896: Finding More Success and Joy in Everything You Do with Suneel Gupta

By September 7, 2023Podcasts


Suneel Gupta shows how to find more joy and success every day by drawing from the wisdom of ancient Indian traditions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The eight essential practices for daily success
  2. How to reset your energy in just five minutes
  3. Why you achieve more with only 85% of the effort

About Suneel

Suneel Gupta lost his Dharma and then found it again. He is the founding CEO of RISE and co-founder of the Gross National Happiness Center in the United States. As an author, a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School, and host of a hit documentary series, Suneel studies the most extraordinary people on the planet to discover and share simple, actionable habits to lift our performance and deepen our daily sense of purpose. His work has been featured by major outlets including CNBC, TED, and the New York Times.

Resources Mentioned

Suneel Gupta Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Suneel, welcome back to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Suneel Gupta
Hey, Pete, it’s nice to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into the wisdom of your book, Everyday Dharma: 8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do. But first, I love, in your bio, it says, “Suneel Gupta lost his dharma and then found it again.” Tell us this tale, and those who aren’t familiar, what does the word dharma mean?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah. So, you may have heard dharma used in different contexts. Usually, when I talk to people, they’ve kind of heard the word before, but not exactly sure, or they’ve heard different definitions of it. Sometimes people refer to dharma as a purpose, sometimes they refer to it as a calling. If you go back to one of the original definitions of dharma, that takes you to the Bhavad Gita.

And the Bhagavad Gita is the ancient storied scripture from India which defines dharma as your sacred duty. And then the question really becomes, like, “Duty to what? Duty to whom?” And the answer really is duty to yourself. It’s duty to that fire that is burning inside of you, that some people call that your gift, some people call that your calling.

My grandfather, who first introduced me to the word dharma on his porch in New Delhi when I was seven years old, referred to dharma as your essence. It’s the expression of this thing inside of you. And the equation that I’ve come back to in the year since when I’ve lost my dharma and went looking for it again, is that dharma equals essence plus expression. Essence is who you are, and expression is how you show up in the world. And when you can combine the two, you’re in your dharma.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, you lost yours and you found it. What’s the story here?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, I think, probably like you, Pete, I went through a lot of years in my life where I was chasing something, and I didn’t realize it but what I really sort of felt at that time was that I was going to reach this level of success and wealth and status. And after I got to a certain threshold, I was going to feel all kinds of good things inside. I was going to feel meaning. I was going to feel joy. And all that stuff was going to last, and pretty soon I found myself on sort of the treadmill that, I think, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard University sometimes calls the arrival fallacy.

And the arrival fallacy is if we just get that next job, if we get that next thing, if we get that next deal, well, then we’re finally going to be happy. And, at some point in time, I think we realize that the formula is not really working that way. And I think some of us realize that later on in life, some of us realize it earlier. Personally, I think that we’re actually starting to see that people are recognizing this earlier and earlier in their lives. I think it’s why we have so many people in college or people entering the workforce now, Gen Zers that are asking some, I think, very important questions, the deeper questions.

But, for me, I started to ask that question really after I had gone through three startup experiences, two of them had failed, one of them succeeded. And the one that succeeded exited and I finally had money in the bank, and finally had the image that I had been trying to create for myself as this successful entrepreneur. I realized that that stuff, that the feeling that was associated that lasted for, like, a few weeks, and then I was kind of back to, “What’s next?”

And it was, like, for me, kind of a scary feeling because I had been chasing this thing all along, and when I finally got it, I realized that wasn’t it. And now you’re like, “What now?” And to be honest with you, I really felt like I was alone, like I was being selfish, I was feeling something that most people don’t feel. Like, most people can get to a level of success and just be happy with that. But I felt like, “Look, I’m still ambitious, I still want to do things,” and as a result of that, I still had this inner void.

And so, I wanted to figure out what I was doing that was not making me happy. What was I doing that wasn’t allowing me to feel this sense of inner gratitude and inner peace? And I started to look beyond what was in front of me here in the Western culture, the books that I was reading, the podcasts I was listening to, and I went back to this principle, this body of wisdom that I had learned as a child, and I said, “What does this ageless wisdom that has been practiced and passed down generation after generation, that has found its way from East to West, what can it offer me today?”

Pete Mockaitis
And what can it offer for you today?

Suneel Gupta
Well, that’s really the book. I started to take lessons of dharma and I started to kind of just say, like, “All right. Well, how does it fit in a culture of hustle? How does it fit in a culture of grind?” And I think that the biggest thing for me is that I really saw success as an accumulation of status and wealth and all the things that come with that but I hadn’t really considered the idea of what I now call inner success. Outer success and inner success.

Inner success is really meaning, and it’s status, and it’s joy. And I think the mistake that I made is believing that outer success was somehow going to lead to inner success. It was going to fill up that void that I was feeling. What I learned throughout the course of the book and writing this book, and coming back to this wisdom, was that not that outer success is bad, that ambition is bad because sometimes we can read philosophy or read wisdom, and sort of feel almost shameful for having the ambition that we have.

I don’t think that that’s true in the case of dharma. You can have outer ambitions, you can want outer success, you can want things in your life, but the wisdom of dharma is really about reversing the flow. Instead of starting with outer success, you begin with inner success, you begin with what really, really matters to you. And by focusing on what really matters to you, and tapping into that essence, you are able to express that in a much more vibrant way to the world. You become much more creative. You become much more imaginative.

And as I go out and I study leaders, and this is what I do for a living now is study some of the most extraordinary people, I think, on the planet, what I realize is that all of them, at some point in time, or I should say the vast majority of them, at some point in time, learned how to reverse this flow. Instead of saying, “I want to become a unicorn founder,” or, “I want to become the CEO of a company,” they started with, “I really love to tell stories,” or, “I really love to lead people who develop people in a really profound way.” And when you start with that, when you start with that essence and you begin to express that to the world, you really come into your dharma.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, thank you for sharing your story. Do you have another story of someone who managed to find their dharma and then see some cool things? And what changes did they make to have that unfold?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, chapter one of the book, I think, really is all about, “How do we now start to kind of come back to our dharma?” And the essence of that learning is what my ancestors called sukha, which is your true self, your authentic self. And the idea behind elfles is that when you go and search for your dharma, you don’t have to search for it on the outside. Because sometimes when we hear words like dharma, or even purpose or meaning, very existential sort of words, and you almost sort of feels like you have to leave everything, go to the Himalayas, meditate, and figure this out.

And the reality is that your dharma has always been with you. Like, there are certain qualities and certain things about you that have always been true. And one of the most important things you can do, when it comes to finding your dharma again, reconnecting with that place, is actually really talking to people who knew you when you were a kid. And sometimes hearing the stories about what you were like and what you loved to do can be really important indicators towards what you genuinely love, towards this essence that we’re really looking to dig up in chapter one.

It happened for this person, Mila, in the book, who I talk about, who’s a project manager. She was a working mom, and she didn’t like her job. And the thing about Mila, as she was working as a project manager inside a big tech company, and the thing for her is that she really wanted to become a teacher. Like, she knew that in her core she was a teacher. The problem was that she didn’t have the capacity in her life to quit her job, go back and get a teaching certificate, she had a family that relied on her, for her compensation, for the salary she was making, for her health benefits, and it was just really hard for her to do that.

So, she had kind of accepted this fate of, like, “I am not going to become a teacher, and I might as well just suck it up and do my job.” And, as a result, she was showing up day in, day out, but she was doing it for a paycheck not because it was a passion. But what happened for Mila was as she started to dig beneath what I call the occupation mindset. The occupation mindset where it’s like, “We are our job. We are a doctor. We are a lawyer. We are teachers.” And she started to go beneath that to her essence, “What is it about teaching that she really loves? What is it about teaching that makes her come alive?”

And, ultimately, what it came down to is she loves to grow people, she loves to teach, she likes to see people grow and help in that development. And what was interesting is that when she shared that insight, when she finally got to that place and shared that with her family, her family was like, “Yeah, no kidding. Like, you’ve always been that way. You’re the little girl who was helping other kids in the neighborhood learn how to ride bikes. You were the one who’s teaching her baby cousin how to crawl. Like, developing people and investing in people is something that was at your core. It always has been.”

And so, now that she had arrived at this essence, beneath the occupation and into the essence, she could start to think of, like, “What are the other ways that I can express that essence to the world?” Teaching, obviously, was one of those, but teaching was very hard so what were some others? And what she started to realize is, like, “Wow, there are actually some opportunities inside my very company that I could actually pursue that would allow me to express this essence of growing and developing other people. I could really kind of make a push for being part of leadership, which would allow me to lead a team. I could make a lateral shift to HR.”

What ended up happening is, after she realized her essence, she started to have coffees with people, she started to say, “Hey, look, I know at my core I like to develop people. What are some options out there for me?” And they started to bring some back to her. Eventually, she was asked to lead a program that was recruiting graduates, like graduates who had top potential, into a program that was all about developing their leadership capabilities, and they asked her to run the program.

But she was only able to get to that place because she was digging beneath the occupation, “I want to be a teacher,” and able to go into, “What was it about being a teacher that made her come alive?” Then, from that place, figuring out what are the other options that allow her to get there.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, I was just about to ask you about your three-step process. It sounds like we’ve got a demonstration. Could you recap what step one, step two, step three for living out the dharma?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah. So, I think step one is let’s go beneath the occupation. Let’s put aside occupation for a second and come back to your essence, this thing that you love to do. And one of the questions that I think you can ask yourself during that time is, “What is it that I would do for free? What are some of the things out there that I actually would do with no compensation?”

I find that to be a really important question, not because I think that we need to go and work for free, but because I think when we actually have a sense of, “What is it that we would actually do without compensation, without reward?” we start to get a much clearer sense of our essence. That’s step one.

But then, from that place, step two is to say, “All right, what are the possibilities? What are the other possibilities out there?” And it’s very interesting because sometimes when you get to this essence, you’ll start to see possibilities that you hadn’t considered otherwise. You can start going to have coffees with people, and asking people, and you can say, “Hey, I love storytelling at my core. I’m a project manager right now, or here’s my job but I like storytelling at my core. What are some ways to express that to the world?” and you’re going to start to collect these ideas. So, you’re in sort of the possibility phase in step two.

And then step three is when you actually start to whittle it down. You start to take these possibilities, and you start to say, “All right. Well, I can do anything but I can’t do everything, like not all at once, at least. So, let me start to really hone in on one.” And for that, for step three, I really like to use a tool I call the dharma deck. And what that basically means is that every time a possibility comes up, every time I come across a new way to express my essence that I really love, that means something to me, I’ll write it down in an index card. And I’ll continue to do that as these possibilities arrive.

So, over time, what I’m developing is a small deck of index cards. I call it my dharma deck. And every couple of weeks or so, when I’m in this exploration stage, I’ll sort of take some reflective time, I’ll usually leave my phone behind and go into nature, and I’ll take this little deck with me of index cards, and I’ll just sort them from top to bottom. At the top of the deck are the ideas that are really kind of pulling at my heart the most, all the way to the bottom.

And what I notice is that, over time, one or two of those cards, usually tend to retain their placement at the top of the pack. And those are the ideas that I feel are not just pulling at my head but they’re pulling at my heart. These are the things that I really think tap into my essence and allow me to express it to the outside world.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you give us some examples of things that might be written on the cards in the dharma deck?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, absolutely. So, for me, I’ll bring it back to me for a second. Like, I was working as an IT consultant when I started trying to figure out my dharma. But I knew at my core, at my essence, that I love to tell stories. Now, storytelling and IT consulting are not symbiotic. Where I was, was not a place that necessarily valued storytelling. Storytelling wasn’t in my description, but I started to really think about, like, “What are the different ways and possibilities to be a storyteller, to express myself as a storyteller?”

So, in my deck, on these index cards were writing, writing blog posts, writing books was another one, doing a podcast, like you, Pete, was another one, being on stage, doing standup comedy even at night was another one. I had this full deck of possibilities, ways that I could express myself as a storyteller, some of which were asking me to sort of shift my job but others were, like, “Hey, you can do this right now and still be a consultant. Like, you could be doing this in your own time as well.” And those were the cards that initially sort of formed my deck.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so let’s hear about the subtitle here, “8 Essential Practices for Finding Success and Joy in Everything You Do.” What are these eight essential practices?

Suneel Gupta
So, chapter one is sukha, we talked about sukha, and that is really about your authentic state. And then chapter two is really called bhakti. And the idea behind bhakti is full-hearted devotion. Full-hearted devotion is really about this sense that, oftentimes, when we think about our dharma, we often tend to think of, “How do we sort of become fully scheduled with something and not fully hearted with something?”

Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that if we love something that we have to spend every minute of every day with it, but we don’t necessarily. Like, we can provide full-hearted devotion for partial moments of the day. I bring up the example of my wife and I. We have two kids. We’re scrambling now with our duties and our jobs and raising kids. But we make sure that we have 15 minutes every morning of just like really connected time with each other, or sitting there, we’re having coffee before the kids wake up, and that’s our act of love, that’s our act of devotion to one another.

And, again, we’re not spending every minute of every day just as monks who are dedicated and devoted to meditation don’t meditate every minute of every day. But the act of bhakti, the act of having devotion to your dharma means that you’re having touchstones with it all the time every day. You’re, in some small way, doing what you love. You’re, in some small way, touching this thing that you really appreciate at your heart. So, if you love to draw, you’re spending just a little time, even if it’s a few minutes and drawing. If you love to lead other people, you’re spending a few minutes checking in with somebody else. It’s something that’s important to you.

Chapter three is prana, and that’s really about energy, it’s about, “How do we start to now bring real energy into our practice of dharma?” because sometimes we tend to confuse time with energy, meaning that we optimize our schedules, we think about the number of hours that we bring to a task instead of the quality of the energy that we want to bring to each hour. So, how do we start to manage our energy now in a way that actually brings full heartedness to our dharma?

Chapter four is called upekkha, and upekkha is comfort in the discomfort. How do we actually find some space between the things that really irritate us in life? Because it’s those things that irritate us in life that actually take us out of our dharma. And so, knowing how to be in the fire, knowing how to be in the discomfort but also able to find comfort in that discomfort is a practice. It is something that we all need to learn how to do. And I’ve had to learn how to do, especially when it came to fulfilling my dharma because, oftentimes, the anger and it’s the irritation that pulls me out of it.

Chapter five is called lila, and lila is high play. And, basically, what that means is, “How do we start to blur the lines between work and play?” Phil Jackson, who I start the chapter with, has this amazing quote. He says that, “My goal is to make work my play, and play my work.” That’s the mantra that he took into being a player in the NBA, but then eventually coaching people like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and leading teams to many national championships. That was his mantra, “Blurring the lines between work and play.”

And there are some really important types of things, sort of ways that we can do that. It’s one of my favorite chapters, actuall, is lila. Seva is the next one, which is all about service. It’s what my ancestors called selfless service, seva, which is all about forgetting yourself in order to find yourself. And that was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which he said the best way to find yourself in life is to lose yourself in the service of others.

Chapter seven is tula, which is all about, “How do we let go but also take charge?” And those are two sometimes competing philosophies. If we let go, well, then are we really taking charge? Are we just kind of being loosey-goosey and letting sort of life take us where it wants to take us? Not necessarily. We can actually let go, we can loosen our grip, and, at the same time, be intentional about what we want to do and where we want to be, and that’s what tula is all about.

And then, finally, chapter eight is all about action. Like, how do we now put all this into practice and take action? Because none of these matters unless we’re actually taking action. And yet, sometimes, the way we operate is through what I call the game of someday, which is that we wait for courage in order to take action. And what I’ve learned in doing my career is take action first, and let courage catch up along the way.

And one of the techniques and practices I offer in that chapter is what I call sort of the two-way doors. And this came from a mantra from Jeff Bezos, who said that, “Hey, life is basically a set of one-way doors or two-way doors.” And there are certain decisions where, if you walk through a door, a one-way door, you’re not going to be able to come back. But the vast majority of decisions and choices in our lives are actually two-way doors. If you walk through it, it doesn’t work, you can always come back.

But the problem is we sometimes mistake two-way doors for one-way doors, and so we hesitate and we really try to collect as much data as we possibly can. We procrastinate on making the decision. But the reality is that the courage that we’re looking for isn’t all that necessary. You don’t actually have to build all that much courage in order to make a choice when that choice is reversible. And so, a lot of this chapter is about recognizing that we can lead our lives through these two-way doors, knowing that if it doesn’t work out, look, it’s still growth, you’ve still learned something from the other side.

So, Pete, I’ve never been asked to summarize every chapter in the book before, but there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Suneel, that’s just how I roll. I love that. So, with this overview, I now want to dig deeper into the energy and the comfort and discomfort points. Tell us, do you have any best and worst practices when it comes to bringing great energy to things?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, so let’s talk about comfort in the discomfort because I think it’s really, I mean, for me, I think, personally, the hardest thing. Viktor Frankl, who had this just amazing sort of way of looking at life, and Frankl was a holocaust survivor. He was a neurologist. He wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning. And he had this quote in the book that always just knocks me back, which is that, “In between impulse and response, there is a space. And inside that space lies our freedom.”

So, impulse being all the little triggers in life, like screaming kids, annoying colleague, angry emails, all these irritations, people who cut you off on the road. What he’s saying is that in between that and the way that we respond to that thing, there is a space. And if you can increase that space, even just by a millimeter, like, at a time, you will find yourself with just much more vast levels of freedom, like internal freedom in life.

That’s been hard for me. And the reason I think it’s been hard for me, and the reason I think it’s hard for others that I coach and I work with is because we’ve been sort of, I think, like conditioned to act very quickly. Like, look at how fast things are moving today, and especially like in an age of generative AI where we’re sort of spitting things out very quickly, and asked to respond to things at lightning speed at work. Like, it’s tough. It’s tough to build that space in.

And yet, even just having a couple of seconds sometimes can be the difference between making a good decision and a bad one, or saying something you might regret, or saying something that you’ll be proud of. It’s just that little space in between. So, the question becomes, “How do we harness that? Like, what do we do about that?”

One of the characters that I loved writing about in this chapter was Hank Aaron. And Hank Aaron was a player who was absolutely ridiculed by players in the stand. He had a very, very difficult time. He had death threats. And yet he was still able to come back to this space inside of him each time it happened, and walk up to the plate confidently, and he was the one, as you might know, who broke Babe Ruth’s record because he was able to find his place of composure, this comfort in the discomfort.

And one of the ways that I think that he was able to do that is by finding a homebase inside of him. So, every time something was triggering him, rather than just quickly responding to it, he would actually go inside first. And there are ways that we can actually start to channel that for ourselves. For me, I know that just closing my eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths is magic. It’s an absolutely magical thing to do.

If I’m finding myself tense and reactive, literally, just taking a couple of breaths is sometimes the most important thing I can do. It sounds simple but it’s profound. And yet sometimes I find myself in meetings where that’s not possible, like you can’t necessarily close your eyes in the middle of a meeting and take a few breaths. People might wonder what’s going on with you.

So, another thing that I like to do is, literally, just like put my hand over my heart. I will, literally, just take my hand and I give my heart just a little bit of almost like a love tap, like with the palm of my hand, and I just kind of give it a little massage. And it takes maybe two or three seconds to do but it’s my way, it’s almost my little sort of reset button to remind myself, to go internal for a moment, take a breath, take a moment, before I respond to this thing.

Now, Pete, there are certain things that you want to respond quickly to. Like, if my kid is running towards traffic, like, I’ve got to respond quickly. There’s no hand over heart thing. But the vast majority of things, we don’t need to be that lightning fast. We’ve just been conditioned to believe we need to be that lightning fast, and I think it’s time for us now to kind of reprogram ourselves back to this place of peace because, when we do, that’s when we find that sense of freedom.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say increase the space by a millimeter, I’m thinking about, literally, units and measures, so space, yes, we would increase that by a measure of length or width or height, a millimeter. Also, I guess time would be a measure, if we think about the space in terms of rather than instantaneously milliseconds or after a stimulus, just sort of firing out the response, just sort of taking some more time with the breath or the hand over the heart.

And in so doing, describe the increased freedom feeling or experience. What does that look, sound, feel like in practice when you have increased the space, and you have increased freedom? What does that really mean for you?

Suneel Gupta
I think it means that I’m more myself. I think that when we are reactive, it’s very easy to become something that you’re truly not. That’s the kind of premise of regret and doing things that you regret is that you’re in a condition, sometimes under extreme pressure, you responded to it, and you did things that didn’t feel like yourself. And you look back on it and wish you would’ve done things differently.

And sometimes we can’t avoid that. Sometimes it’s very difficult to avoid that. But I think the premise of what Frankl was arguing, and I think my ancestors were really talking about when they talked about upekkha, was oftentimes we can, and we can through these little moments, like just these very tiny little moments where we can choose, “I need to respond quickly or can I actually take a moment here?”

And even just like asking yourself that question can be enough. Like, as you get irritated, and you are about to respond to something, you can even just ask yourself, “Is this something that commands my immediate response? Or, do I have a little space here?” What I’ve found is that there have been a lot of situations where I kind of mistakenly thought I needed to respond quickly, but I didn’t. And I could actually take a moment.

I’m in a text thread with somebody, and it’s getting a little bit edgy. Do I need to respond quickly to what the person says next or can I actually take a moment? Can I take a breath? And, usually, the answer is, “Yeah, you’ve got plenty of time,” but we don’t always take that time. And, Pete, to your question, like, when you get to take that time, what it allows you to do is really what my grandfather called coming back to the center. And when you can come back to the center, come back to who you are, well, then you’re acting from that place.

That doesn’t always mean you’re not going to act angry. Maybe you want to be angry in that moment but, at least, it was intentional. You were able to come back, you were able to take a moment, and decide what you wanted to do rather than let the moment decide for you.

Pete Mockaitis
“After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that the best course of action is to scream at your head off.”

Suneel Gupta
And it might be, honestly.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, in those particular circumstances, uh-huh.

Suneel Gupta
The point of all this is not to suppress any emotion. That is not what we’re doing here, because it’s all human. It’s all part of who we are. The point is more, rather than letting emotions control you, you control the emotions. You can actually start to examine these things, and you can decide which one really feels right to follow. Because, in that case, frustration and anger might be the right thing but, again, you were in the driver’s seat when that decision was made, not the emotion itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, now let’s talk about energy.

Suneel Gupta
One of the things that I learned from my research from my last book, and even from this book going out and really spending time with leaders is, like, if you compare people who have gained momentum in their lives and their careers versus those who, I think, tend to fizzle out, tend to sort of lose momentum in their lives and their careers, the people who lose momentum very rarely do they run out of time, very rarely do they run out of talent.

What they almost always run out of is energy. They just get too exhausted. There’s not enough gas in the tank to go do what they want to go do. And if there’s not enough gas in the tank, if you’re exhausted, then you can have the best idea, you can literally have a brilliant vision for what you want, and yet you’re not going to reach that potential.

And the reason all that matters, the reason I say all this, Pete, is because I think we’ve been conditioned to really optimize for time but we haven’t really sort of been taught how to optimize for energy, meaning, like if we’re taking on an important project, what we tend to think about is, like, “What are the number of hours, the number of days, the number of years, that’s going to take to get this thing done?” But what we rarely think about is, “What is the quality? What is the quality of energy that I want to bring to each one of those units of time? What is the quality of energy that I want to bring to each one of those hours?”

And so, for me, one of the most important rituals in the book really comes in this chapter, which is what I call rhythmic renewal, which basically says that instead of waiting for vacations, or waiting for long breaks, what high performers tend to do is they tend to take breaks, mini-focused breaks every single day. In fact, the average high performer that we studied takes somewhere around eight breaks every single day.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s what I love to hear, Suneel.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, it sounds extraordinary, right? I bet there are at least some people listening to this right now, being like, “That’s crazy because look at how crammed our schedules have gotten, and now you’re telling me to cram it even further with these little breaks?” But the thing that I want to offer you is a very tactical practice, it’s what I call the 55-5 model, which is that whenever possible, for every 55 minutes of work, you’re taking five minutes of focused deliberate rest.

And that five minutes can be anything. When I asked people, like, “What do you do during five minutes to take a break?” I get the best answers, like, “I take a dance break,” “I do some pushups,” “I take a walk in nature,” “I just drink a cup of coffee.” You can do anything you want during those five minutes. The key is that you’re just not multitasking it with work. You don’t have your phone in your hand, getting things done while you’re taking a break. You’re just purely focused on that break.

And the reason that this is so magical is because while it may seem like you’re actually cutting your time down, what that five-minute break is doing is it’s making the other 55 minutes so much more effective, so much more imaginative, so much more collaborative and creative. And the reality is that whatever you do in 60 minutes, you could probably do in 55.

And so, if we save these little five-minute breaks in between, we start to boost the energy that we bring to all the other sort of meetings, all the other work sessions that we have in the day. And when I talked to people who put 55-5 into practice, one of the most common things that I hear is that, “For the first time in my career, I am actually experiencing as much energy at the end of the day as I did at the beginning of the day just by taking these breaks in between.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Suneel, I love that, and I want to hear some more examples of these crazy breaks. It’s so funny, as I’m in my office, I’m looking at, I’ve got yoga blocks. I like to do pushups on yoga blocks because I can go deeper and have more of a stretch, it feels good, as well as a little tub of cold water I dunk my face into.

Suneel Gupta
Yes, that’s very common. I hear that more and more.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it really? I thought I was a freak.

Suneel Gupta
No, I hear that more and more. So, obviously, cold plunges are all the rage. Like, I’ve had people tell me, like people who work from home or in a hybrid schedule, “I’ll just go take a cold shower just for three minutes.” Somebody, the other day, told me, “I take a cold shower, turn off the lights inside, put on music, do a little dance party inside the shower,” and, literally, it’s five minutes, very, very quick. Come out and it resets their state. But definitely the face in the cold bowl of water is another one.

The other day, somebody told me that they, literally, were, like they talk to themselves is what they said, “I like to talk to myself,” is what this executive told me. And I said, “Well, what do you mean? Do you work from home?” And he’s like, “No, no, we’re back to work now.” And I said, “Well, do you go in your office and close the doors?” He said, “No, no, what I do is I put my AirPods in, and I walk around, and people think that I’m on a call with somebody else but I’m actually just talking to myself. And I find that to be very therapeutic.”

So, if you ask people, like, “What’s an out-of-the-box thing that you do to reset yourself?” you’ll get the best answers.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Suneel, I’m glad I asked. I do love these answers. And if you could give us a couple more, I’ll take them?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, okay. So, I think, for me, breathing is great, and I know that sounds obvious because meditation has been talked about so much, but you don’t have to be a meditator. And one of the things that I love doing is what I call the alternate nostril breathing technique. If we’re on video, this would be a little more visual, but I’ll describe it to you.

What you’re basically doing is you’re inhaling through your left nostril and exhaling through your right nostril. The way you do that is by using your thumb and one of your other fingers to basically, like, gently block one of the nostrils. So, as you’re inhaling through your left nostril, you’re blocking your right nostril. And then you’re exhaling through your right by blocking your left nostril, and then you reverse it. Inhale through the right, exhale through the left. Inhale through the left, exhale through the right.

This is a millennia-old technique. It’s thousands of years old. And the reason that it works, and it’s rooted in science, you’ll hear even behavioral scientists talk about this alternate nostril breathing is because what it really does is it resets your nervous system. But what it also does, we’ve heard of the left brain and right brain before, and oftentimes, especially those of us who are in analytical positions and we’re using our minds a lot at our work, we start to drift away from our heart. We go all head, no heart.

What this tends to do is it tends to equalize both sides of the brain. The left side in charge of analytics, the right side more is, you are heart-centered, focused more on creativity, and it starts to bring these two into alignment. So, this alternate nostril breathing is, I think, just a great one.

The other thing, you mentioned pushups. I like planks. And the reason I like planks is because, for me, pushups are fantastic but they’re repetitions, right? And every time you do a repetition, you’re kind of escaping the moment. So, I find it easier to do pushups than to hold planks because it’s repetitive and it’s giving me something to do.

Planks are really interesting because they don’t allow any type of escape. You’re just kind of holding a plank just for a period of time. And when you hold the plank for a period of time, what that challenges your mind to do is basically come to the moment, come to the present, because you have nowhere else to go. And so, I find that if I want to reset myself with an exercise, like something physical, and I’ve got less than five minutes to do it, I’ll hold the plank.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now I got to hear, what’s the 85% rule?

Suneel Gupta
So, yeah, the 85% rule is it comes from the running world, actually. And Carl Lewis was the person who kind of really, I think, brought this to the forefront. Carl Lewis was an Olympic racer, Olympic sprinter, I mean, just amazing. He won all sorts of medals and is considered one of the more prolific racers of his generation.

One of the things that they found about Carl Lewis though that was unusual is that he would always start in the back of the pack. And kind of the conventional rule for racing was that you had to blast out front right away in order to win a sprint because a sprint isn’t very long. But in Carl Lewis’ case, he would almost always start in the back of the pack and then work his way up.

And a sprint coach started to study kind of what was going on here. And what he found was that Carl Lewis was never really deviating in the way that he ran. He was starting at 85% and he was running at 85% speed pretty much the entire race. So, while other sprinters were kind of coming out of the gate at a hundred and then, almost inevitably, kind of losing a little bit of gas over time, he was at 85% steady throughout the whole thing.

And the 85% rule was talked about in running but it found its way to other worlds. Like, I heard Hugh Jackman, the actor, talking about the 85% rule the other day. And it’s coming to the world of music and acting and business as a way of approaching things because, oftentimes, we think that we have to go at 100% in order to get things done, but the problem is that if you’re at 100%, if you’re all on all the time, you’re going to burn out.

So, the alternative is to actually dial it down to 85%, to a very sort of comfortable measurable way of relaxed but intentional leadership for yourself and for the people around you, where it’s not like you’re giving up by any means, 85% is still strong, but what you’re optimizing for is the longer term. Because, look, if you want to get something done in a week, grit it out, hustle hard, and you’ll get it done.

But I think most of us are not looking to get something done in a week. We’re looking to build something over time, whether that be a product, or whether that be a business, or whether that be our own career. We’re optimizing for the long term. And if we’re optimizing for the long term, then we don’t want a model that’s actually built around the short term, which is getting things done in a short term, burning out, and then not having the fuel, or exhaustion to keep going, or coming back but not quite being the same as you were before.

And so, 85% is an alternative way of thinking about really kind of loosening your grip. And the metaphor that I love, a Buddhist monk actually introduced me to this metaphor, is racecar driving. When racecar drivers first learn how to really get competitive, oftentimes, the premise they come in with is that you have to grip the steering wheel very tight, especially during those tight moments. Like, if you’re taking a tight turn, you sort of squeeze the wheel tighter.

But one of the most important things that you have to learn as a racecar driver is that you have to actually loosen your grip in those moments. During the tighter turns, you’re actually going looser and not tighter so that you can stay more emotionally in control between the car and the relationship to the road. Then, I think, the way that we operate our odds is very much the same. Our tendency is to try to squeeze when we’re in these tense moments. But what Carl Lewis and the 85% rule shows us is that if you can learn to loosen in those moments, you can go faster and even further.

Pete Mockaitis
So as I visualize sprinting, it’s a very clear measure in terms of what’s 100%, what’s 85% in terms of the numerator and denominator, and, okay, we got the speed straight up, like miles per hour running, if you will, as a measure of speed. What does an 85% effort look like, say, if I am in a meeting, or processing emails, in contrast to a 100% effort?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, I think what it means is that during these tense moments, you’re able to sort of lighten your sort of grip on what’s happening. And so, for me, the way that that shows up is I find myself sitting at my desk and I’ll actually forget to breathe, like, all of a sudden, I find myself sort of gasping for breath. I was so interested in this the other day because I was like, “Is this just me? Does this only happen to me?”

I’m right now in faculty at Harvard Medical School so I pinged a couple of my colleagues, and I’m like, “What’s going on here?” They’re like, “No, no, no, that’s totally natural.” Most people when they’re in front of their phones or they’re checking email, you actually hold your breath. Like, we tend to hold our breath and we, all of a sudden, find ourselves sort of gasping for air. But, also, if you pay attention to it, you’ll sometimes find that you’re starting to feel stressed out, and there’s not really a total reason for that. There’s nothing in particular that’s triggered you into this moment of stress.

What we find is that we’ve actually been holding our breath, and that’s the reason that we actually feel stressed in that moment. And that kind of follows the pattern of breathing. When you’re stressed out, you tend to take shallow breaths or you stop breathing. When you’re not stressed out, when you’re more in a calm position, you’re taking smoother, calmer sort of breaths. You’re just kind of in this more state of flow during that time.

But the reverse is true, too. If we start to kind of hold our breath, we can actually almost fake our minds into thinking that something is wrong, that we’re actually stressed out. So, going back to your question, Pete, with the 85% rule, it’s just smoother energy. It’s a smoother energy. There’s less grasping, there’s less table-pounding, there’s less grit and hustle. And the thing that I would say is if you’re listening to this, and you sort of feel, “Well, that just sounds like a recipe for non-ambition. Or that sounds like a recipe for letting people walk over you.”

I encourage you to try it. I encourage you to try it for a week where you’re walking into meetings, and you’re loosening the grip just a little bit. And, again, we’re not saying giving up here, I’m not saying throwing your hands up. Loosening your grip to what you consider to be an 85% level, and just seeing how that plays out. Because, for me, what it creates is a smoother, more relaxed energy. I start to feel more free. I start to feel more creative. My mind is thinking a little bit more clearly. I’m also more collaborative.

Because, look, when somebody is really intense, and they’re gritting their teeth, and they’re 100%, like, that’s not always a lot of fun to be around. But if you can relax a little bit, and you can sort of be, again, creative and engaged and intentional, but not like that gritty-hustle personality that can sometimes tend to burn not only themselves out and everybody else around them, pay attention to what the effect is. Did you really lose productivity, or did you gain presence?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And as I’m thinking about it, it’s true. There are times when I’ve approached, let’s just call it processing emails, almost like a pumped-up, cranked, eye-of-the-tiger, jump up and down, “Let’s do this thing,” partially just because I’ve procrastinated for a while, and I think that’s the answer is to just overcome my resistance by being super fired up about it. But other times, you can do the same task with an energy that I think of more like a Bob Ross energy, like painting happy little trees, doing happy little emails. And the output is comparable.

Suneel Gupta
And I think it’s such a good point because, also for me, I find that the reason that I’m resistant to sometimes like going, like blasting through emails, is because I know that I’m going to be putting myself in this hustle-and-grind mindset. And if you know you’re going to put yourself in a hustle-and-grind mindset, that’s not always fun, and, oftentimes, the resistance comes from, “I don’t want to go there.” But what if you didn’t have to be that way?

And what if you could actually, like gently, get through your email, and you’re reminding yourself to be sort of gentle with yourself throughout that? What would that look like for you? And did you lose anything? Because, sometimes, the belief that we have, and I think this is a very sort of like conditioned way of thinking, I know I’ve been conditioned to believe it, is the less grit we put into something, the less ambitious or intentional we’re being about it.

But is that true? Like, is that real? Or do you find that when you actually loosen up a little bit about things, you can be fully equally intentional and, in fact, more creative, more imaginative. You can actually bring a higher level of energy to that task and you’re more fun to be around.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, Suneel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Suneel Gupta
I think maybe some of my favorite things and some of the stuff from the book will come up anyway, so let’s go there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite quote?

Suneel Gupta
My favorite quote was from my grandfather, my bauji. And what bauji told me is that, we, as humanity, is like a sitar or a guitar with billions of strings. You are a string. I’m a string. Each of us is a string. And every time we learn how to play our own string, every time we tune into who we are, and we express that to the outside world, every time we come into our dharma, not only does that have an effect for our life, but it has an effect for everybody else’s lives as well. Every time we play our string, we bring the rest of the world a note, just a little bit more of harmony.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Suneel Gupta
I’m still a fan of the scar experiment, which you may have heard of. It came out of Dartmouth University in the 1990s. And with the scar experiment, what they did was they basically had these people in a room, and they painted on an artificial scar on their face, this hideous-looking blemish on their face. And then they were to go into the next room, one by one, and interact with strangers just to see how strangers would react to their scar.

But right before they went into the room, the makeup artist went to them, and said, “Hey, can I touch up your scar, just touch up a little bit of the makeup?” And they said, “Sure.” And, without them knowing, they actually wiped the scar off entirely. So, now if you’re part of the experiment, you walk into the room believing that you had this scar on your face, and you don’t. And then they ask the subject afterwards, like, “How did people react?” And nearly everybody said, “Oh, my God, they couldn’t take their eyes off the scar. Like, they stared at it, they were disgusted by it, they were like…”

And it just sort of goes to show that sometimes we tend to see ourselves through other people’s eyes. We tend to sort of like look to people for the feedback on who we are. And I love that experiment because it just brings it to life in such a visceral way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Suneel Gupta
That’s a hard one, and I really think that Be Here Now by Ram Dass has to be the one, I think, because it’s just had the biggest impact on my life. I return to it probably more than any other book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Suneel Gupta
I think my favorite tool is the act of putting my phone down. And I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out because my instinct, when you first asked me the question, was to think of a technology, was to think of what’s something that’s helping me be more productive. And there are plenty of tools that I use, from OmniFocus to all these other sorts of things I use to organize my world. I use ChatGPT every once in a while. Like, honestly, man, my favorite tool is, literally, just the practice and the act of putting my phone down, and having some present time with a blank sheet of paper.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Suneel Gupta
My favorite habit is the 55-5 rule. For every 55 minutes of work, take five minutes of focused deliberate rest.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Suneel Gupta
Well, I think that the idea of being able to let go but also take charge is something that often people talk to me about. And, for me, it’s really kind of like two very different philosophies coming together. It’s really kind of the Eastern side of me and the Western side of me. The Eastern side of me, I would go to temple, and it was all about letting go. I would read the Bhagavad Gita, and it was all about letting go. Whereas, the Western world was all about sort of taking charge and gritting it out.

And so, for me, as an Indian kid growing up in the United States, I was always sort of oscillating back and forth between these two worlds. I’d have my Eastern identify and my Western identity. And I never really thought that those two things could come together but I really do believe that they can. And that’s really kind of where I think Phil Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with flow, and there’s a lot of practices in the book on how to actually be able to let go to a certain extent, but also be very intentional about it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Suneel Gupta
Just come to my website. Come to SuneelGupta.com. I spell my name S-U-N-E-E-L G-U-P-T-A.com. And there’s a bunch of tools out there for you, and I’d love to connect with you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Suneel Gupta
I think being awesome at your job is one and the same as being awesome with who you are. And sometimes we forget that character is how you behave when nobody is watching. It’s the things that you do for yourself internally in order to succeed externally. And sometimes we get pulled into a world where it seems like external success is the only sort of way to achieve the things that you want to achieve.

But I think if you can sort of start to come back to, like, what really matters to you, like what is that essence, and, “How do I express that essence to the world?” not only is that sort of a way of making yourself come alive, but I really believe that it’s a way of doing your best work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Suneel, this has been such a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and adventure with your dharma.

Suneel Gupta
Thank you so much, Pete. I wish you luck with yours, and I appreciate you having me back on the show.

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