An interview with Aidan McCullen of The Innovation Show
To celebrate the launch of our new curated podcast series, hosted by Aidan McCullen, we took time out for a chat with the former professional rugby player who's developed a successful career as a podcast host, transformation consultant and college lecturer.
We connected with Aidan’s brand of incisive, insightful storytelling and his hunger for knowledge, self-improvement and transformation.
When the opportunity to sponsor The Innovation Show came up, we didn’t need a lot of persuading. With over 300 episodes and tens of thousands of loyal fans tuning in every month, it charts a course through modern business thinking and with famous fans such as Bill Gates, it is a goldmine of rich, compelling stories made accessible to all.
We wanted to get under the skin of the man whose burning ambition made it all happen, so we sat down with Aidan to find out how it all came together, its many successes, and what the future holds for both the host and the show.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into podcasting?
Aidan: I was working for RTE, Ireland’s national broadcaster as Head of Innovation. I was asked to come up with content ideas for its new streaming service. I suggested a show that would appeal to the many people who work in tech in Ireland, many of whom aren't from Ireland. We have global headquarters of many tech companies here and very little of the content RTE produced would appeal to them. I thought it was a great idea, but my colleagues disagreed. This is a common challenge with new ideas, so I persisted.
Eventually, I suggested it to the radio department and they welcomed the idea. This is how The RTE Innovation Show was born.
Now, bear in mind, I did not suggest I would host the show. I had never done that before.
In any case, the radio department agreed it was a great idea, but that I would need to host it as they couldn't afford to find a host. This is how I came to host the show.
When I left RTE, I started the show from scratch as The Innovation Show with Seth Godin (entrepreneur and author) as my first guest. That was six years ago and I haven't missed a week since then.
What attracted you to innovation as a subject matter?
Aidan: Originally, I did not want to call it The Innovation Show. I wanted a more abstract term, but I took the advice of the radio production team. The goal was that the term “innovation” was so broad that I could appeal to a wide spectrum of people and cover a wide variety of topics. I love the fact that the show can be so different from week to week, one week we cover human behaviour; the next is artificial intelligence or cryptocurrency.
You recently broadcast your 300th show – what have been the biggest highlights and hardest challenges?
Aidan: The highlight is always the emails from listeners, when they go out of their way to say thank you and how the show inspires them. Many people have been so inspired they either left jobs that didn't satisfy them or even became start-up founders.
Another high is when the authors we feature each week stop to thank me for the depth of research. They're genuinely touched by the considerate and thoughtful questions. That's very satisfying to hear.
Regarding challenges, the biggest challenge was when I ran the show while working for an organisation I did not run. During those times, I had to record in the late evenings, often after 10pm. I had to ensure that the show didn’t interfere with my day job. Once I started my own business 12 months ago, this was no longer a challenge and thanks to the sponsorship by Zai, I can invest more time than ever before into the show. This is why I see Zai akin to a benefactor rather than a sponsor.
What are some of the most profound insights you’ve gleaned from all the people you’ve interviewed? Do you incorporate much of the advice writers give you into your own life and how much of a challenge is that, especially when the advice conflicts?
Aidan: The biggest thing I've learned is empathy. Each one of us sees the world in our own unique way. This is why communication can be tricky. When you couple our unique worldviews with the filter bubbles in which we consume information, is it any wonder that we argue?
I'm very aware of this on the show. We often have episodes on bias and blind spots. Hosting the show and reading each author’s worldview sparks many “a-ha” moments for me. When I feel so sure about a certain perspective, I'll often seek out an author who disagrees. I'll then read their book and ask them open questions to learn from them. It is a great way to learn and challenge my perspectives. All growth happens in discomfort.
You're involved in many other projects, give us a flavour of how you balance your busy work life and what gives you the most satisfaction?
Aidan: Regular listeners of the show will know that I've covered episodes on habits from global leaders such as BJ Fogg, time management from Ashley Whillans and on Getting Things Done by David Allen. These episodes serve me as much as the listener. I apply elements of each of the lessons from these great people to create my own streamlined process.
As a result, I'm very focused. I say no a lot, but in a nice way. One thing people don't see is that everything I do is focused on learning. Furthermore, it's based on input and output. Think about it, I read a book. I take substantial notes. I formulate questions, I have the immense privilege to interview the author. I edit the show myself (to consolidate the learning). I write an article for my newsletter each week loosely inspired by that episode. It is an amazing opportunity to learn.
As I learn, thoughts marinate and mix with my own experiences from my past and my work as a corporate consultant, board director and executive coach. These insights then translate into an output that manifests as my book (and future books), my lectures at Trinity College Business School, my keynote speeches all over the globe. I am very lucky.
I've had to work very hard on being mentally present when I'm physically present with my family. My mind naturally wanders, so I've worked hard on mindfulness and meditation to achieve that. Since I started my own business, I drop my kids to school or pick them up most days and I go to every one of their extracurricular activities and sports events. I'm very fortunate and grateful for this.
The biggest lesson I share with others is that I do very little “busyness”, I avoid meetings if I can, I don’t do social media, I don’t watch much TV. I'm aware my two boys will grow out of me very soon, so I never want to have any regrets that I wasn't around for them when they did want me.
How have you innovated in your own career and how will The Innovation Show continue to… innovate?
Aidan: I'm constantly learning. I am taking a course in Decentralised Finance (DeFi) currently because I find it challenging. I see blockchain, smart contracts, NFTs and the future of finance as important in all aspects of business, so I intend to build capabilities before I need them.
For the show, I have got some great series lined up, where I go even deeper into a specific field. For example, we just launched a series on exponential technologies and have another on cryptocurrencies coming soon. One of the most exciting series I have coming up will be in Q4 2022 based on the work of the late great Clayton Christensen. In this series I'll interview each of his co-authors over a period of three months.
I intend to do some live events, which have only been curtailed by the pandemic to date.
What’s the plan for the next 100 shows and beyond?
Aidan: I have a vision of myself as a 60, 70, 80 and even 90-year-old. I am in good physical shape due to advances in healthcare and the work I do today in the gym and with my nutrition to pay it forward to that future self. I am sitting in a custom-built studio in my back garden. Things like wi-fi connections are a thing of the past and thanks to advances in technology content creation is easier than ever before. I have built the show into the best and longest-running show on innovation on the planet (bear in mind, we'll probably have some people living on Mars!). The reason it is so successful is down to the hard work we do today and the collection of points of view that we have built up over the years. This sponsorship, this support by our benefactor Zai will have certainly played a role in that future vision.
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