John Gerzema, Social Strategist and Author
John Gerzema Interview
John Gerzema is a social strategist, leadership consultant and New York Times bestselling author. Gerzema is a pioneer in his industry; his methods of using data to predict global social shifts has placed him squarely on the forefront of research implementation. He takes his findings and helps businesses apply them to their core missions, ensuring they not only maintain relevancy, but ultimately reach new successes.
A Fellow with The Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College, Gerzema is an outspoken advocate for equal rights. His latest book, “The Athena Doctrine: How Women (And The Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future,” explores the rise of feminine skills and competencies and their impact on leadership, policy and innovation. Gerzema, along with a small team, traveled the world interviewing 64,000 people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. The results overwhelmingly showed that globally, people are relying on traditionally feminine values to improve their communities.
There’s no doubt if everyone worked as hard and as thoughtfully as John Gerzema the world would be a better place. The question is, how does he do it?
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I thought a dual career as an astronaut/shortstop would be pretty cool. I watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon, which was an astonishing concept for a seven year old to take in, or anyone for that matter. And I played baseball from dawn to dusk––and sometimes beyond, which did result in several trips to the ER for stitches.
What do you love? Why?
I love optimism and optimistic people. I really want to be around the energy of positivity. I find it particularly gratifying to see friends and colleagues who I know are genuinely nice people––thrive. It seems then that karma is alive and well. I love my wife, Mary and daughter, Nina. I love Sundays, like yesterday when Nina and I biked up the Hudson River parkway without a care in the world.
You have a deep understanding of emotion, when did you realize this was a personal strength and how did you make it a defining trait in your professional life?
I spent years as a planner in advertising agencies trying to understand how consumers think and feel; what’s underneath what they say to what they do. I found it ironic that business tries to rationalize the marketplace with concepts like market capitalization and risk management. The thing is, we are all emotional beings, which impacts everything we do from the brands we buy to the leaders we admire. I have always tried to advocate that business understand and value emotion, because it ultimately explains everything–– from the Arab Spring to the iPhone.
What’s your process like? Now that you’ve written a handful of books, have you developed a process? Do you outline, do you need coffee, do you write in the mornings…
I am a Sunday morning fanatic. I work out of a coffee shop near my apartment in Tribeca and usually go until the family calls for dim sum or brunch. And then I also work early mornings before office hours. As a guy from the midwest I’m up with the chickens and cows which is a huge cultural advantage in New York, when the world doesn’t really start until at 10:00 am. No late night writing ever. It never looks good in the morning.
Your thoughts are always so wonderfully supported and intertwined with research, do you start with an idea first and go out to see if the research supports it, or do you research a topic you want to write about and then study the data to identify the idea?
I want ideas to be right and left brained––emotional and logical. I start from a position of the contrarian and try to find concepts that are counter-intuitive: In 2008 during the financial crisis, I spent weeks in inner-city Detroit for our book, Spend Shift and interviewed a wave of entrepreneurs who were migrating back into the city to start businesses. Our team was proud that we beat most of other mainstream media to these stories. Once I have a few ideas I go out and do both qualitative and quantitative research and when I feel there’s a compelling enough thought I start bouncing them off trusted peeps. I’ve worked closely over the years with Michael D’Antonio, my co-author of several books and a Pulitzer prize-winner. I have a great team of thinkers, like Amy Choi a journalist who was vital to our last book, “The Athena Doctrine.”
What’s something you had to learn the hard way?
I’ve learned that when you put your ideas out there you can’t be expecting praise. Your thoughts only exist to start a conversation. I’ve had both critical praise and contempt. I’ve learned that’s better than being ignored.
What’s one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m nice until I’m not. Mary, my wife attributes it to being a Scorpio. I think I just have low tolerance for nincompoops.
What are you grateful for?
My family and my friends and the opportunities I’ve had to travel the world, meeting and interviewing some of the world’s most interesting and accomplished people. It is both thrilling and humbling.
How do you define success?
Being in the moment, doing what you love, learning and growing constantly––at any age. The theme of all the amazing leaders we met for our book, The Athena Doctrine had the ethos of a student. To be accomplished and vulnerable is a wonderful way of being as it opens up new routes to innovation and disruption.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My mom told me I should get a Master’s in Journalism. It was the eighties and everybody else was trying to be Gordon Gekko.
How do you think we can make the world a better place?
All of our data shows that people around the world are pessimistic on a macro level, but feel they can control and contribute to their communities. Everything is atomizing into networks of accountability, whether it’s your supporting local schools or working with an NGO. Ultimately people want to make a difference and we must find solutions that come from the bottom, rather than the top.
Ted Talk by John Gerzema: The Post-Crisis Consumer