Podcast: Jay Acunzo on Unconventional Thinking

What does it take to release your full potential at work?

Jay Acunzo, an award-winning podcaster and dynamic keynote speaker, has a surprising answer: Intuition.

Before creating the popular podcast show Unthinkable, Jay was a digital media strategist at Google and later head of content at HubSpot. But realized he was unhappy, and that this highly sought-after path was simply not for him. This experience sparked an interest in intuition and unconventional thinking that we explore in the latest episode of the Taking Note podcast.

On the show, Jay discusses why our intuition plays a huge importance in our happiness and well-being. Everyone has unique experiences and unique perspectives, which means that the status quo may not always be the best path for us. But it’s not about trusting your gut or following a muse. It’s about using self-awareness to empower ourselves to do more. You have infinite access to the tools that reveal what direction you will find most fulfilling and meaningful in your work, so use your intuition and unconventional thinking to get yourself there.

Taking Note: Episode 10

Length: 39 minutes
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In this episode:

  • [1:35] How does Jay personally define intuition?
  • [5:20] What makes everybody different is their intuition; the ability to think for themselves, and that’s the key to how they can unlock their full potential in life.
  • [7:15] How can we be better at becoming more self-aware?
  • [8:55] How does intuition help you be more productive?
  • [11:50] What’s wrong with following the best practices/traditional advice in your business?
  • [14:45] Use conventional thinking and the status quo as a jumping off point, not as the solution.
  • [15:15] How important is looking at beyond your social circle for inspiration and new solutions?
  • [18:40] How does Jay figure out if an idea is worth pursuing?
  • [23:30] Why did Jay decide to create a podcast?
  • [31:15] What does Jay’s daily routine look like?
  • [34:15] How does Jay like to structure his Evernote notebooks?


Here are some selected highlights from our interview. To hear the rest, click on the player above or look for us on iTunes, SoundCloud, Overcast, or your podcast platform of choice.

A lot of your work, I know is built around to this concept of intuition. How do you personally define that?

The ability to succeed at higher speed.

We have all these definitions of intuition in our world, and it’s surprising who’s tried to define it. Albert Einstein is not a guy you’d associate with intuition. He’s been given this quote; whether it was him or not is uncertain, but he called it a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance of something.

Malcolm Gladwell called it ‘Rapid cognition’. Then, my wife is actually a research psychologist, and she turned me onto a couple guys who are currently doing their research around similar decision-making ideas, Gary Klein and Gerd Gigerenzer. They’re looking at subconscious reasoning or a concept called ‘Priming’ in the psychology world.

“Intuition is the ability to succeed at a higher speed.”

I was an English Lit major, and so I keep it pretty simple. If you look at the root of the word itself, ‘intuition’, it comes from this Latin word intuere, which just means knowledge from within. I like to think of intuition as your ability to find knowledge from within, and I think in this era of advice overload, and experts everywhere, and just so much information, especially if you’re in business, it’s never been a better time to think for yourself. And if we can look at our intuition as a way to do that, and a way to do that faster and faster the more we use it, I think we become incredibly powerful for our companies and for our own careers, so I like to say that intuition is the ability to succeed at higher speed.

If self-awareness is the key, where do you recommend we start to undertake that journey? Especially in a work context, where we tend to focus so much on the external, on the things that are laid out before us, on the bounds of the job, on the roles that are already laid out?

I think it’s the difference between obsessing over somebody else’s answers and asking yourself the right questions, and I use intuition as the shorthand for that phrase because again, intuere, knowledge from within. How do you find knowledge from within or how do you find knowledge in your own context versus the general advice?

You have to ask the right questions to investigate, and so my podcast, Unthinkable, that’s why I started it. From the outside looking in, these people are doing crazy things at work, but then, you hear their story, and they were just investigators or obsessors over their own context. They ask the right questions of the world around them, their customers, themselves, their resources, and so they went down a logical path just like you would. It’s just that they knew something you didn’t, and from the outside looking in, it was hard to find. Again, I think it’s this culture we live in of trying to find the answer so quickly, the one that’s so easy, the cheat, the hack, the tip or trick. Switch from that mentality to a more questioning state, and focus on your own context instead.

You mentioned something at the beginning about finding higher speed through this as well. Where do you find the connection between intuition and a higher speed of what you’re putting out?

What do we chalk up intuition to usually, like a mystical muse or a gut feeling? It’s still though, it’s still you doing the thinking. Right? Your gut doesn’t have thoughts, and there certainly is no such thing as some external muse that hands you something when you’re born or something in the moment of thinking, so I hope we would all agree that you’re having these thoughts quickly, but it’s still you doing the process.

I like to think of conventional thinking as a set of instructions. It’s a linear way of thinking, and intuition is like an exponential curve.[…]

Do you remember the formula for calculating the slope of a straight line? It’s rise over run. That’s it. Basically, it’s the up versus the out, and to calculate a straight line, all you need are two points anywhere on it, and you could really easily see where it came from and where it takes you. It’s the seven secrets to success from your favorite expert, and if you follow them ostensibly, you’ll find success, so people can easily get onboard with that kind of stuff because they can see where it came from, and they can see where it leads them.

“Conventional thinking is a set of instructions. It’s a linear way of thinking, and intuition is like an exponential curve.”

Now, when you think about intuition or thinking for yourself or coming up with a new idea that’s off the beaten path, it’s like this exponential curve, and if you think about how to calculate exponential curves, it’s much more complex. In other words, you don’t need two points on the line. In my case, you would need a Ph.D. in math, and if you’re me as an English Lit major, you’d need like a bottle of bourbon as well. It’s just really hard to understand when I can’t see very clearly where it came from or where it takes you. […]

I just feel it. I just know. Right? The thing is, it’s you doing the thinking, but you did it really quickly, and I think the reason is you are probably the type of person who throughout your life slowly by slowly, bit by bit, asked questions of things, found your own answer, proposed ideas, and at first, you were probably bad at it and it even happened slowly, like you have to articulate, “Okay. I’m asking this question. What’s the answer?”

If that’s your default setting, the more you use that, the more over time you feel like you went really fast. You arrived at the conclusion really quickly, and again, I think that’s what an exponential curve is. It’s that ability to succeed at higher speed.

What’s wrong with absorbing and following the best practices for your field? If somebody’s been successful at doing something, surely, they’ve been doing something right. What’s wrong with that?

I don’t think anything is wrong with consuming, studying, and absorbing the convention, whether the convention is brand new or it’s been around for decades. I don’t think anything is wrong with that. I think it’s when we stop at that or when we view these experts of which there are more than ever or these trends of which there are more than ever seemingly. We like to glom onto them when we view that stuff as final answers for us, instead of what they really are, which is possibilities that we have to vet. I think what we do is we stagnate or we fail to realize our full potential.

I think of it this way. You work for Evernote, I’ve worked for Google and all sorts of tech companies. We adore this information age that we live in because there’s more choice, possibility. You name it. It’s a glorious thing, but there is a dark side to it, and I mentioned it quickly before, and I think that dark side is advice overload. What happens is because we can quickly find ideas and answers from others, we often use those things to then do our work, which creates commodity stuff.

A perfect example in my world of content marketing is when the big study from X-Tech Company comes out, researching the best time to tweet, and they pronounce it 3:00 PM. Guess what happens now that that’s out there? That’s no longer the best time to tweet.

Coming up with an idea or an insight is one thing. Figuring out whether it’s worth following is another, so how do you determine if a new idea is worthwhile? What your process or criteria?

Everybody I’ve talked to on the show, it’s all the same two underlying questions that people start with that I think helps them that whether or not that idea is pursuing. One is about self-awareness. The other is about audience awareness, so it’s about the person doing the work, you, and the person receiving the work, them.

The question about you is, “What is my aspirational anchor?” What that does is it anchors you to something personal that gives you a filter through which you can vet all the advice of others, all the ideas you come up with, and an aspiration is just the simple combination of two very powerful things: your intent for the future, and your hunger that you have from today, some kind of dissatisfaction.

I call that the ‘Aspirational anchor.’ Once you have that self-awareness, now, you can ask this next question about your audience, which is, “What is my first-principle insight about them?” A first-principle insight very simply is some kind of basic, but hard-to-reach truth about the people you’re trying to reach. You have to sit with thoughts and ask “Why?” a lot to get to that fact.

“An aspiration is just the simple combination of two very powerful things: your intent for the future, and your hunger that you have from today.”

I’ll give you a great example of an epic company that a lot of I think Evernote users and listeners would really appreciate. The company is called Death Wish Coffee. Have you heard of those guys? They bill themselves as the strongest coffee in the world. They’re the world’s strongest coffee.…

Mike Brown is the founder, and he heard these questions from the same type of customer over and over again, truck drivers, construction workers, hard-charging people. They asked, “What’s the strongest cup of coffee you can make me?” Most of us would assume that this insight you now have as a business is customers want stronger coffee, but Mike was like, “Okay. Why? They want more caffeine.” Okay. That step is obvious. “Why?” They want more energy. Again, obvious. “Why?”

If you know your audience, you’re like, “They’re truck drivers, construction workers, founders of companies. These guys are hard-charging, hard-working individuals, so they want to work incredibly hard.” In other words, they want the ability to work themselves to death, so that’s exactly what Mike sells. Right?

He is the only one in the coffee business who sells that ability, while everybody else sells stronger coffee, more caffeine, and more energy. I think too often, we stop at the superficial level and try to sell that, but if we can combine the first-principle insight with our own aspirational anchor and find that overlapping thing in the middle, now we have this command of our own context essentially, and that’s our filter on whether or not our idea is worth executing or someone else’s advice is worth heeding.

What’s your daily routine look like?

Oh, my goodness. Wow. It’s very non-linear. If you can’t tell by my energy, if you could see me right now, it’s a lot of hand waving because I am Italian and I think my work has the same cadence and process. It’s a lot of hand-waving and a lot of froth, but I try to focus on the one or two big things that I have to get done and find a way to break those down into smaller chunks.

I try to really start at the end and then see, “What are all the steps I feel I need or at least the first couple to go towards that end result, whether it’s a concrete moment a time or just a grand aspiration. It does vary, but I think mostly, it breaks down to the most important things I need to get done to continue down that path, and I think it’s really helpful when you like the path you’re on to operate that way.

How about your Evernote usage? Is there any particular way that you like to organize your notes or any structure?

Yeah. I’m looking at it right now. Actually, I have one master [notebook stack] called ‘Unthinkable’, and then the first [notebook] is ‘To-dos’, and that has one note in it that has a list of important to-dos in a checklist, and then any progress I’m making underneath. If I’m working on preparing for a launch of a new episode, I might have that in the To-do list, and then I might have the promotional ideas for that episode in a separate note beneath it.

Then, my world really breaks into four parts, all of which are neatly categorized in Evernote. I have Production, so it’s like the content I’m making, I have Products, so that’s things I’m developing for the audience that adds more value. Some are paid, some are not. I have Speaking, and so that’s information on events that I’m about to go to and their audiences so I can improve the speech or ideas for my speaking to improve, and then I have one that I think is my most important because I think it’s the thing I find it so hard to do in our crazy, frenetic world, and that’s just called Thinking.

It’s “Can I get two, three hours on a Friday, go for a walk, read some things, to our points earlier, make myself sensitive to do possibilities, instead of just continue into the rut that I’m in?” I like the rut I’m in, which makes it hard, but thinking is this Evernote [notebook] to me, that’s the most precious one because I don’t know where anything in there is going to lead to. It’s almost like a swipe file of potential, but so often, I find a way to pull out of it and insert it into the other stuff I’m working on. That’s my process, but it’s also just the way I think I organize my brain.

This is a partial transcript. For the full conversation with Jay, be sure to listen to the podcast.

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