My Key Takeaways from the Steven Bartlett's "Diary of a CEO"


18 min read

🚿 Fill Your Five Buckets in The Right Order

There are five buckets you'll need to fill, and the fullness of these buckets will determine how big, believable, and achievable your dreams are to you and those who hear them:

  • What you know (your knowledge)

  • What you can do (your skills)

  • Who you know (your network)

  • What you have (your resources)

  • What the world thinks of you (your reputation)

Our professional journey begins with gaining knowledge, which transforms into skills when applied. With knowledge and skills, we become valuable to others in our profession, expanding our network. As our network grows, our access to resources increases, allowing us to build a strong reputation.

Therefore, investing in knowledge is the most profitable investment we can make. Prioritising knowledge and skills first provides the long-term sustainability we need for future success.

👩‍🎓 To Master It, You Must Create An Obligation To Teach It

“If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it” - Yogi Bhajan.

To truly master something, do it publicly and consistently. Having 'skin in the game,' whether it’s money or a public commitment, accelerates learning. Studies show that we’re more motivated to avoid losses than pursue gains, making this approach effective.

Being able to simplify an idea and successfully share it with others enables us to understand the concepts better and prove that we do indeed understand them. The Feynman technique aids this process by helping us remove unnecessary complexity and distil a concept to its essence. Here are the steps:

1️⃣ Learn the topic thoroughly from every angle.

2️⃣ Write the idea in simple terms as if teaching a child.

3️⃣ Share the idea online, in a blog, or in conversation.

4️⃣ Review feedback. If people don’t understand, return to step 1.

The goal is to learn, simplify, and share more consistently. Feedback refines our skills, eventually leading to mastery.

🙅‍♀️ You Must Never Disagree

To keep someone’s mind receptive to your viewpoint, avoid starting with disagreement. Instead, begin with common ground, expressing what you agree on and understand.

Allow the other person to feel “heard”, and then make sure to reply in a way that makes them feel “understood”, as people who are most likely to change our minds are the ones we agree with on 98 per cent of topics - this is because when we feel that another person fundamentally understand us, we’re more open to listening to them.

🥨 You Do Not Get To Choose What You Believe

Belief change is driven by first-party evidence from our senses. The further new evidence is from someone’s current beliefs, the less likely it will change their thinking. Four factors influence whether new evidence will alter an existing belief:

1️⃣ A person’s current evidence

2️⃣ Their confidence in their current evidence

3️⃣ The new evidence

4️⃣ Their confidence in that new evidence

So, instead of trying to break or argue with someone’s existing evidence, focus on implementing completely new evidence and highlight its positive impact. Asking someone to explain their strongly held beliefs in detail can reduce their conviction. This method is effective for addressing limiting beliefs.

If you or your friends have a limiting belief, the best way to change that belief is by stepping out of your comfort zone and into a situation where that limiting belief will be confronted head-on with new first-party evidence. Unchallenged limiting beliefs are the greatest barriers between who we are and who we could be.

“Growth happens when you start doing the things you’re not qualified to do.”

🛤 You Must Lean In to Bizarre Behaviour

When you encounter something baffling, something that challenges your intelligence or makes you feel uncomfortable, lean in rather than back away.

Avoid blocking or ignoring people with differing opinions. Instead, follow them more closely. Don’t run from ideas that make you uneasy; run towards them.

We can reduce our tendency to "lean out" by embracing the belief that two seemingly conflicting ideas can both be true. Keeping this in mind helps us remain open and curious.

Ask, Don’t Tell - The Question/Behaviour Effect

Questions, unlike statements, elicit an active response and stimulate thought. Research shows that asking questions is far more effective than making statements, and influencing behaviour for up to six months! Short yes-or-no questions are particularly powerful.

The question/behaviour effect is strongest when questions align with the receiver's personal and social ambitions. Starting questions with “will” implies ownership and action, enhancing the effect more than “can” or “could,” which focus on ability, or “would,” which implies possibility.

Use this effect to encourage positive changes in others. For example, asking a friend, “Will you eat more healthily?” or “Will you go for that promotion?” can lead to significant, meaningful changes and help them become their best selves.

Never Compromise Your Self-Story

Research shows that our self-story, grit, resilience, and mental toughness are more important than anything else for achieving our goals.

People with a positive self-story tend to be more optimistic, persevere longer in adversity, handle stress better, and achieve their goals more easily.

"Everything you do - with or without an audience - provides evidence to you about who you are and what you’re capable of."

Our beliefs about ourselves shape our thoughts and feelings, which then determine our actions, creating evidence of our capabilities. To create new evidence, we must change our actions.

So, choose to do that extra rep at the gym when it would be easier to stop, and choose to have that difficult conversation instead of avoiding it. Prove to yourself that you have what it takes to overcome challenges in small, consistent ways.

🧤 Never Fight A Good Habit

A habit loop consists of three key elements:

  • CUE: The trigger for habitual behavior (e.g., stressful meeting)

  • ROUTINE: The habitual behaviour (e.g., smoking a cigarette)

  • REWARD: The result/impact on you of the habitual behaviour (e.g., the feeling of relief)

The simplest and most effective way to break a habit is a good night’s sleep. Sleep helps improve various aspects of life, from fitness to work performance. Managers, for example, are more focused and productive with adequate sleep, and less cheerful and ethical when sleep-deprived.

To break a habit, you need to feel good, not be over-stressed, and have a good night’s sleep.

Willpower, like a muscle, gets tired with overuse. If you put too much pressure on yourself, your willpower depletes, making it harder to form new habits or break old ones. Make habits small and achievable to avoid straining your willpower. Focus on one habit at a time, use positive actions to replace bad habits, and reward yourself for success.

✨ Always Prioritise Your First Foundation

"Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness."

Take care of your body as it’s the only vehicle you have to explore the world.

🧵 Useless Absurdity Will Define You More Than Useful Practicalities

Your public story will be defined not by the practical things you do, but by the absurdities associated with your brand. The most absurd thing about you says everything about you.

People have no incentive to think, talk or write about things that maintain the status quo, but they have a strong incentive to share absurd things that mock it, tear it down or laugh in the face of it.

If you look around, you’ll notice that the most powerful brand storytelling leverages the power of absurdity, illogicality, costliness, inefficiency, and nonsensicality, because convention, similarity and rationality are boring and fail to convey a message of who you are and who you are not.

📎 Avoid Wallpaper At All Costs

Habituation is a neurological device that helps us focus on what matters by tuning out things that don’t. For example, YouTube video thumbnails with animated, threatening faces get more clicks than neutral ones, which our brains ignore.

Mere exposure effect is our tendency to develop a preference for things or people that are more familiar to us due to a repeat exposure.

The optimal level of exposure is when something is both new enough to engage our brain but also old enough for us to like it.

The overuse of popular terms, phrases and calls to action makes our brains to habituate them to the point that they get tuned out. If you have an important message to share, use terminology that is unexpected, unusual and unsaturated.

Marketing doesn’t need to be liked, but it needs to demand an opinion, a response and an emotion.

🎃 You Must Piss People Off

"Indifference - when people don’t love you or hate you - is the least profitable outcome for a marketer."

Aim to make people feel something, as indifference leads to habituation.

"We have to be prepared to piss off 80% or we’ll never turn on 20%. If we don’t, we’ll be middle of the road, mediocre, average. Palatable, but not definable. That’s a product. That’s not a brand. A brand triggers an emotional response."

Don’t be afraid to use emotional, bold, or divisive marketing approaches. Engaging 20% of your audience is more effective than making 100% feel indifferent.

🎡 Shoot Your Psychological Moonshot First

"A psychological moonshot is a relatively small investment that dramatically improves the perception of something."

Investing in perception is often cheaper, easier, and more effective than changing reality.

The peak-end rule is a cognitive bias that describes how we remember an experience according to how we felt at its peak and at its end, rather than by some perfectly aggregated average of every moment of it. ****

Consumers judge their experience on just two moments - the best (or worst) part, and the end. Studies also show that keeping your customers busy can improve customer happiness, retention, and conversion by more than 25% (so give them something to do while their are waiting for your service/product/order).

Operational transparency reduces uncertainty and makes customer experiences more favourable, even if not perfect. You can look at it this way - people don’t want faster delivery, they want less uncertainty about their delivery. Research shows that it’s less stressful to know something negative is about to happen than to be left in uncertainty (a ‘delayed; alert on a scheduled flight is much more mentally irritating than a ‘delayed 50 minutes’ alert).

The goal-gradient effect shows that we work faster as we get closer to achieving a goal.

"It’s harder to increase customer satisfaction by making a train 10 minutes faster; it’s much easier to increase customer satisfaction by using psychological principles to make it feel 10 times more enjoyable."

👓 Fiction Can Create Value

Making things easier isn’t necessarily the path to a psychological moonshot, sometimes we have to do the opposite: to increase friction, wait times and inconvenience, to achieve the same increase in perceived value (examples involve General Mills cake mixes (just add an egg), Red Bull energy drinks (medicine tasting drink), make it yourself restaurants (e.g. cook your own steak), and even flight, hotel and insurance syndicates artificially increase search times and show all the sites they’re searching in an attempt to convince us that they’re doing a very thorough search).

Companies that understand that people are not logical but irrational and unreasonable in their decision-making and behaviour, can deploy psychological moonshots.

🖼 The Frame Matters More Than The Picture

Framing involves presenting an offer in the most appealing way. It's more attractive to describe meat as 90% lean rather than 10% fat even though they are both true and factually correct. Similarly, showing limited quantities of a product can create a sense of scarcity, increasing its perceived value. Reality is shaped by perception, making context crucial.

"Reality is nothing more than perception, and context is king."

🥇 Use Goldilocks To Your Advantage

The Goldilocks effect is a type of anchoring - a cognitive bias where individuals rely too heavily on seemingly irrelevant information (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions.

By presenting 2 extreme options next to the one option you’re actually hoping to sell, you can make the middle option appear more attractive or reasonable. For example, brands typically price the medium option higher than the lowest price, but far away from the most expensive price.

“Our decisions aren’t driven by sense, they’re driven by the nonsense created by social cues, irrational fear and survival instinct.”

People tend to make value decisions based on context - providing a range of options, such as economy, business and premium (as in airlines) can affect your customer’s perception of your standard offering.

💰 Let Them Try And They Will Buy

The endowment effect means people overvalue items they own or even just touch. Apple uses this by creating an ownership experience in its stores. Letting customers interact with products increases their perceived value, making them more likely to buy.

5️⃣ Fight For The First Five Seconds

The first 5 seconds in any story is do or die.

All stories should have a ”hook” - a clear, compelling promise, explaining why a reader or listener should read/watch a video (this should create a “WTF?” response to be effective).

When thinking about storytelling, we should cater for our most uninterested customers first - think about them when creating a hook.

“If you want your story to be heard, you must aggressively, passionately and provocatively design those first five seconds to be thumb-stoppingly compelling, annoyingly magnetic or emotionally engaging. Drop the warm introduction, the pleasantries and the musical B-roll footage, and urgently get the most compelling promise, point or provocation that you can. No matter the medium, you must earn the right to the attention you’re seeking within those first five seconds.”

💦 You Must Sweat The Small Stuff

Kaizen, or continuous improvement, focuses on making small, incremental improvements everywhere. It’s not about making big leaps forward but about making small things better, in small ways everywhere we can, daily, by all employees within a company.

Under the kaizen philosophy, managers are idea coaches, helping employees refine their innovative ideas to improve certain processes.

“The correct route is to be found by making consistently small improvements, sweating the smallest stuff and fighting for tiny gains. If you don’t care about tiny details you’ll produce bad work because good work is the culmination of hundreds of tiny details. The world’s most successful people all sweat the small stuff.”

🌩 A Small Miss Now Creates A Big Miss Later

Small deviations from the optimal path can lead to significant errors over time. If we want to be successful, we need to have a simple ritual to asses our course and make small adjustments where needed in all aspects of our lives, as often as we can. We must continuously ensure we're on the right path and are heading to the destination that we intend to, want to, and desire to - that includes that we cannot fail to check in with ourselves and others, to speak up where needed, engage in necessary difficult conversations or address trivial issues that can cause big regrets later in life.

"Just a small deviation from the optimal route is amplified over time and distance - something that feels like a small miss now can create a big miss later."

🛹 You Must Out-Fall The Competition

Consistent failure and learning from it are keys to long-term success. Type 2 decisions, which are reversible and low-risk, should be made quickly by high-judgement individuals or small groups. The real cost of indecision is wasted time and failure to fail and get the knowledge that can ultimately help you to succeed.

How to create a pro-failure philosophy:

👉 Remove bureaucracy - limit the number of rules that need to be followed, long and painful sign-off processes, several layers of hierarchy, etc. as these systems disempower employees, slow companies down, delay innovation, and disincentivise experimentation.

👉 Make project teams as small as possible, give them more authority, trust and access to resources when making decisions, and cut back all sign-off processes (especially for Type 2 decisions).

👉 Fix the incentives - encourage your employees to increase experimentation and their rate of failure.

👉 Promote and fire - promote those who have a high failure rate (from experiments and innovation) and fire those who stand in the way of the flow of new ideas, fast failure and experimentation.

👉 Measure, establish KPI’s, clear goals, and make them everyone’s responsibility - no one in business should be too busy for experimentation but should be a central part of everyone’s job.

👉 Share the failure openly to prevent the duplication of unsuccessful efforts, stimulate the development of new ideas, and foster a culture of continuous experimentation.

🅰 You Must Become a Plan A Thinker

Not having a Plan B can be the most motivating force in our lives. When our mind excludes all other possibilities and fixates on a single path only, that path draws in every available ounce of our passion, perseverance and power, leaving no room for hesitation.

Thinking about a backup plan can eventually lead us to want to achieve our goals less, which then hurts our efforts, performance, and chance to succeed in achieving our goals - this is especially true for goals where success is highly dependent on effort.

Fear of failure provides the impetus needed to get to our goals.

🦚 Don’t Be An Ostrich

Avoiding uncomfortable realities and difficult conversations in business and relationships is unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst.

We should recognise what is not right, asses what we can do to solve it and then share our truth with those who need to hear it.

Here is a 4-step approach to dealing with discomfort and avoiding procrastination:

1️⃣ Pause and acknowledge to yourself that something is not right.

2️⃣ Review/inspect yourself in terms of feelings, behaviours and emotions. Get out of your narrative and diagnose yourself, avoiding framing and blaming others.

3️⃣ Speak your truth without blame and with emphasis on personal responsibility.

4️⃣ Seek the truth humbly by listening to understand what is being said back to you.

💢 You Must Make Pressure Your Privilege

People who mentally reframe anxiety as excitement can improve their performance in sales, negotiation and public speaking.

While the compulsory, meaningless, low-autonomy pressure feels like psychological pain, the voluntary, meaningful pressure high in autonomy is received as a privilege. People who adopt a “stress is enhancing” mindset enjoy better performance at work and experience fewer negative health symptoms than those who see stress as negative.

The 4-step process to changing how we respond to stress:

1️⃣ See it: we shouldn’t deny it, avoid it or let it paralyse us. Speaking about it can change how our brain responds to it.

2️⃣ Share it: sharing our stress with a supportive community changes the psychological impact that stress has on us.

3️⃣ Frame it: recognise the positive role stress plays and the powerful signal it represents. We feel pressure when something is at stake and when we care. Framing our pressure in this context gives us positive motivation and can calm our physiological reactions.

4️⃣ Use it: our physical response to stress is to produce hormones, such as adrenaline and dopamine, which provide the brain and body with much-needed blood and oxygen, which results in a state of higher energy, enhanced focus and a boost in focus - so use it!

❌ The Power of Negative Manifestation

A "pre-mortem" involves imagining a project's failure and its causes before it happens. This proactive approach helps identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate them. This technique can be applied to careers, relationships, and investments to make more informed decisions.

How to conduct a pre-mortem:

1️⃣ Set the stage: gather a team together and explain the importance of identifying potential risks and weaknesses of a given product (not criticism).

2️⃣ Fast-forward to failure: ask your team to imagine failure and ask them to do this in great detail.

3️⃣ Brainstorm reasons for failure: ask each team member to independently generate a list of reasons that could have led to the project’s failure (both internal and external).

4️⃣ Share and discuss: have each member share their reasons for failure and have an open and non-judgemental discussion to uncover potential risks and challenges.

5️⃣ Develop contingency plans: work together to create contingency plans and strategies to either mitigate or avoid these potential risks you uncovered.

You can use the same strategy when choosing a career (work backwards to identify why you are dissatisfied with your career and then refine your career choice or devise strategies to mitigate potential issues), relationships (identify what could have led you to a failed relationship and proactive address these concerns ), or investments (envision a scenario in which the investment leads to financial loss and what could have been potential causes for this outcome - this can enable you to make more informed decisions).

⚒ Your Skills Are Worthless, But Your Context Is Valuable

Skills only have value in the right context. If a specific employer or client sees your expertise or skill as rare or unique, they will be willing to pay more for it than those in an industry in which your skill set is more common.

👉 Our skills hold no intrinsic value - value is what someone is willing to pay you.

👉 The value of any skill is determined by the context in which it is required - every skill holds a different value to different people and in different sectors.

👉 The perception of a skill’s rarity influences how much people value it so choose the industry where you can apply your skills wisely.

👉 People will assess the worth of your skill based on how much value they believe it can generate for them - the market you decide to sell your skills in will determine how much you get paid far more than the skills themselves. Project managers receive higher pay in tech than working in arts, education, or social services, etc.

Transplanting one’s skill set to an entirely new context - a different industry - where it can deliver greater value for the employer. E.g. the same skill of graphic design, sold in a different context, can earn even thirty times more.

“To be considered the best in your industry, you don’t need to be the best at any one thing. You need to be good at a variety of complementary and rare skills that your industry values and that your competitors lack.”

👀 The Discipline Equation: Death, Time, and Discipline

"The allocation of your time will determine if you succeed or fail in your life’s work, if you’ll be healthy and happy, if you’ll be a successful partner, husband, wife, or parent. Our time - and how we allocate it - is the center point of our influence."

Discipline = the perceived value of achieving the goal + how rewarding and engaging the process of pursuing the goal is - the cost of pursuing the goal.

1️⃣ Get clear on your goal and why it matters. Visualisations have scientifically been proven to be effective - once we can visualise ourselves there, the perceived value of getting there increases.

2️⃣ Enjoy the process and use psychological tactics to maintain engagement.

3️⃣ Minimize factors that make the process less enjoyable to sustain discipline.

❓ Ask Who, Not How

In business, it's about knowing who can do something, not how to do it yourself. The ability to hire and build a culture that gets the best out of people is crucial for a CEO or founder.

"The truth is, your destination will be defined by the sum total of the ingenuity, ideas, and execution of the group of people that you assemble. Every great idea, everything you create, your marketing, your products, your strategy - all of it will come from the minds of the people you hire."

Prioritise hiring and view yourself as a recruitment company.

🎡 Create a Cult Mentality

The 4 stages of a company’s life are the cult, growth, enterprise and decline phases.

In the cult phase, founders are so consumed by their delusional belief, enthusiasm and urgency that they go all-in, sacrificing everything, to try and get their baby off the ground.

In the growth phase, the company is a mess - employees are overworked, under-sourced and often inexperienced. They don’t have the systems, processes or people needed to handle the growth.

In the enterprise phase, people are stable. Their lives tend to have a greater balance, employee retention is better and expectations, processes, and systems are defined.

The final phase - decline - eventually comes to all companies due to risk-aversion, complacency and ostrich effect.

As a founder, your most important decision will be picking the first 10 people you hire. Each person will represent 10 per cent of your company’s culture, your values and your philosophy.

Ingredients of the cult:

  • A sense of community and belonging that provides meaning and purpose. They offer a clear, confident vision and assert the superiority of the group.

  • A shared mission and identity - a commitment to a usually extreme ideology.

  • An inspirational leader who presents himself/herself as infallible, confident and grandiose.

  • An “us vs. them” mentality.

10 steps of building a company culture:

  • Define the company’s core values and align them with mission, vision, principles and purpose.

  • Integrate the desired culture into every aspect of the company - from hiring policies to processes and procedures across all departments and functions.

  • Agree upon expected behaviours and standards for all team members and promote a positive work environment.

  • Establish a purpose that goes beyond the company’s commercial goals.

  • Use myths, stories, company-specific vocabulary and legends, symbols and habits, to reinforce the company culture.

  • Develop a unique identity as a group and cultivate a sense of exclusivity and pride within the team.

  • Create an atmosphere that celebrates achievements, progress, and living the company culture.

  • Encourage camaraderie, community and a sense of belonging among team members, encourage mutual belonging and a collective sense of obligation.

  • Remove barriers and enable employees to express themselves authentically and embrace their individuality within the organisation.

  • Emphasise the unique qualities and contributions of both employees and the collective, positioning them as distinct and exceptional.

“The most important overarching principle for anyone hoping to achieve a long-term business goal is to create a culture that is sustainable; where people are authentically engaged with a mission they care about; trusted with a high degree of autonomy; sufficiently challenged in their work; given a sense of forward motion and progress; and surrounded by a caring, supportive group of people that they love to work with and that provide them with ‘psychological safety’.”

3️⃣ The Three Bars For Building Great Teams

"A single bad apple can spoil the team’s culture, while one, two, or three good workers cannot un-spoil it."

If you do not fire ‘ bad apples’, they can lead to employee disengagement, other employees copying the behaviour, social withdrawal, anxiety and fear, which will lead to a deterioration of trust within the team.

To identify bad apples - think of each person in your team and ask yourself, “If everyone in the team embodies this person’s cultural values, would the bar be raised, maintained, or lowered?”

With every hire, you should be looking to raise the bar and if any current hire becomes a bar “lowerer”, you must let them go quickly to stop their negative influence from destroying your company’s culture.

🎢 Leverage the Power of Progress

Focus on progress, not perfection. Even small progress brings positive emotions and high motivation.

"How much you’re actually achieving is pretty much irrelevant to your motivations: but if you feel like you’re getting somewhere, you’ll be driven to keep going."

The key to action, confidence and movement is scaling your challenge down - because the key to overcoming that discomfort and procrastination is to reduce the complexity of our challenges to smaller, easier and quicker achievable micro-goals and tasks.

How to create the perspective of progress in teams:

1️⃣ Create meaning in employees’ work so they feel that their efforts are making a meaningful impact. The fastest way to kill meaning is for leaders to dismiss employees’ work or ideas, remove their sense of ownership and autonomy and ask them to spend time on work that is cancelled, changed or disregarded before it’s completed.

2️⃣ Set clear and actionable goals - they should be broken down into smaller, interim milestones, with a focus on early wins. Progress should be tracked with OKRs (objectives and key results).

3️⃣ Provide autonomy by giving teams space to take charge, allowing them to fail and succeed, and map out their own path and utilise their own skills and expertise.

4️⃣ Remove friction proactively by removing sign-off processes, obstacles, bureaucracy, etc. that prevent the team from achieving their daily progress.

5️⃣ Broadcast the progress with weekly updates to the entire company.

👓 You Must Be an Inconsistent Leader

Humans are not rational, logical or analytic creatures but emotional, illogical and driven by a multitude of emotional impulses, fears, desires, insecurities, and childhood experiences. Thus, a one-size-fits-all, reason-, information- and facts-centric approach to leadership is inadequate for inspiring passion, motivation, and action among people.

Leaders need to become the complementary puzzle pieces for each member of their team. They can do this by being inconsistent, emotionally variable and fluctuating as the people in their teams are. However, to do this, leaders need to comprehend the unique shape of each of their team members by getting to know them on a deeper level.