Michael Bungay Stanier on Curiosity, Coaching, and Worthy Goals

I recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Bungay Stanier, an author of particular renown, who I’m thrilled to feature here for your reading pleasure 🙂

Michael has written books that have sold about a million copies all told, including The Coaching Habit, a self-published book that’s become the best-selling book on coaching this century.

He founded a training and development company, Box of Crayons, that has taught coaching skills to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Some facts and stats before we start:

  • He’s been happily married for 30 years or so
  • He was a Rhodes Scholar
  • He created a book with Seth Godin that raised $400,000 for Malaria No More
  • He’s been named #1 Thought Leader in Coaching and a Coaching Guru
  • He’s launched several podcasts spoken to crowds of thousands
Michael’s Books

How to Begin

Learn how to start something that matters

The Coaching Habit

Learn how to stay curious for longer

The Advice Trap

Learn how to tame your advice monster

Do More Great Work

Learn how to find, start and sustain great work

Michael Bungay Stanier Interview

1. You did a law degree, followed by the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship – how did you make the transition to author and coach?

There’s a saying, “inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense”. By my early thirties, I’d accumulated a certain amount of experience about what I didn’t want to do, and what perhaps I did.

I started my business when I got fired from a job, and realized that I wasn’t that great at having a boss.

I wrote my first book when a friend said they were going to take the idea and turn it into a book, because I’d been talking about it for ages but not done anything…so I clearly wasn’t serious.

I quickly became serious.

2. Why is coaching such an important topic?

“Coaching” can come with a certain amount of woo-woo, self-help baggage.

But at its best, it’s an everyday of showing up and staying curious a little bit longer about the person and the situation.

What it can lead to is people unlocking their own greatness, and people focusing on the stuff that matters.

In other words, better being and doing.

💬 “One of the laws of change: As soon as you try something new, you’ll get resistance.”

3. As a coach, what have you found the most common challenges people face in life?

The external challenges range widely, but the internal challenges are much more universal:

  • How do I know what I want to do?
  • How do I make my relationships with others more “adult to adult”?
  • How do I say Yes to stuff that matter, and No to the things that get in the way of the stuff that matters? How do I back myself?
  • How do I increase my confidence, my competence, and my autonomy?

4. If you had to summarise the most practical advice from your books to help people address these challenges and improve their lives, what would it be?

A core phrase for me is “we unlock our greatness by working on the hard things”.

Figure out a challenge that’s thrilling, important, and daunting for you.

Commit to it. Find people to support you.

Begin the journey, and see how you make progress on something that matters, and how you change and grow as you do so.

💬 “You sense the stirrings of your own ambition. You know that you have more to contribute. You want to shake things up and make a difference. You want to learn and grow. You want to use your power for good. And you’re ready to begin.”

5. Curiosity seems to be a prominent theme in your work. How can people develop this crucial trait?

Practice, mostly.

We’ve been trained into leaping in fast with advice, opinions, solutions.

You’re just trying to slow that down…there’s a time and place for advice, it’s just a little later in the conversation.

I’ve got a TEDx talk called “How to tame your advice monster”. Watch that for a deeper dive.

6. Finding a worthy goal to work on is a central part of your book, ‘How to Begin’. How can people discover purpose in their lives and pursue worthy goals?

See iv.

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7. What books should someone read to complement your work?

What books resonate with people depends on so many things.

I think it’s helpful to keep looking for teachers that are helpful.

Sometimes those are book authors, but they can also be podcasters and courses and all sorts of other modalities.

Some authors I happen to love and keep coming back to are Seth Godin (Purple Cow, Ship It), Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist), and Debbie Millman (Why Design Matters).

8. A personal question now, as I’m always fascinated to hear how authors and creatives work – what does your daily routine look like?!

It’s a bit erratic.

Currently, I’m trying to do exercise of some sort before I get sucked into my inbox, and because I’ve got three books I’m currently writing, writing before 10am.

Tuesdays are meeting free.

💬 “You have to help people do more of the work that has impact and meaning.”

9. Which book would you make required reading in school?

That’s a great question.

I’m not sure of the books, but the skills I’ve come to value are kindness, understanding how money works (with a side serving of what it means to be an entrepreneur), and contribution to your community.

10. What are your favourite quotes?

  • “This one goes to 11” – Spinal Tap
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” – William Blake
  • “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” — Yogi Berra
  • “And then there is using everything” – Gertrude Stein

11. What other books have influenced you the most and why?

  • Bill Bryson, A Short History Of Nearly Everything. I love how it makes science interesting, and makes me amazed and grateful to be alive on this planet at this moment.
  • Austin Kleon’s trilogy: wise, short and beautifully designed.
  • Edward de Bono, Seth Godin, and Tom Peters … for writing short books with a single idea in them

12. If you could have a dinner party with any other authors (past and present), who would they be?

David Malouf (An Imaginary Life). Ovid. Mary Doria Russell (The Sparrow). Bill Bryson. Judith Wright (Australian poet)

💬 “When you build a coaching habit, you can more easily break out of three vicious circles that plague our workplaces: creating overdependence, getting overwhelmed and becoming disconnected.”

13. What are you reading now?

Ed Young’s An Immense World. Martha Wells, The Murderbot Diaries. Lots of books about organizational change (a topic for one of my next books).

Summary

✍️ Practice developing curiosity
✍️ Figure out a challenge that’s thrilling, important, and daunting for you. Commit to it. Find people to support you.
✍️ Skills to learn: kindness, money management, community contribution.
✍️ Reading recommendation: Austin Kleon.
✍️ Quote – “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” — Yogi Berra