I'm here today with Brian Solis. Brian is one of the world’s leading digital anthropologists and futurists. We’ll find out what that means. He is a frequent keynote speaker and is an award-winning author of seven best-selling books. His life latest book isLifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive, and Happy Life.
Brian Solis: Good Morning. Hello. It’s nice to meet you.
Zibby: You too. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Brian: I love the name of it. I'm super excited. Thank you.
Zibby: I want to start by just asking what is a digital anthropologist and futurist? What does that mean? How did you become that?
Brian: I went to college for it, of course. [laughs] No, not at all. The digital anthropology part of it was something that, at the time, I pretty much created out of necessity. I was a digital analyst but also a technology advisor. What that means is I was studying, in the nineties, how all of this emergent technology, Web 1.0, digital cameras, online photo sharing, some very, very, big, dramatic shifts in technology, how that was affecting markets. To give you a quick example, when I was advising the first online photo-sharing network, the consumer sentiment at the time was, “No way I'm putting all my personal pictures on the internet.” Now, that's all we do.
Somewhere along that path, people changed. Norms changed. Behaviors changed. I realized that in order to get technology adopted and understood, I was going to have to understand people. That's where digital anthropology came into play. I started applying anthropology, sociology, ethnography work into understanding how technology was and could reshape societies and behaviors and norms and values, etc. Understanding that actually really started to explain where markets were going. A futurist doesn't predict the future. A futurist plays out scenarios based on certain contexts so that you can make more, hopefully, wiser decisions about the future and investments.
Zibby: That's super cool. I wish I had known that was a career option for me when I was starting out. I'm going to lay it on the table for my kids though. “This is one thing you could do.” It sounds really awesome. You're a digital anthropologist and futurist, one of the best apparently. You've written seven best-selling books. Now, you've written Lifescale. Where did the idea for this book come from?
Brian: I’ll be super honest, might as well. I tried writing another book. The last seven books have been really about what we just talked about, technology’s impact on markets and businesses, and how businesses need to adapt and change, and what the future of business organizations and markets look like, and not necessarily aimed anywhere toward the mainstream. They were really written for executives. I thought that what would've been my eighth book was a time to maybe start to bridge a little bit between writing for executives, but then also writing for the individual within the organization. The challenge that businesses face is that people aren’t being empowered or recognized that they offer new ideas, and that they can do things, and that they do things differently because they're still operating in these very rigid operational models.
I wanted to empower people to rise up and help businesses change a lot faster because it’s not happening fast enough. I thought, this is going to be my big breakout book. I better write a proposal so that I can get editors to understand where I'm trying to go since it’s so different than what I've done in the past. It’s going to help me grow my audience. Essentially, what I was setting the stage for was the need to dig deep and create something that was going to be new and powerful and hopefully exciting and also market-building for myself. I couldn't even get past the proposal stage. I had hired an editor to help me polish the proposal. A proposal’s really deep. It’s deeper than I thought it was going to need to be. I was getting all these edits back. “Can you explain this? This isn't coming across as I think you're thinking about it.”
Next thing I know, it’s months later. I lost my drive and my passion for it, so frustrated. I just gave up. I never give up. I just gave up. I chalked it up to the fact that I've got all these research reports I need to write anyway, so I don't want to take too much more of my time away from my day job. Then it sat on my shoulders for months. You failed. You didn't get that out. What's going on? Next thing I know, I started soul-searching and really thinking about the fact that a lot of my reports were going through similar types of edits. At the end of the day, I still had to write a book. You need to get something done.
That's when I started to really understand -- this is why I was going to say I’ll be honest. I didn't just fail in that. I also really started to see a pattern of, not failures, but not necessarily being truly my best self in every aspect of my life, as a husband, as a father, as a friend. All of these things were similar in that they shared a shallower version of myself cultivating or just managing every single front that I work on. That's when I started to study what was really going on in my life that that suddenly was okay. At what point in my life was it okay to just be this sliver of myself?
That's when I started to uncover the impacts of technology on everyday life. Ironically, the stuff that I studied all of these years, I was now studying how it was affecting my life. Long story short was -- spoiler alert -- technology’s impact on us, our kids, is devasting. We don't necessarily know because it’s not actively marketed, just like cigarettes weren’t marketed that they were bad for you at the beginning. The real big spoiler was that they were designed to be distracting. They were designed to be addictive. That's the revenue model. The only answer for me, because I still had to write that book, was I wasn’t going to give up technology because it’s a big part of my life. I was going to have to figure out how to live life now in a time where distractions are normal and technology is normal. It’s not like any of it’s going away. It’s going to get more complicated and easier at the same time, more devices, more apps, more services, more technologies. I figured I needed a life manual. That's what this book became. I didn't know it was going to be my eighth book until I realized that it changed my life. Then I made it into a book.
Zibby: Wow. I love how, at the beginning of your book, you talk about how you'd gotten so distracted in your own life that you noticed you were too distracted to write the article you were working on, which was called “How to Focus While Being Distracted.” [laughs] That was my favorite part of your book. That's hilarious.
Brian: It’s true. I had to build the discipline to even be able to focus to write an article like that or even to write a book. The book was constructed to be the journey that I had to go on to fix my own life and then fix it so that it would help others. It’s not the book that I set out to write at all. It is the book that I needed.
Zibby: The design of this book is one of the coolest I've ever seen. I love how you have little sticky notes and little pieces of cardboard, looks like they're taped inside the book. Passages are highlighted. It’s the most user-friendly book ever. Certainly for the people who their attention tends to wander, this book is so attention-grabbing. It’s the perfect way to design that. I thought that was the coolest. On the cover of it, you show a cycle which you break down in detail in the book. What is the short version of how to break free from distractions, focus, spark creativity, and unlock new possibilities? What's the couple-sentence version of how people can do that?
Brian: Oh, boy. It’s all very easy, actually. I'm just kidding.
Brian: The real answer is that each part of the book is broken out into stages of a journey. It’s how I got the name Lifescale. When you open the book, you see a little person running through what looks like a board game like Chutes and Ladders or Candy Land. That was the inspiration behind what ended up becoming a very creative form of table of contents, a way of expression so that you could see each stage of the journey that you were going to go on. The reason I did that is because I didn't want to say, “By the way, changing your life is really complicated. It’s going to be overwhelming.” I wanted to make it so that you felt, actually, joy and excitement going through each stage. In the early stages, you have to learn how to be able to recognize or at least be aware of what's happened to you or your loved one or your kids, and also what's happening still. I tried to write that not in a shock value way, but more of a, “Did you know?” and as a means of getting everybody to say, “Wow. I had no idea. This makes sense.”
Then the next stage, you go on to what I call productivity hacks, teaching yourself how to focus for one minute, eventually twenty-five minutes, eventually sixty minutes. We can't go on this journey, we can't learn, we can't change if we can't take the time to actually focus. One of the stories I’ll quickly share is that The Pomodoro Technique was something that was really profound for me, the kitchen timer. It teaches you to focus in twenty-five-minute bursts. Then you take a five-minute break. The first time I tried it, I was keeping a scorecard. I couldn't even make it three minutes before I physically reached for my phone, without a notification. It was just embedded in my wiring that I should probably reach for my phone now. It wasn’t even because of a distraction. It was just because it was baked into my rituals or my behaviors so deeply that I didn't even notice that's what I was doing.
Let's say you're trying to focus on a particular task, every time you allow yourself to be distracted, it takes about twenty-three minutes to get back into the zone. If you think about it, the average person gets about two hundred notifications a day. That's a lot that you're pulling away from whatever that task at hand is. Without building the skills to be able to put those at bay and to focus, our work is actually degrading. That's what happened in my proposal. Even though I felt I was great and that social media and every device that I use reminds that I'm the center of the universe because every time I say something or post something, people react, my work wasn’t reflecting the idea of greatness that I had of me and what I do. Then as you get further and further into the book, essentially, you're building on those skills that you got in the previous pages. It runs you through exercises.
What I realized, without giving it all away, our parents had this definition of success and happiness that was passed down to them from their parents, and passed down to them from their parents, and so on. You bring in whatever your belief systems are and forge this level of tradition that has been shared pretty much for centuries. What happened with technology over the last twenty years and specifically since the iPhone in particular, that's been, in my work, one of the single greatest disruptions in history. It changed the entire dynamic for information and connections. It empowered individuals for the first time to be the source of information. It empowered people to connect instantly with anyone around the world. Suddenly, it was not only intoxicating and seductive, but it was empowering in that you had the same type of reach and ability, and also emotions and thoughts, that a celebrity might actually be going through. No one teaches you how to be a celebrity. When you are one, suddenly your entire life is upside down. This is why we see so many celebrities struggle with life because you didn't have the foundation for it. You have to learn on the job. Some people fail dramatically. Others take time to cope and learn how to work with it. Others hire the best around them to help them navigate it all, but not us.
Our parents weren’t there to help us because they didn't know this, or our teachers or our mentors or whoever in our life. They were going through it in their own separate way as well. Like me, it was normal. How do you sell a book to people about managing and conquering their distractions if no one knows that they're distracted? Last but not least, the later stages of the book are all actually very human. It’s about resetting the definition of happiness. It’s actually about resetting the definition of success for a modern era now that everybody has these tools and now that everybody's believing these things and changing their beliefs and believing that they're popular or engaged, but also that we’re all in one way, shape, or form, distracted and/or addicted. We needed a new operating manual for life. That's what I set out to create. That's the journey that we all go on, a much more human journey.
Zibby: How do you define success for yourself?
Brian: It was a hard question to answer because I found myself applying my parent’s definition of success, so university, great job, marriage, house, a lot of assets. The way that we’re sold stuff as becoming milestones for who we are and how we’re defined and how we’re perceived, that was my common definition of success. Then I realized that success and happiness and even creativity -- that's one of the reasons why creativity’s a pillar of this book -- were actually more intertwined. Success and happiness were linked in that happiness wasn’t tied to “When I have this,” or “When I do this,” or “When this happens, then I’ll be happy,” which is what -- I call it the happiness trap -- a lot of us can get caught up in.
It was that happiness was actually inside of me now. The act of creating rather than consuming was also an exercise of bringing up more and more happiness that I wasn’t allowing myself to feel. Being present, even as simple as just putting everything aside and taking my kids out for a walk, was happiness, and things that I just wasn’t getting to that are on my list. Suddenly, you lose time. Success were things that I was allowing myself to feel every single day, but also not getting distracted away from the goals that I was setting and the vision that I was putting together. I was assembling in a physical manifestation of what I was visualizing that I wanted to do. That wasn’t success, but those were goals. I was creating milestones that allowed me to feel success and also allowed me to feel happiness on the way to those goals. It was something I could just enjoy now.
Zibby: One of the many interesting things in your book was when you cited neurologist Dr. Daniel Levitin’s study which said that every time you switch tasks, your brain engages in a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain to accomplish it. If you're doing four or five things at once, you're not actually doing four or five things at once. You're just switching, switching, switching, switching, and exhausting your brain. There are some dangers to that, which I feel is something that leads to distraction because we’re all multitasking all the time. I read that and thought, is that why I can't even retrieve the words I need half the time? [laughs] All this stuff, my brain is doing one of those swirlies that a computer does. It’s frozen.
These dangers of multitasking, are these reversible? If I just tone it down a little bit for a while, will the words come when I want them? Is it long-term effects of this technology? What do you think?
Brian: I have the answer, but I’ll ask you a question first. Have you ever sat around a table with friends and tried to recall the name of the movie, or who the actress or actor was in the movie, or some moment in time that everybody was talking about? No one had the answer, but it was on the tip of everybody’s tongue. Somebody said, “Let's just google it.” We all do that. What happens is the more you do that or the more you look something up, you're actually preventing your short and long-term memory from firing as a fit muscle. You become dependent on the instant access to information. The same is true with multitasking. You're essentially rewiring your brain to function differently. It’s the reason why I couldn't, for example, go deep and with great clarity on my proposal when I failed. My brain was so used to operating at this much more superficial level, multitasking, probably checking social media, responding to emails, answering calls and texts all while trying to write this proposal. I was operating in a very normal way, but not understanding the impacts of what your brain is actually producing.
When you multitask, you're essentially just skating or surfing along. You're not actually doing the best job that you can do, for example, if you were single-tasking. Life rewards us for thinking that we are multitasking and that we’re getting all of these things done. If you were to really assess and compare your work to several years ago, you'll see, “Wow. It’s not as great as I thought it was.” Yes, that's exactly what happens. At the end of the day your brain is exhausted, but so is your body because when you're also multitasking, it’s not just your brain that's producing all of these different nutrients. It’s actually your body producing everything from endorphins, oxytocin, six different chemicals for example at any time when you're using social media. It’s not unlike what happens to your body when you're using any type of stimulant. Your body gets, I don't want to use the word addicted because that does happen but it’s such a strong word. Let's just say it gets used to that as being the normal. Therefore, it craves it. Then you build your patterns around it. Over time, it has huge health and wellness implications that we’re just now starting to study that aren’t just affecting your memory but also affecting your happiness. Every health implication that you could imagine from being exhausted to being addicted are all now starting to be linked to our uses of technology. The good news is that --
Zibby: -- Great. This is a great conversation. I feel awesome. I'm doomed now. [laughs]
Brian: The great news is that every time you go to sleep, your body, for the most part, if you get a good night’s sleep, it actually recreates or reproduces those nutrients. You have a choice when you wake up the next morning how you want to use them. I made a decision that I wasn’t going to give up technology. I was just going to be more mindful about how I was going to use it. I was going to focus on rebuilding me, and rebuilding a me for my family, and also professionally because I still have ideas and things I want to conquer. All I had to do was find a way that was pleasant and encouraging and motivating to then rewire my brain and my body intentionally. That's what Lifescale does. As you described in the book, it’s visually appealing. I tried to make it fun and inspiring. Yeah, of course I want to take control. It’s not fair that all of these things happened in my life without actually me saying, “Yeah, this is okay.” We just went along with it all because companies decided that they were going to design them to be what they became.
Zibby: If busy moms were to take one action item from this talk with you that they could implement into their busy lives, aside from reading your book which is the obvious one thing that they should do, what's the most important thing? Is it time away from the phone? Is it focus on one thing? What's the most important?
Brian: The most important is to put the phone down. Take the iPad away from the kids for a minute. Allow yourself, even if it’s just a simple thirty minutes of research, just look at the work of Tristan Harris. He has a site that's almost like a magician’s secrets revealed. He explains what we’re doing every time we’re looking at the phone. He explains from his perspective what they did and why so that we can at least maybe shock ourselves to say, “Ah. That's what happens every single time I look at my phone. That's what happens every single time I put an iPad in my kid’s hands.” As a human being, you can't help but feel compelled to want to learn more and learn how to be better as an individual and as a parent. That's where I started.
Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, maybe someone similarly struggling with a proposal the way you were or someone struggling to convey something they think is really important?
Brian: Before you go on the Lifescalejourney, you might want to take a look at the work of a gentleman by the name of Cal Newport. He wrote a book called Deep Work. Now, the book itself is very deep. There are some really, really, really interesting things that help you understand the foundation of deep work. Writing a book is deep work. A lot of people write the book because they see it as a form of self-expression, so anything I write or anything I create is great. You have to actually understand it’s not about what you create. It’s what people consume. You're writing for someone in a way that is going to really touch them, just like the design of the book was meant to -- I know you're distracted so I'm going to create a piece of paper that doesn't just speak to you, but it helps you turn the pages. That type of design with intention was audience-driven. The only way to get there was to allow myself the depth and the time to even have that idea. We don't give ourselves that space. Deep Work by Cal Newport was one of the things that helped me get that space. I ended up renting a place in Lake Tahoe and shutting everything out and turning everything off. It was hard. It was painful. It was almost like going through withdrawals because it is going through withdrawals, but I got there. That's the best advice I could give you. The only way to do it is to allow yourself to do it at the depth that you could express yourself uniquely.
Zibby: Awesome. Thank you so much for all this fantastic advice. I am going to try not to be on my phone so much today, but I know I will fail. At least I’ll be aware of what I'm doing. [laughs] Thank you so much for sharing your hard-earned wisdom with all the listeners. Thank you.
Brian: It was my pleasure. Thank you. Bye.