Adam Markel shares how to create more moments for rest and build your resilience in the face of burnout.
- The most valuable skill for any professional
- The massive costs of burnout culture
- Quick recovery tactics to boost your resilience
Bestselling author, keynote speaker and resilience expert Adam Markel inspires leaders to tap the power of resilience to meet the challenges of massive disruption — for themselves and their organizations. Adam is author of the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, Pivot: The Art & Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life.
- Adam’s book: Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life
- Resilience Assessment: Your.ResilienceCulture.com
- Adam’s TEDx Talk: “DOING THIS for 10 Seconds Can Change Your Life! | TEDxSouthLakeTahoe”
Resources mentioned in the show:
- App: Calm
- Book: The Presence Process: A Journey Into Present Moment Awareness by Michael Brown
Adam, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Pete, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Well, I’m excited to dig into resilience. And maybe, could you start us off with an inspiring story of someone who is able to build up resilience?
Wow, that’s such a great way to begin. I think of my dad, he’s the first person who just comes to mind, he’s been a writer for most of his adult life. And, like many writers or creative people, couldn’t make a living at it and, ultimately, did other things to earn a living. He was actually a parks department supervisor and a preschool teacher, and loved that work, and was basically side hustling at night doing his writing. And over the last 50 years or so that I can sort of consciously remember my dad writing and staying up late at night doing so much editing, he’s rewriting, as has been said, he just was the model of perseverance. He just was constantly preparing himself for the next level of his development as a creative writer, as a fiction writer, and plays and novels and poetry, and all those kinds of things.
And he must’ve gotten, I mean, I’ve never actually counted or asked him, how many rejections along the way he’s gotten but it’s got to be in the thousands, I would suppose. And it’s just never daunted him. He has been the model, for me, since very, very early on in my life of what perseverance looks like, what tenacity looks like.
And resilience, in many ways, is about that. It’s not something that it’s in your DNA. It’s definitely something that you can learn. It can be taught to others. But, yeah, my dad has been that guy for me.
Well, so I’d love to get an understanding then when it comes to resilience, just sort of what’s the impact in terms of being awesome at your job, and career of being resilient versus not so resilient?
Well, it’s the difference between being around to figure out what works versus not. There’s no way to win a race if you don’t finish. And whether it’s in sports, or it’s in a career context, or entrepreneurial context, we really have to be around long enough to learn what doesn’t work. In fact, one of the things that we often will work with teams and individuals on is how you create clarity out of the things that have been your greatest challenges, how do you create clarity out of your biggest mistakes.
And the premise of that, to just sort of cut to the juicy bits, is that when you know what doesn’t work, we find that you know what does work. When you know what you don’t want, you know very clearly what you do want.
So, my belief is that there’s no sort of shortcut to success in anything. There’s no shortcut to success in the arts, or in any kind of important endeavor in your life whether it’s being a parent, being a great spouse, being a great friend, being a great leader in business, being a great employee or a great manager, or a great salesperson. It’s a hard-fought, hard-won success when it comes, and you can’t get to the point where you actually experience what that is without having put the time in, without having been able to endure quite a bit of pain along the way, suffering along the way, and many hills and valleys.
We’re experiencing a pretty prolific change time right now, a change that most people did not predict or anticipate, and that often is the case about change. We have to be able to ride those waves of life. And, ultimately, when we are able to do that, we learn things, we gain clarity, we gain tremendous insight, understanding, sometimes great wisdom. And that enables us to not only learn how to do better at our jobs, but it enables us to mentor and lead other people. And that is the most valuable skill there is, that any of us can attain or aspire to.
Yeah. And I’m intrigued, when you mentioned that you can’t finish a race or win a race that you don’t finish, what is not finishing a race look like in practice for professionals?
Burnout in a word.
You just say, “I’m done. No more working. Can’t.”
Well, you know, so many people are a product of a culture of burnout. They don’t call it a burnout culture in any company.
“We have a burnout culture. Come join us.”
That’s it, “Come join us,” right? “We got a burnout culture.” Well, I guess from back in the ‘70s or ‘80s, a burnout culture would’ve meant something different then maybe that would’ve attracted people. But the cost of exhaustion is massive. It’s so many multibillions of dollars that companies are expending needlessly because their workforce are exhausted. So, the health and safety costs, the turnover costs, the toxicity, meaning workplaces that are not performing at the level that they could, they’re not engaged at the level that they’re capable, their capacity is nearly what it could be, kind of people.
If you can imagine if you had a hundred employees and only 60 of them showed up to work at any given time, how successful could the business be? Or let’s say the average of the capacity of that group of a hundred is 60%. I mean, 60% on a test would be not a great grade, and it’s certainly not something that a company is consciously looking to create, but unconsciously, by default, they exhaust their workforce. And then, ultimately, wonder why they don’t have an engaged and productive team, and why they’re missing their KPIs, and things just aren’t as good as they think they could be.
Well, 60%, intriguing. Can you share some of the underlying science behind that figure and how it’s derived?
Well, when we work with teams and we work with organizations and test them for their resilience, on average, it comes up between 60% and 65%. We used sort of a MEPS process where, MEPS being mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. So, in those four quadrants, we look at how they’re performing, and what it is that they are doing on a habitual basis, and what are the things that they’re actually doing on a habitual basis are producing more resilience or producing the opposite.
So, ultimately, when the data is analyzed across a very wide group, so our datasets are quite diverse, but it’s thousands and thousands of people, somewhere between 60% and 65% is average. And so, again, when you think of a workforce that’s performing at that level, or if only six out of ten, or seven out of ten of your employees were showing up, you just couldn’t perform well.
It’s an interesting thing for me that I sort of back into that conversation when I’m doing a virtual keynote or I’m leading a group in a workshop, I’ll start by telling a story from my days as a lifeguard. I was 19 years old, and I worked at a place called Jones Beach.
And it’s the Atlantic Ocean, and the rip currents are very, very strong. And there was a day in July where I heard a sound that we didn’t hear very often at the beach. Lifeguards communicate by whistles. So, one whistle meant you were looking to get somebody’s attention, two whistles was a signal that we were making a rescue, that one of your lifeguard colleagues was in a water probably making a rescue or just about to go in. And three whistles meant that someone was actually missing.
And it was on this day in July that I heard three whistles, and I ran down to the main stand where the captain of our field was shouting orders to our crew, saying that they had lost somebody in the surf, and we need to all get down there immediately to start a search and rescue, which we did. We ran down there.
And when we got to the spot that we thought that missing swimmer was, we started a search pattern that we had practiced previously. And, briefly, what that involved was we dived down into the water, 10 feet or so deep, and this is the Atlantic Ocean in the summer, it’s very cold even two, three feet below the surface, and 10 feet it’s quite dark and quite cold.
And so, we dived down and then we would swim into the current with our arms stretched out in front of us, hoping that we would actually touch someone. And it’s kind of a horrifying thought but that’s the search process, is to just try to get this person who might be under the water, and get them in time to be able to revive them.
We did that process, again and again and again and again. We did that for more than an hour. Needless to say, we’re all kind of blue and shivering, and then we heard the whistles again, which was a signal for us to get out and the search was over.
And I just remember being pretty devastated. It was an awful, awful feeling in that moment that we hadn’t found this person. And we ran back to our beach, and the captain of our lifeguard crew led us in a moment of silence. And when we opened our eyes, he looked at each of us, and he said some things that I will never forget. He said, “No one goes down on our watch at this beach. No one goes down in our water,” was what he said. And he said, “You either make the save…” the expectation was that you either make the save or you die trying, which is a very, very intense thing to say.
And he said to us, “We’re going to have to get back up in the stand now. This has happened and we got to get back up in the stand now, and we’re going to have to get back up in the stand again tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on, so we need to learn something. We need to learn from what just happened, and we have to do better, and we have to make sure that we have each other’s backs more than anything. We’ve got to have each other’s backs, because if we don’t, there’s just no way that we could be successful. And refer back to what I said at the beginning. No one is going to go down on our watch ever again.”
And so, that was the intensity of that talking to, and that mantra became something that we, as a lifeguard crew, adapted. And so, this was really my first model of what resilience look like, and it’s been something that had a huge impact on me.
And, as a footnote to that, for those seven summers that I worked at that beach, we never lost anybody again. We had an impeccable record. But we could be impeccable because, as a crew, as a lifeguard crew, we developed resilience.
And we didn’t call it that at the time, but looking back, that’s exactly what we developed, and we’re able to then not perform at 60% like we were talking earlier. We performed at a 100% or near to it as a group, meaning collectively. We had bad days. People had bad days. People weren’t always at their best but we were encouraged by our superiors to be at our best. And given some ways in which to do that, and the record spoke for itself.
Great. Thank you. And to dig more into this 60%, so what’s the numerator and what’s the denominator there?
Well, again, it’s the collection of datapoints from four different areas. So, we typically will start people off with an assessment. So, for example, it’s 16 questions. It takes about three minutes, but you answer four questions that are in the quadrant that has to do with your mental habits. You answer four questions about your emotional habits, the way you see the world and what you do and how you respond to things. And then the same thing for your physical habits, like the amount of sleep that you get, the amount of time that you spend on your technology or off technology, things of that sort. And then four questions that are based in the spiritual realm, which is not actually spirituality or religion certainly. It’s actually alignment with values.
So, a good example of that would be you’re a family-oriented person. You want to spend time with your family, your kids, or your friends, or others, and you work all the time. So, even though your values would be to spend time with those people, you are acting in a contrary way. And so, that sits in that category of spiritual because it’s, in essence, a conflict within you, or within a person, at the level of their values.
So, then what does 100% represent?
One hundred percent would represent someone who was answering those questions and then the follow-up on each of those different quadrants in a way that signified that they were recovering. Ultimately, resilience is about recoveries, the opposite of exhaustion. So, similar to how an athlete gets ready for, let’s say, an Olympic event or professional sports, they don’t run themselves rugged and expect that they’ll perform well.
Olympic athletes, they make the Olympics, with the goal being that they win the gold medal. And the margin for error is so thin that they’ve got to take the best care, they’ve to be in the best condition they can be and mentally and emotionally, physically certainly. And, again, at a level that we’ll call spiritual, so that they can, on the day in question, just perform at their absolute level best.
Versus, again, in most corporate culture, what they reward is kind of the night owl. They reward the billable hours. They reward your willingness to work on the weekends instead of being at your kid’s soccer game. They reward all kinds of things that don’t, ultimately, produce the highest long-term performance and longevity in their valuable resources, their human resources.
Okay. Well, so I’d love to hear, so it’s all about recovery. What are the top things we can do for recovery? And are there particularly leveraged practices within each of those four domains? Like, I guess I’m thinking, what gives me maximum recovery per minute I’m investing in each of these?
I think it’s more about what will work for an individual. There’s no one activity that I would say is going to work for everybody.
Typically, we’ll lead people through a process to create a recovery map. And, again, using those four quadrants, we ask them to both think about the things that are possible for them. We brainstorm and mastermind about the myriad ways that you can create recovery in those four areas.
So, for example, taking 20 minutes to put your legs up a wall. You lie down on your back, and you scooch up to the wall, and just let your legs rest on the wall for 20 minutes, and you cover your eyes. In 20 minutes in that position with your eyes closed, and something usually covering to just sort of create a blackout environment for you, and you can turn on a meditation, you can turn on the Calm app, which I’m not pitching the Calm app but I just love it, it’s so easy to do. And you set a timer for 20 minutes because it’s not the kind of a nap where you, let’s say, got an hour or two hours or whatever it is to sleep in the middle of the day, but that 20 minutes of closed eyes, feet up the wall, produces the equivalent of like, for many people, the equivalent of four hours of sleep, and the blood flow becomes better. Your blood is going towards your heart. You’re taking pressure off of your legs, off of your knees, even off of your hips.
And so, you can emerge from 20 minutes in that position more energized and more capable of being at your best. Whereas, many people, they get to the sort of the middle of the day, I mean, it hits people at different times, but they get to a place where they need a nap or they can’t one or they won’t take one because they don’t have a process for that, or permission even. Again, in those cultures of exhaustion, you don’t really get permission to do something like that.
And, ultimately, long term, when you become exhausted, when that person is exhausted, when they become burned out, what do they do? They perform less well. They are impacting others, kind of infecting others with maybe negativity and negative attitude. So, all those things are just easily impacted for the better by small changes.
That’s the thing that we’ll often tell folks is that a drastic change isn’t what’s required. In fact, it’s just creating small changes so that the recovery map that we ask them to do is to sort of pick one thing, one thing that you could do in each of these areas. So, on the mental side, that might be that they just still their minds and call it meditation. I’m not a great meditator but I believe in stillness, and I like to just sit quietly for periods. I’m a person that appreciates prayer, so I’ll sometimes sit for five or 10 minutes and read something and quietly pray or just be still. And the benefits to my clarity, to the level of my attention, even to just the energy that I have, after I emerge from 10 minutes of just some stillness, is really profound. So, that might be something that sits on the mental side.
On the emotional side, there are a lot of people that are not dealing with their emotions very well from early on in their lives, from situations and often traumas that occurred during childhood, so for somebody else, on the emotional side, it might be how it is that they let go of things. And a practice of being able to consciously let go of things that are bothering you, or forgiving things that you are still holding onto, hanging onto, whether they’re things from 10 minutes ago or from 10 or 20 years ago. So, again, it may be that someone is going to commit to that kind of practice, that each day, their new habit will be to check in with their emotions, to just sit with them even, not try to change them, not try to figure things out, not try to reconcile what they’re feeling, but just feel how they feel. That’s a simple practice.
On the physical side, it could be that they’re not getting enough sleep, it could be they’re not drinking enough water, it could be that what they’re eating is really not the best things that they could be putting gin their body, it could be simply taking a 20-minute walk, really 20 to 30 minutes as we’ve come to understand it. We used to think it was 20, now it’s more like 30 minutes. Brisk walk. Not running, not kind of breaking a sweat even, but just a brisk walk for 30 minutes during the day.
And the benefits to people with hypertension, people that have anxiety, and I think a lot of us have some low levels of anxiety that kind of, almost all the time, cortisol is kind of coursing through our bodies often these days, and some people even greater levels of anxiety or even depression. And so, walking for 30 minutes a day has massive impact on their ability to handle stressful situations and, in fact, puts their body in a state of alertness but not in a state of fight or flight or freeze. And, again, that’s a small, small change that they can make that creates a significant positive impact on their ability to stay focused, to be able to work more productively.
I, personally, like The Pomodoro Technique. So, 30 to 35 minutes, and then you take a very concerted disciplined break for five or 10 minutes. And every 30 or 35 minutes, you work with this intensity, and then you take a break, and often switch your focus to something else. So, you don’t try to multitask, like 35 minutes and you’re checking email and you’re answering phone calls and you’re writing some sort of paper or something, and that’s what you’re doing in the course of 35, or 40, or 50 minutes, something like that, which is what a lot of people do.
No. Instead, you pick one of those things and you work at it with extreme focus for that same 35-minute period, and then you take a complete break. You can close your eyes, you can take a walk, you go have a conversation with a colleague about something entirely unrelated to that, or even unrelated to work. And then when you come back, you reengage either in that same thing because maybe you haven’t finished it, or, as often the case, it’s advisable to just switch focus to something else, and you go through your day using these little sprints, these Pomodoro sprints, or as we used to say at the beach, we would be up an hour and down an hour.
And on the last side, the spiritual side, again, it may well be that the new habit would be being home for dinner. That was my thing when I was a lawyer. I was a workaholic like a lot of people, and I would get really productive. In about 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon, 4:00 or 4:30, I would hit my stride, and it was usually like about 10 minutes after I would tell my wife on a phone call that I’d be home for dinner. So, that was the recurring habit. And, of course, I don’t have to tell you, I hit my stride at 4:30, I wasn’t home for dinner, I wasn’t seeing the kids at dinner. And some nights, I didn’t even make it home to kiss them goodnight or read them a bedtime story, which was devastating to me.
I remember about a year ago, I delivered a TED Talk where I talk more specifically about an anxiety attack that I had that was masking itself as a heart attack and ended up in the emergency room because these things were just troubling me so much. I was exhausted and I was also doing work that it was not my calling to do, and it was not something that I had in my heart in, and so I was falling out on that spiritual side of things. It was a misalignment for me, and I was really feeling it.
So, the essence of this is making small changes. And when you put those altogether, you create a recovery map, what you find is that people can perform longer, better, in ways that just makes sense for them. So, that’s back to that whole idea of you can’t win the race if you don’t finish it. Ultimately, in a business, you want people, you want a team of people that can go the distance but not because you’re driving them to perform while they’re tired, perform when they haven’t eaten, and when they haven’t slept, and when their kids have important things, when there are other important things in their life that they want to participate in, because that just is counter. It’s absolutely the opposite of what will draw the best performance for the longest period of time, and most of them are people.
And I’d love to hear, emotionally, how does one let go of something?
It’s an interesting question, Pete, because I’ve shared this with people for a number of years that it’s a little bit like, just to give you a physical example, if you’ve got something that you can grab at your desk like a pen, just hold onto a pen right now. And there’s always a funny question about whether the pen is holding you or you’re holding the pen, right? So, I’ll ask you that question, Pete. Are you holding the pen or is the pen holding you?
I’m holding the pen.
Right. So, imagine that pen is something like anger at a parent for abuse or for neglect or for some other thing. A lot of people have issues related to money, and let’s say there’s just an anger about that. It’s similar to the pen. The situation in question is not holding onto the person. It’s the person that’s holding onto that situation, holding onto that anger. I’m not dismissing the fact, and I purposely used something extreme because we hold on to lots of little things, lots of insignificant things.
So, to me, on the emotional side, it’s a combination of two things. It’s the…and, by the way, Pete, just go ahead and let go of that pen now.
Just release it, open your hand, let it fall out. I just did the same thing. It’s so easy to just let go of something. That’s all letting go is, the conscious decision to just release it, the way you just released that pen. And there’s a second piece which it’s not the thing that everybody is ready for but it is the magic key, as a mentor of mine has taught me over the years, forgiveness is the magic key. Forgiveness is not about a person or the situation in question that might’ve caused anybody a particular harm. It’s about you. The forgiveness is for the person who’s been hurt. And that’s why it’s magic.
There are some old study years and years ago about people and their anger, and how they were able to capture the chemical reaction in a person from just a few seconds of anger. And that chemical that they were able to extract was then injected into laboratory rats. And just a few seconds of that chemical was enough to kill a rat.
So, that’s what’s in us, that’s what’s in each of us when we are holding onto, feeling anger. It’s just this awful chemical reaction that is certainly not helping us to be anything that we really consciously seek to be.
So, there’s a book that I absolutely love. I recommend it. It’s called The Presence Process, Michael Brown wrote it. Great, great book in regard to how you process emotional things and, ultimately, you’re able to integrate them. I love Michael’s philosophy on it because he doesn’t believe that you need to be sort of healed of anything, nobody is really broken.
Okay. Great. Well, that’s your favorite book. Why don’t we keep rolling with your favorite things? Could we hear a favorite quote as well?
I love the quote from Yogananda that said, “Environment is stronger than will.” If you want to create a high-performance workforce doing great work in the world, you got to create the environment to match that.
Okay. And how about a favorite challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
A favorite challenge. Well, I mean, the challenge, to me, we’ve given you this assessment, this resilience leader assessment that people can take. That’s a challenge. Take three minutes, 16 questions, and see how you score. See whether or not you’re actually at a level that’s acceptable to you.
All right. Well, Adam, thanks so much for taking this time, and good luck in all of your adventures.
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been a pleasure.