Episode 181 – The Power of Initiative!

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best Podcast listeners, wherever you might be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, and we have a friend and wonderful guest today, Joshua Spodek. Welcome, Joshua!

Joshua Spodek: Glad to be here, thank you very much!

Steve Shallenberger: Okay. I had the opportunity for Joshua and I, to visit a couple of years ago, as one of our podcast guests, and today, he has written a new book, that was just released two weeks ago. I’m excited to have Josh share with you the contents, the idea and the impact of INITIATIVE. That’s the name of it, the subtitle is “A Proven Method To Bring Your Passions To Life And Work”. So, first of all, let’s give you a little background on Josh. He’s a TEDx speaker, professor at NYU, host of the award-winning Leadership and the Environment Podcast, a columnist for Inc. Magazine, author of the number one best selling book, “Leadership Step by Step”, which we had fun talking about that, previously. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including a Ph.D. in astrophysics. We talked about that before, that just generally helps you everywhere, doesn’t it, Josh?

Joshua Spodek: It does! I’m going to add one more honor, which is, you and I met, I think years ago when I wrote my first book. About six months ago, I met and had a burrito with your son, who has profiled me in his book, which is a great honor for me!

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s great! And he loved visiting with you, that was a lot of fun and he shared what a big impact that was on him, so thanks for doing that! Great!

Joshua Spodek: Thanks to him!

Steve Shallenberger: He has an MBA from Columbia, where he studied under a Nobel Laureate and helped build an X-Ray observational satellite, with the European Space Agency and NASA, and I mean to tell you, Josh’s experience just goes on and on. So, I am really looking forward to this discussion, for gaining new ideas, and I know you are, as individuals that are excited to gain new knowledge, new insights, and look for ways to apply that to what you’re doing today, in the process of becoming your best. So, let’s dive right into this book, Josh, and what’s the difference between your method initiative and what you call, “Dog show entrepreneurship”? Give us some background on this and let’s dive into it!

Joshua Spodek: Yeah, the dog show. So, for a long time, I’ve asked people, “Have you seen the Westminster Dog show?” Not everybody has, but a lot of people have seen dog shows and I asked them, “What it is a dog show?” And they say, “People come dancing around, fancying their dogs and the judge judges how well they look.” And I say, “If you could own a dog, and the only way you could own a dog was that way, would you?” And a lot of people who love dogs wouldn’t necessarily want a dog if that was the only way to do it. And when I talk about the judging and so forth, I say, “We have turned entrepreneurship into The Westminster Dog Show.” I’m not saying everywhere, but there’s a lot of it to watch, Shark Tank, or you look at a lot of the stuff of business plan competitions, a lot of it is not so much… What I had with my dogs growing up, they got messy, they got dirty, they played in the mud and stuff like that, but I loved it! They would never win an award but I loved it! And there’s a lot of people that could start businesses, projects, that might not be something that we’d get venture capitalists to buy it, it might not be something that made the front page of Forbes or Inc., but they would love it and it would be great. And a lot of the resources out there, are designed, you know, they’re buying value types or they’re buying for researchers, or there are these big things, like, to invest in the show. That’s great! I love that there’s resources out there, I think that it’s great, for them. But most people don’t have an idea and a team to start off with, and they need to start a little bit earlier and they want to have a great life, and they want to do something really great, if it becomes best in show, great, that does happen with my stuff, but my method Initiative, what I call, “The way of taking initiative” is designed for people who don’t yet have an identity, they’re not necessarily engineers in their 20s, who are trying to get venture backing to then get an IPO, but they could still love the projects that they create. Usually, there are going to be projects that are entrepreneurial, to start a new company, but often times, a lot of the people who’ve gone through these exercises, have gone to start a non profit, but most of them, they go to their managers at work and they get responsibility and authority and resources to do projects at work. So, you could call it entrepreneurship, but I like to call it just simply taking initiative. I like the simpler word. That’s the method initiative, is the exercises I’ve put in the book, you go step by step, and it leads you through, in the short term – how to create a project; in the long term – how to become someone who knows how to create projects anytime.

Steve Shallenberger: So, what you’re saying is there’s a difference, Josh, between having this refined finished product and being down in the trenches, and actually making something successful. Is that what you’re saying? That there’s a specific process that helps you get there?

Joshua Spodek: Yeah. Most of what I’m saying is that it’s more than the idea that you start with, it’s the social and emotional skills that you, as an innovator, as an initiator, as someone who wants to have responsibility, it’s developing the social and emotional skills of seeing the germ of an idea and share that with people. And what I do, is I walk you through the process of developing a pre-idea, something so rudimentary that an investor would say, “this doesn’t even count, this isn’t worth it.” But, if you talk to people close to you, and not ask for judgment, but get advice, then you can improve it. There’s 10 steps in this process and each step takes you from something rudimentary to something that kind of works, from something that works to something that works very well, and keep responding it, and each step along the way you’re learning the skills that when you look at the great entrepreneurs, they all have these skills. They developed them through other ways, but this is the way for you to develop them so that you can become someone who can start from nothing, but identify problems around you and solve them in ways that become so useful to the other people, that they support you back, that they help you.

Steve Shallenberger: Great! Now, so many of our friends and associates have asked for help in this area and so, becoming your best actually has today, a breakthrough leadership conference and so, I am excited to hear about some of these things that are involved in the exercises because when people start out, I mean, we think about this as we begin this entrepreneurial conference, just thinking about the current reality of what’s happening in the history of individuals that start ideas, and like you said, sometimes, Josh, they’re within a company, which is great. You have many internal entrepreneurs. Other times, is somebody that has decided that they want to develop an idea, but it starts with the idea. And so, often, people go directly to execution, and we call that, FFF – Formula For Failure. And it sounds to me like you’ve created something between the idea and the execution, that minimizes the risk because right now, somebody starts something, within 10 years, 70% of them will have failed.

Joshua Spodek: That’s it? I thought more than that.

Steve Shallenberger: Well it is, I’m just being conservative.

Joshua Spodek: Okay.

Steve Shallenberger: You’re right. So, let’s talk about, if you don’t mind, I’d love to hear about the exercises and what do you feel is appropriate to share now, during the podcast and how can you help us understand what is involved in this. I’m excited to hear about this.

Joshua Spodek: The best way that I can describe it is by analogy because they’re experiential exercises, meaning that you have to experience going through them, to learn from them, we learn from experience. The analogy that I’d like to use is, imagine you live in a world where all those who taught piano, taught it by lecture and case study and so, if you wanted to learn to play the piano, you’d sit in a classroom and they’d teach you, or they just told you, “Here’s the history of Bach and Beethoven and music appreciation.” It’s very useful, it’s nice to learn, but it doesn’t actually help you play the piano. Imagine you came up with the idea of playing scales. Now, in history, scales took a long time to develop. Now, if someone wants to learn to play the piano and you say, “Put your thumb here, put your finger here, put your finger on this key, put your next finger on this key” and so forth, to learn to play scale, you would say, “That isn’t playing my heart out. That’s not an emotional expression of how I feel, that’s very mechanical.” The thing is that if you want to get to Carnegie Hall, you might think these mechanical things don’t work, but actually, that’s exactly how people get to Carnegie Hall, is you have to practice, at first, very mechanical things, but when you get those down, when you don’t have to think about where your fingers are going, then you can start expressing yourself through the music. There’s lots of middle stuff, lots of middle exercises as well. And so, the early exercises are like playing scales for piano. And if I describe them, you might say, “It doesn’t sound like very much” but as you develop on them, as you dig them, you develop your voice. Here would be your entrepreneurial voice, or your taking intiative voice, as opposed to your musical playing voice. And it’s the same in other areas. If you want to play tennis, you start with ground strokes, if you want to play basketball, you dribble, if you want to do the military, you do basic training. And this is basic training. So, the early exercises are really… It starts with writing a personal essay just to give you direction. But then, it’s writing down problems and solutions and then talking to people and getting them to give you advice and votes on which one to work on and then it’s refining and refining and refining, by going out to people and getting advice from them, but in very specific ways, so you don’t have to guess it, like, “How do I ask for advice?” or “What kind of advice am I looking for?” I get specific what to do and how to say it. If you have relationships with people, you don’t have to follow the scripts perfectly, but it gives scripts so that people don’t have to guess. They can use the scripts that work pretty well. I hope that describes it because what I found is if I tried to describe exactly what the exercises are, it’s like trying to describe piano skills to someone who wants to play on stage. It doesn’t seem quite yet like it would work, but it actually does.

Steve Shallenberger: Right.

Joshua Spodek: I also put throughout the book a bunch of stories, each step of the way, so that people can see what it was like for other people who went through the same stages and what they got out of the exercises.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, good. And let’s keep building on this, and understanding it and looking at the application. So, what would be the first exercise? What’s one of the first things you recommend?

Joshua Spodek: The very first exercise is to write a personal essay, and that’s to give you direction because people often have multiple areas that they could go into and it’s best to pick one and go with it. Sometimes people are nervous if you go on one direction, “Oh, what if I pick direction A and direction B was actually the perfect one for me?” Well, developing the skills that you do, along working with A then you decide you want to switch, actually, the switch is very quick and easy. So I give people direction with the first exercise. The next exercise, more specifically, I’ll go into a little more detail, is to spend a week thinking of the direction that you want to go into and looking for problems in that area – places where people complain, places where you complain, places where people wish things were faster, easier. And you write down, over the course of the week, five problems and then come up with some solution, however rudimentary. This is a big challenge here, is not to evaluate the quality of your solutions yet, because no one the first time through is going to write down a great idea. What happens is that you, by writing down these five rudimentary ideas, the next stage is going to have you share these ideas with other people, ask advice from them, and you will be surprised at how quickly that advice changes those ideas from rudimentary and sometimes embarrassing, to plausible. In the next couple of stages, you’ll keep refining them and eventually, you’ll have someone say, “When is this going to come out? I want to buy this thing. I want to use your service.” But it takes a while to get there, so the early stages are asking for advice on very rudimentary ideas and I give instructions, a lot of times when you ask someone, “I wonder if you can give me some advice” people mean well, and they basically say, “I think that sounds great, go for it!” The thing is, “I think that sounds great, go for it” it’s judgment and maybe positive judgment, but it doesn’t really help you improve it. So I give lots of tips on how to switch, how to deflect judgment and get advice. Because if they say, “You know, if you need a little bigger, or if you made it a little smaller”, or “Have you talked to someone about it?” That’s much more useful. And there’s types of advice you get. Some of the advice is, it will change people. I’ve been teaching this course on NYU, the book is based on the course, several hundreds of students go through it, from all levels, from undergrad through I teach professionals who want to advance in their careers, I do a lot of coaching one-on-one. And it’s remarkable the changes that go through people. They just keep telling me, “I did not think that I could learn these sorts of things, that I learned in this class, outside of life. I didn’t even think you could learn these things.”

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, great! Oh, that’s good, that’s exactly what I was hoping for, and that kind of gives a good feel for things. So, Josh, can you share a couple of examples, stories of people who did the exercises, and the results? I think that could be helpful to me and our listeners.

Joshua Spodek: Yeah, the opening story, I picked because it’s a guy, he’s now a friend of mine, at the time he contacted me out of the blue, he wanted coaching, he said, “Josh, you started a company, I can’t stand working where I’m working now. Please, help me start a new company.” The deal was that it was a media company, it was a small company, and I didn’t know this until he told me, but he had constantly come up with ideas that he thought were profitable or with low costs, and he would go to his managers and says, “How about this idea?” And over and over again, they would say, “Well, we’ll think about it” and nothing would come out of it. So, he thought, “I don’t want to work for people anymore, I can do this better.” So, I started working with him, and we started doing these exercises. Now, I was actually preparing him, this was a little over a decade ago. I was preparing him to help start a company. And we were developing ideas. And one day, he comes, we would start the coaching session and he says, “Josh, I don’t need to start a company anymore.” I go, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I didn’t tell you this, but I’ve been taking the principles that I’ve been learning through doing these exercises with you to start a new company, and I’ve been applying them with my managers, with the old ideas, and instead of asking them, try to find the perfect idea and showing to them so they’d have to say, ‘Yes’, I went back to early stages and shared the ideas with them, got their advice and approved it and eventually they gave me the project! And so, I don’t want to leave my company anymore.” And so, it turns out, yes, he wanted ownership in the sense of having deliverables and responsibility and authority to be able to deliver them, but he didn’t want to start a company, he didn’t want to file the state, figure out health insurance, hire people and get office space. He wanted authority and responsibility and resources. And that’s what he got, and as a result, it turns out that, while he didn’t get a raise, he would go home earlier every day because he could do his work faster. So, that’s one example.

Steve Shallenberger: Take this illustrating, the impact, because what I’m hearing from you and as we think of the gap here between the idea and execution, this is really a set of disciplines that individuals can learn and that it helps strengthen not only the individual but the whole organization.

Joshua Spodek: Exactly! That’s if they want to stay. I think that organizations would do well to give this kind of training to their employees. A lot of companies, they’re scared that if you give them entrepreneurial training, people are going to leave. But if you give them initiative training, then they start solving problems, and then, people can get promoted this way, because I think managers recognize, especially CEOs recognize, “if this person is a good problem solver, do I want them to solve low-level problems or high-level problems?” So they want to promote people who know how to take initiative and solve more problems.

Steve Shallenberger: Right, yeah, I agree. Well, let’s hear one more story and then I’d like to talk about this word, “initiative” a bit more.

Joshua Spodek: Sure. So, at the other end of the extreme is Jonathan. So, Jonathan was a lawyer making six figures and he had an Ivy League degree and I didn’t know this until he took my class. What happened was, he went to a mentor of his, and said to the mentor, “I’m making a lot of money, it’s not really rewarding, I don’t feel meaningful about my work” and the guy said, “Take a class, take a night class at NYU.” It happened to be that he took my class. And so, when he took my class, he had no idea that he had to do a project, at all. He just thought, maybe he’d get an overview of entrepreneurship, he didn’t know that this was going to be a project-based class. So he did the exercises and a project emerged, the details of it was that he wanted to help one-on-one people through bankruptcy so bankruptcy has become more and more difficult over time. And in the process of creating this project, he also met a programmer and the programmer and he decided, “Let’s put this online.” So, they kept developing the project and not long afterward, let’s see the things that happened. He got written up in the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, he got funding from Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, from Eric Schmidt from Google, and he got into Y Combinator, if you know that thing on Silicon Valley and became one of the few non-profits there. The American Bar Association named their project one of the top online resources for 2018 and I’m skipping all the middle stuff, how he grew and grew and grew, but you can read that, you can go to Wall Street Journal and you can find out. And the point is that even though he didn’t have an idea at all to start with, and if he had belonged to a lot of the resources that are out there, that were saying, “If you have an idea and a team, you can build it.” that actually would have been a bigger hurdle for him because he didn’t have an idea at the beginning. And yet, he made it to this startup worlds. If you know Y Combinator, that’s one of the most prestigious places where you can go, it’s like an incubator, an accelerator.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, great area. Right.

Joshua Spodek: And so, anyone can start from almost nothing and these exercises really change a person. And if you go to the book page for the book, there’s a video of Jonathan talking about this experience.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah. That’s great. Now, why the word “initiative”? That’s the name of your book.

Joshua Spodek: Oh, man!

Steve Shallenberger: Tell us why did you choose initiative for that book?

Joshua Spodek: I said, “Oh, man!” because you had to hear the conversations between me and my publisher, they’re like, “Put the word ‘entrepreneurship’ on the cover, it’s going to sell more.” I was like, “Whenever I say entrepreneurship to people, I can’t stop them from thinking, ‘Shark Tank or Venture-backed high-growth engineer sleeping in the garage in their 20s” and this does help people like that. There’s lots of resources for people like that. But, taking initiative is in my view, more general. One application for taking initiative it is to start a for-profit company, but it’s not the only one. I mean, my podcast is a big passion of mine and it’s not a big profitable thing, but in itself is just a project, I love it. I mean, I deeply, deeply love it! And so, there’s many different ways that you can take initiative and if you take initiative, you can become your best, you can develop all these other skills, grit and perseverance and being able to talk to people and get them to support you. And all these different things, and discover your passions and unearth them, and build them and make them part of your life. If you don’t take initiative, you’ll be lucky if you’ll get a lot of these things, sometimes, life will bring them to people, but taking initiative is a much more sure way of getting them. Starting a company doesn’t always get them. I know the first company that I did, if I had gotten the advice that goes for a lot of people with ideas and teams, I would’ve built a bigger company doing something I didn’t really like. When you take initiative this way, it’s always based on something you like, and you actually determine and find more of your passions, and you unearth them and build them.

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you for the background on that, I love that because anybody can start. I mean, you just got to get going, that’s what initiative is and you’ve also shared some other words, “passion” and “action”. How do you tie those together? The relationship between initiative, action, passion, getting something done, getting going? That’s where it starts.

Joshua Spodek: There’s a few myths out there that I buy into sometimes. I have to get them out of my head sometimes. A lot of people think you need a passion to start. Look at someone like Bill Gates, that kind of big passion for starting what became Microsoft. If I had a big passion, I would do that too. Unfortunately, I just haven’t got my passion yet, but hopefully, it’ll come soon. And the only thing that you can do if you believe them, you just have to wait for news to whisper in your ear and sometimes people get lucky but for the big things in my life, I don’t want to depend on luck. On the other side, there’s a lot of people who say, “Act! Just act on something and eventually you potentially emerge.” The thing is, okay, you get to act, but sometimes you do stuff and it’s not really what you want and you hope it will turn into a passion, it may not, so you start something, it doesn’t work out, you start something it doesn’t work out. And a lot of people start feeling like, “Oh, it’s not worth it.” They feel futility. And what I find works is not to wait until you have a huge a passion and then act or not to act so much that you force a passion form. But, to start with a little bit of direction from some interest, take initiative there and do some action, if that action goes well, will develop a little more passion, that passion will lead you to take a little bit more initiative. And then, initiative will lead you to act, the action will lead you to passion. It’s what I call the initiative – action – passion cycle, where instead of waiting for everything on one side, you develop things cyclicaly. That’s why the cover of the book has this spiral staircase, because as you go around the cycle, in one direction you’re going round a circle, but each time you go around you go up a level and most times when people start, they start with what they kind of like, and if it goes well, they’ll like it more, and if it goes well, they’ll keep liking more. Each time you do this cycle, it takes you up a level and sometimes something will run out, like I’m sure people have taken on a project, it went really well for a while and then they’re done with that project. Then you start with another one and that will take you up another level and then you start with another one, that will take you up another level. Each time you do these things you go from what I call, “passing fancys” into hobbies and things that you really like and eventually you reach life passions. And so, this initiative – action – passion cycle keeps taking up more and more levels at a time, each time going from things that you have access to, that are passing fancies, up into life passions.

Steve Shallenberger: All right, okay. Thanks for talking about that, and one of the words you used a number of times, Josh, is doing something that you’re excited about. How does that play in?

Joshua Spodek: Yeah, excitement is, I don’t know if you can hear my voice, I love what I do. I didn’t always love what I do. And, I was telling you before we started recording, I’m just post book-launch and so the number of my emails it’s like insanity, I’m barely catching up, my eyes are glazed over from being in front of all these stuff and it’s so much needy greedy deep down. And if I was doing this work for someone else, I would be furious, this is terrible, you give me someone else’s micro-managing crap, it’s horrible, but it’s my stuff and I love it! Hopefully, everybody has that feeling, I wouldn’t change anyone’s other kid’s diapers, but everyone’s changing their own kid’s diapers. When you have a project that you created, other people help you develop and you’ve heard from them, “I really like what you’re doing, I want to buy that thing.” There’s two types of inspiration that I find. December 31st, people say to themselves, I’m going to go to the gym once a week this year. And we all know somewhere around Valentine’s Day, 99% of people are not going to the gym anymore. They felt inspired on December 31st, but it doesn’t really stick that much. That’s the inspiration, hopefully, for a lot of people does work out, that kind of fades when it’s just about yourself. But when you talk to someone about, “There’s this problem I’ve been working on, I think I can solve it, can you give me some advice?” And in the process of giving advice, they say to you, “This is great, I want to buy this!” That type of inspiration, to improve the lives of people around you, it becomes greater than yourself. That type of inspiration, that can last a lifetime. That’s excitement, and that comes from, as far as I know, it only comes not from just having an idea, but acting on it so that actually takes on a life of its own, to where people see the results of what you’re doing. That’s what this book is about. I hope it gets people promotions and raises, I hope it gets people to solve other people’s problems, but I hope that it gets them to feel that excitement, that passion, that just does not fade because people tell you, “You’ve made my life better.” And if on the side they say, “Take my money, please” so you can make more of this thing.

Steve Shallenberger: Great! So, how long does it take for one person to do all the exercises?

Joshua Spodek: There’s 10 exercises and I envision people doing them in about a week, about a week each, so it’d be 10 weeks, but some people do it in half that time and once the dean asked me to do this. I talked the class Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, so once, I had a whole class doing it in a week, but that was a pretty intense class with me there, but in principle is possible to do it that quickly, but that’s pretty tough. I’d say a month would be really fast, 10 weeks would be average and some people, they really get into it and they go into real depth on one exercise and some people would take a lot longer. And there’s a couple of stories of people who took a lot longer the book because they got so much more out of it.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s great! Well, I’m just in this, I’m looking at across my yard here and planted our garden about three weeks ago, but what you’re talking about is planting the seeds to entrepreneurship and being successful in projects that you can make a difference in, but it takes a while. You’ve got to prepare the ground and cultivate it, and that’s what sounds like these exercises help you do so that you grow something really awesome.

Joshua Spodek: Yeah, and I think that if they’re listening to this podcast, they’ve been developing it for a while because that’s what you’re about, so I think that they have that garden.

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah that’s right, I bet it’s great, I love it! Because it helps you think this way. Well, I’m always shocked, Josh, of how fast things go, our time’s up, tell us how our listeners can learn more about what you’re doing, how can they get the book and how can they find out more about our friend Josh, and his good work?

Joshua Spodek: So, everything is at my webpage,, and I post my blog every day, if you go to the upper right corner and click on books, then you can get to Initiative and that’ll take you to Amazon and Barnes & Noble or wherever you want to buy it and it also gives you videos and you can download the preface. So,, everything’s there.

Steve Shallenberger: Okay, well, we can’t wait, that’s going to be a lot of fun, I’m excited to read the book or get it here very shortly so, thank you, Joshua Spodek, for being on this show again, great time, congratulations on the book and you’re making a difference in the world, my friend!

Joshua Spodek: Steven, thank you very much, the pleasure has been all mine.

Steve Shallenberger: All right, and to all of our listeners, never forget, you too are making a difference every single day, and it’s a light that shines from you and as we keep learning and becoming our best and developing, mastering these principles, it has a huge intergenerational impact. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best, wishing you a great day!

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