Matt Wallaert wants to make it clear: He is not a self-help guru. “I am the furthest thing,” he said, laughing. “While I love individuals and try and help people individually where I can, a lot of my work focuses on projects and systems.”
In addition to serving as an angel investor and adviser on a number of startups, the behavioral psychologist has launched and sold two of his own startups, and continues to work on several others — all centered on the idea that changing behavior can give individuals equal opportunity to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Wallaert is passionate about such projects because he too is hungry for meaningful work — something he refers to as “work worth doing.” That includes the nearly four years he spent at Microsoft, where he helped build products and grow startups, in addition to the 1,000 projects he hopes to tackle in his lifetime.
Wallaert’s life is busy, but that’s by design. He makes the most out of every work trip, for example, completing as many fulﬁlling tasks as possible in a short window of time. “I tend to ﬁll my time in cities,” he said. “I have my assistant see if there are local meetups I could be giving a talk at, or an incubator I should be dropping by and doing some office hours. If I’m going to be away from my family, I’m going to pack as much meaningful work into that time as I can.”
When he takes the Main Stage at PCMA Education Conference 2017 in New York City this month, Wallaert plans to discuss how behavioral psychology can help meeting organizers and attendees alike purposefully achieve their goals at an event.
You hope to advise 1,000 projects in your lifetime. What issue would you like to tackle next?
The more professional, public one that I’ve been working on these days is trying to address this sort of fundamental gap — and I think it’s a gap that I’ll talk a little bit about at the conference — which is, if you go to any sort of modern American businessperson, they’ll tell you they love behavioral psychology. But then, when you say, “How are you incorporating that into your work? If you’re a large company, where’s your behavioral-science team? If you’re a smaller company, how are you apply-ing those principles to your workﬂow?” — you get a lot of blank looks. So, one of the things that I’m out working on is, how do we get people to actually go apply the things that they seem so interested in learning about?
What would you say to convince more businesses that they need a chief behavioral officer? I think most of them recognize that they do. Overwhelmingly, when I talk to businesses, they’re like, “Yeah, we get it. We get that we need this thing, but it’s too hard to apply and we don’t know how it applies to our business. We don’t know how it drives the bot-tom line.” So I actually think it’s less about convincing people that they need it, and more about making it really easy for them to implement.
A major focus of yours is “work worth doing.” Is there a simple way to define that?
I think society has this tendency to label some jobs as meaningful jobs and some jobs as not meaningful jobs. Teaching is a meaningful job. Wall Street is not a meaningful job. You see that reﬂected in salary. Because teaching is a meaningful job, we don’t have to pay you very much. Because Wall Street isn’t a meaningful job, we have to pay you a lot.
We all will have better outcomes if we accept that everybody’s deﬁnition of meaning is different. Actually, Wall Street work is tremendously meaningful. The movement of capital enables lots of things in society that are important. I think it is important and inherent that we need to actually stop trying to rate meaningful work along a scale. Instead, try and ﬁnd the people for whom that work is meaningful, and help people understand the meaning of that work.
You’ve also written about the importance of feeling unhurried, but meetings and conventions are packed with different sessions. How do you think event organizers can plan an unhurried meeting?
Meeting planners are the right people to answer that. They know their business better than anybody else. They can get creative about what ﬁts in their conference. I think that my job is to raise the macro point. My job is to point out: What’s funny is, if you go look at the people who are really successful at conferences, they’re not the ones who rush from session to session to session. They’re the people who make time for creative collision.
Are there other ways that you think behavioral science could be applied at meetings to make them more engaging or educational?
It’s very difficult to do behavioral design if you don’t know what behavior it is you actually want from people. I think the ﬁrst step is really coming together as an industry and talking about what is a successful conference, besides it’s selling out, besides business metrics. What makes a conference something that somebody wants to come back to next year?
Are there any key takeaways that you’d like to pass on to the attendees at Education Conference?
I think that the big one is really that, have you thought about what behaviors you want, and are you actually design-ing for those? I think both of those [ideas] are key. It starts with a thoughtfulness about, hey, what do I actually want? What, for me, is success? What, for me, is meaningful?
That can be deﬁned in different ways. Is it that everybody has an okay time, or is it that a few people have a great time? Those are very different goals. You design for them in very different ways. For me, that’s really the big takeaway: Are you thinking about the behaviors you want, and are you then systematically targeting them to improve the conference?