Nataly Kogan shares how to become the boss of your own brain and beat the negativity bias.
- Why struggle is optional
- The two questions to boost your emotional fitness
- How to combat your brain’s negativity bias
Nataly Kogan is a former VC and the founder of Happier, a global technology and learning platform helping individuals and organizations to realize full potential by adopting scientifically-proven practices that improve their well-being.
Since launching Happier, Nataly has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, New York Magazine and Time Magazine, and has appeared as an expert on Dr. Oz, Bloomberg TV, and “One World” with Deepak Chopra.
She is a sought-out keynote speaker, having appeared at events that include at Million Dollar Roundtable, Fortune’s Tech Brainstorm, Blogher, SXSW, the 92nd St. Y, Harvard Women’s Leadership Conference, TEDxBoston, and many more.
- Book: Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments (Even the Difficult Ones)
- Book: The Awesome Human Project: Break Free from Daily Burnout, Struggle Less, and Thrive More in Work and Life
- Company: Happier
- Program: Elevating Women Leaders
- Website: NatalyKogan.com
- App: Todoist
- Book: The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life’s Perfection by Michael Singer
- Podcast: Huberman Lab
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Nataly, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thank you. I love the title of the podcast. I’m excited. I overuse the word awesome more than any other word, so we’re in good company.
It’s meant to be. In fact, your latest book is called The Awesome Human Project. We’ve got a lot of awesome human listeners. Can you tell us what’s the big idea here?
The big idea is that challenge in life is constant but struggle is optional. So, I’m calling official BS on the meme of “The struggle is real” because struggle is something we can reduce by improving our emotional fitness, and what’s real in life is challenge.
Okay. So, there’s a distinction right there. Challenge versus struggle, can you expand on that?
Yeah, I think it’s one of the most important insights that I’ve gained on my journey. I spent most of my life struggling. I thought that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I came to the US as a refugee. That was a lot of struggle. And I thought to do anything meaningful in life, you’ve got to struggle, it’s got to be hard. And that’s what I did until I completely burnt out and almost lost everything that was meaningful to me, including this company, Happier, that I was building to help people and companies and teams create a culture of gratitude and joy.
So, that taught me a really powerful lesson that challenge is something we cannot control in life. And, as we all know, the times we’re living in right now, there’s a lot of challenge. Challenge is always there. But we can reduce our experience of struggle by creating a more supportive relationship with ourselves, by strengthening our emotional fitness, by training our brain just like we train our body to be more physically fit, by training our brain to help us get through challenges with less overwhelm, anxiety, and stress.
And not only does that feel better, which I think is a wonderful goal, but that actually gives us more energy, more of our capacity to solve problems, make decisions. And so, everything I share in my new book and everything I teach to teams and companies has come from my own experience, but it’s also backed by mountains of research that show that when you cultivate your wellbeing, when you actually reduce your struggle, when you fuel your energy, you’re more productive, you’re more creative, you’re better at helping people, you’re more awesome at your job.
Lovely. Well, so then if struggle is optional, I guess I’m curious, if you were to sort of go back in time with your refugee journey, you said there’s some struggle there. So, that struggle was optional. How would you kind of think about it differently in hindsight?
Yeah. So, challenge wasn’t optional, to leave. I grew up in the former Soviet Union, and we left with my parents when I was a teenager with six suitcases and a couple hundred dollars, and we spent months in refugee settlements in Europe applying for permission to come to the US. That’s really hard. That’s a lot of challenge. But a lot of the struggle that I experienced came from my inability to handle my difficult emotions. I had no skills around that. Of course, I felt anxious and I had tremendous loss of identity and self-doubt.
And that went on for decades. On the outside, I became a very successful leader, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, you name it, but on the inside, I struggled because I never developed emotional awareness. I didn’t know how to handle difficult emotions so I just pretended I didn’t feel them. I engaged in tremendous amounts of harsh self-talk and treated myself, to be honest, like a military sergeant who’s not very nice. And those are all things that, in retrospect, I could’ve improved which would have…the challenges would’ve still been there but I would’ve struggled less through them.
All right. Well, so then, I’m curious, can you lay it on us, what are some of the training approaches if we want to have less overwhelm, anxiety, and stress? What are some of the most effective things we can do to feel better on those domains?
Yeah, this is what my book is about. So, at its core, the way that I think about emotional fitness, it’s a skill of creating a relationship with your thoughts and your emotions that actually help support you. And the thing we need to understand, before I give you some tips, is our brain is not here to make us happy, or to make us awesome, or to help us thrive. The only thing the human brain cares about is to keep us safe from danger. Our brain is here to help us survive.
And because of that, it’s developed certain characteristics that actually can increase struggle. We all have a negativity bias. We see and notice many more things that are negative or could be negative, and our brain ignores a lot of things that are positive or meaningful or okay especially if they’re familiar. Our brain is also afraid of uncertainty. And so, when we’re facing uncertainty, our brain creates a lot more stress and anxiety because it doesn’t know how to keep us safe, and it creates these ruminations on worst-case scenarios as a way to give it control.
And so, I share this little mini-neuroscience lesson because at the core of creating or strengthening your emotional fitness, so you struggle less, is this practice of, what I call in my book, becoming the editor of your thoughts, and understanding that just because your brain gives you a thought, it doesn’t mean it is fact, it doesn’t mean it’s an objective observation of reality, it doesn’t mean you need to go along with it.
So, two questions to ask yourself. When you become aware that your brain is giving you thoughts that are causing you to stress, to struggle, to doubt yourself, to think about worst-case scenarios, two questions to ask is one of my favorite practices in the book. The first is, “Is this thought true?” And, by that I mean, “What are the facts I have to support this thought?”
So, when your thought tells you, “Oh, my God, this project you’re working on, it’s never going to work out,” or, “Oh, my God, your boss thinks you’re doing a terrible job,” well, is this thought true? What facts do you have to support it? Which we often find out when we ask this question, “Well, I don’t have a lot of facts. It’s just a story my brain has made up.” So, that’s the first question to ask, is, “What are the facts you have to support this thought?”
The second question to ask is, “Is this thought helpful?” And by that, I mean, “Does engaging in this thought, does it help me move forward through this challenge? Does it help me bring my best to the situation?” And asking those two questions is a really powerful way to shift your thoughts away from those that cause you stress, anxiety, overwhelm, self-doubt, and actually help your brain be your ally to help you move forward in the best way.
Okay. Well, so that sounds really handy in terms of asking yourself those questions. So, let’s just say you’re in a situation at work, a colleague criticizes or questions something you’ve done such that you’re feeling kind of bummed, like, “Oh, man, I’m such an idiot. That was so stupid. What was I thinking? I’m a moron. Oh, my gosh, am I going to get fired? Or, maybe they are going to fire me.” And so then, you maybe go through these questions, “Is this thought true?” It’s like, “Well, they’ll probably not going to fire me. And I’m probably not a piece of garbage.” And, “Is this thought helpful?” “Well, no, not really. It’s kind of bringing me down.”
And so, we’ve concluded rationally, “Okay, these thoughts are not true and they are not helpful, but, nonetheless, I feel yucky. What do I do?”
All right. So, this brings us to the next skill, which is the skill of what I call acceptance in the book. And the skill of acceptance, I used to hate this word acceptance because I thought it was like being really passive, “Whatever happens, happens. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m a refugee, I’m a fighter.” Well, that’s not what acceptance is.
Acceptance is a skill of looking at the situation clearly, so as you’ve just done, separating the facts from the dramatic story your brain has told you, and then, using that as a foundation to say, “Okay, this is how it is. This is how I feel. What is one thing I could do to move forward in the best way?” And so, in your situation, so you’ve determined that, “Well, my brain is kind of exaggerating. I don’t really have any facts that my boss is going to fire me, and this making me suck at my job if I sit here think about it all day. So, what is one thing I could do to move forward?”
And that answer depends on your situation, but a couple ideas just for the scenario you offered, because it’s a common one. Well, you could focus your attention on working on this project that you’re working on. You could focus your attention on that. You could have a conversation with your boss. Another really important skill that I talk about is emotional openness. So, you could have a conversation with your boss where you can say, like, “Listen, I just want to tell you, in our last conversation that we had, it kind of left me feeling like maybe there’s something I’m not doing. I’d love to talk. I’d love to get some feedback.” Those are all things that you are now in control.
So, you’ve now shifted from being out of control, “My boss hates me. I’m going to get fired.” That feeling out of control is one of the worst things for the human brain. This is how we get into tough spots. And you’ve now shifted into, “Okay, this is how it is. This is how I feel. What is one thing I could do to move forward?” which gives you a sense of control and progress, which brings your best out in the situation. And then, whatever you learn in that next step, you can move forward from there.
Okay. Cool. So, we’ve got some strategy sort of in the heat of battle, in the midst of things. Can you talk to us? You mentioned the emotional immune system. Are there some things we can do kind of throughout time, and not just front and center, acutely that will put us in good shape?
Yes. So, if you think about your emotional fitness, again, a great comparison is physical fitness. If you want to be more physically fit, you don’t just like work out once and then you’re done. You have a regular workout, you probably eat healthy, you might take some vitamins. The same thing about our emotional fitness is we have to practice to give ourselves this level of emotional fitness and then we have certain skills for in the moment.
So, a couple things to kind of improve your emotional fitness on a regular basis. One is to practice emotional awareness. We can’t improve something if we don’t know where we are. And most of us have grown up in work environments where emotions are not discussed. I definitely, I worked with some leading companies like Microsoft and McKinsey, and no one ever talked to me about emotions. I didn’t think that mattered. The old idea of “Leave your emotions at the door” is not actually possible. Emotions affect everything we do.
So, we have to get into the practice of checking in with ourselves daily. We check in with friends, colleagues, like, “Hey, how are you? How are you doing? How are you feeling?” We don’t check in with ourselves, and emotional awareness is at the core. So, every day, take a moment to check in with yourself, “How am I feeling? What is my energy level like?”
And research shows that people who practice this kind of emotional awareness actually improve their wellbeing because when you become aware, awareness gives you choices. So, that awareness might tell you, “Wow, I’m really stressed out. Okay, well, how can I support myself? Oh, it’s actually this one thing that’s really stressing me out. Let me go have that conversation.” So, emotional awareness is really, really important.
The other skill that I devote a lot of my new book to is gratitude. So, I think gratitude is one of those things that we all know is good for us, and we think we should do it on Thanksgiving, but I actually mean gratitude as a daily skill. And the reason gratitude is so important – and all the gratitude is, by the way – it’s focusing your attention on things that are positive, that are the moments that in your day of comfort, things you appreciate. They don’t have to be big things.
The reason it’s so important is because of that negativity bias that I talked about that our brains have. Without practicing gratitude, essentially, your brain is lying to you about your reality. You see things much more through a negative lens and that actually drains your energy, increases stress, reduces your ability to be awesome because it makes you use all that energy thinking about all the negative things.
So, having a regular daily practice of gratitude balances out that negativity bias that actually reduces your stress. It helps you have a more centered clear picture of your day so you can be at your best. So, those are a couple practices I recommend on a daily basis to improve your emotional fitness.
And so, when you talk about gratitude, I’ve heard a number of flavors associated with gratitude practices. What are some of your favorites and the research associated with them?
Yes. So, I think there are two parts of gratitude that I want to mention. There’s a gratitude practice for yourself. So, my favorite practice, which is also in the book, is what I call the morning gratitude lens. Very simple. In the morning, hopefully before social media has taken away your attention or your reading – your 17th news article of the day, which we know we all do – take a moment, think of three specific things you are grateful for and jot them down in some way.
And this is a practice that counters that negativity bias I just talked about. Really, really important to be specific. So, I work with a lot of leaders and teams, and I ask them, “Tell me something you’re grateful for,” and they say, “I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for my health.” That’s very general. Your brain doesn’t really care about general things like that, so be specific. Ask yourself, “Why? Why am I grateful for my family? Why am I grateful for my health?” Be really specific. So, that’s a way to practice gratitude for yourself.
And then a really, really important part of gratitude is to express your gratitude to others. To look at other people, your family, your friends, your colleagues, your boss, your customers, through what I call the lens of gratitude, and to actually share your gratitude with them by, again, being specific, by saying, “Hey, Pete, I just want you to know, I really appreciate your thoughtful questions in this interview.”
Again, when we are specific with our gratitude, it has this really powerful impact, and it’s a gift that gives to both people. So, when I shared my gratitude with you, I remind myself, “Wow, there’s this person in my life who supports me, who’s meaningful, that helps me,” and there’s so much benefit on the receiving end of gratitude.
I think we all know it feels really good. But in the work context, being on the receiving side of gratitude improves motivation, improves resilience. It actually helps you get through more challenges because, at our core as human beings, we need to know that what we do matters. And when someone expresses gratitude to us, that’s what it reminds us of. So, those, to me, are the two sides of gratitude that I encourage you to practice for yourself, and then expressing authentic specific gratitude to others.
I’m also curious, I was listening to a podcast from the Huberman Lab, Andrew Huberman. Love his stuff. And he was talking about gratitude practices with regard to some interesting research associated with hearing other people’s stories in which they were helped, and they expressed their gratitude and/or reflecting upon the times that you received gratitude, when someone was like, “Oh, Nataly, thank you so much. That was awesome. You changed everything for me.” And I thought that was kind of a different take and a different kind of vibe and flavor of gratitude. What do you think about those?
Yeah, I love that you brought that up. There is so much research that shows that just witnessing someone sharing gratitude with another person – so it’s not at you, it’s about someone else – improves our wellbeing, boosts our mood, and that is because, at our core as human beings, we’re all connected, and our emotions are connected, our emotions are contagious. And so, a lot of research shows that witnessing or hearing someone talk about, expressing gratitude, actually both boost your own wellbeing and it’s contagious. It encourages you to share that gratitude with others.
And, actually, something I want to mention on that, because a lot of times I work with a lot of teams and companies, and I tell them about this practice that I want them to do this in meetings. So, in a meeting, express your gratitude to someone in the meeting and tell them why you’re grateful for them. And often I’ll get a question of like, “Well, isn’t that like, won’t the other people feel weird that I’m not like expressing gratitude to them? Won’t they feel bad?”
The opposite is true. It actually makes everyone feel good because what you’re communicating to them is, “I am a kind of person who practices gratitude, and I appreciate other people around me.” So, it doesn’t make people feel jealous or envious or annoyed. It actually helps for them to express their gratitude to others. So, sharing your gratitude publicly is always a good thing.
Very cool. Very cool. And you mentioned, and we may have already covered some, you’ve got three mindset shifts that help make happiness and emotional health reality for folks. What are those three shifts?
So, these are my like…what do I call them? Kind of like principles, the core principles, and we’ve actually covered a bunch of them. So, the first is to think of…to recognize that your happiness and your emotional fitness is a skill. It’s not a prize you get at the end. So many of us, and I definitely did this in my life, so many of us live with this idea of like, “I’ll be happy when…”
So, for everyone listening, I’m sure you can relate, “I’ll be happy when I get this promotion,” or finish this project, or launch this thing, or lose weight, or gain weight, or move. And we think that something on the outside can actually give us that lasting happiness, and that can never happen. And there’s a biological reason for that, there’s nothing wrong with you.
The other thing to know about our brain is it’s very adaptable. We get used to things. And so, while you’re working towards that big promotion, your brain is really swimming in a lot of dopamine, it makes you feel good. When you get it, your brain is like, “Yes! Awesome! Got it! What’s next?” And so, “I’ll be happy when…” doesn’t work. Happiness is not a reward.
When you think of it as a skill, when you think of happiness and emotional fitness as a skill, something that you practice – we just talked a bunch of different ways to practice – that actually is what builds that. So, that’s a really important mindset shift. We talked about another one, which is life is full of challenges, and challenges will never go away. Challenge, change, uncertainty is always there, but struggle and your emotional experience of those is something you can improve. You can reduce struggle. So, that’s another core mindset shift which we’ve covered.
And one more, which is so essential, and that is that you don’t need to make any dramatic life changes to feel better to improve your wellbeing. Small shifts in how you treat yourself, in your relationship with your thoughts, in your relationship with other people, small shifts have huge impact when you practice them consistently.
All right. Thank you. Well, I’d love to hear then, we got a number of principles and tips and tactics. Can you bring it together in terms of a story of someone who had a pretty cool transformation of doing some of these things and turned things around to become all the more awesome at their jobs?
Yeah. Well, so many examples come to mind, but I’ll use one example of a leader who’s a really amazing woman leader. I do Elevating Women Leaders leadership program for women every year. It’s always virtual. It’s a yearlong program. And when this woman leader came into the program, she’s very accomplished. She was running a huge brand but she was really exhausted, she was on the edge of burnout, and she admitted that she was not bringing her best or anywhere near her best to her work. And she didn’t really quite know what to do. She’s done kind of all the things that she could think of.
And by practicing, first and foremost, just becoming aware of her emotions and developing a relationship with herself that were supportive, so when she felt a difficult emotion, instead of stuffing it down, she actually acknowledged it and found ways to support herself by practicing gratitude. She began a daily gratitude practice on her own, and she began a weekly practice of gratitude with her team where everyone on the team would share a gratitude with other people.
It was an amazing transformation. She talked about how not only did she become, as a leader, better and started to thrive, but she said the entire culture of her team changed. They all began to work much more cohesively together. They were better, more effective. And it was a pretty incredible transformation when you think about these practices. They’re not complicated. But here was someone who went from being on the edge of burnout, not bringing her best, to changing herself in such a way that she encouraged her entire team to elevate their performance.
Alrighty. Well, Nataly, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think the only other thing I want to mention is everything I teach and everything that’s in my book, it comes from my personal lens. I teach things I’ve learned, and obviously I’m a total research geek. And I just want to leave listeners with kind of this reminder that really helped me after I was recovering from burnout, and it’s something I share with teams and leaders and people, and it’s that you can’t give what you don’t have.
We have an epidemic of burnout now going on, and there’s a lot of articles about how things are bad and we’re burning out, but you always have a choice. You always have a choice. There are always things within your control that you can change, and, as we’ve talked about, they don’t require any kind of Herculean life changes. But you can always find ways and practice skills to support yourself, to support your emotional fitness and wellbeing. And there are so many people who consider that selfish or they feel guilty taking care of their happiness or emotional fitness.
And so, I want to break through all that and, again, tell you that you can’t give what you don’t have. If you’re on empty, if you have no energy, if you’re exhausted, if you’re constantly beating yourself up, you cannot be awesome at your job, you cannot show up as a patient, thoughtful, clear leader, you cannot show up in the way that I know you want to, to people you care about. So, it’s probably something I say most often throughout the day, both to other people and to myself.
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
I’m going to share this quote which my teacher, who was my teacher as I was kind of healing from burnout and really going through a process of reinvention. She said to me, she said, “You’re a being, not a doing.” And, at the time, I had no idea what that meant, and I didn’t really care. I was very much to doing. I connected my worth entirely to my achievements for the day. But I find it one of the most inspiring things, and I do want our listeners to hear that.
I think there’s so much more that we can all contribute to the world and to our jobs if we value our being, our essence, our energy, ourselves, and not just connect that to our achievements.
All right. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
Ooh, let’s see. Well, one of my favorite bits of research is…you’ve gone into my favorite area. I’m such a research geek. Okay, let me share one around the negativity bias, gratitude being important because I think it really lands it. So, they’ve done experiments where they have people wear headphones, and in one ear they have negative words coming in, and in the other ear they have positive words coming in.
And even if the positive words are louder and clearer, when they asked people what they recall, they recalled the negative words. Our brain is constantly on alert for anything negative. And I just love that study because it’s so literal that it brings it home this reality that our brain is looking at everything through this negativity lens, and we have to correct it.
Well, I’m a research geek as well. That’s so intriguing. And I’m wondering, hopefully, they rotated the headphones, the left and the right.
They have done. And you can look into it. They did all kinds of things.
Alrighty. And a favorite book?
I would have to say The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer, which is probably the book I give to people more than my own books. And it’s an incredible story of this very promising economics PhD student who, one day, decides that he needs to figure out why there’s constant chatter in his brain, like we all have this voice in our head that’s constantly chattering, “You’re not good enough. You didn’t do it.” No, you’re just commenting on everything.
So, he quit and decided he was going to be a yogi and he was just going to be Zen and calm his mind. And it’s an amazing story of how that actually led him to run a $2-billion company we’ve all heard of, and an incredible journey of what happens when we practice acceptance, when we actually accept ourselves and the world as they are. So, I absolutely recommend that book.
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
So, in terms of my favorite app, I love Todoist. For anyone who doesn’t use it, I love it. It’s a way I keep track of all my to-dos and projects. And I’m also an artist. You’re looking at some of my art behind me, so I love my iPad. It’s where I draw. It’s where I write things down. I think those are, for me, two tools. And I’m going to mention one that probably has nothing to do with work, but fresh air. I could not be awesome at my job if I did not go outside for a walk every day.
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?
Yeah, the thing that I hear back most often is this idea that I shared of you can’t give what you don’t have. And this is for senior leaders and junior employees, and men and women. I think we have this inner martyr that comes out and where we think we have to go last, and that’s the way to be a good leader, a good teammate, a good colleague. And so, when people have that breakthrough, this understanding of in order to give, in whatever way you want to give, I have to actually fuel myself. So, you can’t give what you don’t have.
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Very easy. Go to NatalyKogan.com. And I’m very easy to find there. I’m on all the social media but NatalyKogan.com is the hub.
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Well, my call to action is twofold. I actually love giving homework, so I love an opportunity to give homework. I always give homework at the end of my talks and keynotes. So, my homework is twofold. Take one thing that you heard me talk about and make it a practice for the next five days. There’s no magic, by the way, about five days, just like there’s no magic about 21 days. It takes much longer to create a habit. But five days is a really good amount of time to do something, and then check in with yourself and then see if it’s made a difference.
So, take one thing you heard and do it for the next five days. Make that commitment to yourself. And the second part of your homework is, share your gratitude with someone today. It can be someone at work, it can be someone outside of work, but tell someone why you appreciate them. By the way, you never have to use the word gratitude if you don’t want to. You can say, “You’re awesome because…” Tell someone why you’re grateful for them today, and the impact of that will be so clear to you, hopefully you’ll keep at it.
Well, Nataly, thanks so much for this. And I wish you much awesomeness in the weeks ahead.
Thank you. This was an awesome interview. Thanks for having me.