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10X Your Mental Performance with Salim Ismail

Salim Ismail is a technology strategist, software engineer, author, and successful entrepreneur. He’s passionate about business, entrepreneurship, and technology, and travels extensively sharing a global perspective on the impact of breakthrough technologies and how organizations can leverage these disruptions to grow 10x faster than their peers.

Salim’s book, Exponential Organizations, quickly reached No. 1 on Amazon’s Best-Sellers in Business Management. Salim has spent the last seven years building Singularity University as its founding executive director and current global ambassador. Prior to Singularity, Salim was a vice president at Yahoo, where he built and ran Brickhouse, the company’s internal incubator.

Your life is a reflection of your thinking. So how do you become an exponential thinker?

Our guest today, Salim Ismail, is an expert exponential thinker, and he’s here with us to talk about how to 10X your mental performance at work and life.

Salim is the founding executive director of Singularity University, and its current global ambassador. He travels around the world sharing a global perspective on the impact of breakthrough technologies and how organizations can leverage these disruptions to grow 10x faster than their peers.

Join us in today’s conversation as we explore ways to become an exponential thinker.

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"Most of the time the disruptors of industry don’t come from that industry."

Salim Ismail

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  • Our education systems and intuition about the world teaches linear extrapolation: take your past performance, use a straight line to predict results.
  • Chris Anderson and TEDx: do 5 talks in the first quarter, 10 in the next, 15 in the next, so they’d do 2000 events over 5 years. Huge purpose: ideas worth spreading.
  • They let the community go create events, and in 5 years they’ve done 15,000 events — but if you’d told the team in the beginning that this would be possible, they wouldn’t have believed you.
  • How can you operate in the paradigm where you scale your own performance, or the performance of your company, at unbelievable levels?
  • Seeing it today in Uber, Airbnb: exponential organizations that are scaling 10x faster than their competitors.
  • Concept mentioned: Moore’s law, more information here.
  • Definition of exponential thinking: increasing at a rapid rate, doubling each year.
  • Example: If I take 30 linear steps, I’ll go 30 meters, and everyone can gauge how far I’ll go, but if I take 30 doubling steps [2, 4, 8, 16, keep doubling…] it’ll end up as 26 loops around the world.
  • Hard to gauge: how far is one third or two thirds in this progression?
  • When experts are asked where does this domain grow? They’ll revert to linear thinking—a type of thinking leading to tension between bankers vs Bitcoin, Uber vs taxis where one mechanism is growing exponentially and the other is stuck in the old paradigm (and our brains are too!).
  • Kodak vs Instagram: Kodak was operating on a physical, material, scarcity environment. Move to digital: marginal costs go to zero, take billions of more photographs, filtering, socializing.
  • Most of the time the disruptors of industry don’t come from that industry.
  • If you can make the transition (mentally and at an organizational level) then there’s unlimited opportunity.


  • Create a massive transformative purpose (MTP): gives you a North Star.
  • Ask yourself: what problem are you passionate about solving?
  • Externalities that allow you to keep a small footprint and scale outward quickly – e.g. Airbnb uses other people’s assets, TED uses community.
  • Internal mechanisms for startups e.g. lean startup methodology, decentralized org structures, real-time dashboards.
  • Minimal costs mean you can stay focused on the problem at hand.
  • Concept mentioned: blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman.


  • Jim’s Kwik Brain ‘MTP’ would be: help people to upgrade their brains, or light the community up.
  • Kwik Brain scaling: using a podcast to get information into the hands of millions is a naturally scaling.
  • Mapping outside of local and linear thinking is really difficult — anything important used to happen within a day’s walk, whereas now something can happen in Tokyo and affect us immediately.
  • Once you’ve got a successful model, the challenge is then to scale your effort and message, retrofit a legacy.


  • The human mind has never had to deal with exponential thinking before — we were living locally and didn’t have to deal with exponential technologies.
  • Much of our work today is solving the ‘amygdala problem’—where the amygdala lights up at something scary and new: the sense of ‘anything unknown and robotic could kill you’ (e.g. driverless cars).
  • We evolved to hear a noise in the bush and run—because something might kill you.
  • In today’s world, bad news could kill you, good news won’t (this is why our news organizations are so focused on negative news, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ concept).


  • Moving from linear to exponential thinking is an important leap to make: do exercises like using a 3D printer and building this.
  • Once you’ve practiced exponential thinking, this can open you up to getting distracted by a thousand things you can do.
  • Use MTP to keep focus: anything that doesn’t fit in the category of your purpose, block it out, remain single-minded about what you’re trying to achieve.
  • Book mentioned: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.


  • Innovation always comes from outside the field.
  • A living example is Elon Musk: asks where will this technology be in 10 years? Then aims to intercept the curve in 10 years, starts immediately building the technology.
  • Might look like magic from the outside, but the very specific methodology behind the process—information-based environments, information enabling a legacy environment.
  • Airbnb’s information enabled everyone’s apartments lying around to be turned into a multi-million dollar company
  • Unique today: If you want to scale an organization, you can do it for almost zero marginal cost—internet allowed us to drop the cost of demand generation (like online and referral marketing, creating a viral loop) acquisition costs go to zero.
  • Challenge for exponential orgs is how to drop the cost of supply? Costs Airbnb nothing to add a room to their supply, whereas Hyatt have to build a room.
  • The poster child for exponential organizations is Github: no assets, no workforce, no intellectual property.


  • Hiring someone with 25 years of marketing experience is the worst decision—don’t understand current climate, uses old techniques, operate in the old linear environment vs. a 25-year-old living on Instagram and YouTube.
  • Platform mentioned: check out Singularity University.
  • Salim tried to do a creative exercise for SU’s platform but struggled—brought in a group of outside thinkers and they came up with innovative solutions.
  • Having the awareness, insight, and self-awareness to operate in an exponential thinking paradigm is the key to success today.
  • We’ve evolved genetically to adapt very slowly over time: in the short term success came from repetitiveness and predictability.
  • Today success comes from constantly changing, though it is very hard to do this.




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