Networking is (quite literally, it turns out) a ‘dirty word’, but Dr David Burkus brings together studies and stories that show how we’ve got it wrong: we don’t ‘do networking’, we ARE a network.
This is invaluable for anyone in business, but David also describes in detail how he gets from idea to finished, best-selling book, including the systems and tools he uses, so if you’re also writing a business book you can’t afford to miss this.
David’s website: https://davidburkus.com/
David on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidburkus
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Alison J: Hello, and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club, and I’m delighted to be here today with Dr David Burkus, who is a best-selling author, a speaker, and Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation at Oral Roberts University. He’s delivered key notes to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies and the future leaders of the United States Naval Academy, and his TED Talk has been viewed over 1.8 million times. He’s a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, and he hosts the Radio Free Leader podcast. It’s always lovely when you interview a podcaster. They know the score. And his new book, Friend of a Friend, offers a new perspective on how to grow your network and build key connections based on the science of human behaviour. So welcome to the show, David.
David B: Thank you so much for having me. I’m not sure that being a podcaster means I know the score, but it does mean that I’ve wasted money on ridiculously expensive equipment.
Alison J: Oh, we love our mics, don’t we.
David B: Totally.
Alison J: You know what? Let’s do this in the green room chat afterwards. We’ll compare mics and kit…
David B: Totally.
Alison J: Now networking. Networking’s actually a ‘dirty word’, and I love that phrase, I was laughing when I was reading your book because you talk about how people literally feel dirty after thinking about networking tactics. So tell us why you wrote this book and what it’s all about.
David B: That’s actually one of my favourite studies in the whole book, just asking people to remember a time when they had to network. Not even when they do it, just thinking about a time, makes them feel subconscious thoughts of wanting to get clean or literally feeling dirty. The reason that I wanted to write the book was that there’s a wealth of information out there from the world of network science, people who have been studying human networks, computer networks, animal ecosystem networks, every kind of network, and they’re universal principles that every network has in common. And so you’re reading those, and you’re thinking (this is the academic in me), you’re thinking, “Wow, these are fascinating.” And then you’re reading the typical sort of networking advice books that are all about how to give the perfect elevator pitch or what the right question to ask someone when you meet them is or that sort of thing, and there’s no consideration to science. I mean, there’s a couple of times where they might reference weak ties or something like that, but all of these other phenomenon that are true to every single network, are not making their way over into these networking books.
And that really made me realise, “Okay. There’s a huge need here because what most people need is not to learn how to do better at that cocktail party that they didn’t want to go to to begin with. What most people need is to understand that they already exist inside of a network and then figure out how to map it and then act accordingly to do the things that you need to do to meet the people that you need to grow your career, which is a totally different mentality, one from thinking that, “Okay, I don’t have a network. I exist inside of a network, and my job is to map it, to create value for it, and to navigate it appropriately.”
Alison J: I thought it was fascinating actually because as soon as I read that, your network is just like a computer network as well and they operate on the same rules, it was really obvious. The word is exactly the same, but it hadn’t actually ever struck me before that there were rules that govern these things.
David B: Yeah, and in fact, it made for a really difficult time picking an appropriate title because we couldn’t use the word “network” because then it would just get labelled as a book about computers and networking so… because it was already so science-based, the study of network science predates computers, right? It actually begins with looking at models of human networks, who’s connected to whom, et cetera. It really became a popular area of science when computers came out, and people were trying to solve the problem of what happens when, if each computer is a human, what happens when you’re in this massive million person network instead of typical network studies before then were 60 to 100 people. Now we’re studying people en millions and we need to figure out what’s going on when there are millions of people in a network.
Which is ironic because most networks are … really we exist, the entire planet is one giant network, 7.4 billion people strong and counting. A lot of those later studies with bigger-scale models provide the same insights and discover the same things that hold true in human networks as well. And that again, I think that’s the mentality most of us need to have, that we’re one node in this larger network, and our goals are accomplished, not by just adding as many nodes as possible, by understanding the network that’s around us and responding.
Alison J: Yeah, quality not quantity. As you did the research for the book, was there anything that surprised you, apart from the fact that people want to wash after they’ve talked about networking?
David B: So that was probably one of the most surprising. The other’s that Kevin Bacon is not the centre of the universe.
Alison J: No, he is, surely?
David B: So we talk about six degrees of separation, which most people’s first introduction to is actually the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: connect any two Hollywood actors to each other through Kevin Bacon or connect any actor to Kevin Bacon inside of six steps. There’s a couple different ways to play the game. And what I found in the research was that Kevin, himself, is a total fluke. It happened because three probably inebriated college students were hanging out one night watching a lot of different movies, all of which starred Kevin Bacon, and so then they started exploring this Hollywood network, trying to think that “Oh, Kevin Bacon is the centre of the universe.”
But then when the actual academics took over and started doing these large-scale models, and we couldn’t do this until we had IMDB.com and had a big database of it. It turns out that in terms of the sheer number of connections to the widest and most diverse array of other actors, Kevin Bacon ranks 663rd. The truth is that anyone in that network can get connected to anybody else because of the way the network is formed. And then the most fascinating thing is, that’s true for all of us. So Kevin Bacon’s not the centre of the universe. No one is. All of us have this ability to, within a couple of introductions, get access to everyone we need to have an introduction to. We just have to, again, figure out what the right path is and start navigating it.
Alison J: That is fascinating, isn’t it? And I remember Facebook did some research on this, didn’t they? And they said, actually, it’s not six degrees of separation. It’s more 3.4 or something. The world has really shrunk.
David B: Yeah, so this is a fascinating study, too. So yeah. Six degrees of separation is, it started with Stanley Milgram and a couple other social science researchers, and then in the computer world, people like Duncan Watts picked it up, and they found that, yeah, it’s between five and six introductions. But here’s what’s interesting. There’s two interesting things about the Facebook study. If you have a Facebook account, you’re one of the two billion people, then you’re actually, it’s 4.7 and shrinking. I think it’s growing to 4.3. It’ll be sub-four within the next couple of years. And what’s interesting about that is not just that it’s four because there’s only two billion instead of seven billion. It’s the way the studies were done. So most of the original six degrees of separation studies were done by asking people to get a message to a specific person. In other words, you have to consciously think, who’s the right next link in this chain?
Whereas Facebook, because it’s got everybody already mapped out on this network, they can use an algorithm to find the most efficient path in every situation, which is not what the original studies asked to do. So it’s entirely possible that it’s actually not six degrees of separation for the other 5.4 billion people who don’t have a Facebook account either. It’s just that we don’t know the right path. Now, I translate this over to mean something really, really interesting for our own lives and our own application, which is that most of the time, when we’re trying to find a route to a specific person or to a specific industry, we ask one person for one introduction. Maybe we saw that they’re connected on LinkedIn and we begged them for an introduction or whatever.
The better approach is to start from the mentality that you don’t know the most efficient path to where you want to go, who you want to meet, et cetera. So it’s better to ask an open-ended question like, “Who do you know in [blank]?” with blank being whatever sector or industry or geography you want to get to know people in, because if you open end like that, people will give you multiple different answers, which are multiple different possible routes to start. And then you’ll eventually hopefully find the must efficient one, instead of just assuming, “Okay, this is the best person for me to get an introduction to this other person to get an introduction to that.” That might take six. You could probably do it in less if you ask these open-ended questions and know that finding the most efficient route, the only way to do that is to search multiple routes.
Alison J: That is real interesting and not at all the kind of tactic you normally read in a networking book…
David B: Not at all. Yeah.
Alison J: So tell me a little bit more about that approach because, you have that itch, don’t you? You have that kind of, “Oh, this is interesting” thought. What process do you go through to take it from that kind of “Huh, maybe there’s a book in this” to actually deciding to write the book and starting to really map the research down and pull the book together? Just talk us through that process.
David B: All three of my books blend sort of, okay what are lessons we learned from social science and then what are the implications? This is the most prescriptive book I’ve ever written in terms of like, “Okay, if this is all true, then here’s what you should do,” but even the prior ones were trying to pair case studies and stories with examples from the science. It depends, depending on the book, I either start with stories or start with the science. In this case, it was exactly that. I’m reading all of these contents and insights, and going, “Oh, this is fascinating. Maybe there’s a book here,” but there’s only a book here if there are examples of people who are in line with that research, whose own stories come from it.
And this is, I think, the other key. Most of the networking books out there are advice books written by one or two people. And I have to say, usually a male, usually an affluent, white male, who’s already living in a city of super-connected people, right? So that’s great if you’re also that, but if you’re not then maybe that advice isn’t all that valuable to you ’cause you’re not in the same situation. So we’re trying to find multiple different examples of people who are using these phenomena.
So for the example of that six degrees of separation piece, I found this fascinating story of Michelle McKenna-Doyle, who is the Chief Information Officer at the NFL. When she was hired, she was actually the highest level, highest ranking female executive that the league ever hired. And she basically started out as a CIO in some other companies, had a couple different people send her this job description, and then she realised, “I need to work my network. I can’t just ask who can I get that one introduction that can introduce me to the commissioner.” It was, “Who do I know that could be connected to this?” Searching out kind of multiple paths and found a rather counter-intuitive one.
She found a friend who worked in a head hunting firm, and that firm wasn’t even handling, this sort of search wasn’t even connected to it at all. But because you get one link to an executive search firm, they all know each other at all the other executive search firms, so that person was nice enough to connect her to the firm that was, and now she has that route. It probably would’ve taken four or five introductions to get to the commissioner of the NFL, but she found this other possible route –
Alison J: Back door.
David B: … by saying, “Okay, I need to explore…” exactly, “I need to explore all areas of my network, and maybe I’d find a back door, a faster way, a shortcut type of thing.” And so that’s what leads to this idea that, yeah, it’s probably a better idea to start with, “Who do I know in [blank]?” or asking all of my friends, “Who do they know in [blank]?” And coming up with multiple different answers, so I have multiple different paths.
Alison J: So that’s interesting that you say just having the facts, having the research and the science isn’t enough. You need the stories. Tell me a bit more about that. Why is that so vital?
David B: You could write a book that was just all of the science, but those books, for one, those books already exist, but they are from the standpoint of just, “Hey, look. Isn’t this fascinating?” And some of them are. I mean, Duncan Watts has a book on small worlds. Nicholas Gersacis and James Fowler have a book on their research, and it is fascinating. But I think what most people need is to go, “Okay, that’s that was fascinating, but how do I put that into practice?”
Alison J: “How does that link to me?”
David B: Exactly. And I think you need to do two things for that. The first is, I think you need to actually say, “Okay, here’s what this means. Here’s the activity or the habit or the perspective that you need to adopt.” But then I think the other thing that most people need, in terms of readers, are you need to see multiple different people from different backgrounds who have all done something that is in line with that insight, so that it’s easier to sort of visualise. And I’m not saying if you want to get a job for the NFL, hit up your friends that work in search firms, although that would work. There’s a couple other stories in that chapter, and it’s really about showing you, “Okay, here’s the same principle from multiple different angles,” so it’s easier to visualise yourself working these couple different angles because the chance is if I give you three stories, the chance is that one of them kind of rings true to your own life is going to happen.
The other thing is just humans like stories. I find this with all three of my books now, people usually don’t remember the study, other than that networking makes people feel dirty study because that one’s fascinating. People usually don’t remember the study, they remember the story I told about someone who exemplifies the principle from that research. I’d love it if people could walk out citing all of the researchers named in this book. They do some amazing work, and they deserve all of the credit. But I also know that the only way to get them to remember the insights from this book is to get them to remember the stories of the people featured in this book.
Alison J: It comes up again and again when I’m talking to people. It’s like, yes, you have to have the research. You have to have the original stuff that you’re saying. But if you don’t package it in stories, it doesn’t actually stick, and people don’t get that emotional connection. Emotion plus the interesting stuff equals memory, doesn’t it? That’s what sticks.
David B: That’s exactly right. Try as we might to have this system of schooling where people just learn to absorb and regurgitate facts, humans are still hardwired to speak to each other in stories, and so that’s what we remember.
Alison J: Which is good. I’m good with that. I like that. But tell me… Yeah, it’s much more interesting.
David B: As a business book fan myself, I’m like, yeah, this fantastic –
Alison J: That’s right. It tells a story.
David B: I get really bored on the purely prescriptive books. I would much rather be like, “Okay, cool, now tell me a fascinating story about somebody doing this really well.”
Alison J: “Tell me a story.” It’s such a basic human thing, isn’t it? But I want to know about how you actually organise. This is where we really go under the hood: what systems are you using? What tools are you using? How do you take that idea and start shaping into something that’s going come together into a book? So you’re collecting your stories, you’ve got your research. How do you draw those together?
David B: Yeah, so I use some really old-school technology. I use this thing called paper. I’m kidding.
Alison J: How are you spelling that?
David B: I know!
Alison J: P-A-P-R?
David B: So early on, usually there’s four or five ideas for the next book. Only one of them won’t leave me alone, and so the next step is to kind of, I try and write out the one pager. What is the one-page description of this? If I like that, I try to write out the proposal. Then if I like that, then we shop the proposal around. But then we get into research mode, assuming we get a book contract, we get into research mode where … during research mode, probably the most useful tool to me is Evernote because I’m just trying to throw a bunch of stuff in there. And then, and this is where I get old school, then I print it all out. I actually really love books. I love hard copy books. And so I can’t bring myself to write in them or highlight in them or whatever.
So if I’m reading a book, I kill a lot of trees, I will flag with a Post-It note the page that I like something in that book from, and then I’ll set it to the side, and then later, I’ll go back and photocopy every page that has a Post-It note on it, so that then I can highlight and write on the photocopied piece of paper. But then it also gets in the stack, and eventually those stacks sort of take the form of chapters. I’m usually looking for, “What are the studies that prove this point?” And two to four stories or examples or case studies that are aligned with that, they all get in one big stack. And then if you … I probably have a picture somewhere because I feel like I took a picture of this. If you look in my office right before we get out of research mode to writing mode, it’s just stacks of paper in piles, usually like 10 to 12 piles that are probably six to eight inches high, of papers. And I’ve read through them all, I highlighted through them all, et cetera.
What’s funny is it works like a natural progress bar. As I’m writing, I’m going through those papers, and if they get used, I file them away so that I have them in case somebody says, “What’s your source on that?” et cetera. If I don’t use them then they get recycled, and so gradually those papers, those piles go down. Eventually when there’s no more piles left, “Hey, the first draft is down.” That’s really the process. It kills a lot of … I mean, we recycle the paper, so I guess it’s not like it kills the trees one time and then … it’s not like it’s not eco-friendly. But I can’t bring myself to use iPad and note-taking or anything like that. I like the old-school paper. I like the natural progress bar of the papers gradually declining in my office floor.
Alison J: That’s brilliant. And I love … also, as you say, you can see it all at a glance, but there’s some friction, there’s some affordance of having paper in your hand, isn’t there, that just works differently in the brain than a different bit of text being replaced on the screen in front of you where you can’t see what was just before it and what comes after it.
David B: And not to mention that it taunts you, sort of like A Tell-Tale Heart. If it’s all laying all over your office and it’s hard to navigate your office because there’s all of these papers around, you’re like, “Yeah, I really need to write more. I need to get rid of this stuff.”
Alison J: Yeah, you can’t just forget it.
David B: It just constantly reminds you. Whereas if it’s on a computer somewhere, you can just close that application and pull up Netflix and move on with your life and pretend that you don’t have a job to write a book.
Alison J: That is hilarious. So actually, making your life really hard by getting somebody nagging you to get this study tidied up, that’s what gets you to write a book.
David B: No, that’s true, and for me, the writing part is the agony. I’m not one of those people that considers going to coffee shop and sitting down and writing to be a good hobby. I love the research. I love the idea that I get to spend six months to a year studying something fascinating, and then I love talking about the insights from that book that happens after I write the book. That middle part, where I actually put fingers to keys and type out words, is agony to me. So I want to hassle myself to get through this as quickly as possible.
Alison J: Let’s talk about that middle bit, which is, sadly, kind of important, isn’t it? So what does writing look like for you? When and where do you write best? And again, what do you find… well, it sounds like the whole thing, but what do you find hardest? Why is so hard? Why is it so awful?
David B: It’s not that it’s awful, it’s just a bit like running a marathon. People tell you that’s great when you get finished, but it’s just a slog in the middle that you feel like you’re never going to get done. So I use, the last two books I’ve used Scrivener, which is like a writer’s best friend because it keeps track of your words and your daily goals. So I set a daily goal. I love in that app you can set, I want the first draft by this date, and I only write on these days, so you tell me how many words I need to do today to get it all done. But it is. It’s like that. Brick by brick, building this long giant wall. It’s really hard to see the end until you get probably to the halfway point. That’s the slog.
It’s not that it’s unenjoyable. I mean, I’m sitting here complaining about writing when there are people who spend their profession being in the oceans in Alaska, digging for crab baskets and freezing themselves or whatever. Writing is not as hard as that. Let’s be honest. It’s just sort of the demotivational effect of, I have to do 70,000 words, and I have 5,000 words. This is going to take a while. That’s the part that really sort of eats at you mentally. Eventually you get to the point where you can sort of see a light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe that’s where the marathon analogy comes back. Now you’re sort of motivated, that last two miles where you’re like, “Oh, this is actually going to happen.” But until you get to that moment, it’s just like you keep pushing and pushing and pushing and you’re not really even sure you’re making progress. And were it not for Scrivener and that satisfying little ding that pops up once you’ve hit your word count for the day, I don’t know how people would stay motivated from day to day.
Alison J: How did Trollope do it, hey? I know exactly what you mean, actually. I know, right?
David B: Exactly, right?
Alison J: I love … I don’t get on that well with Scrivener, I have to say. I ended up reverting to Word because it was just too much hassle, but I did love setting a target and watching it go green and that little ding and that’s like, “Man, look at me. Look at me writing.”
David B: And I have to say, as soon as I finish the first draft, I’ll export out of Scrivener. I’ll spend the rest of the time in Word. I know people will tell you, “You can do your whole book in it.” I haven’t figured out how. I’m sure it’s possible, but to me, it’s not worth figuring out how. What I need it for is that green light and the little ding. That alone is worth the money for the software, but then I’ll go over into Word and keep formatting and all that stuff consistent there because it’s just easier.
Alison J: When you do that first draft, how close is it to the final product?
David B: I guess that depends. It really depends. It’s probably pretty close. I’d say 70% there. The only things that really change are occasionally sort of how we phrase something. We might choose to cut a chapter. We might choose to move some stuff around, like this story actually works better over here, et cetera. But it’s probably pretty close because in that research phase is when I’ve really set out, “Okay, in this chapter, I’m talking about these examples and these studies, and this is the takeaway.” And so I’ve got that all mapped out ahead of time. I spend probably a disproportionate amount of time in the research phase for that reason.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe you haven’t done enough research. Writer’s block is probably a thing in fiction, but in non-fiction it’s really just you haven’t done enough research, and that’s why you don’t know what to say. And so if I do all of that, then when it comes time to actually type it out, it stays pretty close. It’s really just more fine tuning and changing, and really, if I had my way, everything would probably stay exactly like the first draft. Fortunately, I have editors at my publishing house that are far more skilled than me at seeing where all of the holes are and forcing me to patch them up, so that the end result is a way better book. But, yeah, it probably stays pretty close because of that research part.
Alison J: So it’s the research and also the planning, since we didn’t explicitly touch on. It’s a really key part, isn’t it? It’s like mapping out … you’ve got your table of contents from your proposal, and then you’re actually putting in what’s going to go in here, which bits of research, which studies, which stories, and then it’s just a matter of putting it together.
David B: Yeah, and in fact, I think it actually gets harder as you do more and more. Your first book, you need to write an incredibly detailed proposal, including every chapter by chapter, what stories are going in, about all of that sort of stuff. Your second, your third, your fourth, it’s like they know you know what you’re doing, so you have to say less and less to convince them why you should get a contract for this book. As a result, you have less of an outline when you start, so you need to still make that outline. And so, that’s what we do. That’s what those stacks of paper are all about, and they’re arranged in a way where I know, “Okay, this is the opening study. These are the stories. This is the other ideas. This is the takeaway.” It’s all in one big stack.
I didn’t mention, I use those super thick binder clips, you know the big black ones that look like a butterfly, to clip stuff by what section it is in, so I even have that down to the like 2,000-word sections kind of mapped out. It’s really just, show up to work every day and type it out. And that’s probably why it’s so demotivating in the moment, but I would rather do that than sit and stare at a blank screen with a cursor. By the way, you know the reason they call it a cursor, right? ‘Cause it’s just a blank screen, it’s just blinking at you, and you just want to curse at it until you come up with those words. I would much rather show up to meet that cursor with a plan, so I don’t have to swear at it.
Alison J: I love that. Meet the cursor with a plan. What a great mantra. Brilliant. Thank you because it is so fascinating, you know. Every writer has their own way of doing it, and it’s just really encouraging for people who haven’t done it before and are maybe kind of working out their own systems, just to get a sense of, “Try this. It might work.” So, thank you. That’s really really helpful. And what would be, there’s lots of first-time authors listening to this podcast, if you were to give them one tip, what would it be?
David B: I guess it would be in line with that, have a plan, but also don’t take that plan so seriously. Your first book … and I’ve talked to all of my author friends about this, and the person that said it verbatim the way I said it was Daniel Pink. Your first book, you learn how to write a book. If it’s a success, amazing. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter. You learn how to write a book, what systems and processes work best for you. Then you launch it and you learn how to market a book. You learn all the things you’re doing wrong there, too.
Alison J: Phase two, isn’t it?
David B: Right, exactly. But it’s much more a learning experience, so have a plan but also be open to kind of changing the plan for what works for you. You might hate Scrivener. You might hate the idea of doing all of your research ahead of time. That’s fine. That’s my plan. That’s what I found in writing three books, but I discovered most of that plan in the first book, but I did not know that when I started. It’s the plan I sort of stumbled into over the six months of writing the first book. So have a plan, but be will to change it because that first book is where you learn how to write a book.
Alison J: Love it. And of course you do it by doing it. There’s no point in sitting down and planning it all out. You actually have to do it to find out what it feels like and what works for you.
David B: Yeah, exactly right. Exactly right.
Alison J: Now, I always ask my guests what business book they would recommend – obviously apart from yours -what business book should everybody listening to this podcast press pause and go and read now?
David B: Well, press pause and go and read would be Friend of a Friend. The other one. I will tell, the best book that I’ve probably read in the last six months was, not to bring him back to the conversation, but was Daniel Pink’s When. It’s a fascinating book. It’s a little light on the stories for Dan. It’s a little heavy on the studies, but the implications are fascinating. For example, probably the biggest implications, they’re around understanding your chronotype, which is a fancy word for are you a morning person or an evening person, and then structuring your work in such a way that you’re doing the right work for the right time of day. That alone was worth the $22 that the book cost and probably way more.
So yeah, his new book is called When, and it’s utterly fascinating, especially if you’re an author or especially if you’re doing any kind of creative work or you have to structure your own day. It has a fascinating chapter on how to do that in line with your body chronology and a bunch of stuff I didn’t really understand, but what I took away was fascinating and works really well.
Alison J: Fantastic. I love Daniel Pink’s stuff. I love the linguistic stuff he’s done in the past. But I haven’t heard of When, so that’s a great recommendation. Thank you very much.
David B: Oh, yeah, it’s fascinating.
Alison J: Now if people want to find out more about you, David, and more about Friend of a Friend, where should they go?
David B: So probably the single best place to go would be davidburkus.com. Unlike Alison Jones, David Burkus is a really weird name –
Alison J: All right, don’t rub it in…
David B: … and so the URLs and all of that are open. From there, there’s information about the book. Obviously, I’d love for you to go to like Amazon or Barnes and Noble and type that in and buy the book and triplicate. But on that website, there’s a tonne of resources in line with that, so if you’re not ready for it yet, you still want to check it out, et cetera, there’s all sorts of good stuff there. There’s also a myriad of different ways to get in touch with me and keep the conversation going. So it starts at davidburkus.com, but I truly hope it won’t end there. I hope we keep the conversation going.
Alison J: And I put all the links up on my site of course, so if you’re driving right now, and you can’t write it all down, then just go to extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as usual, and you’ll find the link to David’s site there. So thank you so much for your time today, David. I’d honestly, it’s one of those conversations, I could keep talking about this all day. It’s absolutely fascinating. But thank you for being particularly so generous with telling us how you go about shaping that extraordinary book.
David B: Thank you for calling it extraordinary, and thank you so much for having me.