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Mike Berland: “Don’t give up”

I want people to ask themselves the question, “Are your best days ahead of you or behind you?” This is the key to unlock momentum because momentum is always moving and always future-oriented. It doesn’t care about what happened in the past. You can’t have momentum if you believe your best days are behind you. […]

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I want people to ask themselves the question, “Are your best days ahead of you or behind you?” This is the key to unlock momentum because momentum is always moving and always future-oriented. It doesn’t care about what happened in the past. You can’t have momentum if you believe your best days are behind you. Just look at formerly great companies that have collapsed because they were stuck in the past. This question is essential whether you’re running a company, a political campaign or just reviewing your own life.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Berland. Mike is an internationally recognized pollster and strategic adviser. He is the founder and CEO of the insights and strategy firm Decode_M. His book, Maximum Momentum: How to Get It, How to Keep It, will be published on March 31, 2020.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

When I was in high school I had a revelation about my future. After losing a student body election — twice — I realized that my real passion was not in being the king but in being the King Maker. A king can lose it all, but a King Maker can just move on to the next king and keep being relevant. This choice led to a career as a pollster and data analyst for politicians and companies, focusing on how to figure out what people want and develop strategies to get them there. I learned how to predict which candidates would rise and fall, which products would hit the market running, and which ideas would soar.

For most of my career I used conventional methodologies, but in 2015 I began to realize that those methodologies were becoming obsolete. Donald Trump’s candidacy broke all the rules of analytics. Traditional methods of analyzing success did not capture his surge. That’s when I began to study a new metric — momentum. After the election, I became obsessed with decoding momentum, not just for political candidates but in all arenas. My company, Decode_M, helps people unlock the culture and understand how to have an impact. I’m not a culture-maker. My purpose is to enable others to do it.

I became an author because I had stories to tell, and I was a natural-born storyteller. Writing them for a larger audience was the best way to share my insights. I write because I want people to know. I want to give the gift of insight. All my books have the same basis. They’re all based on personal challenges that I faced, using my skills as a researcher to find out the answers and share them. My last book, Become a Fat-Burning Machine, was based on my long quest to lose weight and become fit. I wasn’t a nutritionist. I wasn’t a doctor. I wasn’t a trainer. I was just a guy who was curious about losing weight and had the analytical tools to make it happen. The same is true with Maximum Momentum. My curiosity about how the culture works led me to a significant discovery, grounded in physics. The simple formula — momentum = mass x velocity — gave me the opening to develop a whole new type of analytics.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I was always curious and had questions. But as a pollster my ability to answer them was limited in depth and scale. This has all changed. Today, everything is knowable. Now, through social media and other functions we can decode not only what people say they want, but what they actually do. We were always able to understand attitudes, opinions, and motivations. Now, we can see the behaviors. It’s even more interesting. We can use natural language processing to understand how people talk to see what they’re actually thinking. We don’t have to sample what they’re saying with rigid poll questions. We can see everything they’re saying. I always had a vision that I could run the world from my laptop, and now that’s possible.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I had the idea for this book back in 2015, and I pitched it to Judith Regan at least three times. The first couple of times she told me that it sounded like a magazine article — not big enough for a book. But the culture was changing, and by 2019 I was getting an enthusiastic response whenever I talked about momentum. Finally, Judith agreed. The culture had finally caught up with my idea.

The lesson for authors is that ideas are not stagnant. They’re not good or bad. Relevancy changes. If you believe in your idea, but others are skeptical, give it time. Don’t give up.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early in my career, when I was just a data geek, analyzing the landscape for political campaigns, I would look at states and divide the counties into regions, assigning a number to each one. One year, while analyzing the map in Montana, I misnumbered the counties so that I was one off — county one was actually county two, county three was actually county four, and so on. I ended up dividing the entire state wrong because of this mistake. But the mistake actually led to an out-of-the-box strategy that worked. I caught the mistake in my quality control, but the strategy was so good, I didn’t tell anybody. The candidate won, and they never knew it was because I’d made a data mistake. After that, I came up with the phrase, “I don’t make mistakes, I just perpetuate them.”

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

What gets me the most excited is the trajectory of momentum in our lives — and the transformation of knowing why things happen. I can look at my career of 25 years and see what was going on in 1995. But I can also look ahead with a momentum mindset to what will be going on in 2045. It excites me to look at the possibilities and to help other people see them. The momentum mindset is liberating, without boundaries. It negates the fatalism that comes from protecting the status quo. Instead, we can embrace the way the culture and the world is constantly changing and understand ourselves as part of that momentum. Nothing is set in stone. We can make our reality happen.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I approached the research not as a study of abstractions but with tangible examples people could understand and relate to. That’s why I used Trump, Airbnb, Facebook, the Kardashians and Doctor Oz. I could show what cultural relevancy looks like, and track the process of momentum in politics, businesses, social movements and lifestyles. I could show how the physics formula — mass x velocity = momentum — is manifested in our daily lives. I purposely kept the text short and lively so people could easily grasp the key concepts and enjoy the process of discovery. The takeaway is something everyone can use to track who and what has momentum.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I want people to ask themselves the question, “Are your best days ahead of you or behind you?” This is the key to unlock momentum because momentum is always moving and always future-oriented. It doesn’t care about what happened in the past. You can’t have momentum if you believe your best days are behind you. Just look at formerly great companies that have collapsed because they were stuck in the past. This question is essential whether you’re running a company, a political campaign or just reviewing your own life.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

How do you become a great author? I don’t know about five things, but I’ll say this. First, have a good idea. Then, let the journey take you where it goes and be patient with it. The original idea is just the launch pad. In the process of investigating it, you’ll not only test the premise, but you’ll discover surprising angles you didn’t know existed. If you try to force it or rigidly adhere to a process, you’ll stall and the result will be less inventive. Let the stories flow and keep it real.

The other thing I’d say is never be afraid to tell people what they already know. As a pollster, I realized that 70 percent of what the audience learned they already knew on some level. The same is true with being an author. My concept of momentum isn’t totally unfamiliar; if it were, people would lose interest. What I’m doing is tapping into fundamental ideas — things people think they know but don’t really know — and allowing them to click in a visceral way.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

My discipline is to immerse myself in the experience I’m writing about — always asking, “What’s the best expression of this idea in my own life?” So, when I wrote about becoming a fat-burning machine, I became a fat-burning machine. The same is true of decoding momentum. My life is the laboratory for my ideas. This process keeps it authentic.

Another aspect of my discipline is to avoid distractions. I learned this from political polling. When a candidate gets distracted from the core purpose, which is winning, the candidacy falls apart. The same is true with writing a book. For the last year I’ve lived in a momentum mindset.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

Since I have a momentum mindset, and am curious about what I can discover next, I’ll answer the question this way: The book that inspires me the most is the one I haven’t yet read.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter — @MikeBerland

Instagram — @decode_momentum

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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