At the end of every day, you might have one persistent thought: You’re doomed.
That’s because despite all your good intentions, you veered off a plan — your diet, your quota, your fitness goal, your desire to be a better human being. But you are forgiven, because that’s what people do; they sabotage themselves without even knowing it.
That’s the subject of Marshall Goldsmith’s recent book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts. Marshall is an executive coach who has worked with top CEOs from many of America’s top corporations.
Those high-powered execs have the same problem you do — not doing what needs to be done and, more important, not becoming the people they want to be. But those people can afford to hire Marshall to help them. We have the benefit of the dozens of books Marshall has published revealing his secrets.
In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Marshall tells how triggers push us away from our goals and how we can learn to disarm them.
FELDMAN: What is a trigger?
GOLDSMITH: A trigger is any stimulus that may impact our behavior. It could be a sight, a sound, a word, a person, a smell. Triggers typically push us away from becoming the person we want to be.
If we interview people and ask, “Who is the you that you want to be?” they all have this beautiful story of this perfect person who’s really nice and kind and works hard, is in perfect physical condition, and blah, blah, blah.
Yet in life we seldom become this person. Depression is at an all-time high. Obesity is at an all-time high. It’s not that we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. The problem is, we’re constantly bombarded by triggers, and these triggers throw us off course.
By learning how to deal with these triggers, we’ll be much more likely to become the person we want to become, as opposed to the person who is actually being created by the world around us.
There are a couple of schools of thought. One school of thought is, we are created by the world around us.
This is the behavioral school. B.F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist, said we’re like rats in a maze that are constantly bombarded by these triggers. And these triggers basically control who we are.
The other school is the motivational school, that we create the world ourselves.
I don’t believe in either one of those schools. I think we create the world and at the same time, the world is creating us. The goal of the book is to really just increase the part of that time when you’re creating the world and decrease the part of the time when the world is creating you.
FELDMAN: What causes triggers?
GOLDSMITH: A trigger largely comes from our environment. You want to go on a diet. You walk by the bakery. You smell the food. You’re like, “Well, I’ll go on a diet tomorrow.”
Or you want to quit drinking. You just walk by the bar, and you think, “Well, I’ll just have one drink.”
All kinds of stuff happens in our environment that throws us off course. Almost every day we plan our day, and very seldom does the day work out perfectly according to this silly plan that we’ve developed. That’s because we never count on extraneous environmental factors.
In my book Triggers, I talk about a variety of delusions that we have that really keep us from becoming the person we want to become, and a lot of them are just underestimating the importance of triggers. Let me give you some examples.
One is — I love this one — today is a “special day.” I say I’m going to go on a diet, but it’s the Super Bowl today. So I’ve gotta eat the pizza or guacamole because it’s Super Bowl Day. Well, I’m going to go and work out, but it’s my birthday. It’s my kid’s birthday. It’s my parent's birthday. One thing we do is, we can make any day a special day to rationalize not doing what we’re doing.
Another one is “the dream.” We all have this dream that “I’m incredibly busy right now. I’m overcommitted. But in two or three months, I’m going to get organized and spend some time with the family. The worst of this is going to be over, and I’m going to be in my new healthy life program. Everything is going to be different, and it won’t be crazy anymore.”
We all have this same dream over and over and over again. Well, in two or three weeks, sanity is not going to be prevailing.
If you work for a boss and you overachieve the boss’s goal by 25 percent, what’s the boss going to say next year? Is the boss going to say, “Take a break. You’re working too hard”? No. The goals are going to go up.
By the way, entrepreneurs are worse. If they overachieve their goal by 25 percent, what’s going to happen to the goal next year? Do you think they’re going to lower it? Being an entrepreneur is worse than having a corporate boss.
When I work in big companies, I tell people, “Look, it’s always going to be crazy.” When I work with entrepreneurs, I tell them, “Look, you are always going to be crazy.”
It’s not like they’re going to be satisfied or they’re going to start coasting. If they were that type of person, they’d never have been an entrepreneur in the first place. They’re always going to be raising that bar. It’s part of life.
So you have to make peace with the fact of “What am I willing to change now — not next week, not next month, not next year?”
FELDMAN: One of my favorite parts of your book talks about the decision-making process whenever you decide to do something or set a goal. You call it “AIWATT.” Would you explain how that works?
GOLDSMITH: That’s also one of my favorite parts of the book. “Am I Willing At This Time” to make the investment required to make a positive difference on this topic? If the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no, take a deep breath and let it go. That’s one of my favorite chapters in the book.
If readers don’t understand anything but AIWATT, they will save so much time and so much aggravation in their lives. Life is short. Put your time and energy where you can make a difference, not where you can’t make a difference.
FELDMAN: Do you think people realize how much time they waste?
GOLDSMITH: In my New York condominium, one of my neighbors was Lindsay Lohan. How many millions of hours did people waste reading that Lindsay Lohan got drunk and stoned and had a car wreck? Who cares?
What I tell people is, if you ever think Lindsay Lohan is a loser — she’s not wasting her life reading about you. Don’t waste your life on Lindsay Lohan or the athletic team or the football coach or the politician. They don’t care about you.
If you want to have a great life, live your own life. Most of us are too busy now. If we take all the time we waste on living somebody else’s life and put it into our own life, we’ll have a lot more time.
FELDMAN: Why are people so bad at behavioral change?
GOLDSMITH: Any human or animal will replicate behavior that’s followed by positive reinforcement. The more successful we become in life, the more positive reinforcement we get.
For example, if you’re a CEO, everyone laughs at your jokes, they all pretend everything you say is smart and you get praised for walking down the hall. So if we’re not careful, we actually start believing this nonsense. It’s very hard to realize that successful people fall into something called the superstition trap: “I behave this way. I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.”
Wrong. Everyone I work with behaves the way they behave. They’re all mega-successful, and they’re mega-successful because they do many things right in spite of doing some things that are stupid. I’ve never met anyone so wonderful they had nothing in that stupid category.
FELDMAN: Why are people oblivious to these things?
GOLDSMITH: We are often oblivious, and it’s not because we’re bad or stupid or evil. We just don’t get honest feedback.
Two things happen as we become more successful. One, we feel better about ourselves, which is a good thing. We all accept feedback from others that is consistent with the way we see ourselves, and we reject or deny feedback that’s inconsistent with the way we see ourselves. The better we feel about ourselves, the harder it is to hear that we’re doing anything wrong.
The second phenomenon as we get more and more power is, it’s harder and harder for others to tell us the truth. So, one, it gets hard to get negative feedback, and number two, it’s hard to hear it. It’s no surprise to realize how difficult it is and why people are oblivious.
FELDMAN: How do you find those blind spots that you need to work on?
GOLDSMITH: What I do for a living is give people confidential feedback. I interview everyone around them, typically an average of 18 of their key stakeholders. These would be their peers and their direct reports if they’re the CEO of the board. If they’re not the CEO, the CEO. Then I develop a profile, and I give them this confidential feedback to let them know what everyone actually thinks of them.
I work with people for up to a year and a half. I don’t get paid if they don’t get better, and better is not judged by me or them. It’s judged by everyone around them.
FELDMAN: That’s an interesting model and way of getting paid.
GOLDSMITH: Definitely. And when you get paid for results, you learn some humility. The client I coached that I spent the most amount of time with didn’t improve at all, and I didn’t get paid. The client I spent the least amount of time with improved more than anyone I’ve ever coached and got better, and I did get paid. This was a humbling lesson.
I made a chart of the results. One dimension was called “Time Spent with Marshall Goldsmith.” The other dimension was “Improvement.” There seemed to be a clear negative correlation between spending time with me and getting better.
I talked to the client who improved the most who I spent the least amount of time with. That was Alan Mulally, the CEO of the Ford Motor Co. The stock went from $1 to $18.40. He was CEO of the year in the United States and ranked No. 3 greatest leader in Fortune magazine in the world behind only the pope and Angela Merkel.
So I said, “Alan, the way this chart looks, if you’d never met me, you’d still be really good. What should I learn about coaching from you?”
He taught me two lessons. He said, “Marshall, your biggest challenge as a coach is customer selection. If you pick the right customer, your coaching process will always work, and if you pick the wrong customer, your coaching process will never work.”
He said, “No. 2, never make the coaching process about yourself and your own ego and how smart you think you are. Make it about those great people you work with, how hard they work and how proud you are of them.” These were just fantastic lessons that totally changed the way I look at life.
FELDMAN: You’ve worked with some really impressive CEOs and leaders around the world. What are some common issues or patterns that you’ve seen?
GOLDSMITH: In terms of strengths: smart, dedicated, hardworking, driven to achieve, creative, entrepreneurial, cares about the customer, great values, high integrity and gets results.
In terms of challenges: ego, having to be right and know everything.
When we’re at the bottom, it’s all about me. I have to be an achiever to get promoted, and it’s all about me. Every time I get promoted, though, it’s less and less about me, and more and more about them.
One of my great clients said, “For the great achiever, it’s all about me, and for the great leader, it’s all about them.”
Just because you’re a great individual achiever does not mean you’re going to be a great leader. It’s a big difference, and it’s hard. It’s hard to let go of that business of it’s all about me.
It’s hard for entrepreneurs. That’s why the businesses don’t get bigger. It’s hard for them to let go of me, me, me.
FELDMAN: How do you let it go?
GOLDSMITH: Some people don’t. If you want to grow your business, if you want to be a great leader, you have to learn to delegate. You have to learn it’s not about you. You have to develop great people. You have to stop trying to be the smartest person in the room.
FELDMAN: You have worked with many CEOs. But even so, many of our readers might not believe that they need a coach because they are already successful businesspeople. What would you tell people who don’t think they need coaches or consultants?
GOLDSMITH: I think most CEOs would have been ashamed to have had a coach 30 years ago. Today, a lot of the great leaders in America have coaches and they’re not ashamed of it.
How many of the top-10 tennis players in the world have a coach?
FELDMAN: All of them.
GOLDSMITH: Of course they do. Does that mean they’re bad tennis players? It means they’re smart tennis players.
So, people are getting over this ridiculous “I can do everything on my own” macho nonsense. My deepest learning over the past two years is, we all need help, and it’s OK.
Once we get over this macho “I know everything, I’m omnipotent, I’m perfect” nonsense, life is better.
FELDMAN: How do you stop a bad behavior?
GOLDSMITH: The first thing is, you need to have it brought to your attention over and over again.
I hired a woman who calls me every day to hear me ask a question and read an answer that I have written.
So almost any behavior will stop if it’s brought to your attention when you do it. For example, I fine my clients $20 every time they do something wrong. A lot of my clients are stubborn people. Well, one thing stubborn people do that they shouldn’t is, they begin sentences with one of three words: “no,” “but” or “however.”
So I was talking to a client about this and he said, “But Marshall.”
I said, “That’s free. If you do that again, I’m going to charge you $20.”
He said, “But Marshall.”
“No, no, no.”
“$60, $80, $100.”
He lost $420 in an hour and a half. At the end of the hour and a half, he said to me, “Thank you. I had no idea. I did that 21 times with you throwing it in my face. How many times would I have done it had you not been throwing it in my face — 50 times, 100 times?”
He said, “No wonder people think I’m stubborn. The first thing I do when someone talks to me is tell them they’re wrong over and over and over again.”
He got so much better at being an open-minded listener just by learning that one very simple thing to stop doing.
FELDMAN: I can see how “no” could become an automatic answer. Business owners or entrepreneurs or managers get so used to people always asking for something.
GOLDSMITH: Yes. And then it gets worse. You go home and do that to your husband or wife and kids.
FELDMAN: You talk a lot about commitment in the book. Would you tell us more about that?
GOLDSMITH: You have to commit. My clients all publicly admit what they want to change. They ask people for ongoing input. They follow up on a regular basis and we measure improvement, and that’s how I get paid.
One of the greatest choreographers in history is Twyla Tharp, one of the best dancers to ever live.
She’s had the same personal trainer for 27 years. Now why has she had the same trainer for 27 years? The trainer is not teaching her anything new. The trainer is just making sure she does what she knows she’s supposed to do. That’s why she looks so good in her 70s.
FELDMAN: You have worked with Peter Drucker [influential management professor and author]. Many people talk about his influence, but not many people can talk about working with him. What did you learn from him?
GOLDSMITH: A lot of AIWATT came from what I learned from Peter Drucker. Peter Drucker taught me so many wonderful lessons. I’m going to share one with your readers. If they don’t learn anything else but this Peter Drucker lesson, they’re going to have a happier life and be better at influencing people.
Peter Drucker said, “Our mission in life is to make a positive difference, not to prove we’re smart and not to prove we’re right.” So few people understand that.
No. 2, he said, “Every decision is made by the person who has the power to make the decision. It’s not the best person, the smart person, the right person. It’s made by that person. Make peace with that.”
And he said, No. 3, “The decision-maker is the customer. If I need to influence you, and you have the power to make the decision, one word to describe you, ‘customer.’ One word to describe me, ‘salesperson.’”
Then he said, “Sell what you can sell. Change what you can change. And if you can’t sell it and you can’t change it, take a deep breath, let it go and make peace.” Peter Drucker’s point is, decisions aren’t made based on fairness or rightness. They’re made based on power. Whoever has the power to make the decision makes the decision. That’s life. That’s not going to change.
That is one-third of my coaching business. One-third of my coaching business is that one bit of advice that Peter Drucker taught me. I have literally made over $1 million repeating that lesson to people. That’s it. It’s amazing.
So few of us make peace with this. We go through life saying, “It’s not fair. It’s not right. Poor me.”