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

794: How to Get Comfortable with Discomfort with Sterling Hawkins

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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

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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.

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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.

783: How to Restore Energy and Clarity by Tuning in to Silence with Leigh Marz and Justin Zorn

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Leigh Marz and Justin Zorn share compelling research on the surprising benefits of silence—and how to find it amidst the noise and busyness of today’s world.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The small but powerful ways we can get more rest every day 
  2. How taking a hike can shorten your to-do list 
  3. How to resist the pull of your smartphone

About Leigh & Justin

Justin Talbot Zorn is an author and policymaker, who has served as both a strategist and a meditation teacher in the US Congress. A Harvard-and-Oxford-trained specialist in the economics and psychology of human thriving, Justin’s writing on mindfulness and politics has been published in 12 languages and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, and other publications.  

Leigh Marz is a leadership coach and collaboration consultant specializing in work with scientists, engineers, and creatives. She spent years working with the climate team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and over a decade facilitating and advising a cross-sector team of chemists, advocates, government regulators, manufacturers, and retailers aiming to reduce toxic chemicals in our homes and environment. 

Resources Mentioned

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Leigh Marz & Justin Zorn Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Leigh and Justin, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Leigh Marz
Hey, thanks, Pete.

Justin Zorn
Thanks for having us, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in. And, first, I’d love to hear, as you were putting together Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, were there any particularly surprising and fascinating discoveries that grabbed you?

Leigh Marz
Well, I guess what we found is that when we started unpacking silence, that there was really a lot to it, much further than auditory decibel-level silence, that when we’re looking at silence today, we’re looking at freedom from distraction from our screens, or on the mass proliferation of information available, and also, we’re looking at silence internally in our minds. Just what does it mean to be quiet inside? So, for us, the exploration of silence became much bigger than just that auditory starting point. And that’s where things got rich.

Justin Zorn
We really did start thinking about the importance of auditory silence in the literal sense. We wrote this article for Harvard Business Review on this topic, and it resonated with people. So, we went out and started just following the cookie crumbs and interviewing people, neuroscientists, poets, activists, politicians, businesspeople, we ran the gamut.

And as we asked people this question, “What’s the deepest silence you’ve ever known?” as a starting point, they gave us answers that often weren’t auditorily quiet. So, we started exploring this silence in the informational sense and even in the internal sense, like Leigh mentioned.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so funny because the first thing I thought of is, “Oh, I stepped inside of an anechoic chamber,” which they say can drive you insane, which I find intriguing. I plan to visit one in the future. But that’s intriguing, people’s most silent moment didn’t have much to do with the decibel levels, eh, at times?

Leigh Marz
That was the big surprise. Yeah, that was the big surprise.

Justin Zorn
And the funny thing is, even an anechoic chamber isn’t really totally silent. We write in the book about a 20th century famous modernist composer named John Cage, who had a real love affair with silence. He wrote a piece of music that was famously just four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

And John Cage, actually, went into an anechoic chamber on the Harvard campus through World War II, and when he got there, he noticed there were two sounds, and he told the engineer running the anechoic chamber, this supposedly soundless booth, “Hey, this thing isn’t silent as it’s advertised.” He said, “I hear two sounds. One high pitch, and one low pitch.” And the engineer said, “Oh, no, it’s working.” He said, “The high-pitch sound is your nervous system in operation, and the low-pitch sound is your blood in circulation.”

So, for us, we’re actually through this, like, “Hey, maybe there isn’t such a thing as total perfect silence in the universe.” But then, as we explore the meaning of silence with all these diverse kinds of people, outstanding professionals in various fields, as well as the scientists, we find that silence does exist. It’s just that it’s a subjective experience in human consciousness. It’s what we think of as the space where no one is making claims on your attention. It’s pristine attention.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just as you describe that, it feels so refreshing.

Leigh Marz
Oh, good.

Pete Mockaitis
Wouldn’t that be nice?

Leigh Marz
Wouldn’t it though?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s very interesting in terms of, “Hmm,” as an exploration of a concept and how it affects humans. Can you speak to the benefits of silence, like some of the science behind it and, particularly, as applicable to folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Leigh Marz
Well, first, we need to maybe take you to a tour through the damage of noise a little bit, maybe some definitions because that toll of noise is real and true, so first, it’s about, of course, mitigating noise. So, we looked at the auditory effects on our bodies, on our ears, of course there’s hearing loss, but there’s far more than that. Hearing loss being a serious issue, leading to some isolation and all kinds of problems, doing all kinds of jobs, of course.

But, also, we looked at the impact, the toll on our ability to focus, how it impacts our nervous system, even how it’s connected to all kinds of diseases, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, how it impacts our lack sleep, our ability to sleep. And that lack of sleep, as you know, has a lot of downstream consequences to it.

So, there are vast physical psychological mood and impacts to all this noise. And then we turned to silence and we looked at, actually, this fascinating study out of Duke University that puts little mice in that anechoic chamber that we were just talking about, and pipes in pop sounds of little mice, Mozart Sonata in D, I believe it is, ambient noises and silence.

And what they found was that silence had an incredibly beneficial impact on the mice. It led to growth in their neurons in their brain that were sustained growth, they didn’t die off. Those neurons didn’t die off right away. So, the hypothesis was that this was a positive type of stress called eustress that the mice were under, something unusual that led them to grow into the direction of that silence, to listen into the silence and actually build some capacity in their brain that they didn’t have before.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing.

Leigh Marz
Yeah, yeah. Those areas of the brain are also associated with…in the hippocampus are also associated with memory and things like that. So, we became very interested in those effects.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, if we don’t have access to an anechoic chamber handy, how do you recommend we go about pursuing and acquiring some of the silence?

Justin Zorn
You know, for us, we didn’t want to write about the kind of silence that’s all about running away to an anechoic chamber or a sensory deprivation chamber or a monastery, for that matter. We’re interested in the kinds of silence, Pete, that we could find in this noisy, buzzing, singing, dancing world, and we think it’s a good thing to be immersed in the noise of the modern world.

And so, we explore in this book how silence is always available. It’s in the breath, it’s in the moments in between words and conversations with friends, and it’s in that three minutes of stepping outside of the cubicle and feeling the rays of the sun.

And we can even tune into silence just internally even when the noise of our lives seems out of control. So, this is a book abut how we tune into silence in our own ways. Some really simple ways to do that are, for example, to just step outside and just listen to nothing in particular. Leigh mentioned this Duke University Medical School study about how the act of trying to hear in silence is actually physically edifying to the brain. It grows new neurons.

So, if we could take a moment, even in a busy day, you don’t need to have a meditation practice or some kind of fancy knowledge of some kind of contemplative work, to just step outside and just listen to the breeze, just listen to the branches, listen to the rain, even just listening to the birds. It doesn’t need to be necessarily literal audio, auditory silence. This act of simply tuning into our hearing is healing and it’s edifying and it’s clarifying.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say listen to the silence, now I guess I’m thinking about the noise. I do hear some birds. I’m hearing some air-conditioning and that’s not nature. Is that still beneficial?

Justin Zorn
The way we think of it is as long as it’s not making claims on your attention. We’re living in a world where we’re constantly needing to have these mental reflexes go when we’re protecting our reputation or promoting a point of view. And in this book, we talk about taking a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say.

So, these kinds of listening, it’s better, of course, to listen to nature, we found through the science research, and we can get into that more. But this act of listening in a way that isn’t thinking of what to say, isn’t thinking about, “How do I compute this information?” giving your mind a break to simply rest in the silence.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And when it comes to these breaks, is there a dosage that is optimal? Is it more is better? Or, is there like, “Ooh, three minutes every 60 minutes,” that you can prescribe to be excellent?

Leigh Marz
Yeah, that’s a great question and you did ask, “Is it beneficial?” So, I think what we’re doing is really pointing the reader back towards their experience because silence and noise, both are subjective actually. Those are subjective experiences. It was within the interview, an interview with biobehavioral professor, biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State, Joshua Smyth. And were haranguing him for a good definition for internal silence. When, in absolute exasperation, he said to us, “Quiet is what people think quiet is.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Leigh Marz
Yeah, and we would add quiet is what people feel and experience quiet to be. It could be quite surprising. So, listening into the air-conditioning, like you were saying, or listening to sounds of nature, simply turning away from your screen for a little bit, or stepping outside in the rays of the sun, the trick here is, as each of us, to tune in to what is actually bringing us a sense of quiet, a sense of clarity, a sense of relaxation perhaps in the nervous system.

Whatever those signals are that we are relaxing, as well as really learning about the signals that we are agitated, we have had too much noise, we are saturated, we’re unable to focus, to get clear on what those signals are in each of us. So, there is no great perfect prescription for all people. There’s no one size fits all here, which is one of the reasons why we think of this as a non-meditator’s guide to getting beyond the noise because meditation often is proposed to something that will work for all.

But as many of your listeners have probably experienced, even if we’ve had a short stint of being great with meditation, and Justin and I have had some good stints with meditation, even teaching it in the US Congress, in Justin’s case, but that’s not always the best way to quiet. So, the real key here is what is your way to quiet? And what is the type of noise that’s polluting your soundscape? What is the quiet that gets you out of that, and really getting tuned into that?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in the book, you outlined 33 different ways to find silence. You shared a few. Can you share a couple more that really seem to be powerful for folks?

Justin Zorn
Sure. And one way we describe the beginning of these 33 ways to silence, which span individual practices as well as families, workplaces, communities, and broader society, one way we start to frame them, which will be, I think, particularly relevant to listeners thinking about how to be awesome at your job, is as the healthy successor to the smoke break. Leigh makes a confession that she used to smoke in the book.

And the confession isn’t so much that she used to smoke, it’s that she loved it. She loved the experience of having nothing to do for this period of time in a day. she would step outside of the office, particularly when she was doing really difficult work, crisis work around domestic violence and other difficult issues. She would step outside and have this time of total respite when she didn’t have to think of anything, didn’t have to do anything.

And, of course, it’s a wonderful thing that she quit and wasn’t going to have it any other way. It’s a wonderful thing that anyone quits smoking tobacco. But the question is, “What’s going to replace those little pockets of silence in our days?” So, we examined that question because there’s some researchers in Scotland found that often workers, particularly in high-stress industries, often have to at least pretend they smoke because that’s the only way they could get a break.

So, how can we shift our cultural norms in workplaces so that it’s possible to take these breaks in silence that we’re describing? So, some of the ways we describe this is, as I mentioned, this practice of simply stopping and listening, which is an ancient practice from India called nada yoga, the yoga of sound. And as we mentioned, there’s this research that indicates it’s edifying for the brain.

But one way to do this is to simply listen to the ringing in your own ears. We’ve interviewed folks in the book who talk about the science of how this works. Simply tuning in and listening can actually diminish that ringing in your ears, if you’re actually paying attention to it.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever…

Pete Mockaitis
It’s quite rare that I’ve ever noticed the ringing in my own ears. I don’t know what that says about me.

Leigh Marz
Maybe you don’t have any.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess there’s a follow up. It’s like do we all have that and how much?

Leigh Marz
Yeah, it’s pretty common, especially in that total silence or that near total silence. As we said, there may not be such a thing as total silence, which is why some people don’t find auditory quiet that relaxing if they’re not able to…or if that’s too aggravating. So, again, we’re finding what brings us quiet. For example, finding quiet might be I’ve been strapped to my desk for several hours on Zoom meetings and whatever.

I’m going to put on a song and I’m going to dance like a mad woman for three minutes, which is not quiet but will empty my brain of all those unhelpful thoughts, all the chatter, all the worry, just the lack of focus that I’m about to get into, if I haven’t already gotten into that, because we know about attention. We don’t have unlimited attention, rather. We can’t go on and drive and work and work without some cost to the quality of our attention.

Justin Zorn
So, one big idea is really how we find beyond just these little successors, healthy successors to the smoke breaks, which we’ll get into some more of those, but one big idea is how we come into moments of truly pristine attention, what we call these moments of rapturous silence, where the kind of silence that can actually change the way we perceive the world.

So, we looked for an example in the book and a practice called take your to-do list for a hike, which was inspired by a legendary acoustic ecologist named Gordon Hempton, who, every once in a while, will take a look at his to-do list and, say, when it gets too long, he’ll drive out somewhere remote off into the rainforest, the whole rainforest in Olympic National Park near Seattle, and he’ll hike for a day once he gets there.

And once he finds that he’s really tuned into the silence of nature, he’s gotten beyond all that noise and distraction that’s present for him at his desk, he takes his to-do list, which he’s printed out, out of his pocket, and he crosses out everything that’s not really necessary. And once he gets to that vantage point, that’s a day’s travel away from the hustle and bustle, he notices how the things that he thought were important, weren’t really so important. And he says the answers are in the silence.

Leigh Marz
He adds that when he does do something like that, take a day or half a day off of work to take his to-do list for a hike, that he often comes back to his office again with about five months less work on his plate because there’s a whole lot that feels important when he’s sitting there strapped to the desk. But out in nature with more expansive views and more expansive mind, he has a different perspective on that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I’m thinking about the healthy successor to the smoke break and how many of us, when we have such an opportunity in which there’s nothing external claiming our attention, we just short-circuit it in terms of like the phone can be the ubiquitous device. I’ve heard it called a digital pacifier in terms of, “I’m a little bit bored or uncomfortable,” and it’s almost like reflex or so habituated. It’s just out it goes and there I am on social media or news or whatever.

And it could even feel, for some, uncomfortable that it’s like, “Aargh, I need to do something, and here it is, and this will be entertaining or, in some way, pacifying.” So, how do we deal with our own selves in the midst of this?

Leigh Marz
Yeah. We spend a lot of time looking at what is within our sphere of control, and that’s one that we argue is within our sphere of control. We can certainly get into feedback loops where it feels like maybe we’re hustling and bustling, we’re mistaking busyness for productivity, we’re mistaking stress for aliveness. We can kind of get into these feedback loops of activity. But if we can actually take those moments as little gifts of silence.

So, let’s just say you’re stuck in traffic or you’re stuck in a long line, and rather than grab for your phone immediately to feel any of those things, a podcast, or checking the news, checking on your email, etc., that you actually take that, even if it was unplanned, or especially if it was unplanned, as a moment to tune in to silence.

Justin Zorn
We talked with a neuroscientist named Judson Brewer, who’s been a pioneer in the use of fMRI studies of meditators and studying the brains of meditators. And he looks at how people’s experience of noise in the consciousness often corresponds to a feeling of contractedness: contractedness in the body, contractedness in the mind. It’s a subjective state. It’s a feeling. But it often corresponds to a kind of feeling of being hunched over your phone, reading the news, feeling the stress of that.

And Dr. Brewer tells us that there’s an experience in the consciousness people described that corresponds to what he calls silence in the mind, this internal experience of silence in his studies with fMRIs and other imaging machinery. And he tells us that that experience of silence corresponds to the state that he calls expansion. That’s the kind of common denominator to what people are feeling.

And this is often also the kind of common denominator to where good creative ideas emerge. When we’re out of that state of contractedness, that hunched over the phone, doom-scrolling, or whatever you might be doing, versus being outside, being receptive, kind of like how many of the good ideas we often have happen in the shower, again when there’s nothing making claims on our consciousness, nothing making claims on our attention.

So, Leigh mentioned this challenge that in our society these days, we often mistake stress for aliveness. In our workplaces, we often mistake this feeling of constant doing, constant exertion for the feeling of being productive and effective, but it’s often not in those spaces of contraction but in these spaces of expansion where the best ideas, the profoundly generative ideas emerge.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool and that totally resonates. And that I hear that Aaron Sorkin put a shower in his office in order to take more showers and have more good ideas, which is funny. And I guess that’s one approach in terms of forcing it, like, “Oh, can’t do much else. You’re naked with water on you.”

Leigh Marz
Yup, that’s a healthy successor to a smoke break if there ever was one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Certainly. So, let’s just zoom right in. Okay, I like what you’re saying, Leigh and Justin. That’s really cool. And so, I go ahead and I retreat, whatever that means, you take a step outside or whatever, and then I feel the urge, the tug to pull out the phone. What is the optimal, if we’re seeking silence, response to ourselves? Because I imagine you could give in, you could harshly say, “No!” How do you think about those moments and sort of re-asserting what you’re going for?

Because in some ways, expansiveness, like as I think about that sensation, that vibe, is kind of like the opposite of constricted-ness. And in some ways, it feels constricting to engage in self-denial, like, “I want to do this.” “No!” And then, in so doing, there’s a bit of a constricting feeling. So, I’m all tied up in knots here. What do we do?

Justin Zorn
That’s a really good question. We have a chapter in the book called “Why Silence is Scary,” and at one level, we’re looking in the big picture what it’s like for people to go on extremely long silent retreats or someone to go on just away from the civilization for a while. And what that brings up in the consciousness, because that’s extremely scary, it’s almost like taking it to its…the farthest extent of that persistent nag of picking up the phone that you’re talking about, so we explore that dynamic.

But we found a study from the University of Virginia from 2014, where a social psychologist left mostly undergraduate students in a sparse room with no cellphones or no entertainment for 15 minutes, and Wilson is this professor, gave the participants a choice. They could either sit in silence without their phones alone or they could push a button that would administer a painful electric shock. And, initially, the participants had all said that they would pay money to avoid this painful electric shock. But in the end, 67% of the men and 25% of the women actually chose to shock themselves rather than sit alone without their phones in silence. And that was 15 minutes.

So, to answer your question about what do we actually do when confronting this, one big theme we explore in the book is the perennial wisdom of know thyself. Understand that we, in this day and age, are hardwired to seek stimulation, to seek sound and stimulus, and it is a skill to cultivate to get comfortable with silence.

Leigh Marz
We also talk about a convenience addiction that we have. And Cal Newport brings this to our attention in some of his work Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, where we tend to think about the gains of whatever it is, let’s say, a group email where infinite numbers of people are listed and included but we don’t think of the cost, so we’re consistently minimizing the cost of this constant grabbing for more input, more attention, more outreach, constant connectivity without looking at those costs there to our work, to the quality of our work, to the quality of our consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then one is there’s a little bit of just sort of patience and gentleness with yourself, like, “Yup, this is normal. You’re not messed up. This is a natural response to those who are not yet practiced and skilled with doing this.” And so, if the thought emerges, “I want to see what’s on Instagram right now,” how do you recommend responding to that thought?

Leigh Marz
Even just to pause a beat before jumping right in and to do a little bit of a cost-benefit analysis. in that moment, a little bit of an assessment in terms of where that’s coming from. If it’s coming from that grabby, needy, constricted place, or if it’s because you really want to check in with your network, there can be…we allot ourselves that time all the time to really figure out, “Where is it coming from? Where is that urge coming from?”

And then we can do that as teams as partners, as work partners, like Justin and I do all the time as well, too, to really just look at, “What’s our default here?” to examine the default that’s happening on our teams and in our organizations. Should we always be meeting? Should we meet back-to-back all the time? Should we assume constant connectivity? Those kinds of things. Like, what are the costs of that? And how can we support each other to create a culture that honors silence?

Justin Zorn
One thing that comes up for me with that question, too, Pete, and what Leigh is saying about questioning our defaults and building these cultures, this is where appreciation, through the stories in this book, we explore why silence is something worth valuing in a world of constant sound and stimulation and entertainment.

And if we can appreciate this basis of silence in our lives, we start to not just question our defaults, and say, “Well, I need to put my phone away more and I need to just deal with that kind of impulse.” It’s something more than that. It’s flipping the script so we’re able to see opportunities for rest and healing and renewal within the silence, which is what the science shows and what we also explore in the book through stories.

One big theme in the book that we explore is a traditional Japanese aesthetic concept, an idea called Ma. And the idea of Ma, this word Ma means the space in between. Some people call it the open space, the negative space but we think of Ma as pure potentiality. So, Ma is the space in between the words we’re saying to each other right now. It’s the space between notes in music. It’s the space, the empty space in artwork or, in Japanese traditional, ikebana, flower arranging. This word Ma actually means sunlight pouring forth through the gate of a temple.

So, it’s this pure potentiality that exist in the in-between spaces, in what’s not spoken. So, we look in the book, “What would it mean to appreciate Ma in our lives?” We have a section of one chapter called “Ma On the Job,” which is we explore how we could bring more silence, for example, into organizational brainstorming, or how we can bring more Ma into our workday, for example, in between meetings, or in between any kind of task or activity. Stopping and taking some breaths. Stopping to savor a glass of water. Or, within a group, having some moment of quiet time to integrate what it is that you’ve been talking about.

At the end of the book, we even explore Ma goes to Washington, what it would look like to bring all these reverence for the open space, to society as a whole, but the basic idea is something that we can bring into our work lives to find more rest and renewal and more inspiration in the moment-to-moment conduct.

Pete Mockaitis
You know what’s fascinating, Justin, is just as you’re speaking, you’re talking about Ma and I was pointing my attention toward the gaps or pauses between your words and sentences, and just in doing so, my brain felt less fatigued, and yet, I still heard and understood and internalized what you said. What’s that about?

Leigh Marz
That’s a great question. I think when we’re not sitting with…it’s about better listening. For starters, I think it’s just a better quality of listening instead of being poised perhaps with the internal on-the-ready of how we’re going to respond, and then, therefore, not really listening. So, I feel like the quality you’re talking about in part, the quality of listening as well as just your attention relaxing. I think that’s about just finding that silence and what it does to your consciousness. In that case, it’s a thing that supported you and relaxing, which is what it’s all about.

It’s about experimenting. This whole book is about experimenting and finding our way to quiet. So, I don’t know the exact answer why you, Pete, doing that practice, what was happening in your brain. We could put you up to all kinds of circuitry, but what matters is that it did, and what matters is that you might be onto a new way to listening that brings you some quiet. And that’s what this book is all about.

Justin Zorn
Florence Nightingale, about 150 years ago, intuited that noise in the consciousness, too much sound and stimulus, just at the auditory level drives the fight-or-flight response. It is a driver of stress. And this is why she said that unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that could be inflicted on a person sick or well.

And a lot of the recent research in neuroscience and various different disciplines of physical sciences of physiology are discovering that Florence Nightingale was right about this that she perceived 150 years ago or so. So, even if the auditory decibels are the same level, there’s something to be said of where we put our attention. If we can put our attention on the empty spaces, as you’re talking about, Pete, and we’re tuning into the silence, then there’s this opportunity we find, through our interviews with people in this book, to help reset the nervous system, to get beyond that fight or flight.

And one thing we explore in the book is it’s not just about the auditory decibels or it’s not even just about the amount of information and sound and stimulus you have in your life. It’s about how deeply you can go into the silence, when it appears, even if it’s just for two seconds, even if it’s for less than a second, like those moments of silence between words. How deeply can you go into the silence in this noisy world?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Well, Leigh, you mentioned hooking me up to circuitry, which I’m game for if anyone happens to have the equipment.

Leigh Marz
That’s fascinating, yeah, to do that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m looking over at my Muse brain-sensing headband in the corner there, and I’m curious, are there any particular tools or things that can be handy here? We’ve talked about it’s not just about the decibel levels, so earplugs and noise-canceling headphones have something to offer but it’s certainly not the whole story that we’re unpacking here. Anything else that is useful for folks to pick up as we’re pursuing this journey?

Leigh Marz
Well, actually, I’ll say this, there’s actually another aspect of surprise, perhaps, is we expected to reach out to neuroscientists and for them to have all sorts of concrete, like, “Here’s what’s happening in the brain. And we know this, and we’ll see this.” But, actually, neuroscientists, like Adam Gazzaley at the University of San Francisco, where, really, every neuroscientist we spoke with were very humble about what they were able to claim, that they were actually…they said, “We use all this equipment, fMRIs, just an example of one, but there are times when someone’s sitting there and they’ll say, ‘Well, what just happened? Did something major register on the machinery?’”

And they’ll say, “Well, nothing. Nothing happened at all.” Or, the participant will have some great brilliant insight and it won’t register on the machinery. So, there’s still a lot we don’t know but there’s a lot we’re learning about some commonalities between mental states. And we haven’t mentioned things like states of flow, which can, of course, happen when we’re really getting involved and enjoying work states, maybe we’re really getting into a project.

So, really observing your own way with what is bringing you into that place of focus, where you’re challenged at an appropriate point but not so much that it’s stressful, and it’s also challenging enough that you’re not bored, so that sweet spot where you lose a sense of reflective self-consciousness, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it. So, there’s something in there about really getting attuned to when are you losing that sense of self, of not so helpful part, a sense of self, where you’re talking to yourself about yourself, whether you’re feeling distracted or there’s a lot of unhelpful chatter, notice you had anything crossed on before.

He has a great work, great research on those unhelpful and truths of thought and ruminating. So, part of what we’re looking at is really it’s kind of back to us. We wanted to avoid pointing towards gadgetry and pointing towards apps and things, but those can be helpful. Again, it’s up to us to really find out what is really working, what’s helping us find our flow, keep our focus, or clear the slate, or invite in novel thinking and creative thinking, versus what is just cluttering our brains.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Justin Zorn
You mentioned gadgetry, like noise-canceling headphones, Pete, and we have explored that a little bit. But one thing that’s come up for us in this book is that we’ve avoided wanting to add more technology, more complicated kinds of solutions, especially expensive kinds of solutions. We want to make this as accessible as possible, as simple as possible.

So, we look at the simplicity of these practices that we’ve talked about, that healthy successor to the smoke break, accepting these little gifts of silence when they arise in our lives. Maybe, if it’s possible, taking a little bit of time not talking. Gandhi, every week, spent his Monday not speaking. He would sometimes attend meetings, he would sometimes see visitors, but he wouldn’t speak a word. And it was about resting his mental reflex of constantly needing to think of what to say, constantly needing to add to the conversation. And he found that this was an important way to discern the truth.

So, these ways to finding silence are often, even in this world of so much noise, they’re really simple. Oftentimes, we find they’re about simple conversations with other people. We wrote, recently, a new piece for Harvard Business Review on this, and we talk about how, during the drafting of the US Constitution, the delegates there in Philadelphia had a giant mound of dirt erected outside Constitution Hall, and that was because they wanted to have pristine silent attention to be able to do their work, even if they were debating and even yelling at each other sometimes. They wanted a container where there wasn’t outside noise and distraction coming in.

So, we explore how that was the result of, obviously, not a fancy technology, but just a simple conversation that could lead to a shared norm around the value of quiet attention. And this book is really about “How do we make these shifts in our own lives, like Gandhi, or as a group in a workplace, like those delegates writing the US Constitution all those years ago?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, can we hear some favorite quotes?

Leigh Marz
Well, we turn to Viktor Frankl. He has, at least, this is a quote often attributed to him, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Justin Zorn
And for us, this quote really gets to the essence of what we mean by silence, not just the auditory silence; the informational and the internal. When we find this space that Frankl is talking about, this is the deep pristine attention that we’re talking about. It’s this golden silence. And there’s choice here. It’s where we find our agency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Leigh Marz
So many but just maybe in relation to this conversation, Chatter: The Voices in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross because that really put…what happened actually, that book came out while we were working on this, and he really took the conversation of that internal soundscape to a new level into the mainstream, and we’re so appreciative of that, and that one little piece that he pulled out with the fact that we have 320-some state of union addresses going through our minds every day, that’s compressed speech, really, really helped us with understanding how this internal chatter is noise in many cases.

Justin Zorn
Relevant to this conversation, one book that was coming up for us that we didn’t mention in our book but mentioned in a recent article, is a work of Hal Gregersen, a long-time MIT scholar. His book Questions Are the Answer is really about the notion that in group decision-making, the answers come through cultivating open space, not by trying to perform or not always by even presenting the best data but by cultivating the space where we could be together in a question, contemplating inside the inquiry. And this book is very much about how we curate and cultivate these kinds of spaces.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Leigh Marz
Well, we’ll highlight the take your to-do list for a hike. I also like to take clients on the early side of brainstorming for a hike so that that’s the space that we’re thinking about this project from, not strapped to a desk.

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

Justin Zorn
I would say this that I mentioned earlier about an invitation to take a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities, which is having to think of what to say.

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

Leigh Marz
So, as you might imagine, we’re not really big on social media with a platform like silence being our thing. But you can find us at our website AstreaStrategies.com, and that’s A-S-T-E-Astrategies.com. You can contact us through the website.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Leigh, when you said that, that reminds me of my favorite tweet of all time, which is, I read it and it just tickled me so much, it said, the tweet read, “Holding my child and just so present in this moment.”

Leigh Marz
That is the best. We’ll put that as our new favorite quote.

Justin Zorn
That is a really high-level way of throwing some shade on Twitter.

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

Leigh Marz
Yeah. I would say…well, I’ll say the first half is really to notice noise. Notice the auditory informational and internal noise that is getting in the way of you being awesome at your job, to really take note of it, and notice how to mitigate those things. And the second part, I’ll let Justin take on.

Justin Zorn
The second part, the flipside of that is tuning into silence. As we mentioned, noticing even these small pockets of silence exist in our life. Maybe it’s like we talked about in between the words, maybe it’s just taking that moment to step outside of the office and connect to the silence that surround us, and to feel the abundance that’s available in the silence, to feel the abundance of calm and peace that we could tune into, even when the world seems crazy, even when our lives seem crazy. Tuning into the silence, finding more energy, clarity, and focus within it.

Leigh Marz
Especially when we go off as teams to retreat, to refuel, or to generate some ideas and strategies in the future, to just try not to stuff all that time with content or data or activities, to really build in some silence and some quiet to enjoy together, as well as some recreation and fun.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Leigh, Justin, this has been a treat. I wish you much great silence.

Leigh Marz
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

Justin Zorn
Thank you, Pete.

781: How to Tackle Overwhelming Stress and Develop Mental Fitness with Jody Michael

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Jody Michael uncovers the surprising cause of much of our stress and shares expert techniques to train your mind for greater resilience.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you’re unknowingly stressing yourself out 
  2. How to keep stress at bay with ABC and SEE
  3. How to go from triggered to calm in just 30 seconds 

About Jody

Jody Michael is CEO of Jody Michael Associates, and is recognized as one of the top 4% of coaches worldwide and is an internationally credentialed Master Certified Coach, Board Certified Coach, University of Chicago trained psychotherapist, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Among her clients are more than 120 senior executives across 18 Fortune 100 companies. She has been featured in the Wall Street JournalNew York TimesForbesOprah MagazineHuffington Post, Crain’s Chicago and as an expert guest on MSNBC, CNN, the TODAY Show, and NPR. 

Resources Mentioned

Jody Michael Interview Transcript

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

Jody Michael
Thank you. It’s great to be here, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to chat with you about your book Leading Lightly: Lower Your Stress, Think with Clarity, and Lead with Ease. But, first, I was so curious, is it, in fact, true that you have done, over your lifetime, 40,000 coaching sessions?

Jody Michael
No, that’s not accurate.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Jody Michael
It’s over 40,000. I stopped counting a bit back.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, over. Yes, okay.

Jody Michael
Yeah, I’ve been doing this a long time, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Well, so I’ve got know, what are some insights about the human condition that just come from that? Are there some patterns you’ve picked up on that you think you have been able to notice, having had this unique experience, that most of us are maybe unaware of?

Jody Michael
Yeah, so I think that when I’m talking to people, because it’s a very select audience, there’s generally three challenges that come up over and over again. And the first category is probably leveling up their leadership to be more effective. People come with that concern all the time – being a better leader, a better operator, a better communicator, embodying a more powerful executive presence.

And then the second area are concerns around emotional intelligence, the need to just be able to read the room, learn how to manage their emotions, effectively deal with people issues, all those internal politics that go on, the different personalities, the bosses. And then, since COVID, what’s coming up more and more is just managing the burnout, the stress, the Sunday night anxiety, both within themselves and really, “How do I help my team?” That’s what comes up.

And what is surprising to me is the person in the room. It doesn’t matter if they’re the CEO, it doesn’t matter if they’re a beginning manager, honestly, they bring a lot of the same based concerns. You would think that that would not be true but it is true. So, you get the stress and anxiety and imposter syndrome from C-suite executives as well as a manager. That surprised me early on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. Okay, that is surprising and good to note, and you’ve got the credibility and clout there, having done so many reps here. So, thank you. And I guess that’s, in a way, encouraging in terms of, “Hey, even superstars that have super senior positions are experiencing some of the same things I’m having. And, thusly, it doesn’t mean I’m weird or freakish or broken in any way. This is just part of the human condition.”

Jody Michael
It is the human condition. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you for that. Well, now let’s hear about the book, Leading Lightly. What’s the big idea or main thesis or message here?

Jody Michael
Well, it doesn’t have to be this hard. That’s the big message. When you look at how people are coping today, one out of five Americans are on psychotropic drugs, one out of 20 can’t go to sleep at night without a prescription sleeping pill, and a study that I read just a couple months ago from the World Health Organization shows that the prevalence of anxiety and depression has gone up 25% worldwide, 25% worldwide since COVID.

So, I think it’s fair to say we’re not faring well. We’re not mentally fit or not very mentally fit. And I think this is hard for people to imagine but I want to take you there right. I just want you to imagine that you can go through your day and nothing really upsets you, nothing triggers you, nothing stresses you. Imagine this, yes, Pete, it’s possible. And it’s not because you’re having some super rare problem-free day; it’s that you’re having the same challenges that were there the day before.

What’s changed is you. You’re different. You’re not reactive. You’re not defensive. You’re not emotionally triggered. You’re Teflon. Nothing sticks. That’s leading lightly. And so, my book is a wakeup call. Your wakeup call to help you see how you’re unwittingly sabotaging yourself, your energy, your performance, how you’re making your days harder and more painful and more exhausting than they need to be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is compelling and exciting as an opportunity and a possibility that this really could be so in our lives. So, then maybe could you share a story so that we can see this in action in terms of a professional who was stressed, exhausted, burned out, overwhelmed and then what they did to turn things around and to lead lightly and be stress-free and untriggered?

Jody Michael
I’d love to. I am going to choose a woman that worked at a Fortune 500 company, we’ll call her Susan, mid to late 30s, ambitious, great at executing, great at delivering projects, perceived as a high potential in the organization. Here’s the problem; she only cared about results. She was intimidating, a driver, just led from stress. She was demanding, dismissive, defensive, and, honestly, no one liked working with her, or for her. Anywhere around this woman was kind of a problem.

So, she was on a six-month performance improvement plan, that’s when we started working together, and so we didn’t have a lot of time to make some pretty big changes in her leadership and how she was experiencing her days, but she worked hard, she took it seriously. She used our MindMastery For Mental Fitness app. And in a few weeks, people started to see her change.

She was lighter, visibly softer. Her meetings became interactive, inspiring instead of how she had been merely directive, which was her style, and people were surprised that she was showing up caring, empathic. She had slowed down. That’s what others saw on the outside. And here’s the message that I want to deliver, here’s what actually happened on the inside – she shifted her perspective.

So, she no longer thought she knew everything. She no longer thought others had a negative intent. She no longer thought she always had to watch her back, so she became more calm, more self-aware, more mindful. And over the next six months, she radically changed how she held her emotions, how she handled her emotions.

So, even if she was upset on the inside, she didn’t show it. She didn’t let that impact how she interacted with others and she became far less stressed. She wasn’t staying up as late at night. She wasn’t moving as fast. She wasn’t talking as fast. She was just more effective. And by the end of our engagement, she wasn’t reactive. She was no longer attacking. She wasn’t defensive. And if she got triggered, she was able to shift out of this triggered state within 60 to 90 seconds without others even being aware of it.

Now, let me finish this story here by telling you, as you can imagine, everyone was worried that she would revert as soon as the coaching engagement was over. I’m right there holding her hand, and that’s what people’s biggest concerns were, her coworkers, but it never happened. Two years later, she broke that glass ceiling at her company, made it to the C-suite, and it was just a far cry from the performance improvement plan that she had on when we first met. So, that’s an example of somebody feeling better internally and all of the people around them getting to experience it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, Jody. Well, that sounds like almost a business-fable type book. We’ve got the drama, “Oh, it’s the end of the line of performance improvement plan. You might be on the way out,” and then, turn around and happy ending. That’s beautiful. Cool. So, you mentioned she worked hard. Let’s zoom in. What does that work look like? If we want to be resilient, mentally fit, stress-free, leading lightly, what are the actions we take to get there?

Jody Michael
Yeah. Well, let me walk you through it. And I think that it’s easiest if I give you an example that everyone can relate to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jody Michael
So, here’s what that would look like, and there’s probably not a listener that would not relate to this. You get an email and you know it’s that email, the one that triggers you, and it makes you so angry that you immediately…you sit down, you’re furiously typing your response, and you hit Send, not just Send, you hit Reply All, and it feels so good.

You feel good. You’re sitting there in the moment feeling good, and then two minutes later, you panic. You probably let out a few expletives. And in that moment, you’re wishing you could take back that email. When you’re triggered, when you’re not thinking clearly, you don’t make good decisions. You become reactive, defensive, whatever.

So, my process helps you learn how to manage those moods and those thoughts and those situations, and I have a step-by-step process I called MindMastery, and it’s going to build your mental fitness by disrupting your habitual patterns, and then, over time, it will actually rewire your brain. And so, for people to remember this process, I created a mnemonic.

The first part is ABC, the second part is SEE. So, A stands for assess. The first thing you want to do if you’re starting to rebuild your brain is to assess the moods and the thoughts that you have when you get triggered, and this is super critical. You have to start hearing what you say to yourself. And before I even more on to letter B, I want to make sure that you get one really important concept. The words of the email did not cause you to become furious. It wasn’t the words. What caused you to become furious were the thoughts you had when you read the email.

So, in that example, maybe someone’s sitting there saying, “He’s lying. I didn’t say that,” and that created the thought, or the mood, I should say, of furious. Another person who receives that exact same email directed at them may have the thought, “What? Was I unclear? Did he misunderstand what I said to him the other day?” and they would’ve created a very different mood, a mood of confusion with the exact same words on that email. That’s a critical distinction that, for many people, it really takes a while to embody. So, that’s the first you’re doing, is just assessing, “What did I just say to myself that created this upset?”

B stands for breathe. Breathing deeply, as soon as you start to assess, “What did I just say to myself?” deep diaphragmic breathing, holding it for six seconds, releasing, and then repeating it as you needed until you calm yourself. You’re doing that. And C is you’re choosing. You’re choosing to be accountable for your moods, for your thoughts, for your behavior, for whatever results happen as a result, and you look in the mirror, you ask yourself, “How did I contribute to this situation?” You’re not blaming. You’re not focusing on the other party.

And once you get stabilized with this ABC, the second part of the mnemonic, SEE, this is going to boost your resilience and your emotional intelligence because it’s really getting to the heart of who you are and who you can be. So, the first letter is S, and it stands for spot. You want to spot your current lens, your current perspective that’s driven by your underlying core beliefs. That’s what’s causing your distrust.

E stands for explore. You want to explore other lenses, other perspectives, by being curious, by being empathic, flexible, open. And the final E stands for elect. You want to elect a lens, choose a perspective that is going to allow you to perform at your best in this given situation. And if you engage in this process, my God, I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, refining it, refining it, we’ve got it under 10 minutes a day. If you’re doing it correctly, if you’re doing it eight or more times a day over a long enough period of time, you’re going to feel the difference, you’re going to start to respond differently, and others are going to notice it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then, that eight times a day, that is in response to a stressor.

Jody Michael
That is in response to that app coming at you intermittently, randomly, when you’re not ready and you’re just responding to that app, and responding to ABC, assessing, “Where am I? What is the mood I’m in right now? What are the thoughts I’m having right now?” etc. And it’s going to build your emotional intelligence. It’s going to help you calm down, etc. Now, can you proactively go in when you get triggered? Absolutely. That’s going to help this process go faster, your brain is going to learn it exponentially quicker, and you’re going to get results.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, refresh us the name of the app is what and how do we get it?

Jody Michael
It is MindMastery for Mental Fitness.

Pete Mockaitis
MindMastery for Mental Fitness.

Jody Michael
And it’s on Google Apps, it’s on Apple, and we were one of the first transformational, if not the first transformational app out there. It’s been out there for 10 years. So, I’ve been doing research on this. I’ve been using this process for over 20 years, and it is a vast majority, a good proportion of those 40,000 one-on-one sessions I’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, with 10 years and research and experience, what sort of…is there some quantified lift on a construct that psychologists would point to, like, “Hey, when you do this, we can expect X percent improvement in Y”?

Jody Michael
I don’t have the X percent improvement on Y. There’s a lot of reasons that will bore your listeners for me to go through, but what we can look at and measure, the second piece of the app is going to measure how quickly you can get yourself out of a triggered state, and if you can sustain it. And that’s what we’re looking for. That’s what I really care about. It’s like, “Look, when you get triggered, can you pause and can we get your amygdala, your fight-or-flight response down so you’re not going to make a leadership mistake, you’re not going to say something you don’t want to say, or take an action or make a decision that’s not good in that moment?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s cool. And so, what are some of the kind of like the before-or-after times associated with that?

Jody Michael
Honestly, when you get good at doing…look, when you first start, it’s hard. People will come back and say, “Look, I was in this mood for three days.” And that same person three months later is like they’re in that mood for 10 minutes. You move that out six months later, they’re in that mood for 40 seconds. And at some point, your brain, because here’s what’s really going on in your brain. You’re just following habitual neuropathways. So, when you’re reactive, your brain just wants to take the shortcut. It’s just doing it. You’re not even thinking about it.

But when you stop your brain from reacting, and you say, “No, no, I don’t want to go down that path, that well-worn path. I’m going to create a new path,” over time, that new path that you repeat is going to be a well-grooved path and, at some point, your brain is going to shift over and go down the new pathway. And that’s how change, deep systemic change happens. And that’s what’s exciting because mental fitness, unlike physical fitness, if you do it long enough, it just stays with you. It’s just your new 2.0 version of you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s maybe walk through an example. Let’s say the app zings me or buzzes me, and I am feeling stressed because my two precious children, three and four years old, are being kind of squabble-y, they’re like just not playing well together, just sort of saying, “Give me this, give me this. Waah, I know this is mine. Waah,” crying and being loud, and I find that stressful. I’m just like, “Aargh, just knock it off.” And so, one of my life goals is to never scream, shut up my children, and, thus far, four and a half years in, I am batting a thousand.

Jody Michael
Are you failing at this?

Pete Mockaitis
No, I’ve managed to, not externally, articulate that. But, internally, I’m just like, “Aargh! Knock it off!” It really does feel visceral in terms of these are loud noises and unpleasant emotions being kind of broadcast toward me, and it’s sort of like I have some responsibility here as they’re my children, and it’s sort of like, “I should probably do something.” What I should do is not completely clear but I’ve got some ideas, but mostly I guess, you could say I’m stressed, I’m triggered, I don’t care for this. And so, here we are. Let’s walk through it.

Jody Michael
Let me help you.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it.

Jody Michael
Let me help you, yes. First of all, you said something very important that I want to, if I was working with you, I would make this correction. You said you were stressed because your kids were acting out, or whatever you were saying. You’re not stressed because your kids are acting out. You’re stressed because of what you’re saying to yourself while your kids are acting out.

Because I’m sure, Pete, there are times when the kids are acting out, and you’re just thinking, “Oh, they’re adorable.” You’re maybe more rested, maybe there’s something happening in your space that the kids aren’t annoying you in that moment in the same way they did the day before. Is that true?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, happens. Yeah.

Jody Michael
Okay. So, that’s the critical point that I would coach you on. It’s like, “What are you saying in that moment when the kids are acting up?” That’s what’s creating the stress. But an even faster way to get out, because you don’t want to deal with this, you just don’t want to feel that way, is a trigger hack. And it’s something really simple, and it is underused, this skill. And it’s breathing.

Remember when I talked about, just a moment ago, that deep diaphragmic breathing, most people don’t do this right. But this is the fastest way to get out of a triggered state, is to…I’ll show you how to do it right now. Let’s just do it together. Put your hands on your lower abdomen, below your bellybutton. Take it in as much breath as you can, breathe in. Make sure your belly goes out. This is where people don’t do it right. Hold it, one, one thousand, two, one thousand, all the way to the count of six, one thousand, and then release.

So, while your kids are acting out, you’re going to do that, and you’re going to do that repeatedly, probably will only take you three or four times to do that. And guess what? At six seconds, you have 20 seconds or 30 seconds, you will feel amazingly different physiologically when you do that. That is the fastest way to calm yourself down.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I want to dig into that a little bit. So, there’s the hold for six seconds. Does the pace at which I inhale matter, it can be fast or slow?

Jody Michael
It doesn’t matter. As long as your belly is really, really…you can’t put anymore oxygen in, that’s super important.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s funny, that actually feels a little stressful when I’m just like, “Ahh, I might burst. This is so much air all up in me.”

Jody Michael
That’s funny.

Pete Mockaitis
Is that okay or do I want a little bit lesser than that?

Jody Michael
It’s okay. It’s okay. No, it’s actually great. You know what’s actually happening when you do that? Let me explain what’s happening and why that’s so effective. When you get…let’s call it “stressed by your kids,” your whole body tenses up and you go into what is called a catabolic state. You go into some negative state where you’re dumping chemicals, not good chemicals, into your body. And what happens is your amygdala gets triggered. You go into fight or flight even in a small situation like that, and you’re not optimally thinking straight because that’s overtaking your brain.

And while that’s happening, your focus gets narrow and all you can hear is your kids, so you start to focus just on your kids, everything else goes away. When you breathe like that, it disengages the amygdala. Now, it might not do that in the first six seconds, but maybe in the second six seconds. And what happens then is it re-engages the front of your brain called your prefrontal cortex. And why that’s important is that’s your executive functioning part of your brain.

And so, you are immediately stopping the coursing of the negative hormones in your body, your body is basically going, “Oh, there is no stress.” There is no stress because, physiologically, you couldn’t do that. You could not breathe deeply like that if there was a tiger in the room that was about to kill you. So, it confuses your brain, and says, “Oh, there is nothing stressful here. Relax. There isn’t something stressful.” And that’s why, so quickly, your body can come into homeostasis, and much quicker than thinking through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, likewise, with the exhale, is that any pace is fine?

Jody Michael
Any pace is fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And the six seconds, would seven be even better?

Jody Michael
Six seconds is based on research. So, this is the quickest you can get out of a triggered state physiologically is when you breathe that way under stress and you hold it. That’s what the research shows. So, I think that’s where that comes from, the six seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Jody Michael
It’s not going to get hurt you to hold it at seven. It’s just hard to hold it for seven.

Pete Mockaitis
And I guess it will elongate it by a whole four seconds if I’m doing this four times.

Jody Michael
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I can’t spare that time. Okay. So, there’s the breathe. And then the choosing?

Jody Michael
Yes. And then you’re choosing to be accountable. Your kids didn’t do this to you, Pete. You created the stress. The kids are just playing. They’re just acting out. They’re just being kids.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Jody Michael
So, you have to then, at just that juncture, when you choose accountability, you have the opportunity then to be in control of your emotional state rather than looking at the kids are the issue. Now, you can still go over there and say, “Hey, guys, calm down. Let’s stop. Time out,” but it’ll be in a different emotional state than it would be if you didn’t do this, of course.

But really, what it is, is that self-awareness…well, see here, this is a good, probably a quote, is that you don’t get stressed; you create stress. You don’t get overwhelmed; you create overwhelm. And most of us are blind to this that’s why it’s so hard for us to process this. It’s just nonsensical because we don’t understand how we’re doing it.

But once you understand how you’re doing it, you get in control. You get in control of lowering your stress levels to amazing levels, and you think it’s not even possible, especially someone who’s very reactive, they’re thinking, “I can’t do this.” But when you are re-training your brain, you can do this, and it makes you really feel in control.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s intriguing. When you talked about overwhelmed, I’m thinking that overwhelmed, on the emotional level, I can say it feels a certain way, like physiologically, so there’s that. And then there’s also overwhelmed in terms of just like a sheer resource issue, like, “This thing is important to me and the time available to complete it is short, and my resources are scanty, and, thusly, I feel…” I don’t know if you want to challenge my thusly, “And I feel stressed, worried, overwhelmed about this situation here.”

So, I guess you’re drawing the distinction that being resource-constrained and working on something important that is potentially at risk of not being completed on time or at sufficient quality is distinct from an emotional sense of overwhelm.

Jody Michael
It is distinct from but I want to tell you that you could have the same volume of work, you could have the same limited resources, you could have a boss that is very difficult, and you can come to me, and I’ve had this situation happen, I can think of this vividly. I had a woman come to my office, and say, basically begged me to give her permission to quit her job, like I was mom or something.

And I said to her, “No, you have to take my full day MindMastery workshop first, and then let’s work it, then I will address this question in two months, three months, and we’ll see if you feel that way.” Now, of course, she could leave her job. Of course.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. You don’t own her.

Jody Michael
But she asked me, and I said, “Don’t think you’ll actually want to leave your job.” And I will tell you that within a couple of months, I said, “Okay, you know you’re going to go back to school in six months, you have enough resources. If you want to quit your job, you could certainly quit your job.” And she said, “Why would I quit my job? It doesn’t stress me anymore.” That’s the difference. Because what’s creating the overwhelm isn’t the amount of work you’re getting. It’s what you’re saying to yourself. Look, every single day, you spend somewhere between…you have somewhere between 6,000 and 50,000 thoughts a day.

And the National Science Foundation tells you, does research, and says, “You know, those 6,000, 50,000 thoughts that you have every day, 80% of them are negative, 80% of the thoughts that you’re thinking are negative,” meaning you’re spending most of your day stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious, burnt out, and I think most people can relate to that, especially over the last couple of years, but what is actually creating the overwhelm is you, sitting there, saying, “Oh, my God, don’t give me one more thing. Are you kidding? You’re giving another piece. I have another deadline. I can’t make this. I don’t have time. God, I don’t have time. I don’t have time.”

That research also showed that 80% of the thoughts you’re going to think today are the exact same thoughts that you thought yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. So, we are running this script that we don’t even hear in our subconscious. And if you walk around all day and say, “I’m tired. I’m tired. I’m tired,” you’re not hearing yourself say that, “I’m overwhelmed. There’s too much to do, etc.” You start to have a mantra, and that creates overwhelm or stress.

Otherwise, if that wasn’t true, Pete, everyone at a certain workload would get to the place where they’re overwhelmed. Everyone. And that’s not true. Some people have a far higher capacity than someone else, and some people just feel like they’re Teflon, they just don’t get overwhelmed. They just power through or they’re really having very different conversations about the work that they’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool and exciting and compelling. Intriguing, six to 50,000 thoughts is quite a range. Some people thinking eight times as many thoughts as others.

Jody Michael
Yeah, there’s so much controversy around that. There’s different research out there, so I don’t know what the true number is but it ranges from all this.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it’s not so much that some people are thinking eight times as many thoughts as others, although maybe they are.

Jody Michael
Yeah, that’s pretty funny.

Pete Mockaitis
Versus how are counting a thought. Okay. And then I’m thinking about 1,440 minutes in a day, maybe a 1,000 conscious minutes in a day not asleep. I buy it, six to 50 thoughts per minute. That sounds about right. Okay. So, we got the ABCs. And how about the SEE now?

Jody Michael
The SEE is spot your current lens. What’s the perspective that’s driving this core belief? And the belief is your kids. The core belief that you’re having there is annoyance, your kids are making you crazy, your kids are stressing you out. So, you’re looking at that lens and saying, “Okay, is that perspective helpful for me to get in control, to be my best self in that moment?” Let’s just call it, “To be the best parent I can be, is that the best perspective I could have in that moment?” Chances are it’s not.

And then the second E, explore, is, “How else can I look at this?” Well, you might look at this empathically from your kids’ point of view. They’ve been cooped up all day and they’re just trying to expend energy. So, you look at the kids, and, “Oh, they’re just kids. Kids will be kids,” let’s just say. You’re looking for a lens where you could be empathic, where you could be curious, where you could be more flexible to the situation rather than the narrow lens of, “These kids are making me crazy right now. I’m stressed.”

And then the final E stands for elect. Now, choose the right lens for you. Whatever that is in that moment, what perspective is going to allow you to perform at your best as a parent in this given situation? And what that might be for you, Pete, in that moment? How else can you look at that?

Pete Mockaitis
I suppose what I would say to myself would be kind of an exploratory question-problem-solving thing, like, “What needs are not being met for these children such that they are in such a mood? Are they tired? Are they hungry? And how can I help meet that need?”

Jody Michael
Yeah, that’s great. HALT, right, hungry, angry, lonely, tired, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Okay, thank you.

Jody Michael
That’s a great parenting skill, HALT, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then thank you for that. That’s cool. Let’s do another rapid-fire example of someone. They’re at work, they’ve got some things in their to-do list, and they’ve been procrastinating. There’s a couple items that, ugh, I’ve got to watch what I say around, you know, Jody. I want to say it makes them stressed, just like, there are a few items on the to-do list.

When they look at them, they go, “Ugh, that does not feel pleasant. I don’t want to do that,” and they feel a sensation of reduced motivation, energy, sudden burning desire to check the news or social media or email instead of facing down that thing. Can you walk us through in rapid fire the ABC, SEE, and how things might go down here?

Jody Michael
Yeah, I could. Let me do you one better though. Let me shock people by saying procrastination is a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Shocking. Shock us.

Jody Michael
And so, what I mean by that is we tend to think about the lack of action as the foundation of the problem. But what’s really driving the habit of procrastination is, again, the conversation that you’re having with yourself right before the action of procrastination. You’re saying something like, “Ugh, I’ll do this later,” or, “Ugh, I don’t have time right now,” or, “I’m too tired,” or, “I don’t feel like it.”

And if you listen to yourself, I guarantee you, if you listen, you’re going to hear that you’re having the same conversation with yourself over and over and over again. If you catch that conversation right in that moment, and change the conversation, that’s what’s going to actually conquer the habit of procrastination. So, that’s why I wanted to go just one deeper.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you.

Jody Michael
So, what would you do A for assess? You would say, “Okay, what am I feeling like right now? I’m feeling like I don’t want to do this. I don’t feel like it.” That’s kind of like avoidance. Maybe that would be the mood state. “And what’s my thought? My thought would be I don’t want to do this, or not now.” Something to that effect.

And then, while you’re doing that, you’re breathing because you are triggered in that avoidance, or checked out, and you say, “Okay, I’m going to be accountable not just for my moods but for my thoughts and behaviors.” So, right there, you’re choosing, “I can bigger than this moment of procrastination.” So, now you’re going to look, you’re going to, S, spot your current lens or perspective, and what’s driving this.

What’s driving this belief is probably you don’t want to do the thing that’s in front of you, so there’s some belief about it’s hard, or, “I have anxiety about it,” the thing that’s in front of you. So, there’s some belief about, “It’s hard,” or, “I have anxiety about it.” That’s why people generally avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
“I might screw it up.”

Jody Michael
Yeah, “I might screw it up,” there’s something like that. And then you explore another lens, the E for explore, and then you ask yourself, “Is that really true? Is it really true I’m going to screw this up? No, I have no historical evidence that I’m going to screw this up.” Okay, then final E, elect, how else can you look at this? “Every time I work with numbers, let’s say, I get anxious. That’s what this is about.”

So, let’s shift that lens and create maybe a competition, “Let’s see how fast I can get this done.” That would shift your whole, “Let’s make this a game. Let’s see how fast I can get this done. Let’s tackle this because as soon as I get this done, I can go and do something more enjoyable.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And then what comes to mind is, “Oh, well, if I don’t want to do it, then by conquering this thing, I will feel all the more victorious and unstoppable in my pursuits.”

Jody Michael
Yeah, that is a favorite habit of mine, to be honest with you. At the beginning of my day, I do the thing I want to do least first because if you don’t want to do something, you avoid it, you dread it. It’s going to be an energy drain that’s just going to hover over you subconsciously all day long. It’s like this invisible weight that I’m carrying. On the other hand, if I get it done first, I’m immediately rewarded with a burst of energy, which is a great way to start the day. So, that is a habit that I started many years ago and I love.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I think Brian Tracy has got a book Eat That Frog about this very notion.

Jody Michael
Yes. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Jody, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?

Jody Michael
Yeah, you can’t change what you don’t see, and you think you see more than you do. There’s a research study out by Tasha Eurich presented in her book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, we had her on the show.

Jody Michael
Presented in her book Insight. And 95% of people think they’re self-aware, only 10-15% are. And in my experience as an executive coach is that it’s absolutely dead-on. Even people that have high emotional intelligence are not as self-aware as they think they are, and it’s fascinating to see that. That surprised me.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jody Michael
Oh, yeah, I love this quote, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” George Bernard Shaw. And I love it because it’s empowering, it’s hopeful, it’s proactive. It’s the opposite of victim mentality and it’s poignant. It has rich applicability to my life and to the work that I do with others, so I love that quote.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Jody Michael
Self-Deception and Leadership by The Arbinger Institute. You’re familiar with it, yes? That’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one. I listened to the audiobook and so I always hear it, “You’re in the box.”

Jody Michael
Yes. Yes, get out of the box.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Jody Michael
Oh, I love Muse. I think it’s the best meditation tool out there to learn to meditate. It’s a headband.

Pete Mockaitis
Are we talking about the brain-sensing headband?

Jody Michael
Yeah, love it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve got two of them.

Jody Michael
Oh, yeah, that’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
It is fun. It’s fun.

Jody Michael
No, I really think it helps people learn to meditate exponentially faster. I really believe that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, the audio feedback is great. I prefer the campfire sound myself. And I also like the number-y aspect because meditation is kind of like a noncompetitive thing, and, nonetheless, I like to know, “Am I getting better here?” And I could see the birds and how I’ve got more. And there’s a great article, we’ll link to it in the show notes, about someone hosted a March mindfulness meditation competition.

Jody Michael
Oh, my God, that’s hysterical.

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

Jody Michael
My website JodyMichael.com. That’s Jody with a Y, not an I, and Michael just like the first name, no S at the end.

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

Jody Michael
Watch your words. Create awareness around the words you use. Words are powerful. Your words are creating your moods, your feelings. Those moods and feelings are driving your behavior. And your behavior creates the results that you end up getting or you don’t get. That’s the power of words. And, again, I’m not just talking about the words you use when you’re speaking to others. I’m particularly talking about the words that you say to yourself. Your thoughts.

If you can uncover your thoughts, hear your thoughts, understand how your thoughts are self-sabotaging, and then choose to reframe those impending thoughts with more helpful thoughts, it will change the trajectory of your leadership and your life, just as it has done for many of my clients.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jody, thank you. This has been a delight. I wish you and your book Leading Lightly all the luck.

Jody Michael
Thank you, Pete.

775: Susan Cain Uncovers the Surprising and Uplifting Power of Sorrow and Longing

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Susan Cain explains how embracing bittersweetness helps us lead more creative, connected, and fulfilling careers and lives.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two simple shifts to make you more courageous
  2. How a bias for positivity is holding us back
  3. How to keep your brain from wallowing in negativity

About Susan

Susan Cain is the #1 bestselling author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which spent eight years on The New York Times best seller list, and has been translated into 40 languages. Susan’s TED talks have been viewed over 40 million times. LinkedIn named her the Top 6th Influencer in the World, just behind Richard Branson and Melinda French Gates. Susan partners with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant and Dan Pink to curate the Next Big Idea Book Club. They donate all their proceeds to children’s literacy programs. Visit Susan at susancain.net.

Resources Mentioned

Susan Cain Interview Transcript

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

Susan Cain
Thank you so much, Pete. It is awesome to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and some insights from your latest book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. And congratulations on hitting number one on New York Times’ Best Seller list, that’s pretty fantastic. Good job.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much.

Pete Mockaitis
But maybe, first, I’m dying to know, and I think many of the listeners are as well, so you’re also quite famous for your book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And you do public speaking all the time, and I understand that wasn’t your favorite thing to do. Could you maybe tell us how you found some growth and development there? And did you learn to enjoy it all the more?

Susan Cain
Oh, God, yeah. I mean, so you have to know where I was starting from because it wasn’t just that I didn’t enjoy speaking. It was that, like, I can sometimes literally vomit before a speech, and I would always lose five pounds in the week before a speech because I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep. Like, it was very intense. And I used to be a lawyer before I became a writer, so during all that time I was a lawyer, I just gritted my teeth through that suffering.

But then when I became a writer, and like I really cared about getting my message out. I didn’t want my phobia to stand in the way, so I kind of tackled this issue that I had. And here’s the secret, and what I’m about to say applies to any fear that your listeners might have, any fear. The way to overcome any fear is you have to expose yourself to the thing you fear, you can’t hide from it, but you have to do it in very, very small, very manageable doses.

So, you can’t start by giving a TED Talk if your fear is public speaking. You have to start by going to the nicest Toastmasters meeting you’ve ever seen. Or, in my case, I went to this seminar for people with public speaking anxiety, where everybody was really nice and all you had to do was, like you’d start by this really small exercises. Like, the first day, you’d get up and say your name and sit back down, “Congratulations. You’re done.” 

And you’d ratch it up little by little by little by little by little from there, and, in this way, you’re basically training your brain that the thing that it reacted to, as if it were a saber-toothed tiger, you’re basically training your brain, “Oh, it’s not a dangerous tiger. It’s a daffodil, and it’s okay.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Susan Cain
Yeah. And so, it’s just sort of a long process but anyone can do it. That’s the great news.

Pete Mockaitis
As I put my brain in that situation, I think one of the funnest parts for me would be just creatively ideating and trying to determine what might be that next super tiny step. And it’s so funny, it’s just like, I’m thinking about virtual reality, like you can’t do it for real. You can even do it there. So, that’s nifty.

Susan Cain
It’s interesting to me though that you described that as fun. So, let me ask you this. Were you ever a nervous public speaker, or no? And the reason I asked this is because I never would’ve described the process as fun while I was in it. It was more like something I needed to do.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think the doing it is as much fun so much as the thinking, “Oh, there is a super tiny step. That’s something I could feel like I can get a victory on that is not terrifyingly overwhelming.”

Susan Cain
Right. Right. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
But, yeah, the doing would be difficult. I’d say I never had the vomits pre-public speaking but I…

Susan Cain
I never heard it called the vomits.

Pete Mockaitis
But I did…I certainly felt nerves. And I guess I somehow managed to convince myself that I was excited and then I believed it, and it’s a rush. I remember a speaking mentor said, “When it comes to public speaking, it’s like, man, sometimes there’s this electricity and sometimes you get electrocuted,” in terms of how it seems to go, and that’s been my experience. I’ve had some talks that didn’t go as well.

And, in a way, those have been super helpful in terms of taking a real good look, like, “What went wrong there?” And all of it was sort of like assumptions I had made about the audience in advance, like, “Oh, they’re not already jazzed about this topic,” and it’s more of a general audience, and so it’s oopsies, lessons learned. But one fun thing about talking about on How to be Awesome at Your Job is all the listeners already care about being awesome at their jobs, so we got that covered.

Susan Cain
Right. Yeah, so you already know what they’re excited about, hearing about. Well, I’ll give one other public speaking hack that I think is really huge for people who are afraid of public speaking, which is that if you are afraid of it, it is because you are attuning excessively to being judged. You’re like your relationship with the audience emotionally is that they’re the judge or perhaps the executioner, and you’re like the penitent before them. That is not a helpful relationship obviously.

What I would try to turn that into is to think in advance, like, “What…” from your heart, like really think at a heart level, “What is it that I want to convey? What can I say that’s going to be truly helpful today? Even if it’s just helpful to one person in the audience, what could I do that could truly elevate someone’s life?” And then you’re going out there in the spirit of like, “What can I give?” as opposed to “How will I be judged?” And it’s a completely different energy. Completely. It’s very transformative.

I don’t find that that works if you’re in a state of extreme, extreme anxiety, but once you get to the point where it’s stamped down and you’re in the realm of manageable butterflies, shifting your energy that way is really transformative.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Well, Susan, you’re already providing fantastic insights, and we’re not even on the main topic yet, so this is going great. Well, all right, tell us, Bittersweet, could you maybe kick us off by sharing a particularly surprising discovery you made while researching and putting this together that has been really striking for folks?

Susan Cain
I think our culture, I know our culture, is so confused, so kind of bedazzled by the idea of being positive at all times that it doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between this incredibly productive and creative state of bittersweet melancholy versus clinical depression. We don’t have a language for distinguishing between the two. We don’t have a way of thinking about it.

Even if you look in the field of psychology, you’ll find psychologists talking about this around the edges but in the center of the field. And yet, like the state of bittersweet melancholy that I’m talking about in my book is one of the greatest power sources that we have of creativity and of human connection, and of a sense of self-transcendence and spirituality, so lots of the goodies that lots of people want, both for their work lives, their creative lives, their emotional lives, and yet we’re living in a culture that’s telling you that the only way to get there is through a kind of relentless upbeat optimism. And that’s just not true.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That sounds like a thesis statement. I love it. Well, then could you paint a clear picture for us and draw as bright a distinction as we can between depression and bittersweet?

Susan Cain
Yeah. So, with depression, you’re in a state where it’s a kind of emotional black hole. You’re in a state of despair. You’re in a state of hopelessness. You’re not in a state of like being in touch with things. You’re in a state of like, “I’m worthless. Life is hopeless. I’m cut off. There’s nothing to be done.” When you’re in a state of bittersweetness, you’re acutely aware of both the sorrow and the joy in this world, and the fact that they’re forever paired but with that comes an acute awareness of beauty and an ability to transform pain into beauty.

So, it’s actually a very hopeful state. It’s a state of meaning. It’s the reason that after 9/11, for example, we suddenly had a lot of people signing up for jobs as firefighters. And after the pandemic, we’ve suddenly had a lot of people enrolling in medical school and nursing school. And neither of those responses make sense on their face. That’s kind of like here are people reacting to a dispiriting and dangerous situation by signing up for more danger, like signing up to be at the heart of the danger.

But what they’re really doing is they’re turning in the direction of meaning, which is what people have the capacity to do. We have the capacity to respond to life’s difficulties by turning in that direction of meaning in our careers and in our life orientation.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And I love it if we could continue of painting a picture of what you call bittersweet. I guess as I’m thinking about 9/11, for instance, and where I was and what’s going on, like I felt confusion, sadness, shock, anger. It wasn’t like bittersweet as like, “Oh, my baby is growing up,” and so that’s what I first think about when it’s like, “Oh, she doesn’t want to be held as much,” or kind whatever. And so, that’s kind of what leaps to mind when I have the word bittersweet to me. Can you unpack a bit more of the vibe, the texture, the look, the sound, the feel of bittersweet as you describe it?

Susan Cain
Yeah. And actually, the example of your baby growing up is, I think it’s a fantastic example because bittersweetness really is…it’s about, as I say, the pairing of joy and sorrow, and the fact that that’s what this life is, but it’s also about the recognition that everyone and everything we love most will not stay the same, will not live forever, all of that. And then what comes with that is this beauty.

I have a bittersweet quiz that it’s at the beginning of my book and it’s also on my website for people who just want to take it quickly, which is SusanCain.net but I can give you a few questions from it to give you a sense. So, one question is, “Do you react intensely to music, art, or nature?” Another question is, “Do you draw comfort or inspiration from rainy days?” That’s sort of like cozy, poetic, rainy day vibe. And another one is, “Do you like sad music?”

We actually know that people listen to the happy songs on their playlist about 175 times, but they listen to these sad songs 800 times. And we know that it’s the sad music that gives us the goosebumps and the chills as opposed to the happy music. And I love the happy music and the dance music is great. It’s just that there’s something in that vein of art created with a tinge of melancholy that gets people in the real heart. It’s just something for creatives to know, in general. It’s like sort of the secret to the creative sauce.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. When you talked about happy and sad songs, I think that really does nail it because I’m imagining like your wedding playlist, like, “Too high,” “Hot damn.” So, there’s that, and so that’s fun. But then as I’m thinking, like sad songs, the first thing that came to mind was “Champagne High” by Sister Hazel, which, if you look at the lyrics, it’s really heart-wrenching.

It’s about a person who is at someone else’s – geez, I’m getting choked up – he’s at someone else’s wedding that he was in love with, and he had hoped to reconnect but it just didn’t quite work out, like, “Dude,” like, “Whoa.” Like, if you put yourself there, it is deeper and it’s hitting the heart. And, at the same time, it’s not all just gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s like, “Ah, we had something beautiful, didn’t we?” And so, there it is.

Susan Cain
Yeah, because what you’re really talking about is longing, which is the real key to human DNA. That’s really what drives us at the end of the day. Look at every single religion, they’re all about the longing for the more perfect and beautiful world. It’s like you’re longing for the Garden of Eden, you’re longing for Mecca, you’re longing for Zion.

The Sufis long for the beloved of the soul, that’s what they call the divine. And then we do that creatively, too. We have Dorothy is longing for somewhere over the rainbow. That’s really what glamor is, if there’s anybody listening, where you’re in a kind of glamor field, and that’s what you need to understand what glamor really is.

Glamor is like a pictorial representation of that perfect state, of perfect love, and perfect beauty in an otherworldly sense that we long for. That’s why there’s the kind of iconic image of the shiny convertible driving around the bend to nowhere. And inside the convertible, sits the beautiful couple, and it’s like a representation of this perfect love, and they’re driving around the bend to the perfect unseen. That’s what drives people.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, as I think about such a scene, one’s emotional response would be, “Ahh, I want that.”

Susan Cain
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, “Oh, I’ll never have that.” And then maybe that’s the distinction right there. The latter, I don’t know if it has a bit of hopelessness going on. And so, it’s interesting, like what we’re talking about is so deep and human, it almost feels inappropriate to, I don’t know, weaponize or utilize this, but that’s what you’re saying. It’s, like, it is a force. And so, if we think about the context of people wanting to be awesome at their job, how do we tap into this in a way that we find brings about more wholeness and awesomeness?

Susan Cain
Well, first of all, if you want to understand your co-workers, you have to understand, which is one of the, obviously, the great ways of being awesome at your job is to work well and really care about the people you’re working with. You have to understand this is at the heart of their nature and it’s at the heart of your nature, too. And it creates spaces for people to show up that way, if you’re a team leader, for example.

But, also, it’s like, let’s say even before you get to your job and you’re thinking about what the right job is for you, and maybe you’re not sure, and maybe you don’t know if you’re in the right job or if you’re even in the right career, I would ask yourself, like, “What do you long for? What are you longing for?” And pay attention to the symbols in your life.

If it’s okay, I’ll tell you a quick story from my life to sort of illustrate what I’m talking about. So, I used to be a corporate lawyer before I became a writer, and I was totally in the wrong field for me but I got really caught up in it, the way one does. You know how it is. You’re like in a field and then everyone you know is in that field, and you’re doing it 24/7, so you’re living in this hermetically sealed bubble. You can’t see outside of it.

So, I was caught up in it, I was trying really hard to make partner, I was working all the time for years. And then this day came when a partner in the firm…I wrote all about this. He came and he told me I wasn’t going to be making partner. And, at the time, like I received this news as a catastrophe but I went home the next day, or a little bit after that, I left the firm. I took a leave of absence and a few weeks after that I ended a relationship, a seven-year relationship that had always felt wrong.

And so, now I’m like floating around, like no career, no love, I’m in my early 30s, and I’ve fallen into this relationship with another guy. He’s a musician, he’s a lyricist, a very lit up type of person, and it becomes a kind of obsession, and I can’t shake it, and I can’t stop thinking about him. There’s nothing I can do to extricate myself from this obsession.

And then a friend of mine says to me, she’s like, “If you’re this obsessed with this person, it’s not only because the person himself. It’s because he represents something you’re longing for. So, what are you longing for?” And it was like the minute she said that, I knew the answer. He was a musician. He was, like, he represented this life of art and writing that I’d wanted to be part of. Since I was four years old, I’d wanted to be a writer, and I had put all that on hold for decades.

And as soon as I understood that, the obsession fell away, I started writing for real, and that was it. That’s a kind of dramatic version of it but I think we can all be asking ourselves those questions all the time. Like, you’re working really hard so that you can get a house. Like, what does the house mean to you? What does it symbolize to you? What are you longing for? And make sure you’re orienting your life around, really, what your heart’s longing is telling you because career years have a way of adding up really quickly, and you want to make sure you’re putting them in the right direction.

Pete Mockaitis
And we can often take such wildly circuitous routes to what we’re longing for. Like, did the musician relationship end up working out?

Susan Cain
No, no, and that was fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I thought…I didn’t want to, ”Yes, he’s my husband.”

Susan Cain
No, no, no, it was actually not so long after that that I met my husband. It’s all good, happily ever after.

Pete Mockaitis
If we’re doing something in order to meet another longing, which you may be aware of or not aware of, we could probably be better served just by going directly after that which we’re longing for.

Susan Cain
If you knew what it was.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that’s where I’m going next. What are your pro tips on surfacing that?

Susan Cain
Well, most of all, really, to pay attention to what it is. Like, what is the key question that you keep asking yourself? What’s the thing that you’re staking everything for? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to you underneath it all? What’s the life you truly want? What does home look like to you? I would ask yourself that question. Getting to this fundamental, like, existential longing that we all have. We’re all longing for home in some kind of way. That’s how humans are designed. So, what does home look like to you?

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share with us a few articulations of that from folks that you’ve spoken with, heard about, talked to?

Susan Cain
Gosh, let me think of some good ones for you.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I’m saying is I imagine you’d say, “What I’m longing for is a Ferrari.” It’s like, “Hmm, that’s probably quite not the core of it.”

Susan Cain
Well, it’s funny that you say…that you give that example of the Ferrari because I actually wrote in the book about this seminar that I attended about longing for love. It was given by this great writer, Alain de Botton, and he actually gives the example of a Ferrari owner. It’s like very often the person who’s buying the Ferrari, they’re not necessarily after the Ferrari. Like, they’re after love and admiration. That’s often what’s motivating them.

So, it’s like always looking two or three steps underneath. Very often, when you feel like absolutely driven by something, there’s often something going on underneath it, to ask yourself what the true motivation is, what the true source is.

Susan Cain
So, here’s another example of somebody who I interviewed. So, she had been working at an international consumer goods company, doing sort of consumer research for some years. And, in this work, she…part of what you do with consumer research is you’re listening to the stories of your consumers, you’re asking them a lot of questions, which is something she found that she loved doing. She loved listening. She loved drawing them out. She loved hearing their stories. And the more she did this and the more she listened to the women’s stories and the women’s dissatisfactions, the more with their lives that they were talking to her about, the more it tapped some kind of like a primal longing in her to go back home – she was from the Middle East originally. She had come from a family where there’d been a lot of suffering and abuse of the women in the family, and she realized what she wanted to do was like a kind of healing work of the kinds of women who had been in her family, who these women in the consumer research job had reminded her of, that they kind of set this longing, a light in her.

And so, she goes back to the Middle East and she starts…and I’m being vague about where she’s from because she doesn’t want me to use her name, but she starts a not-for-profit where she’s helping refugees and helping former women prisoners, and she’s doing this work for them but what she’s really doing is trying to correct some of the wrongs that had been done to the women of her family. And it was like that was when she started to feel whole is when she did that kind of work.

Whereas, the whole time she’d been at the consumer research firm, she was like fascinated by the stories but felt a kind of a kind of…she called it like a numbness and a deadness inside, and she started to come alive when she did that kind of work. But what ignited in her was the moments of listening to these women’s stories and realizing that was like touching off the longing in her.

Pete Mockaitis
So, is that kind of the pathway that often goes when you zero in on the longing and then you go pursue that well, wholeness and aliveness is on the other side?

Susan Cain
It often is on the other side, yeah, because it’s telling you like where your sense of the love that you’re seeking, the full love that you’re seeking, where it is for you. The moments that you have longing are often a clue to what those are. Just the way, like by analogy, if you pay attention to the people who you envy.

Like, envy is not such a nice emotion but it’s an incredibly instructive emotion because, like with career envy, you’re not going to have career envy over somebody who has a job that you don’t want. You’re just going to feel happy for that person. If you’re feeling envy, you might feel ashamed of yourself for feeling that way but it is a great clue that they’re doing something that you wished that you were doing, so it’s a great sign. And longing is the same way, the same type of sign.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there are many flavors of longing but is love at the root of them all? Or, is that kind of one of several kind of key flavors or archetypes?

Susan Cain
I would say there’s different manifestations of the same thing. For some people, it looks more like love, and for some people it’s more like beauty, and for some people it’s more like truth. But it’s this sense of like what perfection looks like to you, like a kind of otherworldly perfection.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, this wholeness, how do you know when you got it?

Susan Cain
You just know.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought you’d say that.

Susan Cain
You just know, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“Like, I feel pretty whole.”

Susan Cain
It doesn’t mean that you’re like, “Okay, now, I‘m going to sit on the couch forever because I’m whole.” It doesn’t mean that. W
hat it means is that you’re on the right journey instead of on the wrong journey, so you’re still journeying but you’re like on the right path.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then can we talk about some perhaps practical do’s and don’ts when it comes to inside our own heads and emotions if we experience some sadness, some disappointments, there are some distinctions there between that and bittersweet? And so, how do we think about running our brains and our emotions optimally in that, I guess, it could continually be possible to “wallow” or be – torn apart sounds dramatic but…? I’m thinking of my kids and Daniel Tiger and the big feelings right now.

It’s like as you’re exploring yourself, and you’re finding these breadcrumbs, how do you recommend that we explore, engage in a way that’s likely to lead to insight and constructive goodness versus, for lack of a better word, wallowing?

Susan Cain
Oh, I’m actually glad you’re using that word wallowing because I think that that is the fear that many people have if they tune into this aspect of their emotional lives. I think they’re afraid they’ll start wallowing and never come out, so they’d rather not go there at all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just the remember the art is to balance it all out.

But one really great technique, just to keep it super practical, is the art of expressive writing, which basically means, especially when you’re feeling something that’s amiss, something that’s wrong, something that’s upsetting you, whatever it is, to just quickly write it down and don’t try to write it well. You might rip it up as soon as you’re done writing. But the very act of articulating what you are feeling, what you’re experiencing, is incredibly transformative.

And we know this from the work of the psychologist, James Pennebaker, at UT Austin, who’s done all these incredible studies, finding that when people do this, it improves their health, it improves their career success, it improves their sense of wellbeing. He did this one study where he looked at a group of 50-something-year-old engineers who had been laid off, so they were quite depressed about it. And he asked half of them to do what I just described, to write down what they were truly thinking every morning, and then the other half would just write what they had eaten for breakfast that day.

And the first group who had written down truly the expressive writing, they were, I think it was three times more likely to have found work several months later. They had lower blood pressure. They had a greater sense of wellbeing, like just these astonishing findings that you can’t even believe are true except he repeated these studies again and again in all different circumstances.

So, this is something that we could be doing privately. This is something we could be bringing to our teams. We could be distributing blank notebooks and having time for people to kind of, in an alone together way, write down what we’re thinking. We can invite people to share if they want to but they don’t have to do it. But it’s just creating spaces for people to show up to themselves if not to each other in a fully whole way.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with the expressive writing of what we’re feeling, that’s just sort of the extent of the prompt, “Hey, what are you feeling?”

Susan Cain
That is the extent of the prompt, yeah, “What is it?” And if there’s something that’s upsetting to you right now, write it down. Just get it out. Don’t worry about the grammar, the spelling, or anything. Just get it out. Get it out. What ends up happening, you don’t really need the prompt. What ends up happening is that people just instinctively start writing in a way that is trying to make sense of their experiences. At a certain point, they start doing that for themselves. Like, they start using words, like, “Oh, what I’ve learned is,” or, “What I’m thinking actually have been was…” and that may be where some of the magic lies.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting because I’m thinking right now, I’m kind of sick, I don’t like it.

 Susan Cain
Oh, sorry to hear that. 

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Susan Cain
You don’t look or sound sick. What’s up?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. We’re getting better. We’re getting…oh, maybe I have some COVID to sinus infections going through the whole family.

Susan Cain
Oh, my gosh. You’re very matter of fact about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ve had COVID before and so, and the worst is behind us but, yeah. And so, that’s unpleasant.

Susan Cain
Yeah, I’m sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, as I think about it, you can arrive at, on the surface level, it might not seem like there’s much to it, “Yup, being sick sucks. That’s true.” But as I think about it more in terms of the, “Well, why? Well, what’s so troubling about that for me? Like, how do I feel diminished? And why does that matter to me?” then we start to get into some interesting themes that can be insightful and actionable.

Susan Cain
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And I’ll give you a way to do that but also to then kind of do the same thing but sort of turn it outwards. And first let me set this up for you. There is this video that went viral a couple of years ago. It was put together by the Cleveland Clinic hospital to train their caregivers in empathy. And the way this video worked, it basically 
took you through the corridors of the hospital to show you random passersby, people you’d normally walk past and not really think about it.

But in this case, there were little captions underneath each person telling you what they’re going through at that moment. And sometimes it was something nice, like just found out he’s going to be a father for the first time. But because it’s a hospital, often the captions are more things like, under a little girl, she’s going to say goodbye to her father for the last time. Like, these incredibly heartrending captions, and you can’t watch this video without completely tearing up. It’s impossible.

But the thing I started doing after having seen that video, like the thing that really struck me about it is how anonymous all those people in the corridors normally would be, and all it took was like one little half a sentence caption to completely transform them into full-hearted protagonists of their stories, and that I was part of those stories.

So, I started just reminding myself all the time to wonder what people’s captions are. When I go to the grocery store, like the person is checking me out, checking out the groceries, “What are her captions?” And maybe you know them and maybe you don’t. But it’s a very transformative way to interact with people to be thinking in those terms. And with our colleagues at work, we can do that, take that a step farther because there actually are all kinds of clues, if not outright knowledge about what’s going on for them.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s powerful about that for me is just sort of the, I almost want to say, sort of like sacredness or sanctity of the human person in front of you. And being aware of that you…of course, these things…we’ve all got things going on, but calling them to mind can just be so transformative in how you interact with everyone always.

It’s like, “Okay, you are not just a person taking my credit card. Like, you are any number of these things could be going on for you. And as a person, you are worthy of respect and acknowledgement and sort of my attention as opposed to my phone, like clicking around my phone while you’re ringing things up.”

Susan Cain
Yeah. I’ll give you another one for people to do. This one could work for people to do either with their own selves or with teams or co-workers or whatever. And that is to begin your day by proactively engaging with beauty in one way or another. And this is actually a great exercise to do with a team because you could do it in a kind of show-and-tell type of way of everybody bringing something in that they find especially beautiful, whether it’s music or a snapshot or whatever it is.

But when you’re interacting with beauty, we actually know this from studies, it’s basically like tapping into the same brain centers that you experience when you’re falling in love. So, it’s like really tapping into your reward centers, and it’s tapping into a state that kind of predisposes you creatively. So, I did this the whole time I was writing my book. I was following all these art accounts on Twitter. And every morning, I would start my writing day by picking a favorite piece of art and sharing it on my social channels.

And not only did that get my brain in the right headspace to be creative, but also it was connecting me every morning, the first thing it was doing, I was like plugging into this community of people who cared about art and beauty the way I did, and that was incredibly sustaining, and it also grew our community together. So, that’s also the kind of technique that people don’t think about. It doesn’t have to do with bittersweetness per se but there is something about engaging with beauty that gets people interacting with each other in a kind of truer way, in a more whole way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I guess beauty can have many forms and flavors in terms of…is this research on visually? I guess it’s visually and then there’s music or auditorily. I suppose maybe there could be other modalities associated with beauty.

Susan Cain
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m trying to think if the studies that I’m talking about were only looking at visual art or other forms. I’m not sure, but I don’t see why it would be any different, really.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes I feel beauty with an excellent handwashing session. Like, if you have just fantastic soap and water that’s warm and just right. I don’t know, people talk about singing Happy Birthday, it’s like, “Oh, no, no, just treasure this moment. It’s so glorious.”

Susan Cain
Yeah. Well, it’s wherever you find it. I guess that’s why they make all those beautiful soaps.

Pete Mockaitis
Didn’t think we’d end up here, Susan. All right. Well, before we hear about some of your favorite things, any key things you really want to make sure folks, who are seeking to be awesome at their jobs, know about Bittersweet?

Susan Cain
I think we’ve covered a lot. I guess I would say for those who are on the creative side of the work life to just know that one great thing you can do creatively, like whatever pain you can’t get rid of, take that and make it your creative offering. That’s really what the great creatives have always done. There’s always been this kind of transformation, it’s a kind of like alchemy, so to tune in that way.

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

Susan Cain
I’ll give you the quote that I used as the epigraph for Bittersweet, which is kind of like my whole philosophy in this book. It comes from Leonard Cohen, and the quote is, “There is a crack in everything that’s where the light gets in.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Susan Cain
You’re welcome.

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

Susan Cain
I’ll give you one from one that I also talk about in Bittersweet, and it comes from Dacher Keltner, who’s this great psychologist at Berkeley, and he has studied what he calls the compassionate instinct. And he basically studies the way in which the expression of sorrow is a kind of bonding agent for humans, and that this is because we’re evolved to be able to take care of babies who are utterly vulnerable and dependent on us. But from that beginning comes our greater ability to respond to vulnerabilities of all kind.

So, what he figured out is that we all have a vagus nerve, which is this big bundle of nerves in our bodies. It’s extremely large, it’s extremely fundamental, it regulates our breathing, it regulates our digestion, and also, if you see another person or being in distress, your vagus nerve will become activated, so that on a preconscious level, you’re not going to feel good for as long as you see someone else in distress. You’re going to want to do something about it. So, I would say that’s my favorite research, this compassionate instinct that Dacher has found.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true. I saw someone fell off their bike today outside my office window, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, are you okay? Do I need to go down there?” Wait eight seconds. “Oh, they’re cool. They’re cool. They’re laughing it off. They’re getting on the bike. Okay. Okay.”

Susan Cain
Well, he used this term that he calls vagal superstars for people whose vagal nerves are really, really reactive, so maybe you’re one of those.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Susan Cain
One that’s coming to mind right now is the book Flow by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s the psychologist who basically discovered the idea that humans are really at their best, I’d say most happiest, but just like at our most switched on when we’re absorbed in an activity that’s completely engaging to us, and we’re kind of surfing this channel in between boredom and anxiety.

So, it’s difficult enough that we’re not bored but it’s not so difficult that it’s making us anxious. We’re just like completely happily switched on and engaged. And I will tell you that has been a life-transforming idea because ever since…as soon as I read it, I was like, “Oh, my God, yeah, I love that state.” But as soon as I thought of that as something to aspire to, I started sort of trying to structure my days so that I’m in a state of flow as much of the time as possible.

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

Susan Cain
Well, this is very boring, I guess, but it’s my laptop. But I will say my laptop is nothing without my cup of coffee next to it. So, my cup of coffee here and my candle here, so I think what I’m really saying is that I have these Pavlovian cues that I have used over the years to make myself love sitting down at work. Like, I love my candle, I love my coffee, I love my chocolate, and so I never work without these props on hand. And so, I associate the whole thing with pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to really connect with your readers, listeners; a Susan Cain original that is quoted often?

Susan Cain
I don’t know. I will say that I think that the work that I do, like with Quiet and with Bittersweet, the thing that keeps them…the thing that holds them in common is they’re both about the idea of finding a kind of hidden superpowers that tend to be undervalued in our culture that celebrates the loud and the shiny and the glib and the cheery. It’s saying there’s something underneath all of that where there are really deep riches to be had.

And if you think that…we all have different superpowers. And if your superpower happens to be in that mode, go forth and use it. Far from feeling ashamed of it, realize the power that you possess and go and use it.

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

Susan Cain
So, my website is SusanCain.net, and there is a newsletter that you can sign up for there, and lots of information, and also courses. I have these audio courses that you can take where I send you kind of little audio and written texts every morning. So, that’s at my website, SusanCain.net. And I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram so you can find me there, too.

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

Susan Cain
I’m going to say what I said before, like use your superpower, whatever it is. Figure out which one is yours and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Susan, this has been such a treat. Thank you for sharing and keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much, Pete. And I really hope you all feel better.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.