The Importance of Creativity with Robert J. Sternberg and Tricks to Appear Smarter in Meetings with Sarah Cooper

Growing up, Robert J. Sternberg never really thought he was smart. He always did bad on IQ tests and was the first generation high school graduate of his family. Now he’s a psychologist and a professor of Human Development at Cornell University. Robert stresses the importance of creativity. He said in life, you sometimes just have to believe in yourself and that if you work hard, you can succeed. To succeed in life is not about IQ scores or grades, but about your creativity, your common sense, and your ethical sense, that you try to do the right thing. Sarah Cooper is a writer, comedian, and creator of the satirical blog The Cooper Review. She believes in adding humor to your writing and shares some tricks on how to appear smarter in meetings and get away with it.

TTL 194 | The Importance Of Creativity

We’ve got an interesting show because we have Robert J. Sternberg and Sarah Cooper. Robert, if you look him up on Wikipedia, has pages and pages of information about what he’s done as a psychologist from all the universities for which he’s worked and his work with different personalities and issues in the workplace. Sarah Cooper is a writer, comedian, and creator of the satirical blog The Cooper Review. We’re going to talk about all kinds of things, from personality to millennials to about all the things that we see unusual in the workplace.

Listen to the podcast here

The Importance of Creativity with Robert J. Sternberg

I am with Robert J Sternberg who is an American psychologist. He’s a Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. Prior to that, he was the president of University of Wyoming. He’s been the Provost and Professor at Oklahoma State University, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale. He’s also an Honorary Professor of Psychology at Heidelberg and he is a member of the editorial boards of numerous journals including American Psychologist. He was the past President for the American Psychological Association, and he’s a Distinguished Associate of the Psychometric Center at the University of Cambridge. That’s just the short version. It’s so nice to have you here.

Thank you. I’m delighted to talk to you.

This is going to be so fascinating. I’m very interested in your work. I love watching your TED Talk on standardized testing. I was particularly interested in your discussion of the importance of being creative and some of this stuff that I deal with. I wanted to share with the audience your story of how you thought you were stupid when you were young, which is so hard for me to imagine. You said your teacher saw more in you. What was her name?

Mrs. Alexa.

When I listen to your talk, you were very humble about your beginnings. You say you got to see a C in introductory psychology. You saw yourself as being a big dope as you put it. How could you possibly see yourself in that light based on what you’ve accomplished in your life now? Are you surprised by all that you’ve achieved?

A lot of people have started similar to the one I had. Neither of my parents graduated from high school, so I was a first generation high school graduate. I came from a broken family in any case. As a kid, I did poorly on IQ tests, seriously badly to the point where when I was in sixth grade, I was sent back to a fifth grade classroom to take the easier fifth grade IQ test. That was good fortune me because whereas I was free to compete with sixth graders like myself because I was now graduating from elementary school, which seems like a big deal at the time, I wasn’t anxious about competing with fifth graders. That helped me get over the test anxiety, but I did do badly on IQ tests.

That is how I started studying intelligence in seventh grade when I was thirteen. I did a project on IQ testing. I extended it a little too far. There was a girl I was romantically interested in and I cleverly thought that giving her an IQ test might make her interested in me and I discovered that that was a poor strategy for kindling romantic interest. When I took intro psych as a freshman in college, my first test grade was an F and my professor said to me handing me back my paper that I should know that there is a famous Sternberg in psychology and it’s obvious there won’t be another one. I had some early reverses, but in life, you sometimes have to believe in yourself and that if you work hard, you can succeed. That’s what I try to do and sometimes it works and sometimes it didn’t.

TTL 194 | The Importance Of Creativity
The Importance Of Creativity: In life, you sometimes have to believe in yourself and that if you work hard, you can succeed.

You have since received thirteen honorary doctorates, two dozen national and international awards, $20 million in research grants. Looking at some of these accolades on your site and looking at your Wikipedia page, yours is longer than most people’s. What you’ve accomplished is pretty amazing. I’m interested in the Sternberg Test of Mental Stability. What exactly did that measure?

If you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about, unfortunately that was a test I created when I was thirteen years old as part of that science project. The reason you’ve never heard of it is that no one else has either. It was a pretty quick. Since then, I haven’t done much more serious work. When I was a dean, we created a project called Kaleidoscope, which gave all applicants at Tufts University a chance to show not only, what I consider be somewhat boring stuff, like SAT scores and grades, but also it gives them a chance to show their creativity. They might caption a cartoon or they might create a story, something like what would the world be like today if the Nazis won World War II, or they might draw a creative drawing or they might write a creative essay on a topic like the mysterious laboratory or the professor disappeared. They have lots of chances to be creative and they also had chances to be practical with a question like, “Tell us about one time you had an idea that you try to pursue. How did you do it?”

What I’ve tried to do in my work for my entire career is to say there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily do well on standardized tests. They don’t have high ACTs, they don’t have high SATs. maybe their GPAs weren’t that high either, but to succeed in life, it’s not about SAT scores or grades, it’s about your creativity, your common sense, and your ethical sense that you try to do the right thing. When you look at people who fail, it’s not usually because their SATs were too low, it’s because they were unethical or they lack common sense. The main point of my work is that practical or what I call successful intelligence in your everyday life doesn’t have that much to do with how well you didn’t score on standardized tests.

I have met a lot of people that got all As and they don’t seem to get it and have the street smarts and then you talk to them. It’s interesting when you talk about creativity because in my research on curiosity, they tie into one another somewhat. Do you think that you have to be curious to be creative and successful?

Yeah, I do. Part of curiosity is saying, “I want to know new things, and I also want to go beyond where things are. I’m not going to do things because someone tells me to do them.” What happens in school a lot of the time is the kid gets into the mentality of, “Teacher tells me what to do, I do it. Someone else tells me what to do, I do it.” Instead of becoming curious and seeking information for themselves and coming up with their own ideas, they think success is doing well with other people tell them to. If you look at people who are successful in almost any field, they are the curious ones. They’re the ones who are creative, who are willing to defy the crowd, not just do things because other people do it. They have guts, they have courage, and they’re willing to break out of the mold that a lot of people are stuck in.

What I found fascinating was it was very hard to find studies where they had good instruments to measure curiosity. The few studies that I found, they had very limited work in that area. It’s such a broad topic. Do you think that it’s hard to quantify and measure how creative you are or how curious you are?

They’re very closely related to creativity. What we do is we’ve dumped traditional measures, like think of it unusual uses of a paperclip, because most people don’t go around thinking of unusual uses of a paperclip. Usually if they use a paper clip is because they need it for paper or they need it to pry something open or whatever. What we do instead is we try to look at creativity more meaningfully, as they said in writing a creative story, in creating a creative advertisement for a boring product like bow ties or thinking of counterfactual future histories. That would be things like, “Suppose that Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated. How might the world be different today?” or having them design a scientific investigation that they think would be interesting, or just drawing something artistic.

What we find is that the people who are good at what we think are meaningful kinds of creativity, you can’t tell by their ACT scores or their SAT scores and GPA because those tests don’t measure creativity. If anything, they measure the opposite. They give you a problem, they say, “Here are five answers, one is right, the others are wrong.” Life problems aren’t that way. Does anyone ever tell you, “Here’s your problem with your kids, here’s your problem with your husband, here’s the problem with your boss. Here’s the problem, here are four answer options. One of these is right, the other three are wrong. If you get the right one, you get a credit and if you get the wrong one, you get a zero.” Whose life is like that? People who are good at that are not necessarily the people who will be able to solve problems with their children, their boss, their husband, or whoever.

It’s interesting because you don’t think of it that way and I liked that the way that you look at intelligence, what we have naturally, what people are born with, and what it leads to because you’ve said people are not born for leadership, but they decide to be a leader. Is creativity the same way? Do we have a certain amount of it at birth or do we decide to be creative?

The main obstacle to creativity, contrary to what many people tell you, it’s not how you’re born. It’s not that people can’t be creative, it’s that they’re afraid to. You can see why because from the time you’re young, you’re constantly being told what you can do, what you can’t do, what you should do, what you shouldn’t do. If you do that thing, you’ll be in trouble. I have written some of my work about a student who I once taught with, I’ll call her Alice, who was good at taking tests and getting grades and doing what she was told, but then when she had to come up with creative ideas, she found it hard. I don’t think she’s any less creative than anybody else, it’s just that if you’re constantly being rewarded for “Yes, I’ll do that. Yes, I’ll do that,” then why would you ever become creative?

The thing I worry about is when you have bosses or when you have politicians or when you have people in your life who their way is the right way, and if you don’t agree with them, there’s something wrong with you, you’re never going to have a creative organization because instead of inspiring creativity and courage, they inspire fear and loathing on the idea that anyone should do things their own way. That’s a real issue. Are you willing to defy what people tell you? Sometimes it’s not just defying others, sometimes it’s defying yourself. “I’ve been doing something the same way for 10 years, 20 years, 25 years, and maybe it’s time for me to break out in my life. Maybe it’s time for me to have a new job or do my work in a different way or realize that it’s time for a relationship to change.” It worked well for ten years, but it’s not working so well now. Creativity is an additive to our life.

You want to develop creativity, you want to develop curiosity, you want to develop these things, but it seems like the people who probably need it the most aren’t looking to create, be more creative, or they don’t realize what’s lacking. What do you tell people, to creativity or curiosity or any of these things, to what end? What benefit is it to them, if they’re all comfortable, if they’re afraid right now and they don’t want to go outside?

The benefit is we’re not living in the middle ages anymore. If people hadn’t been creative at all, think of some of the things they might be missing. Do you like using a toilet? Do you like using an oven? Do you like using a sink? Maybe you like using your computer, maybe you like the house being heated. All of that stuff was the result of creativity, but if you think you’re not going to gain anything from it, think of what it would be like to live a long time ago in caves and that’s where it would be.

Some people might say, “That’s great for those people who have that desire, but I’m just happy sitting here doing nothing,” and you’re going to have people like that.

If someone wants to sit there and do nothing, that’s their prerogative. I have a theory I call the Theory of Successful Intelligence and basically it says that your successful intelligence is a matter of figuring out what you want to do in your own life and then finding a way to do it, and then asking yourself every so often if what you’re doing in your life is what you want to keep doing. Some people have more ambitions, others have less ambition. That’s fine. It’s fine if you are less ambitious because that’s who you want to be, but when you have to ask yourself, “Is that who I want to be, or am I afraid, or am I lazy, or am I programmed that way?” You have to make sure that that’s really who you want to be.

In my research I was thinking, basically we have assumptions. We never thought about doing things, about creative things, because it’s always been this way. Technology maybe does stuff for us or we got the environment in school, or they might teach you the test and discourage these things. Do you think knowing what it is that’s holding you back is the big first step in going forward, or does it matter if you know?

It’s a big second step. The first step is even admitting to yourself that you’re being held back, that maybe it could do more with your life than you’re doing. In some ways, there are more opportunities today than there ever had been before, but there are also more distractions. You can end up becoming hooked on video games which maybe distract you from doing other things, or social media, which can be, “Who are we going to destroy today?” or you can end up watching television all day. You watch a program and all of a sudden you find yourself parroting whatever the program said and convincing yourself that that’s your idea. There are a lot of things today that gravitate toward creativity, but there’s a heck of a lot that gravitates against it.

The parroting comment is interesting because how do we take what we know on the news and develop critical thinking skills?

One thing that’s working against that is that through social media, people are hearing only what they want to hear and reading only what they want to read. There was much more exposure to alternative points of view even ten or twenty years ago. It’s almost sick now the way the country is divided into two tribes. I’m in my 60s now, but it wasn’t that way for most of the time. Do people fundamentally change? No. It’s that through social media we’re creating echo chambers for ourselves and coming to parrot what we hear in the social media or on the TV stations we watch. We don’t think critically about other ways of seeing things and why other people might believe differently from the way we do.

In a result of this lack of critical thinking, at least in my view, the world is going backwards. Whereas once we were moving more and more towards the liberal democracies, now we’re moving toward a liberal semi-democracies and autocracies, dictatorships, although they never called that. If you read some of the literature out there about the death of democracy, it used to be military coups. Now it’s people who are elected and gradually suppress freedom of thought until people become my sheep. It’s happening all over the world.

It’s interesting to see how people make their decisions. When I was researching emotional intelligence for my dissertation, I got certified to do the MBTI as well as the EQI and different personality assessments. I remember in the thinking versus feeling part of the Myers-Briggs assessment, people made their decisions based on their values. If you’re watching fake news for example, and your values align with what you’re watching, you’re probably more aligned to try and go along with that. That’s what makes fake news so appealing.

The problem is it’s becoming harder and harder for people to use the critical thinking even to want to seek out what is true. People have become very willing to accept what they hear on social media or what they hear from politicians or what they hear on television without bothering to ask themselves, “How do we know that any of this is true?” Some of this is conspiracy stuff. It’s ridiculous. It’s almost like we’re living in a television world where people are craving melodramas that used to be on the afternoon soap operas and now have become an everyday part of life.

I was listening to somebody talking about a guy that shot himself up in a rocket to prove that the world was a flat. I’m thinking, “Is it at that point where we are going backwards like you said?” You’ve got all these theories. You’ve got the WICS Theory of Leadership, you’ve got all these different ways that you’ve looked at doing assessments and measuring things. What do you think of personality assessments? Especially self-assessments like emotional intelligence, maybe Myers-Briggs and some of the DISCs. Do you think that those are helpful? Does it give a good picture of what we are? What do you think of them?

It’s somewhat useful because people do have different personality dispositions, but it also underestimates the extent to which we can change ourselves. Some people asked me if I wanted to run for president of the American Psychological Association. “No, I’m not a real leader type,” and then at some point I decided that I wanted to do it because I saw psychology becoming tribal, with the way the country is now. I found the whole thing about running for an office a little averse. I tend to be a little too introverted and a little too reserved, I said, “What I’m going to do is I’m going to play the role of someone seeking a leadership position. I can do that. It’ll be like play acting. It won’t be me, so I won’t be disgusted with myself or anything like that.”

After enacting the role for awhile, I became to some extent the role I was enacting. What I realized is that going into that leadership position, it wasn’t that I was born that way, I’m sure I wasn’t, it’s that if you’re willing to take a risk and take on some new responsibilities, for a while maybe say, “I know it’s not me,” eventually it can become you. I remember my first job as an assistant professor, I was a graduate student a few days ago, I’m going to fake it. Eventually you become the role.

It’s almost like Amy Cuddy’s “Fake it till you make it” talk. You talk about not being a leadership type. You say that the WICS suggests that leaders can fail in a number of ways, so you look at what makes leaders fail. What do you think are the main reasons?

Overwhelmingly, the main reason leaders fail is that they are unethical. They do things that are not ethical and it sooner or later catches up with them. We have a lot of leaders who are smart. You look at all the leaders we have that went to prestigious universities, Ivy League schools. You look at them and you think, “These guys are cool.” The second thing is wisdom. Instead of seeking the common good, they’re looking at what’s good for getting reappointed or reelected or the next race. Unless you’re genuinely seeking some common good, which has become pretty rare these days, you can’t be a good leader. If you’re looking out for people who are your political party or your tribe or people who look like you racially or religiously or ethnically, you can’t be a good leader.

TTL 194 | The Importance Of Creativity
The Importance Of Creativity: There are more opportunities today than there ever had been before, but there are also more distractions.

The last thing is common sense. You can go to the best schools in the world, you meet an awful lot of Ivy League graduates who were pretty low on common sense. They rely too much on their IQ. It just doesn’t work. Then you need to be creative. You need to realize the world is changing pretty quickly and that what you did for the last ten years or even ten months or ten weeks or ten minutes doesn’t work anymore. You need to have the flexibility and the willingness to say, “It worked for awhile and now it’s not working for me anymore.”

You were talking about Ivy League schools and all my uncles all went to Yale and you’ve got obviously a lot of experience with the higher-end schools. Is the education so much different than a regular state college? What do you think is the biggest difference?

The biggest difference is that anywhere you go, ideally you want to do some research because that’s where you learn. You’re creating new knowledge rather than reading what other people have done. You can have great advisors anywhere. I don’t think you have to get into an Ivy League school. It’s not about the Ivy League school thing. It’s about who your mentors are. There may be some particularly good mentors at Ivy League schools, but there may also be particularly good ones at State U.

Finally I would say what made my education is having three terrific mentors, and my fourth grade teachers and a few others. People who look out for you, who are wise, who are creative, who are good role models. Good role models today are hard to find. Going right up to the top, how many wise leaders can you think of that are alive and active today? It’s discouraging how hard it is to find them. If you can find some creative and wise mentors, whether there’s common sense, that’s the best thing you can get out of any college. It doesn’t matter where you go.

That’s a great place to end our conversation because I agree it’s so important. So many people are going to be fascinated by your work. Is there a website that you want to share or a way they can contact you?

My website is

Thank you so much for being on the show. It was so nice to meet you.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Have a great day.

Tricks to Appear Smarter in Meetings with Sarah Cooper

I am with Sarah Cooper, who’s a writer, comedian, and creator of the satirical blog,, which attracts more than 200,000 page views per month. Her work has appeared on the Washington Post, Fast Company, Business Insider, and the Huffington Post. Previously at Google, Sarah has more than fifteen years’ experience in the corporate world leading to her first viral article, Ten Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings and the subject of her first book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. Sarah also speaks about adding humor to your writing and she performs stand-up comedy around San Francisco. It’s nice to have you here, Sarah.

TTL 194 | The Importance Of Creativity
100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings: How to Get By Without Even Trying

Thank you for having me.

This has been fun researching you because I could spend all day on your website. I love your sense of humor. My sister would love your sense of humor because it’s very witty. It’s darkly funny on some of the stuff that you see in the workplace. If anybody goes to, your comments about millennials about oddly, literally no one is writing about millennials, that was great. The Valentine’s Day Cards From HR was pretty funny. I could spend a long time there, but I want to make sure people check it out because it’s so different than anything I’ve seen out there. You have taken your corporate experience but gone with your roots of comedy. It’d be nice to hear how you ended up at Google and then where you went from there.

I was in the tech world for a long time and I left around the age of 30 when I wanted to rediscover my passion for acting and performing. I left the tech world for a little bit and I was auditioning and I was exploring performance in the entertainment world and one of the things that I tried was stand-up comedy. I fell in love with it because unlike acting, I could write my own lines, I can direct myself, and I can more be myself and try to be a character so I enjoyed it and I found that I like making people laugh. Unfortunately, the world of stand-up comedy is not as lucrative as the world with tech. I went broke pretty quickly, within three years. I couldn’t sustain myself on what I was making doing stand-up comedy, and so I reconnected with an old colleague who I went to Georgia Tech with and she recommended me for a position at Google and that’s how I left tech and I went back into tech.

I joined a Google Docs team as a user experience designer and I loved working at Google. It was a lot of fun and I met a lot of great people there, I met my husband there. The people there have some of the best senses of humor that I had ever encountered. I kept doing stand-up on the side and I would get my co-workers to come to my shows and I kept writing. When I wrote Ten Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings, I’ve been at Google for about three years at that point. A lot of it was inspired from the meetings that I went to at Google and things that I had observed while I was in meetings at Google.

It was the first time I’d taken my experience in the corporate world and combined it with my love of comedy and entertainment and that’s what resonated with my audience for the first time. That was the first time that I reached thousands of people and I saw that there was an opportunity there for something that I could write about. They always say write what you know, but sometimes you don’t know what you know. It turns out I know the corporate world and office life and all the ridiculousness that goes on there. About six months after the article came out, I decided to once again try my hand at doing something creative and becoming a writer and starting this blog, I’ve been doing that now for about three years and I have been able to create a life doing this now. Second time’s a charm.

If Google is your fall back job, I’ve heard you say that’s hard to imagine, that’s pretty good. You’ve been a designer at Yahoo. You were born in Jamaica, then you got into economics. You have an interesting background. There’s a lot of fun things to see based on experience in the workplace. I’ve had Tripp Crosby on my show who did A Conference Call In Real Life, which is hysterical to me. JP Sears has been on the show and everything that he does kills me. A lot of the things that you do, you notice what’s going on that all of us notice, but we don’t think to write it down, but we could all relate to. Is that what your stand up-was about? What was your stand-up routine? Do you remember any of it that you want to share?

I still do stand up-all the time. I started out doing stand-up about my family and I was single at the time, so obviously I was talking about dating. The cool thing about stand-up is as your life progresses and as you change, your stand up changes. Now I talk about meetings and I talk about working in tech and I talk about my relationship with my husband, I talk about my family, so I go across a bunch of different topics.

What are some of your routine on the meetings?

I talk about how I wasn’t that great in meetings because I had trouble asserting myself, but then I always felt like I needed to contribute something meaningful, but then I noticed that the people who got promoted said meaningless stuff all the time. I realized I had to say something to make people remember that I was there, and so I came up with these tricks to appear smart and I wrote about in my book 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. A few of the tricks are translate percentages into fractions. If someone says 25% of people clicked on this button, you say, “About one in four,” and make a note of it and people will be impressed with your quick math skills.

You had a few others I thought were great, the Venn diagram cracks me up.

That was the first one that I ever observed in that someone got up and drew this Venn diagram that had no connection to what we were talking about and made no sense. I thought that people were going to make fun of him or at least say, “That’s irrelevant, can we move back and get back on topic?” Instead people started helping him draw the Venn diagram and telling him how to make the circles bigger or smaller or change the labels. He handed the marker to someone else and sat back down and went back to whatever he was doing on his laptop. I was like, “How to look smart in a meetings? Draw a Venn diagram.” It doesn’t even matter what it looks like or what it says. As soon as you get up to that whiteboard, people think, “This person’s taking the lead here in this meeting.”

It’s interesting because when you get into a meeting situation, people are so polite and everybody wants to be supportive of each other. A lot of times especially depending on how high you are in the food chain, how much you can get away with in terms of what you say and what you do, the article came out while I was still at Google and a few weeks afterward I was in a meeting and a VP was pacing around the room, which was one of the tricks. He also asked the presenter to go back a slide, which was another trick, and so he did two of the tricks at the same time and then he looked over at me and he winked. That made me think, “Maybe that’s how you become a VP at Google, is you are able to do multiple tricks at the same time in these meetings.”

I like that you said that people can always say, “That’s a great question.” I get people that say that to me on air a lot. Should I be worried?

It’s a great way to buy some time and also make the person who asked the question feel good about themselves and flattery works in general.

I thought another one you said was funny was people yell out, “Ship it.” I have not heard that. Is that something people yell out a lot?

It happened a lot at Google. Being in a brainstorming meeting and somebody would come up with an idea that everybody liked and somebody would yell out, “Let’s ship it. Let’s do it.” It’s a funny thing, but it also makes it look like you have the power to ship anything, which you probably don’t. It’s just something to say, usually everyone just laughs. If you can make people laugh, people will definitely want to be in meetings with you more.

Are there certain words that people say that you think, “You got to stop saying that?” Rather than ship it, like value proposition, tribe.

The one that I heard a lot which I hated was orthogonal. Software engineers would use that a lot. I’ll be having a discussion and they would be making some argument and you would try to point out some other thing and they would say, “That’s orthogonal to this discussion,” which means that they think it’s not relevant to the discussion. One of those words where it’s just a fancy word.

That makes people feel like outsiders, if you don’t get the jargon. You said you felt like an outsider. At some of your positions, did you feel that at Google or did you feel like that more when you’re trying to make it as an actress?

I felt probably more like an outsider as an actress than I did at Google. I felt pretty at home at Google. There is a tendency to get into a workplace situation and nod along with what everyone’s saying, even if you have no idea what anyone’s talking about because you don’t want to be the person that’s like, “I don’t understand or I don’t get how that makes sense.” Because I had this other passion on the side and I love observing people and I never took anything personally, I don’t have a giant ego or anything, so I didn’t have any problem being like, “I don’t get it.” I felt okay doing that. Sometimes when you say, “I don’t get it,” co-workers who will be like, “I don’t get it either,” but they were too embarrassed to say that.

Whereas the acting world, it’s a completely foreign thing to me. It’s a lot of fun. I remember being an extra on set and having to pretend to work in an office-type setting where they’re shooting and they needed background actors to look like they were writing notes or having a meeting or being on the phone. That was a lot of fun too. It’s funny the parallel between that and sometimes at Google I was definitely pretending to work. I wasn’t working. It prepared me.

To be in comedy, you have to be able to handle the haters. Even in social media, if you’re posting things that are comedic, you’re going to have the critics. How do you handle that?

It’s tough and that over time your skin gets thicker. When I first started my newsletter and I was sending out new articles, I got this horrible comment from this woman, I’ll never forget it. She said, “You need to give this up. You’re not very good at it.” I was heartbroken because it was six months after I left Google and it was a hard thing to hear and a hard thing to be like, “I’m going to ignore this even though it hurts. I don’t even know this woman.” After a while you realize when people say things like that, they’re probably saying more about themselves than they are about you, so you have to remind yourself of that and try to get over it. Even when I’m doing stand-up, I’ll look at and see audience and as many people are laughing, I’ll always find one person who’s got a stone face, that’s one person who didn’t laugh at my joke so I have to make a conscious effort to focus on the positive that people that are enjoying and the people that are supportive and like what I’m doing.

It is hard to make everybody like everything. Sometimes people are into their own thing. I noticed that you do a lot of comparisons between New York City and San Francisco. Did you see much difference in the audience there? Is it the workplaces? What are some of your observations in the differences?

I notice that a lot of tech jokes here that work here in San Francisco, I’m not sure if they would work in New York. I’m not sure if they’re as universal, like one of the tricks to appear smart is ask, “Will this scale?” no matter it is. I say that on stage and I don’t have to say anything else and people are already laughing so hard, and I don’t know if anybody outside of the tech world gets that question.

I said that to somebody who was on the air because I knew you were going to be on and she died laughing too because I said that there are so many things that you can say to look smart. That’s one in marketing but they think that goes over at least. If you make a joke about it, if they’re in marketing, they get it, but if you get in to other aspects of business, sometimes they don’t quite have the same appreciation as marketing people do, because it’s so over used in marketing.

I didn’t even know that it was used in marketing because it was more the engineers who would say.

You get a lot of that in marketing. There are so many things that fly in San Francisco that are tech related that in New York it’s a whole different ballgame. Maybe not even New York, but other places. San Francisco has a completely different culture. My son-in law-works at Apple and my daughter was working at Apple for a while. I get to the Cupertino area, and I get to see a lot of that. It’s a different culture. It’s so fun to go to that though. I would’ve loved to have worked at Google. I’m sure that must have been fascinating. There’s so much talk about women in tech and how we don’t have enough women up in that area. Did you feel like there is a need to be more of you?

That’s the biggest thing is we need more women in the workplace. If you’re the only woman in the room, you are going to stand out and people will treat you differently. A lot of that is because everyone else is a guy, and when a guy does the thing that most guys do, no one does anything because it’s just like, “We’re used to that.” With women, it seems like there’s a whole different set of rules and a lot of the rules contradict each other. The whole smiling thing, I’m a big smiler, but some women don’t smile and that’s okay, but at the same time people think, “She’s not very approachable because she doesn’t smile,” but then if you smile too much, it’s like you’re being too nice or something like that. How are you supposed to win here? Men, some of them smile, some of them don’t smile. It doesn’t matter. That’s because there’s so many of them that you’re used to having, “This is this guy and I can treat him as an individual.” Whereas women, it seems like there’s a different set of rules that people apply to us because there’s not enough of us in the workplace.

TTL 194 | The Importance Of Creativity
The Importance Of Creativity: We all need the confidence to do whatever comes naturally to us.

We tend to think that we have to soften the way we say things, that we need to use more smiley faces. What do you think we need to do instead of that?

It has a lot to do with more women in the workplace. The ultimate goal is for us to do whatever comes natural and feels good to us. I was chatting with Kara Swisher on her podcast and she mentioned that part of one of the articles I did, Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies For Women, where I said you have to use a lot of smiley faces and exclamation points and emojis in females to seem more approachable. She said, “Somebody wrote me this long email and at the end of the email was the question like, “Do you want to do this?” I responded, “No.” Nothing else. I was blown away because I’ve never responded no.

I would at least have to say nope or no thanks, or thank you so much, but no. I would have to put something else. I don’t know if it’s because she’s been in the industry for a long time because she has the confidence to do that. We all need the confidence to do whatever comes naturally to us. It’s not that like me using no smiley face is better or worse than her saying no, but me using those smiley face feels better for me. Can we get to a point where women are doing whatever feels comfortable for them without feeling like they’re going to be judged harshly for it?

That’s an interesting example because I wrote my dissertation on emotional intelligence and I’m fascinated by what comes across as rude though. Sometimes to me it would come across as rude, man or woman that just said no. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a female thing to me. I’ve had people, people who would write long email, just go on and on, and you’d write back, “No, thanks,” and a smiley. Then they got to write another ten paragraphs back to that.

Then you go back and forth and you’re trying to stop them. They don’t get the message. That’s a tough thing because when people are communicating, you need to look at the length of the responses you’re getting. Some people want to communicate in these long emails because they have time on their hands to do stuff, but the rest of the world sometimes don’t. You’ve got stuff to do and I can understand why you get to the point where you might want to write no to somebody like that.

There’s an inverse relationship with how much time a person has on their hands to write a long email and how much time the other person has to read that email. I see a long email and I skim, and I try to get to the point as quickly as possible.

With me, I would try to give them a hint by making my response short so that they see I don’t have time, but not rude like just no, but there are some people that don’t seem to get that. I love that you make fun of the different things at what we see at work on your site. Your blogs have these cute titles, the pictures and all that are great. Where do you get these pictures on your site?

I wanted to add some visuals to my blog. I’m not an illustrator. I don’t know how to draw. I tried to teach myself how to draw and I didn’t like anything that I did. I got some stock photos and I started tracing them and that’s how I do my drawings. In my book, I basically took pictures of my husband and two friends pretending to be in meetings and then I trace them. It works because the stock photos are super cheesy and so it adds the cheesiness. I do them myself, but it’s a hack.

I had mentioned you are making fun of how we hear so much about millennials when literally no one’s writing about millennials. Are you tired of hearing about millennials?

I’m used to it because we’re going to be hearing about it for the next 20 to 30 years.

I don’t remember it being such a focus on the boomers in the workplace. The silent generation was ready to shoot us because they were tired of us. Why do you think there’s such a focus on the younger generations?

It’s part of the internet culture now where there’s this huge vast information overload. There are articles upon articles upon articles. When people see that millennials do something that people are interested about, then more people will write about millennials. That’s true for any topic. I’m Gen X and I feel like there was a little bit of a focus on Gen X, but it seems like it’s going up. There’s a lot of focus on millennials and I feel like that’s going to probably expand even greater with the next generation. Part of that is that everything is so self-referential and we’re all talking about who we are and millennials are just the focus right now. There’s a lot of articles about millennials and trying to understand millennials, when they’re people and we created this label and this idea of who they are. I wrote about millennials versus boomers at work and even as I was doing it I was like, “This are people who’ve been around a little bit longer versus people who haven’t been around as long.” It’s not about generations, it’s about experience sometimes.

If it’s not generations, now it’s the women that are a big focus right now. I liked the name of your book, How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings. What are you dressing up?

I’m so excited about the book. It’s very secure. Go very tongue in cheek. I have the Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women in there, but then I also do different chapters. One of the chapters is choose your own adventure. Do you want to be likable or successful because you can’t be both? There’s a sexual harassment chapter where the title is how to be sexually harassed without hurting his career, because we all know that’s what’s important. It’s going to make you laugh, but it will also make you cry at times because a lot of it is the truth of the double standards and the things that women have to deal with in the workplace. What not to wear, which is a litany of every single possible thing because it seems like nothing we wear is ever good enough. It’s dealing with all of those things.

Do you think the men will see the humor in it or do you think that some of them will not want to see themselves in it?

I did write about that a little bit. The conclusion of the book is a little bit of how I dealt with it. When I tell men the name of the book, I can immediately tell from the reaction of which category to put them in because some men are like, “That’s hysterical. I get it. I want to buy it for myself, my wife, whatever.” Then some men are like, “I don’t know, that’s a little offensive.” Obviously, their feelings are hurt. I’m sorry about that, but then I came to the conclusion that as much as I would love to get into men’s brains and figure out if your feelings are hurt or not, that’s not up to me. This book isn’t for them, and that’s okay. I’m probably going to get a lot of men being like, “Men have this problem too.” I’m like, “Go write a book about it.” This book is for women and that’s what I wanted to write about.

It’ll be interesting to see when it comes out. We already mentioned your blog, which is Do you have any other websites people can reach you or is that your main contact?

My personal site is That’s my personal site and you can see some videos on there and see my schedule, upcoming events, and things like that.

Thanks, Sarah. This has been so much fun. I enjoyed having you on the show.

Thank you.

You are welcome.

Thank you so much to Robert and to Sarah. If you’ve missed any past episodes you can find them at to read the shows and listen to them because they’re made into blogs now. If you have any questions, please contact me. We hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.

About Robert J. Sternberg

TTL 194 | The Importance Of CreativityRobert J. Sternberg is an American psychologist and psychometrician. He is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. Prior to joining Cornell, Sternberg was president of the University of Wyoming. He has been Provost and Professor at Oklahoma State University, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University. He also is an Honorary Professor of Psychology at Heidelberg University. He is a member of the editorial boards of numerous journals, including American Psychologist. He was the past President for the American Psychological Association. He is a Distinguished Associate of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge.


 About Sarah Cooper

TTL 194 | The Importance Of CreativitySarah Cooper is a writer, comedian and creator of satirical blog, which attracts 200K+ pageviews per month. Her work has appeared on The Washington Post, Fast Company, Business Insider, and Huffington Post. Previously at Google, Sarah has over 15 years experience in the corporate world, leading to her first viral article, “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings” and the subject of her first book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. Sarah also speaks about adding humor to your writing, as well as performs standup comedy around San Francisco.


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