Tamsen Webster wants to help you build the most compelling and persuasive arguments for you ideas by finding your Red Thread. Turn your big idea into change by rebuilding it, piece by piece, until you and those you serve see the world differently.
Tamsen Webster wants to help you build the most compelling and persuasive arguments for you ideas by finding your Red Thread. Turn your big idea into change by rebuilding it, piece by piece, until you and those you serve see the world differently.
Tamsen Webster is a keynote spreaker and author of "Find Your Red Thread: Make Your Big Ideas Irresistible" | https://tamsenwebster.com
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Tamsen Webster: The red thread is this idiom from Nordic languages, Jillian general, Northern Europe to talk about the theme, the big idea of something and its origin story, which I think we talked about last time, it was very similar to the, to the process that I was leading people through to, to do this decoding.
Tamsen Webster: And so I, I look back at it, you know, to me that, you know, when you look back the past is a straight line. It all makes perfect sense to me though. There was no way at all that I could have predicted that this is where I would've ended up or, or what I would have ended up doing or even creating. But it makes perfect sense as I look back on it because I created the thing that I wish I had 35 years.
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Srini Rao: Tamsen welcome to the unmistakable. Creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to
Tamsen Webster: join us. I am delighted to be back. Thank you so much for having me.
Srini Rao: Yeah, absolutely. You know, as I always say, anytime we have somebody back a second time to me that just says a whole hell of a lot about what an amazing guests they were.
Srini Rao: The first time you have a new book out finding your red thread, which we will get into, but as you know, from our previous conversations, that's definitely not where we're going to start. So I thought we would start by me asking you, what is one of the most important things that you learned from one or both of your parents that have influenced or shaped who you've become and what you ended up doing with your life?
Tamsen Webster: All right. So I'd say from my mother who is an anthropologist to observe what people do and to be curious about why they do it, I would say that's definitely from my mother, from my father. Who's definitely, who's a, a systems thinker. So he's a submariner. He was spent 21 years in the Navy. He he's very focused on, on kind of two things.
Tamsen Webster: I think that I've, I've picked up from him. One is you have, have a way to do it and be clear about it. And the second would be my father is definitely like the loan introvert, excuse me, the loan extrovert in our family. And so I think that from him, I have learned to appreciate the kind of the joy and the unexpected serendipity that can come from being, just talking to people, being curious about them.
Tamsen Webster: So my mother's very much kind of a quiet observer and my father is it as an engaged interviewer of people I think is probably a good way to think about it. And I think that there is value in both. And so I, I can see the lines of both of those influences in everything. Hm.
Srini Rao: So did they, did your parents encourage any particular career paths while you were growing up?
Srini Rao: Because, I mean, as I've said before, a thousand times, the Indian kids sort of motivational speeches, you can become any kind of doctor, lawyer engineer you want to be.
Tamsen Webster: No, actually, and I think that's in a lot of ways because of their own parents, first of all. And then secondly, because in a lot of ways, and, and, and a little bit as a result, my parents ended up doing very non-traditional things as well.
Tamsen Webster: So my, my mother grew up really quite financially challenged, I think is absolutely fair to say. He, she was a, she's a shopkeeper's daughter in rural Washington state. There, her family ran the corner store where the gas station was and, you know, the food and, and meat and things like, you know, things like that.
Tamsen Webster: And she, she tells stories about how. Their food was the food that was passed date from the store. And there, my grandmother was apparently quite the dynamo. But, and both of them, both my grandmother, grandfather on my mother's side actually had all of my grandparents believe very, very strongly in power of education.
Tamsen Webster: And so she was going to make sure that her kids went to college and went to a good one. And on that, she absolutely succeeded because my both my uncle and my mother went to Stanford in this, in the case of my uncle, this was in the, in the, in the fifties, mid fifties. And the case of my mother was the early sixties.
Tamsen Webster: And so that's that's kind of a big deal. And I think that, you know, I've never really talked with her about this, but I think other than guilt, go to college and go to a good cause good of a school as you can get into. I don't think. That was dictated various, like where she, what she ended up studying was very, very strongly dictated by, by anybody else.
Tamsen Webster: So you know, and she went on to pursue, like I said, a doctorate in anthropology, she was very curious about social anthropology. And I think some of that was influenced by growing up so close to several indigenous nations in, in the Skagit valley, like the Snohomish Indians and all of that. My father so his parents were both teachers.
Tamsen Webster: So my, my grandmother was a school teacher and my grandfather has a doctorate music, had a doctorate music, music education. And so he was a teacher of music teachers. And so while they weren't. You know, as poor as my mother's family that was, you have teacher salaries, they didn't, they didn't do much.
Tamsen Webster: And so my father went to Stanford on the ROTC program. Fun fact, Stanford no longer has an ROTC program because in the sixties the students burned it down. And I think he was just, he think he was just fascinated to see the world. And the Navy was a way to do that and get a great education at the same time.
Tamsen Webster: And so I don't think either of them were constrained by that and they certainly didn't constrain my sister or I at the same way, because we may have talked about this last time, but my sister went to Stanford also. My dad did too. I was the one that was like, I'm not even going to apply. My sister went to Stanford for a second or degree.
Tamsen Webster: So she got a theater degree from Stanford. I refuse to. Even apply to Stanford, just, you know, out of 17 year old piss and vinegar, I think. And and I went to Boston university, so, and my parents were very open. I think I was more care. I was more we're interested in making sure I was employable than anybody else in my family was.
Tamsen Webster: Because, you know, even though I love the arts, I decided to get a business degree both undergrad and grad so that I wouldn't ever have to worry about being employed.
Srini Rao: Yeah. So two things, I wonder. Did you ever feel this sort of pressure? I mean, two Stanford educated parents, a sibling who, you know, went to Stanford?
Srini Rao: Because even when I look at my sister, she was the chief anesthesiologist resident at Yale and she was at Berkeley after I was, but there was sort of this expectation that this is just what you do. You go to the best damn school that you can get into. And I always wonder w when you have parents who are so accomplished academically, you ever feel this sort of need to live up to that expectation?
Tamsen Webster: I mean, I, I think I did, but again, my, my response was to reject it entirely. Yeah, because I, I think the closest I got to aspirational or like, you know, Ivy or Ivy pluses, I did apply to Harvard And I think I, I think I flat out didn't get into Harvard. I don't think, I don't think I was wait-listed. I think I was wait-listed at Amers maybe.
Tamsen Webster: But really what I wanted to do when I applied to colleges, I applied to the most. That's very funny that I ended up being you. Cause it's, it's not this, but what I really want to do is go a very non-traditional college. So I applied to Bennington and I got an early action to Hampshire and I applied to evergreen state.
Tamsen Webster: And I was really interested because I was really interested in crafting my own academic journey. I've kind of inventing what, you know, I was very intrigued by those last three, what they did with independent study and how you essentially created your own, your own path. And I was very interested in that because I had just spent.
Tamsen Webster: Six years at a pretty intense, I mean, no, it wasn't pretty intense. It was extremely intense prep school. And in Norfolk, Virginia, and I was over it, not over school of was, I was really over pressure and deadlines cause it, it actually had quite a negative effect on my whole psyche. And I, I absolutely believe that it was part and parcel of why I suffered with panic disorder for so long afterwards.
Tamsen Webster: So I really just wanted to go to a place where I felt that I could make it mine. And that was really my response to everybody else going to Stanford. Was it, that's your thing? I'm going to do my thing. And I'm just going to carve my own path. Like I don't, I don't want to rely on anybody else and I'm just gonna do what I can do and I'm going to do it.
Tamsen Webster: I'm going to do it my own way. So, but they didn't pressure. They really didn't. There was a, you can go wherever you want. And that was kind of the deal that my parents had, that they would, they would, they would send us anywhere. They pay for us to go anywhere. Undergrad grad school was all on me. But undergrad that was, that was on them.
Tamsen Webster: And even, so even though they were paying for it, they, they didn't put pressure underneath any direction. I think, I think they really did just want us to pursue w do what we would stick with, if that yeah, I think they would do, we would stick with it. I think they, they just wanted to make sure that we were set up well in life from that perspective, but that wasn't tied to any particular profession.
Tamsen Webster: I'm Ellen Muckerman and I'm excited to launch AB and bad's new podcast talking on tap. Our podcast takes you inside the world's leading brewer, tapping into our internal experts and meeting external leaders from the United nations. The world economic forum, business fights, poverty, Accenture, and widening candidate.
Tamsen Webster: Just Sarge talking on
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Tamsen Webster: Make your mark learn more at thoughtworks.com/careers.
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Srini Rao: It's pretty clear that last year changed our working lives forever. And maybe it made you realize that you were ready for a change that thought works. They challenged, curious minds to make a real impact, get to know them and discover how you can make your mark in tech. At ThoughtWorks, you're free to seek the most ambitious challenges free to change career paths, free to use technology as a tool for social change and free to be yourself.
Srini Rao: They're looking for change makers, opportunity creators, status quo, shakers ThoughtWorkers. And if you're listening to the unmistakable creative, that's probably you learn more and apply at thoughtworks.com/careers. Again, that's thoughtworks.com/careers. Yeah. You mentioned this idea of carving your own path.
Srini Rao: And I, you know, I think that that's so much easier said than done. And I wonder why do you think people fear doing that so much and, you know, conform to do either societal expectations, parental expectations, or, you know, whatever their peers are doing? Because I think even going to Berkeley, I remember thinking, oh, this is sort of this liberal hotbed of, you know, you know, innovative ideas, really original thinking.
Srini Rao: It was the quickest, this place is a breeding ground for unconformity, it's all just a bunch of soon to be bankers, lawyers and doctors. And, you know, the evidence kind of plays out because that's what most of my classmates.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. It's definitely easier to conform. And I, I, I don't know. I just, there is truly something in me that rejects it.
Tamsen Webster: I understand it and I know how to play along. And that's definitely, I think, you know, to add another tick in my mother's column that comes from the observation of people. I understand how I understand what I'm supposed to do. But there are times when I'm where it just doesn't feel right. And by ignoring that feeling, that's, I think that's absolutely got me where I got to with panic disorder for a long time.
Tamsen Webster: And then once I started getting treatment for that, which started when I was 16, by the way 16, 17 I started to become intolerant of that feeling of that feeling of dissonance between what I was supposed to do and what, like every fiber of my being said I needed to do. But I will tell you, like, it is, it's a lot harder because you have to, of, you have to deal with the fact that there is not a path there's no map as Seth Godin would say, like, you don't get to just follow in what everybody, somebody else does.
Tamsen Webster: You have to take ownership of that. Like, you know, certainly something I discovered when I started my own business five years ago, one of the things that I often said about it to other people at the time was that I traded the illusion of stability for the reality of control.
Tamsen Webster: And it was because it's true, but it also means that you like it is all on you and I, I just, I wish I knew, I wish I could tell someone here's like, here's the secret to like, do in your own thing. Other than that, I became finally attuned and I think that was this kind of dark gift of panic disorder.
Tamsen Webster: Finally attuned to, to D to dissonance, to any gap because I, I would feel it physically a gap between. You know, an expectation and reality. And so I spent a lot of my time just trying to, you know, in the early years, try to ignore that gap, but then there were certain places that were just so foundational to me in some way, like where to go to college, what to study that I just, I couldn't, I just couldn't.
Tamsen Webster: And so you know, I could kind of toss off that like, well, I'm going to go to BU mostly because I loved the city and that's why I went and I, you know, and I view as a, a fairly safe school, one could argue it wasn't even the best school that I got into. But you know, it ended up being the right place for me because I.
Tamsen Webster: Again, this is kind of an anathema to conformity because same thing, I was in the undergraduate business school and I like you people. I don't, I don't, I don't understand. I must, because I spent all my time in high school with arts people. So here I am like following again and, and with the, the business school people and I'm like, I, yeah, I don't get you.
Tamsen Webster: And so I spent most of my time in high school. I mean, excuse me in college. My college friends are all the people I worked with at the nightclubs on Lansdowne street in Boston. Like that's where all my friends are from. Like, I don't, I don't have like anyone who I do have from my college years.
Tamsen Webster: Who's still a friend with somebody I met working in the clubs, not somebody who was in one of my lines. Yeah.
Srini Rao: Yeah. You mentioned earlier, you know, people like this idea of sort of a formula or prescription for, you know, how to run a business or how to do your own thing. And I've been sort of writing and thinking about this idea of sort of this distinction between prescriptions and principles and realize there's one fundamental flaw in this whole idea of prescriptive advice.
Srini Rao: There's a variable that throws off all of it. And that's you take that into account at all? It's it's they, they tend to overlook context. And I guess what I wonder is, is how you get people to stop looking for prescriptive advice, which is kind of hilarious because your book is, is prescriptive. It does.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. It, it, I mean, on the hush it isn't a way and yeah, that is actually a thing that I wrestle with and about it, except for the fact that I feel. Very comfortable with the amount of research that I've done to say, okay, this is about as prescriptive as I can get for you. And then the rest of it, you're going to have to fill in yourself.
Tamsen Webster: I, because I think of it more as a framework than a formula. And I think that to me is what allows for the individual that allows for that variable variability. And I think, you know, the way that I frame, what you just talked about is that a lot of people are looking for what to think when actually what they need to learn is how they think.
Tamsen Webster: And because once you understand how you think or like, or find ways to think about things, the what to do becomes a lot clearer you know, there was something I wrote on my newsletter a few weeks ago as an example of this, which is, you know, a lot of times when we're talking to other people about ourselves or if we're just like, well, here's what, here's what I think.
Tamsen Webster: And a lot of times we don't get into like, well, how did you come to that conclusion? But it's in the, how did you come to that conclusion that we actually understand whether or not we're seeing eye to eye on something or not? And the example that I drew a couple of weeks ago, my newsletter was like Ultron from the Avengers, age of Ultron.
Tamsen Webster: Where of course, you know, you had to con you know, two different, completely different approaches to the same answer of protect, protect planet earth. You know, Ultron is like, well, it's the people that are the problem. And then you've got, so let's eliminate the people and that's how we're going to protect planet earth.
Tamsen Webster: And then, you know, another group who, you know, the Avengers, obviously, who were thinking, well, we need protect planet earth and maintain the people. And so I think to me, there's really something intriguing. I I'm just so fascinated about how people think, because if I can understand. How people think.
Tamsen Webster: And then, you know, with what I tried to do with the book, help people understand how they themselves think about things. It becomes so much easier to make that more transparent. And so this is a strange word to apply to interpersonal interactions. It makes them a lot more efficient because you're not discovering kind of too late that, you know, oh, we may have agreed on the ends, but we sure as heck didn't agree on the means to those ends.
Tamsen Webster: And ultimately I'm, I'm, I I've, I think I'm coming to a place where I believe that the things that we need to share with people lie more in the means than in the end. I mean, it's certainly something that I say to my, my business clients that you're never going to be able to sell to someone who doesn't fundamentally.
Tamsen Webster: Value the same things you do or operate from the same baseline assumptions about how the world works as you do. So you better be clear on what they are and it's going to be a lot easier for you and for them, if you are articulate those things out loud.
Srini Rao: Yeah. It's funny because it reminds me of something Victor Chang says in his book, extreme revenue growth.
Srini Rao: One of the things he talks about, he basically identifies sort of what he calls the five components of a revenue growth engine. And one of them is, you know, a problem that somebody has. But the other part of that that is missed often is that people care enough about that problem that they're willing to pay.
Tamsen Webster: Right? Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of people just go, well, here's the thing that hasn't been done yet. I'm like, yeah. The paying to solve it. Yeah. I, I, this is one of the things that I, that I've come to CA I've come to understand is that one of the, and I think there's three, one of the key beliefs that someone has to have.
Tamsen Webster: Before they will make a change in thinking or behavior is that they have to consider it worth it. And sometimes that is a, that's a, sometimes that is a financial calculation and sometimes it's an effort calculation, and sometimes it's a, sometimes it's a steam and other people as an expectation calculation.
Tamsen Webster: Because that's certainly what came into play. As I kind of checked the Stanford, Beth was like, yeah, but it's actually worth it to me to see if I can succeed without, without all the legacies. Like what can I do on my own? That's that's, that's been that's been an important part. I think of who I am.
Srini Rao: Yeah. So before we get into the book, I wanna ask you one last thing I know, you know, from having read the book that you're a parent and just given sort of this legacy of, you know, elite universities and education I wonder how you think about education for your children, because, you know, from, you know, from the time that you went to college, I went to college from when your parents went to college.
Srini Rao: The world is really different today. You know, and when I see things, you know, we watch this documentary and the college admission scandal and watching these kids and thinking, God, this must be such a difficult time to be applying to college because it's this sort of idea that this is basically going to determine everything about how your life turns out is, is kind of the pressure or the message they seem to be getting from the world around them.
Srini Rao: So I wonder one how you talk to your kids about this and how you think about educating yourself.
Tamsen Webster: I do think about this a lot. And I think a lot about it in the context that I have. My older son has just started while it's not a private prep. School was a pretty intense school here for, for middle school here in Boston, Boston, Latin it's a very well-known public school, the oldest one in the U S has it veterans out, but I mean, in a lot of ways looks and feels like the intense pressure cooker of what I went through in my middle and high school year.
Tamsen Webster: So like, I was inherently not so sure about this. But the thing that he and his father and I were very clear on was that I, I did my best as did his father. Like, I, I didn't actually care if he chose to go there or not. It's an exam school, meaning they had, he had to take an exam to get into it. And the way we frame that and his dad and I were on the same page with this was.
Tamsen Webster: If you want to take the exam, do and if you take the exam that just opens up your options to where you want to go to school, but you, we, you can go wherever you want. So there's, there's that piece of it. The second piece of it is that I'm kind of glad that I didn't go the whole legacy route. Because you know, even though it's an end of one I have, you know, it's, it's a, it's a form of success.
Tamsen Webster: I think that I have, and I did it with not, you know, it's again, another bee who sucks. It does it. It's fine school. It's not, it's not Ivy plus it's not Stanford. But you know, I I've, I have been successful without the additional benefit of a network like Harvard or Stanford, or, you know, any of the, those top, top, top tier schools would have provided But at the same time, I think the, the trade-off and to me, it was positive.
Tamsen Webster: It was worth, it was that I w I wasn't surrounded by the, by the, the need to conform. You know, I felt that a little bit more in grad school. When I, when I, so I went to business school for grad school as well, and there, I went to Southern Methodist and the Cox school of business. And what was interesting was there?
Tamsen Webster: I did, I did briefly conform last very long. I mean, it's hard not to conform when, like I go into business school thinking that I'm going to go and go work at a nonprofit. And then the job that I got, you know, as a, as a part-time research assistant and the consulting company, like paid me twice, what I would get as a full-time position in a nonprofit.
Tamsen Webster: And so you're like, oh, come form. That lasted six months after. Graduation from, you know, because I was just like, I can't, maybe it was just Dallas. I don't know. But I was like, I know I can't, I can't, I can't do this. And then took a 50% pay cut and went and worked a museum. So I think about, I have the belief in my children that they will be successful no matter what they choose to do.
Tamsen Webster: And that the path to success lies in spending as little time as possible off of what makes you happy and what makes you useful to other people? Because I think it's in the flailing around that we lose time and we lose energy and we lose inspiration, but the more you can, you can stick with the thing, find the thing and stick with it that that gives you joy.
Tamsen Webster: Great. And so we've, we've even said to the boys that you know, I, it's not, we want them to go to school because we think that there's a, that there's, there is value and learn in the end. What school will teach you about how to think, how to learn those, those kinds of things, and the variety of those kinds of answers you can find there.
Tamsen Webster: But we've also been very clear that if they choose to go to, let's say here in Boston, we've got a place called the north Bennet street school that teaches find preservation, carpentry, and violin making. And bookbinding like old school, artisanal crafts. I'm like, if that's where you want to go, or you want to go to Boston architectural college, or, you know, something like that, like essentially a trade school, fine.
Tamsen Webster: If that's what you want, do the thing that you love and do the thing that you will stick with and do the thing that will keep you motivated and working because you're going to have to motivate and work for really long time. So you, you, you need to be that needs to be something that you love. And so we try to.
Tamsen Webster: We try to keep that door open for them in any way possible and as free of expectation as possible. I guess I said, I, I, I believe in them and I believe in their success because that, that is what they've are the, those are the, the small humans they've already proven themselves to be. Hmm.
Srini Rao: Wow. Well do this for me, connect the dots for how all of these different experiences of your life lead to the work that you're doing today and how it leads to this book.
Tamsen Webster: You know, they, it is all, it's totally intertwined. I think that some of my you know, some of the, some of the understanding about how I see the world and, and trying to understand why, how I see the world is different than other people. Where that came from, where that was painful for, for oftentimes, for a long time.
Tamsen Webster: I, I, you know, that that's a thread that's in here. Another thread that's in here is feeling unheard a lot as you know, from, from, you know, teens on, up through college and work and all of that, you know, early days of work, I'm sure we've all had this experience where you get dismissed cause of youth that tended to happen a lot with them, for me, because I was young, I actually was younger and a lot of other folks, wherever I was I, I ha you know, way back when skipped first grade.
Tamsen Webster: So I started college at 17. I didn't turn 21 until. The spring of my senior year, I went straight into business school. So I was in business school at the age of 21 graduated at 23. And so here I was like, you know, wherever I was particularly in the early parts of my career, I was always a little unusually, much younger than any everybody else around me that occurs did not limit my feeling that I had good ideas.
Tamsen Webster: But I wasn't, but there were so often where either I knew I had a great idea and I couldn't make the case for it in a way that got across. And so I, I, I felt like that. And therefore I was dismissed or I often was very frustrated with not having an articulate way to answer something. And. So, those were kind of these personal threads that I carried forward with me for a really long time.
Tamsen Webster: And the fact that I hate a blank page, I don't like not knowing where to start. Like I don't like being told what to do, obviously. But I don't like not knowing like, just even, just give me a framework that I can try on and then just see if it fits, then I'll make it my own from there. So there's that, there's that piece.
Tamsen Webster: There was another piece which, which was rooted in this tension of being this arts kid in business school for so many years. And and the fact that I, that there, there are these, these do, did represent really true two sides of me that co-existed in my head sometimes. Well, sometimes not, which is that I had, you know, deep love for kind of the passion based things of the arts and deep research and scholar, you know, and scholarship and, and.
Tamsen Webster: Going deep on stuff. I love that. And also there's a very, very strong, practical bent that sometimes works straight up against passion projects. And I, it, through observation, thanks, mom. I realized I'm not the only person who feels and experiences that tension between what's passion, you know, what's passion driven and what's practicality driven.
Tamsen Webster: But because I spent so much of my time in both worlds, so you know, I, and I did that. I'll always like, I, it was just, it was always a way for me to get a different perspective on things. So when I was, yes, I was an arts kid in high school, but I was also the manager of the varsity boys baseball team.
Tamsen Webster: And so, yes, I studied business when I was at BU, but I also got a liberal arts degree in. American studies and art history at the same time. And yes, I went to business school for organizational behavior, but I also got a master's in arts administration. And every role that I took on tended to sit in this kind of intersection between two on the surface competing worlds.
Tamsen Webster: So even when I took my pay cut and went back to the museum, I was sitting at the intersection between the marketing and the fundraising departments at a museum, which what's your kind of like, I mean, if you're not familiar with how nonprofits can go against each other with marketing and fundraising, think of any for-profit business and the tension that naturally exists between marketing and sales, it's the same.
Tamsen Webster: And when I was doing just even traditional marketing, okay. I sat between the world of the, of the institution. So this is where a lot of, and I was the marketer at a very deep passion. Places like an, you know, an art school at the Boston conservatory and the medical school at at Harvard. And again, here is this and my job as the marketing person was to translate these deep passions into things that people could understand.
Tamsen Webster: And again, I saw this tension between here are these amazing ideas and these amazing passions, and then the people who, who, you know, that are not, that could benefit so much and enjoy that stuff. They just haven't found. They haven't found the path to each other. And then it really, so there's, this was just, this is a constant theme in my life of how do you.
Tamsen Webster: This kind of translation of sitting between two worlds and operating in between them. And I just did, I did it so long. Then I seem to have become in a lot of ways, this kind of Cuban Rosetta stone, where I could, I could speech talk about passion in practical terms, but I could also kind of take the practical notion and translate it back to the artists and the scholars and the sciences about like, okay, I get that, you're doing this, but okay, let's take in this kind of practical aspect of, we need to raise money for it.
Tamsen Webster: And we need to pay for it. So how do we do that? And it really started to come into super sharp focus. Eight years ago, when I had the opportunity to become the executive producer of TEDx Cambridge and these academics, sciences scholars, these deeply passionate people. Now here was this very specific event where they needed to in many ways, encapsulate an entire.
Tamsen Webster: Body of work in three to 18 minutes for a lay audience for right, for people who are not, who didn't share their industry, who didn't necessarily share their passion, but they're there the whole point of Ted and the ideas we're spending is to ignite that interest in somebody else. And so I wanted to figure out what would be a Dakota ring and that's really what turned into the red thread that the book is all about because the red thread is this idiom from Nordic languages, generally in general, Northern Europe to talk about the theme, the big idea of something and its origin story, which I think we talked about last time was very similar to the, to the process that I was leading people through to, to do this decoding.
Tamsen Webster: And so I, I looked back at it, you know, to me that, you know, when you look back the past is a straight line. It all makes perfect sense to me though. There was no way. At all that I could have predicted that this is where I would've ended up or, or what I would've ended up doing or even creating, but it makes perfect sense as I look back on it because I created the thing that I wish I had.
Tamsen Webster: 30 35 years ago.
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Srini Rao: Again, that's thoughtworks.com/. Yeah, no, I mean, I, I remember, I mean, part of it, I think you probably remember this when I had to give a speech that was 15 minutes. I can't remember how I hired you because I was like, okay, I don't know how to give a 15 minute speech. That's way harder than giving an hour long speech.
Srini Rao: But let's get into the concepts in the book. You opened the, by saying the best way to make your idea irresistible. And you said this book could have been one sentence. The best way to make your idea irresistible is to build a story that people will tell themselves about it. The biggest obstacles to inspiring your audience, to act as the gap between what you want to say about your idea and what people need to hear about it, to be inspired, to act the human brain needs to hear a specific structure.
Srini Rao: And it all comes down to story. And you want to, when I read that I couldn't help, but think of some of the things we learned from meats, copywriting course, where everything was about shifting the focus from yourself to your audience. And what I wonder is why. Get so stuck on the story they want to tell versus the story that people need to hear about it
Tamsen Webster: because it's how they see the world.
Tamsen Webster: I don't even think that they get, it's just, it is, it is, it is the operating system and it computer can't read its own code. We do not even realize that we are stuck in our story. We don't realize it. Everything that we say is coming from the point of view of somebody who has already reached this conclusion already thinks that the idea is great.
Tamsen Webster: And we don't even realize that we've done it. It's the curse of knowledge made real. And that's, that's, that's it that's the simplest explanation is that we just don't even realize that we are telling it, you know, we are, we are, we are telling the story that we want to hear because it's the story that makes sense to us full stop.
Tamsen Webster: And so we think it must by definition, make sense to other people. And yet that's a known psychological. Fallacy and loop. Like we believe that the people around us generally believe the same things we do and that's, it's actually not true. And that's one of the reasons why I feel like it's so important that we are clear about it, own way of thinking so that we can be clearer about others, because it doesn't mean that we're it doesn't mean that we're not capable of closing those gaps, but we sure as heck can't close them if we don't know where they are.
Tamsen Webster: So yeah, I think that's what, that's, what it is is that we just we're operating from a code that we can't see. And the part of what, you know, it's, it's, you know, if there's a hidden agenda of the book, that's it. If there's kind of a free prize of the book, that's it? That it's actually a way to understand your own.
Tamsen Webster: Point of view your own worldview in a, in a, in a really clear, I think way that allows you to have now be able to kind of step back, open that control window into your own operating system and go, oh, I see what I'm doing here. And I see why I'm doing it. And once you understand that you've got all sorts of opportunities available to, you got to go.
Tamsen Webster: Sometimes you're going to see things you don't like, and then you want to change them. You can see you sometimes you'll see why you get stuck in patterns and you can change them. And sometimes you can see where you had strengths and power and consistency. Like I, you know, like I said, I solved, I wrote this book because I wanted it.
Tamsen Webster: It's, it's a book that solves for my own neuroses. I a hundred percent understand that. But when you understand that, you know, actually there is a pattern and, and a good one then, you know, for how you've lived your life so far I think there's power in that. And that was really part, part of what's important to me.
Tamsen Webster: It's not what I lead with in the book, but it is, it is one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about.
Srini Rao: Yeah, well, I mean, it reminds me one of your mentors said, he said, I don't think you understand your audience as well as you think, because he said you've never been in an office for the last 10 years and, you know, cause I read a lot about productivity and then it finally occurred to me that he was absolutely right.
Srini Rao: That, you know, the advice that you know is applicable for a single guy is not the same or nearly as effective for a mother with an infant. I and I, I learned this from one of our former guests who shows up to our mastermind calls with a baby in tow. I'm like, okay, nevermind an hour a day is probably not that realistic for her.
Tamsen Webster: Right. Yeah. I mean, I think I, and this probably again comes back to my mother and, and I would say. So I think we talked about this too, that one of the things that I studied when I was in college was American studies. And I don't know if American studies found me or I found it because it, it, it is very anthropological in its way of looking at all the all the, the forces coming at play and for American studies on a particular time period or a particular movement or moment.
Tamsen Webster: I don't know if I already did that. And therefore it was just, it was just a validation in a way to, to, to make that kind of more of a, an official path for me or whether that, that I, it would just fit really well. And so when I tried it on as a framework it continued to work very well, but I think you understand your own perspective and your own self and your own ideas so much better when, to the extent possible you can look at them through other's eyes.
Tamsen Webster: I've always just found value in that. And I mean, full, you know, full disclosure that, that came from it came from kind of a dark place. Because, you know, I think while my parents didn't push me to go to Stanford and say that I needed to be a doctor, a lawyer engineer I was expected to be right.
Tamsen Webster: I was expected to be correct. And there was a high praise pain in my family for not being right. I mean, it was emotional one. But there was a big focus on being correct and being right. And so you and my family is also a family of, I forget whose perspective this was originally where they talk about, there's like two cultures at play, you know, one of those classic oversimplifying of people into like two groups, but that there's askers and there's guessers where askers ask for what they want.
Tamsen Webster: And they, they tell you exactly what they need. And they say, No here basically are my operating instructions, follow them, and we'll be good. And then there's guessers who are set or basically go, well, guess what I need. And, and, and, and it's, and don't consider it proper to be, to say it out loud and that you should just know, well, from a wiring standpoint, you know, at least how it felt in my family was it, I was an asker and everybody else was a guesser.
Tamsen Webster: And I actually think that my sister is probably more of an asker than I give her credit for, but but it meant that that plus my anthropological mother meant that I spent a lot of time anticipating. My parents first and foremost, my sisters, and then eventually, you know, colleagues, coworkers, fellow students, you know, friends, lovers, every, everybody like I spent and spent a lot of time anticipating other people's reactions and trying to figure out in advance trying to account for the guessers, you know, from an askers point of view.
Tamsen Webster: And yeah, it's, it's, I think the, the more that we can, I mean, one of the things I say to my clients is I overthink, so you don't have to I that's part of what I really wanted to get through into the book too, was just like, listen, if you, if you, if you can ask, answer these questions about your idea, it's going to be just about as rock solid as you can make it.
Tamsen Webster: You know, as you can, as you could, because I've incorporated that like lifetime of lessons on where people are going to pick something apart and wear something. Fall apart where an argument where an explanation would fall apart. And it's all baked in. I mean, I elected not to write the book from that perspective.
Tamsen Webster: I really wanted to write the how to really practical book. But you know, there's probably three books worth of support for why every piece is exactly the way that it is.
Srini Rao: Yeah. Let's get into the pieces. When you say goal problem through the change action. These five elements are the answers to the questions, your brain, everyone asks about ideas.
Srini Rao: So can you walk us through this framework and how we apply it to our ideas?
Tamsen Webster: Yeah. So the, the, the story of the, those elements is that they are the, they are the fundamental building blocks of any story. And a, a point of academic inquiry for me still is whether the block. These building blocks are what the brain required and that's why stories have them, or that stories have been so built into our society.
Tamsen Webster: That that's what we've learned to look for over time. But they are what they are because of the role that they play in, in how we make sense of information. And the first one, the goal is why somebody would act at all because, and the goal is I define it is it's something somebody wants and doesn't yet have.
Tamsen Webster: And when we're talking about once upon a time stories, that's when we, the reader or the audience the viewer, the listener that's when we really started to engage, I may not be where the kind of quote unquote action of the story starts, but it's where our emotional engagement starts. So that's the goal.
Tamsen Webster: And that's, that's why somebody would act in the first place to, to achieve a thing. That's what they want. They don't have it yet, so they need to act in order to. The next thing that comes into play once upon a time stories. And in the story of an idea is a problem, a problem that somebody doesn't know about when they get started.
Tamsen Webster: It's, it's the reason why they don't have that thing yet. Right. So if you want to thing and you don't have it, well, there's a reason you don't have it yet. Why, why don't you have it yet? And so the problem is the problem is rooted there. When we're talking about the, the, the, the problem quote, unquote, as is, as it shows up in the red thread, is that it's a problem of perspective.
Tamsen Webster: Meaning it's it's attention and perspective. It's not a problem per se. It just, it fills the role of the problem, meaning that there's a way that people are looking at the situation right now. That's keeping them from seeing another way to be. And so that's what we have to identify. The third things, third major building block is, you know, that contrast between the way they've been looking and the way they could look Inevitably brings up a conflict or should cause every great story has, what's called a moment of truth, a point of no return, a climax and my favorite word for it, like total scrabbled word and ignore this, which is the moment that main character recognizes the true nature of their circumstances.
Tamsen Webster: And that's where the conflict of any story comes to a head. And so in the story of an idea maybe back to our conversations earlier Sweeney about you know, these baseline assumptions, there is something about how each of us individually sees the world that we're in, we're in the pursuit of something.
Tamsen Webster: And we realize that we're looking at the situation differently than everybody else. There is a reason why that is such a problem to us, and that is what I call the truth because it creates that moment. And when those things are all in play something, we want something we believe and a, a contract, you know, two contracting perspectives something's got to give and where in a once upon a time story, that moment of truth forces a choice, right?
Tamsen Webster: That means something's going to change. If you're going to give up what you want, or you're going to stop doing something or start doing something. That's what an and the red thread is the fourth piece. It's the change. That's the results of that moment of truth. So go problem, truth change. And then, you know, most stories don't stop with a decision.
Tamsen Webster: Action is the proof of understanding as I like to say. So that's the fifth piece of the red thread or one of the specific actions that need to be put in play in order to make that change. And all of those actually lead you back to the goal. So while there are five components, one of them is repeated because a story, any story, brain story, once upon a time story ends back at the beginning.
Tamsen Webster: When we see whether or not we got what we were looking for in the first place. And if we didn't, did we get something that we needed even more instead? So go problem, tooth change action. As I say in the book, they are, they are the things that make us make, make something make sense. Why would someone do it?
Tamsen Webster: Why don't they have it yet? Why, why is that such a problem for them? What can they do instead given what they know how do they do that? And then our, it was the final result.
Srini Rao: Wow. So I have a couple of questions about this one, I wonder is what role does research and data play in all of this? So, you know, it can go back to an example, you know, when we were talking earlier about the fact that just because somebody has a problem.
Srini Rao: It doesn't mean they care enough that they're willing to pay to solve it. Now I'll give you a concrete example. So we recently launched a course called attention mastery because the overwhelming majority of our audience said, you know, which is not surprising given that it's probably everybody's biggest problem these days that, you know, their challenge was managing their time and their attention because they're constantly distracted.
Srini Rao: So we created a course and it sold relatively well, but we don't, when we were looking at it, I said, well, people might have this problem. They don't necessarily care enough that they're willing to pay to solve it.
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, that's true. So where does data come in as, as far as understanding that you've got each of these pieces?
Tamsen Webster: Correct.
Srini Rao: Exactly. So, you know, people go through, you know, surveys trying to understand what their audience needs or whatever it is. It's pretty standard, you know, sort of market research tactic. But you know, how do you adapt the data into a read through.
Tamsen Webster: So there's a couple of different ways. And this is when I get to a smile, but musically, because I'm married to a market researcher, I'm married to, you know, researcher and statistician.
Tamsen Webster: And so, you know, I actually talked about this quite a bit because I get this question from clients a lot. They're like, well, how much do I already need to know about this? And how much research do I need to do? And you know, official professional market researcher, blessed answer, and which is that you need to do as much research as you need to do to feel comfortable.
Tamsen Webster: And as he would say, what's the, what's the price for not doing the research ahead of time. So that's, so that's the, that's his official answer. So in a lot of cases, I think it's useful, particularly for, you know, this is a high stakes kind of messaging that you're putting together that you're building a lot on it.
Tamsen Webster: It's probably worth doing some level of, I would say qualitative research. And qualitative research is important to start because it is what gives you an understanding of, of trends, of motivations, of questions to answer. And as, as Tom, my husband would tell you, your qualitative should always pre-seed quantitative because quantitative research is what you come in afterwards to drill down on something that was revealed from qualitative information.
Tamsen Webster: Now you can do this officially, right? You can go and hire somebody like Tom or Edison, the company he works for to do that kind of research. My experience honestly is an and the vast majority of cases doing more research is just a means of procrastination on this, because generally, particularly since we're talking about.
Tamsen Webster: Your individual or your company's point of view, you already know enough to answer most of these questions at least to draft a red thread to start. And then once you've got the elements it's worth going out, back out and, and testing that again, whether that's officially you know, and for, and professionally or anecdotally because the, the rather it is designed to get you to something that you can socialize.
Tamsen Webster: And that's, that's, that's, that's what I say about it. I mean, an idea existed between there was a really fascinating conversation with Steve jobs about this kind of the late eighties, early nineties, where he's talking about how you need, when you're coming up with ideas, you have to, you have to be willing to let it go, to see what other people do with it.
Tamsen Webster: And the red thread is a way that gets you there, but because it starts with who you're for and what problem that you want to solve with them. There, there is this. Intersection between what you know for sure is true about the people that you're talking to and the people that you want to have coming to you.
Tamsen Webster: And I think that that's an important intersection because you, if you, and this is a lesson I learned in, in when I was doing non-profit. So I think it's particularly dangerous for nonprofits because there's money behind these conversations. And what I mean by that is, you know, any nonprofit organization has a mission, it's they, Jen, you know, it's one of those things that over time for-profit companies have taken on is like a thing that they borrowed from the nonprofits.
Tamsen Webster: That's going to mission statement thing. But for nonprofits it's really important because that's exactly the reason why they exist. And nonprofits need money. And that money often comes from people with their own agendas and their own mission statements. Would you, you could say. And so what, what can happen to an, a nonprofit is that in the pursuit of money that they need to stay open, they can pull themselves pretty far off mission because they need to get the money and over time, like, you know, one time here or there isn't gonna be a problem.
Tamsen Webster: But if you consistently do that, then all of a sudden you've pulled the money away from your core mission. And you're ending up doing this kind of mishmash of things instead. And I think that same lesson is true for anybody and, and any organization is that, that you, you want to make sure what you're looking for is a balance between the people that you serve and.
Tamsen Webster: What you want to serve them. And then if you go too far to what the market wants, quote unquote you'll end up constantly chasing that and never be able to put down roots where you are and not build the, the equity and the experience in that, in that place. And at the same time, you don't want to be blind to it because then to your point that we were talking about earlier, then you end up solving a problem that nobody has.
Tamsen Webster: And so it really is about finding that intersection. And, you know, it was really interesting in the early parts of the pandemic. You know, I, I saw a lot of people do what I was going, moving to COVID town, meaning rather than stay where they were and find a way to kind of draw a new maps from where people were kind of concerned about.
Tamsen Webster: What does this mean for my job? Or I've got this renewed focus on whatever. And showing them how, whatever they offered, like, whatever you offer was still relevant to those people. You just need to draw a different path to it. I saw a lot of people kind of move to COVID tab, like, oh, I'm going to completely change what I do and change everything about my messaging, because that's where the market is.
Tamsen Webster: Except you've just moved to a new town. Like you don't know where anything is, people don't know you there. It's a lot easier to kind of establish and make really strong connections with what you've already been doing and just draw better maps. And so I think that's a, I think that's a, it's a perpetual challenge, but it really does come down to that balance between what do you already know?
Tamsen Webster: What do you want it to be true? And what is actually true? And I think that's a, it's a fairly personal decision of how much research you do beforehand. And what the nature of the research is.
Srini Rao: Yeah. So there's one line in particular, and this is probably my favorite line from the entire book. And I wanted to ask you about this.
Srini Rao: You say you can't create the create change only the conditions for it. Sure. You can inspire someone to act depending on the situation. You can even force them actions occasional and often externally driven, but change is something quite different. As I like to remind people, when two truths fight only one lives, our brains cannot really let conflicts like that stand.
Srini Rao: We will change an order to relieve that mental discomfort and, you know, I couldn't help, but think about sort of something as simple as sort of everything we know about productivity and attention management, for example, we have all the information we need. You know, we've had Cal Newport here three or four times as applied guest guest, we have distraction, blockers galore.
Srini Rao: So, you know, like you said, we have the conditions to actually change that, but we don't, you know, and yet people don't.
Tamsen Webster: Cause they want something else more full-stop. I mean, I, that, I am so convinced of this. Like that was my, my, you know, my soul foray onto a TEDx stage was about this where I say the problem isn't that you don't love your goals enough it's you don't hate your problems more.
Tamsen Webster: And and it's a lesson I learned at weight Watchers to go back to my, to my bio. The, it is, and it's a very hard truth to accept, but fundamentally, and this is it's very dramatic, you know, in, in, in weight loss or health management. And I would imagine the same thing as true with attention and time management.
Tamsen Webster: The, the reason you're not doing something is because in a moment there is something you want to do more. And if you don't, if you don't bring that clarity to yourself, if you're not honest with yourself about it, That thing is that, that you may want both things, but when push comes to shove, one of them is winning out.
Tamsen Webster: And are, are you comfortable with that? That's what it's going to come down to because if you're not doing what you need to do to manage your time, if you're not doing what you need to do to manage your health, the way that you want to it's because there is something else that in that moment, you actually want more, what is that thing?
Tamsen Webster: And it could be comfort. It could be reassurance. It could be, I don't know, like it could be so many different things, but you know that when two threes fight only one lives, peace, again, is something that I called forth from my own experience, because it's how I . It's that kind of clarity about my own motivations, about surfacing those baseline assumptions and really forcing them and to choose where that's at in that moment where you can go, but I don't want to be someone who chooses that.
Tamsen Webster: Okay. So now that you know, that that's what you're doing now, now it's more, much more of a conscious choice. Because most of the time we just don't let ourselves confront those things and that's, but it is, it is can we assume, and I forget who says it, but there's somebody who says it's a mark of intellect, you know, of, of intellect that you can hold two truths in your head simultaneously.
Tamsen Webster: Absolutely. And still, but there will always come a moment where you're going to have to choose one of them and one of them will win out. And I just, you know, there's one thing that I've truly learned in this life is that. Your ability to surface that tension in your mind and be honest with yourself about what you're choosing is where the power of actually lies.
Srini Rao: Hmm. Wow. Well I think that makes a really beautiful and fitting end to our conversation. So I have one last question for you, which is how we finished all of our interviews of that mistake of well creative. What do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?
Tamsen Webster: It's their point of view?
Tamsen Webster: I think there are, and this is the thing that's gotten sharper and sharper over the last few years for me is that two people can be solving the same problem. They can have a very similar answer but nobody has lived the life that you have. And. And these individual components, you know, they are what I talk about in the book, but each of them reflects a points of, of separation of fork in the road between different people on what, on, you know, what could look like very similar paths, but it really comes down to the fact that literally no one has your exact same point of view and your ability to surface that point of view to live it, to embody it, to articulate it, to be it, to be true to it, to honor it to further it.
Tamsen Webster: It's the people who do that, that are the ones that you say, at least that I say are truly unmistakable.
Srini Rao: Amazing. Well, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us and share your story, your wisdom and insights with the listeners. Where can people find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything else that you're up
Tamsen Webster: to?
Tamsen Webster: Yeah, everything else is it? Tamsen webster.com. I literally the only Tamsen Webster in the universe. So it's yes. Thanks mom and dad for weird first name. But everything's there and if they want to go straight to more information about the book, they can go to red thread, book.com that will land me at land them on their page, my home page, and it will land them on my website anyway, but there they can go to, they can find it.
Tamsen Webster: They can get some extra goodies for ordering it if they want. And I, I am happy that people are responding well to it. So it is delightful and I hope your listeners find it useful.
Srini Rao: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with. Thank you for listening to this episode of the unmistakable creative podcast while you were listening.
Srini Rao: Were there any moments you found fascinating, inspiring, instructive, maybe even heartwarming. Can you think of anyone, a friend or a family member who would appreciate this moment? If so, take a second and share today's episode with that one person because good ideas and messages are meant to be shared.
Tamsen Webster has spent the last twenty years helping experts drive action from their ideas. Part message strategist, part storyteller, part English-to-English translator, her work focuses on how to find and build the stories partners, investors, clients, and customers will tell themselves—and others.