The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 80

Bernie Roth

The Achievement Habit

Do you have a dream you’ve been waiting to make good on? Bernard Roth, co-founder of the Stanford d.School, noticed that his students talked about achieving great things but never followed through. In his book, The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life, Bernie lays out his formula for following through on your most ambitious goals and dreams. Discover the one thing that is getting in the way of changing your behavior, how to deny a request without letting the person down, and the story behind the creation of the d.School.


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Book: The Achievement Habit
Bio: Bernard Roth is the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering and the academic director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the at Stanford University. He is a leading expert in kinematics, the science of motion, and one of the world’s pioneers in the area of robotics. In addition, he has created courses that allow students to directly gain understanding and experience about personal issues that matter to them. Bernie is also the primary developer of the concept of the Creativity Workshop. For more than thirty years this workshop has been a vehicle for him to take the experiential teaching he developed at Stanford to students, faculty, and professionals around the world. He is an in-demand speaker at conferences and workshops globally, has served as a director of several corporations, and has been a leader in professional societies.



Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

With us on the podcast today is Bernie Roth. He is a professor of engineering at Stanford, he’s the director of the D School, which is the Design School at Stanford University. He’s a leading experts in kinematics, the science of motion and one of the world’s pioneers in the area of robotics. He’s written a book that I absolutely adored, The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life. It’s not a book that I would normally expect a professor of engineering to write, and yet it is so clearly the outcome of thoughtfulness of design and the clarity of thinking and the discipline of thinking that brings you to say, what is it that I’m trying to achieve and how do I break this down and be thoughtful about in the very many facets of my life, breaking it down and moving forward step by step to achieve what it is that I want? It was really a terrific book. I highly recommend that you buy it. The podcast I’m sure will be great, but the reading of the book was really great for me.

Bernie, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Bernie: Thank you and thank you for the nice introduction.

Peter: It was easy. Bernie, The book is based on a course that you teach. I’m curious to start with what need that you saw that led you to both design the course and write the book.

Bernie: Sure, well, the design of the course came from my experience as a young professor, coming from New York out to San Francisco and to the Bay Area and to Stanford and I noticed … Well, first I can say in those days, Silicon Valley was not the Silicon Valley that we know today. And what was happening then was a lot of my students would say, “Well, I’m going to start a business after I graduate.” And none of them did, actually. They mainly went and worked for large companies like Hewlett-Packard, companies that don’t exist anymore, Ray Chem, and they would always have this pipe dream. And it really reminded me of that O’Neill play, The Iceman Cometh, where people in the bar all play along, and they’re going to go out and cross the street, and nobody ever leaves the bar?

And I just felt … I didn’t really care if they started businesses or not, I just felt that they had this pipe dream that they should go on and have other pipe dreams or they should fulfill it. So, I decided to make a course where one of the things was you have to do something you always wanted to do in your life and never done before. And that was a project and you selected. The other thing I noticed is people came to me with problems that I really didn’t think belonged in an engineering school and that, they were kind of personal issues that would probably be taken care of at home and I was surprised they hadn’t learned how to handle that stuff. And they were stuck with these sort of life-long issues that they needed to get rid of.

And I had some experiences here that led me to feel I could help them with that kind of stuff. So, the course was made up, you had to do something of your choice that could get rid of a problem in your life or do something that you’d always wanted to do and not done. And as people were doing that over the years, I noticed it was a terrific idea in that it was this empowered them, once you realize you can do this stuff once, you can do it again and again and again and again and the world changed around this. And people started, starting living a lot of their pipe dreams.

So that’s sort of how the course started. Also there was an influence of wanting to bring more human-centeredness into my teaching, which I had some experiences with [Esalin 00:04:20] down here which awakened me to the idea that people are what it’s all about, not machines. So those all came together and I did the book and I did the course and then the book is just one of these things, I wanted to go on sabbatical, and my wife said, “Look, we’ve gone on too many sabbaticals, I’m not going again, I want to stay in my study and work, you can go, but, you go and come back, but I’m not going,” so I figured, “Well, I’m not going to do that, but I don’t want to waste a year just sitting around doing what I always do when I’m not on sabbatical,” so I figured well, it’s about time I wrote this stuff up, and that led to the book. So it’s thanks to my wife.

Peter: I love it. So this huge achievement that you had was based in this desire to go, “Ah, I don’t want to waste the year, I might as well write a book, whatever.”

Bernie: Yeah, and there’s a lot of, there’s a lot into it, actually. I didn’t know I was going to write this book. I actually had three books in mind and I spent about six months talking to everyone I know, I have a lot of friends who write books, getting their advice. And at the end, there was no resolution. So I invoked one of the principles we have in the D School, it’s called bias towards action. And I made up on September 1st, when my sabbatical starts, even if I don’t know what I’m going to write, I’m going to get up early in the morning, 6 AM, I’m going to put my butt in front of my desktop computer and I’m going to start writing. And literally, that’s what happened. I had no real resolution. I sat down and I started typing. And this book came out of me, came pouring out of me, so it was kind of a really interesting experience.

Peter: It’s a great mirror to what you talk about in the book.

Bernie: It is. I mean, literally, I could still be, three years, four years later, I could still be thinking about what book to write.

Peter: Right.

Bernie: If I had waited to get that information.

Peter: And it’s one of the principles in the book. It’s also one of the very clear principles of leadership. There’s a lot of research and my own experience in working with a lot of leaders that points to the fact that bias towards actions is one of the key competencies of the most effective leaders.

Bernie: Yeah, well, it worked in this case. And we actually have a lot of examples at the D School where it sort of produces miracles and if you didn’t do that, it would, you would never realize the magic, yeah.

Peter: Well, you get data from it. You could think about things and again and again and again and you’re not getting any real new data even though that’s what you’re looking for. But when you take action, you have data.

Bernie: Absolutely. Totally. That’s totally my experience.

Peter: You write towards the end of the book, I think it’s the first line of chapter ten, “I take the view that life is basically a problem-solving activity and you can learn to make both the process and results better.” It felt to me as I was reading it that that summed up a little bit the point of this book, is that right?

Bernie: I agree with you totally, yeah, it is. It is that way. I see a big parallel between what we call life and between my professional work which is sort of not life, people think of home and work. And in my case, I think they’re all the same, really, and we shouldn’t compartmentalize it. And if we use the same processes, they work very well.

So I came to it first by not knowing life was a problem-solving activity and just thinking life was life and I got involved in designing machine, robots, and things of that nature, and the more I did that stuff, I realized it was a parallel in my real life to my professional life. And at some point, I got the point that it’s really the same thing. And that was a big breakthrough in my thinking.

Peter: So I found myself as I was reading the first few chapters very intrigued to go to your acknowledgements because I wanted to understand better the influences that led you to think about this very human based approach to action. And I’ve taught at Esalen and I understand a little bit of EST, though I never did EST, and both of those showed up, and it made a lot of sense to me. And I wondered if you could just spend a minute sharing about the connection between your personal transformation, your influences, and how they brought you from where you were to where you are.

Bernie: Sure, I’d be pleased to. Yeah, that’s true, and the acknowledgement is actually the true story. As far as I know, the whole book is the true story, but I was very careful to how I got there and the people I owe a lot to. So what happened in my case, I grew up in New York and I went to engineering school. I went to City College of New York and Columbia University, and I accumulated three degrees in mechanical engineering. And after my PhD I went out to work at Stanford. And I had a very straight engineering background and I was sort of, when I came to California, it was a little bit of culture shock. People didn’t wear jackets. People called each other by first names, all that kind of stuff.

And eventually, a colleague of mine had a connection with Mike Murphy, who was one of the founders of Esalin, and he arranged, my colleague arranged for a weekend of Stanford professors to go down to Esalin. And he didn’t invite me, ’cause I was too straight, but somehow, at the last minute, someone dropped out, and reluctantly, he included me. And when I went down there, it was a weekend, a sort of sampler weekend, Fitz Pearls, Bill Shoots, people like that, did their shticks. And it was very eye-opening to me and I started to understand how that really relates to my work, as I said before. So that was the beginning and the same friend, Bob McKim is his name, my colleague. He was sort of the guru, he was into all this weird stuff and California things. He grew up in California, so he was way ahead of me. And he introduced to me to EST and to Werner Erhard, and we became good friends, Werner and I, and I actually did some co-leading workshops with Werner and got to understand it.

So for me, I would say Esalin was sort of the opening up of the experience and then EST sort of made a intellectual framework around it, so that’s kind of what happened to me. And in between, what had happened is my friend Bob decided we should have an Esalin at Stanford program, so they arranged to bring up the speakers from Esalin for the weekend, and for forty dollars, you could do a weekend workshop at Stanford with one of the Esalin gurus. And another friend of mine, Doug Wild, he and I decided we should put a course in the dorms based on these Esalin classes. And the students had to go to one of these weekends during the ten-week quarter. I went to every one of them, ’cause I was the teacher, so. That was another part of my training and getting used to these things, so it was a very intense part of my life. We offered that course for about eight years, three times a year. It was very popular in the dorms.

That’s how I got to get a good background in leading these kind of workshops.

Peter: And when you’re leading the workshops and teaching your class, it seems like you are willing to be “out there.” One of your exercises, you open up the book with it, is holding a water bottle and trying to get a student get it out of your hands. Later in the book, you talk about people moving around and moving their bodies.

You’re doing a lot of stuff that other people might consider weird. I’m curious, emotionally whether you feel fear when you’re doing it, whether you’re super grounded in it and you know this works and this is why you’re doing it, whether you’re a little hesitant about how it’s going to be received by people. I’m curious about your personal experience in closing that gap.

Bernie: Sure. Yeah. It’s hard to remember how I felt back in the beginning. I don’t feel any fear or concern at this point in my life. I’ve done so much of it. I do remember one part early on, the dean of engineering was somehow concerned that I was going to harm people. So, he sent me to the psychological service center at Stanford to talk to two professional psychiatrists to make sure I’m not mucking around things that I shouldn’t be doing.

Peter: So was he wanting you to get advice from them for your students, or was he wanting to check you out?

Bernie: He wanted them to check out and say it’s okay for me to do that before he shut me down.

Peter: But he wasn’t trying to check you out? He wasn’t saying, “Maybe Bernie’s lost his rocket, let me quietly get these people to assess him.”

Bernie: No, it’s just maybe Bernie shouldn’t be doing this, ’cause he’s not qualified. He never took a psychology course.

Peter: Got it.

Bernie: And so, I went, and the interesting story is one of the guys became so enthralled, he decided to co-teach a class with me. But what they taught me and I always remember, “Don’t worry about it, Bernie, people are not made of Dresden china.” Which I loved that expression.

And this fear of, you know, it’s okay if people cry. It’s okay if people get emotional. In fact, it’s kind of useful. So, I don’t … I’d say the only place I’m hesitant is … I do a lot of this stuff for professional groups and in that case, it’s like if they’re calling me into talk about creativity, what license do I have to muck with their psyche? And so, I try and frame it in a way that is what they bought into, but then I go beyond where they would normally go with that. And you know, I make it that you don’t have to, you can opt out. I don’t force anyone to do anything. There’s a certain amount of social pressure in a group to do things, but in general I am concerned about not pushing people beyond where they want to go. I make it, I don’t embarrass people, I make it open, and some people are resistant in the beginning, and those are the people I’m most worried about in the strangest way.

Because what happens is if it’s in a class, and I get someone in the graduate school of business who’s too totally analytical and all of that, and very resistant the first day or two, I think, “Oh, this guy’s going to be trouble, because he’s going to be such a groupie at the end, it’s going to be an embarrassment.” And that’s what happens. I mean, people who are really resistant tend to flip totally to the point where you’re the voice of God. It’s embarrassing.

In general, I can say I’m not aware of any harm I’ve ever done and I certainly have been told by a lot of people it’s done a lot of good. So I don’t feel any real concern that way. It’s more appropriateness in the setting and how I frame it. But basically, it’s the same thing, but I may spin it out in different ways.

Peter: We are speaking with Bernie Roth. His book is The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life.

Bernie, I want to do throw out a couple of statements that you make, mostly chapter titles. And I want you to speak about them a bit.

I’m going to start with the first one, which is Reasons Are Bullshit.

Bernie: Yeah. So, where that comes from is my realization that reasons are really not useful in life in general and that they get in the way of ever changing your behavior or changing, period. Because they’re basically generally excuses.

I can tell you the insight. The insight came from, I was on the board of directors of a company in Berkeley and I would invariable come late to the board meeting. And I would invariably, the reason was there was a lot of traffic on the highway going up between Stanford and Berkeley. And it was all true. I was late and there was traffic. However, that was not the real reason I was there, I was late. And when I thought about it, I realized of course, there were lots of reasons, including my taking, in those days, there weren’t, I had a teletype in my office, so doing the origins of email, I was doing tele typing, and I had to send a few more messages before I left, and in those days, there were no cell phones, there were desk phones, so of course I had to be at my desk to use the phone, to make some very important calls before I left. And now when I left the office, of course, I met someone at the elevator, and we had to have a little important chat about something.

And by the time I got to my car, if there was at Stanford, and no traffic at Berkeley, and no traffic on the highway, I would have made it. But of course, there was, so I never made it on time.

Peter: I am certainly all too familiar with that dance.

Bernie: Yeah, so I realized at some point that I was really being abusive to these other people on the board. And they were kind of nice about it, but I realized that my behavior was wrong. And I realized I should either get off the board or I should give it enough valance in my life to get there on time, which wasn’t rocket science, you just had to leave earlier.

And once I did that, it was … First of all, it was great, I didn’t have to worry about death-defying, cutting people off on the highway, and getting angry if someone was in front of me, moving slowly. I could go a relaxed person on the highway. And if I got there a little early, it was a pleasure. I could talk to these people and have, schmooze around a little bit. And if not, and if there was a lot of traffic, I’d still be on time. So that kind of was a big insight. And from that, I changed my behavior from someone who was always late to someone who was always on time. I’m now the pain in the ass who starts everything on time.

So that was a big change. And from that, I went to realizing that all these things we say about human behavior, we don’t really know it. There’s no one reason for any human behavior. It’s very complicated. If you weren’t born, you wouldn’t do any of the things you do. So if someone says, “Why’d you do it?” You can say because you were born. Well, that sounds wise, you know, it’s not an appropriate answer. But in fact, there are many, many reasons for everything you do, so saying the reason for something is a lie, basically. And what you do is you pick out the reason that makes you look good or makes you feel good. It’s a kind of, I have some friends I grew up in the Bronx who are badasses. They’ll give you a reason, were they really bad? Whatever it is. You know, whatever your self image is, you’ll get a reason to support that.

It’s okay, except you’ll never change your behavior if you rely on these reasons for it. So that’s kind of where it all came from. And then I experimented with it. And I see, like a simple thing happens in my life, I get maybe three emails a week from someone in the world, nowadays Iran or it’s China, India, who wants to come and do a PhD with me at Stanford. And I don’t have to answer them, but generally they’ve put a lot of work into it, and they’ve researched me, so I don’t want to just ignore them. So, I used to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t take you because I don’t have any money,” or, “I’m sorry, I can’t take you because I’m going on sabbatical.” And any time I gave them a reason, they’d push back. If I don’t have any money, they have a rich uncle. If I’m going on a sabbatical, they can come a year later. And it would go on and on until I just truncated out of weariness.

Nowadays though, I have my insight, I don’t give them a reason. I just say what I’m going to do or not do, which is, I’m sorry, I can’t help you, good luck. And what happens is about 85% of the time, I get back an email saying, “Thank you very much, Professor, for answer my email.” And that’s the end of the discussion. And I feel good about it and they seem to be okay with it, also.

I’ve taken this thing in my administrative work in the D School. It’s totally that way. I don’t give people reasons for what I do, I just say what it is. So we have an example where we were, someone who has been with us for awhile, teaching classes, things didn’t work out in her teaching, and we were going to tell her that we didn’t want her to teach the next quarter. And someone wrote a sample letter, and it was like three pages of apologies. And I said, “No no, let me handle it.” And I just said, “I’m sorry we’re not going to use you again. We love you, stay in touch. Bernie.” And this person’s in my life for a year and a half now. Every time I see her, she hugs me, and it’s friendly. And if we had given the reasons, it would have just turned to muck. It’s really interesting to try it. Furthermore, I’ll say one other thing, there are a lot of experiments where they put people in MRI machines, and they ask them to do a task, and they ask them to explain why they did the task. And it turns out, they look at the parts of the brain that fire, and the ones that make up your mind to do the task fire before the ones that make up the reasons.

So, we do what we do. We’re habitual, most of the things are just habitual, it’s what they call thinking fast. And we just do it. And if you say, why’d you do it? Well, I have to think up some nice thing and I would do that. Don’t use reasons. You’ll never change your behavior. And if you do that, I find, if I give someone a reason and it’s bullshit, I say to myself, “I’ll never do that again.” And then of course, I’ll do it again. But eventually, I change. If I just give a reason and don’t tell myself it’s bullshit, I will never change, because I will use that reason to protect my behavior, even though I don’t want to have it.

Peter: Two questions about the reasons. One is, I would imagine as a problem solver, there’s some element of reasons that are useful to say, you know, maybe there’s the reason that you are late is that you’re trying to get too much done before you leave and understanding that that was the reason, then you can solve for it. Do you believe in that, or do you think that’s bullshit too?

Bernie: Well, when you say the reason, I’d say it’s bullshit. If you’d say it’s a reason, it’s a factor, there’s a lot of factor. Yeah, one factor may be very strong and it may be the thing that you want to, give you an insight. I have no problem that way. I just realize it’s not the reason to do that.

For example, you asked me to do this podcast, right? So I could say, if you say, why did you do it? Well, Peter asked me. But that’s not why I’m doing it. Because you could ask me, I could say, no, I’m sure some people don’t accept your invitations. So, what it is about … Well, there’s a whole history of me and podcasts and maybe the way you approach me, maybe the fact that you live somewhere that I like, I don’t know. It’s so complicated, it really is. But it doesn’t matter most of the time. Who cares? You ask me a question, I give you a reason.

But the point simply is, it can be destructive and prevent you from changing. And that’s the point, and what I always tell people to do is don’t use reasons. Just say what you’ll do and don’t do and your life will be much better. You really don’t need them. And if you need them, don’t be a jerk if someone’d a reason and you don’t want to offend them, but for yourself, tell yourself it’s not the truth.

Peter: So I think you just answered my second question. Two, which is, that there’s research that says that people are more willing to comply when there’s a reason. If you’re going to cut someone in line, if you just say, I’m cutting in line, they’re going to say no, if I’ give a reaason, even if the reason is bullshit, they’re a lot more willing to say, yeah, okay.

Bernie: It is bullshit, of course it’s bullshit. And yeah, you use it, people use these things to justify behavior that they, isn’t exactly what they want, so they give you a reason. And they may be fine. If you want to keep cutting in line, use your bullshit reasons. I hope no one punches you out. But basically, if you realize that the reason you’re cutting in line is not what you’re saying, it’s that among other things, you got there too late or you’ve been procrastinating for filing your taxes, and it goes on and on and on and it’s not because you got a flat tire.

My favorite thing is I tell the students, if someone comes into my class and she’s late, and she says, “Gee, I’m sorry Professor I’m late, I got a flat tire on my bicycle,” even if she had a flat tire, that’s not the reason she’s late. You understand? If there really was … You get flunked out of Stanford if you come in late, you would not come in late if she had a flat tire, believe me. Or if I had an Uzi machine gun and I blasted people who came in late, they wouldn’t come in late. It’s a matter of giving it enough valance in your life to give it the priority it needs to get it done. And that’s the part you don’t want to say. You know, you come in late to someone’s house for dinner, you give them some excuse, but you didn’t give it enough priority. You didn’t get into the shower early enough when you should have, you were too busy finishing something on your last podcast or something like that.

So, it’s that kind of thing. It’s just useful to understand it and to do it. It’s not life and death but it will improve your life and it will let you change stuff and in your work, it’s also true. Often, even in technical things, you think the reason is something and the big breakthrough is you realize that wasn’t the reason for it, and then you realize you’ve kind of worked around an obstacle and you’ve got a big insight. So, this whole idea of attributing cause and effect to a single thing is really hard when it comes to people. It may work a little bit better with mechanical things, but even there, it’s sometimes questionable.

Peter: Bernie, it’s such a pleasure to have you. There are so many more questions I could ask, but we’re coming to the end of the podcast. I want to share with listeners that Bernie’s book The Achievement Habit is filled with this kind of clarity of insight and engaging stories and I’m not going to give you a reason to read it, I’m just going to tell you to go read it. And to let you know that it was well worth my time and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Bernie, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Bernie: It was a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review. A common problem I see in companies is a lot of business, a lot of work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that, or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you Clare Marshall for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.