Enabling People To Take Initiative with Joshua Spodek

As much as curiosity breeds creativity, many still struggle in taking the initiative and ownership of their ideas. In the entrepreneurial world, an idea-generating culture is what most aim for. Joshua Spodek, the bestselling author of Leadership Step by Step, helps people to spark ideas that may bring down hegemons in the future, per se. An astrophysicist–turned-new media whiz, Joshua helps people unravel what blocks them from creating ideas and identify their trigger points of fear. As he walks us down the three-part structure of his courses, learn how much perception play in your success as an entrepreneur and find out more about his upcoming book, Initiative.

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I’m glad you joined us because we have Dr. Joshua Spodek Josh is a TEDx speaker, number one bestselling author, professor of all interesting entrepreneurship-related courses at NYU. He’s also a Rocket Scientist and a whole bunch of other things. This is going to be fascinating.

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Enabling People To Take Initiative with Joshua Spodek

I am here with Joshua Spodek who is a TEDx speaker. He’s the number one bestselling author. He hosts an award-winning podcast, professor at NYU. He writes a column at Inc. He does everything. He’s got an upcoming book, Initiative, which I’m excited to talk about. Welcome, Joshua.

I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

I’m curious about what you wrote in your dissertation on since you’re interested in some of the same things I’m interested in.

This might be a little different. My PhD is in Astrophysics. I was getting my PhD, I joined an amazing experiment, which we’re building a satellite. It’s off in space and taking data. It’s pointing outward at the stars, not in inward at us. It’s not a spy thing. I knew by the time that I was about to finish my PhD that I was going to start my first company. Instead of getting the data from our satellite, which would have taken me too long because we’re getting funding and I was already in another world at this point in business. I took some data from an old satellite and analyzed that data and published the calibration stuff and things of the satellite that I worked on.

You’ve got a variety of things that you are interested in. You hold five Ivy League degrees. That’s amazing. I’m interested in your background. How do you get to that point where you’ve spoken at Harvard, Princeton, West Point? Looking at this list, MIT of every place that you’ve spoken, you’ve been called, “An astrophysicist turned new media whiz,” by NBC, “A rocket scientist,” by Forbes and ABC, “Best and brightest,” in Esquire. You have quite a diverse background. How did you get to that point? What’s the backstory?

There are a lot of things you said there and each one has its own story. The five Ivy League degrees, if I go way back to high school, I was a nerd and everybody knew it. I tried to hide it and that went nowhere. In the beginning of college, I was doing everything I could not to take science classes and in the hopes that people wouldn’t see me as they kept seeing me. I’ve been made fun of in high school and so forth. At one point, I took a year off from college in between my sophomore and junior years.

When I came back, I felt a renewed interest. I said, “I don’t care what other people think about.” It’s more like, “I can’t stop people from thinking I’m a nerd.” I like physics. At the time, I was going to become a science teacher in the high school level, but I love the physics classes and math classes. I liked the psychology and sociology classes, but they weren’t nearly as challenging and therefore not as rewarding to solve hard problems.

When I think historically, my heroes are others like Martin Luther King, people like that, but it was Einstein, Galileo, Newton and Feynman. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. The way to do that in science is you go get a PhD. On the way to get a PhD, you get a Master’s. You get something called an MPhil, Master of Philosophy. That one-degree of PhD, you get three of them. I want to do business. The fifth Ivy League degree was because physics prepares you for a lot of things, but it doesn’t prepare you for business. I started running my company when things were great. After 9/11 and the bubble burst, it was difficult doing business. That’s when I realized I had to go back and learn some business skills that I didn’t have. That’s the five degrees.

[bctt tweet=”Fear is one of the biggest things that keep people from doing things.” via=”no”]

You’re probably still paying those bills.

The PhD in physics, you get paid to do. The MBA, I’m paying for it in a couple more months. That’s partly because the interest rate is low. It’s better for me not to pay it off faster. Every month, I pay my bit. It’s a long time.

Your MBA is from Columbia. Are they all from Columbia? What schools did you go to?

They are all from Columbia, but I started the PhD at Penn. I grew up in Philadelphia, but New York City is my home. As much as I love studying at Penn, there are a few professors at Columbia I wanted to work with for my undergrad time. That urged me to come back here.

You have an interesting background. I love astrophysics. In fact, I’ve listened to the book Death by Black Hole many times from Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s my go-to when I want to calm down at night to relax. It’s funny because I love that book so much for many different reasons. At first thought it was Neil deGrasse doing the voiceover for it. It turned out it was Dion Graham. I ended up having Dion Graham on my show because I loved his voice so much. He ended up doing the audio version for my Cracking the Curiosity Code book. It’s all done by Dion Graham. That’s all due to my interest in astrophysics. It’s an interesting turn. I’m interested in what you’ve researched. I watch a lot of things. I stalked you a little bit. I’ve had Marshall Goldsmith on the show. I saw your little talk with him about a meaningful connection with exercise. I’m interested in the fact that you do these burpees. You’ve done 100,000 burpees and that you’re into swimming. You spend a lot of time with health, I imagine.

Marshall is a friend of mine. He keeps trying to get me to do his daily things. He has someone ask him a certain set of questions every day. I have my daily things. He’s like, “You should have someone ask you these questions.” I think to myself, “I do the burpees. I do the writing in the blog. I take cold showers every fifth day.” I’m like, “How do I explain to him that I have things that I do?” I don’t have someone to ask me, “Did you do your burpees?” because I do that. I also don’t have someone to ask me if I brush my teeth. I do it. I can’t imagine going to sleep without brushing my teeth first. After all these years, I can’t imagine going to sleep without doing my morning and evening calisthenics. Burpees is a part of them. I’m like, “I don’t see if he gets quite that I don’t need the questions because I figured out a slightly different way of doing it.”

We all have unique habits. You get used to doing something. I have to admit, I’ve never done burpees. I went to a Genius Network event and Randi Zuckerberg got on stage. I’ve got to give her credit because she did it in a dress and heels on stage. I don’t know how many they were doing. She and Joe Polish we’re doing quite a few. They’re hard, aren’t they? Could you do a lot right away?

TTL 545 | Initiative

When I first started, I did ten a day. Here’s what happened. I read an article in the New York Times where they asked a bunch of fitness experts, “If you could pick one exercise to be the best, what would it be?” They mentioned the burping in passing. I never heard of it. I looked it up and found. You drop down, do a pushup and then jump up. Months later, I was talking to a friend of mine. We’re having drinks and I mentioned this article and one thing led to another. We decided to do ten burpees a day for 30 days, no plans for anything more than that. We’re two guys chatting. In that month, we started at ten a day, then we did eleven. After doing ten you realize, “I can probably do eleven,” because you get a form a little better and stuff like that. Then we decided to do one set in the morning, one set in the evening. By the other month, we were doing 30 a day.

At the time, I was transitioning from doing team sports when I was younger. It’s a little harder to do when you’re older and people at work and certain things. I ran some marathons and was going to the gym and doing yoga. One of the great things about burpees and bodyweight exercises in general, is that you don’t need equipment. You don’t need a trainer. You don’t need to leave your apartment. When you travel, you don’t need to bring equipment with you. It takes away every excuse because I’m like everyone. Any excuse not to do something, I won’t do it. I took away all the excuses. I said, “I’m going to do this forever.” I did. I don’t stop yet.

It is nice to have something like that. One of the things I like to do that you can’t take with you, but it’s such a great well-over exercise is indoor rock climbing. I wish I could figure a way to box that, where you don’t need the wall, but you get that same exercise. It was fun watching people do them. They did look hard. I’m going to look into them now. You’ve motivated me. You do a lot of things. I know you swam across the Hudson River. Your most interesting thing you’ve done is your new book, Initiative. I could see why Tanner Gers suggested that you’d be on the show. Tanner is such a great guest. Marshall Goldsmith was such a great guest. You have great friends. The Initiative is an interesting discussion because I studied curiosity and did a lot of research behind it. Everything kept coming back to curiosity, the spark to motivation, to drive. I’m curious where you think Initiative falls in all of that and what prompted you to write Initiative? Can you give me a little backstory on that? 

The backstory is that it’s based on a course that I teach at NYU. The course was originally entrepreneurship. I found one of the things driving my interest in teaching entrepreneurship is how entrepreneurship changed my life so much. One of the reasons I was leaving physics was that the life of a graduate student of the researcher wasn’t right for me. As much as I was curious and loved physics and studied nature, it wasn’t the life for me. Starting a business liberated me from either getting stuck in academia or going to Wall Street, which some people love it. I would not have liked it. Going into the industry, I wouldn’t have liked that either. To be able to create my own future was a tremendous experience for me. I meet a lot of people who want to do something similar but have not started.

The number one answer I get when I ask people, “Why haven’t you started something?” is, “I don’t have an idea.” When I talked to people who have successfully started their projects and I ask them, “Is the idea that you’re doing now what you started with?” almost inevitably, it’s, “No. It’s iterated many times since then.” That tells me it’s not the idea. It’s the skills and experiences and beliefs of the person to turn those ideas into something, or to run away, to decline, to take up the challenge. I want to enable people to do it. I spent about several years into developing my course at NYU. I found that a lot of my students came in without knowing that it was going to be an experiential class. They thought it was going to be reading and writing papers and case studies, things like that.

Several students of mine, on the first day of class, they said, “I almost dropped your class because you told us that we were going to do a project. It was interacting with people in the actual world.” They were not prepared for that. Not only did they not have an idea. Not only did they not have a team. They didn’t even want to do anything at all. This took years to develop, how to get something from starting with nothing to finding out what passions they have inside. People generally hide even from themselves and how to enable them to take steps to get that out there and to act on it. They make mistakes but not fear the mistakes and not shy away from but learn from the mistakes and switch them to something that works better and keeps learning and growing. The results that I get are off the charts. I have to make this available to more than a couple of different students every year.

The book version of the course, it gives you exercises, the exact same exercises that I do with students in the class. If you have no idea and you have no team, it will start you from there. I’ve had many students who started. Some of them started to have a project. Some of them were generating revenue and profit already. Oftentimes, people do stuff. They’ll come up with an app or they’ll do something and people say, “You should go with that,” and they do and they start making money. It doesn’t necessarily resonate with their values. It’s not necessarily meaningful for them. This course will bring that meaning in, even if you’re already doing something and making money but you’re doing it because you want to make money. That’s not a bad reason at all, but there’s usually more to life than that.

You said many words that tie into what I found with the same research. You were talking about the experience. You were talking about beliefs and fear. I found there were four things that kept people from being curious. They were fear, assumptions or your beliefs, technology and environment. Those are some of the things that I keep working with people, to help get them over what you’re trying to do. We’re doing similar things. It’s fascinating to me. A lot of us have many past experiences that can cause fear. You don’t even recognize it. That’s what I’m trying to do is get people to recognize what’s holding them back. How do you get people to do that?

I’m going to comment on what you said about fear. Fear is one of the biggest things that keep people from doing things. One of the biggest things that I found that triggers fear, it could be anxiety, which is closely related or different types of vulnerabilities. I find that big leaps are difficult. You don’t know what’s on the other side. My technique out of that is to give people lots of little baby steps. If I tell you, “Why don’t you go sing at County Hall in front of hundreds of people?” it’s hard. You first practice a few scales, then practice and you have some recitals. You work up smaller venues and then work up to the bigger venues. If you take enough small steps, it will take longer, yes.

[bctt tweet=”If you’re going to play in a band or an orchestra, you have to practice together. ” via=”no”]

It’ll be different kinds of work because in the beginning, a lot of what you do feels more mechanical. You have to get that muscle memory down. If you have to think of the low-level things, it’s hard to advance in the high-level things. If you’ve got the low-level things down the path, then you can look at the higher level. If you do it well, then by the time you play at County Hall, you are ready for it. You feel enthusiastic about it. There are still going to be butterflies, but you’re going feel enthusiastic about it because you’ve developed the skills so far. It’s in an area where you have a performance element to it, whether it’s sports, the military, singing, dancing or anything where people are seeing you performing, where you could be judged. I think that fear crops up. I felt that too when I was in school. I was afraid to raise my hand and ask questions to the teacher because I felt like my classmates would think, “He doesn’t know the answer to that? What an idiot.” It’s very intimidating times. You have to take lots of little baby steps.

It’s interesting because I had Dr. Albert Bandura and Dr. Todd Maddox on my show. When you talk about how to get to these things, nobody could tell you more about baby steps probably than Bandura with his research on Cognitive Therapy. Todd Maddox talked about something that I thought was interesting about using virtual reality to immerse yourself into a situation to get away from bad habits or to learn things in a comfortable virtual atmosphere. If you were going through rehab or something and if you’re going to go back into that same old house where you lived, if you got used to positive experiences in a virtual version of it, when you went back to it, you wouldn’t be tempted to do stuff again. It ties into what you talk about through experience is more important than lecture. I was watching your interview with Dov Baron, who’s also been on the show. I was never one who liked the lectures. That’s why I have done so much with online education. I cannot sit through hours of somebody talking at me. I’m interested. It’s brutal for me day. What are your classes like?

I try to make them experiential and active as possible. Almost all my classes have a three-part structure. The beginning of the class is to review. There’s a little bit at the beginning of the bookkeeping stuff. The first third is usually, “How do the exercise that you did over the past week go?” Different people have different experiences. Part of it is the class as a whole is speaking. I say, “Go in small groups, groups of two or three or four, and work on these things.” You can learn from each other. Part of the exercise is also they have to write the reflections on a message board that everybody can read others. You can’t read theirs until you finish posting yours. Everyone gets a unique experience. They learn from each other before coming in. Then they talk to each other. I go around the room again and say, “Each group shares a few things that you learned from each other.”

The middle part is where we revisit where we are in terms of the project. Each of my courses, there’s a project that usually goes over the course of the semester, “Where are we? How far have we come? Do we have any changes?” We revisit that. The next third is where we talk about what’s the next exercise is going to be. We role-play if that’s appropriate, or I talk about how this has worked with other people. I give them a bigger context. The big thing is going to practice and make mistakes with each other so that when they go off and do these exercises in the world, they’re not doing it for the first time. The real learning happens outside the classroom is when they do the exercises. The exercises have them interact with other people or sometimes introspect in a way that they normally don’t. That’s where the learning happens. The reflections when they write are when the learning sinks in. Then when you meet in class, that’s when it broadens and generalizes. I try to keep that the whole semester is to review, assess and then practice for the next time.

It’s challenging to have teams in college. I’ve taught many courses online that have teams. When I was at ASU, we did a lot of teams in training and different things. I found that when I was a student, I was writing a lot of papers for everybody else. They would have their name on it. Teams, it was hard to keep track of it. I taught a team once on a Wiki, which was challenging because I’m not an HTML expert or whatever they use in Wiki, that you have to keep track of on the backside. It was cool because you could see who was participating and how much. Do you find that challenging? Do you get a lot of people that complain about everybody else on the team, that they’re not doing their part? How do you keep track that everybody’s doing anything other than what they do in the class where they can’t do the group thing because they have to write things first? When they’re outside, how do you make sure they do?

Here’s one thing that people expect. They’re going to do a lot of group work with people in the class. I’ve taken a different approach. Almost all of the exercises they do with other people, they’ll do it with classmates, but it’s in the other people in the world that are in the students’ lives. It’s group work but not with the other students. Everyone’s responsible for finding the right people to speak to and so forth. My analogy here is that leadership is a team activity. It necessarily involves other people. It’s the same with entrepreneurship. You’ve got to have clients, got to have customers. You almost certainly can have investors or things like that. If you’re going to play in a band or you’re going to play in an orchestra, you have to practice together. First, you have to get to a level of mastery of your own instrument, of your own craft. That’s what my course is about, is to bring you up to a level of mastery with your own instrument. By analogy, your own skills as a leader or as an entrepreneur or as an initiator. This is to get you to the level of mastery. Then working with others will be more automatic, more natural.

What you teach and what you write about is interesting because you deal with the relationship or the difference between initiative and entrepreneurship. When I was reading your book, I was looking at how you were talking about passion leading to action. You’ve got a circle of action, passion and initiative. I’m wondering, where does curiosity fall in there? Is that the spark to any of it? What comes first in that circle? Is there a first?

When anyone says the word curiosity to me, I have to say how I feel this way myself. Curiosity, to me, it’s at the foundation of science. I spent many years in science and curiosity about the world. I didn’t like being called a nerd, but I did like learning about, “What’s an electron? How do cells work? Why is the sky blue?” It kills me that people who have the curiosity never act on it. I love discovering new things. I feel like a little boy. Do you get this a lot? Do people feel like there’s a child inside them, and the curiosity is access to that child and it’s a freeing and liberating and open way to be?

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Initiative: Leadership is a team activity. It necessarily involves other people. It’s the same with entrepreneurship, you got to have customers.


It could be. A lot of people feel inhibited from it. That’s what I’m trying to do is release that. They start to feel that way once they break free of those bonds. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m like you. I love that feeling. That’s what led to my interest in writing the book and creating the assessment. I’ve interviewed people like you on the show. To be on my show, you usually are curious and interesting to get here. I’ve taught thousands of students who some of them are like this, but many of them aren’t. They want you to hand them the fish instead of teaching them to fish. I want to instill that desire. Do you find that with your students? There are some who have it but then others, you’re like, “What’s holding them back?”

I have to ask you and I hope you get the chance. If there are people who aren’t sure, who don’t act on it. I feel like I’m possibly exposing ignorance on my part of people. I assume that people had it and loved it and acted on it. I’m curious about that. To answer your question, I’m curious if that’s something you could share. Do you trace some ignorance on my part of other people?

No. Everybody’s curious to some extent. We’ve all seen the TED Talk about the creativity of two-year-olds. When they’re older, it’s gone. You go from 98% to 2% over your lifetime. In my research, I found that everything from your family, your friends, your parents, your teachers, your coworkers, everybody has a little bit of a touch to our experience in life. A lot of us can shut down because we’ve been influenced so much that it causes us to fear. It causes us to have that voice in our head that tells us, “I’m not going to like this because I had this teacher in the past that taught this way. It was boring.” These voices are assumptions. It’s the voice in your head that’s created by our experiences in our environment. A lot of it leads to fear. Some of it is from allowing technology to do stuff for us or being intimidated by technology. It was fascinating to me. I had to go back and do all the factor analysis to try and figure out what are the things and how can we group them. That’s the nerd in me. I can relate to that.

I meet a lot of people who are perfectly happy watching the faucet drip all night long. It freaks me out because I can’t relate to that. I think, “Would they be happier?” Maybe they are happy doing that, some people, but if they want to work in a corporation or organization where they’re innovative and creative and engaged, they can’t be that guy or gal who wants to sit and watch the faucet drip all night. That’s why there are the blockbusters, the codex, the stories out there, that the people are living with status quo thinking and they’re not embracing their natural curiosity. It’s the key to what’s going to make them be more creative. Everything kept coming back to it. I’ve had many Harvard professors, from Francesca Gino to Daniel Goleman, you name it. I’ve interviewed these people who are the thought leaders in some of these areas. They kept coming back to curiosity being what we need to spark for. Even collaboration, when I had Amy Edmondson who gave a great TED Talk about collaboration, how it tied into curiosity. It surprises me too because I am one of those kids that said, “Why?” every five seconds. I’m sure you were too.

I appreciate you’re expanding my horizons. I also share your confusion or frustration at people who would watch the faucet drip all night. I hope that there’s a diversity and they thought of something that I’m missing, that they look at me and like, “I can’t believe he did X.” I hope that’s the case. I hope that they have a rich life as I do. To answer your question about what’s driving people, helping people, the initiative, passion, action cycle is there are a lot of people who say that they don’t have an idea. There are a lot of people who say, “I have many ideas. I’m not sure which one to start with.” To me, this is closely related to curiosity. It’s acting on something they care about, asking the curiosity inside them. When someone says they don’t have an idea, I’ve seen enough times when they go through and take the baby steps that eventually something comes out. When it comes out, they say, “That was there. I didn’t realize I could do something on that one. I thought that it had to be something that would make a lot of money or I thought it would be something that would be popular now, I thought it would be something my counselor’s telling me to do. I didn’t realize I could do that.” Whatever that thing is for them, they’ve got something inside them.

It’s usually the first thing that works on. In the class, I say, “You have to do a project. Here are the parameters.” They’ll often pick something that they don’t care about. It will be a blockchain thing or some app. They don’t care about blockchain. They keep reading about it in the paper. They’re still working on something. After a little while, they’ll realize, “I’m not that passionate about this, but I’ve developed the skills to identify what I do have more passion about.” Then they switch and they’ll start working on something that they care about more. That one will get them going. It’s a liberating feeling. This is why I teach is when they find that and they start going free with it. They are allowed to switch. The project has ten exercises. It’s ten weeks. I say, “You can switch anytime that you want. The rule is that if you switch, you have to go back to it and start from the beginning.”

People sometimes switch in weeks eight and nine. They catch up entirely fast because they don’t feel they’re working. They feel like, “I thought I should graduate before I could do this.” Sometimes they’re freshmen and they’re like, “You mean I can make a difference in the world now? I didn’t realize.” Once he’d throw off the strictures of school, having to be purely academic and textbook stuff, they’re like, “You mean I can affect people that I care about in ways that they’ll thank me for?” I’m like, “Yes, you can do that.” They’re like, “Can I get a grade for that?” I’m like “Yeah, even a better grade if you want.” They put the work in and they get the better grade because they work harder. They don’t feel like they’re working.

That’s like with any job. I’ve had jobs where they were easy that I felt like I was working the whole time because I hated them. You have a job where you work twelve hours and you don’t even notice you’ve done anything because you like it so much. It’s a huge thing to find your passion. As you were talking about some of those things, it made me think of Jay Samit who was on the show, who wrote Disrupt Yourself and Disrupt You! He was saying that if you write down three things a day, every day of things that annoy you that you wish could be solved. As you go along, one of those ideas is going to be something that you can look into to create a company around. What do you think of that practice?

[bctt tweet=”Go out to find five people who have the problem that you want to solve.” via=”no”]

That’s the first couple of exercises in my course is to write these things down. Then the next ones are to use those as seeds for starting to develop the skills to what you do with it once you have these things. I think it’s great. It’s not my daily habit but it’s a great daily habit. I know a lot of people who have this write down a few business ideas a day or a few problems that they could solve a day. It’s a skill like any other. Your first month, you go write down probably some crappy ideas. Then you’re going to start coming up with great ones and practice and develop the skills. It’s natural for you to find ideas that are worth starting companies or projects based on.

You’re talking about what you include in the book in different activities. I thought those were helpful. You start with the story of Rafael. You talk about, “Do we need people to walk us through our first experiences to spark initiative?” I thought some of your stories were interesting. Is there anything you want to share about that from the book? How you began it was fascinating to me.

I started with Rafael because he came to me saying, “I want to start a company.” He couldn’t stand his managers. He kept coming up with ideas. He kept saying, “How about this?” He’d say, “We’ll think about it.” Nothing ever came of it. He wants to become an entrepreneur. As we did the exercises, he started applying the skills in his job. His relationships with his managers improved to where he started approaching them not as like, “Take it or leave it,” or “Please judge this idea,” but, “Here are some problems I’ve seen. I’m thinking about doing this. What do you think?” They’d tell him how to improve it and so forth. By the time our project turned into something that could happen, he hadn’t developed it entirely on his own. He developed it with them. They didn’t have to say, “I approve this idea,” they’re just, “You’ve been working on this. Keep going. Here are the resources you need to get it done.” He didn’t leave the company, but he felt more sense of ownership. He wasn’t looking to rent an office and file with the state and figure up benefits packages. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to have responsibility. He wanted some of the resources to make things happen. He wanted to have a measure of success. He got that.

That’s why I didn’t put the word, entrepreneurship, in the title is because taking the initiative to solve problems that other people reward you for. It’s a superset of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is one way of doing it. If you want to do a for-profit venture, but my podcast is not a for-profit venture. It leads to a whole lot of other things, my TEDx Talk and speaking engagements and things like that. That’s something I’m doing out of passion. It enriches my life far beyond what several stars have done. At the time, I hadn’t picked this stuff up. Any of those other stories I could tell, and there are about a dozen stories I tell. Some of them have students who might be undergrads. I teach professionals as well and also clients. Everything that’s in the book is not like, “Here’s an exercise that might work.” Exercises have been done by hundreds of people. It’s hard to pick which ones I want to share. I tried to share a nice mix of students and clients who had had great experiences and sometimes challenges that they had to overcome.

You post questions. You asked the question, “What if Uber and Shark Tank are exacerbating and entrepreneurships decline?” What do you mean by that? That was interesting to me.

I searched on some statistics that the New York Times published that came from the US government, the federal government, and it’s in the first couple chapters of the book. I tell this to people and people argue with me back. I’m like, “The data’s there.” The number of young companies is smaller now than in the past years. “Uber. Shark Tank.” There are a lot of things that get press and media attention, but it doesn’t mean that the number is increasing. We’re seeing a load of people taking the initiative and acting and being entrepreneurial despite headlines. In sports, we have a lot of superstar athletes, but most of the population is three quarters, maybe 70% overweight and obese. What gets the headlines is not the general practice with the public. That killed me. A lot of this is to address that.

When you get to the epilogue, most of the book is I try to take the reader through a journey of understanding why there are a lot of forces out there. The Shark Tank, I have no problem with the television show being entertaining and dramatic and engaging. That doesn’t mean that it effectively teaches people to practice entrepreneurship. I have no problem with the company doing well and having an IPO and making a lot of people rich. They’re providing a service. If they also squeeze out a lot of the other companies and we see fewer startups as a result. Good for them, but I want to help the people who could start companies.

The first part of the book is to guide you through why it’s the case that you may feel that you live in an entrepreneurial environment but you yourself are not that entrepreneurial or could be. Then to guide you to a place where there is a way that you can learn and develop the skills. I’m not saying you don’t watch Shark Tank, but that’s not what where you’re going to learn it. You have to practice and do things on your own. That leads up to the exercises, which is the second half of the book, which is how you can do it yourself, how you can develop the skills, experiences and beliefs of an effective entrepreneur initiator. In this day and age, I’m sure everyone has read articles that talk about automation and technology. It’s all good. The jobs that are going to be the main jobs several years from now don’t exist now. Newspapers like to make that a scary proposition. I think that helps sell newspapers, which is what they want to do, or ad pages and clicks and so forth.

TTL 545 | Initiative
Initiative: Taking the initiative to solve problems that other people reward you for is a superset of entrepreneurship.


When you know how to work with people, then when you need resources, you go to the people who have the resources that you’re looking for. If you can solve problems for them, then they will reward you. I’m speaking at a high level here. That’s what this book is about. The book is about enabling people, but in a future where technology is changing quickly. There are climate change and all these things that are happening in our world. We’re still people and we still want to distribute resources, food, shelter and things like that to each other. These skills are timeless because whatever technology and resources are out there, there are still people that you’re working with. This book gives you the ability to work with people.

That interests me in terms of the perception that people have. If you’re starting an organization in another country versus starting an organization here, it’s your global awareness, your cultural quotient. All that stuff, factors in. Do you get into that? How much is the perception of a problem when you’re running a business and starting as an entrepreneur? Are we looking through our own rose-colored glasses, our own tent or whatever at everything? How do we get out of that way of thinking?

I’m not sure I understand. Were you asking about how it’s in working in different cultures?

Let’s say you’re in Africa and you want to start a company and you want to do business with somebody in America. The perception is maybe African companies aren’t as high-level as American companies. There’s so much perception involved in the business is my point. We all have an idea of whether this technology or this industry is good or whether we want to work with this person or that person. How much does our perception play in our success as an entrepreneur?

There’s a slight nuance that I can’t help but pick up on that. You said if someone in some other culture, they want to do X but we might perceive them in a way that they don’t want to be perceived. It’s putting that idea first. The idea is in service of person A solving a problem for person B so that person B rewards person A for it. I didn’t make this up, but if you’re thinking in a solution space, “I’m going to solve this problem for you.” You end up often pushing square pegs into round holes. If instead you’re working problem space, you start working with people and you find out what their problems are. They start telling you the solutions that they want. You refine them. Then you offer them what they want but they don’t have the time or resources to do it. If I’m in some other place and I want to come here, it’s not that I want to find a solution and bring it here. I want to work with the people here and find out what the problems are so that they invite me over. It’s a slightly different way of looking at things.

At the beginning when I teach the course, I say something like this to the class. They don’t quite get it. At the end of the class, they send it back to me. It comes through experience. This is why I don’t like to lecture. I haven’t figured out a way of saying it in a way that’s the same as giving someone an experience where they learn it on their own and come back to me. There’s an exercise in the middle of work. How can you develop the idea somewhat? I said, “You have to go out to find five people who have the problem that you want to solve.” Everyone thinks, “That’s redundant because I already know what the problem is.” Everyone has a unique feel for the problem. This exercise, a few things happen. The big one is that they’ll talk to people. A few people say something like, “When is it going to be ready? When can I buy it? When can I sign up for your service?” I say, “You have to put it in their work. You have to take notes. You put it in words.” The words that they say will be advertising copy later or sales copy later. You’ve got to get it in their terms.

Students come back and be like, “I had no idea how this problem was for different people. Now that I do, I have a renewed sense, a much greater sense, of ownership and passion for finishing this because now that I see how people feel, I want to work on this.” They want to work much more with the people with the problem at the stage. They know the technology, the idea, that business plan. That will all come, the better they get the problem. I stopped moving from solutions space to problem space.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. When I’m talking about perception, you’re getting everybody’s different insight into how they like to do things. It’s all about empathy and emotional intelligence. That’s my area of research in my dissertation because I find it fascinating how to get people to do that. It can be challenging. It sounds like your exercises are great. I enjoyed reading your book. I love the picture of Jake. He was way cuter than Westminster Kennel dog. What do dog shows have to do with initiative and entrepreneurship? You did mention that in the book.

[bctt tweet=”Fake it until you make it.” via=”no”]

As an analogy, I like to ask people if they’ve seen the Westminster Dog Show. A few people have. Most people see it on TV or videos online. I ask people, “What’s it like?” Whoever’s reading, think of what if you see Westminster or any dog show, what’s it like? Hopefully, people are thinking as I’m speaking. People say it’s like, “Dogs prancing around and following, super made up.” It’s not friendly. It’s like a show where you get judged. I say, “We’ve turned entrepreneurship into the Westminster Dog Show.” You see their eyes go back and forth and like, “You’re right.” There’s a technical term for Westminster Dog Show. It’s called the conformation show because they conform. A hunting dog is not judged on its ability to hunt. It’s judged on this, “Does it match what their definition looks like?” If the only way to own a dog was you had to do it with the quashing and the prancing around, I think a lot fewer people have dogs. There are many ways to own a dog. There are pairs of dogs and owners.

Entrepreneurship, I want people to have that feel as well. You can have a company. You can have a project of your type. The best way to get it is to learn how to love the type of dog. Find the type of dog that you love. Let me love that dog and take care of it. It’ll take care of you back in the way that dogs show affection. Your project will take care of you back as well if you know how to take care of it. That’s an analogy that I use in the book and throughout. For many people, that’s the perfect way to have a dog. Like Jonathan, one of the people in my book, he started his project in my course. The next thing you know, he’s getting funding for Mark Zuckerberg. He’s succeeding in the dog show. Even though that wasn’t his original plan, it happens to be this successful project that helps a lot of people. The best way when you want to win a dog show or whether you want to have a cuddly cat that you love, the best way is to find the one that fits you and learn the skills to make that thing flourish, whether it’s a dog or a cat or a project.

What was the most successful or interesting project that your students have come up with in your mind that interest you the most or that you thought was the most challenging? I’m curious.

There was one. She was a freshman when she took Nikita, she’s in the book. It must have been that she got a shot or have to go to a doctor in the week when they were coming up with ideas because she had an idea to make a topical device that would numb you. I don’t want to go to the details because she is working on this and getting deals with Walgreens. It’s a device that if you put it on your skin, it will make you numb in a certain way. That would make it easier to get shots. She did research. Apparently, kids will get in the first couple of years something like a hundred shots. I forget the details. I’m thinking FDA approvals. This is going to be complicated. I held my tongue from saying, “Don’t pursue this one,” when she was sharing with the class. She was doing the exercises. It’s like a family doctor puts her in touch with some doctor at Yale, who puts her in touch with some medical device company in New Haven. The next thing I know, she’s helping lead a team of medical researchers, many of them doubled her age. They’re going to market with this thing. I’m like, “Good thing I didn’t tell her not to do it.” That one, it shocked me.

How was the timing of all of that? After Theranos, as I’m looking at it, that’s the problem. She got timing issues.

When Theranos came out, I was like, “That looks similar,” but I can tell you that it’s on a totally different scale. I can confidently say she’s not trying to scam anyone.

I’ve talked about the Theranos thing on the show with others. Rich Karlgaard even talked about it when he was on. What fascinated me is I’ve had Reid Hoffman. He wrote a book. It was split scaling. I’ve talked to his group about that and others about what companies are trying to do is fake it until they make it. Do you see more of that? To become the next unicorn, you have to do a little bit of, “We got that, but maybe you don’t have it yet.”

That’s called hustling. I used to say, “Fake it until you make it,” a lot. I still believe faking it until you make it is effective. I used to say practice makes perfect. To me, that means the same thing. It’s a slightly different perspective. When you’re developing skills, you have to do your best and sometimes overstand a bit. Sometimes you’re going to fall and you’ll learn from that. Sometimes you’ll succeed. People will know that you were presenting a little more than you thought you could get away with. There’s another thing behind it, which is if you’re faking it until you make it and deceptively trying to pull it over on someone, it’s a different story than you know that you can do it even though you can’t prove it yet. You can do it one way and I’m totally supportive of it. You can do it another way and I’m not supportive of it. If you ask me, I’m not sure how to delineate between the two. In my class, I’ve never seen anyone try to go the other way, to try to pull a Theranos or something like that. By the end of the exercises, they’re driven to help people that they’ve been incredibly deceptive and effective with me. It doesn’t seem like that’s the direction that they’re going.

TTL 545 | Initiative
Initiative: When you help people, you enjoy it yourself as well.


It was an interesting story. I like the HBO show that they did on Theranos thing. It’s interesting to me to see how some of these things pan out. I don’t know how she slept at night. Maybe that’s why I haven’t come up with the big, “Fake it until you make it,” idea because I don’t know if I could do that. It’s an interesting look at how to develop some important skills, when I was reading what you wrote about. You have so much great information in your book. It’s about the initiative. I know you’ve written other books in the past. You had the number one bestseller, Leadership Step by Step. You also have your podcast, The Leadership and the Environment. I’m anxious to see how you do with this book because I enjoyed it. If people want to find out more about it and find out more from you, how would they do that?

Everything to reach me, the best way is through JoshuaSpodek.com. In the upper right corner, you can click to read about the books or you can click to listen to the podcast. I post on my blog every day. I haven’t missed a day since 2010. That’s all how to reach me. There’s a Contact page there. You can reach me directly. That’s where you can read about the books and click to buy them on Amazon or wherever you want to buy them.

Thank you so much, Josh. This has been interesting. I could tell we would have plenty to talk about. I’d love to take your class. It sounds like a lot of fun.

I’ve enjoyed it as well. As I mentioned to you, you expanded my mind in ways that I haven’t even realized.

That’s a lot coming from a rocket scientist. Thank you.

The rocket science, all that study of nature is about nature. That’s a big shift in my life. We went to know about people and helping people as opposed to doing things I enjoyed. It turns out that when you help people, you enjoy it yourself as well.

Thank you so much for being on the show, Josh. This has been fun.

The pleasure has been all mine.

You’re welcome.

I’d like to thank Josh for being my guest. What an interesting show. He definitely is somebody I could talk to all day. I have many interesting guests on this show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can go to DrDianeHamiltonRadio.com. If you’re interested in knowing more about my speaking and all the work we do with curiosity, you can go to my main site or you can go to CuriosityCode.com. We’re training people to become certified, to give the Curiosity Code Index Assessment. Everything you want to know about the book, Cracking the Curiosity Code, and the Curiosity Code Index can all be found there. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I found it fascinating. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

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About Joshua Spodek, Ph.D

TTL 545 | InitiativeJoshua Spodek, PhD MBA, TEDx speaker, wrote the #1 bestselling Leadership Step by Step, hosts the award-winning Leadership and the Environment podcast, is a professor at NYU, writes a column for Inc., and blogs daily at joshuaspodek.com. His latest book is Initiative. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including a PhD in astrophysics and an MBA from Columbia, where he studied under a Nobel Laureate. He left academia to found a venture to market an invention that showed animated images to subway riders between stations. Appearing on every major network, the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and more, he has been called “best and brightest” in Esquire’s Genius issue, “astrophysicist turned new media whiz” by NBC, and “rocket scientist” by Forbes and ABC.


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