Advice Monsters and the Power of Thrilling, Important & Daunting: An Interview with Michael Bungay Stanier, Podcast Transcript

[Michael] – Michael Bungay Stanier

[Jack] – Jack Simmonds

[Ludo] – Ludo Millar

***

[Ludo]

Hello and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast. The podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring, EdTech and education, and hopefully, inspires in you the big change that each and every one of us is capable of.  Qualified Tutor is an industry leading tutor training organisation and online tutoring community for thousands of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, business experts, students, tutorpreneurs and more, from the world of tutoring. About what inspires tutors like you and what they’ve learnt about tutoring along the way. The question is, what will you learn today?

This week, regular host of the podcast Ludo Millar (that’s me!) will be taking a break and today’s conversation will be hosted and led by Jack Simmonds, Lead Facilitator here at Qualified Tutor. I’ll let Jack introduce this week’s guest …

[Jack]

Michael Bungay Stanier helps people be a force for change, he’s best known for his book The Coaching Habit, which has sold close to a million copies and has thousands of five star reviews online.

His latest book How To Begin, helps people find the clarity and courage to take on a worthy goal and start something thrilling, important and daunting. He founded Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organisations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. They’ve trained hundreds of thousands of managers to be more coach-like and their clients range from Microsoft to Gucci. He left Australia about 30 years ago to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where his only significant achievement was falling in love with a Canadian. Which is why he now lives in Toronto, having spent time in London and Boston. Balancing out these moments of success, he was banned from his high school graduation for “the balloon incident”, was sued by one of his law school professors for defamation and his first published piece of writing was a Harlequin romance-esque story involving a misdelivered letter and called “The Male Delivery”. It’s a pleasure to have you here, Michael. Welcome to the podcast.

[Michael]

Hey there, I am delighted to be here. Thanks.

[Jack]

Lovely.

[Michael]

I’m jealous of your awesome t-shirt, but no matter, I can try not to feel too diminished by the tie-dye-ness of it all and I’ll keep going.

[Jack]

Thank you. [LAUGHS] Yeah, I’ll try not to dazzle you too much today.

[Michael]

I feel dazzled, Jack. [LAUGHS]

[Jack]

Well, I think you’re about to dazzle our listeners because you’ve certainly dazzled me over the past year, with your Coaching Habit book. The seven questions have made a humongous difference to the way I do things as an educator.

[Michael]

That’s great.

[Jack]

So, for our listeners, I would love you to give us a little picture of who you are as an educator by answering our favourite question on the podcast, which is: what’s your ‘why’ as an educator?

[Michael]

Simon Sinek would be proud of you. Here’s my why as a human being, which connects to kind of my why as an educator. So, it’s slightly odd language, particularly in the middle of a pandemic. But I came up with this 20 years’ ago, maybe a little less, and it felt like a useful North Star to have since then. So the way I put it is this:

I want to infect a billion people with the possibility virus.

So you can see why that is actually just a terrible Covid thing to say out loud, but, I’ll tell you why it matters to me. There are two or three elements to it that make it powerful.

The first is, and this is kind of a grounding in existential theory, I guess, which is, I reckon the best I can help people do is see the choices that they have and make braver choices. And the possibility virus, for me, is about choice, and seeing choice, and knowing that you’re always- whatever your circumstances, you have choices as to what you do and who you are and how you show up and when you turn left or turn right.

It’s true for sure that privileged people like you and me, Jack, probably have other choices, better choices often than other people in the world but we’re all a choice.

So there’s that.

And then the possibility virus and infecting a billion people. Well, a billion is about an aspiration that’s so big I can’t possibly achieve it. So it speaks to a scale which I’d like to play. But what’s helpful about the virus metaphor is it gets me out of the way, it decentres me from the conversation. Because I can’t personally touch a billion people, not even close to it. And if I make myself, you know, overly make myself the hero of what’s going on, it limits the impact that I might have. So you know, I love it when somebody like your teacher and educator says look, ‘I love your seven questions and thank you for putting them together for me’. Like, that’s great.

But honestly I’m hoping there’s a bunch of people who’ve never heard of the book. Never heard of me, but somehow the seven questions have shown up and they’ve changed the way that they relate to people who they mentor or coach or teach in some way. And if that’s happening then, I feel like I win that even though I don’t even know about it.

[Jack]

There is so much good stuff in there. And I think it’s incredible, and so evident in your books that essence of who you are and what you do is there, you know, that getting out of the way and letting the good stuff happen.

But you did write the book and the seven questions have your name on them. So, how did you get to them in the first place so that we could get to them? 

[Michael]

Yeah. Well, when I did my coach training, and I trained with a company called CTI, Coach Training Institute. Probably 20 years ago, and I noticed that what I was really watching and looking at in the teaching that I was getting was, what questions were people asking, so I just started building up a bank of questions. And there’s so many good questions out in the world and, you know, what is the question that can make the difference. If you can ask a good question and then shut up and listen to the answer.

As simple as that sounds, it’s quite difficult but there’s some magic that happens there.

So, when I wanted to write this book I was like, there’s something about teaching people about great questions. And you know, one of the early iterations of the book there was actually 170 questions that I think are awesome. And I imagine it’d be a 300-page book, there’s one question per page, people will be amazed by it and I wrote that out and was like this is just the worst book ever. It’s too much it’s overwhelming it’s- you can’t take it all in. It became boring to write because I’m like, What can I say about this question I didn’t kind of say about the previous 263 questions?

So I abandoned that and that got me the idea of curating it down and kind of shrinking it. And, Jack, it took me a while. I mean took me, I went through a number of iterations of writing the book and it kept getting turned down by publishers. So I’d write with 5 questions, and then with 12 questions and then the 6, and finally I kind of went, look. This seven feels like, a) seven is a good number, it’s kind of got a seven habits of whatever, people. There’s a kind of thing about seven, not too big, not too small. Graspable for people. And I just went, I think the seven questions, they’re not the only questions that you can ask but they cover a lot of circumstances. If you have those seven questions and you only have those seven questions, you can go a long way in being more coach-like which is actually about, can you stay curious a little bit longer?

[Jack]

I think what was fascinating about those questions is they all have a character, and a place, right?

[Michael]

Yes.

[Jack]

You just said that there’s so many more questions and that’s true, but all of them fall into one of these seven categories. And I wonder if you have a favourite category, or whether that is a context thing?

[Michael]

Well, it is a context thing, because the meta-question is what’s the most helpful thing to ask right now?

And, you know, sometimes actually this, the answer is, don’t ask anything. Just be quiet and let them keep talking.

But, you know, people ask me that quite regularly, and I’ve got a glib answer which is, look, I think the best coaching question in the world is “And what else?” because it’s a way of strengthening any conversation, it’s a way of taming your advice monster. It’s a way of making sure that, if you’ve asked a good question, you go a bit further with it and just move on to the next question. But I’m not sure that makes it my favourite. I do think if you’re going to pick up one question to start asking, “And what else” is a really good place to start.

[Jack]

Okay.

[Michael]

The question that I find hardest to answer, which is an inversion of this is “What do you want?”. It’s the fourth question of seven. And in some ways it’s, you know, the centre of the book. And there’s something really interesting in the centre of the book, you know. In the great book I’ve been reading about story structure, the centre of the story is often the turning point for the hero. When she meets a certain thing and she realises the thing that needs to happen and the centre of the story, there’s a commitment that happens, and a depth that happens that can break things open. So I like the fact that it’s the question in the middle of the story. And I don’t think many of us are that good at knowing what we really want.

But if you understand what you want, it gives you a foundation for action, and a foundation for commitment. And if you can ask a question that helps people figure out what they want, that can just make all sorts of things clear, that were hitherto murky.

[Jack]

So, you’re right there. It is the scariest of all your questions. I think.

[Michael]

It can be, I mean sometimes as a glib answer to it but if you go, “What do you want? No, what do you really want?”

Okay, what do I really want? Who am I? We’re told so much of our life what we want or what’s expected of us. And what’s expected of us is often slightly different from what we actually want.

And what we want is actually often more human than a deliverable. So, it really does have the possibility of opening into an interesting moment of insight revelation or something.

[Jack]

Fabulous.

***

[Ludo]

And now a word from Diego Melo, CEO of the newly-announced, lead partners of the Love Tutoring Festival 2, Nudge Education.

[Diego]

We are Nudge Education, a movement of like-minded professionals trying to eradicate chronic disengagement from the face of the education sector, one child at a time, and point every chronically disengaged child towards a life that is worth living. So if you want to find out more, please go to nudgeeducationco.uk/workwithus and get involved with the movement.

***

[Jack]

So, with this ‘what do you want?’ question then, we point slightly towards your new book. 

[Michael]

That’s true. 

[Jack]

Which is all about getting what you want. It feels more therapeutic than The Coaching Habit. It feels more human than The Coaching Habit. How did you get there?

[Michael]

Yeah well, you’re right. I mean, the book’s- the full title is “How to Begin: Start Doing Something That Matters”. And if The Coaching Habit and its sister book, The Advice Trap is about, how do you create space for other people? How do you help other people thrive and grow?

This is a bit more personal. This is a bit more personal growth, self-development. And at the heart of it is a couple of things. One is an insight that we unlock our greatness by working on the hard things.

And that, you know, came out of the rubble of the first draft of this book because I thought I was gonna write a book, more about change and how change really works. And I wrote it, and I sent it off to some people to read it, and somebody wrote back to me going, ;Look, I’ve read 40 pages of this. I have no idea what’s going on, or what this book is about. I’m just confused’. Like, ‘Oh, that is harsh but fair’ and as I was picking through the remnants of that draft, that phrase, we unlock our greatness by working on the hard things, stood out. I’m like, ‘There is something that’s interesting there’.

And if you connect back to that why question, you know, the possibility virus and helping people and infecting a billion people with the possibility virus, this book is around helping people see and own ambition for themselves and for the world.

So, how could you take on a worthy goal? Something that is ambitious for you in the world, something that is hard, something that will make the world a bit better but will also contribute to unlocking the greatness that is there within you.

So yeah, it’s a bit more of that, and it’s more facilitated as well. It’s a process that I take people through over nine steps. I’m in the book.

[Jack]

And there is this, again, undercurrent of improvement, of self-improvement, of supporting other people to improve in all your work and that is becoming even more clear to me now. And what I really want to know: where does that come from, Michael?

[Michael]

I don’t know. It’s quite possibly just hardwiring, because I have two younger brothers. So, you know, the starting point is me just bossing them around, and demanding their fealty, and their loyalty and their obedience. It worked for a while and then it stopped working. And then they got stronger and bigger than me and it definitely stopped working after that.

But I’ve always had an inclination to take a leadership role. So, you know, as I played on the soccer team, I’d be the captain and when I was in scouts, I’d be the sixer or whatever they call it, the patrol leader. And it was- I’m probably retroactively making this true so this may be all made up, but it felt that I was always wanting to expect, get the best of people.

And I’m not sure if there’s some sort of psychological scarring or something that happened at a younger age, or whether I just have a little bit of that built into me which is like, I’m- I’ve always been mostly an encourager of people. Like I say, don’t take anything anyone says as the truth I’m just- you can never trust a man talking about his own motivations.

[Jack]

Now, there’s another book in that I am sure. And so, if you don’t mind, I’d like to (I have read the advanced copy of your book) pull on a couple of strings. 

[Michael]

Yeah, I love that. 

[Jack]

And one of them jumped out at me from you saying that, never trust a man, and that maybe there’s some psychological scarring and I absolutely don’t want to dig into that, but this phrase really stuck out to me, “Wisdom enters through the wound”.

[Michael]

Not my phrase. I mean, I borrowed it from- I don’t even know where I heard it from, so I can’t even give anybody credit for it. But, look, you just get smarter by kind of bumping up against reality.

You know, there’s a writer called Mike Abrashoff. He was a former US Navy Ships Captain. And you know, he had a lot of stories where he’s like, I whipped my ship into shape and we went from the worst ship to the best ship in the US Navy. And how did I do it? Well, you know, primarily he gave people autonomy, which is great and counter-cultural in the US Navy, I would guess.

And he does have a lovely saying. He goes, ‘Look there are two types of mistakes you make. There are above the waterline mistakes and below the waterline mistakes, and you want to help people avoid below the waterline mistakes, because if they don’t avoid them then the ship sinks, and we’re all screwed. But above the waterline mistakes is experience, that’s how we just get wiser and better about it, which is like, we stumble and we struggle and we fail a bit. And you know, we get rejected and, and we’re tested. And, you know, I literally have scar tissue, like I have a cleft lip and palate. So when you look at me you can see I’ve got scars on top of my lip and slightly odd looking face and you can probably hear a slight speech impediment in the way that I talk.

So for me, it was a personal recognition that you know, having a cleft lip and palate, the way I look and the way I sound actually becomes not a bug but a feature of who I am and how I show up in the world. But more generally. If you’re lucky enough to do the work. and I think it requires work, all of the struggle, you know, just contributes to you getting a better grip about who you are, what you want, what does the world mean. And I think those are variations of wisdom entering through the world. 

[Jack]

Yeah, and on a much smaller scale in the tutoring context, the idea of purposeful struggle resonates, really, really clearly with that. 

[Michael]

Right it’s, I mean, it’s an established learning trope, which is you need the appropriate degree of difficulty, like, not too easy, not too hard. But if there’s not some sweat equity in the work, then stuff doesn’t stick, neural pathways don’t get formed, people don’t get smarter. The tutoring, the mentoring hasn’t been as successful as you hoped.

[Jack]

Yeah. Sure, okay,

[Michael]

So, there’s that. I’m not sure who came up with this but I described a process of learning where you go from unconscious incompetence, you don’t even know that you suck. Conscious incompetence, you know that you suck. Conscious competence, you’re getting the hang of it, even though you have to be kind of present to it, and then unconscious competence, which is when you start getting some mastery around that. And the least comfortable of those places is conscious incompetence, and the best learning place is conscious incompetence.

***

[Ludo]

For those of you who know the Love Tutoring Festival, you will be delighted to hear that … we’re back!

From Monday 24th to Friday 28th of January 2022, the Love Tutoring Festival will return bigger and better than ever. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re in for a real treat. The most loved festival in tutoring, the Love Tutoring Festival is a five-day, online celebration of all things tutoring. With some of the biggest names in tutoring, education and pedagogy and hundreds of committed and motivated tutors from all four corners of the globe taking part, it really is the biggest party in tutoring. We will again be working on a freemium ticket model this year, with all our events totally free, apart from our famous, and ludicrously inexpensive, CPD-Accredited workshops. You can find out more, including the confirmed speakers so far, how to grab your place, and key information on our wonderful sponsors at qualifiedtutor.org/lovetutoringfestival.

Let’s raise standards in tutoring together.

***

[Jack]

Oh, I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this, Michael. Okay. I’d like to reflect on another little thing that stuck out to me then, if that’s okay?

[Michael]

Sure.

[Jack]

‘We are always in relationship’.

[Michael]

Yeah. Well I’m gonna- I’ve got a thought on this but why does the strike a chord for you, Jack?

[Jack]

I see what you did there. [LAUGHS]

[Michael]

Yeah, oldest trick in the book and it works every time.

[Jack]

I work with lots of challenged students who find life really difficult and it’s always about the relationship. So from a trauma-informed care perspective, it kind of leapt out to me in that sense because, we shy away often in education from thinking about relationships because they are personal, and they are open and they can be vulnerable. And so, that’s why. That’s why it’s stuck out to me.

[Michael]

Well, for me, it is probably a less nuanced answer than your answer, Jack, but there is a narrative in the world around the solo hero, you know, heading off, achieving the great thing, you know, particularly men, men love that kind of narrative. But it’s not just gendered, it’s everywhere, which is like this- the way you achieve it as you become the hero. And that narrative is seductive, because who doesn’t want to be the person standing there on top of the mountain. The conquering person, whatever.

But it’s just it feels like it’s both naive and lonely to go, ‘I need to do this by myself’. So, you know, this idea of sending off a worthy goal is something that is thrilling, and important and daunting, meaning you don’t really know how to do it, and it takes you to the edge of who you are and where your confidence, and your competence, in your autonomy, and your self sufficiency is.

It’s like if you try and do that by yourself, it’s just not going to work. I mean, it’s going to- you’re going to struggle and fail, you have to call in help, you have to call in relationship. And maybe I write about this because this is something I keep needing to learn, like I’ve got some success stories around that and I’ve also got a tendency to be wired into, ‘I’ll do this all myself’, and that’s tiring and not that helpful and typically not that successful either.

[Jack]

And it’s so refreshing to hear a self-help idea that says, ‘It’s okay to look outside of yourself for things’.

[Michael]

I mean it’s the tension within self-development, where, you know, one of my mentors, a guy called Peter Block says, ‘We’re trying to give people responsibility for their own freedom’. And I think that’s a very powerful phrase which is like this is that existential choice which is your life, your choices, make good choices, but it’s also true that we’re in relationship. And you know, you’re human by nature of the other humans around you, and who you are. You can’t be a human if you’re not having a relationship of some sort, you’re not engaged with other people.

And, you know, it’s a little bit like absolutes, a little bit like Newtonian theory and quantum physics, which is Newtonian physics is true and quantum physics is true.

And they contradict each other.

And it feels a bit the same which is like, ‘Look, this is you. You’re on your own. This is your life, you are actually alone, make good choices, because you live and then you die, and that’s it’. Because I believe that- I’m kind of an atheist and an existentialist, so like, when I’m dead, I’m done, a little blip of light amongst nothingness. But at the same time I’m like, relationships. Yeah, that’s how we do it all and these are both true and they’re kind of contradictory as well.

[Jack]

Fab. Yeah, yeah, you’re so right. I can’t wait to listen back to this podcast! So you’ve already mentioned it and the third thing that I wanted to pull on was this idea of ‘thrilling, important and daunting‘. It is the worthy goal. So I’d like to wrap up today by finding out a little bit about your thrilling, important and daunting project that’s coming up. What’s on the horizon for you?

[Michael]

Well, good question. You know, it’s really important and daunting. Thrilling is about lighting you up, important is about the bigger picture, serving the world in some way, and daunting is about stretching and growing yourself.

And I’m in the middle of a thrilling, important, daunting project at the moment which is a book about being thrilling, important and daunting. So, the book is written, it’s produced, and it launches in January so, the next two or three or four months are about getting the book out into the world and that’s a part of the thrilling, important and daunting project.

It’s a less exciting part than writing it but it’s still part of the deal. And then, you know, I’ve got some options as to what the next worthy goal looks like and I don’t know which one it is yet but there’s one part of me that goes- I have ideas for three new books. And I like them all. And they’re pretty tight as far as ideas go. So, one worthy goal I’m asking myself is, what if I could write three books in a year? That’s a lot. That’s hard to pull off. So part of me likes the challenge around that and the fact that I can kind of see and taste when these three books might be gets me excited.

A different way of framing it, but similar but different is to say: what if I fully claimed the role of being a writer? Because up to now, even though I’ve written five or six or seven books or something, I’m not really a writer and more a business person who writes books, I’m more a teacher or coach that writes books. Which means that often my books have a business model connected to them in some ways which is like, this is how to get out in the world. This is how people get engaged in the book. This is how people get engaged in the teaching associated with the book, you know, there’s a way that they fit into an ecosystem.

That is part of the book as a start, but it’s never that, the whole of it, of itself. So, maybe, I thought to myself as a writer, then maybe one of the things that’s also on my mind at the moment is like, ‘What does it mean to really build local community for me over the next year?’. And that’s different as well and the thing is you can’t take all of those on. It’s hard enough to take on one worthy goal, let alone two. And I think it’s basically impossible to really do three worthy goals in any way that is realistic. So, I’m still trying to figure it out. I mean that’s part of the process which is like, okay.

Some of us have lots of ideas of where the goals are, so you have to make a choice and commit to one and put the others aside, which one would I pay the greatest price on, if I failed to commit to it.

That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer yet.

[Jack]

I think that’s the question we should leave hanging in there, because I can’t top that.

[Michael]

Tune in, check me out in 2022 halfway through the year and you’ll see what actually happened.

[Jack]

Yeah, absolutely. Well, we will get to see you at the beginning of 2022, just after your book has launched, because you’re going to come speak about the seven questions at the Love Tutoring Festival. 

[Michael]

Exactly. I’m excited to do that. Yeah, I’ve got a great session. I call it the five question leader. So we’re going to dig into five of the seven questions in particular.

[Jack]

Great.

So, you can find more information about that on our website, I have absolutely no doubt that there will be a pre-order link.

[Michael]

That’s right. I’m just working on it right now so I reckon the website book is howtobegin.com and you should be able to get pre-order stuff by the first week of November, which is what I’m going for.

[Jack]

Excellent. Well, we shall encourage our listeners to queue up and pre-order tickets. It has been- I could do this all day but you don’t have all day. So thank you so much for spending this time with me today, Michael.

[Michael]

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

[Jack]

Thank you.

***

[Ludo]
Now just before we close today, I wanted to let you guys know about a new feedback and commenting feature we have made available to everyone and anyone. SpeakPipe is a website that allows anyone to record a short audio message and send it in. We have created a special Qualified Tutor Podcast SpeakPipe page, which can be found at speakpipe com/QualifiedTutorPodcast. The aim of this is to allow you to leave feedback on any part of our show and really whenever it pops into your head, there’s no limit to how much feedback you can give.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. Whether you’re a regular listener of this podcast, or you’ve just stumbled across it, join the Qualified Tutor Podcast Group within the Qualified Tutor Community. To stay up to date with our latest news offers workshops and of course, simply to meet other tutors like you, whatever your level is as a tutor, our training courses will be the next step in your professional development. Visit qualified tutor.org/training to find out more about our CPD-Accredited and Ofqual-recognised courses: the first of their kind in the tutoring industry.

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