Getting Into Focus With Erik Qualman and His Neon Green Glasses
A motivational speaker and five times #1 bestselling author, Erik Qualman has performed in more than 55 countries and reached 50 million people with his message. In 2012, he was named one of the world’s six most likable authors, putting him in the company of people like Chuck Palahniuk and Seth Godin.
His Socialnomics work has been on 60 Minutes to the Wall Street Journal and used by the National Guard to NASA. More than 500 universities around the world use his materials. Qualman’s animation studio wrote and produced the world’s most-watched social media video “Social Media Revolution.”
Qualman was Academic All-Big Ten in basketball at Michigan State University and has been previously honored as the Alum of the Year. A scholarship bears his name at MSU. His MBA is from the University of Texas and he is a former sitting professor at MIT and Harvard’s edX. He received an honorary doctorate for his groundbreaking work. Most importantly, Qualman is still trying to live up to the “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug he received from his wife and two daughters.
He says that he begins each day with the same meal: “To avoid decision fatigue, I eat the exact same thing for breakfast every single morning. Egg white frittata, avocado slices, cherry tomatoes, and no-salt turkey.”
Your newest book “The Focus Project” preaches that doing less effectively is better than doing more ineffectively. Why is this the right message for 2020?
We actually released the book early because of the pandemic. Many readers said they had someone in their life that was physically fine, but mentally they were struggling during quarantine. With more people having to order everything online, homeschooling, working remotely, they where having a difficult time focusing on the important versus the immediate. While it’s the year 2020, nobody had 2020 vision — the proper focus, everything was blurry. The book is designed to give people clarity into their goals and ambitions. Focusing on the right things leads to fulfillment. It’s a guidebook for learning the not so simple art of doing less, better.
The “less-is-more” philosophy in “The Focus Project” seems somewhat akin to what Tim Ferriss (another Austin author) preached in “The 4-Hour Workweek.” Are there other similarities between these two books?
Tim and I share the same belief that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Seems simple, but many of us live with a mindset of tomorrow, instead of today, in terms of when BIG things will happen. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present but so many of us fail to unwrap it.
Speaking of focus, what is your process for writing a book? Do you try to write a certain amount every day? Is there a specific hack you use when you experience writer’s block?
I write for 30 minutes each morning before brain fatigue (it’s a thing) sets in. I attack the day before it attacks me. Some days I might write a word and other days I might write 2,000 words. The key is staying in the process.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think that’s a crutch and is just a fancy term for procrastination. Coming from the business world I’d never go into a meeting and say “sorry guys” but I’m having “budget block” or “sales block.” Now, there are days when what I write is utter garbage, but unlike a baseball hitter that has to bat .300, my average doesn’t matter. It’s all about home runs. So, the more times I step to the plate (i.e., the more days I write instead of procrastinating) the more chances I have to hit a home run.
By my count, you have now authored seven books. Which one was the hardest to write and why?
“The Focus Project” was definitely the hardest to write. I realized early on the personal impact this book will have on the reader. As such, I had to get more personal than ever before in my writing. This included discussing my relationships with my daughters and wife. Because of this intimacy and my midwest roots, imposter syndrome would often creep into my psyche. Why will people care about my experiences? I had to overcome these hesitations and make it personal for me, and in turn, the reader.
What do you enjoy more? Book writing or public speaking?
They are, in many ways, opposites. I enjoy the introversion and extroversion they both provide. However, during this pandemic, I truly realized why I love speaking so much. So, public speaking is my choice.
I love people. I love the interaction and I love the realtime impact and change I can see in people’s eyes both onstage and offstage (my favorite part — the interaction). Some speakers hate a two-hour book signing — they limit them in their contracts. I love it, I love meeting people, I love the interaction.
Erik Qualman’s presentations at conferences and conventions tend to include a lot of energy and engagement. What is your top tip for aspiring public speakers who want to make an impact on their audience?
Knowing your audience trumps your knowledge. Think: entertain, educate, and empower the audience through stories.
COVID has had a dramatic impact on conferences and conventions. So how has the pandemic impacted your particular line of work?
With zero live events, it’s forced us to innovate. For example, with our animation studio (Equalman Studios), we did a large project with Disney. Before, because of my travel schedule, this might not have been possible. I’ve been doing a lot of virtual conferences and we are able to utilize the animation capabilities of the studio to make them more engaging than just a talking head.
Given what you have learned from “The Focus Project,” will you return to your busy travel schedule when a COVID vaccine makes in-person conferences and conventions viable again?
Yes, and I will continue to adhere to the 52-Night Rule my family has in place. I will only be away from the family for a total of 52 nights in the year. One time this meant I only spent five hours in India to give a 45-minute keynote for Google. I slept three nights on the plane but was only gone two nights — it was like a time machine. Choose family over fame and finances and all three will most likely happen.
You settled in Austin after getting your MBA at the University of Texas. What is your favorite thing about this city?
Community. It’s an incredible fusion of high tech, hippie, music, food, outdoor activities, and southwest hospitality.
From your perspective, what will be the top technology trend for the next decade?
Combing AI & Voice Search to make life easier. Think, “Hey Alexa, record my last grocery list and ship it to me in the next two hours, please. Search for and use any coupons.”
Do you have a topic for your next book yet? If so or if no, how do you typically arrive at these topics?
A combination of two things:
The best way to get a topic for a book is to write a book. While you are writing you will realize you need to go deep on a particular topic you are only brushing over in the book you are currently writing.
For business or self-management books, ask people two questions: First, what’s their greatest dream/opportunity; Second, what is preventing them from achieving it? Write a book that solves for the second question.
But this advice on business or self-management titles aside, I’m pushing myself into discomfort with my next book. It will be a young adult fiction book — within the genre of Harry Potter. It’s already written, I’m just figuring out a go-to-market strategy.
Neon green glasses are your trademark. How and why did you come up with that concept?
I’m a big believer that things happen for you, not to you in life. My first initial (E) combined with my last name (Qualman) form the moniker Equalman — which sounds like a superhero. For years I avoided the name “Equalman” as it was a constant source for teasing and bullying. Then a magazine, for their cover story, because of “Equalman,” wanted me to wear Clark Kent-esque Superman glasses. They also wanted them to be bright green for their St. Patrick’s Day issue. There is a longer version from here of the story involving Kenya and me adopting a baby Cheetah. But to save you from this — in short, the glasses stuck. This moment happened for me as it allowed me to step into my story and they have been good for business. Companies are now buying green glasses for their virtual or live audiences by the thousands.
The green glasses are also a constant reminder for me to focus on the important versus the immediate.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.