August 23, 2023

Mark Schaefer on book writing processes, the right questions, community value, and the courage to experiment (AC Ep7)

“You can’t be an expert. But you need to know enough to survive, to lead, and you need to have the courage to keep experimenting.”

Mark Schaefer

Robert Scoble
About Mark Schaefer

Mark is a globally recognized keynote speaker, educator, business consultant, and bestselling author of 10 books, most recently “Belonging to the Brand”. His blog {grow} is one of the top marketing blogs in the world. Mark has advanced degrees in marketing and organizational development, holds seven patents, and is faculty for the graduate studies program at Rutgers University.

LinkedIn: Mark Schaefer
Twitter: @markwschaefer
Facebook: Mark Schaefer
Instagram: @markwschaefer
YouTube: @MarkSchaefer

What you will learn

  • Writing a book by anchoring it to a pivotal question. (03:41)
  • Assessing the potential benefits and challenges of integrating AI in writing (06:31)
  • The enduring importance of questioning in leadership, decision-making, and adaptation (10:38)
  • Acknowledging the superiority of collaborative insights over individual content consumption (13:50)
  • Distinguishing audience from community (18:06)
  • Engaging in experimental learning, pushing boundaries, and driving progress (19:35)
  • The community’s role in guiding individuals through new technologies (22:57)
  • Emphasizing the importance of staying relevant in the face of technological advancements (24:19)
  • Amplifying your unique voice in this modern world (29:14)
  • Embracing trend curatorship for forward-thinking insights(30:06)
  • Introduction of the dog barking analogy of Drucker (33:40)

Episode Resources


Mark Schaefer: Ross, I can’t believe I’m actually seeing you in real life. I’ve been stalking you for 10 years, my friend.

Ross Dawson: You have authored 10 books that are well ahead of most models. I’d love to hear, how is it that you distill all of the insights you get and package that into these books, this wisdom that other people are able to use and apply.

Mark: I have a quite unique and very efficient process. What I’ll do is once I have the concept for the book, it takes some time to process that, to really have it click in and say, “Yes, this is it!”. Because for me, writing a book is a big and personal risk. It’s a lot of sacrifice so I need to know I’m right. 

Ross: I’d like to find out how you know you’re right because that’s in a way that ultimately leads you to synthesis.

Mark: Here’s how I know I’m right. Because I look around the world for a problem I can’t solve. I keep hearing the same thing from CMOs or business executives, and then all of a sudden, someone will say, I just can’t sleep at night, this is driving me crazy. Okay, that’s it. I’m on target. This is the question I need to answer in this book. It always starts with a question, a problem that other people can’t figure out. Then I do an outline. Here’s what I think 10 or 12 chapters might look like. Then I create an Evernote file for each of those chapter topics. Then for nine months, I let the book come to me. I watch the world, hear interviews, and listen to people like you. I’ll say, oh my gosh, this is a great quote from Ross, that goes in chapter three, zip into the Evernote file.

It might be research, statistics, quotes, or people I need to talk to. It’s like this, Ross, if you buy a new car, and you’re driving down the road, all of a sudden you see that new car everywhere. It’s the same with this. If you have this idea for this book, then all of a sudden, the book just comes to you, and you fill-up the chapter. Now, when it’s time to write the book, you’re not facing a blank page, you open up each chapter in the Evernote file, and you weave the stories together. Sometimes it doesn’t fit. Maybe this story belongs better in chapter three than in chapter seven. But now I can write a book in three to four weeks, a first draft, rather than years and years. Because I’m ready, I have everything I need in front of me, the stories, the research, the quotes, the statistics, and I weave the chapters together in a beautiful, bold way and that becomes the first draft of the book.

Ross: Essentially, you’re saying, you’re starting with a question.

Mark: Absolutely, right. I do research to make sure that that question isn’t already satisfied someplace else, that this is really going to have a place in the universe, that it’s going to be different, and that I’m not stepping on somebody else’s toes. That first step is really important.

Ross: That’s wonderful in a way, it’s exactly as you say, our consciousness filters the information depending on the guidelines we give it. If we ask a question, then immediately, we’ll start to see the things that are relevant to that, we become the strange attractor of the relevant insights of information.

Mark: That was my filtering process, at least before ChatGPT. What it’s going to be after ChatGPT? I don’t know because literally, I finished my last book, turned in the manuscript a month before ChatGPT was launched, and then I asked ChatGPT to write a chapter of the book based on some prompts and it did a beautiful job in five seconds. It was one of the most depressing moments of my career. 

Ross: To dig into that, what are the next steps from the ChatGPT and all these large language models being able to do parts of these things? You were saying before you asked it to do it in your voice.

Mark: Yes.

Ross: It was taking your insights to be able to frame that.

Mark: In my voice, I also asked it to provide academic references and it didn’t elucidate. It actually did it. My reaction is the same as most people, I usually hear two words associated with ChatGPT in our careers, exciting and terrifying. The exciting part is the new productivity you can unleash. In terms of just pure writing, ChatGPT brings to writing what the calculator brought to math. The calculator didn’t make you a mathematician. But you could do your taxes, even if you hated math, and it could not conceptualize algebra at all. Now, it made everybody competent at math. This makes everyone competent at writing, which is glorious.

I have a friend in my community, Ross, she’s filled with good ideas and by her admission, a terrible writer. She tried ChatGPT and put her ideas in there. She said, I could blog every day, I could write a book, this is unleashing all this new potential. But for me, and I haven’t sorted this out, I would be stupid not to use it just like I’d be stupid not to use a calculator. But for me, there’s this existential issue of doing the work, the sacrifice, and the resulting book is part of my purpose. It’s something I do very well. People look forward to my books, and I get comments saying, Mark, this is my favorite book, or this book changed the way I looked at my business. That’s this reward.

We’ll have to see what happens with the next book. This is going to be an issue for the world, not just me, as ChatGPT, and AI begin to become more creative, more insightful, and more human. It’ll be able to take over more of these creative tasks and start to infringe on our purpose, as well as our skill sets.

Ross: I don’t think that necessarily infringes on the purpose. Part of what I think is the word intent. What is our intention? The AI doesn’t have the intention, but we do.  

Mark: Yes.

Ross: When we have a positive intention, we can harness it to that. Your purpose is not writing the books, the purpose is to serve people with the insights you have. That’s absolutely what you have been doing, and will continue to do, whatever tools you use. I don’t think it changes your purpose. It is a journey to be able to pull that. But this comes back to where we started in terms of the questions. You studied under Peter Drucker I gather?

Mark: I did.

Ross: What did you learn from him?

Mark: I studied under Dr. Drucker for three years at the Claremont Graduate University, the business school was named for him. It was certainly one of the most extraordinary periods of my life. He’s the smartest person I’ve ever known. He’s one of these brilliant people who can distill complexity to its assets. 

We were talking before the show about some of his lessons, and one of the lessons that he taught is very specifically relevant to the topic of your show and your passion, Ross, is we would study these very complicated case studies, he taught by the Harvard case study method, and all these really smart people in the room, in this MBA program, would try to solve the problem and he would get so angry. He’d say, how can you be so arrogant that these people working in this case don’t know the answer, I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, and you read this case study and you think you’ll have the answers; and he would say the key to leadership in a complex environment was not having all the right answers, it’s having the right questions.

This is something that certainly has informed my approach to writing, speaking, and especially consulting. I have a very humble attitude when I consult with companies and just try to lead them to the right questions, which is always the right strategy. In this world, no one understands the Internet, no one understands the economy, no one understands AI, no one’s going to be an expert but you can know enough to ask the right questions. That’s the key to survival as a leader in this complex environment.

Ross: I would say just as much today, as it has been over the last year, that’s what you do, you start your books with a question, you understand that, that’s the way you face the world, and I think having the right questions just means that we have potentially more tools to help answer them. The intent and the purpose starts from there.

Mark: Absolutely. You’re right. Maybe Dr. Drucker was predicting prompts.

Ross: That’s right. That’s our job though, is asking questions.

Mark: Yes, that’s right

Ross: And also filtering the answers because they’re not always quite the right answer.

Mark: Yes.

Ross: Your most recent book is “Belonging to the Brand: Why Community is the Last Great Marketing Strategy,”. I’ve often said things along the lines of the future of the businesses community is all about us together and how we’re creating value together, I’d love to hear you reflect on that. But in particular, how it informs your thinking of ideas, and how it is you make sense of the world to help others?

Mark: It’s been one of the greatest gifts of my career. I started a community by accident. In 2021, I was invited to launch a creator cryptocurrency through a platform called Rally. It was a fantastic learning experience. The platform ultimately failed. But I have no regrets at all because I learned so much and I created a community around this token, and they all bought the token to support me, to learn from me about crypto, what’s next in marketing, and what’s next in the world. The token failed but the community was still intact. About two years ago, we moved into a discord community, and these are smart, passionate, urgent learners, from all around the world.

Some of the most amazing people in our community are from Australia. One member of our community actually came to my house last month for a little get-together we were having in our community. Here I am, I spend most of my time living in a rural area, near a big city in America. I spend most of my time in an office in the woods alone. I don’t have the benefit of a big network in a wired city. This community, number one, it’s become a university. It’s how I am staying relevant as a professional because these people are challenging each other in a very respectful way. There’s zero tolerance for toxicity in my community.

Today we had a big debate about this big beard thing in America, the Bud Light debacle with marketing, probably the biggest marketing meltdown in at least a decade. It’s a hot-button issue, but we debated it today, with people all over the world, chiming in a respectful, very intelligent, and professional way. Number one, it has become my university. Every blog post I write, certainly, in my latest book, on community, was informed by the ideas in this community. But I think going forward, community is going to play a major role in our world in this incredibly information-dense ecosystem we have to navigate as a sense-maker and as truth discerner.

Certainly, one of the existential threats of AI to our political world is deep fakes and misinformation, we’re already starting to see it happen. What I find in my community is people might see something, and then someone will say, “Oh no! That was a hoax”. Or they’ll see some new tool that was introduced, and the community will say, “Oh no! Wait, there’s something better”. There’s this constant flow of truth and sense that we’re trying to make of the world, as a community, as sort of a hive mind. It produces much better insights on the world than I could ever do just by consuming content on my own.

Ross: Absolutely. I believe very much in peer learning where I learn with others; and particularly in the fast-moving world, we have to learn with others, we can’t do it all ourselves but once we’re in a community, that really is the future. We all have to find the communities or format the communities, which are going to enable us to learn what it is we want to and need to learn.

Mark: Yes. A big learning for me in this experience, Ross, is the difference between audience and community. An audience is someone that reads my blog, or someone that listens to my podcast or reads my books and that’s great and I appreciate all those people, but a community, that’s when people know each other, and they’re collaborating, co-creating, learning, and pushing each other, and that’s the real power, that is a massively overlooked opportunity for individuals and organizations today.

Ross: You try to keep experimenting with things, to learn along the way as the world changes. How do you go about trying things and learning on the edge of what’s happening?

Mark: It supports this philosophy of you can’t have all the answers. No one’s going to be an expert anymore. But to have the right questions, you have to know enough about what’s going on to do that. That takes some courage. I was in a workshop the other day, with a woman who declared that she was 55 years old, and she’d had it, she was exhausted, and she couldn’t keep up with the world anymore. I took her aside, soothed her a little, and told her, well, look, I’m older than you and I’m going to keep going, and here’s how.

You can’t be an expert. But you need to know enough to survive, to lead, and you need to have the courage to keep experimenting. My whole career has been a consecutive series of experiments that pushed me to the next level. It’s trite, I almost hate to say, getting out of your comfort zone but it does take courage to get a digital wallet. It took me a week to figure it out. Ross, here’s my greatest victory, not calling my son and saying, “Help me do this!”. But you’re getting a digital wallet, buying an NFT, being part of a community, experimenting in the metaverse, pushing the boundaries of ChatGPT in ways that can make you better, that can push your work forward, and then starting to experiment with things beyond ChatGPT.

I was an early adopter of Midjourney, and have been thrilled by the quick progress of that. Now I’ve been experimenting with text-based music and text-based video, and I’m not an expert, and I’m not going to do it all the time, every day but I want to know enough to see the possibility so that I can have a conversation and help lead others.

Ross: I love that phrase, knowing enough to see the possibilities. We have to be aware of what could be there as opposed to knowing, we don’t need to be experts, but we just need to be able to see I can sort of see what this might be able to do… or somebody that practices a lot can get to. Similarly, my mother, in her older years, kept saying, oh, this is a bit too much. She was an assistant teacher for seniors on how to use computers, as simple as showing people how to use the mouse and so on. She was ahead of many of her peers. But it comes back to what’s called growth mindset or anything else and just saying, well, that you never give up, you just sort of say, hey, give it a go. We all have to do that.

Mark: That’s part of the filtering that happens in the community too, where you might not know where to start on some of these things. I was an early adopter of Midjourney. A friend of mine, he’s an animator in our community, has an animation studio, said look, what we’re doing? We’re starting to create some of the backgrounds for animation using this tool. I could not believe it. It was the same feeling, Ross, like when you plugged your laptop or your first computer into the phone jack, and you heard the connection sound and you’re getting onto the internet for the first time, it was that same sense of wonder that you could create this beautiful art just by using words. What an age of wonder we’re in. Part of the psychological survival skill is to see through the chaos, embrace it, and say look, this is the new calculator, it’s going to open up a new age of wonder and how can I use it to be part of it.

Ross: You’ve mentioned to me this idea of the 20% factor.

Mark: This is a super important idea in terms of our relevance. It ties a ribbon around the idea of purpose as well. I have a dear friend named Shelly Palmer, here in America, he’s quite known because he’s on all the big talk shows and he’s a tech analyst. Whenever some big announcement is made or some new tech innovation is announced, he’s always all over the networks. When ChatGPT came out, I immediately called him and said, Can I interview you? I’d really value your opinion on this. He said, Mark, it’s absolutely terrifying. He said I blogged every day for 15 years and I asked it to create this blog post, gave it a topic in the voice of Shelly Palmer, and he said what blew me away was that it actually went out and did the research I would have to do to write knowledgeably on this topic.

He said I’m 80% replaced. Now, that is sort of a bold and scary statement. But the more interesting idea is, what is that 20%? My idea is that Shelly, me, and you will never really have to worry about AI because we have an established personal brand. We’re known, we’re trusted, and perhaps even we’re beloved, no matter what happens with AI, people are still going to come to Shelly, and to you for truth, discernment, and sensemaking. I think they’ll still come to me. I’ve actually started to put this badge on my blog because I haven’t used ChatGPT. Most of my blogs are my stories and observations. Now there’s a little badge that says 100% Human content, just to reassure people, Hey, it’s still me, I’ll tell you when it’s not.

I have a sense of urgency about this. Shelley gave an example, Ross, before 1986 if you wanted to create music for a commercial, or a television show, you needed a band and singers, and he was in that world as a music producer. Then in 1986, we had the advent of the computer and computerized music, and we could tease sounds from different instruments out of one machine. Within one year, half of the professional musicians in America lost their jobs. What is interesting though, is who didn’t lose their jobs. It was the best musicians. It was the jazz musicians. It was the improvisers. It was the people that were innovating in Rock or other musical genres. It was the writers, creators, producers, and editors that are pushing forward. They have the 20%. They’re applying their history, their education, and their entire skill set to create something new and innovative that makes them stand out.

That’s what I’ve been shouting from the rooftops for the last seven or eight years because I knew this day would be coming when AI is going to be nipping at the heels of our skill sets in many white-collar knowledge worker jobs, even our careers. Yet, if you’re the person that is beloved, trusted, and known, there will be a place for you.

Ross: Absolutely. I think that’s just a fundamental question. Let’s say it’s 80%, whatever the percentage is, of what it is that we’ve done before which has been replaced or supported, whatever it may be. But there is that remainder. I’ve always believed there will always be that thing that we can bring, which is uniquely human or uniquely ourselves. It is a path of discovery of what that is, which we all need to be on. As you say, some of us are fortunate in where we’ve got to this point but others as well can — you and I still need to find precisely what that 20% is,  everyone else needs to work on that as well.

Mark: They do. The urgent message is that if you’ve got your head down, putting out press releases, it’s becoming commoditized, you’re going to be vulnerable, you need to add your unique voice to the world, you need to have your influence and your power exerted in the world and everybody has the opportunity to do that today.

Ross: To round out, I’d like you to share as a prolific author, thinker, and communicator, what advice would you give to people in terms of how they can see the right and relevant information, pull that together potentially to create their own distillation that is valuable for themselves and others?

Mark: One of the things, I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but I almost never read books anymore. I still read a lot of fiction for entertainment. That has to be my choice. But what I’m consuming, Ross, are future curated newsletters of trends, ideas, and what’s happening with Gen Z. I’ve become a trend collector. When I see something in one of these newsletters that makes me go, Wow! That’s a big number. I’ll give you an example, new research showed that in 2022, the age group between 22 to 34, 24% of the people in that age group were on Discord last year. Today, that number is 46%, unbelievable growth in one year. There are amazing implications for that because think about sensemaking and finding trends, we rely a lot on the social graph, and these sentiment analysis engines. They’re invisible. You can’t find people in discord, you don’t know what they’re saying. They’re building these digital campfires, these bunkers, where nobody can see them. 

That’s an example of collecting these big ideas. I’m sure you do this too because I know you give speeches to all kinds of different groups and I do too. I can go back in my little bag of trends and pull out things that are relevant to bankers, fitness experts, teachers, or wherever I go. I think that’s a big change in how I’m collecting information than may be in the past. I’m just not spending a lot of time with books. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad but I’m in that 1% that’s a creator instead of a consumer. I wrote a blog post once that blogging makes you stupid, because all the time I’m spending on my content, someone else is reading.

I have to be very selective. What I’m just obsessed with is collecting these new ideas. That’s how you build the vision of the future as you say, all right, if this is true that most of the young people are moving onto Discord, that’s where they’re building their community conversations, companies aren’t going to be able to hear them anymore, what’s the business opportunity? What is the implication if this trend continues, then that becomes an idea of what the future is going to look like. That informs a lot of my writing, thinking through the implications of these trends.

Ross: That’s fantastic. In my book Thriving on Overload, I referred to looking for what’s surprising.

Mark:  Absolutely.

Mark: Drucker used to say, is the dog barking? What he meant by that is if you have a dog that barks every time someone comes to the door, and someone rings the doorbell, and the dog doesn’t bark, you’ve got to pay attention to that, something’s wrong with the dog, the dog is causing trouble somewhere, or maybe they know the person at the door, but something’s changed. That’s a big source of innovation and information to me. When I see something that doesn’t make sense.

A quick story. I saw a news article in the Wall Street Journal last year, Hallmark, the biggest greeting card company, I believe, in the world is getting out of E-cards. Now, that’s an example. The dog isn’t barking. Everyone’s moving into E-commerce. Why are they moving out of E-commerce? It makes no sense. The dog isn’t barking. You go deep into the article and here’s what you learn. There are two big demographics that use greeting cards, senior citizens, they don’t want to send it on a computer; and get this, the second biggest demographic for greeting cards is Gen Z. They love greeting cards, but they want artisanal handmade cards. Alright, if I’m an artist, I’m going to start a TikTok channel, talking about how I create artisanal cards. You’ve got to pay attention when the dog isn’t barking.

Ross: That’s fantastic. That’s an example of the insights that are distilled from the world that can be shared with your readers, audience, and clients. Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Mark. It’s been a true delight.

Mark: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, Ross. Thank you for having me. 


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Ross Dawson

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