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The power of having a growth mindset – and changing your environment

These are some of the first questions I ask whenever I start working with a new client. 

I like to ask them because it tells me a lot about whether a person has a fixed or a growth mindset. 

For those unfamiliar with psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on the power of mindsets, allow me to provide a quick rundown: 

Those who possess a ‘fixed mindset’, says Dweck, believe that their intelligence and talents are set in stone from birth. Those with a ‘growth mindset’, on the other hand, are more likely to believe they can develop their natural abilities with hard work and determination. They learn from their experiences to achieve their goals. 

In my old life as a corporate trainer, I ran into a lot of the former. Very few of the business executives I worked with had their own plan on how to improve themselves and their companies. Worse still, they weren’t willing to invest the time and money necessary to get started. It always shocked me when people would say, “I really want to do (fill in the blank), but my boss didn’t approve it.” Inevitably, I would reply: “Well, I guess you’ll have to pay for it yourself.” You would think I had suggested something truly offensive.

It’s not easy for everyone to set aside money for their growth, and of course, I get that. But rest assured, your learning budget doesn’t need to be some monumental amount. When I started my entrepreneur journey, my budget might have been $30 for books and a library card. It wasn’t much, but it got me started. And that’s worth its weight in gold. 

Of course, all the money in the world won’t amount to anything if you aren’t willing to ask yourself the tough questions; questions like: do you know where you want to go? Do you know your blind spots? Do you want to improve?  

The individuals I work with now don’t shy away from these questions. They epitomize the ‘growth mindset.’ They see where they are now, but more importantly, they are always thinking about creating a future that is bigger than their present – both personally and professionally. 

Jim Kaloutas, owner of Kaloutas – one of the leading commercial painting, industrial flooring and fireproofing companies in New England – is a proud owner of a growth mindset. Considering his level of success, it would be very easy for him to think, ‘I know everything I need to know.’ Instead, he continually invests in himself. He has been an active participant in various strategic coaching and entrepreneurial organizations for more than a dozen years. He is always learning. He is always asking questions. 

On top of all that, he applies this same growth mindset to the people who work for him. He believes in coaching for every member of his team. He is very proud of the training program he facilitates, and he should be. Jim understands that when you invest in yourself and your team, everybody wins. 

That’s the thing about growth mindsets: they are the farthest thing from passive. By their very nature, they require upkeep. 

That’s why I recommend changing your environment from time to time. 

Thomas Leonard, one of the founders of the coaching industry, developed a tool called the ‘Nine Environments of You.’ His theory is that basically everything we do in life involves a unique environment. Our thoughts are an environment. Our relationships are an environment. Our health is an environment. Our finances are an environment. And so on. 

One of the core things I took away from Leonard’s theory is that the environments we put ourselves in either move us closer to, or further away from, our goals. 

This came into focus for me at a conference a number of years ago, where a speaker asked us to write down the three biggest professional successes of our lives to date. After we had all written down our answers, he asked: “How many of those successes required you to change your environment?” 


It was one of those moments that’s always stuck with me, because as I looked down at my paper, I realized all my biggest wins had occurred away from home. When I got uncomfortable and changed my surroundings, amazing things happened.  

Take the beginning of the pandemic, for example, when I lost about 85 percent of my business, seemingly overnight. I was a guy who went to boardrooms and shook hands. How on Earth was I going to make this work? 

Feeling distraught, I phoned up a friend – someone I have a ton of respect for, both personally and professionally – and I asked him what he thought about my predicament. His response, though I didn’t know it right away, would change everything.

He said: “Shawn, the next little while is going to be full of unknowns, and it’s going to be tough financially, regardless of what you do – whether you spend your time complaining or whether you try something new.” 

Then he said: “Just focus on serving the clients that you absolutely love, and go from there.”

When we got off the phone, I thought about my friend’s advice – and thought some more. ‘Couldn’t he have been a little more specific?’ I grumbled internally. 

I decided to start by taking out a pen and paper and writing down a list of those clients I absolutely love; the clients I’d love to have over to my house for dinner. When I was finished, I looked over each name on my list and thought: “how can I serve them today?”

And that was when I decided to bring my pre-pandemic “Socials with Shawn” series to the wonderful world of Zoom.

In the pre-pandemic days, “Socials with Shawn” was an in-person event that brought together my best clients and their friends. There was music, and food, and coaching, and fun. I had no idea how such an event would translate to the online world, but I was willing to give it a shot. So, I created a Zoom account, set a date for the following Monday evening, invited those clients from my list, and hit “send.”

Then, I stared at my computer screen. Would anyone even be interested?

As it turned out, the answer was yes. That same day, much to my surprise, the RSVPs starting rolling in. “Oh”, I thought, “I guess I’d better come up with something!” 

As someone without much prior experience in online hosting platforms, I called one of my Zoom-savviest friends. I explained my situation, confessed that I was afraid of hitting the wrong buttons and screwing the whole thing up, and she generously offered to serve as my backstage manager for the event on Monday. Phew.

Over that weekend, I solidified my vision for the inaugural virtual edition of “Socials with Shawn.” I had a pretty good feeling that what people were largely looking for was a nice distraction from all the craziness swirling around them at the moment. They wanted an opportunity to connect with other business leaders and talk about what they were going through, but they also wanted to have some fun. So, those were my two main goals.  

On Monday evening, five minutes before the event started, I logged in with my backstage manager and waited. There was nobody in the waiting room, just the two of us. Two minutes passed, and I started to get queasy. “This is so embarrassing,” I said to my friend. “I’m so sorry to have wasted your time.” She shook her head and said: “Just wait.”

Then, someone showed up. Then another. And then another. And all of the sudden, there were 16 people in the Zoom room. Sixteen people from three different countries. The 90 minutes flew by, as we reconnected over laughs, shared experiences, and tips and tools for the workplace. 

For a lot of these folks, it was their first time attending any kind of networking event with people from outside their industry. As it turned out, they had a lot more in common than they thought. As many of them learned that first night – and in the many nights that followed, as this event eventually morphed into my monthly membership group – something that seems like common knowledge in one industry can be life-changing in another.  

What began as an experiment has become so much greater than I ever could have imagined. By taking a risk and dipping my toe into the virtual landscape – despite having no idea what was beneath the water – I realized just how much potential lay before me; potential I didn’t even know existed before the pandemic.

Before 2020, I was used to going to clients’ houses, presenting in their boardrooms, playing by their rules. And as much as I enjoyed that, in a way, it kept my horizons from expanding. I was always working with the same people, around the same tables, repeating the same patterns. Having to move away from in-person interactions forced me to re-think everything. It forced me to think about how I could play host instead; how I could both provide the content and create the connections that so many of my clients were longing for.

By giving my own growth mindset a good workout, I created the opportunity for others to do the same. That’s the power of changing your environment. That’s where the growth lies.  


Takeaway Tip:

Ask yourself the following questions and respond accordingly: 

  • Do you intentionally put yourself in new environments? 
  • Do you have a plan to meet leaders from different industries?
  • Do you make it a habit to leave your comfort zone?
  • Do you have a learning plan for yourself and your team? What is the one smallest action step you can take today to move that forward?

‘One and done’ doesn’t equal lasting results

As someone who spent a huge chunk of their professional life working in the keynote and corporate training industry, I can confidently say that hiring someone to speak at your conference or sit down with your staff for half a day of training doesn’t work – at least, not if your goal is to create lasting, sustainable change for your company. 

Time and time again, back in those days, I found myself frustrated with the limitations inherent to the ‘one-and-done’ delivery model. I knew that real, long-term results were impossible without follow-up and accountability, but more often than not, that wasn’t what companies wanted to hear. They wanted the quick fix. 

This couldn’t have been more clearly illustrated to me than during a session I was leading for a big multinational organization about 10 years ago. 

I was there to facilitate training on how to improve your presentation skills, but I decided to start the session by asking the following question: “Who is your favourite speaker or trainer that you’ve ever seen?” I gave everyone in the room a couple minutes to write down their answers, and then asked them to share. 

As we went around the room, it turned out that about 80 percent had written down the same person – a national trainer for their organization. I thought, ‘isn’t that interesting?’ and asked them to elaborate. “What did you like about him?” I asked, to which most replied something along the lines of: “He was really funny” or “He was super nice.”

Before I go any further in this story, I want to make it very clear that I don’t intend to downplay the importance of these qualities in someone who aims to inspire. Humor and kindness can go a long way in reaching your audience. But then I asked the following question: “What is one thing you learned from him that you’ve applied to your work – and it’s changed your results?”

Suddenly, it was like I was at the front of a ninth-grade math class. Everybody was looking down, hiding their faces. Not one answer. These were the same people who, moments ago, were so happy to share how much they loved this guy. This was their rock-star teacher. And yet, not a single person could tell me something they had taken from that session that actually made an impact on their day-to-day. 

I realized in that moment that it all comes down to action and accountability. Without these two essential ingredients, nothing will change. 

I decided to split that session up into two days of training at either end of the work week, rather than two days in a row, to try and test this theory. 

On Monday, I taught them some of the skills they would need to improve their presentation skills, and then I gave them a homework assignment. When I returned on Friday, everyone would have to lead a 10-minute presentation on what they had learned during the session. It was a microcosmic way of getting them to put their new learning into action. 

Fast forward to Friday, and the results were incredible. Some of the higher-ups came to watch the presentations and couldn’t believe their eyes. “What did you do?” They asked me. And as much as I would like to take some credit, the magic was really that they had to immediately apply what they had learned. Shawn was coming back on Friday and they needed to do something. 

The bottom line here is this: the keynote and corporate training industry is great. It can inspire some big ideas. It can entertain. But without application and follow-up, there is very little chance of changing the results, habits, and behaviours of you and your team. Without a plan, without accountability, that enthusiasm and energy will die very quickly. 

There is a fantastic little book on my bookshelf called ‘Know Can Do: Put Your Know-How Into Action.’ And when I read that book many years ago, it was like a lightbulb moment for me. I had finally found a book that was talking about the real issue. We don’t have a learning problem. We don’t have a content problem (Google takes care of that.) We have a ‘doing and applying to get results’ problem. And unless you’re committed to lasting change for you and your organization, I encourage you to save your money on the one-off trainers and speakers.  

Donald Kirkpatrick’s famous ‘Four Levels of Training Evaluation’ – also known as the Kirkpatrick Phillips Model – puts all of this into glorious perspective. 

I first learned about the Kirkpatrick Phillips Model from a long-ago mentor of mine, Chuck. Chuck was my boss at that big multinational company in Ottawa – the one I went to work for after quitting my job at the restaurant. 

At the time, I was developing and delivering corporate training in my role as ‘Head of Business Development’, and Chuck was someone who had a lot of faith in me. He had seen me work, and he knew I wanted to get to the next level in my career. One day, he pulled me aside and asked me if I had ever heard of the Kirkpatrick Phillips Model. When I said no, he gave me the Cole’s Notes (or, rather, the Chuck’s notes.)  

In a nutshell, the Kirkpatrick Phillips Model can be used to analyze the impact of your training – to determine if and how your team members learned anything – and to enhance your future training. It outlines four levels of evaluation; with questions you can apply to any session you lead. In its most basic form, it looks like this:  

Level 1: did your audience like the presentation? 

Level 2: did your audience learn something? 

Level 3: did your audience learn something and immediately apply it?    

Level 4: did your audience immediately apply what they learned and see a difference in results?

Chuck told me most trainers only ever hit Levels 1 and 2. He said that if I wanted to be in the top 10-15 percent – if I wanted to have a lasting impact – I had to hit Level 3 and 4. Every time. The only way to reach Level 3 and 4, he added, is with action, follow-up, and accountability. 

It was an ‘Aha Moment.’ I couldn’t believe no one had ever taught me this before.  

Twenty years later, I remain a faithful disciple of the Kirkpatrick Phillips Model. My work, and everything I do, is geared toward Level 4. I don’t want to be a one-off speaker, and that’s exactly why I moved to an ‘invite- and referral-only’ model a few years ago. I don’t take gigs unless you’re committed to doing the work and the follow-up. 

What I do is not for the faint of heart. I don’t run the kinds of workshops where you take notes in a boardroom all day and then never open that notebook again. I know that in order to get results, you need to take action and be accountable to those results, and this is at the heart of everything I do. 


Takeaway Tip: 

Whenever you’re learning something new, whether it’s from a speaker, a group coaching program, or even a YouTube video, ask yourself this question: “What is the one insight I’m going to take away from this?” 

Write down the smallest action step that you could do in the next six hours. And do it. 

If you really want to accelerate your learning, take that insight that you just learned and teach it to somebody else in the next 90 minutes. 

Time Blocking – Give Each Hour of Your Day a Job to Do

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting at the Denny’s in Ottawa, getting ready to enjoy my Grand-Slam breakfast and coffee. I had been in town visiting my mom (she was in the later part of her life, and so I often found myself travelling from Toronto to Ottawa to see her.) And being the voracious reader that I am, I always had a book with me.

On that particular morning, I was carrying around a book called “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. I had brought it with me on the trip, thinking at some point I’d crack it open. As I waited for my breakfast, thinking ahead to the four and-a-half hour drive back to Toronto that lay before me, I decided there was no time like the present.

By the time the server came by with my food, I was already completely absorbed in this book. I couldn’t put it down. I actually ended up saying to the server: “Do you mind if I stay here and have coffee and finish my book?” She said sure, and 90 minutes later I finished it. (And yes I left her a generous tip)

My experience with “The E-Myth” is not a unique one. It has been lauded by entrepreneurs the world over. Its main principle can be summarized like this: there’s a big difference between working in the business and working on the business.

Working in the business is all about taking care of the day-to-day. And, obviously, this is essential. Working on the business, on the other hand, is just as (if not more) important. Working on the business is all about making time to work on your future vision for the company. It’s about creating your vision and working toward its realization.

Too often, when I start to work with business owners, they are working in the business and not on the business. I always say the same thing: creating daily space for future focus is critical to your business today and you’re growing your business for tomorrow.

Many people are familiar with the concept of working in vs. working on the business. But there’s a huge gap between knowing something and actually doing it. We need to treat our brilliant brains like they are plants; we need to feed them and tend to them in order for them to grow. If we don’t do this, if we don’t invest that crucial time into expanding our mindsets, we will forever stay working in the business and not on the business.

Making Room to Create

Before we get into working on our future visions, we need to create the time and space. For me, the very first thing I needed to do was create a ‘Stop Doing at All Costs’ list. Some of the things on that list included:

1) Jumping into emails first thing in the morning.
2) Working without a plan.
3) Letting everybody and everything else grab myattention at all times – that includes texts, emails, social media, etc.
4) Saying yes to the people and projects that don’t feed my future vision.
5) Indulging in the old habits that don’t serve me.

Slowly but surely, adhering to my ‘Stop Doing At All Costs’ list gave me the space I so desperately

I created space to focus on what really mattered.

This is where a lot of people seem to get stuck. They like the idea of prioritizing focus time, but they can’t wrap their hands around where to find it in their already-crammed calendars. And they’re right. Their current calendar is crammed. But that’s where a ‘Stop Doing At All Costs’ list comes in handy. If we want to get closer to our future vision, we need to stop saying yes to things that don’t serve that vision in any way, shape or form.

I know this may sound impossible, but the truth is that we make commitments all the time. We put meetings in our calendars and, because they’re there, we show up for them. I think back to pre-pandemic times, when I used to do kickboxing classes 4-5 times a week. The class I went to was at 5:30 p.m., and the funny thing is, it was always the same 15-20 people there. Over time, as I got to know my classmates, I discovered they were a pretty high performing bunch outside the gym. I was struck by the fact that these incredibly busy people made time for this activity, and one thing they all had in common was that they put ‘kickboxing’ in their calendars. That little bit of structure and commitment feed them.

The simple fact of the matter is that when you make a commitment, even to somebody you only know as your kickboxing buddy, you show up.

It’s all about owning your calendar.

So, what does this ‘radical’ idea actually look like in practice? To answer that question, I like to lean on the advice of one of my favourite authors, Cal Newport. In his amazing book, ‘Deep Work’, he talks about a concept called ‘time blocking.’ Time blocking is the practice of assigning a job to each hour of your day. This can be challenging at first, but the results might just blow your mind. Here’s an example of how I use time blocking in my day:

‘no phone zone.’

85 percent of them will make me say, ‘what was I thinking?’ but 15 percent won’t. Plus, the sheer act of writing them down every day is like working a muscle at the gym.

At some point during the day, I will block out some time to answer emails. This may seem like a small thing, but it’s a crucial part of the time management puzzle. Before I started doing this, I would be distracted all day long. When I started restricting myself to one hour a day for checking and responding to emails, I was amazed by how focused I was able to be for the rest of the day.

Follow-through is really important here. I can’t stress that enough. If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘I’ll see if I have the time’, chances are you won’t find it. If you’re not conscious and deliberate about the way you manage your time, I can almost guarantee that your old habits will keep calling the shots.

Now, I’m by no means an expert at time blocking. It’s something I’ve been working on for a few years, and it’s still a work in progress. That being said, even in its imperfection, it’s been a total game changer for me. As I said in last month’s playbook, 80 to 90 percent of my current work and opportunities were created from time blocked periods. If I had waited until I felt fully confident starting this practice, I would probably still be struggling with the same things I was struggling with before.

Ok Shawn, I’ve Locked My Phone Up, Now What Do I Do?

So, you scheduled time into your day to work distraction free.

You turned your phone off and locked it away, or put it in another room. Now what?

I get asked that question a lot.

There is no “right” or “wrong” ways to invest your focus time, and I totally understand that it can be challenging to start.

And there is incredible power in asking great questions.

Questions are essential for lifetime growth. As children, when
we’re all growing at a rapid rate, we ask lots of questions. As we
get older, we gradually begin to think we have a lot of the
answers. For some people, their entire sense of security and self-
image depends on having all the answers – on never being wrong.
As a result, these people try to understand everything in terms of
what they know. But all growth lies in the territory of the unknown.
What we already know is in the past. What we have yet to discover
is in the future. Always make your questions bigger than your
answers, and you’ll keep drawing yourself into a bigger future with new possibilities.

Dan Sullivan, Catherine Nomura
“The Laws of Lifetime Growth”

Start Your Day Strong

Back before the pandemic, I was doing a live session at a corporate retreat with about 180 people. I
started my session by asking the following question: “When you wake up, how many of you reach for your
phone first thing?” There was a ripple of laughter, but about 90 percent of the audience put their hands

Too many of us reach for our phones before we get out of bed, before we even look over at our spouses. And when you reach for your phone before you’ve even had a chance to properly wake up, you’re effectively saying ‘I don’t want to drive the bus today.’ You start looking at all those emails and texts and meeting requests that came in overnight, and you’re letting everyone else dictate your day.

So, let’s flip that switch. How do you want to start your day every day? What is the routine you want to commit to doing that will set you up for success for the day? I had to experiment with a lot of different things, but now my mornings tend to involve some reading, some meditation, maybe a little exercise. Mostly importantly, I don’t look at my phone for the first 90 mins of the day.

Your routine might look different, and that’s okay. So long as you’re being mindful of starting your day off strong, and committing to your daily focus time, you’re going to see results – and those results will be life changing. Not just business changing. Life changing.

Own Your Schedule, Or Someone Else Will

I work with business owners and leaders who have had a tremendous amount of success, long before meeting me. Typically, when they reach out to me, it’s not because they’ve stopped seeing success. It’s because it’s challenging to take that success to the next level. In other words, the tactics that got them to where they are today won’t get them to the next level.

One of the very first things I ask clients to do is track how they spend every single minute of the day. I ask them to do this for a full week. And when I say every minute, I mean every minute. If they go on LinkedIn for eight minutes, I want to know about it. If they’re in a meeting for 63 minutes, I want to know about that too. You get the idea.

I’m sure you can also surmise that it’s not a very popular exercise. But it works. Here’s how.

Once those seven days are up, I ask my clients the following question: “Where was your thinking time?” If they stare back at me with a blank expression (which is more common than you might think) I try again: “you know, the time in your calendar specifically devoted to thinking about your future, to creating, to exploring new opportunities and ways to think?

Usually, this is followed by an awkward silence.

What I’m trying to communicate to my clients is this: if we don’t own our schedules and actually pencil in time to think, those opportunities don’t happen.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t do this. Back when I was a traveling keynote speaker, living out of suitcases and airport waiting rooms, my then-coach was always on me about my time management. I distinctly remember her asking me to look at my calendar and figure out when my next free day was.

Oh, that’s easy,” I said. “It’s in 15 days. I’ll be flying that day…

Promptly, she cut me off. “No, I want to know when is the next day you have zero plans.

I shuffled through my calendar and, horrified, realized my next totally free day was 39 days away. “Huh,

I thought. “No wonder I’m a bit burnt out.

I’ve since learned how crucial it is to give yourself time – and I mean really give yourself time – to think. I don’t know about you, but my best ideas don’t come to me in boardrooms or Zoom meetings or conference calls. They come to me in the shower, or on a walk in the park, or on vacation, or while I’m sleeping. In other words, I do my best thinking when I have nothing else to distract me.

Airplanes are a perfect example of this theory in practice (or, at least, they used to be – before they started offering in-flight Wi-Fi.) Back in the day, without the entirety of the world wide web beckoning me from my pocket, I would dream up all kinds of ideas on airplanes. Nowadays, I get the same effect on subway cars (here’s hoping the Toronto Transit Commission doesn’t introduce in-service Wi-Fi anytime soon.)

Bottom line: we need to create the conditions for our brains to get, well, creative. We live in an incredibly distracted world. Making time to think and create is an extraordinary gift we give to ourselves. But we need to actually schedule it –daily.

About five years ago, I started my journey with Strategic Coach. One of the core principles of this program is the importance of identifying each day of your week as a Focus Day, a Rest Day, or a Buffer Day. On Focus Days, you shut down all distractions and work solely on your future self or company. On Rest Days, you commit to well, resting and relaxing. Buffer Days make up probably 99 percent of the population’s every day. These are the days where you do a little bit of everything – work, social media, other distractions, etc.

Learning how to actually schedule my Focus Days, Rest Days, and Buffer Days was really challenging. It took me a long time to get into the habit, but once I did, I can honestly say it was life changing. I started by committing myself to something I called ‘Championship Monday.’ Every Monday, I would go to the local public library with only two rules in mind: 1) Turn off your phone, and 2) Work solely on ‘Future Me’ or ‘Future Company’ activities. It sounds simple, but it was extremely difficult – at first. I so clearly remember my first Champion Day. I was so excited. I went and got a large coffee, got to the library, sat down, turned my phone off, and then thought: “Now what?” Within five minutes, I was sheepishly reaching for my phone.

Luckily, I stuck with the practice, and now it’s a habit I’ve kept. More than 80 percent of the work I’m doing now got its footing on those Focus Days, my Champion Mondays.

At this point, I’m fully aware that you might be thinking: “Well, Shawn, that sounds great, but there’s no way I can schedule a full day every week just to think.” To that, I say: start with 30 minutes. Right this minute, I want you to slot 30 minutes into your calendar for thinking time. Then I want you to schedule 30 minutes at the same time tomorrow, and again for the day after, and again for the day after that. Make sure it’s always the same time (trust me on this one – it works). During that focused 30 minutes (or 60 if you’re feeling brave) I want you to turn your phone off and work on one topic or question that will bring you closer to where you want to be in the future. Whatever you do, don’t use this
time for day-to- day stuff. You can do that any other time. This 30 (or 60) minutes is just for creating your Future Self and Company.