Matthew Barzun: “An Idea Is an Unlit Lightbulb. You Need Two Things: a Source of Power and a Connection.”

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Interview: Matthew Barzun.

Matthew Barzun served as the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and to Sweden, and in business, he helped build CNET Networks. Now he has a new book out: The Power of Giving Away Power: How the Best Leaders Learn to Let Go (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn't wait to talk to Matthew about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Matthew: We live next to the biggest cemetery in Louisville, and every morning I take a half-hour walk along its winding roads. Muhammad Ali is buried there as is my wonderful deceased father-in-law and the twin sisters who wrote “Happy Birthday.” When the leaf blowers are farther in the distance and the Canada geese are not feeling particularly aggressive, it’s a contemplative and calming ritual.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I’ve learned that happiness is a lot like friendship. It’s best to let it emerge from other activities and efforts and not pursue it too directly. If you meet someone for the first time and say, “I really want you to be my good friend,” they might very well block your number. Happiness comes as a by-product and is never an achievement like climbing a mountain.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

Well, it’s not scientific, but when I was ambassador to the UK I spoke to more than 20,000 British students in schools all over. I would ask them what their biggest frustration or confusion about the U.S. was. There were plenty of hot international issues they could have brought up—climate, Middle East, surveillance and privacy, etc. But the most common answer by a great deal about what frustrated them was none of those things. It was guns. Second was police brutality. The lesson is that our domestic policy is also our foreign policy.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit debating. I stopped trying to win arguments. I mean, who likes to lose them? No one. So what are we trying to win, exactly? Instead I learned (through mentors like Senator-and-then-President Obama) to listen first. I learned to ask about hopes and fears and to link them to my own. I even thought up an acronym to try to do it more: a.l.s.o. stands for ask, listen, serve and open up.  So often in the work world we are taught to do the opposite, what I think of as the capital ALSO: Argue, Lecture, Strategize, and Organize.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I took the test twice and got same answer both times: Rebel. I didn’t agree. I am rebelling against the label rebel…so I guess it must be on to something. If it must be so, then what I am rebelling against is what I call the “Pyramid mindset” – the perspective that it always looking to assess who or what is higher or lower, who is winning or losing, or who is in or out of what group. I want us all to rebel against that.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

Someone once told me to imagine the following: You are commuting on a crowded subway or bus or you’re on a flight and there is someone next to you manically sorting and sifting through a huge pile of postal mail—opening up bills, junk mail, catalogs, letters, postcards. You would try to sit a bit further away from that anxious, self-absorbed energy.  Well, too often that is me. That is so many of us. So, the long-winded answer to what interferes with happiness: email.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I’ll save readers the longer story, but I had been asked for the first time in my like to raise money for a presidential campaign. I was awful. I’d been taught never to discuss religion, politics or money and fundraising in Kentucky was, at a minimum, two out of three. Then I was seated next to a remarkable woman named Lynne Twist at a dinner and I shared my woes with her. She listened and nodded and then gave me three pieces of advice: 1) Money is like water; when it flows it heals and when it’s stagnant it kills; 2) Only ask people who want to use money for a cause greater than themselves; 3) Ask everyone. This changed my whole perspective. Asking is about working with people and not getting something from them.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

“Metaphors are misleading, but they are the least misleading things we have,” from the writer Samuel Butler. I love thinking and writing with them because I think they lurk behind so much of how we see the world. Many of us have inherited from our religions or our various ancestries a view of the world that is ordered by rank and segmented into discrete parts. But that all springs from a metaphor what I call the pyramid—one that not everyone shares, believe it or not. In fact, the idea of America (if not the reality) was meant to buck that metaphor for a more naturalistic one. They used the metaphor of a Constellation, which signified interdependence. You are star, but not a star that other planets revolve around like the sun (we all know those types). You are a star among other stars and you can make new connections to make something bigger than you ever could alone.

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

“Our political life is stagnating, capital and labor are virtually at war, the nations of Europe are at one another’s throats—because we have not yet learned how to live together…Crowd philosophy, crowd government, crowd patriotism must go. The herd is no longer sufficient to enfold us.” Sounds pretty familiar today but it was written nearly 100 years ago after our last global pandemic. The author is Mary Parker Follett and the book is Creative Experience. Follett came to me almost like a talisman in a mythical story as I was in the middle of writing my book. Many of the ideas I had been wrestling with had been articulated beautifully a century before by this genius who was one of the biggest names on the lecture circuit in the 1920s before her legacy was totally erased by men with competing ideas.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

If I asked you to draw or doodle an image that conveyed “new idea,” what would you draw? Was it a lightbulb? Google the word “idea” in google images and you will see thousands of lightbulbs and they are nearly all identical - they are all alone, floating mysteriously in space, disconnected to anything and yet illuminated with little yellow lines radiating to indicate this. That is a visual cliché we all have in our minds. And it is deeply misleading about the true power of ideas and the nature of innovation. It makes it seem as if you wait there alone for the magic to strike and then—voila—you get an idea and the light comes on. That’s not true. An idea is at best an unlit lightbulb. You need to add two things—the same two things that it takes to light up a real lightbulb. First a source of power and second a connection.

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