Tag

KF #26. Being Resilient Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

832: How to Restore Yourself from Burnout with Dr. Christina Maslach

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Leading burnout expert Dr. Christina Maslach shares the fundamental causes of burnout and what individuals and organizations can do to fix them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why burnout isn’t just an individual problem
  2. The 6 key areas of job mismatch that cause burnout
  3. What to do when you’re burnt out 

About Christina

Dr. Christina Maslach is Professor of Psychology, Emerita, at the University of California, Berkeley, and the co-creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most widely used instrument for measuring job burnout, and has written numerous articles and books, including The Truth About Burnout. In 2020 she received the Scientific Reviewing award from the National Academy of Sciences for her writing on burnout.

In 2021, she was named by Business Insider as one of the top 100 people transforming business.  She also consults on the identification of sources of burnout and potential interventions.

Resources Mentioned

Christina Maslach Interview Transcript

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

Christina Maslach
Well, thank you for inviting me. I’m pleased to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about your latest work, The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs, which I understand is hitting lists which is really cool. Congratulations.

Christina Maslach
Thank you. Thank you. We’re very thrilled.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to ask, I understand that you didn’t set out to become a burnout expert, yet you ended up one. What’s the story here?

Christina Maslach
Yeah, burnout found me rather than the other way around, I think. This was back in the 1970s, I had gotten my PhD, I had gotten a job at UC Berkeley, and I wound out to start doing research. I had been doing laboratory research on emotion, and when I got to Berkeley, they didn’t have a lab ready for me to use, so I thought, “Well, I’m going to go out and talk to people who deal with the…” you know, I was thinking about, “How do you deal with intense feelings when it’s important for you to be calm and cool and do your job? And how do you understand all that?”

So, I started talking to people that I thought might experience this on the job, and give me some ideas that I could then test out in my research. And what would happen, so I was talking to people, what we would call now first responders, people working in the ER, police people, social workers, teachers, and so forth, and as we finish up the interview, I was often asked, “Could I tell you some more things that you haven’t asked me yet about my job?” And I’d say, “Yeah, sure. That would be great. Sure.” “It’s confidential, right?” “Yeah, yeah.”

And they started telling me other things about the work that I hadn’t really understood or heard about in the same way. And after a while, I began to hear the same kind of rhythm, the same kind of pattern, the same kind of story from people from very different kinds of occupations. And I’d asked them, “Do you share this with…?” They’d be, “Oh, God knows, no.” “Yeah, but how do you talk about or think about it? Is there a name?” “Oh, I don’t know,” kind of thing.

So, I tried finding concepts in the research literature that I thought might be relevant, like, “Dehumanization and self-defense where you treat people like objects rather than human beings, so was that it?” “Oh, no, no, no, no.” “Okay. Well, medical sociology talks about detached concern that you have to have when you’re a healthcare provider and working with a patient. You’re concerned but you also have to sort of back off and be not too involved.” “No. Well, I don’t know how you…no, no, no.” “Okay.”

So, then the second serendipitous thing happened, and that was I was at a dinner for new people to the Berkeley campus, and I was chatting with the people on either side of me, and one of them was a woman from the law school. I ascribed a little bit about what I was doing to her, and she said, “Oh, my God, I don’t know what you call it, but in legal services poverty law where I just came from, we call it burnout.” And I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

So, then when I ended the interviews, I’d ask, “What about dehumanization?” “No, no.” “Detached concern?” “Uh-uh.” “How about burnout?” “Yes, that’s it. That’s it. That’s the word.” And so, it just became something that I just got intrigued by because not only…so that was where the word came from, or people resonated to it, and said, “Yes, that captures what I’m going through and feeling.”

But people would get angry as they talked about things. They would cry sometimes when they talked about things. It was clearly something that was really, really important for people. And I kept thinking, “I’m stumbling across something that I hadn’t been prepared for but this seems like it deserves some more attention. I got to find out what’s going on here and see if I can understand it better.”

So, the first paper I ever published, I couldn’t get published in an academic journal because they thought it was pop psychology, but I ended up publishing it in a popular magazine at the time called Human Behavior. And, at that point, it went, what we would say today, viral. This was before internet though, so I was getting sacksful of mail in the department office from people saying, “Oh, my God, I’ve read your article. I thought I was the only one. Let me tell you my story.”

And so, it just exploded at that point in terms of people being interested in the phenomenon, or saying, “I know what this means, and I want to share that with you as well.” So, it’s just sort of grabbed me along with everything else I was doing in research and just decided, “I need to study this some more and figure out what’s happening. And if we can learn something about it to prevent it, or help people deal with this, then that would be a contribution that would be important to make.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a very rich story. Thank you, Christina. And I’m thinking about almost like how, etymologically speaking, I’m thinking that they say someone, like, discovered The Beatles or whatever. Well, The Beatles were talented, they didn’t invent The Beatles, but someone kind of realized, “Oh, this is a thing,” and made it huge.

And so, in effect, you are sort of the equivalent discoverer of burnout, maybe not so much like, “Go figure, this is a phenomenon that affects humanity,” but rather, “Oh, we have some themes and some language, and poverty law,” huh? I guess that’s where the origin story. I never knew.

Christina Maslach
That was one. But actually, if you look more broadly, I mean, that was my personal origin story, it’s that other woman. And, in fact, I did an interview with her, which was amazing and I’ve cited her as well because she was so thoughtful about all this. But if you look at the word burnout, it was appearing earlier. There were burnout shops in Silicon Valley in the ‘60s, ‘70s. There was burnout in engineering language.

I’m the daughter of an engineer who did work for NASA on rarefied gas dynamics, and rocket boosters burn out, and lightbulbs burn out, and ball bearings burn out. So, there’s a much longer history that goes before anybody was connecting it to something about the job. So, even the word stress comes from physics, engineering kind of stuff. And the load you put on like a bridge and under, what conditions will the bridge handle the load or will it break, or some sort of thing like this?

So, I’m actually not the discoverer of the word. I certainly discovered people who were applying it to their job experience but there’s even a novel Graham Greene wrote, A Burnt-Out Case back in 1960, I think it was, or ’61, so there’s longer routes.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, my wife and I met at a book club that was reading a Graham Greene book. Fun fact. Well, let’s talk about burnout. Tell us, you’ve had a role in popularizing the term for usage in humans in relation to their jobs. With all this research and history, any really striking discoveries you’ve made about burnout that are maybe not so well understood or counterintuitive to folks?

Christina Maslach
Yeah, that’s a good question because I think, for a long time, and certainly still now, the really dominant response to burnout is to say, “What’s wrong with the people on the job?” It’s looked at as an individual problem, a weakness, an illness, a medical condition, and so somehow, you’ve got to be cured or treated or send off to a doctor or a psychiatrist, “What’s wrong with you?”

And often, the solutions when you ask the question, “Who is burning out?” are, “Well, what do we do for our people? Maybe we take Fridays off, or we’ll shut down the company for a week, or maybe we need to do some other kinds of things,” and it’s fixing the people. Actually, what you’re doing is focusing on the effects of burnout but you’re not looking at what’s causing it, and that’s a different question. That’s, “Why are people experiencing this?” not just who they are but “Why?”

And when you look at “Why?” then you’re looking at, “What’s the causal factors?” And it turns out that burnout is a stress response to chronic job stressors that have not been well-managed, so it’s a management issue. It’s like there are stuff on the job, chronic. The important part about that is it’s most of the time it’s high frequency, it’s a lot. It’s always there. The stuff that wears you down. It’s the pebbles in your shoe that are always getting in the way and making you uncomfortable and posing little obstacles to just getting the job done on time and do it well.

And what we know about stress and coping is that it’s much harder to recover from chronic job stressors, or chronic stressors, period, than it is for what we call acute stressors, occasional, “Oh, we’ve got an emergency,” “Oh, there’s a little crisis,” but then we recover, get back, ready to go again, and get a good night’s sleep, etc.

So, what happens with burnout is that it’s not just stress, the exhaustion response, and people often use the word burnout to mean just that, “I’m so tired. I’m burned out.” No. Burnout is when you’re not only stressed and exhausted, you don’t have energy to do anything more, but you are becoming incredibly negative, hostile, cynical, “Take this job and shove it.” So, the whole job situation, the conditions, the people, the things you have to do, are really…you are getting very negative about that, and doing the bare minimum rather than trying to do your very best and still get a paycheck and get out of there.

And a third component intertwined with all of this is you may begin feeling negative about yourself, “What is wrong with me? Why am I here? Maybe I made a mistake going into this kind of career. I’m not proud of what I’ve done. Maybe I’m not really good at this. Why should I do it?” So, when you get that trifecta, that triumvirate of the exhaustion of stress, the cynicism about the workplace, and the sense of your job ineffectiveness, that’s burnout. That’s when you go numb. That’s when you start having other health problems. That’s when you quit, or figure out, “How can I hang in there?”

And so, the quality of performance of the work that you do is going downhill, and you’re not being really much good to not just the people on the job, but your family or friends or anybody else, so it can have rippling effects to be on the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s how we know we got it, or in it, or in the midst of it, that’s the view. So, what are the root causes?

Christina Maslach
Well, what we have found, and when I say “we,” I’m talking also about my co-author on the book, Michael Leiter from Canada, but also researchers around the world who have been doing work on this that led to the World Health Organization recognizing job burnout as an occupational phenomenon. And what we have found is that there are at least six areas in which the match, or the good fit, between people and their job are really critical.

If there’s a better fit, better matches, then people are more likely to be engaged with work and satisfied with it and feeling good about it. If there’s really big mismatches, gaps, between people and the job, then they are more at risk for burnout. So, the six areas are, and they’re not in order of importance at all, they’re probably just in terms of how well known they are.

One is workload, and, there, the mismatch is high demands but really low resources. You don’t have enough time, equipment, colleagues, information, whatever it is, to get the job done and meet the demands. But often, more important is the second area, which is control, how much say, discretion, autonomy do you have to do the job the best way possible, to course-correct if something unexpected comes up.

And when people talk often about their workload, they’re saying, “It’s an uncontrollable workload. I don’t have any say about how much I have to do and when and where, and dah, dah, dah.” So, control is important. Third area is reward, and what that means is positive feedback when you do something well. So, it could be salary and benefits, but it’s also social recognition, that people recognize, thank you, pat you on the back, say, “Wow, you really saved that meeting with that client. That was really good. Or, maybe you could give me some tips on doing this.” So, you’re getting a sense that you’re doing a good job, people know you are, and you have new opportunities perhaps.

The fourth area is the workplace community, and that means all the people whose paths you cross in some fashion during your work, and are those relationships one of trust, mutual support, that we figure out how to get together on the same page, we have different points of view, we help each other out, we mentor each other, we have good times and celebrate when things go well.

Or, we work in what is often called these days a socially toxic workplace where you don’t know the other people well; they’re aiming to throw you under the bus before they do anything that’s helpful for you or you for them; there’s bullying, there’s harassment between people on the job; incivility, people not treating each other well. And we have seen that area of socially toxic workplace is really growing even before the pandemic.

The fifth area has to do with fairness. Whatever the rules, whatever the policies, whatever the practices, are they fairly applied equitably? That people who did something special, get the next opportunity, or the office with the window, or promotion comes fairly, as opposed to people who are unfairly cheating the line to get ahead, brown-nose the boss, the goodies go to the wrong person, the award process here is rigged. The people who really do something special never get recognized, that kind of thing.

And that can build a lot of the cynicism of burnout, if you feel that you’re working in an unfair place. This is where, by the way, discrimination lives, where glass ceilings are. It’s not a fair environment in which people are moving ahead. And, finally, the sixth area is values, also talked about as meaning. And I think, more recently, people have said purpose. But it’s the sense that I’m doing something that is important, makes a difference, I’m proud of the kind of work I do, the values of the organization where I am are in line with what I think is right.

Or, for burnout, I’m in a job where there are ethical conflicts where I’m being pushed to do things that I think are wrong, or not to say something when I see something that should be reported because it is illegal, or doing things that’s just so go against my values, “This is not why I went into medicine. I’ve got to get out of here because it’s not just about making money. I want to be in a place where I’m really helping people. That’s why I want to do this kind of work.”

So, those six areas can give you a sense of what’s working well, but also what things are not working so well. And those can then give you some thoughts about, “Okay, how do we make that a little better? How do we deal with the chronic stressors in fairness, or values, or reward, or whatever, and improve the condition so that people are going to thrive in that workplace rather than get beaten down?”

Pete Mockaitis
And what have you found to be some clever, best practices, or approaches to bring matching back-in-action, maybe either on the employee side or on the employer side?

Christina Maslach
Both. Rather than making an either/or, which is a tendency people have, “Is it the job or is it the person? Is it the boss or is it the employee?” It’s both/and. All of them. And in many ways, when it says that job stressors have not been successfully managed, it could be managed by the individuals, by the team, by managers, by professional organization.

There are a lot of ways in which things could be altered, or changed, or ideas can be proposed that, “How about we do it this way? How about if we redesign intake so that we don’t have this kind of problem that we all complain about? Maybe it would be better if we…or, no, how about if we do it this way, which would be a rotation? Well, how about if…?”

But come up with ways of identifying the chronic job stressors and what are the various options that we could do to get rid of them, modify them, make them less intense in terms of negative outcome? There’s a lot of ways of doing it. We have a lot of examples throughout the book in the six areas, saying, “Here’s what different kinds of places did and tried to improve the match there.”

And one of them involved fairness which, when we did an assessment, this was an organization that had about 800 people, and it wasn’t workload, it wasn’t reward. To the surprise of the C-suite, it was fairness, and they’re saying, “What do you mean? People think we’re unfair?” And they were looking and asking people, “What’s the problem?” They found one thing that everybody hated, really hated, and that was the distinguished service award that got you an extra little bonus check. And it was kind of like, “Wait. Money and it’s unfair?” It was unfair because people said, “The wrong people get that award.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Christina Maslach
“They haven’t done anything special.” They didn’t get a promotion so they went to their supervisor, and said, “Can you help me out?” “Okay, I’ll give you the award instead.” Or, went to the leader of a team, and the team members who actually did all the work of the special thing don’t get anything, just the leader. I mean, there were like 50 reasons why the award was considered so unfair. People hated it, didn’t want anybody to know that they might be nominated for it.

So, once that was kind of we presented the results of it, and said, “This is what you guys said,” they put together a group, a taskforce with people from different levels of employees in different units to work on it and come up with a better solution. The first thing was to point to the CEO, and say, “Fix it,” and he said, “I didn’t know we had a problem. You better help me figure out what to do.”

And it was not easy at first, there’s all different kinds of things you have to consider and come up with, but they came up finally with a proposal for how to do…how to really recognize people who’ve done something really special, and it was voted on and put in. And when we went back a year later to do some follow-up interviews, because we were following people over time, that fairness issue had dropped out, because people said, “Okay, now we’re doing it right.”

And also saying in the interviews, “And if we could fix that, guess what else we could fix?” It built hope, optimism, “Hey, we could actually think of ways of making our working life better by identifying the problems and doing something about it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. Well, that’s really counterintuitive and good to know that your intentions might be nice but, in practice, things can get abused, such that that recognition harms more than helps.

Christina Maslach
Yeah. And fairness, if you think about it, it’s a really important core psychological need, social psychological need that we all have, everybody, human beings. We want to be treated fairly in life. We wanted to be treated fairly in court, for example, legal system. Even if we end up not winning a case, let’s say, in the legal system, if we feel we’ve been treated fairly then we’ll be okay with it.

Or, for example, just to take it back to a small example from my own career. I teach a lot of students in classes, and sometimes a student will soon come in, and say, “Oh, I think I got an unfair grade on the test, or on the paper, and I think I need more points.” And I’ll set up a process, and other people do too, “We’ll get somebody else to do a new grading not knowing what the original one was, and whatever that second grade is, it could be better, it could also be worse. And you can lay out what you think entitles you to a better grade on that.”

And then you let them know, “Here’s what a second independent person said,” it could be me, the teacher, as opposed to my teaching assistant, and then it’s kind of like, “Oh, okay. Got it.” “This is why you didn’t get the full thing here,” or, “Yes, we should’ve given you more recognition of what you did.” But the fairness of the process is critical, that it’s not being biased, that it’s not being slanted in different ways towards some people and not towards others and that kind of thing.

So, the kind of fit that we’re talking about here is a more psychological fit with these core needs, like fairness, belongingness, psychological safety, much like we have always been for many, many years. We’ve always been concerned about the fit physically between the body, the human body, and the chair you sit in, or the computer station. And we’ve redesigned those so that you don’t blow out your fingers and wrists with carpal tunnel syndrome.

So, it’s like recognizing that the human body functions best if supported in certain ways, and how do we change the environment to better fit and support the body doing whatever the work is. What we’re finding is the same principle exists when what are the things that make people feel competent, and getting better at their job, and feeling like they’re a part of a good team, and being treated fairly. And those matter a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So much good stuff. Thank you. So, I’m curious, if one finds one’s self burnt out, what do you recommend the very first steps, one, two, three, about where to go from there?

Christina Maslach
Well, I think one of the first steps is to realize that you may not be alone. There may be other people who are having similar issues or problems or whatever. So, part of it is to find out a little bit more about, “Do other people share some of these responses to these chronic job stressors?” If you’re the only one, then it may suggest to you, “This is not the place for me. I better go somewhere else.”

But if there are other people who are also, it doesn’t have to be burned out, necessarily, but are also struggling with the same, “Ahh, we don’t have the things we need to do the job well,” then it’s a way to sort of shift from me to we, and say, “How can we do this better?” People often ask, “Do I have to go to my supervisor or manager and say I’m burned out, and can you accommodate me in some way?” And I’m saying, “No, because I think that’s just going to make it more your problem and stigmatize you. That’s not the way to go.”

But if we could say, “How do we put in a process for our unit, our team,” or whatever the sort of reasonable grouping is here, “to handle some of the problems we’re all feeling about an unfair procedure? How could we make it better?” That’s a different question than, “What’s wrong with you?” or, “What’s wrong with me?”

So, having a little bit more of a social power somehow, or to ask that as part of the regular meetings we have, “Do we have something where we can kind of periodically check in, like having an organizational checkup instead of a medical checkup? How are we doing? Are there any signs of problems coming along? The world is changing, do we need to actually rethink the jobs a little bit because we’re not quite on?”

So, having a focus on, “How do we make it better?” actually allows for more thoughtful action and collaboration and customization to actually improve the job conditions. And that’s ultimately what will prevent burnout rather than just helping people cope with it, because coping doesn’t usually change the sources of the problem.

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

Christina Maslach
I think just to sort of re-emphasize the point that burnout is as much about the job conditions, the social environmental conditions as it is about the people who are in those conditions doing the job, and we have to look at both. Getting a better match, a better fit can involve changes, redesign, thinking new things on both the person side and the job side. And, particularly, if it’s things that are affecting more people, a lot of people, it’s important to look at that.

What we have seen recently in, say, Gallup polls, both for this country and for globally, is that the vast majority of workers say they are not engaged with their job. It used to be about, oh, about 30%. Only 30%. I always used to wonder about the other 70. Now it’s dropping down to 20%, globally, people are not engaged. So, it’s like you don’t have to focus on the extreme opposite engagement of burnout. People all along the middle of that continuum are also not so happy with their work.

So, the idea of, “How do we make the job better? How do we evolve?” We didn’t see COVID coming maybe but we had to adjust to that. But in five years, the world probably is going to be different from what it is now. We’re still going to have to adjust and figure out, “What do we not need to do? What could we do differently? What is the most important stuff? And what are things that…? How do we just kind of rethink this job and not just keep doing it the same way it’s always been done?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Christina Maslach
I think one of the things that has always been important for me is something that I think I learned being raised in a Quaker tradition, and it was not what my parents had been raised as but it was something that they chose at that time. And one of the things about that is that the sort of the general beliefs about other human beings are the assumption that there is always some good in everyone, and your job is to look for it and make sure, whatever you can do to help it blossom even more.

And so, rather than just sort of saying, “Oh, these people are not good. They can’t do the job. They’ve got a problem, dah, dah, dah,” saying, “Wait a minute. There could be ways in which they could be really valuable assets,” and you invested in them and hired them. And, “How do we make what they’ve got to bring, come out and really make a good contribution on that?” And it may be different in different kind of cases but I think that basic philosophy of always looking for what’s good in people is something that has always been a part of my research and teaching.

And so, it’s like, “How do I, if I learned something, if I found out about something, how do we pass it on and make it usable so that things can get a little bit better?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share a particularly favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Christina Maslach
I think of, in my own work, some of the interviews that I’ve done with people that have really just completely changed what I understood and thought about the kind of work that they do.

And I had one person who, when he saw…he was a practicing psychologist in a mental health clinic in the Midwest, and he read the article I wrote in ’76, the first article in the human behavior, as I said that somehow was generating all kinds of attention. He wrote me a letter that was one of the most beautiful letters and completely grasped everything about burnout that I could ever imagine, way better than I could even think of with all the data and stuff like that.

And he just kind of put it all in these beautiful amazing words, which I have then quoted in my books and everything since then. And one day, there was a knock on my door, and it turned out it was this man who had moved out to the West Coast, had decided to get his PhD, he had a Master’s but he was going to get a PhD, and go into practice, and he has become an expert on treating people and helping people deal with burnout issues.

And not only has he become a lifelong friend, he is a musician, and we share jazz music. He has concerts and all those kinds of things. And he is someone who had been at the darkest point of burnout and ended up having a life that was really great, overcame all these things, and was able to make a good life and to help other people better understand what they could do about it.

So, knowing those kinds of stories, what’s possible, it’s just really…that kind of thing really has given us a much better understanding of what burnout is all about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Christina Maslach
When I was young, my friends and I became enamored of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, and it’s been interesting because it’s always been there’s something happening, and there’s clues, and you’re trying to figure out what it is, and can you come up with a solution, and come out with an answer that might prevent bad things from happening.

The other thing I would say is that, again as a young child, somebody gave me a children’s book of archaeology, and I fell in love with archaeology. And, again, you’re looking for clues, you’re trying to understand how people lived in earlier years in different places. And I discovered later on in life that Sigmund Freud was a great admirer of archaeology, so I thought, “Oh, okay, this is good.”

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

Christina Maslach
Well, I don’t think of it as a tool but I think of it as a critical thing for what I do, and that is getting at least one other pair of eyes on what I’ve written. We haven’t got a tool yet that really quite does it, but it’s like a really good editor, a colleague, somebody with a different point of view, who kind of looks at your writing, and says, “Have you thought about this? Why don’t you say it this way? I don’t understand that example.” And then talking with them about how they’re seeing it, and what I said, and what I’m trying to do, and maybe it’s not coming across clearly and stuff.

So, I just find that kind of interpersonal sharing of work, and having different people weigh in on, and giving me feedback is probably the most important thing that I’ve had in the work over the years.

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

Christina Maslach
I would point them to my website at the University of California Berkeley in the psychology department. And there is a listing there, I’m now an emerita professor, which means that I’m retired but I’m still actively involved. And so, that would be the psychology department at UC Berkeley. Also, I would recommend the Healthy Workplace Center at UC Berkeley.

I’m a researcher affiliated with that, and I’ve learned a lot more about the workplace because, in that center, Interdisciplinary Center, I get to talk to architects, and designers, and economists, and all kinds of other people who each have a different kind of perspective and point of view and contribution to make to what the workplaces look like, and how they function, and how they go about doing the kind of work that they do.

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

Christina Maslach
I would say that the challenge is really to see this as a continuing process of, “How do we get better at supporting people doing the kind of work that our society needs?” And I think this is a particularly important challenge now because I’m hearing about all kinds of people who are leaving jobs. They are not going back into nursing or being physicians. They are not going back to teaching.

We need teachers, we need doctors and nurses, in terms of our health and wellbeing.

So, the challenge of designing a better workplace is the answer to burnout rather than trying to figure out what’s wrong with people who get too stressed and burned out by the job. There’s a larger lesson of, “How do we…” how can I say this, “…get the best return on the investment that we make in people and their contributions to all of our society?” And that means really focusing on the environment and the job conditions in that situation as well as on the training and the feedback and stuff as well for the individual employees.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Christina, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and very little burnout.

Christina Maslach
Thank you. I wish the very same to you and everybody else. That’s a great way to end.

814: How to Take Control of Your Mood and Feel More Powerful at Work with Steven Gaffney

By | Podcasts | 2 Comments

 

Steven Gaffney shares the simple shifts that help you feel more powerful at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to easily redirect negativity into productivity
  2. Three reframes that make problems more manageable
  3. Two quick hacks to snap you out of a funk

About Steven

Steven Gaffney is a leading expert on creating Consistently High Achieving Organizations (CHAO)™ including high achieving teams, honest communication, and change leadership. Steven has worked in more than 25 different industry and market segments for over 25 years. He uses cross-discipline solutions and best practices from other industry sectors to bring fresh, innovative and consistently successful approaches to his clients. He works directly with top leaders from Fortune 500 companies, associations, as well as the U.S. government and military; and is also an author, speaker, and trusted advisor.

  • Book: Unconditional Power: A System for Thriving in Any Situation, No Matter How Frustrating, Complex, or Unpredictable
  • Website: JustBeHonest.com

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Steven Gaffney Interview Transcript

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

Steven Gaffney
Thank you for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Unconditional Power. But first, I want to dig a little bit into… one of your areas of expertise is honesty. I’m curious if, in all your work and research, if there’s an area in your life where oh, you had to do a bit of an honesty upgrade.

Steven Gaffney
You mean honesty upgrade as in like being honest to myself or that something? Is that what you mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. An area where it’s like, “Oh… Given this, I’m seeing a little in myself, perhaps there’s an area I need to be more honest about.”

Steven Gaffney
What actually happened, how I got involved in the work is I started to do some seminars for creative people like photographers and film and radio commercial directors because I used to have a business in that area. So I’m teaching them how to do communication, real basic stuff, and on the side, I would just always give people advice about honesty because I’ve always been a really honest, upfront person. 

And one day, a friend of mine said, “You should be teaching this stuff.” So, I guess the honesty moment was around being honest and actually teaching honesty out there. But what I mean by honesty, just so we get this out, it’s not the truth or lies that’s the big hang-up. The biggest problem is not what people say. It’s actually what they don’t say. It’s what they leave out.

So, that was what I realized and starting to teach. And then I developed a nine-step formula on how to share difficult things and have it go well, and we can get into that as well, but that’s how I started and that’s really about the honesty moment, you could say.

Pete Mockaitis
What we don’t say in terms of we just choose to omit this because it’ll be uncomfortable, we think we might not like it.

Steven Gaffney
Yeah, think about it this way. How often have you thought, “My gosh, if they just told me that, I could’ve figured out the answer.” A lot of people in their jobs experience this because, “My gosh, if my boss had just told me this, or a coworker just told me this,” or if you’re leading an organization, and you lose a great employee, and you find out the real reason why they walked out the door, and thought, “My gosh, if I had known that was what was bothering them, what prompted them to look, we could’ve done something about it.”

Really, when you look at life, and I challenge people, the number one problem isn’t what people tell us. It’s actually what they don’t tell us. It’s what they leave out. So, the trick of the whole thing is to try to get the unsaid said. And I don’t mean that people try to hold back from an evil standpoint. People are often afraid to share really what’s going on with them and with others.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. So, speaking of some of this emotional stuff, your latest book Unconditional Power is about some of that, how we can do some thriving in situations that are frustrating or complex or unpredictable. Tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Steven Gaffney
Well, the big idea is that most people suffer from conditional-ism. Now, that’s not going to make a lot of sense till I explain it, so let me explain it really easily. The three different types of moods or mindsets we all get into. One mindset is powerless. That’s where we say, “What difference can I make? I’m only one person here.”

Conditional mood is kind of this next-thing mindset, and that’s where we say, “We recognize we have some power over this situation but it’s conditional on other things.” And so, we say, “I can do that as long as they give me more money, or as long as there’s more resources, or as long as I have the right time.” There’s always a condition to the power.

But the most powerful state is when we are powerful, and that’s where we recognize there’s conditions but we’re in charge and we ask ourselves, “What am I going to do about this situation?” So, the big aha was doing work with so many organizations, what I discovered was many people think they’re powerful but they’re really conditionally powerful. And they’ll say, “I can do that as long as…” But the objective is how to be unconditionally powerful.

Hence, the whole idea of the book and how to get that done. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so is that even possible? Aren’t all of our powers subject to conditions?

Steven Gaffney
Well, here’s the thing. I’ve worked with a lot of successful people, and I’m sure yourself as well. Whenever you’ve overcome a challenge, you haven’t been conditionally powerful. You said, probably in a powerful state, “I recognize the situation,” but you focus 100% of your energies on what you’re going to do about the situation.

For example, a client of mine lost a big contract. Now, they could’ve rationalized to the whole organization, “It’s our biggest contract. We’re really doomed and we’ll do as best as we can, given that we lost a big contract.” But what the CEO said, and what all the top leaders said is, “No, we’re not going to use that as an excuse. It is what it is. We clearly lost this. But what are we going to learn from it and what are we going to do about it?” And they’re having one of their best years ever as a result because they didn’t waste time being conditionally powerful, which is really kind of the state of excuses. They, instead, have been powerful.

Let me give you example in my own life. So, in 2009, I got diagnosed with cancer, and I’m completely fine now, so fast-forward to that. But, also, 2009, was in the middle of the great recession. And so, one of the first things to go, obviously, were things what I do for a living: consulting, speaking, that type of thing. But what I said to myself was, “I can’t control that I have cancer, and I can’t control that there’s a recession, but I can control what I’m going to do about it.”

So, I didn’t allow myself to have excuses and I spent 100% of my time focusing on what I was going to do about it. And from that point on, we’ve had our best years ever. And some of the strategies in the book is really what I learned from others about how to be unconditionally powerful. So, yes, it is often the state we’re on in the conditional side, but we’re really being conditionally powerful and it is around being powerfully unconditionally powerful, and that’s the state of when we make things happen.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say state as in sort of like our emotional, internal way of being?

Steven Gaffney
Yeah, absolutely, because I make the argument in the beginning of the book. Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a good mood you’re smarter? Think about that. Like, when we’re in a good mood, and somebody throws us a problem, we’re like, “All right, this is a problem, but I’m going to figure out a way.” But when we’re in a bad mood, maybe a lack of sleep, or whatever the case may be, somebody throws us a problem, and you’re like, “Ah, here we go again. Not another problem,” right?

Or, we might say things like, “No good deed goes unpunished. We’re always having some challenges,” or, “What am I going to do about this situation?” And so, it’s easy to affect our mood, and our mood impacts our actions. So, I make the argument in the book that, as leaders, and as friends, the most important thing is to have a great state of mind, but, really, what we’re looking at is mood.

So, mood matters. Mood really does matter. And the objective is to have mood discipline because we can be in good moods and bad moods but what if we can be in a great mood on demand rather than by accident, and that’s a big part of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds very appealing. I’d like that very much. Tell us, Steven, how does one get into a good mood on demand?

Steven Gaffney
Well, there’s ten strategies in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’ll need them all.

Steven Gaffney
So, we can go through as many as we can. Well, and the thing about it is it’s not like hold tight till we get to number five. No, let me give you some real ones that they can move on immediately. So, one of them is intentional disruption. So, have you ever been in this situation where you can see things going downhill, or somebody gets in an argument and something is going downhill? And what we end up being is a victim to a meeting, a victim to a dinner party, a victim to something, and we’re like, “What am I going to do about this?”

Intentional disruption is the idea that human beings are creatures of patterns and associations, which is there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s working, but when it’s not, we have to intentionally disrupt it. So, let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. First on the personal side on how I use this. I had a dinner party a while back. And do you ever have one of those couples over and they’re great but they could start to get into an argument and they can bring everybody else down? Well, that’s what started to happen.

And so, I just used intentional disruption, and I said in the middle of them having an argument, I said, “Can I ask you a question?” And one of my friends, she goes, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, what do you love about him?” And she kind of jolted her head back, and she said, “Well, he does always have my back.” And then he started to say some favorable remarks, and it shifted. I disrupted the pattern.

In a meeting. So, let’s say you’re in the leadership, you’re in a meeting, and you’re dealing with an issue, and you can feel everybody kind of being in a down mood. Intentionally disrupt it. So, one way to do that is begin a really tense meeting that you have to talk about a problem, do a go-around and say, “What’s the biggest win that’s happened to us over the past month as a company? What’s the best thing that’s happened to you?”

And by the mind going there, it actually puts it in a good mood, good spirit when they’re answering that question. And then when you go back into the problem, they’re looking at it from a good mood, a good perspective. Those are examples of intentional disruption. And the good news is we don’t have to be the leader to use these types of strategies.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot. When it comes to questions, boy, I see it in my brain and I think it’s the human condition. When posed a question, we just want to go after an answer, and it’s like we’re just running after that thing. And so, it is an effective redirection pretty quickly is asking a great question. So, can you share with us a couple other favorite questions that do a good work in terms of getting us into a positive mood with that disruption?

Steven Gaffney
Yeah, and I’m not talking about just being big motivational talk, because people say, “Oh, motivational talk, how long does it last?” It really is about being sensitive to the mood of us and others. So, another example is you could say to somebody who’s really challenged with a problem, is I love using the magic wand question, which is, “Well, if I gave you unlimited time, money, how would you approach this?”

Or, when somebody doesn’t know what to do in their career, I’ll say to them, “Okay, if you had unlimited talent, but you had to choose a job so you’re not going to work for free, what would, ideally, you would love to do?” And, see, people often look at their life from the past into the future, but when you ask the magic wand question, it creates an energy and excitement about the future, and you’re releasing all those other conditions to look at things.

And it doesn’t mean that we can make that happen overnight, but what it does is it jolts the mind out of why we can’t do something, or, “I don’t know what to do.” Because you just say, “If I gave you a magic wand, what would you ideally like to happen in this relationship, in this conversation?” And what you’ll find when you ask people that question, it will jolt them, and they’ll often say, “Well, I don’t know.” And then a really good comeback to that is say, “Well, if you did know, what would your hunch be?”

It’s interesting, when you just say that, people say, “Well, is it that simple?” Yeah. If somebody says, “I’m confused,” you say, “Well, if you weren’t confused, what do you think would happen?” Because what you’re trying to do is have them engage in the future and where you want to go. So, the magic wand question is the case.

Another good on the innovation front is, “What if the opposite was true?” So, somebody says, “We need more resources.” “What if the answer to the problem was we needed less resources?” “But we need more resources.” “But what if?” So, you use the what-if principle, and that gets them thinking differently. But my point in bringing this up is we need to be in control of the questions rather than suffering from answers we don’t like. We just can redirect it.

So, for example, somebody is really critical of us. You say, “Well, thank you for the feedback. Can I ask you one question?” They’ll say yes, and most likely. Say, “Well, what do you like that I have done? I understand that’s a feedback that I haven’t done these things correct. But tell me something that I’ve done right,” and see it jolts their mind in a different direction. You’re not discounting the feedback but that’s how you can get balanced feedback as well.

The point being is don’t suffer in silence. Don’t suffer from the things that aren’t going well. Intentionally disrupt it. That’s just one of the strategies in the book, and I can go through more as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Please do. So, that’s intentional disruption, a great question redirects things to help you get into a good mood on demand. What’s another strategy?

Steven Gaffney
Reframe to refocus. So, the idea of this is back to the powerless conditional and powerful state. When we’re in a state of mind or mood or whatever that is not serving us, and we all can get in these moods, “What difference can I make? I’m only one person,” we feel powerless or somewhat powerful but it’s conditional. So, that’s how we’re looking at a problem. But if we reframe the problem, put a different context to it, it can make us more powerful.

 

So, let me give you an example. There’s three types of reframes, and I’ll go through the first one as an example. We can go through the others. But it’s reducing the frame. Reducing the frame. So, have you ever had a situation which is really seemingly the odds are against you, or it’s a business problem, or something going on in your life where it sounds like there are so many problems, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, where do I start?”

Well, reducing the frame would say, “While all that could be the case, what are the most important things I need to do now?” So, let’s say you’re on overwhelm. You’ve got business stuff and other things, you say, “Okay, what is the most important thing in my life?” whether it’s family, whether it’s work, or let’s just say work, “What’s the most important thing to do that I need to do now?” But that is reframing. Leaders can use this really well where people are stuck in a problem that seems very complex. The idea is to make it simple.

So, an example would be where you might say, “What are some key performance indicators?” So, we got a lot of things to consider, but what’s the most important thing? Let me give you an example. I worked with a company that was really suffering in revenue, and their backlog to business is really poor, and, Pete, they had all these key performance indicators, and, of course, people are like making this problem really complex.

And I said to them, “Well, how often do you see the customer?” And they said, “Well, that’s a good question. We spend a lot of time internally.” And I said, “Why don’t you have a key performance indicator and just monitor people going to see the customer, customer interactions?” And people could say, “But what about the quality of the interactions? What about your marketing?” I said, “Look, look, just focus on going to see the customer,” because that’s what they weren’t doing, and that was a big needle-mover. So, they focused on just going to see the customer and their whole pipeline turned around.

So, somebody, I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “It takes genius to make a complex problem simple but it doesn’t take genius to make it more complex.” I’m not sure he exactly said that. But when you think about it, have you ever met somebody who can make a complex problem even more complex, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?” But what you’re doing is you’re reducing the scope of it. You’re reducing the frame. And then when somebody says, “Well, I can do that. I can get that done.” And so, that’s the idea behind reducing the frame. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Thank you. And how about a third strategy?

Steven Gaffney
Well, so let me cover a couple things on the reframe because there’s a lot to dig deep there that I think between intentional disruption and reframing people could change things. Another type of reframe is enlarging the frame. Enlarging the frame is have you ever had something bad happen to you and you’re feeling down, or maybe other people are feeling down?

Enlarging the frame is putting it in a bigger picture. And what you’re saying is, “While that is bad, we lost a customer,” or, “While this is bad, this conversation didn’t go well or this meeting didn’t go well, let’s put a perspective. We’re doing well here, we’re doing well here, we’re doing here. And this is happening, and this is happening.” And, suddenly, people see it in a bigger picture.

What you’ll notice is, really great leaders like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and all the historical ones, but any great leader you feel kind of you want to follow are really good at enlarging the frame. What they’re doing is they’re creating a bigger vision, and they’re saying, “While these are issues, we need to see the big picture, the future.” And enlarging the frame makes people feel more powerful. That would be an example of that.

And the third type of reframe is you change the frame. That’s where you say, you just change it to a direction you want. I’ll give you an example there. I hired a company to work on an IT project and they were really behind, and I was getting annoyed. And so, I said, “When are you going to get this finished?” And, in essence, I can go the long version of it, but, in essence, what was happening was they said, “Well, it’s going to take us about four months,” which would’ve been in November. This was a couple of years ago.

And I said, “Given that I would like it, ideally, done in a month, what would need to happen?” which is basically just one month instead of four months. “And I’ll credit the company.” The company said and shot me an email filled with action items that if I could agree to it, they could get it done in a month, and it was done in six weeks.

Now, what’s interesting to unpack there? Well, most people would work in the existing frame, “It won’t be done till November.” “Well, how do we get it done shorter? And how do we get it done in October?” whatever. But I just said, and I wasn’t demanding in a jerk-type of way, I just said, “Given that I, ideally, would like it done in a month, playing at this, what would need to happen?”

So, you can use change the frame. You just say the prepositional phrase. So, for example, you’re having a difficult time with somebody. You might say, “Given that, look, we have a lot of arguments, but given I, ideally, want us to get along great, what would need to happen?” You see, that’s creating a different frame rather than “Let’s try to solve the problem.” Solving the problem would be the existing frame, but reframing it, or changing the frame would be, “Given that I want us to get along great, given I want us to work on this and not have any strife, what would need to happen?”

And so, those are examples of changing the frame. How is this landing with you, Pete? I know I’m doing all the talking.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s good. Yes, I like it. Let’s hear a third strategy.

Steven Gaffney
Another great one is, oh, act and you will become. So, when you look at a lot of times, when we’re sometimes down, and so a way to trigger ourselves is to be the person we want to be. So, imagine you’re playing a movie of your powerful self, how would you act? So, in other words, you might feel down but that’s where you might smile, you might change your body, like you’re an actor in a movie.

And what you find by researching great actors is they don’t play the part; they become the part. And becoming the part means really stepping into it. So, if you’re feeling conditional or powerless, it would be acting and you will become. So, you’re tricking your mind to get into that powerful state, and then that helps move it forward.

Now, I will say, I don’t like the terminology fake it till you make it because there’s something insincere. But what I’m saying is access to just becoming that, so you’re not doing the lip service, not just, “I now want to smile.” That’s kind of fake. But it’s like, “No, I’m going to smile, I’m going to carry my body differently, I’m going to change the tone. I’m going to really be that part and see how that feels.” And it’ll often trick your mind into changing things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Steven Gaffney
I’ll give you a very simple, another one that’s so simple we often forget it, and it’s make the unaware aware. Make the unaware aware. So, let’s go back to that distinction. You got powerless, you got conditional, and you got powerful. So, what I’ve experienced is that a lot of people, now I mentioned this earlier but I’ll apply it to the strategy, where they think they’re powerful but they’re really conditionally powerful, “I can get that done as long as, as long as…”

But if you explain this distinction to people, and just from the podcast that we’re doing, what you’ll do is you’ll find out that people will shift to the powerful. In fact, just listening to the podcast and being aware of it. Nobody wants to say, “I love being conditional.” No, people want to be unconditionally powerful but they just don’t think about it. So, making the unaware aware is you explain the distinction. And by explaining it and thinking about it, it’ll automatically, because of awareness, make you become powerful.

An example would be a client of mine, there was an operational problem. And I had taught his folks on the strategies, and so they came into his office, and they said, “We got a problem.” You ever have somebody just dump a problem on you? And he said, “Look, I understand we have a problem here. So, how are we all being about it?” People said, “Well, we’re being conditional.” And he said, “How would we act if we were being powerful about it?” And people said, “Well, I think we should be doing this, and we should do this, and this.”

And they, suddenly, came up with a whole bunch of ideas, and they shifted from the complaint mode, which is kind of the excuse conditionally powerful, and they solved the problem, he said, within about five to ten minutes. It was just a matter of being aware of catching that. That’s another strategy as we’re talking about things.

And in the book and stuff like this, I know we’re going super, super fast, but there’s a lot of examples to trick even more doing this, but we can continue, too. But, anyway, make the unaware aware is another really successful strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Yeah, let’s hear a fifth.

Steven Gaffney
So, another one is input drives output. The input drives output. We are a product of who we’re around, if you think about it. Jim Rooney is a motivational speaker, he subsequently has passed away, but he said, “We are a product of the five people we spend the most time with.” And so, what I have found is, if you think about it, if we have a down mood or our mindset is feeling powerless or conditional, who are we surrounded by? Who are our friends? Where are we watching on television? What are we doing?

Pete, did you find out, you probably experienced this, did you ever meet during the COVID period where they had CNN running 24/7? Nothing wrong with CNN but it was like repeat, repeat, repeat. Well, if you got all that negative input, of course, it’s going to bring you down. So, I’m a big fan of knowing what and being aware of what’s going on, but what’s the input into our minds? So, if we’re feeling down, or we’re feeling like things aren’t going our way, or we’re being powerless or conditional, we really want to ask ourselves who are we surrounded by. Who are we being?

So, this is like, as parents, people are sensitive to who their children are around, but it’s really an example would be you’ve got somebody at work who’s just self-righteous, who’s just really difficult to deal with, and you’re saying, “I can deal with them maybe but what’s the impact to other people?” And so, input drives output is honoring the idea of who are we surrounded by.

So, one of the exercises I love to do with people is I’ll say, “Write down the names of the five people you spend the most time with. The five people.” And then I’ll have them place them on a grid, which we can talk about, but, in essence, it’s around what kind of person are they. And, inevitably, we are a product of who we hang around with. So, if we don’t like who we’ve become, we got to change the environment. We got to look at things differently.

People say, “I can’t pick and choose everybody I work with.” No. That’s true. But you can pick and choose how much time you spend with a person. You can pick and choose whether you stay on the phone or get off the phone, whether you’re on the Zoom call, or then after the Zoom call, you just jump off and you’re doing other things. You can all the person afterwards or not. And, in a physical sense, when we’re around people at work, you might be in a meeting where somebody that’s way, you can use intentional disruption and the strategies we talked about. And then after the meeting, you can just distance yourself. You know what I’m saying?

I often say to people, “Reward people with the time that they deserve.” And so, who charges us up, we should spend more time with them. And whoever doesn’t, we should distance ourselves from them. Have you ever had somebody who’s like really just brought you down, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I got to get rid of them.” Legally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’ve decided to make some choices associated with folks I like to spend more or less time with, and certainly.

Steven Gaffney
When we’re talking about this stuff, it may sound kind of obvious at certain points and maybe not at every point, or maybe all. I don’t know. It’s up to people, of course. But I really want to challenge them because simple things make a big difference. Somebody wrote a book years ago called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Steven Gaffney
I actually think it’s the opposite. We should sweat the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that matters. It really is. When people say, for example, “Culture at work. What’s the company culture?” My experience is culture is very local, so you can have the broad company culture but if you work for somebody who’s really difficult to deal with, or if you had people who are really challenging, that’s your sense of culture of the organization.

And so, you got to look at certain things, and ask yourself, “Well, it’s the small things that make a big difference, who we hang out with, how we frame up things, intentional disruption, making the unaware aware.” Things of that nature.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Well, now, Steven, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Steven Gaffney
Norman Cousins said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss in life is what dies within us while we live.” And although that may sound like a downer, but it’s really about don’t let things that are important to you stay inside you. Share it. Do something. Take action. Go after your dreams. And go for what you want and what you deserve.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Steven Gaffney
One of my favorite books of all time in change is a book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. It’s fantastic. And what’s neat about that book is it’s all about everyday people making major changes in organizations. And there are many, many books I can go through but that’s just one that just comes off the top of my head that I just love.

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

Steven Gaffney
If they go to JustBeHonest.com, so our website is JustBeHonest.com, and if they go there and they say that they’ve listened to your show, and here’s the thing, and they write and email us on something they did, and I want to hear an action they took, if they do that and they just share what they did, we’ll send them the book I wrote years ago about how to share the most difficult things to people and have it go well, it was all about how to have honest conversations and have it go well, we’ll send that to them for free. And all I ask them to do is share that they listened to your podcast and share how they’ve used what we’ve talked about.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Steven, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and unconditional power.

Steven Gaffney
Thank you. And thank you very much for having me.

805: How to Boost Your Confidence and Advocate for Yourself with Kelli Thompson

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Kelli Thompson shares strategies for overcoming impostor syndrome and asking for what you need.

You’ll Learn:

  1. When self-doubt can be helpful 
  2. The exercises to boost your confidence
  3. What not do when advocating for yourself 

About Kelli

Kelli Thompson is a women’s leadership coach and speaker who helps women advance to the rooms where decisions are made. She has coached and trained hundreds of women to trust themselves, lead with more confidence, and create a career they love. She is the founder of the Clarity & Confidence Women’s Leadership Program, and a Stevie Award winner for Women in Business—Coach of the Year. She is the author of Closing The Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential & Your Paycheck, releasing fall of 2022.

 Resources Mentioned

Thank you, Sponsors!

Kelli Thompson Interview Transcript

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

Kelli Thompson
Thank you so much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to chat with you and hear your wisdom. And I thought, for starters, could you share with us a wild tale of salary negotiation, something that was funny or dramatic? You’ve seen a lot of this stuff and so I just imagine you’ve got some cool stories here.

Kelli Thompson
Oh, my gosh, I have to just pick one? I think sometimes the wildest tales of salary negotiations was when I was sitting on the other side as an HR person, and people would come in and they would put down this salary that was just wildly above the range for the job. Like, a quick Google search could’ve told you, “Hey, this is kind of the range for this job.”

And lots of times they would get defensive on why they wanted that number, and they would give you really un-work-related reasons, like, “I want my partner to stay home, and so I need to make this much money,” or, “I have plans to buy this house, and so I need to make this much money.” And just keeping a straight face in those moments, and I get it, lots of times we want to make a certain salary so that we can have things in life that we want.

But to use it as a negotiating tool of saying, “You need to pay me this much so that I can do that,” without even having any reference of, “Hey, this is kind of the range,” those were always really entertaining, and just moments where I really just had to stay cool and calm and just practice that poker face.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, it’s really interesting. And we had a great chat with Steve Dalton about negotiation sorts of matters, and he said sometimes if you share those things…I’m thinking about sort of when you’re starting a new job. When you share some of those things that could be helpful in terms of understanding your goals and how they might be able to say, “Well, you know what, we don’t actually have the ability to meet that salary number but we do have some cool benefits associated with interest-free loan for a down payment or whatever.” But saying, “I need this money because of this now, so make it happen, Buster,” ain’t going to cut it.

Kelli Thompson
No, no, not going to cut it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good to know. Well, so we’re going to talk a lot about confidence, particularly within your book Closing the Confidence Gap, confidence and advocacy in particular, as well in the zone of asking for more money. So, could you kick us off by sharing perhaps one of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made when it comes to professionals and getting more confident?

Kelli Thompson
Yeah, I think one of the most fascinating things I’d found about really helping with confidence, and maybe it’s one of the simplest, is actually how I open the book. I think, a lot of times, we think that we will get more confident if we follow a certain set of rules. So, for instance, in my own life, my rules were, “Okay, you need to go to college. You should get this type of degree. You should find this type of job because, you know, it’s stable, it’s going to pay well, and you have promotion opportunity, and you have benefits.”

And my family origin was, “Hey, get married young so that you can have kids when you’re young and you have energy, and then you should go get a graduate degree,” like, there’s all these rules. That’s just my family’s rules. And when I talked with, especially women, that’s the majority of my clientele, they come to me saying, “Why do I not feel more confident because I literally followed all the rules, I took all the career advice I was supposed to? I followed this path but why do I feel so blech?”

And I think one of the things and one of the most surprising discoveries that they have is there’s no “Happy when…”, there’s no “I’ll feel confident when…” They think it’s going to be on the other side of a promotion or a title or a salary boost, and what they find is there’s just nothing there. And so, a lot of the things, what they actually find helped them close the confidence gap and become more confident is to live a life that’s actually aligned with their values, and stopping and asking, “What do I really want? What do I truly enjoy? And how do I say no to everything that isn’t that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting. So, there’s almost an invisible script or an implied assumption, implicit and are operating mental frames, to say, “If I follow these rules, the result will be confidence, success, money,” any number of things. And people seem to discover again and again, that just doesn’t quite come to pass that way.

Kelli Thompson
Absolutely. And I think that’s just common because in the world of work, there’s just so much advice. There are so many well-intentioned, “Hey, you should do this, you should try this.” I know, even as an entrepreneur, I still get a lot of well-intentioned advice. And so, one of the things I really encourage my clients to do is really to stop, check in with your gut, “Do I even agree with that advice? Is this someone I should be taking advice from? Does this even align with my values? Does this even support what I want to do with my life? Does this even make me happy?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that. And now could you share the main message or thesis or core idea behind your book Closing the Confidence Gap?

Kelli Thompson
The central question behind the book is, “What would you do if you had a little more confidence?” And it really encourages to ask the readers to slow down and think about that, “What would I do if I had a little more confidence? Would I run for office? Would I ask for a raise? Would I try to set stronger boundaries at home? Would I go for the promotion? Would I quit my job?”

I’ve asked over 500 women this question, and the answers are just all over the board. But the central question of the book is, “What would you do if you had a little more confidence?” And then the book just unravels some tools, stories, lots of stories, strategies, frameworks to help you put into place some things, some actual tips that you can do, and do that thing that you said you would do if you had a little more confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And this might be a basic question, but how would we define confidence and the opposite of confidence? Because, in a way, it’s a big word that can encompass a lot of stuff.

Kelli Thompson
I have a line in the book that says, “A confident woman trusts herself. Her body is trustworthy.” And so, I really define confidence as trusting myself, like trusting my gut, my inner knowing, my nudges, and taking action on that because the actions of confidence come first, the feelings come second. And I think we can all put ourselves there where we felt nervous about doing something.

Maybe we’re going to hop on a podcast, or we’re going to give a presentation and you feel all the butterflies and got the splotchy neck and the sweaty palms, and you get into action, and when you’re done, you have the feelings of confidence. So, it’s getting into action that produces it. The opposite of confidence, a lot of people think that it’s doubt, but I think that there’s always a healthy level of doubt that comes along with confidence. And so, I like to think of confidence as a verb, and so to me the opposite of confidence would be stalling, inaction, and just being frozen.

Pete Mockaitis
When you said confidence is a verb, I was thinking of a confidence man, a con man, a flimflammer.

Kelli Thompson
That’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Not that kind of confidence verb. Okay, that’s cool. As opposed to just sort of hanging back, which makes sense. It’s not so much that we’re terrified necessarily, though we might be. It could just be, “Nah, I don’t quite know about that. Maybe a little later.” So, stalling, being in a state of not doing action. Okay. Well, so let’s say we want more confidence, how do we go get it?

Kelli Thompson
So, the first place I like to have my clients start is, especially when they come to me…I work with primarily women in my private coaching practice, and when they come to me and their confidence is totally shot, they’re also usually dealing with a lot of burnout. They’re overworked, they’re exhausted, they’re not even doing work they love. They may be doing work that was delegated to them, and they just said yes because it was the “right” thing to do – and I’m putting right in quotation marks – and they just don’t feel good about themselves and their abilities anymore.

And this might seem overly simple but sometimes when someone has come to me in that sort of state, I know I’ve been there in my personal life, the first place I have them start is to write down everything they don’t want. You might be surprised on how long that list of things becomes of everything that people don’t want because they said yes to it four years ago and we just keep doing it because we don’t want to go, we don’t want to set a boundary, we don’t want to say no.

Or, we said yes to be nice, we said yes to keep a relationship that maybe isn’t serving us any longer because a lot of times when women come to me, and I say, if I would try to work on confidence and build their confidence, they are just so overwhelmed, they don’t even know what they do want. So, we always start with, “Let’s make a list of everything you don’t want, and start saying no to some of those things.” Because when we can start to clear out the things we don’t want, it removes all that noise and that interference to help us get more clear about what we actually do want, what do we value, and how we say yes to the right things in alignment with those values.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s handy. And then, I’m curious, when you’re in sort of the heat of things, like a big presentation is coming up, you’re about to ask for more money, or a high-stakes something, and you’re feeling all sorts of doubt, anxiety, do you have any tips for what you do acutely then and there?

Kelli Thompson
In the moment. Great. Yes, so all the time, I am speaking, and I’ve been a corporate trainer, I’ve been a public speaker for almost 15 years, and I still get nervous, so I just want to normalize that. But what I have them do in the moment, is I like to just encourage them to not only just use their thoughts, but I want them to use their body.

So, some things that they can do in their body. If you ever see me before a presentation, I will be standing in the corridor, doing four-count breathing. Breathing in for four counts, breathing out for four counts, and doing that over and over again because what that does is it can calm down our nervous system, get more oxygen to the brain, and kind of get us out of that fight or flight mode that likes to hijack us. Actually, the Navy Seals use that when they need to calm themselves down.

Another tip in the moment that I always encourage my clients to do, and I always do, is to always have ice water. Ice water can also just calm down the body. So, I really encourage clients to prepare, like, “Let’s have a plan for breathing, let’s have a plan for ice water. Let’s get our body regulated because then my next tips are going to help you a lot more.”

The next one is just to notice it. I think sometimes we get nervous and we get flushed, and we feel all this doubt, and then we start to shame ourselves, and, “Oh, I shouldn’t feel this way,” but I have yet to meet a person who has shamed themselves into a higher level of confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
“Stop feeling that way.” “Oh, okay. That worked.”

Kelli Thompson
I know, right? Because if you say, “Stop it. Stop it,” like, it just gets worse. So, let’s just notice it, and just notice it with a ton of compassion, and then let’s just give it a name, “You know what, this is doubt. This is doubt that comes with speaking up. This is imposter syndrome. This is nerves. This is anxiety.” Naming our emotions doesn’t give them power. It actually clarifies our language so we can have more resilience in the moment, and go, “Oh, yeah, this is just that doubt that comes.”

Then I want you to normalize it. Like, I think the statistic is 90% of people are scared of public speaking, 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome. It is just so normal to feel doubt and nerves. In fact, I always joke with my clients that, “If you never felt doubt, we would probably be having a conversation about you being on the sociopathic spectrum.”

Like, doubt is a normal and healthy human emotion. It keeps us humble. It keeps us curious. It keeps us connected. So, let’s get back into our bodies. Let’s notice it with a ton of compassion. Let’s give it a name. Let’s just normalize it. This is normal. It’s normal. It’s normal. You can do great things while also feeling doubt. And then just reframe it.

One of my favorite reframes is, “I feel a lot of doubt, and this is good because it means I’m stretching my comfort zone today. I’m getting out of my comfort zone. This is where the learning is happening right now. This means I’m taking a brave next step, doing something that was on my goal sheet two weeks ago.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Kelli, there’s so much good stuff here I want to dig into. And I was really connecting with the notion of not shaming the emotion, and when you said, “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal,” that actually felt soothing as you were saying it, as opposed to, “I shouldn’t feel this way. I should be stronger.” The should statements – I’ve been listening to a lot of Dr. David Burns lately, hope we get him on the show later – in terms of they really do contribute to not the feelings that you’re going for.

Either the world should be different and you feel angry and frustrated that it’s not, or you should be different and then you feel sort of smaller or lame or inadequate because not only are you feeling the thing you don’t want to feel, but you are doubly cursing yourself because you shouldn’t feel that way, versus “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal” just has a calming effect right there.

Kelli Thompson
Yes, I’ve nothing to say to that than yes, it does.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then I want to talk about ice water. No joke, I was dorking out and reading all about the mammalian dive reflex which is so wild that if you put your face in cold water, you will literally have a bodily reflex that lowers your heart rate. I have tested this in my office with a heart rate monitor, because that’s what I do for fun, and it’s handy. So, that’s one approach is dunking your face in cold water. I have a feeling you have a different view when you said ice water. What’s your ice water approach?

Kelli Thompson
So, my ice water approach is, and if you are watching us on video right now, you would see me holding up ice water. Like, I always have ice water every time. I’m even talking to you on a podcast because, again, I want to normalize, normalize, normalize. I get nervous and I feel doubt even before I hop on podcasts, I have ice water. As you said, it feels like it slows the heart rate down because I get warm, I get flushed. I’ll just be honest. I start pitting out in my clothes.

And so, when I have ice water, whether I’m going on stage to speak, whether I’m going to be doing a webinar or a podcast, or speaking in front of a room, I always have ice water because it just helps bring that body temperature down a little bit and just slows everything down. And you have the proof, I’ve never done this on my iWatch, but now I’m going to try. I’m going to actually watch my heart rate on my iWatch and have a little fun with your experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And, in addition to the cooling, I think it also – is the word somatic awareness – it’s just a sensation that it’s a little jolt, like, “Oh,” and just sort of brings you into your body in terms of, “Oh, this is a thing that I’m feeling now,” as oppose to, you’re projecting all these worst-case scenarios or whatever that could be unfolding from your mind.

Kelli Thompson
Absolutely. And you used the word somatic awareness, so I’m going to go there because I actually talk a lot about somatic awareness in my book. In fact, one of the things that I talk about when it relates to confidence is I say that a lot of leadership development is what I call neck-up leadership development. And I know this because I design and develop leadership training programs for decades, and everything is, “How do we build more confidence?” And it’s all in our brains and our thoughts and thinking differently.

And when we teach leadership, it’s like, “How do we teach how to give feedback, performance reviews, ROI, look at the PowerPoint deck, the financial statement?” But one of the things that we don’t pay enough attention to that I talk about a lot in the book, and I talk about a lot with my clients because it’s worked for me too, is dropping below our neck and asking ourselves, “How am I feeling in my body? What is my body doing? What can I do with my body to…?” sometimes rev ourselves up.

I’m taking this podcast standing up because I know I sound different. I feel different when I’m talking and presenting when I’m standing up versus sitting down. How do those emotions actually feel in my body? And how can I just feel them, just as you’ve said, instead of constantly ruminating around what I’m making this feeling mean? Like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m not qualified. I’m going to fail, blah, blah, blah.”

No, I can just feel that in my body. I can breathe through that emotion. I can name that emotion. I can drink my ice water. I can change my posture to make me feel a different way. So, thank you for bringing that up because really getting in tune with our bodies is not something we talk about in the workplace, and it is so important when it comes to just changing our level of awareness and, I think, ultimately, boosting our confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You also mentioned imposter syndrome a couple times. Tell us, what precisely is imposter syndrome? Is that any different than regular old doubt? Is there a different approach we should take when we’ve got it? Can you unpack that?

Kelli Thompson
Yeah. So, I was speaking at a women’s leadership conference, and I actually asked that question of the audience, and one of the women just blew everyone away. She said, and I think she defines it best, she said, “You know what, doubt is just kind of an emotion that we feel. An imposter syndrome is self-sabotage.”

And how it’s actually defined, it was coined in 1978 by two researchers, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, and this study was done on women. It is a belief that despite a woman’s accomplishments, her credentials, her success, her accolades, she still feels like she’s going to be found out at any moment, or that she doesn’t belong in the room, or that she wasn’t worthy of what she’s accomplished, and all of this has been a source of luck.

And so, that causes women, and now the most recent studies, I think, have really broadened that to say, actually, 70% of people feel imposter syndrome, especially if you’ve experienced racial discrimination, if you work in a very gender-dominated industry where there are certain gender norms, or you work in a field like academia where brilliance is prized, that levels of imposter syndrome are really high.

And just because of this belief of being found out, or that “I’m not qualified,” or, “All my success has been luck,” it this consistent kind of self-sabotage to say, “Well, I’m not going to apply for the promotion. I’m not going to ask for what I deserve. I’m going to hold back,” and sometimes it can cause individuals to play small.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if we find ourselves doing some of that sabotage, entertaining some of those beliefs, what should we do?

Kelli Thompson
A lot of the techniques that I use are very similar to what I just already described in terms of let’s just notice it with a ton of compassion, “You know what, this is imposter syndrome. This is just what this is. It’s just I’m not going to shame myself out of this,” and giving it a name. But what I really encourage my clients to do is I like to think of imposter syndrome as like kind of an umbrella emotion.

Underneath imposter syndrome you might feel doubt, worry, insecurity, overwhelm, excitement, and really getting granular about that. But I want to normalize it but one of the things that I also talk about is I believe that I don’t even like to use the word fix imposter syndrome because I don’t think people need to be fixed.

But one of the things that I want folks to be aware of is that let’s also make sure that we are not working for an organization who does not have diversity in the room because imposter syndrome is more prevalent when people have not seen themselves in the highest levels of leadership. So, if you’re working for an organization that continues to have all white men in the senior leadership team, notice that maybe that imposter syndrome is not your fault, and it could be because, gosh, I literally cannot see myself in those rooms where the decisions are made.

So, I really encourage a both-and approach for imposter syndrome. One, if you are a leader of an organization, how are you creating a diverse workforce and psychologically safe environments where people feel seen? They watch people like themselves get promoted, speak up, make decisions while also knowing that imposter syndrome is a very real feeling. And I can also use some of the same techniques I provided earlier in the podcast to help me move through those feelings – because that’s what it is, it’s a feeling – and take action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s shift gears a little bit and say that we’ve done a lot of the internal work in terms of the breathing, the ice water, thinking this is normal, this is normal, getting clear on what you want and what you don’t want, and these sorts of things. And then the time comes, we are about to advocate for ourselves. What are the best practices in executing that well?

Kelli Thompson
So, in advocating for yourself, I think it really depends on what you are advocating for. So, let’s just use the example of a salary ask. And so, if we are advocating for ourselves in terms of a salary ask, I really like for folks to, and this is coming from my HR perspective, come with the data. There is so much available data out there right now so that you can look at your job, and say, “Hey, what are the ranges that this should pay?”

So many states are requiring now jobs to put the salary ranges on the job posting so that we can kind of get a sense of what it’s paid. So, Glassdoor.com, PayScale.com, you can Google your state, BLS Wage System, and that will actually give you…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I’ve spent a lot of fun time there, actually, the website.

Kelli Thompson
That’ll give you hard data. So, find your data. And so, I think if you’re going to advocate for yourself, finding the data is always a great place to start. And then I think when we’re going to advocate for ourselves, I think step two, it’s really important to own what’s unique about you. Like, own your unique talents.

So, if you’re advocating for a raise, you’re advocating for a salary, maybe you’re advocating for a promotion, or you should be the person they pick for that project, own what is unique about you. Like, what is the thing that only you can bring to the table? Because I think that really helps reduce some compare and despair.

And then list that out to say, “Because I am able to do these things, here are the results I’ve been able to accomplish for the organization.” I can’t stress enough, as someone who’s been an HR leader in excellent times and has been an HR leader in the 2008 recession in banking, nothing is more important than to be able to communicate your talents and how that has correlated into results for the organization. Organizations and leaders love results.

And I think the third step really is working through that doubt, the imposter syndrome, just noticing that those feelings are normal, “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal,” and just reframing your mindset, like, “I am worthy of making this ask. This feels uncomfortable because I’m stretching my comfort zone.”

And then I just really encourage folks, when they’re advocating, I love to write things down first. In fact, there’s some neuroscience that shows that when we kind of go to the act of writing, it’s like pre-gaming. It’s like imagining in our heads so that way we can actually get to the thing, our brain is like, “Oh, we’ve done this before. I know my script. I have it written down. I’ve practiced it,” and then make your ask with confidence.

So, I think just to sum that all up, it’s really knowing your data, knowing the facts, owning who you are and how your unique talents have contributed towards results, and then taking action, knowing that the actions of confidence will probably come first and the feelings will come second, but being clear about your ask, practicing it, so you can make that clear ask, and ask for what you want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when making the actual ask, are there any key words, phrases, choice gems of verbiage you’d recommend we do or don’t say?

Kelli Thompson
Oh, I love how you said don’t say because lots of times, and, again, I’m talking with women who may have been conditioned, through no fault of their own, that they shouldn’t ask, it looks greedy, “You shouldn’t talk about money,” there can be messages. So, what I hear sometimes is tentative thinking, like, “I was kind of thinking that…” or, “Would you be able to blank? But if you can’t, that’s okay.” So, I would avoid that, “So, if you can’t, that’s okay.”

I even really encourage them to notice, like when you go in and say, “Hey, I’ve been taking a look at the salary data. And based on my unique skills of X and Y, I’ve been able to deliver A, B, and C this year, so I’d like us to take a look at my salary, and I think a salary of $100,000 is fair.” And what they do is there’s that silence that happens, and a lot of us aren’t okay with the silence.

So, what they shouldn’t do is jump to fill that silence because I think sometimes what happens is they fill the silence, and like, “But if you can’t, that’s okay.” So, I really encourage them to avoid doing that and just allow the silence to be, because lots of times the other person just needs time to process that. So, make the clear ask and allow for the silence.

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

Kelli Thompson
I think the biggest thing when it comes to advocating, boosting your confidence, all the salary-ask conversation, it’s just to be clear. People are horrible guessers and so I think it’s really important to be clear about what you don’t want when it comes to building your confidence, and then ultimately clear on what you do want. I think it’s important to be clear on what you’re advocating for and making clear asks. So, I often say that success loves clarity because our world is noisy. So, the more clear you can be, I think the more successful you can be.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, Kelli, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Kelli Thompson
So, there are so many but the one I think I absolutely have to go with is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote. It informs really my entire business mission, and that is, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Kelli Thompson
Well, right now, it should definitely be the confidence gap. That is a real study that was done by Wharton who studied the gender-based differences in confidence and how well people performed versus how well they advocated. And, as it showed, men tended to advocate a little better even though women tended to perform a little better. So, that’s the research right now that I’m obsessed with and it’s featured in my book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Kelli Thompson
My favorite book, the one that I have read three times, I’ve taken the online course, and I give it away to everybody I can, is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.

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

Kelli Thompson
Calendly. I literally cannot live without Calendly. I don’t know where it was for the early majority of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Kelli Thompson
I love getting up and working out in the morning. If I don’t get up and work out, especially lift weights in the morning, like, I am just unfit for human consumption.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve all consumed you.

Kelli Thompson
It just makes me a nicer person, right? It goes back to the whole body thing you talked about, the somatic awareness. When I get into my body, I just feel better, I have more confidence.

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

Kelli Thompson
One of the things that has been highlighted in my book, because there’s been a group of readers who’ve had early access to it, and it’s a quote that I didn’t even think of when I wrote it, but it’s the number one highlight in my book. And it says, “A woman does not need to have a title to be a leader. She is any woman who wields influence.”

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

Kelli Thompson
Come visit me at KelliRaeThompson.com. You can learn more about my book and there’s lots of free downloads on my site, including a salary negotiation tool.

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

Kelli Thompson
Yeah, let’s just practice some compassion. I love the tip that you said, in your next moment where you’re feeling doubt, let’s just all, together, say, “This is normal, this is normal, this is normal, this is normal.” And then, remember, take your bravest next step, the actions of confidence come first, the feelings will come second.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kelli, this has been a treat. I wish you much confidence and success in the weeks ahead.

Kelli Thompson
Thank you so much for having me.

794: How to Get Comfortable with Discomfort with Sterling Hawkins

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

Sterling Hawkins shows you how to turn discomfort into fuel for transformative change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we need to hunt discomfort   
  2. Why you need your own “street gang”
  3. What to do when you feel like quitting

About Sterling

Sterling Hawkins is an internationally recognized entrepreneur, motivational leader, and public speaker. His 2019 TED Talk, “Discomfort is Necessary for Innovation,” has been viewed more than 100,000 times. 

Sterling serves as CEO and founder of the Sterling Hawkins Group, a research, training and development company focused on human and organizational growth. He has been seen in publications like Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, The New York Times and Forbes. Based in Colorado, Sterling is a proud uncle of three and a passionate adventurer that can often be found skydiving, climbing mountains, shark diving or even trekking the Sahara. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Apple Card. Get up to 3% cash back with Apple Card

Sterling Hawkins Interview Transcript

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

Sterling Hawkins
Thanks for having me on, Pete. Good to see you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you, too. Well, I’m fired up to talk about your book Hunting Discomfort: How to Get Breakthrough Results in Life and Business No Matter What.  But it looks like you’ve been doing some discomfort hunting yourself with skydiving, shark diving, mountain climbing. Can you open us up with a thrilling tale? I’m wondering how close you come to dying, basically.

Sterling Hawkins
Probably too close. I think one of my favorite stories is, a couple of years ago, my sister wanted to go skydiving for her birthday. And, of course, everybody guilt-trips me, and they’re like, “Sterling, you’re the No Matter What guy, you have to do it,” which I’ve got a lot to say about. It’s a separate subject. But, anyways, we go skydiving. And have you ever been skydiving before, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
I have. I loved it.

Sterling Hawkins
It was terrifying. Not so much the skydiving part but like the 15 things you have to sign, saying if you hit the ground wrong, it’s not their fault. Did you do this?

Pete Mockaitis
I signed some sort of release. I don’t remember the details.

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah, there were so many of them, like it just got me more and more hyped up, and we’re getting on a plane, and it’s a rickety old plane that I’m sure is not really built for much flying, at least not these days. And we get up there and once we jumped out of the plane, it was just bliss, one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The discomfort leading up to it, though, was a challenge. It was a hard part. And some research I’ve found, after the fact, I realized I was in more danger driving there, a bee sting, a lightning strike, than actually jumping out of a plane. And I realized in that jump that we’re not always properly oriented to discomfort. And when we can line ourselves up in a way to use it, great results come, incredible skydiving jumps and also in our life and business.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s talk about hunting discomfort. And, first things first, the goal of hunting discomfort is not so much to kill it but rather to seek it out. Is that fair to say?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, it’s funny, the thing that I get from most people is, “Sterling, you got to look at my bank account, my business, my relationships, like all these things. I don’t need to hunt discomfort. I’m surrounded by it.” And my answer, Pete, is always the same, it’s, “Oh, you mean you’re living with discomfort. You’re not hunting it.” Because when we hunt it, we maybe aren’t killing it, per se, but we’re free from it forever.

Not circumstantially free, not based on the amount of money in your bank account, or a special job, or certain relationships, but based only within yourself. And it’s the only kind of true freedom there is. We just have to hunt the discomfort that’s in the way of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Intriguing. Well, so, tell us, in the course of putting together these thoughts, any particularly shocking discoveries you’ve made along the way?

Sterling Hawkins
Yes. So, I’ve been doing this in some shape or form for about a decade, and I came across this research just a couple of years ago, in writing my book actually. I was looking at all kinds of research, and I found something out of the University of Michigan that blew me away. Now, they were studying discomfort of varying sorts: physical discomfort, like somebody broke a limb; emotional discomfort, somebody lost a job, or perhaps broke up with a loved one; mental discomfort. Like, they were looking at all these kinds of discomfort as they were analyzing somebody’s brain and body.

And what they found is that it didn’t matter what kind of discomfort somebody was going through. Our brain and body process them almost identically, so much so you can take acetaminophen for emotional pain, believe it or not. Crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
And it helps?

Sterling Hawkins
Supposedly. Now, that’s not like a bio-hack from Sterling, by the way. I’m not a doctor. Like, all the disclaimers, I’m not suggesting you do that. But the powerful piece is if you take the next step, you say, “You know what, if how we meet discomfort is the same anywhere, how we can deal with it, we can grow our capacity to deal with it everywhere.” It turns out it’s a muscle we can build. You go to the gym to build your biceps, and you want to grow your resiliency, your ability to create breakout growth, well, you hunt discomfort. There’s just no other way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I think about the gym metaphor, you have some sort of a program. You have a stress, and then you have rest, and then you have adaptation. Tell us, how do we think about programmatizing our discomfort hunt versus the folks who say, “Hey, I’ve got all kinds of discomfort foisted upon me. Like, here’s your barbell. Ahh”?

Sterling Hawkins
Right. Yeah. Well, mostly what people are doing with discomfort is they’re avoiding it or they’re surviving it. They’re not using it as a feedback mechanism to change, to adjust, and to grow. And I think that’s one of the major missteps that many of us make, is when we externalize the problem, and say, “Well, we didn’t achieve our goal. We didn’t achieve X because we didn’t have enough money, we didn’t have enough time,” “I’m not old enough,” “I’m too old,” “I don’t have the right partner,” “I don’t have the right leadership.”

We rob ourselves of the ability to take that discomfort, that feedback, even that potentially failure, and use it to change and grow ourselves. And so, exactly as you pointed out, when you look at discomfort through the lens of, “Hey, this is here to help me. This is a feedback mechanism. I can use this to not just change how I act but change who I am and adjust who I am based on the results that I want to achieve.” Then it becomes hugely powerful.

Now, there is such a thing as too much discomfort, and there’s a framework that is best to work through because, I don’t know, one of the things that used to scare me most is public speaking. And if you were to throw me onto a stage back in the day without any framework or structure or support system, I’d probably would’ve collapsed.

But when you want to have a commitment of, “I want to achieve this. I want to be successful in my public speaking,” for example, and you’ve got people around you that are going to support you on that journey, and especially pick you up when you fall down, then it becomes much more feasible to move through and improve. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, sure. Okay. Could you bring it to light with a few examples in terms of instead of avoiding or just enduring hunting and how that’s been helpful for real-life folks who went out and made that mindset shift and saw cool results?

Sterling Hawkins
Absolutely. One of my favorite stories is from our No Matter What community. The No Matter What community is a group of people that we put together that have joined us on declaring big goals, big visions for themselves, for their communities, their family, their business, and they’re willing to move through the discomfort to achieve it.

And this one gentleman joined us a couple of years ago upon losing his really nice somewhat cushy corporate job during the beginning of the pandemic. It was a tough time for many, myself included, and especially him. He’s got his family to support. Now, what he could’ve done is just applied for another job and try to make ends meet but he didn’t just do that.

He was walking through some side neighborhood in the suburbs of New York, and he stumbled into a tattoo parlor. And one of the important things in the No Matter What system, the framework that we teach people to grow through is get a tattoo, commit so deeply, there’s no going back. Now, I don’t mean that literally, but Emmanuel took it as such, walked into a tattoo parlor, got the name of the business he wanted to start tattooed on his left bicep.

I don’t know how he explained that to his wife when he got home, but it left him working towards building his own business in a way that he probably, otherwise, would’ve shied away from. Been worried about, waiting for the right time to make sure his bank account was properly padded before he started it.

And today, he just texted me a couple of weeks ago, and he says, “Sterling, I can’t thank you enough. I’m a testimonial for life, but, really, what I have here is an eight-figure business in a matter of 18 months.” So, when you go into that discomfort and you commit to things on the other side, it produces remarkable results, things that we can’t even see from where we sit today.

Pete Mockaitis
Impressive. All right. So, then what are the steps here in terms of making that happen?

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. So, the first, I think, is one of the more challenging, which is you’ve got to be willing to see reality clearly. Not the reality that we necessarily see with our two eyes, although that’s important, but we’ve got to be willing to question our values, ethics, beliefs, ways of thinking, being, and acting that might not be perfectly correlated with reality. It’s just like my experience with skydiving.

The chances of me dying were very, very slim but my experience of fear and failure were massive. And as we can come to terms or reconcile what’s actually dangerous from what is merely discomfort, we can change one of three things: either ourselves, how we see others, and how we see the world. And when we change that view, the perspective, those beliefs, it will naturally change our actions and then give rise to new results. So, that’s the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share an example of that in practice in terms of someone who made the shift and it was cool?

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. Well, I think a personal story might fit in well here because it’s been dramatic for me, Emmanuel and for many, but I was serious. Like, one of the things that scared me most was speaking in public. And it wasn’t just speaking in public, it was a lot of self-doubt and fear of exposure, two of the major discomforts that stop many of us as humans, me especially.

And I had this discomfort, in a large part, to do with the fact that I’ve been hugely successful early in my career. My father and I started this company, sold it to a group in Silicon Valley where we raised over $550 million in part of this collective in what was kind of the Apple Pay, before Apple Pay, multibillion-dollar valuation, like, “I think I’ve got it made.” It wasn’t discomfort at all. There’s all comfort in certainty.

And I really thought I had it all figured out until the housing market collapsed and the investment dried up. And it was like playing out a sad country song of a story where, no longer do I have a job. Eventually, I ran out of cash. I go from this big, beautiful penthouse in downtown San Francisco to my parents’ house. And it even got so bad, my girlfriend broke up with me. It was like one thing after another. And I was suffering from a lot of self-doubt, a lot of fear of exposure, people seeing me for what I really was, which I thought was not nearly enough, especially having all that success early on.

And what I did is applied to speak at this conference in Singapore because I remembered this thing my mom said to me when I was a kid, she said, “The way out is through.” And I thought, “Okay. Well, if I want to change the situation, I want to transform my business and my life, I need to go through the things that scare me most.”

So, I applied to speak at this conference in Singapore, and practiced incessantly. My poor sister, I dragged her into it and practiced in front of her probably hundreds if not thousands of times, and as part of that process, had to give up some of the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs I had about myself and what I was capable of.

And, eventually, I did go on to the stage, I gave the speech. Good thing I practiced because I think I blacked out, and I get off the stage, and the conference director. I think I bombed, Pete, so I’m, like, covering my eyes, tried to just sneak out of the room, and he catches up with me, and he goes, “Sterling, that’s the best talk I’ve seen in my 17 years of doing this.”

To this day, I don’t think he was in the same talk I was in. I think it was just like a nice thing he wanted to say to me. And he did go on to put me in touch with all of his conference director friends, and I was like, “Ah, my mom was right. The way out is through,” and the way through is giving up some of the things that you hold true about yourself. Whether they’re true or not, if you can let go of them, there’s new things that can arise on the other side.

Pete Mockaitis
And how do you articulate, when you talk about engaging what’s true and real, how would you articulate your belief prior versus post in that moment?

Sterling Hawkins
So, prior, it was, “I am incapable of speaking in public.” And I had that all too common feeling that anybody that’s afraid of speaking in public probably knows, where you get really hot, the world starts to spin, and I thought that’s just the way that it was. I thought I was that way and there was no other option for me. I was just one of the many that would rather be giving the eulogy than in the coffin. Thank you, Seinfeld, for that reference.

And in going through that thing, and standing on the stage, like, yes, I experienced some of the feelings of self-doubt and worry and fear and all the things that I was expecting. But I proved to myself, importantly proved to myself that they didn’t have to stop me from giving a successful speech. So, afterwards, sure, I might continue to be scared.

In fact, I continued to be scared for some time afterwards, but I started to let go of that belief that I was a certain way, I was afraid to speak in public, and started to embrace the idea that I can, not only can I speak in public, but I do and I do it successfully.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Thank you. Okay, that’s our first step.

Sterling Hawkins
Of course. That’s the first step.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s our second step?

Sterling Hawkins
The second, we pointed to a little bit with that story of Emmanuel but self-doubt does get in the way of many of us. And when we commit with that second step of getting a tattoo, commit so deeply there’s on going back, it calls us forward through any discomfort, through any fear that might be in the way. Now, I’m not suggesting you have to get a real tattoo, like Emmanuel, although that’s an option. A surprising number of people from the No Matter What community have done that. But you do need something that’s going to call you forward when everything inside you is telling you to stop.

And you can do that in a couple of different ways. Like, sure, you could get a physical tattoo, but you might just tell a friend or a significant other. You might commit to them, and say, “Hey, I’m going to do X by certain amount of time that goes by,” and then have them call you on it. You could sign a legal agreement, you could put an amount of money on the line that’s meaningful to you, that’s going to bring you forward. You’re looking for ways to put yourself on the line that are going to, again, kind of call you into action when it doesn’t feel so good, where the commitment is stronger than the feelings.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me more about signing a legal agreement. When it comes to the money game, I’ve heard of what’s like Stake8.com that facilitates that. And so, with a legal agreement, I guess in the course of doing business, like, sure, I’ve actually committed to a client or a partner, or to whomever, a particular result by a particular time. So, there’s that. I guess I’m wondering if it’s a goal that doesn’t so much…when I signed a legal agreement to complete a marathon, for example. Have you seen that go down and how did it work?

Sterling Hawkins
It wouldn’t necessarily be a legal agreement, but you could formalize a commitment to somebody that was important to you. And you could take it up a notch by, I don’t know, posting it on Facebook and sharing with everybody you know on social media that, “Hey, I’m committed to running this marathon.” And then those mornings when you just don’t feel like getting up and training, that idea that everybody is expecting you to run this race is going to be a tattoo of sorts that’s going to help you move forward. It’s not going to feel good but it is going to help support you into moving into action.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful.

Sterling Hawkins
So, legal agreements are great for business purposes but I think it’s really the commitment that we make inside of ourselves that’s more important, and it’s the action of sharing it with others where it becomes much more powerful, whether it’s on a legal document or written down somewhere. I do suggest that, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. I’m thinking about the research on commitment devices and the legendary Ulysses or Odysseus, like, “I want to hear the siren song but I hear that’s dangerous, so strap me up so there’s no way out.”

Sterling Hawkins
Right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, “Burn the boat, like we can’t retreat. There’s nothing else.” Any other creative ways to lock that commitment in hard?

Sterling Hawkins
You can do it with consequence. If you do do something, you get a certain reward, or if you don’t do something, you lose something. One of my friends, he had some trouble making it to the gym every morning, so he committed with consequence, and said, “Every morning, of the five days a week that I’m committed to going to the gym, if I don’t, I’m going to donate $100 to my favorite charity.”

Now, sure, a couple mornings he didn’t make it, but that $100 going out of his bank account starts to weigh on you the more often you miss on that commitment, and it did really work. He lost something like 25 pounds from that alone.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny. And I am such a master of rationalizing, I’m like, “You know what, maybe I did need to do some more support of that charity,” like after the fact.

Sterling Hawkins
Well, I had another friend, a mentor of mine actually, his name is Kirkland Tibbels, phenomenal guy, runs a group called Influential U. But he, when looking at commitments, suffered from some of the same things, so he said, “I’m going to donate to the political party that I hate every time I don’t fulfill on my commitments,” so you can work it that way too.

Pete Mockaitis
I was also thinking about just straight up torching the money, although I guess that’s technically illegal in the United States. Fun fact, that’s against the law. But I think it may be effective.

Sterling Hawkins
It could be. You could give it to a friend or you could give it to somebody that you don’t really want to give it to, but you are looking for ways that are going to call you into action, to your point. Like, you don’t want it to be something that you really want to give money to all the time, at least in the amounts that you’re going to be giving it. You want it to weigh heavily enough on you that you’re going to do the action. The point is not to make the payoff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. I’m also thinking about how we had Maneesh Sethi on the show, and he created a device called the Pavlok. Have you heard of this?

Sterling Hawkins
I have. It shocks you when you don’t do whatever the thing is, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Of course, you still have to push the button to do the shock. So, I guess you give permission to a friend or a family member to engage.

Sterling Hawkins
That reminds of the original Ghostbusters, the very beginning, where he’s shocking the woman when they’re reading cards. Do you remember that?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I’m afraid I don’t. Refresh all of our memories, Sterling.

Sterling Hawkins
Old Ghostbusters reference, yeah. Well, in the beginning of Ghostbusters, they’re, I think, working on mindreading or something crazy like that. And he’s showing the backside of a card and asking this woman to guess what it is. And every time she gets it wrong, he shocks her. Supposedly, that’s supposed to be some negative reinforcement to make her better at mindreading but it doesn’t work that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, duly noted for the aspiring mind-readers.

Sterling Hawkins
Right. Right. Exactly. It is tough to make a commitment like that. And I think that self-accountability is fantastic to maintain the status quo. If you’re reliable to write one blog a week, or to make five cold calls, or to run two miles every single day, you probably don’t need to commit to somebody or something that you’re going to continue to do that.

But if you’re looking to grow in any kind of meaningful way, you need outside accountability, you need an outside commitment to call you forward because everything inside of you is going to tell you, “Stop. This doesn’t make sense,” you’re going to rationalize your way out of it. You really need people on your side to help. And that’s the third step of the No Matter What system, which is I call it build a street gang, not because I look anything like somebody that belongs in a gang, by the way. I think the best I did was Boy Scouts when I was 15.

But I call it building street gang for a reason. I’m not talking about a personal board of directors, I’m not talking about friends or spouse, although your street gang can be comprised of those people. But you’re looking for people that can go toe-to-toe with you and are really going to hold you accountable for what you said you were going to do.

Now, that’s the most important function of your street gang, being that accountability partner. Research shows that when you’re personally accountable to somebody on a specific day and time for a specific thing, you’re not 70%, 80%, 90% more likely to achieve your goal. You’re 95% more likely to achieve it. It’s almost like if we actually want to achieve anything, we better be personally accountable because it’s going to help us there.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to building the street gang, how do you recommend doing the recruiting?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, you’re looking for people that have four main functions. One is the accountability. You need somebody that’s going to be strong enough, again, to go toe-to-toe with you, especially when it doesn’t feel good. You want this person to be more committed to your growth and your success and your vision than they are to your feelings.

That’s not to say that you’re going to achieve everything every time but they are going to take a really hard look with you as to why you didn’t achieve what it was that you said. Was it an action? Did you take no actions? Was there a mistake? Did you account for something wrong? Did you maybe see reality incorrectly? And they’re going to work with you to figure out how to achieve that thing at a very, very heavy accountability level. So, that’s one.

The second piece is you need some kind of inspiration, somebody or something that’s going to light the fire in you about why you’re here, what your purpose is. To quote Simon Sinek, like, “What is your why? And how are they going to bring you through that or light that fire in you?” You then need some level of mentorship, somebody that’s got some expertise in the area that you’re looking to grow in, and they can teach you the specifics or specialized knowledge of how to achieve whatever that might be. They might also put you in touch with people. Like, there’s somebody that’s in the role, going the direction of what you want to be yourself.

And the fourth, which I find highly underrated in a lot of business cultures, but I do see it in the most high-performing, is love, not in a romantic sense. Like, I’m not talking about find yourself a romantic partner, especially if you have one, fantastic. But at a human level, somebody that’s really going to love and support you through any downfalls that you might have.

Now, many people have those four roles kind of revolving in and around their life but it’s a matter of sitting down with them, maybe having coffee, a Zoom meeting, whatever it is, and formalizing that role, and asking them, “Hey, here’s what you meant to me, here’s the role in my street gang that I’d like you to play, and here’s what that might look like over time.” And when you sit down and formalize it like that, people can kind of rise to the occasion of the role that they’re supporting you in.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you share with someone their role as your lover, what are some of the sort of actions? Like, what is that person doing in terms of like regular conversations and as the process unfolds?

Sterling Hawkins
So, it could be as simple and straightforward as some encouragement to point out the successes that you’ve had even if you haven’t arrived where you want to arrive yet. They could be looking at what you’ve already achieved in your life, what you’ve already achieved on this particular trajectory. They’re going to remind you of all the great things about you that you have, that they accept, including the failures, and help you kind of come to terms with, “Oh, yeah, this failure, this misstep, or maybe just not having achieved the level of growth that I want to, it is okay.”

Now, that could be over coffee, it could be a lunch, or it could just be kind of sitting down with a friend on the couch. It’s more like the feeling of acceptance that you’re looking to throw out in the situation. And that could look a little bit differently depending on the people having those conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. So, after we’ve got the street gang, what’s next?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, of course, we all run into problems, obstacles, limits, challenges, like they are real. Sometimes there’s just not enough money or there’s not enough time. We do have to deal with the hard limits of the situations and circumstances that we’re in, and we need that four step, which I call flip it. and it’s looking for, “How can we use those obstacles, those roadblocks, those barriers? How can we use those things as the pathway to even greater results?”

It’s a very stock philosophy, the obstacle is the way. And as we can think differently about some of the things that maybe we’re sweeping under the rug, we’re embarrassed about, we try to get rid of those proverbial warts, the more we can embrace them and look to them as the source of our strength, it actually becomes the reason for your success, not the reason inhibiting you from achieving it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s go to some examples, like, “Hey, I don’t have enough time but, actually, that’s an enabler of success. So, I don’t have enough money but, actually, that’s handy. My boss is a jerk but, actually, that’s useful.” Can you give us some examples of how this plays out in practice?

Sterling Hawkins
Yes. So, I was lucky enough to give a TEDx Talk a couple of years ago with a gentleman whose name was William Hung from American Idol fame, if you remember him at all.

Pete Mockaitis
Was he also in “Arrested Development: Hung Jury”?

Sterling Hawkins
He’s not. No, this is the guy that sang Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” so badly that he became world famous.

Pete Mockaitis
Ah, yes. Uh-huh.

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. So, with the rest of the world, I had seen him on TV, in the news networks, and everybody making fun of him as like not a great singer, which I guess, subjectively, he’s not. But in getting to know him a little bit, I started to see the human side of it and how challenging and hard that must’ve been when he had what felt like the entire world kind of breathing down on him, of, “You’re not a good singer. You messed up. You’re embarrassed. Like, what are you going to do with your life?”

And for a while, he said it was debilitating. He wasn’t sure where to go or what to do because he felt that he was really expressing his heart and what mattered to him. And maybe he wasn’t the greatest singer in the world but singing was important to him. And what he did is he embraced that “failure” that he had, and he said, “Okay. Well, this is how I sing. This is how I sing. Everybody in the world knows me. Why don’t I make the most of this?”

And so, he started singing and capitalizing on the fact that nobody thought he was a good singer. And not only did he create his own record deal, but he ended up on a stage in Vegas singing Ricky Martin. He has made countless dollars from all the records that he’s sold and all the places around the world that he’s traveled to and singing from the very thing that everybody told him he would fail at. So, I always find that a great example of the obstacle being the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And I couldn’t resist Googling while we’re talking about this. He was, indeed, in “Arrested Development” as a leader of the band.

Sterling Hawkins
Was he, really?

Pete Mockaitis
Hung Jury, which appears in mock trial.

Sterling Hawkins
I did not know. See, he’s ridden this thing in all the different ways he possibly could. I didn’t even know that, but that’s just another example of using this thing in all these different places.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I dig that. And, certainly, I guess, what is that they say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? He managed to take that, “Okay, I’ve got some notoriety.” Well, that is, in some ways, can be transformed into a positive asset. Any other examples that maybe the everyday professional can get behind?

Sterling Hawkins
Yeah. So, I’ll give you a business example, and this is going to be like a big case study, but I think everybody will be able to personalize it for themselves. And it’s from the famous Richard Branson, Virgin fame. And in the ‘90s, he was CEO of Virgin Atlantic, the transatlantic airliner. And one of the things he was committed to doing in the early ‘90s was retrofitting all of his jets with the latest and greatest entertainment system. It was something like a £10-million proposition.

And anybody that recalls the early ‘90s, it was a tough economic time. And so, Richard, he wasn’t quite as famous as he is now, but a lot of people knew him for the showmanship, the success he’d had, everything else, and he was calling banks, he was calling lenders, he was even calling in favors, and he just couldn’t find the £10 million that were required to retrofit his planes, so he’s got a hard problem. Like, something that he literally cannot solve, at least in its current form.

But what he did is one of my favorite ways to flip it, which is he created himself a bigger problem. You’re thinking like, “I thought you’re crazy, Sterling. Now, I’m sure of it.” But hear me out. He said, “If I can’t find £10 million to retrofit my planes, what if I buy all new planes, a £4-billion proposition?”

So, he called Airbus up, and he said, “Listen, if I buy an entirely new fleet of planes from you, will you throw in the entertainment system and give me the financing necessary to buy them?” They said yes. Airbus, same thing. Virgin ended up with an entirely new fleet of planes, the cheapest planes that they’ve ever bought in the history of the company with the latest and greatest entertainment systems on board.

It was only because he couldn’t achieve his goal in the original way that he thought, that he started creating a bigger problem, and that solved not only getting all the latest and greatest entertainment, but gave him the newest jets they’ve ever bought at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. That’s good. All right.

Sterling Hawkins
It blows me away, I’m like, “That is so smart.” Most of us aren’t buying new fleets of planes, but we’re confronted with budget issues all the time. I know I am, personally and professionally. And it helps sometimes to say, “Okay, if this were an order of magnitude bigger, how would I solve it then?” It opens up some new ways to achieve that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then what’s the next step?

Sterling Hawkins
So, the next and final step is to deal with the fact that no matter how much we plan, prepare, or predict, tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us at any level. And I think we lose sight of that with all the stock predictions, and weather predictions, and road conditions, and news, and everything else telling us what tomorrow is going to bring. Tomorrow is not promised, and we have to deal with that uncertainty in a very specific way.

The fifth step I call it surrender, not in terms of giving up. I’m not saying sit on the couch and watch Netflix and order a pizza, though there might be a time and place for that. I’m talking about actively and intentionally accepting what is exactly how it is. Carl Jung, arguably, like the father of modern psychology, he had this great quote that really stuck with me, he said, “We cannot change anything until we accept it.”

Condemnation about not having enough time, or enough money, or enough resources, condemnation about any of those things doesn’t liberate. It oppresses. And when we can surrender our view, the things that we’re upset about, resentful of, holding against other people, when we surrender those things, it frees us to achieve something brand new. And if we don’t surrender, it works the other way. It becomes an anchor holding us back.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, I’m curious, in the middle of all this, when the rubber meets the road and we just sure feel like quitting, how do you power through?

Sterling Hawkins
Well, so you’ve got a couple of components. You’ve got your commitments that are calling you forward when you want to give up. You’ve got your street gang that’s building your courage, your confidence, and your accountability. You’ve got some of these different ways to flip it and think about it. But that acceptance piece, for me, is the most challenging.

And I find one of the greatest ways to accept is what’s called the sacred pause, by really slowing down, by maybe turning off your phone or your computer for a couple of minutes, even better for a couple of hours, by not bringing that phone in bed with you, by really slowing down and intentionally start to accept what is.

And it’s not necessarily a fast process, but when you have some kind of practice where you’re intentionally doing that over time, it’s going to allow you to let go of that discomfort, the things that maybe you’ve been holding onto, or better said, holding you back, and let you rise in a new way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, Sterling, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Sterling Hawkins
I think that’s it. This system is designed to move you through growth. I’ve always been inspired by movies like Star Wars and so on, where you’ve got these heroes moving through these incredible journeys. And I think this is almost a system to move ourselves through that journey. It helps us step into the unknown, unknown of ourselves, unknown of our world, and realize something new for ourselves, realize something new about ourselves or about others or about the world that we can bring back. And that’s a true gift to the world, and that’s what I think real growth is.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Sterling Hawkins
It’s that quote I heard from my mom. It’s actually Robert Frost, “The way out is through.” The way out is through, to me, means you go through the things that you’re fearful of, scared of, and what you’re looking for is on the other side.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Sterling Hawkins
I found a study from Yale University, and it turns out, when you’re uncomfortable, you’re four times better at learning. You learn four times faster. It’s like a bio-hack to being better.

Pete Mockaitis
That is intriguing. So, when you say uncomfortable, there’s a variety of ways. So, if I’m just like cold, if I’m wearing a hair shirt, is there a precise form of discomfort we’re talking about?

Sterling Hawkins
No, we’re talking about what that University of Michigan study, like discomfort is discomfort – physical, mental, emotional, arguably, spiritual. So, as long as you’re in some level of discomfort that’s not debilitating, but has you kind of sit up and take notice, it could be a cold room, it could be sitting on a bed of nails, if you’re into that kind of thing, any kind of discomfort will trigger that kind of superpower of being four times better, faster, and smarter.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. All right. And how about a favorite book?

Sterling Hawkins
I have many of them. But as I was thinking about this, I think it’s got to be The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger.

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

Sterling Hawkins
This is probably an overused answer but I’m in love with Keynote, not only for giving presentations but I use it to map out some of my ideas, and kind of draw different maps of how some of these things are working inside of myself and inside of companies. And I find it something that I’m on, like, half my day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Sterling Hawkins
So, one of my, like, only habits is that every day I get up and I commit to doing at least one thing no matter what. My days look very different. I’m on the road a lot, giving keynotes, workshops, different places around the world, and every day I get up and it could be something different, it could be I’m going to call my mom today no matter what, or I’m going to meditate today no matter what.

It doesn’t really matter what it is but I find that when I’ve got one thing that I’ll do every day, regardless of the circumstances, it builds my capacity to get things done even when the world is thrown into chaos; COVID, you know. So, it’s something I use and I recommend it to a lot of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect, resonate, gets highlighted a lot?

Sterling Hawkins
I think it’s that research from Carl Jung, “We cannot change anything until we accept it.” And like I said in the beginning, discomfort is not the point. I’m not suggesting everybody live a super uncomfortable life. But when you move into that discomfort, and as Carl Jung suggests, you accept it exactly how it is, that’s where growth comes from, and you grow your ability to deal with different kinds of discomforts, it’s not set, and it grows over time along with you.

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

Sterling Hawkins
Best thing to learn everything about me, the No Matter What community, my book, all that stuff at SterlingHawkins.com. All my social media is there. And one of the really cool things we started doing is sharing commitments of folks from the community up online, so you can check out what everybody else is up to, get inspired, and maybe even submit something yourself.

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

Sterling Hawkins
Final challenge, is find something that you’re uncomfortable with every single day and at least take a micro dose of it. Every time you do, it’s going to make you a little bit stronger and it’s going to grow that discomfort muscle for you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sterling, thanks. It’s been a treat. I wish you much fun on the hunt.

Sterling Hawkins
Thank you, Pete. it’s been a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.

789: How to Beat Stress, Stagnation, and Burnout with Alan Stein Jr.

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Alan Stein Jr. lays out the fundamental shifts that help sustain your game and build resilience in the face of stress, stagnation, and burnout

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to stop stress from overwhelming and controlling you 
  2. How to stay calm and in control in the face of stress
  3. How to identify and remedy stagnation 

About Alan

Alan Stein, Jr. is an experienced keynote speaker and author. At his core, he’s a performance coach with a passion for helping others change behaviors. He spent 15+ years working with the highest performing basketball players on the planet (including NBA superstars Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Kobe Bryant). Through his customized programs, he transfers his unique expertise to maximize both individual and organizational performance. 

Alan is a dynamic storyteller who delivers practical, actionable lessons that can be implemented immediately. He teaches proven principles on how to utilize the same approaches in business that elite athletes use to perform at a world-class level. 

His previous clients include American Express, Pepsi, Sabra, Starbucks, Charles Schwab, and Penn State Football, and many more. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

Alan Stein Jr. Interview Transcript

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
Oh, it’s so great to be with you again. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Well, I’m curious to hear, any particularly interesting new discoveries or lessons learned within the last couple of years or so since we spoke last?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Yeah, I would say a pretty long list of them, to be honest. And most of which, I think, were things that were heightened exponentially over the pandemic. I know, for me, personally, from a book-writing standpoint, I’m always trying to write the book that mirrors what I’m going through in my own life, and I’m always trying to write the book that I need to be reading myself. I find it part liberating and part therapeutic to kind of research and write about the things that I’m struggling with.

So, my most recent book is about stress, stagnation, and burnout because those are three areas that I’ve struggled with for most of my life and career, and I know that a lot of people found those things heightened during the pandemic.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about the book Sustain Your Game. What’s the big idea here?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, the big idea, I think the cornerstone of it is that stress, stagnation, and burnout are things that we have massive control and influence over, fighting against, that they’re not things that happen to us. They are things that we can actually help navigate away from if we handle them correctly. And those were some of the kinds of pivotal moments that I’ve had over the last couple of years because I think I’ve gone through most of my life feeling like stress is something that happens to me and is imposed on me. And I now have a much different perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, what’s the fresh perspective?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, so I’m a big fan of Eckhart Tolle, who’s, I guess for lack of a better term, a modern-day philosopher. And his definition of stress is the one that most resonated with me and kind of shifted my whole perspective. And Eckhart’s definition of stress is the desire for things to be different than they are in the present moment. And there was something about that I found very liberating and empowering because, ultimately, what I took away from that was stress is not caused by outside forces, stress is not caused by events, or circumstances, or what people say, or what people do.

Our stress is caused by our resistance to those things, or our perspective of those things, or how we internalize them. So, once that kind of clicked, and his definition, it’s not what’s going on. It’s my desire for what’s going on to be different is what’s actually stressing me out. And once that clicked with me, literally, I just saw the whole world differently now.

And, by all means, I’m not coming from a place of mastery, and I’m not sitting here pretending like I never feel stressed. But, now, when I do, I have the awareness to recognize that on some level, that’s a choice. And that if I would just stop resisting what is, that most of that stress would dissipate.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that is thought-provoking and eye-opening. So, nonetheless, some things we don’t want to be the way they are.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Oh, yeah, I’m glad that you highlighted that because, certainly, I don’t want you or your listeners to think I live in la-la land. And the way that I view it now, I still have my preferences, I still have opinions and ways that I’d like to see the world unfold. I just no longer expect that it’s the world’s job to conspire to make me happy, and it’s not the world or the universe’s job to make sure Alan Stein, Jr. gets all of his preferences.

So, now, when something occurs that’s not to my liking, or is not my preference, I just understand that’s part of the human condition. That’s kind of what we all signed up for to be here and I deal with it appropriately. And what I try to do is be more thoughtful in my response to what’s going on than to the event itself.

And, certainly, over the last couple of years, whether we’re talking about the pandemic or the political divide, there had been some incredibly emotionally charged things that have occurred over the last couple years in particular. And I still have my opinions and my preferences of those things but I no longer allow those things to dictate my perspective, and my mindset, and my attitude, and how I show up. And that, to me, is the big difference.

Before, when something happened that I didn’t like, I always felt like it was happening to me, and I was, in essence, an unconscious victim to the world around me. I now no longer allow myself to be the victim. I’ve taken those proverbial handcuffs off and just said, “Yeah, what just happened is not my preference, it’s not to my liking, but I’m going to be very thoughtful in choosing a response to this situation that actually moves me forward and helps me.” So, it shifted me from being a victim to feeling much more empowered.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really intriguing. And I’m thinking right now about airports when it comes to stress because, you mentioned you’re flying to Nashville shortly, and I’m thinking that you can have stressors big or small in terms of small, like, “Oh, my flight is delayed. That’s inconvenient. I guess I might have to cancel a lunch or dinner. I was planning on meeting someone on the other side, which is a bummer.”

And then I’m thinking of a buddy of mine recently told me a tale about how he was straight-up arrested for mistakenly taking a MacBook Air that looked just like his, and it’s like, “Oh, sorry. Oops,” “No, you’re coming with us,” and he spent a night in jail. So, wild story, and in that instance, he preferred that would be different alright on a whole nother level.

I guess that kind of gets my blood boiling in terms of, like in that instance, like he actually is a victim of an injustice before him. And so, I want your hot take here in terms of if the size of the stress is small versus medium versus big, does that change how you play the game in your mind?

Alan Stein, Jr.
I believe that it does, and one of the interesting parts of that, and just to go on record, it would be my preference that I’m not arrested at the airport, and it’d be my preference that my flights aren’t delayed either. Yeah, so I have nothing but empathy and compassion for him to go through such an ordeal. But the mindset portion of it, what you still need to say is, “Okay, this is…” and that’s an extreme case, “This is less than ideal that I’m being charged with this and I’m going to spend the night in jail.”

Pete Mockaitis
Less than ideal, that’s right.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Yeah, less than ideal. And let me certainly go on record saying there’s nothing easy about any of this. I don’t want to pretend for one second that if either of those scenarios happened to me, that I would just automatically be chipper and smile and act like everything is great. There is a distinction to make and there’s two ways to answer your question.

One is, so once this has already transpired, as awful as that scenario is, once he realizes, “All right, I’m already being charged and I’m going to spend the night in jail,” that now has become reality. That has now become fact. And no matter how angry he gets, ornery he gets, pissed off he gets, it’s not going to change the fact. So, the more upset he gets, all that’s doing is punishing himself. It’s not like, “Hey, if I throw a massive fit, they’re going to let me go home tonight.” It doesn’t change your situation.

So, what you need to try to do is say, “Okay, as awful as this is, what’s a response that can at least make this somewhat palatable or at least make this a little bit better?” Again, spending the night in jail in some random city for an honest mistake is pretty tragic, but you’re only punishing yourself if you choose to let it bend you all out of whack. And that’s just something you keep in the back of your mind.

The other part that I certainly want to make a distinction is I believe in feeling all emotions. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a good or a bad emotion. I think they’re all part of the human experience. Now, there’s emotions that we would probably prefer to have. I’m sure you and I would prefer to be joyous and elated instead of frustrated or disappointed, but they’re part of our emotional palate for a reason. So there’s nothing wrong with feeling emotions.

And, in fact, if I was arrested and had to spend the night in jail for mistakenly taking someone’s iPad, I would feel a wide range of emotions, from anger to frustration, to disappointment, to… I mean, you fill in the blank. But what we have to learn to do is not let how we feel dictate how we behave. I had a really good friend of mine that’s the mental performance coach for the San Francisco Giants in major league baseball, and he said something that affected me just as profoundly as Eckhart Tolle’s quote, and he said, “Our emotions are designed to inform us. They’re not designed to direct us.”

So, our emotions are kind of a litmus test to how we’re perceiving the world and how we’re feeling, but we have to be very careful in not letting them dictate our behavior or our decisions. So, back to this crazy scenario that your friend experienced, there’s nothing wrong with me being upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed that I’ve been arrested but I don’t want that to be how I behave. I certainly don’t want to be belligerent to the police officer. That could get me in even more trouble, spend multiple nights in jail.

And it’s one of those things that I’ve always believed that if you can kind of control your emotions to the point it doesn’t dictate your behavior and the way you show up, that’s one definition of mental toughness. You’re completely resilient when you say that, “No matter what goes on in the outer world, I’m not going to let it rattle me and dictate my inner world.” And that is not an easy place to get to, and I won’t pretend for one second that if I get arrested on my flight to Nashville tomorrow that I’ll handle it with the stoicism that I’m sharing with you right now, but that would be the goal.

And that’s where I’m trying to work to the point where I would be able to handle just about anything thrown at me with that type of stoic approach. Because, again, acting on your emotions and being belligerent and being upset is only going to make the situation worse. You think temporarily it’s going to make you feel better, but, ultimately, it’s only going to make it worse.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right in terms of if you say, “You know what, I gave that cop a piece of my mind. That felt so good.” Probably not. Regardless of the response, the doing it is not going to produce a catharsis. Well, just not to leave people hanging, there was a, I don’t know if you’d call a happy ending, but he did follow some of these principles in terms of he’s like, “Okay. Well, you know what, what do I have control over? In my mugshot, I’m going to look as friendly and kind and not guilty as possible. That’s what I’m going to do.”

And if they didn’t like that, they’re like, “No, you can’t smile. You can’t smile in your mugshot. Do it again. Do it again.” It’s like, “Okay, when I have an opportunity to make a call, I want to be really friendly and polite and professional,” and he managed to make like seven calls, like multiple lawyers and his wife and such.

And that was helpful because they gave him some good tips, and he said, “You know, I am in a jail cell with these people. But you know what? They have some knowledge, like, hey, so there’s a big bunch of bail companies I could call. Like, who’s best?” Like, “Oh, you should call these guys. They’re way faster than the other ones.”

And so, it still sucked a lot and it was costly with lawyers and all of that, but it didn’t wreck his life. It’s just a few thousand bucks and some crazy inconvenience, and he’s back on his feet.

Alan Stein, Jr.
And, at the very least, he’s got an incredible story to tell now.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And if you did let the emotions not just inform but direct and sort of rage and you’re not thinking clearly in terms of, “Oh, what wisdom might my fellow jail mates might have for me right now?” You’re just like, “This is such bull crap. I can’t believe…” if your brain is there, it’s not doing that helpful thinking for you.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Absolutely. And one other thing I’ve noticed, and I’m glad that it was somewhat of a happy story or happy ending, rather. Let’s use the less severe example that you gave, that your flight is delayed or your flight is canceled. Because of how much travel I do, I get to see this happen pretty regularly, and usually what happens, somebody feels so massively inconvenienced as if the entire airline was conspiring to ruin this one person’s day and, “We decided to delay this flight just because we wanted to make you angry.”

What they end up doing, they let their emotions get the best of them, and then they unload those emotions on someone that has nothing to do with it. Usually, the person that you’re unloading your disapproval on has nothing to do with what it is that you’re angry about. The person that’s working kind of behind the desk, they’re not responsible for your delayed flight. They have nothing to do with that.

So, now you’re unloading on somebody else that can’t…I mean, they’re not responsible for it. And then, if you think of just general human nature, how likely is this person going to be to bend over backwards to try to help you find a resolution when you’ve just unloaded all of your anger and frustration and disappointment on them?

I’ve had plenty of delayed and canceled flights, and I have always found that as disappointing and frustrating as that may be internally, whoever I speak with at the airline, I try and kill them with kindness. And the very first thing I say is, “I know you’re going to have a rough couple of hours dealing with all of these headaches. Just know how much empathy and compassion I have for you.”

“I know this isn’t ideal for any of us and I just really appreciate anything you can do to still get me home or to get me to wherever I’m trying to go,” and offer a genuine and authentic and warm smile, and a little compassion, and usually people will go out of their way to try and find a way to help me out, versus the person that’s just going to be belligerent and screaming curse words and act like the whole world is conspiring against them.

So, it goes back to, “Yeah, I’m frustrated that my flight is delayed, but what’s the thoughtful response that I can make in real time that will increase the chance that I’ll get on the next flight, or that they can book me somewhere else, or maybe they’ll offer me a free hotel room, or whatever?” So, yeah, the ultimate part of this is we only punish ourselves when we allow our emotions to overtake our behavior and the way we treat others. It’s not punishing anybody else. You’re just making your own life more miserable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, there’s a huge master key right there is just your mindset, your perspective, your philosophy there. Anything else we can do to build up the mental toughness and resilience in advance, if it’s like exercise, or hydration, or nutrition, or supplements, or meditation? Like, what are some things that could be helpful for building up a capacity to respond in an enlightened fashion to stress beyond just having the ideal mindset?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, two things come to mind. One, and this is kind of an offshoot of mindset, and that is learning how to be in the present moment. A lot of our frustrations and disappointments and anger stems from an attachment to something that happened in the past, and we simply make the assumption that, whatever happened in the past that did not turn out in our favor, is going to happen again right now. So, we just make that assumption, which is usually not very helpful or useful.

And then the other thing we do is we have a preconceived notion or a prediction of the future, which, of course, is always hypothetical, and that’s what increases anxiety. So, we can get kind of depressed and upset about something that happened previously, and then we can start being worrying and anxious about something that may happen in the future. And both of those things are just taking us away from being in the present moment.

Again, using the scenarios that you posed, because they’re pretty real-life scenarios, if you just take a deep breath, and go, “Okay, in this moment, my flight has been delayed two hours. I’m probably going to miss the connection and I’m going to miss my dinner with Pete tonight. That’s not ideal. That’s not my preference. It’s a little bit frustrating but it’s the reality, and I accept it.”

“I’m not going to resist it. I’m not going to draw on something from the past where I had this awful experience. And I’m not going to get anxious about the future and worry, ‘Well, maybe Pete and I won’t be friends ever again. He’s going to be so upset that…’” And I start just kind of creating this false narrative.

When if you just take a deep breath and you stay in the present moment, and you say, “You know what, it’s not that bad. Yes, I would’ve preferred to have caught my flight and had not been delayed, but this is what happened. I’ll make the best of it.” So, being in the present moment is certainly an offshoot of that and a way to help remedy it.

And then kind of more on a tactical and esoteric level, in addition to what you mentioned, making sure you’re feeding your body and moving your body, and getting good quality sleep, because I do believe mind and body are connected, but it’s also paying very close attention to the inputs of our life. We all want to have great outputs. We want to be efficient. We want to be effective. We want to produce. We want to earn. And that stuff is directly related to the inputs in our life.

What you read, watch, and listen to, who you insulate yourself with, and who you invest your time with, what you choose to consume on social media is just as important as what you choose to consume nutritionally. These things have a massive impact on the way we see the world. So, anyone looking to level up their output, they need to directly look on the other side of the curtain at their inputs, and say, “Okay, if I want a more quality output, I need to read, watch, and listen to a higher level of content.” And same thing on social, same thing with the people that you insulate yourself with. So, just have high discernment with where you choose to place your attention.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Okay, so that’s the stress side of things. How about we touch upon the stagnating and the burnout?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Sure. Well, the stagnation part, that’s really where I was kind of leaning towards with this changing of the inputs, because usually the stagnation, which I kind of look at, is just kind of being on that hedonic treadmill. You’re just kind of treading water. You’re expending energy but you’re not really going anywhere in life.

And it’s often just kind of this numb feeling where you’re just towing the line of mediocrity and you’re noticing that your outputs are starting to stagnate. And the best way to jumpstart that and break through that stagnation is changing your inputs. Reaching out to some people that maybe are more accomplished than you are, or have walked the path that you haven’t walked just yet so you can learn from them. And maybe be a mentee to a mentor that’s doing something that you’d like to emulate.

If you find yourself just watching the same old stuff on Netflix and just listening to the same old radio stations or talk radio, see if you can infuse some other things in there, some podcasts or documentaries or books, or just something to kind of jumpstart on the input side, and that’ll help you break through that stagnation.

One of the hardest parts of stagnation is just acknowledging that you’re stagnating. Awareness is always the first step to improvement because you’ll never fix something you’re unaware of, and you’ll never improve something you’re oblivious to. And the reason stagnation can be so tricky is it’s kind of undercover. It’s not proverbial rock bottom. When we hit rock bottom, we usually feel inspired to act and make a change, and that’s the part that’s so slippery and dangerous about stagnation is you’re just kind of towing that line.

So, stress, we really feel in the moment; burnout, we really feel in the long term; stagnation is that tricky mid-term where you can easily fall numb to it and spend months or years in a stagnant place, and not even know it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, just checking in, it’s like, “Hey, am I stagnant? What’s going on?” adjusting the inputs. Any other recommendations there?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Well, I think it’s important to make sure that you get feedback from the people that know you best, your inner circle, if you will, because often, they’ll be able to spot your stagnation before you spot it. Whether this is like an intimate partner or a spouse, or if you have adult children, or close friends, or colleagues, but, hopefully, you’ve created the type of relationship with them, that you let them know, “Look, I’m always open to your feedback and I always welcome you helping me see my own blind spots.”

I think one of the most important perspectives we can have as human beings is to acknowledge that all of us have blind spots. Now, we can’t see them, hence the reason they’re blind spots, but having the humility to acknowledge, “I know there are things that I don’t know. And when someone cares enough to bring some of those blind spots into a level of awareness and shine a light on them for me, that’s one of the best gifts they can give me.”

So, hopefully, you’ve created the type of relationships, both personally and professionally, where people can say that, “Hey, I just feel like you’ve just been kind of treading water.” And many times, this usually comes from a spouse or somebody that you’re intimate with because they see you, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and see you a lot more than everyone else, but hopefully you’ve got the type of relationship where they can say, “Hey, I just feel like you’re stagnant.” And I try to insulate myself with people in my life that will tell me, for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about when it comes to burnout?

Alan Stein, Jr.
So, burnout is an interesting one because I look at stress as a too much issue, stagnation as a too little issue, and those things kind of combine are usually what set you on the path to burnout. While researching the book, I found that burnout is a very specific condition. When the hours that you’re working and the sacrifices that you’re making are no longer in alignment with where you find meaning or purpose or what you find fascinating, or the work you’re putting in is no longer in alignment with your core values or the person that you’re trying to become.

So, it’s that splintering effect of misalignment that causes the issue. It’s not just from working long hours. That can potentially be a problem over time but we probably all know someone that maybe it’s an entrepreneur with a new startup, and they’re working 60-, 70-, 80-hour weeks but they find so much meaning in their work, and they love it so much. They’re most likely not at risk for burnout. So, it’s when you don’t find meaning in your work, or you’re not fascinated by it, or it’s not in alignment.

Another big one, especially for folks at work in organizations, folks get burnout when they don’t feel like their contribution is making a difference. They don’t feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. They just kind of feel like, “I’m just a number showing up to work. I don’t know that I really matter.” So, when we don’t feel like we matter, or we don’t feel like there’s meaning in our work, that’s when we’re at risk of burnout.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if there we are in the midst of it, what do we do?

Alan Stein, Jr.
Yeah. Well, again, be thankful if you have the awareness to recognize that, and there’s a few things you can do. One, you have to clarify your north star and get crystal clear. Assuming that you found meaning in that work or in that job at some point, and usually that’s the case, is to kind of reverse-engineer and track backwards and deconstruct, and say, “Okay, I’ve been in this job for 10 years. For the first eight years, I really enjoyed working here. I loved my role. I loved the people I was working with but I don’t feel that anymore.” And try to be reflective and introspective to figure out why.

Maybe you’ve been given some different assignments and your role has changed. Maybe a few colleagues have left and you’re now working with new people that you don’t feel as connected with but try to pinpoint what caused the change. And pinpointing at change, again, bringing it to a level of awareness, can allow you to explore some minor pivots, say, within the organization.

Maybe you ask to take on a new role, or report to someone differently, or work in a different department, or maybe you just come to the end of the road with that organization, and you want to look elsewhere. But then you have to ask yourself, “Do I want to do the same type of work for another company? Or, do I want to change industries completely?”

I’m an example of that. I spent 15 years as a basketball performance coach, and I really loved the time that I did that. But, as I was kind of nearing that 15-year mark, I started to feel burnout. I wasn’t enjoying the work I was doing near as much as I had in years prior, so I decided to make the leap completely out of that industry, and jumped into corporate keynote speaking and writing.

So, for me, I made a fairly drastic change but it was absolutely the right choice because it re-lit my fire and got me excited again. So, I think folks just need to be able to look at, “Is this something that requires a couple of minor tweaks that might get me back on course? Or, do I need to try something more drastic?” But at least pulling open the hood and taking a look at everything underneath to figure that out is, I think, a great step.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, you said the word pivot, which got me thinking. You have three steps you lay out in your book – perform, pivot, prevail. How do these work in sequence?

Alan Stein, Jr.
The way that I kind of looked at it was we’re trying to perform in the moment, and the biggest thing that can undermine that is stress, and that’s something that we feel kind of on the daily. In that mid-term, where we feel like we’re stagnating and things are just kind of towing that line, we need to figure out a way to pivot, to try something different, to shake things up.

And then if we are slowly approaching burnout, where there is this misalignment, then the ultimate goal is to prevail, is to be able to overcome that burnout either within your current job and vocation and company that you’re working with, or you might have to prevail by going somewhere else and doing something completely different.

And they’re not 100% sequential. We can toggle in and out of those at different times, into different amounts, but the way I look at it is more from a timeframe standpoint. You have stress kind of in the short term, you have stagnation more in that mid-term, and then burnout is an accumulation of the previous two, and that’s what happens in the long term.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And when professionals are trying to put your wisdom into action, into practice, are there some hiccups, road bumps, mistakes that come up again and again? And how should we navigate that?

Alan Stein, Jr.
I’m trying to think of some of the most common. I mean, the answer to the question is yes. Actually, that would be my answer to just about anything as far as no matter what it is we’re trying to do when we’re trying to implement and initiate change, there are always going to be roadblocks and hiccups and lessons to learn. But I think the key to that is embracing that and acknowledging everything that I’ve shared with you in this lovely conversation, and everything I’ve put in my books, and everything that I say on stage, all of these things are very basic principles, but none of this stuff is easy. None of it is.

And that’s why, with all of this stuff, I’m not speaking from a place of mastery. This is all stuff that I’m continuing to work on and to refine as I’m trying to evolve. And, to me, the goal has never been perfection. The goal has always been progress, consistent incremental progress. And with any of these things that we’ve talked about, can I be a little bit better today than I was yesterday? Can I be a little bit better in 2022 than I was in 2021, whether it’s my ability to manage stress, or avoid stagnation, or beat burnout, or be in the present moment, or have more thoughtful responses when the world doesn’t align to my preferences?

And I’m very proud of the fact that I can say, yes, I do all of those things consistently better today than I have in the past. If you and I reconnect again on your show in a couple more years, I’m hoping I can say with a huge smile that I’m doing an even better job then than I’m doing right now in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Alan, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear some more of your favorite things?

Alan Stein, Jr.
No, this has been great. I always love your line of questions and the direction in which you navigate things. This has been fun. This is great.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now could you give us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Alan Stein, Jr.
So, one of my favorite quotes is about as basic and as simple as it gets, and that is, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” And the reason I love that is there’s two types of change that we all experience. There’s the imposed change. A perfect example of that is a two-year global pandemic or potentially an economic recession. Like, there’s things that can happen in the outer world that are imposed on us, and we have to respond to them. And those are obviously uncontrollable.

But the change I’m always referring to is initiated change. It’s the changes that we choose to make. So, it’s being able to have the awareness to say, “I’m not as physically fit as I’d like to be, so I need to make some changes to the way I eat, to my sleep, to my working out, and so forth because I have to acknowledge that, if I don’t change those things, then nothing on my body is going to change.”

And it could be the same thing for mental or emotional fitness, “I need to change the way that I perceive stress when the outside world imposes itself on me, and be much more thoughtful in my response.” So, I‘m a huge fan of leaning into and initiating change to take us closer to becoming the person that we strive to become.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
What I found really interesting, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to botch the numbers on this, but you’ll get the general sentiment. And this speaks directly to what I believe is one of the most dangerous games that any of us can play, and that is the comparison game. I do think, and I’m a huge advocate of social media.

I believe social media can be a great connection tool. It can be a great source of information and learning. It’s a great way to share if you have something of value. But social media, I think, is built to encourage us to play the comparison game, and to see how your life stacks up, usually materialistically, to someone else’s life.

And the problem with playing the comparison game is it usually makes us feel less than. You go on Instagram and you see that somebody has got a nicer house, or a nicer car, or a shinier watch, or a prettier girlfriend, or they go on better vacations, and it starts to make you feel less than. And that’s a dangerous, dangerous slope to tackle.

And there was some research that asked people, and again, this is where I don’t think my numbers are going to be completely exact, but you’ll get the point.
Would I rather make $70,000 a year and everybody else around me makes 50? So, I’m making a little bit more than them, and that makes me feel good but I’m making $70,000 a year. Or, would I rather make $100,000 a year but everyone around me makes $120,000 a year? So, net, I’m making $30,000 more dollars a year in the second scenario but it’s less than what everybody around me makes. And most people always want to feel that they’re winning the comparison game. They would actually rather make less money but make more money than the people in their direct area than the exact opposite of that.

And I just found that study fascinating. That’s kind of a peek behind the curtain into the human condition and the way people view things. And it’s very understandable, and I don’t say that with an ounce of judgment. I just found that study really interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Alan Stein, Jr.
One of my all-time favorites, and I’m sure most of your listeners have already read it because I think he sold over five million copies, is Atomic Habits by my good friend James Clear. Most of what I share when it comes to building habits, I’ve learned from James and his blog and his book and a lot of his work. That’s definitely a go-to.

A secondary one is another book by my friend Phil Jones, who wrote a very short book called Exactly What to Say. It’s more of a guide than a book, and it’s a great reference on kind of how magic words can be, and we have to be very thoughtful and intentional about the words we choose because they change the world around us. And if you’re looking to be more influential and impactful, that you have to be very careful about the words you choose. And I found that book really, really insightful and very, very helpful.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
I’m a big fan of the Headspace app for a guided meditation. I know a lot of what we’ve talked about is about being present and being grounded and being mindful. And because I come from a sports background, I’m a huge believer in practice, that you’ve got to practice, especially during the unseen hours.

So, that’s an app and a tool that I use very regularly. It’s a very calm and almost a serene feel of 10-minute guided meditation. And I try and do that at least once a day but I’ll throw that in anytime that I’m feeling a little bit stressed. So, you best believe if my flight to Nashville tomorrow gets delayed, I’ll pop in my earbuds and do a 10-minute meditation to, hopefully, bring me back down.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
I’m very fortunate that I have a quote that’s painted in a big 12-foot mural in the Penn State Football Training Center, and it says, “Are the habits you have today on par with the dreams you have for tomorrow?” And that’s a mantra I try and live by. I’m a big believer in habits and the things that we do consistently. And I always want to make sure that the things that I’m doing on a daily basis are in alignment and are in harmony with the person that I’m trying to become.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
They can go to AlanSteinJr.com. I also have a supplemental site StrongerTeam.com, and I’m very easily found on social media @AlanSteinJr. I love interacting with folks, so if you’re on Instagram or LinkedIn or Twitter or Facebook, just shoot me a DM. And if you have a question or want to discuss anything that Pete and I talked about, I’m always open for that. And, certainly, if anyone is interested in either book Raise Your Game or Sustain Your Game, they’re easily found on Amazon, Audible, or wherever you like to get your books.

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

Alan Stein, Jr.
I do. I think at the ground level, the foundation, is showing up at your job emotionally charged and as the best version of yourself. And in order to do that, you have to take a look at your morning and your evening routines, how you’re spending the bookends of your day. So, one of the exercises I always encourage folks to do is a very basic self-audit. You take a piece of paper. You draw a vertical line down the middle.

On the left side, come up with an exhaustive list of all of the things that light you up, that give you energy, that make you smile, that make you feel alive, that add to your confidence. This could be taking a Peloton class or pulling out your yoga mat to do some stretches. It could be a quiet morning reading the paper and drinking some coffee. It could be watching a riveting documentary or taking your dog for a walk. But any of the activities that give you energy and fill you up, then come up with a list of those.

And then on the other side of the paper, on the other side of that right line, write down how you’ve been spending the bookends of your day, your morning and your evening routine. Then you’re going to compare the two sides of the paper. You’re going to compare the two sets of notes. And you’re going to ask yourself one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself, and that is, “Am I doing the things that I know I need to do to be my best self and to show up as my best self, ready to make a maximum contribution to my job?”

And if you do that with some honesty and some vulnerability, you’ll most likely start to uncover what’s called a performance gap, and that is the gap between what we know we should do to be our best self, and what we actually do on a daily basis. And one of the key tenets of my work is helping folks close that gap and start doing the things they know they need to do.

If you can make the time to heighten your self-care and to sprinkle some of the things from the left side of the paper onto the right side, and even if it’s just 10 to 15 minutes in the morning and evening, doing the things that light you up and fill your bucket, it’ll have a massive impact on how you show up, your energy level, how you feel about yourself, and, absolutely, your ability to make a contribution to your work, to your job, to your organization.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Alan, thank you. It’s been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun and sustaining of your game.

Alan Stein, Jr.
Likewise, my friend. This was great. Thank you so much.