so that you can speak as well as a native? Yeah, I'm not sure that's the best use of your time and energy. So, you know, that was helpful to me. And I think that conversation didn't redirect me in ways that, you know, I don't know that. That's the extent of the influence. I think it's been broader and wider. And I tend not to, you know, if you're going to put in the effort, you know, so to say if you if you're going to do it, make sure that the squeeze is worth the juice that comes out, so to say.

John Ryan 48:49
Well said, Yeah, Dr. Vikram, thank you so much for spending time with us. What's the best way for people to connect with you, to buy your book and to stay connected and in conversation with you?

Unknown Speaker 49:00
Yeah, John, thanks for asking. So my website's a great resource. It's . Orr LinkedIn. Actually, you know, I've written I think, jeez, I think I've posted at this point 115-120 of the articles I've written about various topics around global affairs, decision making, etc. They're all posted for free on my LinkedIn profile. So you can go there. LinkedIn is a great way. And then I'm also on Twitter. It's just my last name as my Twitter handle.

John Ryan 49:31
Fantastic. I'll put all those links in the show notes. Thank you again, so much for being here on the show.

Unknown Speaker 49:35
John, thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

John Ryan 49:37
And thank you all for listening. Until next time, develop yourself, empower others and lead by example.

John Ryan 49:44
Thanks for listening to key conversations for leaders with your host john Ryan. If you enjoyed the show, please let us know. Give us a rating or write a review. For more tools to engage, inspire and empower yourself and others. Visit If you haven't already, you can connect with me on twitter @keyconvo and on LinkedIn under John Ryan Leadership

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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