May 04, 2022

Gerd Leonhard on understanding between the lines, his favorite apps and tools, sharing bookmarks and tags, keynote storylines, and using visual catalogs (Ep19)

“Sometimes you just have to say, I don’t know why, I have no idea what that is. I think a lot of people are under a lot of pressure to know everything, understand everything, especially in our business, and you just can’t.”

– Gerd Leonhard

Tim O'Reilly
About Gerd Leonhard

Gerd is a Futurist and a Humanist, a leading global Keynote Speaker (live-on-stage as well as virtually and remotely), the author of 5 books including ‘Technology & Humanity’ and ‘The Future of Content’. He is the CEO of The Futures Agency, and was named in Wired UK’s most influential people in Europe, among other accolades.

What you will learn

  • Why thriving on overload is practice (01:56)
  • How to make the most of your time while travelling (03:30)
  • How to make feeds work for you (05:58)
  • Pulling together, digesting, then making sense of information (08:47)
  • How to make ideas, sentences, and phrases and distill them into your own (10:32)
  • Knowing your purpose is the best filter for information (12:39)
  • Why the shiny new technology also has disadvantages (17:22)
  • How to manage your attention for focus and refreshing (18:44)
  • How to organise information with hashtags (23:27)
  • How to be ruthless when filtering information by picking out good sources (28:20)

Episode resources

Transcript

Ross Dawson: Fantastic to have you on the show Gerd.

Gerd Leonhard: Thanks for having me.

Ross: You’ve been a futurist for how many years?

Gerd: Almost 20 now, I feel old.

Ross: In that role of a futurist, you have to keep across an extraordinary amount of change. All these news items that are going on, you’re scanning that, making sense of it, helping people going out in the world. What’s the most important thing? How on earth do you do it?

Gerd: You have to practice over time to deal with a huge amount of information and understanding. I think the most important thing I’ve realized over the years, is it’s not so important just to understand in terms of logic, with reports and spreadsheets, but it’s important to understand between the lines. That requires a wide reading. Basically, 90% of what I do is reading, research, and talking to people about stuff, it has just become a lifestyle. Something we have to watch out for, I think as a professional, as futurist, to do a lot of different topics, is overload. What I call digital obesity, is to get fat with information.
Basically, I have a certain diet, I read three or four books a month on the Kindle, I have thousands of feeds, I monitor different topics, I talk to a lot of people, I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube. Yes, it’s wide, but you really have to practice not getting overloaded or being bogged down. Part of that includes what I call offline luxury. Offline is the new luxury because you go off into nature, things can settle down a little bit more. But I think it’s something you practice, it’s not something that is easy to achieve when you’re first getting started because the field is overwhelming.

Ross: Yes, there’s plenty out there to overwhelm us! Do you have a daily or a weekly schedule? There are things which you do at particular times of day, checking your feeds, or having time for reading books?

Gerd: Yes, I have to admit, I probably do most of my reading when I’m traveling because the traveling is conducive to not sitting down with your designing keynote slides or writing something besides but to just browse, so most of my work on reading is done on the mobile, and on the iPad. I use a bunch of amazing tools that are out there now, including, of course, Instapaper, which is my favorite app. Instapaper saves stuff to offline, so I do that. I have at least 300,000 articles on there. I use Pocket, which is also an offline saver, and the Kindle for reading, for underlining, and all these kinds of things.
I use a lot of different tools for that to be able to read when I’m waiting for the taxi or sitting at the lounge, that’s where I do most of my reading. My routine during the week is usually about 50% research, and then 50% production for my keynotes, speeches, and preparation. It’s very much driven by the assignments I get. For example, now I’m working on a major talk about the metaverse and I’ve been doing a lot of talking about the metaverse. I have a gig coming up in Greece, for a very big gaming community, so I’m preparing for being able to work on new topics. Just like you, working on new topics is basically mandatory, because this is how you keep interested, and this is also how you feed your own information and your own thinking.

Ross: Absolutely. People are not interested in what was happening yesterday. They want to know what’s happening today and tomorrow.

Gerd: It’s almost a mix. I’ve been quite good in the past few years to always be a little bit early, sometimes way too early. I started an internet company in the late 90s that was doing what Spotify is now. That was, of course, way too early and I lost lots of money doing that. Now I’m trying to figure out what’s going to happen in the next five years. What are the interesting topics? I’m looking at things like the metaverse, I’m looking at things like cryptocurrencies, and all that kind of stuff. That has been a big shift in my work, away from the business-only topics to the social, political, cultural topics about society, basically, because those are the coming burning issues now.

Ross: Absolutely. In terms of your feeds, is that a key part of your scanning? How do you build your thousands of feeds and how do you use those?

Gerd: I subscribe to my favourite publications like The Guardian, The Economist, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the FT, like most people do, and I read them pretty religiously. Whenever I can I read the paper has gone out of style, especially now on airplanes or lounges, no more papers, they probably won’t be coming back, but I used to like the browsing effect for breakfast. I’m 60 years old so I like paper. But anyway, I have digital subscriptions, and I bookmark all of that stuff. I also use Pinboard for saving my stuff. Then I use Apple notes which is amazing now, great updates on that one. I have a directory of about 350,000 notes.
If I’m looking to say something about the future of oil, I can always browse what I have already read. It’s funny now, I’ve been publishing part of my findings, kind of memes and ideas on this thing GerdFeed, which is a joke, but it’s gerdfeed.com. Everything that I highlight on the newspaper shows up on Gerdfeeds; there are something around 200,000. Everybody can see what I’ve been looking at, which has been very helpful for my own research, because at GerdFeed, I can just go and look, and that’s been really good. I think the main thing is about getting organized so you remember stuff. You create a mental help scenario so you can actually recover stuff again because there’s just so much happening.

Ross: Do you tag any of the articles, notes, or draw links between them? Or do you just use text search?

Gerd: To find the sources, of course, I’ve been doing it for a long time so I read the obvious sources like WIRED Magazine, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and 95% is in English, because my work even though I’m German, it’s all in English. I don’t read much German stuff I have to admit. I tag all of those things, and I have feeds coming in. I use the sources like Bloomberg, and I subscribe to like a dozen great newsletters, like Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View, and I have my own newsletter so there’s a lot of information going around. Then I follow at least 100 people, including yourself who are always posting interesting stuff on Twitter and that is a great source. This is why I love Twitter. If I want to look for the future of distributed organizations, I can definitely find good stuff on Twitter. I have all of those pretty well-organized lists and all that kind of stuff. That’s been a godsend, really.

Ross: A lot of this is about sense-making, the synthesis, pulling it all together into an original or interesting view. Is there any particular way that you digest, pull together the links, make sense, or create frameworks? What’s your process?

Gerd: I kind of look at this like cooking. When you cook something really interesting, it’s not that you need 50 ingredients, you don’t. It’s just making sense out of the ones that you have, or leaving out stuff, not make it too complicated, and this is how I look at my keynotes. I want to cook the perfect meal, I don’t want to cook 17 courses of 50,000 calories, that’s I look at it. Most of it is really a creative process where some stuff comes up and other stuff doesn’t. It’s like when I was a musician; it’s a little bit like, not everything that you know, that you’ve done can pop up in one solo that you do on a song.
It just comes out like a blend, like a cocktail blend, throw it all in there, and out comes the drink. Imagine if you have a drink with 50 different things in it, it’s just not going to work, so that’s how I look at it. It’s really a creative process of leaving out stuff. Usually, when I prepare for a keynote, for example, I may have 150 slides that I’ve looked at. Then it’s about whittling it down, making sense, and creating a storyline. But that’s always changing. When you write a book, it’s a little bit like this and this is why book writing is so painful because you try to constantly improve and make more sense, and then you’re always changing things and you never get finished. This is something to be aware of that eventually you have to be finished.

Ross: You mentioned before a couple of interesting phrases, and I think that’s something which helps people understand, coming up with these intriguing phrases that distill ideas. Is that just come up with you as you’re wandering along the street or do you have a process to be able to come up with these interesting, provocative phrases?

Gerd: When I read stuff, and I work on things, I usually come across a phrase from others that I like, and then I just turn that around into my own. Basically, it’s the bottom line so that I know when I’m on stage, for example, speaking, and I deliver certain bottom lines, I can see that people react to this. For example, one of the memes that I use a lot is that I say you will not find happiness on the screen or in the cloud. I took this from Alvin Toffler in some other way that he said that; like Peter Drucker once said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Now I say, culture eats technology for breakfast. I turn those things around into something that fits me, and I’ve got hundreds of them. I wish I could remember all of them. I always come up with new ones that are basically bottom lines. For most people that if you speak to people about the future, you can be happy in the end, if they remember two or three penny drop moments. That is what you have to deliver in those short statements.

Ross: Yes, so the distillation into something which resonates?

Gerd: As you know, as a futurist, sometimes we have to simplify; How do you explain artificial intelligence to an audience of, let’s say, newspaper publishers? Some of them are getting more used to it now but I’m not a scientist so I don’t need to explain that all in-depth, it would take me three days to do that. I have very short descriptions for all that stuff, like crypto and metaverse. I try to boil it down to something that is manageable, and I think it’s a skill you need to practice. It’s just like cooking again, it’s something you practice and then, in the end, the taste is awful, or it’s great, you don’t know.

Ross: In that process, one of the key things I say to people is you need to know what your purpose is, what information is useful and relevant to you. As a futurist, that’s not very helpful, because everything is relevant and interesting because it all ties into the big picture. Part of it, of course, is driven by as you say, if you have any client engagements, that defines what it is you’re seeking, but when you’re scanning, do you have any guiding reference point around what it is that does intrigue you, which you do want to dig into more?

Gerd: That depends very much on the emphasis topics. For me, over the years, it’s moved more from business and technology towards culture and humanity. That humanity future topic, that’s my key topic; technology and humanity. Now I have a new topic I started last year when I made the film called the Good Future. You can find this at thegoodfuturefilm.com. The Good Future topic is basically a topic saying, Okay, what does a good future look like? How could we agree on what is good? Which we actually do for the most part. How would we get there? Because of that topic, and the technology-humanity topic, I have a filter mostly for those things. I’m interested to find out how does technology increase happiness or not? How can we solve global problems like inequality, education, health care, and so on, by working together for that good future?
It’s the larger topics that I’m interested in; I’m not that interested in figuring out how to use robotic process automation to make more money, lots of people can tell you about that. I’m trying to focus on the important topics, the important topics for humans; humanity is not necessarily about business. There are a lot of those, and I always touch on those, but it’s really about the larger story, what do we want to be? That’s why I speak about transhumanism and singularity, one of my favorite topics as to why I think that’s crap. I focus on the things that are important to me and that make a difference. That’s really what I seek to do.

Ross: Creating a good future is a very good frame on how you make sense of the world. In your keynotes, you’re very visual in the slide which you use, but more generally, do you use any visual framework to try to either organize or make sense for yourself or to help communicate to others the essence of ideas to organize or connect your thinking?

Gerd: I have a team that does that for me, and I tell them what I want which sometimes is hard to understand. For example, we were working on this topic called the nature deficit disorder, there’s a book with that title, which deals with the fact that we are disconnected from nature now, because so many times we are looking at screens, and we’re not getting out with COVID, we’re staying in the home, so there’s a deficit of connecting with nature, which is detrimental to health and wellbeing. I think in Sydney, you may have better cards for that, to connect to nature, because it’s so easy. But so many people in cities are disconnected from nature.
When we have this kind of theme, then basically my team and me, I have an editor and I have a researcher, then we get together, we think about how that could look like, the mean, as we call it. My editor’s producing all of the videos and the designs, and sometimes we hire people to make a cartoon, but we have a huge library of at least 1000 items that express the things that I talk about. That library is organized in a tagged way so I can easily drag and drop. I have about 4800 slides with different versions of themes, background videos, and all. It’s a huge library of things that we create, or we license from iStock photo, but generally, I don’t use a lot of templates, because they’re just not good enough for what I want to say.

Ross: Are these metaphors? Are these the essence of visual representation of the idea?

Gerd: Basically, a lot of times when you look at other things that you see, like YouTube videos, or tweets and stuff, there’s an idea in there that sticks. For example, when I started talking about the metaverse, I was looking at all the discussions about what’s happening there, and why that’s good or not. I came up with the concept of the meta perverse, which is basically saying that yes, it’s interesting, but it could be a perverse use of technology for humans. Imagine you lived in virtual reality, you actually lived there, this is what Zuckerberg wants us to do, to actually live there, that’s perversion in my view, perversion of technology and perversion of humanity, because it leaves out all the good stuff that we like. I always say one hug is worth more than 100 Zoom calls. That’s why I came up with a motif. Then from there, we create artwork that reflects the meta perverse.

Ross: That’s a lovely phrase.

Gerd: I also have a GerdaVerse. I have my own metaverse called the Gerdaverse. That’s a joke. But basically, it’s the virtual Gerd. You can see the difference. It’s just like a Roblox version of the future which can’t be good, no matter how you look at it.

Ross: In terms of managing your attention, discipline may or may not be the right word, how do you structure your attention so that you both have the focus to require digging into things, but also, as you said before, the time to go out into nature and refresh yourself? How do you manage your attention?

Gerd: Well, I have a wife, she does that for me. This is a natural process as to how much you can take. The certain amount of work that you do that is about thinking, that’s maxing out at four, five, or six hours a day for heavy lifting. Then you’re like, oh, my God, my head is exploding. Then you can do other things like snip stuff from images, look for interesting videos, or do emails. Basically, the focus is really important to get stuff done, to leave out other things. For example, when I’m working on a mission, and I have to deliver a speech tomorrow, then I do nothing else; of course, you have to, it’s like you have a gig tomorrow, you got to focus on exactly that and everything else has to wait. I have my team that does other things for me while I’m doing the stuff that I pay attention to, but getting organized and not multitasking, that’s a really hard temptation.
Multitasking doesn’t work for me, it works for some people, but for most, it doesn’t. It removes your attention and frays the mind so it’s much better to not attempt multitasking, like doing emails, PowerPoint, and the phone call at the same time. That also makes it simple. I have a very big computer set up at home. We’re organized. I have three monitors, sometimes four, where I put stuff, and that’s just waiting there until I get to the stuff that’s there. I don’t do a lot of to-do lists, because I find it increases the pressure. It’s a natural process. I realize the next step is this and this and this, I don’t do a lot of over-organization, or task lists, or pin things, or notifications, I switch off all the notifications, that kind of stuff just really distracts people. I think being distracted and trying to multitask are things that definitely don’t work for us.

Ross: If you do have a deep-dive focus on either developing an idea or working on somebody, do you carve out specific time for that?

Gerd: Yes. I have certain times when I do that, usually in the early morning, where I sit down, say, Okay, now I’m going to sit down and figure this out. I take an hour or two before I do anything else. Sometimes like this, and sometimes it just happens when I’m on the plane somewhere. I have like a brain fart. Being on the airplane is very good for this, because of the kind of solitude that you have there. The hissing of the engine helps the mind; at least it does it with mine. I do a lot of work like that on the airplane, just pen, and paper, saying, Okay, now I’m going to figure out what exactly I’m trying to say here.

Ross: Interestingly, Amy Webb says she likes brown noise as a background for her focus times.

Gerd: Yes, everybody thinks differently. I think very much in pictures and because I’m a musician, also in sound, so videos and that sort of thing is very important. I’m going to use more music in my work, it’s always a problem to use music because of the damn copyright bullshit, that you’re encountering on gigs, and on YouTube, which is such a pain in the butt. You can license as much as you want, but you’re always going to get a notice that you haven’t licensed something. It’s incredible; the regime that has taken over there. I have people sending me messages saying that I used the picture that was through an RSS feed from some magazine that I should have paid $200 for, to display; I’m like, come on now. There’s a lot of that sort of thing going on. Using those resources, you have to be quite diligent, which I’ve done over the years. But because I’m a musician, I like videos, I like images, I like music, I like audio so I use audio examples in my speeches, and I download at least 30-40 videos per day, to keep them around for later.

Ross: In terms of all this content you’ve got, we talked earlier about the tagging and other things, do you have any organizational systems, just the internal search, or tags, or transcriptions, or other things which help you sort through the massive amount of content you have?

Gerd: It gets more complicated when you have more materials. But I use a lot of hashtags now. I use Google, I use Apple notes. For example, I put a hashtag #endofoil, or so and then I look for the hashtag, and all the stuff I’ve found comes up there. I do other things, like when you browse for files, sometimes you don’t know what the file was called, or the hashtag, you just remember the picture, so I use Google Photos to upload all of my stuff. I’ve got 200,000 things there, and that has been pretty good. When I’m looking for something I just go through the photo wall, and say, ah, that’s what I was looking for. Sometimes visual, sometimes it’s text. But imagine if you’re looking for an interesting theme, for example, on globalization, then you found something really interesting six months ago, but you didn’t tag it as globalization but as politics or something, so how do you find that? That’s why the visual stuff is good.
Using a visual catalog, I have a pin wall that I use here at home, a huge monitor with all my latest stuff that sits there so I can always remember that I have new things that I need to use. But in the end, it’s your brain. If your brain isn’t firing, then you won’t find anything. This is really important to maintain good health so that you can find stuff. That’s another one of those regimes that’s really important. I use a cross-trainer and I take certain supplements, not like Ray Kurzweil by any means. Then again, I don’t want to live forever. so leave that.

Ross: You’re using a lot of interesting software tools. Is there anything else in terms of software tools for thriving on overload that you think are worth mentioning?

Gerd: There’s a ton of really amazing stuff out there. For example, just using Gmail professional, the business solution from Gmail has saved the day, because there’s a snooze button. I love the snooze button. I get an average of 800 emails per day. Many of them are urgent, and other ones are not. Then basically, if they’re not so urgent, I snooze them, pop up on Saturday, that’s been a lifesaver. I have a flagging system I use on the mail, where different flags mean different things with different tags. When I look at the wall of mails, I can always see the tags, the topics, and the people. That’s been really good.
Notification systems are only half on. I use a second email app called hey.com, which is absolutely amazing. That’s a new service from the Bay Area. What they do is they allow you to notify individual messages. If I have a really high-priority customer that is going crazy with prep time for the gig, I see their mail pop up on my iPhone every time they mail, but it’s only them, not everybody else. Of course, we use Slack for changing information. Everything that we do is in the cloud, and free clouds, actually, pCloud here in Switzerland, and Dropbox, and Google Drive. If I want to search for things, I can also search on the cloud. Sometimes I’m better off finding stuff there because it’s tagged differently, or the logic is different. There’s a lot of tech involved like using an iPad, iPhone, three computers. After a while, you get used to it, and then I buy the most powerful MacBook I can find because I find it when I work on stuff, I don’t want the computer to churn and look for stuff.

Ross: When you have 200 tabs open?

Gerd: Yes, I don’t want the computer to churn. The new MacBook with the M1, 16 inches is just amazing. It’s the first computer that can keep up with my own mental speed in terms of how quickly I want to find things. I’m quite happy about that.

Ross: Yes, you would want the computers to keep pace. Sometimes, they crash with a lot of stuff.

Gerd: Well, it’s just that the quality of technology that you use really is a survival tool especially when you’re in a hurry, or you’re under a deadline or so, you have to have great tools to find things, and to retrieve, and to use. Just using the image, we’ve got like 14 terabytes of stuff. There’s just no way that you can do all that work with a computer that just doesn’t index. It’s so important.

Ross: Absolutely. Rounding out, what would be your advice to someone who is saying, Oh, this is a bit too much. How can I get on top of this to create value from all of the information that’s out there? What are some of your recommendations?

Gerd: Yes, not everything can be equally important so you have to prioritize your topics, prioritize your sources, and be ruthless in kicking out useless stuff, like Google Alerts. You’re getting a Google alert with 47 things, not good. Pick the good stuff, the good newsletters, the good publications, the good writers, make lists of those, don’t spend too much time looking at things that didn’t happen. For real hardcore information and learning, I think it’s still all about books, not physical books, I do that too but physical books are just so impractical when you’re constantly doing something else, so digital books, I have a queue of about 700 books, and I’ve tried to read four, five, six, sometimes 10 a month. Bookmark all of that stuff. Basically, it’s about bookmarking, organizing, prioritization, focus on what actually needs to be accomplished now.
Then it’s really also about digestion time, your contemplation time, so try to take a walk every day for an hour, so you can literally while you’re walking, you’re digesting. That’s really important to clean up. You can’t go 14 hours a day, but looking at high-quality information, so recognizing your limitations. It’s kind of obvious stuff. But in the end, I think one thing that really sets back people is to be afraid of forgetting things or be afraid of not knowing things. Yes, we forget things and sometimes we don’t know things, this is just the way it is. We shouldn’t be anxious about like I have to remember all of that stuff, or I have to know everything. Nobody knows everything, except for maybe Einstein. But it’s like, okay, that’s just the way it is, sometimes you just have to say, I don’t know why, I have no idea what that is, so removing the anxious part.
I think a lot of people are under a lot of pressure to know everything, understand everything, especially in our business, and you just can’t. If you do it for 20 years, of course, you have advantages. It’s like money in the bank. When you’re starting out, basically it’s like money in the bank, it’s a compound rate, so it doesn’t make much of a difference how much time you spent in two years, but in 10 years, the curve goes up, and in 20 years, you’re all the way up there. This is why people who’ve been doing futurism for some time usually have all that background knowledge, which is hard to get when you’re 25; if you’ve been doing this for five years.

Ross: Absolutely. That’s fantastic. So good. Of the many resources, you have out there, what’s the best place for people to find you?

Gerd: I think my website futuristgerd.com, Gerd, like gastrointestinal reflux disease, same thing, but shortened, so futuristgerd.com; thegoodfuturefilm.com, that will be something you will want to look at, and of course, my YouTube channel, which is going crazy right now, because we’re doing this new show, GerdTube; that’s a joke, it really just points to YouTube, so Gerd Leonard on youtube.com. If you want to read what I read, it’s gerdfeed.com, that’s where you can find all of this stuff. Basically, in real-time, as I’m reading it. It’s a Tumbler page, but it’s huge. My new show GERD talks, which are about timely topics, every two weeks. Tonight we have another one on why Facebook should die. You know it’s a short topic, few things to say about that.

Ross: Certainly of the moment. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Gerd. That’s been really fantastic conversation.

Gerd: Great, thank you, live long and prosper.

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