The Dopamine Rewards of Business Writing

Does compelling business writing matter anymore? I mean, really matter? In a time of texting, tweeting, keywords, hashtags, tiktok, sound-bites and the rapid-fire scanning of emails – does anyone still care about a well-crafted message?

Ok, that was a hypothetical question.

My friend Victor accepted a new Senior Director of HR role at a biotech company. 6 weeks later, when Denise, Head of HR, called him into her office and informed him that he would be assigned a writing coach, it was clear to Victor – and me – that writing, indeed, still matters. Victor had sailed through 4 rounds of interviews with personal charm and confident answers. Nobody had bothered to check a writing sample.

When Denise broached the topic, Victor felt like a shameful secret had been exposed.

Bill Brichard is a writing coach. An article Brichard wrote for The Harvard Business Review got me thinking about all this (Brichard, “The Science of Strong Business Writing,“ July/August 2021). Brichard’s article is chock-full of writing-impact-research-data. Neurobiology supports some of the “good-business-writing-tips” you were likely taught in school. And it held a surprise or two for me.

Good writing, explains Brichard, gets the reader’s dopamine flowing in the area of the brain known as the reward circuit. Great writing releases opioids that turn on reward hot spots. Just like good food, a soothing bath, or an enveloping hug, well-executed prose makes us feel pleasure, which makes us want to keep reading.

The most valuable of talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Thomas Jefferson

Think of your writing. Does it get anyone’s dopamine going? Do YOU activate brain hot spots?

Researchers used to believe that the reward circuits which keep a reader engaged respond predominantly to sensory cues. Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist from the University of Michigan, explains that “it’s become clear in the past 50 years from neuroimaging studies that all kinds of social and cultural rewards can also activate this system.”

Whoa. Sounds a little overwhelming, right? Which specific writing techniques truly DO activate the neural wiring in our readers’ brains?

Brichard offers 8 key tips: Writing that is simple, specific, surprising, stirring, seductive, smart, social or story-driven. In the spirit of the first item on Brichard’s list, let me further simplify.

4 Writing Tips That Activate Neural Circuits


It’s the classic. Keep it simple. The neuroscience behind it is entirely common-sense. Simplicity increases what scientists call the brain’s “processing fluidity.” Short sentences, familiar words and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.

Data point after data point proves that it is so. A study conducted by Tsuyoshi Okuhara at the University of Tokyo, for example, gave 400 subjects aged 40-69 material to read about how to exercise for better health. Half received highly detailed and somewhat technical content, the other half received a significantly abbreviated edit of the same material. The group that read the simple version, presented in shorter words and sentences, expressed a lot more confidence in being able to succeed with the suggested behaviors.

Trust the basics, please: Cut extraneous words and use the active voice. Distill to what is truly essential. Discard ancillary information. Your readers’ brain response will reward you.


Our brains are wired to make predictions. This includes guessing the next word in every line of text. Deliver consistently on these predictions, and what is at first comforting can become predictable and dull. Surprise your reader with an unexpected phrase, analogy, word, and the surprise will spike deeper brain engagement.

Research conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman saw the impact of surprising content when they examined nearly 7,000 articles that appeared online in the New York Times. The articles that were rated as surprising were 14% more likely to be mailed to others.

I am not a car geek, but Dan Neil’s lusciously written car columns in the Weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal have me showing up for more, every Saturday. Neil is a master of surprise writing. His March 3 review of the 2024 Maserati MC20 Cielo starts as follows: I went to a garden party in Los Angeles last month, to celebrate with my rich friends …

Now, I am not obsessed with Maseratis or rich people – but darn it, this is the opening of a car review, and I WILL keep reading.


As humans, we’re wired to savor anticipation. One famous study showed that people are often happier planning a vacation than they are after taking one. Scientists call the reward “anticipatory utility.” Dan Neil’s just-quoted snippet of writing is a fine example of anticipation-in-action. Even though I don’t actually care about Maseratis, I want to know what he will say about the party – and how he will connect the party people to this new car model he's writing about.

A more mundane way to create anticipation is starting a report or email with a question. Pose your customer problem as a conundrum. Define your product development work as solving a mystery. Put readers in a state of uncertainty so that you can lead them to something better. That is, in fact, how this Post kicked off.

Social Connection

Our brains are wired to crave human connection, even in what we read. Consider a study of reader’s responses to different kinds of literary excerpts - some with vivid descriptions of people or their thoughts, others without such focus. The passages that included people activated the areas of participants’ brains that interpret social signals, which in turn triggered their reward circuits.

In your business writing you likely won’t rely on explicit character development - unless you include a pertinent anecdote or a client case study. But there are other ways of satisfying your readers’ desire to connect with you. There are subtle ways of revealing yourself and inviting your reader into your writing. Think voice, worldview, vocabulary choice, wit, syntax, poetic rhythm. And whenever possible, humanize the matter you’re describing. If you wish to make a point about a supply chain challenge, don’t describe the problem as a “trucking disconnect.” Write instead about mixed signals between the driver and dispatcher.

All writing is craft. Craft can be learned. Improvement comes with intentional practice.

Keep activating your readers’ reward circuits. The 4 areas I have highlighted – simplicity, surprise, seductiveness and social connection - are a fine place to start.

Funny thing I know as a writer – when I practice my craft with intention, I not only fire up my readers’ reward circuits, I fire up my own. I keep surprising myself. And that is one of our four great writing habits, isn’t it? Oh, what joy.

Embody Who You Say You Are

I was dazzled.

A few of years ago, sitting in the glorious Berlin Philharmonie on a Sunday night, listening to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra tear into Faure, Schoenberg, Ravel.

Dazzled most by rising-star-composer Matthias Pintscher who was conducting. Whew, this guy embodies music, I thought to myself.

Pintscher conducts with his entire body. The fire of his grand gestures. The grace of his gentle coaxing. The effortless dynamic between the two. The generous way Pintscher acknowledges his musicians during the ovation. The way he bows to the audience, hand on his heart. The vigor with which he enters from the wings.

Not the showiness of Leonard Bernstein. No, always from the core, as my trainer would say.

Music embodied. From the soul. All of him.

On a NPR news program, commentator and best-selling author David Brooks was asked to predict the messages Pope Francis would bring to his US visit.

Who Pope Francis IS, Brooks replied, is the message.

The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence.”

Jules Verne

The Pope’s easy smile, his open heart. Lovingkindness embodied.

The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert engaged in rapid-fire conversation with Apple CEO Tim Cook. I was dazzled by Colbert’s wit. His smarts. His impeccable timing. His ability to swing from the silly to the sublime. His silences. Wicked. Engaging conversation embodied.

When Colbert inquired about Cook’s disclosure that he is gay, the introverted Cook spoke eloquently about his desire to go public when LGBT youth continues to be taunted, harassed, shamed.

Whole leadership embodied.

Let’s take the notion of embodiment into our everyday lives. Here are comments I frequently hear from the fast-flying C-Suite executives I have the privilege to support through my work.

Embody These Phrases

I am really a very compassionate person.

Do you embody compassion?

I am excited about _______ (you fill in the blank)!

Do you embody excitement?

I don’t stand on protocol and procedure.

Do you embody that assertion?

I love working with my team.

Do you embody this love?

I appreciate the complexities of leading in a highly pressured, fast-changing world. It makes it that much more urgent that we contemplate the question: Where is the gap between who I say I am and how I show myself to the world?

Close the gap. Be who you say you are.

Own your dark side. Manage it, don’t embody it.

Embody everything else. Embody it as much, as often, as boldly as you can.

Embodied folk reap the rewards of true connection, every day.

Go reap.

The Gifts of Succinctness

Last Wednesday at 10 pm, I turned into the initial episode of Capote Vs. The Swans on FX.

I am intrigued by the cautionary tale of a brilliant writer whose character flaws precipitate a tragic fall from grace. I wanted to see some of the great talent involved in this project. Naomi Watts. Diane Lane. Chloe Sevigny. Demi Moore. Gus Van Sant. Many more. I love craft.

Here’s what I thought of as I watched this exquisitely concocted cinematic work. In a movie or a television show, each moment is edited, down to every nano-second. Naomi Watts and Tom Holland and the entire rest of the cast know that I, the viewer, never actually see the scenes they shot. I get to see a highly edited, streamlined, laser-focused version of their work, where footage that is deemed inferior gets deleted and other footage, in turn, is elevated via edits.

Heightened reality.

Real life isn’t movie life. In real life, you and I act as our moment-by-moment communication editors.

Edit smartly, please.

If you can’t explain something in a few words, try fewer."

Robert Breault/Opera Singer

Here are a few things I have learned as I start recording the fourth season of my podcast, MY FOURTH ACT: Some guests are easy to follow, some harder. Some deliver crisp messages on a silver platter, some meander. Some think succinctly, and some do not.

And I had to face the fact that I, too, can be repetitive and not as succinct as I would like to be. Ouch.

I think of this every week as my podcast producer, Hugo Sanchez, and I edit podcasts. We do post-production work to ensure that every guest, and I, sound crisp and clear. An everyday business conversation, of course, is not a podcast chat. If anything, there is room in a podcast conversation to be a little more expansive. Tell more stories. Get a bit elliptical, perhaps. Ride a wave of whimsy.

No Hugo edits you and me in our daily business conversations. It behooves us to have a keenly developed sense of how to clearly articulate our thoughts, craft a succinct message, and most importantly, craft it in a way that lands with impact.

It all depends on the circumstances and who we speak with, you may say. Yes, it always does. And yet there are, regardless of circumstance, some basic principles that will always help us be more succinct.

How To Be An EFFECTIVE Self-Editor

Think, then speak.

It seems so obvious – and it isn’t easy to execute. When someone asks us a question, we feel an instant pressure to answer quickly. Answer before we have settled on what we actually wish to say. Answer because we “should” be able to answer the question. Answer because we don’t wish the silence before the answer to be misunderstood. So we launch into an answer and make it up as we go along. Chances are, we will ramble. Chance are, succinctness flies out the window.

Tip: Take a second or two before you speak to collect your thoughts and settle on a message. Period. End of story. When you do, being succinct will be so much easier.

Don’t make me work so damn hard.

When you just start talking, and then keep talking as you figure out what your message is, you are making me figure out what your message is alongside you. If we get lucky, you get clear quickly. If you get lost in the fog of non-clarity, I get lost in the fog with you. I will end up working way too hard to understand the point you wish to make. You will exhaust me. And you will annoy me just a bit. Because the point you wish to make should land on the shores of my brain with ease.

Tip: Start with clearly stating your message or point-of-view, then elaborate. It will help you to stay on point. It will help me to “get” your point and follow along.

Don’t tell me everything you know.

When I ask you a question, please just answer the question. Don’t also answer questions I didn’t ask. I realize that may seem self-evident – but when we are asked about an area of high expertise for us or a topic we’re very passionate about, the temptation to over-communicate is tremendous. We want to offer more context. We want to dive into complexity and nuance. Resist. Answer the question simply, and if the other person longs for more information, s/he will jump in with a follow-up question based on the answer you provided.

Tip: 90% of all questions are easily answered with no more than 4-6 sentences. If you habitually offer longer answers, you are likely over-answering AND wearing down your conversation partners.

Please, stop.

I hear executives all the time who make a statement, are finished (or so it seems to me), add another sentence or two and are finished again (or so it seems to me), and then add yet more information. I urge you develop a clear sense of when you’re done. Know when you have delivered a message and STOP. Keep it simple by reminding yourself to deliver one main message at a time when you speak - not multiple messages or mixed messages. It is such a relief for the listener when your message is clear, simple and clean. And when you STOP to indicate that this is so. We will be so grateful to you.

Tip: Avoid multiple endings when you speak. Avoid the temptation to throw more than one message into a response. Your message is always more powerful when the listener knows that you’re done. Because you stopped.

Don’t always wish to be succinct? Here’s where the beauty of storytelling comes in. Because when it comes to storytelling, you get to be un-succinct.

Know why you are telling the story, and then revel in some of the details of the story. Help us see, feel, sense and smell the place where your story takes place. Take your time. Transport us into the experience of being in the story with you. The sensual details will do the transporting. Your succinctness will not. In a story, succinctness will give us the executive summary of the story – but if you desire the emotional pay-off of a story, luxuriate in the details.

Exceptional communicators excel at mixing up the succinctness of a clean message with the luxuriating experience of a story well told. It is a beautiful mix to behold.

Truman Capote thought of himself as a great storyteller. In the end, his lack of editorial judgment, fueled by excessive alcohol consumption, got the best of him.

Edit yourself consciously. Edit yourself well.

It’s an essential leadership and life skill.

5 Ways To Harness Your Impatience

Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.

A favorite quote from Guy Kawasaki. May I add – instead of concealing, let us think channeling. Embracing. Harnessing.

I don’t suggest the “I want it right-here-right-now impatience.” That is an easy sort of petulance. It may have gotten us what we wanted when we were a toddler. It rarely works for grown-ups.

No, I’m thinking of the sort of repetitive and spirit-killing impatience that gets triggered in our places of work. Impatience with the slow pace of change in our organization. Impatience with processes that plain don’t work. Impatience with colleagues who never get their stuff done in time. Impatience with questionable ethics. Impatience with glaring incompetence and the same tired excuses for why something cannot be done.

Our daily frustration with individual and systemic mediocrity.

Your impatience might benefit the other person who has been patient enough to break your patience."

Ancient proverb

I get it. You’re impatient for change. Impatience with the status quo is the hallmark of an impassioned leader. You sometimes feel like you will burst out screaming if things don’t change a little faster.  

Scream at home. When you want to get things done in business, however, focus your impatience. Consider these 5 ways of directing your impatience well.

  1. Open the Door of Possibility – with Grace

NOT: What we’re doing right now sucks. I know what will work better.

You may like the language of bluster and bravado. It may feel authentic to you. It really does capture exactly how you feel. Dump authentic for a moment and opt for skill and finesse. Invite folks into your point of view – don’t hit them over the head with it.

BUT: It seems we have been struggling with this same dilemma for a while now. I have a few ideas that we may wish to consider.

  1. Respect Tradition

NOT: Really, I can’t believe we’re still doing this the way we did it 30 years ago.

Most of us have worked in situations where processes feel arcane. Like, really, who ever thought THIS was a good way of doing business! Work flows inhibit progress. Rituals seem rigid, not nimble, don’t make any sense. Truth is, they likely made sense to someone at some point. Especially when rituals are tied to a company’s core values. If core values and tradition matter where you work, find a way to publicly honor them before you go on the attack!

BUT: I can see why this way of doing things contributed to so many of our early successes. There are some very impressive companies that we all know who have found ways of improving how they do things. Let’s see what we can learn from them.

  1. Test Your Ideas – BEHIND the scenes first

NOT: I will bring this up at our next Executive Meeting to make sure everybody is in the same room and hears the same message from me.

Yes, you will have a captive audience. You also run the risk of being labeled a loose cannon. Before you bring up a potentially explosive topic in a large forum, test it in private 1-1 conversations. Float an idea by a colleague or two. Think of these as casual, low-risk lobbying conversations. Instead of forcing your idea on these colleagues, invite their honest reactions. Pay attention to what they say and what they don’t say. Truly listen. Then decide what to do with your idea.

BUT: I will test my ideas in informal 1-1 conversations to hear what others think and discover if my ideas resonate before I take a bold stand in the “big” meeting.

Patience is not passive. On the contrary, it is concentrated strength." 

Bruce Lee

  1. Forge Alliances

NOT: I will take this on as my pet project because nobody here is as passionate about this as I am.

Don’t be a martyr. Don’t assume that you’re the only one, or the most qualified one, to take on a cause. You may, in fact, be the most qualified. You will, however, have a lot more impact if you have allies. Your effort will be harder to dismiss. Take your lobbying conversations to the second level – that’s the level where you switch from testing an idea to getting a commitment of support from your conversation partners.

BUT: I will work to make sure that at least 3 other key influencers are as fired up about making this change as I am. We will be a rebel tribe. Together, we will have a powerful voice.

  1. Accelerate the Process

NOT: Great conversation. Let’s revisit this at our next monthly staff meeting.

We know that when we desire change and momentum, this is not a compelling way to end a meeting. And we’ve all been in meetings, especially those where new ideas were proffered, that end in deferment. Don’t accept deferment. Ask for more. Suggest next-step commitments. And make them time-bound, please.

BUT: Great conversation. Let’s commit to the following three actions! Can we get this done by the end of next week? Who will take on which item? Awesome.

Successful impatience is strategic, it is persistent, and it pushes the proverbial envelope while playing successfully with others.

Celebrate your impatience. Impatience with the status quo is a powerful incubator for new ideas and new ways of doing/being. Season your impatience with your ability to be patient. They are flip sides of the same coin.

Hard? Perhaps. Not harnessing your impatience is harder. Go and grab it by the horns – and direct it WELL!

Why Not Have A SEAHORSE Mindset?

Perhaps it’s because I just booked a trip to a Portuguese fishing village. I find myself thinking of the summers of my childhood. And seahorse moments.

Between the ages of 6 and 9, I spent every summer in a little beach town 45 minutes outside of Lisbon/Portugal. Ericeira. While mom and her friend Claire sat in the shade of the cloth cabana we rented on the beach, my brother Thomas and I would eagerly wade into the shallow water of the Atlantic and walk out to the rock formations just beyond the beach. Amid the nooks and crevices of these rocks, a secret world of underwater flora and fauna awaited us. Of all the delights and discoveries in the universe right around those rocks, nothing was more thrilling to me than the moment when I would find a seahorse.

I loved the shape of the seahorses. Their salty smell. Their slippery grace. Their mystical and primal beauty.

Finding a seahorse was a moment of sweet discovery and exquisite joy.

If you can build a muscle, you can build a mindset.”

Jay Shetty, Author of Think Like A Monk

For many of us, such moments of childlike delight seem to become rare as we grow into “responsible adults.” We get bogged down by work demands that don’t seem magical or inspiring. We feel overwhelmed because we have too much on our plate. And much of our frenzied activity is driven by the belief that our life is not enough, as is. We yearn to get promoted to the next job, move into a more spacious home, have a more thrilling life partner.

If everything is mindset, why not cultivate a seahorse mindset? I don’t suggest you run off to Ericeira or your beach of choice to invoke such moments. No, let’s find such moments in the place where we spent most of our time. At work. Every day. Right in front of us.

Because seahorses are everywhere. Here are a few primers that may help us cultivate a seahorse mindset and capture more seahorse moments.

Create some disruption.

I had a house guest visiting me, a few years back. Rachel stayed for two weeks, and she was a marvelously thoughtful guest. And yet, there were moments when I resented that she was there. Rachel was staying in the guest house which I also used as my place to lounge, read, write and do a bit of work. I didn’t do those things in the guest house while Rachel was there. And every time I looked from my kitchen counter out to the pool deck there Rachel was – lounging in a chaise, reading a book, galivanting in the pool.

I have to chuckle as I jot down these words today. The second I released those thoughts I managed to find delight in the fact that Rachel was around and in full view of me. I got to have quick spontaneous conversations with someone I liked, anytime I wanted. I received genuine joy from watching Rachel enjoy the pool. I, the committed lap swimmer, got to experience the pool he loved in an entirely new way. I caught the appreciative smiles Rachel sent my way as I worked at the kitchen counter. Yup, seahorse moments. 

Choose to linger.

Easy to say here. I notice how I fight my very own advice. Even though I am my own boss and have more wiggle room in my schedule than most, I have my to-do lists and my client calls and my Mastermind sessions. I like to dash from item to item, commitment to commitment. Action mode.

Linger means I show up with the intention to NOT rush. Notice. Linger. Notice. Linger. And linger some more. Just for a second or two. In conversation with a colleague. In observing something that’s going on right in front of me. Or in reflecting on a thought that just showed up in my brain. Uhuh. Linger with myself. Delight and discovery are much more likely to occur when I give myself permission to linger. Lingering tends to feel darn good.

Expand your vision.

Our vision tends to be narrowly focused on a task we’re performing or a specific quest we’re on. When we’re not looking for something particular, we’re likely looking out at the world and not seeing anything at all. Or at best, a blur of what’s actually there. Our preoccupation with the thoughts that float through our brain overrides any visual or auditory evidence that is right in front of us. The seahorse is there. We simply don’t see it.

I can’t engage with the seahorse if I don’t notice it. How do we enhance our likelihood of seeing the seahorse? Command-switch from IN to OUT. That means switch from preoccupation with your thoughts to the sensory evidence in front of you. And when you’re in OUT mode, think OUT far and wide. Peripheral vision. Wide lens. Truly scan the big picture. Catch the unexpected. Notice the detail. Be willing to be surprised.

Anticipate the delight.

The beauty of my beach days in Ericeira? I looked forward to wading out to the rocks every single morning in anticipation of the delights I might find. I had a seahorse mindset, based on lots of empirical evidence. I knew magical moments were waiting for me, out there by the rocks. This anticipatory joy alone invoked more delightful discoveries.

Now, there may be lots of things about work you don’t look forward to in the morning. Focusing on those will not get you closer to delight. Instead, do a little inventory of the things at work that DO give you pleasure. Pleasure may come in fleeting moments. Informal ones. The verbal banter with a certain colleague. The receptionist’s greeting. A quick meal shared with your boss. The satisfaction of solving a problem. Choose to wholeheartedly feel the delight in such moments. Anticipate the possibility of more such moments. Anticipation is magical in and of itself, isn’t it!

For many of us, summertime and warm weather give us permission to slow down. Old-school firms still honor this by having “summer hours.” I lived for a year on the island of Tobago, just North of the Equator. The weather in Tobago was steamy hot all day, year-round. Summer hours every day. Life got slower. And even though life on Tobago was way more predictable than my life in New York or Miami, there were also many more seahorse moments. Every day.

Mindset. Permission. Notice. Linger. Summer hours every day.

And linger some more.

Let it be seahorse season, 365 days a year. Mindset is a muscle. You choose.

Successful People Receive Support

Success came faster when I stopped flying solo.

And I’m not talking about my dating life (though this dictum applies there, as well).

I like to joke that I get guidance for absolutely everything. I have had mentors, coaches, healers, therapists. I have belonged to multiple Mastermind communities. I belong to one now. It wasn’t always so.

The iconic American success thinker Napoleon Hill first popularized the notion of not flying solo in his seminal book “Think and Grow Rich,” published in 1937. Hill emphasizes the psychic impact of communing with exceptional like-minded colleagues. No two minds, Hill writes, ever come together without, thereby, creating a third, invisible, intangible force which may be likened to a third mind. (Hill, “Think and Grow Rich,” Fall River Press Edition, 2012, 125)

Hill called the third mind a mastermind. This mind is the collective energy and wisdom that are unleashed through group interaction. This energy lasts well beyond the conversations that occur, and it exponentially accelerates the personal growth of every individual in a Mastermind Group.

It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others succeed."

Napoleon Hill

Masterminding works in mysterious ways.

2003 is a year that changed my life. I don’t use the phrase “changed my life” lightly – it did. I was completing a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology and International Relations at New York University. I got a contract to write my first book. AND I joined my first Mastermind Group.

Every other Monday evening, five of us met for two hours in an office on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, right off Sixth Avenue. The meetings were facilitated by Kathi Elster, a small-business strategist. This was a Mastermind for successful small business owners who wanted to accelerate their business impact by sharing and receiving wisdom from other small-business owners. We met for a period of nine months. Participants had been personally vetted by Kathi. I was the “new kid on the block” who was just launching his first business.

The lessons I received in this Mastermind were more impactful than anything I was learning in graduate school. My colleagues helped me clarify the business model for Influens, the firm I was about to launch. They showed me how to define a global brand. Offered practical and well-tested guidance on the many micro-decisions I was making and would have to make in the future.

My fellow masterminders acted like my own private advisory board. Influens became a highly successful business.

In Manhattan, we liked to say – yes, a little tongue-in-cheek – that there was something suspect about you if you didn’t see a therapist. In the blue-chip C-Suites where I coach, few executives I know operate without the support of an executive coach.

Awareness. A mirror. A sounding-board. Truth-telling. Possibility generation. More awareness, again.

Those are the gifts of support. The need for support never stops. Support is an essential life-thread of successful people. They know.

I had a business coach for 15 years. I have been in a Mastermind with 4 acclaimed coaching colleagues for the last 5 years. We live in LA, Hollywood/Florida, Cheltenham/UK, Oslo, Budapest. We’re all really good at what we do. And my life is significantly better – and more successful - because I regularly speak with Damian, Lise, Paul and Zoltan.

That’s the power of a Mastermind.

Make 2024 the year of greater support. What might that sort of support look like for you? Who are the people that can best support you? A mentor? A coach? A healer? A Mastermind community?

If the notion of a Mastermind speaks to you, please know there is one I host.

It’s called the FOURTH ACT Mastermind. And it isn’t for everyone.

Participants in my FOURTH ACT Mastermind tend to be 50+ years in age. They are highly accomplished. They have held the big titles. They’re not looking to scale. They’re not motivated by making more money. Or taking another class. They like to go deep.

They look to explore new WHYs. Success is an old WHY. Making more money is an old WHY. Cue the entrance of a next act.

FOURTH ACT Mastermind participants have included celebrated leadership experts, spiritual leaders, composers, government officials, world-renowned poets, global happiness experts, other executive coaches, rule-breaking entrepreneurs. Powerful stuff happens when these folks are in conversation with each other. Stuff that can change lives.

I will launch a new Mastermind cohort in February. Participation in a FOURTH ACT Mastermind is by invitation only. How do I get invited, you wonder? Drop me a note, and we’ll have a conversation.

If you’re curious by the notion of a Mastermind but are still scratching your head and wondering, I’m not sure exactly what it is – well, you’re in luck.

  • I am hosting a FREE 90-minute virtual Mastermind Tasting on Thursday, 1/18, at Noon EST.
  • There is absolutely no selling of any sort in a Mastermind Tasting. We simply create an actual Mastermind experience with people we have never met before.

Participation in a Tasting is limited to 6 individuals. These slots go fast. If you wish to participate, don’t wait. Click here to sign up.

I don’t know what sort of support is best for you in 2024. But I know that the right support elevates every single one of us. So please, make this the year of not flying solo. Allow support. Shine.

How To NOT Be A Brilliant Jerk

I had a conversation with my friend Shwan Lamei last week. A former rising star in a traditional corporate manufacturing enterprise, Shwan chucked it all a few years ago to found Emulate Energy, a global firm committed to creating technology that stores energy in a more cost-effective and sustainable manner.

Shwan and I chatted about his leadership team. What began as a 2-person start-up is now a firm with 18 employees and rapidly expanding. As Shwan described the folks on his leadership team, he declared with pride:

We don’t have any brilliant jerks.

Reed Hastings is the cofounder and just-retired CEO of Netflix. Hastings co-authored the New York Times bestselling book “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention.” And he popularized the term brilliant jerk.

Here’s what Netflix does with brilliant jerks: It gets rids of them. Some companies tolerate them, Hastings explained. For us, the cost to effective team work is too great.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.” 

W.C. Fields

While Freud recognized that there are a near infinite variety of personalities, he identified three main types: erotic, obsessive, and narcissistic.

Brilliant jerks often carry narcissistic traits. They are not easily impressed. They tend to be innovators, driven in business to gain power and glory. Productive narcissists are experts in their industries, and they excel at posing critical questions. They want to be admired, not loved. Of all the personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. Their achilles heel? They are often sensitive to criticism because, well, they are brilliant! And they tend to be poor listeners who lack empathy (from “Narcissistic Leaders,” Michael Maccoby, HBR, 1/2004)

Search the net, and you will find a slew of articles on how to manage brilliant jerks. Be forewarned, the guidance is not encouraging. You will also find equal amounts of wisdom in line with Hastings’ advice. Screen them out. Don’t hire them.

My essay is for you, the brilliant one. You ARE brilliant. Have been top of your class for as long as you can remember. Have been told, again and again, that you are smarter than others, faster than others, more exceptional.

Great. I salute the brilliance in you.

And you’re clear that you do not wish to be that jerk. I salute that desire, as well.

I coach lots of smart and often very brilliant people. Let us consider the following guard rails as you unleash your brilliance in the workplace.

How To Use Your Brilliance For Good

Drop Special-itis Thinking.

It’s the paradox. You were told for years how special you are. And you ARE. You were told how gifted, how impressive, how exceptional you are. And you ARE.

You were consistently affirmed in a comparative sense. Told that you were smarter, quicker, more brilliant than others. You likely were.

It is near impossible to not start thinking that you are better than others.

That’s special-itis. Drop that thinking, at once. It will not serve you at your place of work. It will get you nothing.

Consider this your essential mindset adjustment. You ARE brilliant. Bring your brilliance to work. You ARE special – and you are not more special than anyone else.

Bury any special-itis you may have, once and for all. Now.

Don’t Be the Interjector.

You think fast. You sometimes think faster than others. Fast thinkers get impatient with slower thinkers. As the slower thinker is making their point, you are wont to interject. You do it because, well, you have another brilliant insight. Interject because you already “got” what the other person is saying and don’t need to hear the rest. Interject because you are ready to rebut what the other has just stated.

You’re itching to zip it along.

Don’t. Interjection is brilliant-jerk-behavior at its worst. Say what you’re itching to say after the other person has finished their thought. Don’t wear your impatience on your sleeve. Allowing others to finish demonstrates basic respect. A willingness to perhaps be surprised. You believe in those values, don’t you?

Stay in the moment.

This is the second layer to thinking fast: You are frequently 3 steps ahead of other people. You get bored with conversations – because you already had the present conversation in your mind, by yourself, a week ago, with no one else present. I get it – if you had the conversation in your mind a week ago, figured out the present dilemma then, well the current conversation will feel mighty boring.

I have watched senior leaders tune out in meeting after meeting because they don’t have the need for the conversation at hand. They are 3 steps ahead. Problem is, everyone else DOES need the conversation that is happening.

The solution is always the same: Notice your run-away thoughts. Observe your impulses to check out. Don’t. Check in with yourself. Check in with others. Check into the present moment.

If you are 3 steps ahead, remember: 3 steps ahead, on your own, gets you nothing but isolation. Our job is to bring people along. Always is. That happens in present-moment-conversation.

Don’t be dismissive.

You don’t mean to be dismissive. You have been raised to not be rude. You got the memo.

And yet, at times, when someone shares an idea that you think is tired, outdated, trite, not innovative, you just can’t help yourself. Your dismissiveness slips out.

It may happen via an eye roll. An exasperated sigh. Or it may happen via a comment that is tinged with a sense of superiority. We have tried that 2 years ago and it didn’t work. That will never work HERE. I don’t think you have fully thought this through. Let’s move on to some other suggestions.

That is brilliant-jerk-behavior. Especially when delivered with an edge in your tone.

Don’t do it. Consider this, instead. When you don’t think an idea is remarkable, when you don’t agree with a suggestion, don’t do battle. Simply say Thank You. And stop there,

We have all worked with brilliant jerks. It is so easy to spot brilliant-jerk-behavior in others, isn’t it!

If a certain brilliant jerk really ticks you off – I mean really, really ticks you off big-time – consider your reaction an invite toward a bit of self-reflection. Chances are, the behavior that plugs you in big-time is a behavior that you judge within yourself, repress, or have engaged in at times yourself, perhaps in more subtle ways.

Contemplate these questions. Honestly, without judging yourself. Awareness of our own brilliant-jerk-tendencies is the starting point to not becoming one.

The Hidden Language of Personal Power

You need to stop being a doormat, Reverend Mona said to me.

I was 34 years old at the time. Artistic Head of an internationally acclaimed educational theatre company in New York. Hot shit, so I thought. For the first time in my life, I had taken 6 weeks off to stay in a retreat center in Arizona. This stay included a week of psychological processes to dig into the guests’ mental wiring.

That’s when Mona laid it on me.

A doormat? I found myself getting indignant when I heard those words. Didn’t Mona understand that I was a successful theatre director? Lauded by critics? How dare she!

Mona’s words, I know now, changed the course of my life. I thought my accomplishments were borne of my smarts, my creativity, my fine communication skills. Yes, they were. And yet, there was a whole other dimension of personal impact that eluded me.

My relationship to power. My own power. And the power of others.

Like many, I had internalized a belief system that power was a dirty word. So I ignored power. And, along the way, minimized my impact in the world.

My ability to tap my inner sources of power defines how I ‘show up’ in the world.” 

Achim Nowak, Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within

Doormat-ism is one end of the hidden power spectrum. Hot-shit-ness is the other. Both are flip sides of the same coin.

Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” is a classic text in the field of influence. Cialdini emphasizes the need to understand personal power tools if we wish to have influence. I have since learned that psychologists have developed power models to help us understand the elusive dynamics of interpersonal power.

In my work as an Executive Coach, I use a framework I developed with Miami psychologist Dr. Margarita Gurri. The principle is simple. You and I have 5 primary sources of personal power. Margarita and I call these sources Power Plugs. Just as we plug a light source into a power socket, you and I have the potential to plug into our own sources of power

In turn, every individual we engage with has her or his Power Plugs. If I wish to amplify my influence, it behooves me to plug well into my sources of power and “play well” with the powers of the other person.

Sound complicated? It really isn’t. It starts with being conscious of a source of personal power and then making choices about how to use this source. Let’s do a deeper dive into one of the 5 Power Plugs. Position Power. The authority that comes with the formal professional role we play. On the surface, this is an obvious source of power. Let’s break Position Power down into some variables I urge you to consider. 

How to Navigate Position Power

Position power seems easy. You can hire people. Fire people. People with less position power often defer to you. And you get the corner office.

None of this, of course, means terribly much. Position Power doesn’t inherently get you anything, certainly not earned respect or influence. Yet your Position Power is always “hanging in the air.” Consider the following variables as you figure out how to effectively claim this source of power.

Let It Be.

Don’t emphasize your Position Power. Don’t minimize it. Don’t “play the boss” or act like your team members’ “best buddy.” Don’t joke about your Position Power. Don’t use it as a weapon. Just let it be. Everyone around you knows the powers of your role. Let it be.

When it comes to making a decision, be clear on who is making the decision. Some decisions will likely be made together with your team. There may be majority-rule decisions. There may be consensus-decisions. Don’t abdicate your position power by surrendering every decision to your team. No matter what your philosophy of collective decision-making may be, make sure this philosophy doesn’t turn into an abdication of the authority that comes with your role.

Minimize Power Differentials.

I conduct a bunch of Executive Coaching with very Senior leaders in a well-known Big Pharma company. This company is helmed by Jean-Marc, a universally beloved European CEO. The leaders I support at times participate in group meetings with Jean-Marc. In a highly stratified global enterprise with multiple business streams, a 1-1 meeting with Jean-Marc is rare. So when David, Head of Sales for one of this company’s hot new assets, had one of these rare 1-1 meetings, an hour long, I was very curious about how it would go.

Jean-Marc was fantastic, David said to me after his 1-1. He made the conversation so comfortable. He asked me some personal questions. He shared personal stories of his own and talked about some of his aspirations. He made the conversation very relaxed. Then David added, after a pause. Jean-Marc really put me at ease.

Jean-Marc clearly understands that every time he has a conversation with any member of his pharma enterprise, there is a power differential. Folks may be nervous when they speak with him. Uptight. Guarded. And Jean-Marc has embraced a communication style that minimizes this power divide for others. That’s Position Power, well played.

Your Position Power Never Goes Away.

In the context of Position Power, Jean-Marc clearly has more power than David. David’s Position Power, however, doesn’t diminish just because he is speaking with someone who has more. It is wise to be mindful of the Position Power of another. It is never wise to abdicate our own or throw it away.

Mind you, I know very few people who intentionally abandon their authority when engaging with “a boss.” Our social conditioning about how we speak with folks who have Position Power, however, is deep-seated. It started in our early days of childhood. And it is likely operating on an entirely subconscious level.

Excavate Your Power Conditioning.

I support individuals with very high Position Power. I was born into a family that hails from humble social beginnings. While my Dad had a successful career as an architect for a Division of the German Foreign Service, it was clear to me that when we were assigned to a German embassy somewhere in the world, we didn’t rank very high in the power structure of that embassy. Nobody explained this to me. I simply absorbed it, every time I watched my mom act like a servant when she spoke with “someone important.” Mom did not consciously act like a servant, of course. She was simply performing her own subconscious power dance.

For me to engage effectively with folks of high Position Power, I had to excavate my hidden power conditioning. See it, know it, release it. I can’t show up as the little boy from the German embassy world any more.

You have your own version of this power conditioning. Every one of us does. It is operating as your hidden power blueprint. Excavate this blueprint. Make it conscious. Your influence in the world will always be limited if you don’t – even when you get promoted into a role of high Position Power.

The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” 

Ken Blanchard

Influence is THE key lever to having an impact in the world, not personal power. Yet we will never have true influence in any aspect of our lives if we do not understand – and play well with - the hidden language of power.

In this Post, I have started to merely scratch the surface of one of 5 Power Plugs. There are 4 more. Without a keen understanding of all 5 of these Power Plugs, our impact in the world will always be diminished. We will continue to hit familiar walls. Crumble in the face of the same old barriers.

Don’t crumble, and don’t be diminished. In my work I see, over and over again, that understanding the hidden language of power dynamics is THE threshold where personal influence starts to expand.

Learn this language. Speak it well.

What Happens When We FEEL Into Things

I received a note in my LinkedIn message box last week.

Nice to be connected to you. Would you be interested in receiving a copy of my new book xxxxxx, and you can feel into me being on your podcast?

The writer is a professor at Stanford University. She teaches conscious leadership, and I adore her very conscious use of the phrase feel into me being on your podcast.


There is a certain grace about feeling into things. And, you may wonder, what exactly does “feeling into things” look like?

Last Thursday I had a planning meeting with 3 esteemed colleagues. We’re supporting a leadership team at a biotech company that’s in the midst of some major firefighting. Folks are under-resourced. Overworked. Burned out.

This meeting wasn’t about more data collection. Crafting surveys. Planning focus groups. There wasn’t time.

No, it was a time to feel into a situation. What sort of action would be helpful, what wouldn’t? Based on our collective wisdom. Years of experience. Finely honed instincts.

In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels."

Daniel Goleman

Does this sound a tad woo-woo? It’s not. We’re in emotional intelligence territory.

Daniel Goleman, Harvard professor and author of the classic “Emotional Intelligence,” has spent 25 years writing books and fostering research on the feeling part of being a leader. Goleman has found that emotional intelligence is comprised of 4 domains: Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management.

Nestled within these domains are 12 core competencies. My Stanford professor’s message was nodding to one of these 12 – Emotional Self Awareness. As I read her book, would I feel excited enough about having a conversation with her?

My biotech planning meeting nodded to another – Organizational Awareness. What are the moods and social dynamics within the workforce right now? Which sort of intervention might support, which might hinder a greater sense of well-being and productivity?

Let me un-woo-woo the notion of feeling into things a little more. Here are some of the signals an emotionally intelligent leader considers.

Feeling Into Inner Signals

Notice Your Emotions

Feelings can be marvelous when they “feel good.” Unsettling when they don’t. They offer valuable information about our relationship to the activities we’re engaged in. Feelings, as the saying famously goes, aren’t facts. They are, however, key indicators about our inner state of affairs.

When we are super-busy, we often do not have time to notice how we feel. We’re too busy getting things done. We may say to someone I don’t have strong feelings about what’s going on. Indeed, you may not. Or you may be so busy that you don’t notice how you feel. When we don’t notice how we feel, we cut ourselves off from a key source of inner intelligence. Our clarity and effectiveness are measurably diminished.

Consider Your Emotions

Take fear, for example. We may consider our fear as a factor in whether we move forward with an action. We may decide that our fear necessitates a mindset shift around a specific action. A different tactic, perhaps. Or we may decide to be afraid and take the action, anyway.

We are robbed of any of this consideration when we are too busy to notice what we feel. You know the individual that says I’m just not a very emotional person? Chances are, this person is often making less fully informed decisions. Because emotional intelligence has not come into play.

Feeling Into External Signals

Sense What is NOT Being Said

It’s the classic read the room suggestion. Or read the mood of your entire professional playground. You may be gung-ho about a new initiative or idea. Notice the signals of others as you talk about this idea. Notice their body language, their energy, their silence, the spirit in which they respond, or don’t. These are all key predictors on how well any of what you’re excited about may actually play out.

Feel into what is not being said. Consider it essential information. This implicit intelligence data may prompt you to probe more deeply. It may nudge you to approach your new initiative differently. Ignoring, or not noticing, what is not being said is never an option. It will cost you dearly.

Make an Empathetic Decision

Explore beyond noticing external signals. Consider the WHY behind these signals. We consider the WHY not by conducting a detailed analysis of the signals we see but by, instead, putting ourselves into the shoes of others. WHY do they feel the way they feel? How would I feel if I were in their shoes, facing the same circumstances they face? Empathy is our ability to feel into what others may be experiencing. Empathy has no opinion or judgment about the experience of others. It does not connote agreement or disagreement. When we have felt into the experience of others AND allow it to impact our decision-making, we will always make more holistically sound decisions. Such decisions yield better outcomes than decisions not informed by empathy.

Here is another conversation I had last week. Victor, a Top-level HR executive, speaks to me about being in meetings with Martin, his company’s CEO.

Martin has a lot of emotional intelligence, Victor says to me. I admire that about him. We often go into a meeting with a strategy that we have agreed on. But more often than not, as we are in conversation with other people, Martin will actually change his mind and go in a slightly different direction.

A less savvy person might get frustrated with Martin changing course. Might see it as a sign of weakness. View it through an emotional intelligence lens, and Martin’s change of course is likely prompted by the very factors we have examined in this article:

Feeling into situations is a beautiful thing. It also generates better outcomes.

Always does.