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901: How to Lead with Emotional Power with Julia DiGangi

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Julia DiGangi shows you how to harness your emotional energy and turn it into your greatest strength.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What others’ skepticism is telling you
  2. How to reframe your brain’s negative patterns
  3. The root cause of procrastination–and how to deal with it

About Julia

Dr. Julia DiGangi is a neuropsychologist, who completed her residency at Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. She has nearly two decades of experience studying the connection between our brains and our behavior. Dr. DiGangi has worked with leaders at The White House Press Office, global companies, international NGOs, and the US Special Forces. Her understanding of stress, trauma, and resilience is also informed by her work in international development and humanitarian aid, where she served some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The founder of NeuroHealth Partners, a neuropsychology-based consultancy, DiGangi shows people—at work and at home—how to harness the power of the brain to lead more satisfying and emotionally intelligent lives. She is the author of Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power.

Resources Mentioned

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Julia DiGangi Interview Transcript

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

Julia DiGangi
I’m so glad to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to get into some of the wisdom you share in your book, Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power. Neuroscience just gets me all fired up. So, I think, first, I want to hear, for you personally, can you tell us from your own experiences working internationally and with vulnerable communities, is there a particularly powerful moment or story that shaped your understanding of stress, trauma, and resilience from a human experiential point of view?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. So, let me just say that I am a neuropsychologist, which means I’m a clinical psychologist with specialized expertise in the brain, and never in a million years did I think that I would become a psychologist. And the reason is my father is actually a psychologist, and I grew up, I’m very close with him. I grew up, he was always telling fascinating stories about human behavior, and I just always thought that psychology was my father’s domain and that it was not going to belong to me.

So, I was called to a lot of social justice work, so I started doing a lot of political work, and I started doing a lot of international humanitarian aid and development. And the reason I became a neuropsychologist was because I started working all around the world, so Detroit, Chicago, Latin America, Africa, and I was working in very, very traumatized communities, very high stress environments.

And the thing that really started to strike me is that, regardless of where I was, people were responding to stress in similar ways. So, I was really kind of struck by this idea that despite this wild amount of diversity, why is it that human behavior looks the same when it comes to extreme stress?

And it was really that question that got my scientific mind fired up and decided to really look at, “What can we understand about the human brain that can explain the way we run our large systems, whether it’s our family systems, whether it’s our organizational systems, whether it’s our companies, and whether it’s our political systems?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, the stressors then, I’d imagine, in those different environments are quite different, varied from each other, you know, what’s happening in Chicago versus Latin America are different, and yet the stress reactions and responses of the people were pretty similar to one another?

Julia DiGangi
Yes. So, I was working with a lot of very, very extreme trauma, so I was working with torture survivors, I was working with combat veterans, I was working with child soldiers, I was working with orphans, I was working with war survivors, so really extreme forms of trauma. But the thing that kind of struck me though is, like, “Why are such similar situations unfolding, because they’re all perpetrated by people? And then what was happening to the human body that was then creating additional trauma?”

Because when we’re traumatized, we then show up in our relationships, in our communities, in our workplaces in ways that aren’t really that functional. So, yes, I was working in a lot of different environments and seen a lot of different things, and I started to think, “If we could understand human suffering and human resilience at the most extreme ends of the spectrum, then there would have to be some pretty, pretty powerful advice about how the rest of us can grapple with the more common stress that we face in our ordinary lives.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Julia, that’s exactly where I wanted to go. You have piqued my interest to the max. So, I have a lot of notes and things I’d like to cover but let’s just go right where we are right now because that’s juicy. So, tell us, from those experiences, did you discover any master keys to resilience that we can put in place right away?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. So, I will say that I feel like I am on this planet, I feel like my core message is that our experiences of emotional pain, and by emotional pain I just mean any bad feeling you don’t want to feel – so stress, aggravation, irritation, inadequacy, fear of rejection – that these terrible feelings that we all experience in our own nervous systems in our own bodies are absolutely not here to torment us; they are here to set us free.

They are literally the line between where we currently are and the next evolution of what I call emotional power. So, if you want to show up at work more powerfully, if you want to show up online more powerfully, if you want to be more creative or more expressive, absolutely the number one thing you need to work with is your hard feelings.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is juicy, that is a thesis alright. Can you provide an example illustration so that we can get our arms around that conceptually to experientially, like, “Oh, I see. I see in that instance, that person, there was the line, and they surpassed it and then cool things unfolded”?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. Sure.

So, I would say that, without question, the hardest thing for us is our experiences of other people’s emotion. So, I think that our leadership is best understood as, “Who do I become in the energy of other people’s emotions?” In other words, “What happens to me when people don’t see me the way that I want to be seen? What happens to me when the people around me don’t agree with me? What happens to me when the people around me don’t understand me?”

If I’m not emotionally powerful enough, and I have this really great idea, okay, let’s say I have a great idea for a podcast, I have a great idea for a social media post, I have a great idea for a new product, if I feel like people don’t understand me, it’s going to provoke bad feelings, it’s going to make me feel insecure, it’s going to make me feel anxious, it’s going to make me feel stressed. If I don’t know what to do about those bad feelings, it will shut down my behavior.

So, it’s only when I’m able to say, “I know, in the energy of you not understanding me perfectly, Pete, it’s provoking the sense of anxiety or stress inside of me, and I know…”

Pete Mockaitis
Like, right now?

Julia DiGangi
Yeah, I mean, I always get nervous before these podcasts, so, yes, absolutely, but I think that’s a perfect example. It’s like, “Can I still, in my fear, in my anxiety, in my worries, like, am I going to say something stupid? Are people going to understand me? Am I still powerful enough to show up here and say the things that I want to say?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Understood. And so then, there you go in terms of, like, the line in terms of it is sort of a border or a fork in the road – I’m mixing my geographical metaphors here – in terms of you could say, “Well, just forget it. Just whatever. I guess we’re done here.” That’s one option, like we give in, in terms of the frustration, the anxiety, the fear, the overwhelm, whatever, just sort of wins out, like, “I’m out of here.” That’s one approach. And then the other way is that you sort of fold.

And for the record, Julia, I think you’re doing great.

Julia DiGangi
Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that you have whipped up a frenzy of curiosity inside me such that now I want to understand all of it and with perfect clarity. And so, yeah, we’re going to be picking up on that.

Julia DiGangi
Let me say this because I think this is really clarifying, too. Everyone has problems, we’re all, like, “All right. So, what’s the biggest obstacle in my life? This problem, this problem, this problem.” But if you really think about what a problem is, there is no problem on the planet until you have activity in your nervous system. In other words, anything that you’re calling a problem in your life necessarily means you have bad energy in your nervous system.

So, let’s say I’m fired from my job, and let’s say I’m fired from my job and people call me like a bumbling idiot in front of 50 people, and I legitimately don’t feel bad about it. I’m not intoxicated or I’m not dissociated. I just really don’t feel bad about it. Because I have no pain, I have no problem. And one of the things, this is such a big shift, it makes you so more powerful in your leadership, a lot of times we run around trying to solve our situations, “Okay, this person is going to say this and so I’m going to do this,” or, “This project might go with this, and I got to do this about this project.”

And I’m not saying your situations don’t matter, but if you really think about the most powerful place to work in your life, it’s at the beginning of your emotional energy. In other words, who would I become in this situation if I said, “It’s okay, Pete, if you don’t perfectly understand me”? actually, I’ll tell you a good story.

So, I interviewed a lot of very, very elite leaders for the book, and one of the leaders that I interviewed, and I said that I was going to anonymize everyone because some people talked about some really sort of controversial and difficult things in the book, but I’ll say it’s someone who leads tens and tens of thousands of people.

And one of the things he said to me in the book that I was totally struck by, is I said, “How do you deal with your own tough feelings? Like, how do you deal with your own feelings of doubt, or insecurity, or fear, or anxiety?” And he said, “That’s kind of a hard question for me to answer but I would imagine that if my wife was in the room, my wife would tell you, if I have to make a hard decision that is not a sleep-loss moment for me. In other words, if there is a thousand people in the room, and only 501 agree with me and 499 don’t agree with me, I’m totally okay with it.”

By the way, this guy has amazing employee engagement scores, so he’s very, very well-liked. He’s not some brute who has no emotional intelligence. So, what that moment is telling us is that this man is powerful enough to be misunderstood in the energy of other people’s skepticism and doubt and confusion. And if we’re really honest, how often does other people’s emotion shut down the big visions that we have inside of our own brains and our own spirits?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, it’s so funny. I’m reminded of, or there’s so many things that are coming to mind here. I remember a buddy of mine, we had the idea that was basically Airbnb, I think shortly before Airbnb was founded, and so we thought it’s really cool. And so, why not? We were consultants, we saw empty bedrooms, we’re like, “Well, these underutilized resources could really turn into something.”

And so, we thought, “Let’s chat with a buddy of ours who is somewhat high up in Hyatt Hotels.” And then his energy was like, “You know, I think this could be a nightmare for liability, people are going to ruin stuff and commit crimes. And, yeah, ugh, I’m really nervous about that.” And so, we’re like, “Oh, yeah, I guess he’s right.” So, we just stopped.

Now, who knows what life path that we could’ve been to people who started Airbnb, or if maybe hundreds of people were thinking the same thing around the same time in the universe. But it’s true that energy did shut it down, and it’s a common experience. Or, if someone seems to respond to our idea with a sense of, I don’t know, contempt, or disgust, or even just more subtle, like, “Oh,” like they’re not really into it but just, like, “Okay, you don’t find that interesting or compelling. Okay, duly noted.” So, yeah, that can shut it down.

So, are you telling us, Julia, that it’s quite possible to develop the emotional power, force, resilience?

Julia DiGangi
A hundred percent. First of all, your story was a phenomenal one.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Julia DiGangi
And we all have versions of that, like we all have. And here’s the thing that I think is so important to really get. When we have these moments of inspiration, whether we call it inspiration or creativity, or we have these visions, the whole idea of creativity is the world has never been here before. So, of course, there’s going to be skeptics. It would make no sense if you said, “Hey, you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to start a community on Mars,” and the rest of the world was like, “Of course, that makes perfect sense.”

So, it’s almost like some of our best, most powerful, most transformative ideas, if they’re not being met by other people’s resistance, I think we need to question, “Is it really a good idea?” So, it’s almost like part of our work is to reframe the patterns we have around other people’s reactions. That’s the first thing I want to say.

There’s another second important thing that I can say that can really help our leadership, and that is this. We all know that when people are flagrantly rude to us, or egregiously cynical, that hurts. But something that we egregiously underestimate is the pain of confusion. Well, you just gave a great example where you said sometimes people will meet our ideas and, like, not just be super enthusiastic. They might just be a little bit lukewarm or they might seem a little bit confused.

One of the things we’ve very clear about in neuroscience is your brain absolutely despises confusion. So, a very practical way to think about your brain is as a pattern detector. It’s going through your life, largely unconsciously, going “Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank. Apple. Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank. Apple.” Now what this actually means is “Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank,” sometimes the answer really isn’t apple. But because your brain hates that ambiguity or that openness, it will try to close the pattern in a way that’s going to make sense to you.

When we are confused, what happens is the brain can handle kind of the open-endedness of confusion for a very short period of time, and then very quickly it will close the pattern, and it will close the pattern in a way that is suspicious, fearful, and small.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Just this morning, Julia, this was funny, I thought I was going to be making some scrambled eggs for the family. And then Katy said, “Oh, hey, can you come watch Joey, and I’ll make the scrambled eggs?” And I said, “I thought I was making the scrambled eggs?” And she just said, “Can I do it?” And so, I was like, “Well, what’s going on here? I made the scrambled eggs last time, I usually make scrambled eggs, she’s asking to do it.”

And so, it’s sort of like I can’t even stand the uncertainty, the question mark associated with why this is happening. It doesn’t even really matter in terms of I’m thinking, “Is there something wrong with the way that I make scrambled eggs, with the scrambled eggs that I made yesterday?”

Julia DiGangi
Isn’t that interesting? Because, like, your interpretation automatically goes to the brain definitely has a negativity bias, it’s a way to keep us alive. So, now you’re thinking, “Oh, she hates the way I make my scrambled eggs.” And the next thing we know, we’re fighting with our partners over something that nobody really even understands because we’ve all been confused from the beginning.

So, it’s like if we could understand the power of confusion in our lives, like have reverence for it, understand how the brain is really, because I think I always say the brain is the most powerful machine you’ll ever own. You have to operate it powerfully. A great example of that happened in my marriage a lot more at the beginning, is like me and my husband had different texting patterns. So, it’s like I would text and then he would delay for a long time, and instead of just being, like, the man is not near his cellphone, or the man is busy, or the man is distracted by something else, you start to come up with all of these ridiculous stories.

And the craziest thing of all is the stories help no one. It doesn’t help the relationship, it’s not fair to the other person, and we injure ourselves in the process. So, again, if we understand what the brain is doing, which is why I wrote Energy Rising, we become so much more empowered in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in that circumstance, I’m curious, it feels like we need a narrative or an explanation so badly we just make one up. So, Julia, is there a better alternative for us in these moments?

Julia DiGangi
Absolutely. So, the thing that you want to do is you’ve got to think about this idea of emotional power is, “Who do I want to be in the energy of other people’s bad emotions?” So, if I want to be the type of leader, and, by the way, our leadership totally shows up in our romantic relationships as well so it’s not just a thing at work, it’s a thing in our homes as well.

If I want to be the type of leader who’s trusting and generous, then I need to know that when I start to wobble in uncertainty because, again, the brain has an allergy to uncertainty, I need to really think, “How do I hold the frequency of trust and generosity?” And if I don’t ask myself, if I don’t have a practice of discipline of asking myself that question, the brain is automatically and reactively going to shut the pattern.

And it’s going to shut the pattern in a way that actually makes no sense to our wellbeing. This is kind of the paradox of having a human brain. It’s going to make you start thinking suspicious, annoying. And if you let it fester for too long terrible things about the people in your life who really are on your team. But can I tell you an example from our lab that I just think is so powerful to show you how much the human brain hates uncertainty?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Julia DiGangi
So, in part of our paradigms, we would, in our lab, we had a machine that would shock people. So, this is a way to administer pain to see how people respond in conditions of pain. And what people, as lots of researchers out there who study uncertainty in the brain, in fact, this is at the foundation of all anxiety disorders are. All anxiety is a disturbed relationship with certainty.

So, we would bring people into the lab, and there’s conditions that you can put people in these laboratory settings. So, you can have a machine that counts down five, four, three, two, one, and when the machine hits one, you’re absolutely going to get a shock. Then you have another condition where the machine counts down five, four, three, two, one, and maybe you’ll get a shock or maybe you won’t get a shock.

Now, the “rational person,” and I’m using air quotes here, is the person who says, “Definitely put me in condition two because there’s a good chance I will walk away pain-free.” But statistically, people choose to be in the option where they get the shock every single time. What that is telling you is that emotional pain, first of all, uncertainty is literally emotionally painful. And the pain associated with uncertainty and stress can be more painful than actual physical pain.

And so, when we think about the way that we lead, the way that we communicate with people, how confusing we are, how much clarity, how much transparency, we have really powerful neuroscientific evidence that says really, really think, especially in a world that is filled with a brim of information, think about how to communicate clearly if you want to be powerful. And by powerful, I don’t mean command and control. I mean effective, connected.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got this allergy to uncertainty, and one master approach is to rather than letting our default brains do what they do – inventing stories that cause turmoil – we could proactively say, “Who do I want to be in this moment amidst the uncertainty?” And so then, we’re making sort of a conscientious choice, “All right, this is how I’m going to be amidst this as opposed to letting autopilot take us somewhere, which is probably not going to be a great place where autopilot would go.”

Do you have any other pro tips in the midst of uncertainty how we can deal with that well?

Julia DiGangi
I do. This one is, like, I think, a fantastic one. I want to teach you guys something that I call a power pattern. So, I said before, your brain is a pattern detection machine. Now, overwhelmingly, the brain is driving you through your life in ways that are unconscious. We all have had that experience where we’re driving in our car and we’re talking on the phone, and somehow, we magically show up in our driveway and we have no idea, we actually have no conscious recollection of it. So, the brain is an incredibly powerful machine and it does a lot of the work for you unconsciously.

Okay. But let’s go back to this pattern, this idea of “Apple. Apple. Fill in the blank.” How that actually sounds emotionally in our lives, and emotion is the most powerful energy in a human being’s life. This is just a neuroscientific reality. So, we’re all running these patterns in our life, and maybe your pattern sounds like, “Things just never work out for me. Things just never work out for me. Things just never work out for me.”

Maybe you have a pattern that’s like, “People don’t understand me. People don’t understand me. People don’t understand me.” So, if you look at your life and you say, “Where are the ways in my life that I kind of keep getting into conflict, or struggle, or stress?” you’re going to see there’s a pattern that kind of connects all those things.

So, let’s imagine that mine is, “People don’t understand me.” So, I write a book, and I kind of have a sense, “Nobody is really going to get it.” Or, I show up at parties and I kind of feel weird because I really don’t feel like people understand what I’m talking about, or people don’t enjoy talking to me. Now, let’s say I’m creating a business, and the whole reason one would create a business is because, hopefully, it’s bringing something novel to the world.

So, I start this business but my underlying pattern, the underlying energy in which I’m doing it, whether I’m conscious of it or not, is, “People don’t understand me.” What do you think the likelihood of success for that business is? I can almost guarantee I am going to self-sabotage. So, what if I said to myself, “Instead of working with this pattern of ‘People don’t understand me,’ what if, if I think I’m really creative and I have these really kind of cool visions for my leadership, what if I started having the…?”

Also, let me just say, when people don’t understand us, especially if we have kind of forward-thinking ideas, that is stressful. But what if I change my pattern, and my pattern, instead of being, “People don’t understand me,” what if my pattern was, “I am ahead of my time”? Now, I kind of have the sense, when people don’t understand me, “Of course, they don’t understand me. I go first. Of course, they don’t understand me. I am a pioneer. Of course, they don’t understand me. How could they possibly understand a place that I’m trying to lead them to?”

Do you see how much more life-giving and hopeful and spacious, “I am ahead of my time” is than “People don’t understand me”?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. So, building the power pattern seems like we are reframing a thing that’s a bummer into, “Well, yeah, of course, that’s just sort of normal and to be expected.”

Julia DiGangi
A hundred percent true.

Pete Mockaitis
I think I remember doing this during my dating years because it’s a bummer when you’re digging somebody and they blow you off, it’s like, “Oh, okay.” And what’s so funny, I decided about my criteria, I had to boil it down into four.

Julia DiGangi
And will you tell? You’re going to tell me your four criteria or is that top secret?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, they’re cool, they’re cute, and one of them was that they’re crazy about Pete Mockaitis because that’s just more fun. And so, it’s so funny, even though the same thing happened, like, “Oh, I texted her and she ghosted me. Bummer,” I reframed it in terms of it isn’t like, “Oh, why? What’s wrong with me? Was I…?”

In terms of it’s like, “Well, unfortunately, this candidate has been disqualified because she doesn’t really measure up on the key criterion of being crazy about Pete Mockaitis. So, yeah, that’s disappointing that we’re going to have to conclude this candidate’s application process, but I guess we’ll have to move onto the next.”

And it was funny because in both instances, they more or less decided they didn’t dig me enough to want to continue communicating.

Julia DiGangi
Well, Pete, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t dig you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, shucks.

Julia DiGangi
But that being said, things happen that are unexplainable, but what a liberating frame. Because the only thing that would’ve happened if you would’ve been like, “Oh, this person doesn’t like me. I’m not good enough,” which we all do, is we just sink ourselves. So, the other piece here is that this is so big, it almost can sound like I’m saying nothing but it really does matter, which is there is no meaning in the world until you use your nervous system to make meaning out of it.

And the way I really learned that this was true, so, first of all, it’s kind of obvious. If it doesn’t hit your brain and your neurons, like, “Did the tree fall in the forest? Who cares? You weren’t around to hear it.” The whole idea of objectivity, it’s coming through our subjective nervous systems. The way that this really kind of became very, very clear for me is I’m fundamentally a trauma researcher. I’ve done extensive scientific research into trauma, the behavioral consequences, the neurobiological associations.

We very commonly see people undergo the same trauma, the same objective event – childhood issues, assault, accidents, combat – and have wildly different experiences. At one extreme, you have post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a form of illness after trauma, and at the other extreme, you have something that scientists are now starting to study more and more, which is called post-traumatic growth.

How in the world? So, trauma is horrific, that definition is what makes trauma, trauma. How could two people experience something that no one is debating was horrible, and have two remarkably different stories, realities, meanings emerge from that? It has everything to do with what is happening inside of their nervous system.

So, you want to say the stories we tell ourselves are the meaning we make, this has everything to do, everything to do with how powerful we are in our lives. Because I will tell you what, I work with people who had every good reason, every good reason to stay down. The amount of trauma that some people go through is mind-blowing.

If they said to you, “I am never up again,” you would say, “I completely understand.” But for some reason, they say, “I rise because I say that I rise.” And when you see people say, what they’re really saying is, “Even though this horrific thing happened in my life, I am still the most powerful person in my own life.” And when we really touch that, our energy is unstoppable.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Julia, I’d love your take in terms of, I think, sometimes we can see, “Yes, this frame, this power pattern would be more useful and helpful to me than the alternative, and yet, I just don’t really believe that to be true. It’s, like, I’d like for it to be true. It sounds pretty nice. I think it can be true for some people, and yet as I try on that belief, it doesn’t fit, or feel right, or feel me.” What do we do with that?

Julia DiGangi
Totally, you got it right-size it. One of the things I love doing in the area of emotional intelligence, mental health wellbeing, is making just tons of great, great analogs to physical health. If I really had been totally out of shape, and I call you, and I’m like, “Hey, you know what, I’m going to run Ironman. I’m going to participate in Ironman athlete,” you’d be like, “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard you say, Julia, and you’ve had some pretty dumb ideas in your life, but that one takes the cake.”

So, what we have to do when we’re thinking about our own emotional expansion, our own emotional increases in our power, and our emotional strength, we have to think there’s not a more powerful journey in your life so we have to right-size things. So, a lot of times what will happen is people will reach for the emotional Ironman off the dome. And this is why I do not like affirmations, I look in the mirror and, let’s say, I feel terrible about myself, I look in the mirror, and I say, “I’m so great. I’m so great. I matter so much. I love myself so much.” Whatever.

But there’s huge parts of me that is like, “Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.” Not only is that not going to help, it’s going to make me feel worse because the dissonance between what I’m feeling and what I’m actually saying is like so far apart. What I need to do is say, “What is the edge?” And I talk about this a lot in my book, “What is the edge of my emotional power?”

So, if I go to the gym, and I can lift 20 pounds today, tomorrow I’m not going to try and lift 50. I’m trying to say, “What’s 22?”. I go to a conference and I normally sit in the back of the room. I’m too afraid to speak up. I don’t say, “I deserve to be on that stage today.” Maybe I say, “You know what’s accessible to me, I’m going to sit in the first row.” Maybe the next thing is, “I’m going to sit in the first row, and I’m going to ask a question.” You see, so it’s this idea of if you can think about evolution in other areas of your life, of course, you can think about evolution in your emotional life.

The other thing that I think is so exciting is we have totally misunderstood human development. We celebrate, like, “Oh, the little kid took a step,” “Oh, the little kid is walking,” “Oh, the little kid is eating solid food.” And then by the time you’re 21, everybody is done with you. Graduation, college, you’ve hit all your milestones, there’s nowhere but down to go. Not freaking true.

The next frontier of human intelligence is absolutely going to be emotional. And the sooner leaders understand this, the better, because the human brain is emotional. But what we need to now think is, in the middle of our lives when we’re kind of hitting our stride in our career, the most powerful question is, “How do we think about our emotional evolution?” And by emotional evolution, I mean, “How do I still speak up when other people don’t understand me?”

I think a lot of us are saying we’re exhausted, but we’re overworking. That’s a form of self-injury. A lot of us are saying we have really great ideas in our mind but we’re keeping our mouth shut. That’s not emotionally powerful. We’re saying we want to work on holding our boundaries, “I’m really going to start telling people no,” and the second somebody calls me, they’ll be like, “Hey, can you do this other project, Julia?” I’m like, “Yeah,” and then I’m so pissed off all night because – why? – I’m not really resentful of them. I’m resentful because I betrayed myself.

So, we got to get clear on, number one, where the emotional pain in our lives is coming from. And a lot of us don’t recognize this but the majority of the pain in our lives is actually coming from the ways that we abandon ourselves. And the second we start saying, “No matter what, I will not leave myself. I will pay attention to my emotional energy. I will work with my emotional energy. I start to become more and more powerful.”

The reason that this is so important for our leaders is, do you know what your followers want more than anything on the planet? They want access to their own power. And when you become the embodied standard of a human being who is in touch with your own emotional power, you become the influence, the true influence. We all throw this term around. You become the standard that everyone follows, not because they have to, not because they have FOMO, but because they truly desire to. And this is the leadership that will change the planet.

Pete Mockaitis
This is powerful stuff. I’m digging it, Julia. Let’s hit another example in terms of a power pattern and knowing that we don’t jump to the Ironman, metaphorically, but rather we sort of take one more step, like sitting in the front of the row. Let’s say there’s a pattern of energy associated with procrastination or distract-ability, like, “Ugh, I don’t feel like doing this. It’s boring and I don’t want to.” And then that shows up a lot. How do we apply some of these frameworks to that issue?

Julia DiGangi
So, you want me to tackle procrastination?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Julia DiGangi
Okay. So, first of all, you ready for this?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Julia DiGangi
We have to really get down to the guts, and Energy Rising takes you to the guts of what procrastination is actually about. First of all, let me just say neurodiversity is totally a thing, so a lot of people struggle with attentional issues. I always say attention is the mother of all of our cognitive abilities. If you think you can’t problem-solve, you can’t remember things, you can’t make decisions if you’re not paying attention in the first place.

So, there’s a lot of sorts of taxes on our attention these days, I want to acknowledge that. But if you really look at the research into procrastination, procrastination is always about a fear of not being good enough.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah? Okay.

Julia DiGangi
Let’s break this down, and I can actually really speak to this from my own. I just wrote this book, like it was a glorious process but I will tell you it was so hard. And the reason it was so hard, and I would have writer’s block, procrastination, distraction, it’s because you have this sense, and a lot of times it’s not even that conscious, but, like, “If I don’t make this perfect,” and a lot of us aren’t able to, we’re not in touch with ourselves enough to say this.

But the logic kind of goes like this, “If I don’t make this perfect, people aren’t going to like it. But it’s not just that they’re not going to like it, they’re going to think I’m an idiot. I’m going to humiliate myself. People aren’t going to want to be around me. I’m going to let everybody down. I’m going to be…” It just keeps cascading and cascading and cascading, and this is what catastrophic thinking is.

So, we do a lot of work around catastrophic thinking in both the coaching industry and in the mental health field, but it’s, like, the true thing about procrastination is not, “I can’t make a phone call,” or write four sentences on a page, or get on camera and say a few things. Procrastination is really this deep, deep fear that there’s something fundamentally wrong with myself.

So, first of all, the first step is to name it. And as soon as you start to say, “Hold on, Julia. So, you’re telling me if you don’t write 10 sentences that are absolutely like Pulitzer Prize-winning, you’re going to basically be a troll living in a refrigerator box?” And when you start to make that explicit, it just starts to let some of the pressure out of the pressure compartment.

And then I start to say, “I’m going to write 10 sentences with absolutely no judgment. I can literally write, “The sky is blue and the grass is…” I just need to start going because you want to start getting some momentum. And you also want to say, like, if we want to be effective leaders, the fastest way to get there is to totally release this perfectionism BS. Because it’s so interesting to me, and I will tell you, I treat a lot of anxiety. OCD is an anxiety disorder, and one of the forms, there’s many forms of OCD, but at a pathological form, perfectionism is OCD.

We think that OCD, or we think that perfectionism makes us so strong. It makes us so weak because the person that you’re doing the perfection for isn’t you. You’re performing for some fantasy that you have about what other people think. And if you’re really getting to the guts of it, what you think is that, “They’re going to think I’m a fool, they’re going to think I’m a reject, they’re going to think I’m a degenerate, unless I nail it.”

And what’s really interesting is when you get people to start verbalizing, “Tell me about the fears,” it’s almost hard for them to put it into words because the intellectual part of their brain knows that it’s absurd. The intellectual part of my brain knows that if I don’t write the best book in the history of the planet, I’m not going to be a social outcast and die alone. So, it’s more of this nebulous sense of, like, “This just doesn’t feel good.”

That sensation is generated by emotional systems in the brain. So, part of the work of getting over distract-ability, and perfectionism, and procrastination is to say, “How is my fear of failure playing out here? Let me start to literally list the reasons, and then let me start to take reasonable action.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Julia, much good stuff. Tell me, anything else you want to make sure to put out there before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Julia DiGangi
I think I just want to say this because I think it’s so hopeful and so empowering and so healing, and I sort of started our interview saying this, is that the feelings, if you really think about any problem in your life, the reason you have a problem is because you have a bad feeling. You feel intimidated. You feel disappointed. You feel overwhelmed. You feel scared.

If you don’t work on the actual feelings themselves, those feelings will just keep popping up again and again and again, which means your ability to be powerful in your leadership will be constrained by that level of your emotion. Let me make this more clear. Let’s say I get really anxious talking in front of five people, and I make it through my talk, and they’re only five people there. Next time I give a talk, it’s probably only going to be to five people. If I want to talk on huge stages to 20,000 people, do you think I’m going to be able to talk on a stage of 20,000 people if I really can’t handle a stage of five?

So, it’s not really the situation I need to work with, it’s the sensation of anxiety and fear. And once I break through that at five people, then I can start to speak to 20 people. When I break through that, I can start to speak to 50 people. So, when we really start to work not just with our situations but we really start to work with the energy in our nervous system, it really transforms our leadership and our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Julia DiGangi
Yeah. Can I share two?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Julia DiGangi
I have two favorites. The first quote is from Mother Teresa, and it is, “If only we would sweep our own doorsteps, then the entire world would be clean.” I have worked with human suffering and human redemption for a long time, and we’re all out there talking about a better world. If we really want to create a better world, we have to look more closely at our own emotional pain because nearly all of the pain in the world actually comes from people’s fear. It doesn’t come because we’re cruel, vicious, psychopaths. It comes because we don’t feel like we’re good enough. And in the panic of not feeling good enough, we create messes.

The second quote is related to that, and the second quote is, “Everywhere I go, there I am.” A lot of times, we think if we could just change our situation, we could get a better job, we could make a little bit more money, we could have the breakthrough in the business that we just created, the kids could graduate, on and on and on and on. But what I have seen over and over and over again through my work, and also because I understand the brain, the brain is a pattern detector that runs on emotional energy.

So, your situations can change, you can move from Chicago to Denver, and you might feel good for six months, but pretty quick, you’re going to feel the way you’ve always felt unless you work at the level of your emotional energy.

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

Julia DiGangi
I’ll say one of my own studies that I really like and then I’ll talk about someone else’s work. The study of my own that I like the most is I looked at what’s called pre-morbid predictors of PTSD. So, this kind of goes back to this idea of we have so much power to make meaning out of our own lives.

So, basically, the idea here is that most people who experience a traumatic event will naturally recover. Just like if you fell down on the street and skinned your knee, if you give it some time, chances are good that your leg is going to recover naturally. So, scientists are asking the question, “Is trauma alone not enough to describe who gets sick and why?”

And so, this study really looked at, “What’s going on with people even before the trauma has happened that can describe who’s at risk and who’s really resilient?” Because if we understand that, there’s so much potential to heal people. So, that’s kind of my work that I think is really exciting.

And I’ve also really liked a lot of the studies around uncertainty and boredom. There’s a great study where people were put in a room, and they thought they just had to go in this waiting room for a little while, they thought they were going to be part of another study but it was actually a setup. They were put into this room, and the only thing that was in this room was an electrical shock machine.

And they were like, “We’ll be back in three minutes to come get you,” that’s what the experimenter said, but the whole experiment was just to leave people in the room. And you saw that in a relatively short period of time, people were so bored that instead of just sitting with themselves, instead of just being still, meditating, thinking, people started using this electrical shock machine to shock themselves.

And I think that’s such a powerful metaphor because we are so resistant to just sitting with ourselves. And if we really want to feel better in our lives, we don’t need to achieve more and do more, I’m not saying those things can’t be done, but they come from a much more powerful place when we really understand our own inner energy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Julia DiGangi
So, a great book, I can’t say my favorite because I have a lot, it’s like picking your favorite child, is The Body Keeps the Score. Are you familiar with this book?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Julia DiGangi
So, obviously, a great book about pain and how it shows up in the nervous system. So, if we really want to empower ourselves, it begins with our brains and our bodies.

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

Julia DiGangi
Well, this isn’t going to be this fancy but it’s going to be honest. I do a tremendous amount of work texting myself. I wrote enormous sections of the book texting myself. So, a lot of times, it kind of goes back to what we were saying about procrastination and fear of failure, when I would fire up the computer, I felt like there was all this pressure to start being, I don’t know, Ernest Hemingway or something. And a lot of times, I would get paralyzed by it.

And it was a night when I was calm and my kids were asleep that a lot of times, I would have all this inspiration – there’s that word again – all this creativity, and I would, in my Notes app and in my text message, do a lot of really beautiful work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Julia DiGangi
I would say my favorite habit is I free-write every evening. I’m very, very disciplined about this. And the reason I do this is because it’s a great way to integrate your thinking and your feelings. It’s a great way to have the most powerful brain. So, you have systems in your brain that think, and systems in your brain that feel, and they are connected but not perfectly integrated.

So, if you free-write, in other words, you’re not writing with a goal, you’re not trying to answer a very logical question, it’s a great way to link your emotions to the way that you think. And the most powerful person is a person who knows what they feel and feel what they know.

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

Julia DiGangi
Yeah. “Emotional energy is a currency, and you cannot give what you do not have.” We get this in all other domains. If I came to you and said, “Pete, I really, really need five bucks,” and if you really wanted to help me but you genuinely did not have five bucks, you would go, “Julia, I’m sorry, I don’t have five bucks,” and that would be the end of it. I would clearly understand.

In our workplaces, in our homes, we’re now talking about all these emotional currencies: transparency, empathy, inclusion, belonging, authenticity. And leaders are supposed to give these things to their teams, they’re supposed to give these things to their children, they’re supposed to give these things to their partners, the problem is I cannot give something I do not have.

How can I give attunement to my child when I’m not even attuned to myself? How can I create a culture of belonging if I’m always feeling, like, “I’m not really sure I belong in this organization. I’m kind of worried about my relevance. I don’t really feel like people like have my back”? We cannot give what we do not have.

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

Julia DiGangi
I would love to connect and talk about emotional power in leadership. I’m on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram @drjuliadigangi. Or, you could check out my website which is DrJuliaDiGangi.com.

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

Julia DiGangi
Yes. I would say think about, look for a pattern in the ways that you get stuck. Where are you getting constantly overwhelmed, constantly stressed, constantly feeling frustrated? And ask yourself, what can you do that would push you a little bit further out of your comfort zone to be able to feel your feelings a little bit more so that you could ultimately release those feelings that don’t feel good?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Julia, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and good energy.

Julia DiGangi
Thank you, Pete. Likewise.

869: Transforming Anxiety into Power with Luana Marques

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Luana Marque says: "We can get rid of avoidance but we can’t get rid of anxiety so we need to be fighting the right enemy to live a bold life."

Luana Marques pinpoints the root of anxiety–avoidance–and reveals how to approach it all the more effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why anxiety isn’t the real enemy
  2. The three-step plan to transform your anxiety
  3. How to manage your thoughts effectively

About Dr. Luana

Dr. Luana is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Founder and Director of Community Psychiatry PRIDE at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and former President of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Almost Anxious: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Worry or Distress a Problem?, which has been lauded for its clear and practical approach to effectively dealing with anxiety.

Frequently cited as one of the leading experts in Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBTs), Dr. Luana has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, CNN, Harvard Business Review, and more. She also has been a frequent guest on television broadcasts such as  Good Morning America, Face the Nation,  and CNBC and podcasts including Ten Percent Happier and How to Be Awesome at Your Job.

Resources Mentioned

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Luana Marques Interview Transcript

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

Luana Marques
Thanks for having me. Excited to be back.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the latest wisdom you’ve got in your book Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power. It sounds right up our alley but I’d like to start with one of your bold moves. I understand that you have, in fact, proactively chosen to negotiate while inside a Payless shoe store. What’s the story here?

Luana Marques
I did. So, I first came to the US as an exchange student and I spoke, basically, almost no English. And growing up in Brazil, we’re just taught to negotiate everything from a car to a banana to pretty much anything. Nothing is at face value what people tell you cost. So, I was here and I needed a pair of winter boots, there’s no need for those in Brazil.

And so, I walked into a Payless with my American family, chose what I could afford for winter boots, and as I was trying to pay, I asked for a 50-cent discount, and my American family, I remember, like they turned bright pink, and they’re like, “You don’t do that.” And I couldn’t understand why they’re so embarrassed, I was like, “Well, what is wrong?” I didn’t know.

I spoke very little English but the store is called Payless, and so I thought, “Well, why I wouldn’t pay less?” I don’t know if it was a bold move or it’s just a ‘I don’t know to speak English’ move but I did negotiate at Payless.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to know, what did they say?

Luana Marques
The woman looked at me and said no, and my American mom, like, pulled her money and quickly helped pay. It was really embarrassing for them, I think. I don’t think that saleslady was embarrassed. I felt I shamed them, and I think maybe that’s why I remember it so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess the funny thing for me about Payless, in particular, is, yes, it’s called Payless and it’s like they always had some promotion going, so it’s almost like if you’re actually talking to a decision-maker, they might be like, “Sure, hey, we just got everything all the time, 50 cents is fine by me.”

Luana Marques
That is such a good point. At that point, and I remember I didn’t know that there was so much coupons and promotions and buy-one-get-one-free, like that concept was still not in my brain at that point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it was not as much bold as it was because you’re unfamiliar with how things are done. Although, every once in a while, that kind of ignorance can really be powerful in terms of, in this case, you might’ve gotten a discount because nobody asks but you asked, and it could happen. And other times, I’ve heard a story, was it Sara Blakely of Spanx, she just called up some merchandisers, and like, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s not what it’s supposed to be done. Oops,” but it worked out great for her.

Luana Marques
No, I think the spirit behind that moment still very much drives me. Like, I will negotiate for my salary. I will ask. My grandma, she used to say, “If you don’t ask, you don’t know. It can be a yes, it can be a no. If you don’t ask, you don’t even have a chance.” And so, I have an event coming up, I’m speaking at Formula One next week in Miami, and I was just not asking for tickets for the event. And then I sat with myself, I was like, “No, I can’t write a book about being bold and not being bold,” so I asked. And I think I might get tickets to watch the race.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Luana Marques
So, that was a bold move.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent.

Luana Marques
That one was good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Very good. Very good. All right. Well, so let’s hear a little bit about your book Bold Move. Any particularly surprising or fascinating discoveries you’ve made while you were putting this together?

Luana Marques
So, the book, it’s a professional and personal journey for me, and I think the thing that was fascinating, I had the table of contents, I was writing the book, the last section of the book is I call a line, which is the idea of living a values-driven life, so identifying the key values in your life and really aligning your day-to-day life with those values.

And what was amazing to me is that I talk about this a lot, I coach people on the value-driven life, I think a lot about my life, but I realized, as I wrote it, how much I had strayed. I had really started to struggle with health and stopped going to the gym. I put on a lot of weight during the pandemic. I really cared about my work but was not aligning the way those aligned with the specific value related to my work.

And so, it was like this wakeup call, I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve been talking about this but I hadn’t sat to realign my values.” And it’s something I think a lot of us maybe haven’t done yet since the pandemic. The world went upside down, things stabilized a little bit, and we went back to living our lives as we’ve done, adjusting, I’m sure, but I, personally, needed a major valid realignment to be able to really not only finish the book but to live a better, more fulfilling life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Luana, if I may dig into these values, we’ve come up a number of times here, and it’s such a big word, values. It’s probably the biggest word there is. And so, we’ve had a variety of guests say a variety of things in terms of how one arrives there, like, you could do a values card sort, and you could think about the times that were most meaningful in your life.

Can you share with us what are your values? And how did you stray? And what is a values realignment look, sound, feel like in practice?

Luana Marques
Wow, I’m speaking my language, all so great questions. So, values, to me, just for my definition, are our compass. Often in life, we live a life that we’re sort of guided by external things instead of internal things. And I think of values as sort of intrinsic motivators, so things like health, family, impact, wealth. And so, how do we get our true values?

There’s actually science here. Sometimes people get a list of values and they’ll start circling the values they like, and I have a list in my book. But what we know about values and why is it they hurt so much when we’re not living a life that’s aligned with values, it’s because we’re violating something that really matters to us, so it really only hurts because it matters.

Let me answer your question with an example of how my values got compromised. For 20 years, I worked with an amazing institution at Harvard Medical School and Mass General Hospital, but in the last three years, I had a particularly challenging situation with one of my superiors, and what he did to me really violated trust for me.

And having grown up poor, having grown up with very little, in a situation when home was unstable, if I don’t trust those around me, I can’t really survive, really. For me, it’s sort of I need to have trust to feel safe, safety in the world. And so, I kept working there, and I kept not addressing it, but it was eating me alive.

And so, one of the questions we ask when we’re thinking of values and identifying values is, “Why is this hurting so much? What’s behind this thing?” Because, see, if I didn’t care about this person at all, what he did to me wouldn’t have hurt. So, it hurts because I cared. And that’s how I realized that he had violated trust and that’s why it was so painful.

So, I don’t want to keep going but that’s the first piece. I guess it’s like, “Can you see either if you’re in pain, why are you feeling that pain? What is the value that’s being violated?” because, to me, that’s the first step to then realign your life with those values. Does that answer your question, Pete? Like, I don’t want to sort of keep just rambling about values.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. So, that’s a nice indicator there. And now I’ve got Dr. Steven Hayes in my ear, thinking about values, and I hope to have him on the show. He’s got a great voice. And he said, “Often, when we connect to our values, the most common response is crying.” So, that was a striking sentence, like, “Huh.”

And so then, what does it look like then? So, we see the violation looks like, according to Steven Hayes, of acceptance and commitment therapy, that when you connect to them, you’re crying? What is connecting to your values look like?

Luana Marques
He is so great. And this question about violating your pain is definitely a Steven Hayes question. And the crying, sometimes, is twofold. One, you’re like understanding why it was so painful, and the other one, which I think is implicit in what he’s saying, is there’s a sense of relief, “Oh, okay, now I know what to do.” So, for me, I had to take action and, basically, addressed this with this person so that I could stay with my job and not feel like I was hurting every day.

And that’s the second piece. Once you connect with it, you’re going to have some relief. But in a practical way, what does that look like? In my case, it was intrapersonal conflict. But on-to-day, if we’re talking about productivity, if we’re talking about your life, it’s really choosing actions every day that represent that value.

If you care about connecting with others, are you making time to see your friends? If you care about justice, are you involved in things that reflect justice? And what his research shows very beautifully, Steven Hayes’ research, is when you align daily actions with values, stress goes down, anxiety goes down, depression goes down, and your sense of wellbeing and thriving in life feels much better despite of stress. You still can handle stress better because you’re doing things in a way that’s meaningful to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, so then a realignment then is just you’re taking a look at how things are and what you’re doing, what you’re up to, and then doing things differently?

Luana Marques
Yeah, in a meaningful way. It’s looking at it, choosing it, doing it differently, and then tracking the outcome. Because if you change what you’re doing, you want to know if it’s working, if it’s making you feel better. But if it’s value-driven, it usually does.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. And then when it comes to the defining of one’s values, so trust is one, how many values do most of us have, more or less?

Luana Marques
I don’t think there is a single research that can agree on that. I think most people would say that it’s hard to hold more than five at any active time and actually live a meaningful life towards them. I think we have many more than that. For me, right now, currently, that’s the important thing, we change through our lives. Currently, the values that are really important to me are trust, impact, health, and family. Those are the four main compasses by which I’m guiding my life today.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Okay, so you’re just getting warmed up talking about values. That’s just a warm up, Luana.

Luana Marques
I know. I know I get excited. I really get excited about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, let’s hear about the book Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power. What’s sort of the big idea or main thesis here?

Luana Marques
The main idea of the book is that although anxiety is extremely painful, anxiety itself is not the enemy. The real thing that gets us stuck is psychological avoidance. Psychological avoidance is anything that we do that helps us feel better momentarily but it has a negative long-term consequence. So, these sort of things like you cancel a date, you don’t finish your report at work because it makes you anxious, you walk in your house and your wife gives you a look, and you know she’s upset, and you’re like, “Oh, I have to work a little more. I don’t want to deal with that right now.”

Those are examples of psychological avoidance. When we avoid, we feel better momentarily. Long term, we are just creating more anxiety. So, that’s at the core of what the book is about. It’s we can get rid of avoidance but we can’t get rid of anxiety so we need to be fighting the right enemy to live a bold life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, to not do the avoidance, what do we do? Do we just go for it every time? How do we think about that, like, “Hey, what’s up? You seem upset. Let’s do this”?

Luana Marques
Well, “Just do it” works for Nike. It doesn’t work for psychological avoidance. We have to be more thoughtful. So, the first piece is actually identifying that we’re avoiding. We may know it but not everybody has paused and really asked themselves, “When my anxiety is high, what do I do?” And in the book, I described something called thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, or TEB cycle, the TEB cycle.

And it’s just a technique that we often use in psychology to just cause a pause, create a pause in your brain. So, the first step is if you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself and write it down, “What am I saying to myself? How does that make me feel? What do I want to do?” And if that action is something that is designed to only bring down discomfort, there’s a good chance that you’re avoiding.

So, does that help a little bit, sort of just setting the framework?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. So, if that’s the thing that is there, then okay. And then I could see how that behavior could be, boy, just any number of things. So, first of all, I’m thinking about, like, okay, smoking, drinking, drugs, video games in terms of, like, there’s a universe of things that’s just, like, “I am just trying to push the feel-good button here.” As opposed to, I guess, now there are things like it might be in the gray zone, like going for a run, it’s also a healthy behavior which is good for the body, but is also exiting a situation that you don’t want to be in.

So, I guess maybe that might be in the gray zone of it is, “I’m avoiding but I’m doing it in an uplifting way so it’s not purely just to make me feel better.” And so then, yeah, then I guess the behaviors that would be not just feel-good behaviors but, I guess, they’re like helpful or productive or advancing things in some way. Is that right?

So, like, if your partner or spouse has given you the cold shoulder, it might be you don’t necessarily engage in a conversation right then and there but you might say, “Well, okay, I’m going to do something that’s helpful for her at the moment because it seems like that would be useful.” So, I’m purely speculating, Luana. You tell me.

Luana Marques
I love it. So, Pete, I think you’re dancing with avoidance the right way, and this is the trick. Avoidance works and there are times in life that we have to walk away. So, you’re having a really bad day, it’s certainly much better to go for a jog, call a friend, than to reach for a bottle of wine, just in terms of your overall wellbeing.

The question, really, is not about the behavior. It’s like, “What is the function of the behavior and is there a negative consequence?” So, for example, if every time you’re upset with your spouse, the only way you handle it is going for a jog, and you never address that you’re upset with your spouse, there is a lifetime, a time on this. Meaning, eventually this blows up for every couple. There’s never a couple I’ve worked with where they avoid a conflict, avoid a conflict, and conflict just ran away. Conflict doesn’t have legs. It stays there.

And so, the running, and the clearing your mind, and jogging, it’s great but if it’s the only way you address conflict, then now you get yourself into a problem. So, it’s really about that price tag, and I think it’s helpful to think about three ways of avoiding. The ones that you talked about, it’s alcohol, numbing, those are retreating. That’s when we sort of try to move away from discomfort. So, you had a really busy day at work, you just come home and have a few glasses of wine, once in a while that might be okay. If it’s every night, now it starts to get into really psychological avoidance.

Some of us, though, avoid in a completely different way. When we feel threatened, specifically perceive threat, so you’re upset with your boss, you get an email you don’t like, you are angry with your partner, you react. Those are people that raise their voice. They will write a hasty email. The idea here is that they’re moving towards that discomfort but not in a productive way. In a way of, like, “I just can’t feel this anxiety so I have to do something.”

Like, I had a patient that just would explode. Every time something would happen at work for him that made him anxious, he would explode. So, there is the people that react, explode kind of idea; there’s the people that retreat; and the last category on psychological avoidance is really the people that remain.

This is the person that is frozen. They’re in a job that they hate but the idea of transitioning, the uncertainty, they just don’t make the leap. They have a relationship they don’t like. So, they are sort of stuck, unable to move one way or another. Does that help to clarify these flavors?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it does good. Yes. Certainly. So, the avoiding isn’t necessarily avoiding the situation. It’s avoiding the feeling of anxiety, like, “I’m going to escape this into anger. Like, I’m going to tell you what I think about this with some attitude.” Okay.

Luana Marques
That’s really important. You’re right on target. You’re not necessarily avoiding behavior, which is the way everybody thinks about avoidance. You’re avoiding discomfort. It’s really the anxiety that you’re trying to run away from.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so tell us, what’s the promised land? What can really be possible for us? In a world where stuff happens, we feel anxious, what’s possible?

Luana Marques
So, there are three skills that I talk about in the book that I think are very helpful that, really, I’ve used them since I’m 15, and my grandmother taught some of them to me, and then, eventually, I got to graduate school, I was like, “Oh, there’s science behind what she was saying?” and here they are. The first one is shift.

Shift is the idea of learning to examine what we’re saying to ourselves. So, what is it that you’re saying to yourself when you’re anxious? Because what happens when we’re anxious is our thoughts become very black and white. On my early days of dating, I remember I’d go on a date and if somebody gave me a look, I’d be like, “Oh, my God, they don’t like me.” And we jump to these conclusions without any facts whatsoever.

So, shift as a skill is, really, after we pause, can we learn to talk to ourselves as if we’re talking to our best friends? What do I mean by that? I don’t know about you, Pete, but I say things to myself that I would never say to my friends. Like, we talk to ourselves in ways that are very not helpful. So, to shift is really arriving on a more balanced view of the world.

So, if you’re really scared about a presentation, can you say to yourself, “You know what, yeah, I’m anxious, but I’ve given presentations before, and I’m prepared”? And what we see is if we shift, our anxiety goes down a little bit. It doesn’t go away but it allows us to engage with things that cause some of that discomfort in a way that’s more productive.

And I have two more but how does that one sound? I’ll pause here for a sec.

Pete Mockaitis
No, I dig it a lot and I’ve heard that before, I feel it wasn’t Ethan Kross or David Burns, but, yeah, that is good. Talking to yourself like a best friend as opposed to any number of things that you could be saying to yourself, which could be judgmental or harsh, or, “You idiot, you always do this.” Like, okay, you probably wouldn’t talk to your best friend that way. You’d be like, “Oh, man, that’s a bummer. Oh, okay. Well, hey, you know what, everyone makes mistakes. You are awesome at your job in all these ways. We’re going to figure out a plan to fix this. We always do.” And that’s a much better vibe inside.

Luana Marques
Yeah, I love the example you just gave because it’s like a good leader would do. If you’re working with somebody that you trust and they make a huge mistake, you don’t go, “Hey, that was awful.” You sit with them, and you say, “Okay, let’s figure out how we got here, and let’s walk together to get you out of here.” And it’s being able to take that perspective towards ourselves so that we’re not living dominated by negative anxious thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. All right. What’s next?

Luana Marques
Approach, not avoid. So, we actually already talked a little bit about this. You mentioned when you’re in conflict with your partner, and the only way you manage that conflict is going for a run because you feel so anxious about talking that you want to run away. Approach is the idea of going towards discomfort by doing what I call opposite action. So, you’re going to do an opposite action of what the anxiety tells you to do.

But here’s the trick, and this is really important. It can’t be all or nothing. So, if you’re afraid of conflict, you can’t, all of a sudden, turn on a switch and go to your partner, and be like, “Well, we’re going to address this right now.” No one can tolerate that. Our brains can’t handle it. So, what is one thing you can do instead of running away? It could be as simple as saying, “Hey, what you said really hurt me, and I’d like us to find some time to talk about it, eventually.” Or, “You know what, that hurt me enough that I need some space from you,” but trying to go towards that discomfort, and so approach instead of avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Luana Marques
And, finally, we actually already talked about it, which is align, and it is drawing from the acceptance and commitment therapy. And the idea of living a values-driven life is a life that really is meaningful. Now, I do this every week, Pete, on Sundays. I look at my calendar for the next week, and I do a little values check, and I go, “Okay, what am I doing that’s related to impact?”

Like, being with you here today feels so important to me because I wrote this book to help the world find science-driven skills to bring the mental health crisis down. And being in such an important podcast like yours, to me, has impact. So, I can check that today, I can say, “Okay, there is impact here.” And tonight, I’m going to have dinner with my son, and he’s really excited. We’re cooking together. Check family.

And so, for me, I try to ensure that I have a little bit of everything, knowing that an aligned life is not a perfect life. I’m about to launch a book, I’m doing a lot more impact, a lot less family, but it’s in a purposeful way so that I continue to live a value-driven life.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. When we talk about values and alignment there in terms of because some values, I think, could be pretty fuzzy in terms of, like, thinking about a week and can we put a check on it. Like, I’m just going to say integrity. It’s like, “Okay, do I have anything for integrity this week?” It’s like, “Well, I’m just going to try to not lie to anybody over the course of interacting with folks.”

That doesn’t quite seem nearly as concrete. For impact, being on the podcast. Family, cooking with son. How do you think about that when it comes to values?

Luana Marques
So, values should be how we say yes or no to things. And if you’re clear on your values, then when somebody presses you, “Can you do this in a way that’s a little shady?” if you’re acting with integrity, the immediate answer is no. There’s not a sense of, like, “I have to think through this. Or, is there a way around that?”

And so, I think about integrity the same way I think about trust in some ways. As core values, they are non-negotiables. So, they’re values that I, personally, every day, want to live by. And then there are things for me that are non-negotiable. Like, integrity is one of them, for example. That my decisions in meta level and in a micro level need to have integrity.

It is harder to check in the list. It is not harder to live by that value if you have it. So, like, I have my list of values and I look at them often, at least once a week. But as a way to sort of say to myself, “Can I keep myself…” the word that comes to mind is reliable, but it’s not really right. “Can I keep a check on myself? Am I really honoring those values?” And it doesn’t feel hard to do integrity but I get your point that it does feel like it’s more amorphous than, like, family, for example.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I guess it seems less schedulable, it’s like, “Ooh, do I have an integrity activity for this week? Hmm, no.” As opposed to reflecting, looking back, “Did you do this?” I’m thinking of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography here in terms of he had his nice little rundown of virtues and “Did I do it today?” and he made the marks on the grid.

So, I could see, like, in hindsight, you can say, “Ooh, hey, actually, I don’t think I had as much integrity as I would’ve liked to there. I kind of let them think something was the case when I knew it probably wasn’t going to be the case, and I could’ve corrected that, and that would’ve been helpful for them and painful for me. And I didn’t do it. I wasn’t lying but that was less than 100% integrity.”

Like, you might be able to reflect on that in hindsight but I can’t think of an integrity activity that I could make sure is scheduled on the weekly agenda, and then if it’s not, go ahead and schedule it. Maybe you can, can you?

Luana Marques
The only one that I think you could schedule but it’s not, again, schedulable as much is parenting. Like, how do you parent with integrity? What do you teach? And can you create moments that you’re teaching specific things that are related to integrity? But it gets in a whole can of worms. Like, how do you parent? What are your values for parenting? What is your partner’s value for parenting? What are the activities around those values?

But it’s the only one that I could because I have a five-year-old at home, so that is something that we think a lot about. So, maybe it is that we just have to check more and reflect on those mega core values, but I like to think more about that. Now you got me in a linchpin here. I want to think about how do you schedule values, those kinds of values.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I also want to dig into one of your concepts. You suggest that we become our own thought lawyers. What does it mean to be a thought lawyer?

Luana Marques
So, what it means is that whenever we’re anxious, our thoughts, well, the way our brain process information is based on our views of the world which are formed early on. I talked a little bit about my view of being afraid I’m not enough, or there are people like they’re not going to think something, or think something badly of me.

And so, our brains are automatically running information that way, which means sometimes our thoughts are not accurate. They’re not either based on reality or they’re likely distorted by our views of the world. And so, to become a thought lawyer is really to pause and look at your thoughts, and to be able to say, “Okay, is this thing I’m saying to myself based on data? Will this hold in a court of law? And if it doesn’t, is there another way to talk to myself?”

So, it’s really questioning our thinking. It’s no different than learning to talk to yourself as your best friend. The idea behind both principles, really, is thoughts are not facts. They feel true but they’re not necessarily 100% accurate. And that arriving at a more flexible view of the world allows us to live a better, more meaningful life.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it’s funny, when I think of interacting with a friend and a lawyer, it feels different. And I guess when I’m thinking about a thought lawyer, as I’m imagining I am cross-examining a thought I have. It’s like, “What is your evidence for that thought?” And, in some ways, I don’t know, I wonder about what’s the tone we’re going for when we’re being a thought lawyer?

Luana Marques
Well, given that we’re trying to live a meaningful bold life, ideally, a tone that has some compassion with yourself. I think the spirit behind both of them is the same, which is, “Can we interrogate our thoughts? Can we not take thoughts as facts immediately?” Now, I worked with some people, they’re very scientific, and so, for them, it’s like they need to be in a cross-examination, otherwise, there’s nothing. This whole friendship stuff, they’re like, “It’s too soft. I can’t do it.”

And I worked with people that go, “Oh, this law stuff, I don’t really care. What I care about is meaningful relationships.” So, think about them, Pete, as different entryways for people with the same goal. The goal here is, “Can we look at what we’re saying to ourselves?” Because if what we’re saying to ourselves is just leading to more anxiety, do we want to keep talking to ourselves that way? And could we arrive at a more balanced view so that we can bring that anxiety down and transform it into more of a power and more meaningful life?

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. Well, I guess the way I’m reconciling it is the thought lawyer is the lawyer that I have hired on my team, as opposed to the lawyer on the other team who’s adversarially going after me. Because I think sometimes with thoughts, I mean, you can, I don’t know, at least these are in my own thought life, if I am too intensive with my interrogation, it’s like I flip on into defensive mode. And it’s like, “Huh, really, is that true, Pete?” “Well, yeah, because dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” And then it’s like, “Huh, I don’t think I’m getting where I’m trying to be going from this process.”

Luana Marques
So, it’s interesting because defensive mode sometimes is just a way to avoid our own self sometimes because we get defensive, we’re like, “No, no,” and it’s sort of in a way a little bit. I hear you. I think that sometimes we can get so black and white in the interrogation that we just lock our brain more, and that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.

We’re trying to achieve cognitive flexibility. That’s really the goal behind these skills is you have a more flexible brain. And so, I love that you know for you what works and doesn’t work. And I think that’s what I recommend for everybody. If for you, the lawyer that you hired and your team is better, bring that lawyer on everywhere with you, man. That’s awesome. I love the picture.

Pete Mockaitis
Okey-dokey. And so then, the subtitle of the book Transform Anxiety into Power, so I could see how doing these three things, the shifting, talking as a best friend, the approaching not avoiding, the aligning to be values-driven, are powerful, and we’ve sort of transformed an anxious anxiety into power there. Although, I’m wondering, it’s like could I be powerful without the anxiety? Or, is the anxiety actually being a handy fuel for me? How do you think about that?

Luana Marques
I’ve never met anyone in my life that I worked with that they didn’t want that anxiety gone. I’ll be the first to say I don’t like anxiety myself, so I’m there with everyone here. That being said, we can’t get away of anxiety. If you think about anxiety as sort of a broader concept that involves just even some mild discomfort. Have you ever seen anyone powerful that goes to give a concert, or somebody who’s about to take an exam? There’s some level of apprehension and an anxiousness that is somewhat adaptive up to a point.

And getting rid of anxiety is like getting rid of our pain receptors. It sounds fantastic, you bump into something and you feel nothing, but then you touch a hot stove and we’re in trouble. And so, we can’t get rid of anxiety completely. We can bring it down, and that’s why I chose very thoughtfully the subtitle of transforming anxiety into power.

So, if you’re going to feel anxious anyhow, wouldn’t you want to use it to do something meaningful, something that makes you feel power, make you feel bold towards what you care about? And so, I think we can get rid of avoidance. That, I think, we can do really good. Anxiety, I’m sorry to break it for everybody, we’re all going to have a little level of it. There’s no way around it.

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

Luana Marques
No, I think we covered everything.

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

Luana Marques
So, since I was 16, I’m inspired by Paulo Coelho’s quote on The Alchemist, “Whenever you want something, the entire universe conspires in making sure you have it.” That quote gave me hope when life was tough in Brazil, and still does.

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

Luana Marques
I’m really excited, have been, by the things that I think a ton about is Steven Hayes’ work on acceptance and commitment therapy recently, and this idea that we can actually create more meaningful lives by leaning into our pain, understanding that pain can reflect values, and then create a new life when those values are a part of it. That, to me, is very exciting.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Luana Marques
Favorite book, the last book that I read that gave me a lot of inspiration is Michelle Obama’s new book on The Light We Carry. She has an entire chapter on avoidance, and it’s just so powerful to me to see a woman like Michelle talk about avoidance and also overcoming it. And although she doesn’t use the same terms I use, I can just see the science right there in everything she used, so she inspires me tremendously.

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

Luana Marques
So, I think what I’m really just, I love, nowadays, ChatGPT and just being able to use AI as a way to elevate my writing. I think it’s really incredible. I think there’s pros and cons but it certainly has helped me to sort of streamline my thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel like there are some episodes about this coming up to be done. How do you use it to streamline your writing? Is it in terms of brainstorming or…?

Luana Marques
So, no, it’s mostly, you know, English is my second language. Of course, I’ve been here for a long time. I tend to be a fast writer but being able to create the flow, and sometimes just even clean up the grammar. I can get in a habit there, so being able to say, “Help me rewrite this in a way that ensures tone but allows for grammar correctly, and this, and this.” Just, it literally cleans it up a little bit. It just saves a lot of time. It stays consistent with the message that I want to send. It’s just like I have an editor at home that is just like an amazing editor, and that’s really powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Luana Marques
Breakfast with my family, like sitting and actually having breakfast. We had to create that into a habit because life has a way to just take it over, and it’s a habit for us.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate, and folks quote it back to you often?

Luana Marques
Approach than avoid. All my clients say again and again, like, whenever they avoid, they go they hear me saying, “Approach than avoid.”

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

Luana Marques
www.DrLuana.com. You can find out about the book and everything else there, including upcoming speaking events and book signing.

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

Luana Marques
Yes. I encourage you all to take a pause, look at your values, and really make a bold move to align your job with what matters the most because that, I think, guarantees that you’re going to be super awesome at your job.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Luana, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and many bold moves.

Luana Marques
Well, thank you so much, Pete. It’s really an honor to be back here. It’s super fun.

866: How to Bounce Back, Find Your Flow, and Thrive in Adversity with Darleen Santore (“Coach Dar”)

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Darleen Santore says: "Don’t run from the adversity. Learn from it because the more you learn from it, the more you’re going to be able to use it."

Darleen Santore (AKA “Coach Dar”) coaches us on how to reframe setbacks and face adversity head on.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to bounce back from setbacks faster
  2. Why willpower isn’t enough
  3. How to reframe any setback

About Darleen

Darleen Santore, best known as Coach Dar, is author, Occupational Therapist, motivational speaker, and the former Mental Skills Coach for the Phoenix Suns who works with professional athletes and CEO’s around the world. As a therapist, executive advisor and mental edge coach, Coach Dar blends a knowledge of science, psychology and leadership with her personal passion for life. Her first book was just released, The Art of Bouncing Back: Find Your Flow to Thrive at Work and in Life – Anytime You’re off your Game.

Resources Mentioned

Darleen Santore Interview Transcript

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m excited to dig into your wisdom that you’ve captured some of that in your book The Art of Bouncing Back: Find Your Flow to Thrive at Work and in Life ― Any Time You’re Off Your Game. And you know a lot about bouncing back in your professional world and your personal world. Boy, can you tell us the story of three strokes and how you bounced back there?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
I wish I could tell you it’s just one or none, but it was three. And I think that’s part of the reason is you get what you’re going through in life so that you could teach from it. And this was something, ironically, I am an occupational therapist, I was a therapist on the stroke and brain injury floor, and I was 25 years old, and I had just gone to go see a chiropractor because I had sciatica, and they worked on my neck, manipulated my neck.

And a few days later, I was at work, and, all of a sudden, I’m walking and the floor flips upside down, and the floor is the ceiling, and the ceiling is the floor, and I cannot see. And I thought, “What is going on?” And the irony is I didn’t even know it was a stroke but it was. What had happened was when they manipulated the neck, they ripped the vertebral artery and so it bled to the brain, and it was a slow bleed until it occluded blood to the back side of my brain, and that’s when I started to have all these symptoms.

But they would come and go because the blood flow would put pressure and then it would take it off a little bit till finally it had occluded all blood supply to the brain, and that’s when I had all the symptoms of a stroke. And the good news and the bad news of that was that scar tissue, eventually, enveloped the blood clot but it could dislodge any day as it was on its way to developing scar tissue, and I could die in any day is what they told me.

And I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m the therapist that takes care of patients like this. I’m not supposed to be receiving this information, especially at 25 years old.” But I did, and it was part of the journey, and I worked through it, and I thought I was on my way, making my way through life in this scenario, and then about six years ago, I had my second, and about three or four years ago, I had my third, which was my worst one.

Pete Mockaitis
My goodness. And so, tell us how did you go about bouncing back?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
I will tell you, when this first happened, I was not as prepared. You’re 25 years old, you don’t have all the tools. Whereas, by the one I just had three, four years ago, I’m now 47, I have been helping over 100,000 people with their mindset, mental state, how they bounce back, so I was able to use all the tools, and it truly did help.

And that’s why during this time of writing this book, I could truly say that these principles are the principles that I used to not only help professional athletes, CEOs, but myself. And it works because when you work on your mental fitness, you truly do get stronger. But like anything, if you don’t put time into it, it’s not going to be there, it’s not going to be as strong. So, I am very much encouraging people, you don’t have to wait for adversity to come to start working on your mental foundation. You could start working on it now.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’d love to get into the how-to of working on one’s mental fitness, mental foundation. Can you first share with us just what kind of impact that makes if these sorts of practices are faithfully engaged in versus neglected?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Well, you know where to pull from, so if you don’t have these tools, and it happens, it’s just a harder learning curve because you’re trying to learn in the middle of the valley, which you can. You absolutely can. It’s just going to take longer. So, I’ll say to people, when you’re working on your mental fitness, and you could do this right now without having anything like I just shared catastrophic or lifechanging, you could work on it.

So, the day doesn’t go so well, you’re trying to do something, it doesn’t work. You have tech glitches. You are stuck in traffic. Your child is going through something. It could be something even like you’re getting laid off from a job right now. If you have the tools, and you’ve been taught this, it doesn’t mean it’s going to take away the pain. You know how to embrace it. You know how to go back to what your hardwiring is. You know how to reframe the setback, so you have the tools right there to set you up so you come back faster.

It’s equivalent to someone who’s physically in shape, gets injured, goes into the hospital, their muscle fibers and strength are there to help them to get back faster because they have more muscle mass, they have more strength. So, when they’re trying to get back, they’re not atrophying from something that’s already atrophied. It’s the same with our mental muscles. If you’re building them and they’re strong, they’re going to be there to support you when something happens. And right when it happens, you’re able to stay agile, which is the key to success.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it sounds like any number of setbacks, frustrations, disappointments, heartbreaks, traumas, this mental fitness stuff can help us bounce back from any and all of these better?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Yes, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, please, Coach Dar, lay it out for us, how do we get better at bouncing back and build that mental fitness?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Well, you start, for whoever is listening, whatever has been the hardest thing you’ve been through or whatever you’re challenged with right now that’s adversity, you have to embrace it. The first principle is, embrace the suck. And the reason I start with that is because you can’t go to positive Pollyanna, “Don’t worry about it. Try to shake it off.” You have to embrace, “What are we dealing with?”

So, say, someone just got laid off from their job, we have to embrace it what it is. We have to embrace the emotions of it because if we don’t deal with things, they will surface in another way. So, you embrace it, you figure it out. Just like the military would when they’re in the middle of battle, “What is the situation we’re dealing with so we could accept it and create a plan?”

That’s where we want to be at step one, we want to embrace it, for accepting it for what it is, good, bad, and different, fair, not fair, it doesn’t matter. What are we dealing with so then we could create a plan to move forward from it? Because if we don’t create clarity in the chaos, we cannot create a plan, necessarily.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when you embrace it, that’s sort of not saying, “Why me? This is bull crap.” Or, what does embracing mean and not mean?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
It just means we’re accepting the reality of what is. So, I’m going to give something even a little bit more challenging of that, which is I’ve lost both my parents recently. When I lost my father, of course I’m grieving, of course I’m hurting, but I had to, at some point, accept I can’t bring my father back. I have to embrace it. I have to. It’s not “I can’t change it, so what do I need to do about it?” I could grieve it. I could work through it. I could start to shift from grieving at some point to celebrating his life.

When I had my stroke, I can’t change the fact that I had it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or unfair. At some point, I have to say, “This is what happened. I could call someone and I could say, ‘I am sad about this.’” “Great. Let’s talk about it.” But I’m still embracing talking about it. I’m not waking up in a delusional state, saying, “I don’t want to deal with this.” Whether I do or I don’t, it’s what happened. So, we face reality head on, and we work through our emotions on it, and then we create a plan from it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s talk about the next steps then.

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
So, the next step would be understanding our hardwiring. When you understand how you are hardwired, which is your strength, your talents, this creates what I call a confidence card. So, when I had my stroke, while certain things were taken away from me, my knowledge of how to bounce back, my knowledge as a therapist did not go away. My abilities to still communicate with people, it was different but it didn’t go away altogether.

I had trouble saying words but I still was able to speak where some lose all of their speech. I might not have been able to move as well but I was not completely paralyzed. But my point was/is I still had who I am, fundamentally, within me. If you get laid off from a job, your job was taken away, but your gifts are not taken away, so you just have to reestablish, “Where can you use your gifts and talents somewhere else? How else do you need to get up and get back up?”

So, oftentimes, we feel like we have no control, and I try to bring you back to this principle. You have full control of your hardwiring, and your hardwiring is your confidence code. I work on professional sports, our athletes all have scouting cards, it’s kind of their stats. I help them create their scouting card, their confidence card, so when things go bad, a bad game, I could go back and say, “Don’t forget you still are talented in this, this, this, and this area. It was a bad game. It doesn’t mean your gifts went away.”

Because they’ll often say, like, “What happened?” I’ll say, “No one took away your talent. Your talent is still there. The game just didn’t flow. Let’s get you back into flow but just remember you still have your gifts and talents.” And when you do that, that’s where confidence comes back even in the middle of lull.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And in the remembering, is there a particular practice or key steps to bring back that from?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
That’s why we’re writing it down. Yup, you write it down. So, right now, it would be good if, people are listening, to do step two. Every principle in this book, you, literally, could journal it through like it’s your own playbook. If you can’t even remember what you’re good at, for some reason you’re in a lull, ask people, “Hey, what are the things that you would say I’m really good at?”

If you could do self-inventory, write it down, and then you put it somewhere, put it in your phone, put it on your desk, put it somewhere that you get to go back and read this. Because what happens is when we get in the middle of struggle, we start to doubt, we start to lose faith, we start to forget, and this is your visual to bring you back neurologically, to say, “No, this is what is true. What you’re telling yourself right now is false. But this is truth.” And so, this is your reset for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then what’s next?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
You then take these and you start to understand that you have to find why power. I take you through a couple chapters of seeking, applying feedback, to then moving into why power.

You want to seek feedback, and then you want to apply your why power. Why power over willpower. Because when you understand why you’re getting up, literally, “Why should you get up when it’s so hard?” Well, because, one, you still have a reason to be here. Two, when you write your why statement, you find your anthem for the year. You know where to get back to.

And example of this is I had a player who got injured, and I said, “Okay, you might not be able to inspire greatness…” which is what his mission statement is, what his why is, “…on the court, but you could still do it to your teammates. You could still do it in your community.” So, when we were able to get back to, “Why should you still get up every day when you’re not playing in the middle of an injury?” Well, because you still can go and help others around you until you get back into play. And by doing your rehab and getting up, you will, eventually, get to inspire greatness on the court.

I have a CEO. His why is, “Dar, I just want to be able to add value every day.” Well, he can’t add value if he sits in his house and never leaves. So, when he went through a hard time, I said, “Okay, what are other ways you could add value? Maybe you can’t get into the office right now with this challenge that you’re doing but you can make phone calls, you could, literally, to your family, could still add value.”

And he said, “Every day, I want to be able to wake up and know that I matter, whether I’m a CEO or not. So, through my conversations with my wife, am I adding value with her, with my kids, with my community?” He has purpose beyond just his position, and that’s important for people, to have purpose beyond their position, and your why gives you that. It’s not tied to a role. It’s tied to a bigger purpose. And in the book, I have people, literally, break it down on how to come up with the why.

Pete Mockaitis
Do tell. How do we come to the why?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
You get to go and you get to look at, “What were all core values?” Look at core value words. You have words, core value words that something is going to pull at your heart, and you’re going to say, “Okay, if my life is being played out right now, and this was the anthem for my life, truly this was what was being played back, this was what people knew me for, would I be proud of that?”

And you are, literally, the person who’s writing the masterpiece, writing the script of your story, writing the theme of your life theme. And if you could choose one word of what that would be, what would be that anthem? What’s one core value you’d like to stand on? So, the player was greatness, the other person was value, mine is greatness, another person is integrity. They want to lead a life of integrity. They want to help people lead a life of integrity.

So, you have to pick a word that works for you, and then that becomes your anthem. And it, literally, starts to drive you. This is something that we could talk an hour just on, I’m breaking it down, but that’s just to get you started in understanding there’s power in why. Because if you just will yourself consistently, “I’m going to will myself,” you’re going to lose willpower.

But why lights a power within you. Willpower just lights a fire underneath your feet for a little bit. Why power lights a fire within you. It’s a reason for getting up. It’s bigger than you.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say anthem, are you quite, literally, referring to music?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Oh, well, I do tie music to the anthem. So, mine is awaken in greatness. And so I took awaken in greatness as my life anthem, and then I actually made a yearly, I make a yearly anthem that goes with it. So, in order to awaken greatness, I then have, I put my word this year as next level. I want my conversations, my connections, my ability to touch people to be just at another level.

So, my music theme is Superman. When my alarm goes off, I actually set my alarm to the theme. So, when I wake up, I don’t wake up to an annoying alarm. I wake up to an anthem so it starts my day, so I’m already reminded of it. Neurologically, it’s a neuro hack.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I’m curious, if you start at the very beginning with the buildup swells from the planet Krypton song or is it right into the “Pa, para, rah”?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
It’s right into it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, important clarification.

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
But maybe I will go back and start it from the beginning just because it’ll slowly build as I slowly wake up.

Pete Mockaitis
As a youngster, I watched the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie on VHS repeatedly. So, it’s very special.

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
So, you can appreciate this. It’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the why and the anthem. What’s next?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
So, we’ll move to, then after that, it’s also increasing emotional intelligence. I want people to be able to increase their emotional intelligence, their awareness, how they show up to scenarios. So, again, this is mental fitness. If you’ve been in a situation, you want to have some emotional awareness of what got you into that situation, what are some of the things that you could change. If you do not have EQ of how or what, then it’s hard for you to make adjustments.

Also, emotional awareness and EQ allows you, so when you show up to a space, you could read the room. You know how to inflect, when to interject, how to speak. And so, often if we don’t have EQ, it’s hard for us to, which we’d move to next, would be reframing things, because we don’t even understand what the problem is.

Sometimes we have to bounce back from things that we created the problem. Maybe it was something we said, how we said it, what we did. So, if we don’t have EQ, emotional intelligence, how the situation came about, it’s going to be hard for us to reset, to reignite, to reframe it. And so, I really, really work with a lot of people, honestly, most of coaching is getting people to have emotional intelligence on themselves in a situation.

Because, while I can’t control someone else, I can certainly control myself. I can control how I deliver a message, I can control how I say things, and I can control my level of acknowledgement so that I could have some compassion for the scenario. But if we don’t have awareness, it’s really hard for us to change.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, can you share with us what might be an exercise or a reflection that brings about an upgraded emotional intelligence?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Having people often go and say to someone, “Hey, when I was in the meeting with you, how was it? How did you feel? What was the conversation like for you?” because you want to get some feedback. That’s why one of the principles is seeking and applying feedback. You want to get feedback from people to know how you can adjust.

Again, working in pro sports, we have to get feedback all the time. The players, literally, are getting feedback right there. They have to know how to seek and apply the feedback, and then have awareness of how their energy, their state, their emotions are contributing or hurting the team, and then make adjustments in real time. And they have people telling them right there that they have to make adjustments.

And I often laugh because, in the corporate world, working with some of my clients in the corporate world, they might get a 360 review once a year, or maybe quarterly, and they wait a whole quarter to seek and apply feedback or have awareness, EQ, to what’s going on. That’s why coaching is so effective because it keeps you accountable consistently and teaches you how to create self-accountability.

And so, I had an executive that I was working with, and I said, “This issue keeps coming up. I would love for you to do your own 360 at this point to seek feedback, to also ask, ‘What is it like when I’m in the room? What is it like when I’m leaving the meeting? How does everyone feel?’” By doing this, they will start to have awareness of how their tone, their behavior, their mannerisms were affecting everyone.

I had an executive, smart, talented, but every time they were in a meeting, they kept tapping their pen, tapping their pen, and tapping their pen on the table, shaking their foot, looking everywhere else. So, what did everyone start to feel? Like, they needed to get what they needed to be said quick because they only had a few minutes, which doesn’t allow people to have a stroke of genius, or want to share openly. They feel rushed and they feel like they don’t matter.

And that’s not how the executive is. It’s just her presence what’s creating this state for people, that they were never able to fully be them in the rooms. She was not getting the best of her team, and not because the team wasn’t good but because of how she was showing up. So, once we shifted that, which, really, I just gave her a paperclip to rub on, she had energy she had to get out. So, she didn’t even know she was conveying it that way, but that was her seeking and applying feedback, and then having some emotional intelligence and awareness of knowing how to change that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And what’s next?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
So, once you go from this, you can then start cultivating grit. Cultivating grit is I want people to understand that adversity is something that could absolutely advance you. And this is where we start talking about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. And we hear this a lot but we tune it out. But I challenge people at a time of day-to-day, are you just allowing your day to be average? Are you allowing your day to just go by?

Are you putting yourself in situations that are going to help challenge you, grow you? How about having the conversation that you need to have with someone? How about doing something that you always want to do but you were afraid to, pushing yourself a little bit? It could be something that I have go people go into the cold plunge, one, because there’s physical benefits to it, but, also, when you put yourself in a situation you do not want to be in but you know it’s going to help make you better, you started to cultivate some grit.

And then when people are going through challenges, I’ll say, “Don’t run from the adversity. Learn from it because the more you learn from it, the more you’re going to be able to use it.” Listen, after three strokes, I could tell you by the third one, while I was definitely upset and it was my worst one, I had built so much grit, so much resiliency that I knew how to lean into it versus run from it. I knew what I needed to do for my therapy. This was not my first rodeo.

So, imagine now you’re in a relationship, and every time you keep running from conversations, it doesn’t help. But now you’re going to lean in, and say, “Let’s have this difficult conversation. Let’s talk this through.” You just developed depth. Grit is almost like depth. You created some depth within the relationship, so now it’s not as hard the next time.

And what I want to say is grit actually creates flow, which creates freedom because you know how to handle hard. And, oftentimes, people don’t know how to handle hard and they just run from it, so you can’t develop resiliency, and all of this is building muscle. You can’t develop muscle unless you’ve been put in the pressure of a situation, that’s why when lifting weights, you have to lift heavier in order to keep building. Well, you can’t develop mental strength unless you’re willing to put yourself in some tough situations. So, running from adversity will never build up, but leaning into it will.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I dig that reframe there, and I’m curious if there are any others that you and clients have found super powerful and useful?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
So, reframing setbacks is a whole separate chapter, too, and I want to just say I remember a player that came off of playing, and he said to me, “Dar, I suck. I’m horrible. I can’t. I don’t even know why I’m playing,” and all of this negative talk. And I said to him, “Hold on one second. You are in the one percent. You are a professional athlete. So, you get to say this for about 30 more seconds and then we’re moving on.”

The reframe from this is “The game was not bad. You’re not bad, okay? The game may not have been great but you still are great. Going back to principle two, let’s go back to your hardwiring. Are you still good at this, this, this, and this?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “So, if you are, the reframe is that game might not have been bad, but I’m not bad.”

Now, take it to the business world. A project doesn’t go well. You lose a proposal. Something shifts in it that you don’t have control of, and you don’t just stop and say, “Well, we should shut down the whole business.” You reframe it to say, “That didn’t go well but we still have the ability to make this great. We are still a talented group, we just have to reframe this and reset this to see it for what it is, what is truth, what is false, what are we dealing with.”

But when you get people to continue to reframe, then they show up better because they don’t look at every obstacle as catastrophe. They look at it as, “This is an obstacle that could fuel us if we’re willing to learn from it, but it’s hard.” And I keep going back to people want to just coast. They just want to idle. They don’t want to push themselves. You can’t row to be great if you’re just going to idle. So, you want to lean into this, and the reframing is, “This is a bad day, not a bad life.”

“This was a bad project, it didn’t go well, but that doesn’t mean we’re bad.” Does that mean everyone in the company is horrible? Absolutely not. So, when you could reframe situations, you could then move forward from them again. You could see them from what is truth and what is false. And when I had my third stroke, I reframed it to say, “Well, I’m still able to walk. I may not walk well but I could walk. At least I’m not in a wheelchair at this moment.”

That’s a reframe because what that does is it gives me hope and it gives me reality of where I really am because I could look at it as the victim role, and I could look at it as, “This is awful,” which it’s hard, but there could be worse things. So, when you reframe it, you could see it for what it is to go forward.

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
I think the last thing I would say is, in this, once you go through this, you learn how to the last principle, how to turn the page. And when you learn how to turn the page, which is, like I said, you don’t brush it off but you accept it, you acknowledge it, you learn from it, you deal with it, you build the grit you need, the muscle, you could turn the page on the pain that’s been holding you back so you could write a new chapter, so you could start to lean into purpose.

So, turn the page on what’s been holding you back. Let it go. Learn from it. Let it go. Release it. And then let’s move forward so you could write your new chapter so you could step into what’s ahead of you. It really will help you so that adversity will advance you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Well, I have a couple but one is Coach Monty Williams of Phoenix Suns says, “Everything is on the other side of hard, because once you get through what’s challenging, you’ve grown from it.” And we can’t get better if we don’t go through the hard things.

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
A favorite study. I’m not sure what comes to mind but I will say that I love about the ability, and we know the research of Atomic Habits, stacking habits, and how when you stack habits, you’re much likely to succeed in the journey that you’re on. So, if there’s habits, the research they’ve shown, if you stack them, put them next to another thing you do every day, you’re more likely to win in a goal that you have set. So, Atomic Habits and stacking habits, it’s great research.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Atomic Habits other than what I just wrote.

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Well, a favorite tool that I have is this thing called BrainTap, and it’s a way to do almost passive mental fitness and meditation, so it’s not as hard, and it really does show great results for people to be able to decrease anxiety, increase creativity and innovation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that’s an app, BrainTap?

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
BrainTap, it’s a headset and an app that you can get.

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
They always quote me and say, “Dar is always reminding me to raise the bar, which is not to do more but just to do what I do really well, and life gets better.” So, level up the standard of your life, your mindset, and stay on it, don’t give up because every day, it’s worth the fight. And that greatness is open to all but earned by few.

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
CoachDar.com is a great place for people to go, and also on social media, you could find me on LinkedIn, Darleen Santore, or on Instagram, it’s thecoachdar. And I put a lot of inspirational things, mental fuel, tips, biohacks to help you with your brain health, so follow along. And you can get the book on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble stores, or you can go to CoachDar.com, all the information is there.

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

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
I would encourage you to lean into raising the bar of excellence. Be intentional when you do something. You do it to the highest level. Working in pro sports, everyone is expected to bring their best game, and then I was at Apple, working with them at their headquarters. And when you walk in there, they’re told, “This is where you’ll do the best work of your life.” You don’t have to work at Apple to have that standard. Make that your standard for your life.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Coach Dar, this has been a treat. I wish you and the book lots of luck.

Darleen “Coach Dar” Santore
Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

858: Managing Small Stresses Before They Create Big Problems with Rob Cross

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Rob Cross says: "That’s really the insidious nature of the microstresses. They all seem small… but it takes a toll physiologically… in pretty powerful ways."

Rob Cross explains the dangers of microstress and provides practical solutions to build your resilience.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why microstress is a much larger problem than we think
  2. Three types of microstress to watch out for
  3. Three solutions for when someone’s causing microstress

About Rob

Rob Cross is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and the cofounder and director of the Connected Commons, a consortium of more than 150 leading organizations. He has studied the underlying networks of relationships within effective organizations and the collaborative practices of high performers for more than twenty years. Working with over 300 organizations and reaching thousands of leaders from the front line to the C-suite, he has identified specific ways to cultivate vibrant, effective networks at all levels of an organization and any career stage. He is the author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being and coauthor of THE MICROSTRESS EFFECT: How Little Things Pile Up and Become Big Problems—and What to do about it with Karen Dillon.

Resources Mentioned

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Rob Cross Interview Transcript

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

Rob Cross
Thank you so much for having me here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to talk about your book The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems–and What to Do about It. So juicy. But before we dive into that, this is corny, I’d like to dive into your scuba enthusiasm. What’s the story here?

Rob Cross
That was well played, young man.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re certified. How does that happen?

Rob Cross
I did get certified, and I’m a huge believer and a practitioner of some of the stuff we write about, and kind of adding dimensionality to your life in different ways. And so, I did that this past winter with my daughter, and then she’s kind of off and pursuing med school right now, and so it’s going to be one of the things that we use to kind of keep connected, to do short diving trips here and there. But it’s actually pretty easy, and it does bring you into a completely different realm of people, realm of experiences in life, and has been completely worthwhile, completely love it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, do you see dazzlingly colored fish, like on the documentaries? That’s what I imagine when I hear scuba, like, “Wow!”

Rob Cross
It’s completely like that. So, their last certification dive they take you, you’re able to go down to 60 feet with the certification I have, and I may advance that a little bit. We’ll see. But that’s when you get down there, and you’re, “Okay, this is real. If stuff runs out and I can’t get to my daughter’s regulator in time, you’re in trouble one way or the other.”

But you look around, it’s a peaceful sense of serenity like you’ve never had. She touched my shoulder at one point and pointed, and there was a five-foot nurse shark drifting 10, 15 feet away, and it’s just kind of a crazy experience overall to be able to see. What you’re talking about are the really small colorful fish but just also the serenity and kind of sense of being really removed, if you will, in different ways.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. And so, you’ve also probably have a lot of cold-water goodness going on as well. Does that happen?

Rob Cross
Yeah, definitely. It depends on where you go. So, you’re actually looking for the warm water but, yeah, definitely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now I’m pumped to hear about your book The Microstress Effect. First of all, tell us what is the microstress effect?

Rob Cross
So, it is a book focused on small moments of stress. And what got me interested in this was I did a book called Beyond Collaboration Overload about two years ago, and that was very focused on how just all the ways that we interact with other people in our lives today, professionally and personally, but, principally, in the workplace, it’s overwhelming us because of all the modalities and the different instances of having to be on 24/7.

And so, as I got into that work, what became apparent to me is that people are drowning, and that stress is being created, burnout is at an all-time high in most places, and it’s not really the workload that’s gone up that much. Really, what’s gone up over the course of about 10 to 15 years has been the collaborative footprint around the work. We’ve de-layered, we’ve moved to agile-based work structures, one-firm cultures, all these initiatives organizationally that have created greater context and needs for collaboration.

And, simultaneously, we’ve enabled that with all sorts of instantaneous collaborative tools, but it’s created a context where people are overwhelmed. And as I went to these interviews and could see how stressed people were, what I was finding is it wasn’t the big things that was killing us. It was the small moments of stress that people were experiencing that they’re hitting us at a velocity and frequency that our brains just aren’t wired to deal with.

And that was what, over time, was causing people problems in kind of invisible ways. So, it got us very interested both in “What does that microstress look like? How do more successful people deal with it?” and strategies for kind of thriving today.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I’m intrigued from a science perspective, any particularly surprising, fascinating discoveries you’ve made here? Like, is it a big deal, microstresses, or is it, like, “Well, they add up to being just a smidge more in total”?

Rob Cross
Right. I think that’s a really great question, and I love the way you asked it because I think too many people go, “Oh, it’s just one more thing, and then successful people, we’re supposed to deal with that. Just one more thing.” But the problem is our body doesn’t distinguish between big stress and small stress. Our brains do. Our brains can go into flight or fight response and kind of trigger different ways of working with big stress when we experience it.

But the small stress, you sense misalignment with a colleague and you wonder how you’re going to solve it. Or, you see somebody on your team that needs to be coached for the third time and you’re wondering, “How am I going to do that and keep their engagement?” Or, you got a text from a child, and you can’t tell if they’re grumbling for 15 seconds and over it, but you worry about it for three hours.

Rob Cross
So, we know it’s real because we see the body reacting differently. We know, for example, that the same meal processed within two hours of being under this form of social stress can result in, actually, an additional 104 calories, which doesn’t sound like much but you accumulate that over the year, and that can be as much as 11 pounds.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Rob, when you’re saying we burn an extra 104 calories because we’re hyped up or we burn 104 fewer calories?

Rob Cross
No, the reverse, we add it, yeah. And we actually process the food differently in, actually, a negative way. We know that the blood pressure is a problem. One of the neuroscientists we interviewed was describing it as kind of an analogy of having kids jumping on your bed, microstresses being the kids. You got one or two kids jumping on your bed and everything is fine, but you keep adding and adding and adding, and, eventually, the bedframe kind of cracks.

And that’s a little bit of the effect that we see neurologically with this. And I cannot tell you the number of times, going through these interviews, where these are all really successful people, top companies, really successful people. First 10 minutes, it was all rainbows and lollipops, everything is great. And then you get down to kind of minute 30, minute 45, and all the cracks are starting to creep in, and you start to get a real sense of how people are struggling.

And I think the thing that troubled me most with all these conventionally successful people was how many of them described going three, five, eight years in their lives just persisting, thinking you have to fight through only to wake up one day, and go, “What have I done? I’m not who I wanted to be. I’m not where I want to be. How did this affect me in such a way?” And I think that’s really the insidious nature of the microstresses.

They all seem small. You’re just kind of getting over one more thing each day but it takes a toll physiologically and, also, kind of from a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives in pretty powerful ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Rob, you gave us a couple examples of microstresses, but just to make sure we’re all on the same page, can you give us a few more so we can really say, “Oh, those. Okay, I know what you’re saying”?

Rob Cross
Yeah. So, we have a set of them that are really what we call drains to capacity, and they’re interactions that decrease our ability to get done what we have to get done. And so, they create stress as a product of us having to work harder and ignore our family or other things that we want to do with our lives, or they create stress, beverage of underdelivering.

But as an example, one is what I’ve come to call small misses, small performance misses from team members or colleagues. And so, what’s happened in a lot of places is most people are on five, six, seven team efforts. They may only be assigned to one but they’re usually tasked with five, six, seven other collaborative efforts that they have to be a part of and contribute to, given the way work is happening today.

And what we know happens is if you happen to own one, and everybody shows up to your one, let’s say you have four other people on that team, and they show up at 95% done, so they’re almost there, and everybody has reasons, they misunderstood, “My boss pulled me in a different direction,” “My child got sick,” that sounds like small misses, and most people just gloss over it, but that 5% times four people means 20% to you, and you’re stuck with this decision of, “Do I work through the night and push a little bit harder to get it done, or do I underdeliver?” Most people choose to work through and just get it done.

And then what they’ve done is they’ve taught people that, “Okay, 95% is good enough here, and maybe 90% the next time.” And not because people are nefarious, I really want to underscore that. The problem right now is that people are so overwhelmed in all the interviews we did across both these books, that they’re making decisions on which balls to drop nine times out of ten and not how to excel in different ways. So, that’s an example that we see.

Another one very common are when authority figures shift expectations very erratically or consistently. And that would take the form of changing what they were asking you to do, changing the performance expectations of what they had, or just emotionally being a very different person from point A to point B, and that create stress on you, individually, but then it also manifests in the second order when you have to go protect your team, or you have to go and find other people to help because the direction has shifted and you’re stuck doing things you committed to colleagues before in a prior direction, plus you’ve got to figure out new people you need to work with in different ways.

So, there’s 14 of those but that, hopefully, gives you a couple of them to get a sense of.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’m thinking about home life as well. What are some microstresses there?

Rob Cross
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So, one of my favorite examples is my daughter, Rachel, is somebody who’s a high-level junior tennis player. We travel the country together, and she would, as a product of having a father that knew nothing about the game at all except just trying to help her, she got very used to relying on me and to kind of talk about things that were bothering her.

And what that did, we have a super strong relationship, but what that created over time was a tendency where if anything was going wrong, she would let me know about it, just text me very quickly. And, usually, it was exactly what I was referring to earlier, a ten-second text that she wouldn’t even be thinking about. She’s just telling her dad, and yet I would worry about it for three or four hours, until one day we kind of discovered it.

And so, it’s an interesting thing with our home life, with our friends. Here is a little being that is simultaneously the greatest source of purpose for me in life, humor, all sorts of great wonderful things, yet also is a source of microstress in terms of second-hand stress that gets created and passed on. And what we did in that case is just say, “Well, don’t tell me if it’s not important to you, and I’ll avoid my four hours of anxiety.”

We’re laughing about it, of course, and she knows I’m there if anything is serious, but that’s really the trick of this, especially the people we’re closest to. They tend to be both our primary sources of joy and purpose and life satisfaction, and simultaneously our primary sources of different elements of microstress. And the trick is, “Can you adapt the interaction?” Not dump the relationship, but can you see it in the interaction and make small shifts like I’m describing with Rachel? And we have tons of those opportunities when we start looking for them that have a material impact on our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
And you say second-hand stress, is this a common notion, it’s like we pick up almost like a contagion what’s going on from other people?

Rob Cross
Right. Very much so. Yeah, that was definitely one of the microstresses we deal most prevalently. And it can take the form of an aggressive tone on a Zoom call, how people are sitting, just dejected posture, convey us a tremendous amount. It can be just typical stress that’s processing through us and we take it to somebody else.

So, one of the most common things we would hear is people would get upset about something at work, and we go home and talk to our significant other about it. And because they don’t know the whole story and ways that maybe we caused part of the problem, they just take our side in it and they’re providing empathy, they think, but they further spin us up and kind of create a second layer of stress, if you will, that it feeds back on us if we’re not really thinking carefully about how we’re turning to others, if you will.

So, again, there’s a whole kind of suite of those ways that the initial moment of stress is one instance, and then it tends to also go forward in different ways if we’re not careful about it, in what we call second-order stress.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you share with us the physiological symptoms to help distinguish between just nothing, like not a big deal at all, versus microstress, versus a traditional stress fight-or-flight response? Like, is it that my heartrate bumps up 20 beats per minute on a fight or flight? Or, how do I think about that?

Rob Cross
Yeah, I think you feel that rise in blood pressure, the rise in flushing in the face, the anxiety you feel in the moment. I would say that a microstress, if I were trying to make it in layman’s terms, is more of a, “Oh, my gosh, another irritation in my day, and it’s another thing that’s just going to sit in the back of my mind. It’s not insurmountable, I’m not panicked, but it’s another thing that I’m processing and I’m holding on to.” That’s the things that we tend to really try to get people to focus on.

So, when I’m working with this, and we create a table that has these 14 microstresses down one side and then the sources of them – a boss, colleagues, loved ones, team members – across the top, and I’m asking people to go through and really identify “Where are two, three, or four of these that are systemic enough in your life that you should do something about it, that you can change the nature of the interaction, you can create more time between those interactions, you can shift things in a way that has some material impact for you?”

That’s how I’m trying to hone people in on where to take action and what matters. And, universally, people look at that, and they say, “Well, can I put 10 checkboxes?” and I’m like, “No, because if it’s everything, it’s nothing.” You want to hone in on “What are the three, four areas that, if I can take concerted action against, will have a big impact for me?”

And I would really underscore for people listening here the worthwhile nature of doing that. We have a kneejerk reaction to look for the positives in things, to say, “I need to go do more fun things,” or, “I need to meditate and do gratitude journaling and things like that to get through the stress.” What if you could remove it?

And what we know, from all of social psychology, generally, is that the negative interactions have three to five times the impact of the positive. So, what if we actually focus on “How do we shape those interactions to take that out of our context?” By not doing that, we actually end up leaving the higher-leverage stuff on the table versus actually kind of going after it and trying to structure the context that we’ve let accrue around us.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you mentioned one microstress category, drains your capacity to get things done. Could you tell us about those that also deplete your emotional reserves and that challenge your identity? And maybe give us a story that brings them all together.

Rob Cross
Yeah. So, the deplete emotional reserves, I mean that’s what it sounds like. It’s the interactions that hit us and kind of hit us emotionally. The most common one is what most people are used to thinking about, are conflictual conversations. And some people are wired to love those, but many people aren’t and they worry about potential interactions. Before the interaction, they’re stressed out during the interaction, and then they will go and replay it in their mind five times afterwards, maybe even talk to other people and drag them through the mud as well.

And so, that’s a more conventional one that we know. You can do an awful lot about it if you just address it early and address it with evidence in certain ways versus letting it accumulate up. Another one that’s a little bit less obvious is just the stress we feel for having to take care of others and worrying about them, whether that be people on your team, an aging parent, a child, a friend that’s in trouble.

One of the fascinating things about microstresses is they have a greater impact on us because they’re coming at us through relationships. It’s not just bad news on social media. It’s the fact that this is coming to me through somebody I dislike, and that’s going to magnify of it, or it’s somebody I love and that’s going to magnify the effect of it. And, in fact, we find that the people we love and care about are just as big contributors as the conventionally toxic people that we would associate with more conventional forms of stress.

And the last one you asked about was the challenges to identity, and that’s oftentimes just small pushes or interactions that are kind of slowly pushing us away from being the people we set out to be. And so, it can happen, as an example, with performance expectations that don’t line up with your own values, whether it’s being overselling in situations, or with all the physicians and nurses we talked to that was not getting enough time for patient care.

They kind of went into that industry, that business with an eye to taking care of people, and yet as systems have evolved, they have less and less ability to do that at the level that they feel good about. So, those are the three challenges: drains to capacity, and challenges emotionally, and then challenges to value orientations. And you can get a sense that they become progressively a little bit more subtle but a little bit more impactful over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, what do we do about them?

Rob Cross
So, what do you do? So, for me, it’s a three-pronged idea as a starting point. One is, how do you isolate out three, four, five that are hitting you systemic enough you can do something about? And that’s what I’ve already just spoken to a little bit. Second pass through it, for me, is how do you stop causing it? When we have people go through this table, it always catches people off guard when I say, “Okay, which ones are you causing unnecessarily in your life?”

And the reality is we don’t want to create stress, yet what I see, if I’m polling on large webinars with these ideas or other things, I have a couple thousand people, and I’ll say, “What are the stresses you’re experiencing?” And then I shift gears, and say, “What are the stresses you’re causing?” And almost every case, the profiles are very similar. So, the stress we experience, we tend to pass on to others, and so you want to stop that, just from an identity standpoint. You don’t want to be somebody that creates stress.

But the other reason you want to stop doing it is, I’m very convinced that the stress we create in one form, oftentimes boomerangs back on us in a different form. And so, we push a child a little further than we should, and they become belligerent or morose. Or, you lean on a favorite employee because they’ve always come through for you. Lean on them one step too hard and they start to burn out and disengage and it creates more work for you in another way. So, it’s a subtle but a really important thing to think about where you’re unnecessarily causing it.

And then the third pass for me is “Where do you need to rise above some of it?” And so, most people have had experiences in their life when they’re grumbling about how bad everything is, other people driving you crazy, blah, blah, blah, blah, and then something truly traumatic happens. You get a significant health scare, somebody you know passes away, whatever it is. But you look back and all this stuff that mattered so mightily, ten seconds go, and realized none of it mattered at that moment.

And what I’m really convinced of is the top people in our interviews, and we call them the ten percenters because it was about in one in ten that were really just living differently, that’s kind of how they go through life without the trauma. They tend to rise above a lot of the minutiae in different ways. And one of the most powerful ways they’ve done that is by being an authentic part of at least two and usually three groups outside of their profession.

So, the stories that always ended up poorly were the people that just let go of everything outside of work and direct family, and the ones that generally trended far more positively were people that maintained that dimensionality in their lives, and not just activities but putting that activity in a group of people with different perspectives and values that help to shape perspectives that you’re taking into your life.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we’re talking, like, rotary, chess club, church, like three groups outside of work. What kinds of groups are you talking about?

Rob Cross
Yeah, it could be those forms, it could be other forms. One of my favorite interviews, actually, literally, my first interview in this body of work, we were very focused early on, on “What are the ways relationships affect physical health, growth in and out of work, purpose and resilience in our lives?” And so, I just asked this woman, a really lovely British accent, I won’t try to emulate here, but I said, “Just tell me about a time in your life when you were becoming more physically healthy, whatever that means to you? not what you were doing, but what was the role of the connections around you?”

And so, she kind of chuckled and said, “Well, Rob, I was somebody that dodged gym every chance I could in high school. Wanted nothing to do with physical activity.” And she said, “That worked for me up until about my late 30s, and, all of a sudden, my doctor gave me a stern warning and said ‘You need to do something about this.’”

And so, her reaction was she started walking around a park outside of her flat in London. And then because she was going at the same time every day, bumped into a couple of people that were walking that same route, and they fell in together and started talking, and then they would walk longer routes, they did a charity walk, and then a charity run. You can kind of get where I’m going to where I was interviewing her ten years later, and she was planning vacations where she’d do a marathon with her husband first before going on vacation.

And this was the person that dodged gym in high school. And so, what she said is, “The identity of being a runner with that group, and the accountability, them expecting me to show up, enabled me to push back on things in ways that I hadn’t been doing for most of my life. Just on the margin, I was pushing back on things that were creating stress.”

But the real thing that she said mattered was that, “This was a diverse group of people that I never would’ve spent time with. They weren’t life science executives. It was the mailman, an IT person, people coming at life very differently.” And she said, “They saw me at my worst, I saw them at their worst,” and it was the perspectives that they brought and the friendships and the different vantage points into her life that just created a different perspective overall.

So, it’s that kind of thing, and it can come from any of the walks of life. You just mentioned music, religion, poetry, art, book clubs but it is always important to me that it is put in some form of group. It’s not typically running by yourself. That may be part of what you do but it’s typically putting that activity in a group and the diversity of perspectives that come into that with you that seems to be the real thing that matters.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, within the group, and maybe this is not knowable, but there’s good research showing that friendships, good social support, is a big buffer to stress. And so, it seems like that’s one element but you’re highlighting something beyond that, is a diversity of experience that kind of helps you get grounded, and say, “That doesn’t really matter.” Is that fair to say?

Rob Cross
Right, yeah. And I think, like you’re saying, there’s just emerging evidence from the Harvard studies, from the work done in the book Together that shows that people with quality relationships, they lived 2.14 years longer, they’re less susceptible to colds, like, we could spend an hour on all the benefits of having a couple of close relationships in your life. They can be friends, they can be intimates. But what’s interesting to us, as we look at this, is that’s not the only way we get resilience.

So, again, a great example of that was a neurosurgeon that was in our interviews, and he was stressed out. World-renowned in what he did but he’d allowed life to evolve and to just his profession, and was a highly consuming profession and family, and he had no kind of dimensionality built in. And on a whim, he said, “I’m going to go play guitar.” He used to play guitar in high school, and he went into a music shop and got a guitar.

And as he was walking out, he saw a flier for a group looking for a guitar player in a band. And there was something like, “What we lack in quality, we make up for in volume,” I think on the flier. And he, on a whim, went and tried out with them and got into the band, and he called me like two months after that, and he said, “This has been one of the best experiences of my life because I’m hanging out with 20-year-olds and I’m doing something completely different. I’m hearing different stories, different ways of living your life, different things around what matters in their worlds, and it’s just given me a totally different slant on life.”

Now, the key to it for me is that those were not his best friends, those weren’t the two, three, four, five intimates that we can sustain in our lives. And so, I think what we’re seeing is you find resilience through certain kinds of interactions that you build into your network but not all of it has to come from your intimates – your wife, your husband, your partner, and your parents. In fact, the way that most people have lost close relationships is actually, I believe, too much pressure on those categories of people to absorb all the interactions around us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, okay, so we heard a running group, we heard a band. What are some other groups that are rocking for folks?

Rob Cross
People derive this dimensionality from so many places, but I’ll give you some broad categories. It was almost always one that was physical for the people that were doing particularly well, and, in particular groups that required you to show up. It wasn’t optional, so, like tennis, or basketball, or other things like that where there was an accountability, and the group didn’t go on if you weren’t there. It just kind of kept up that consistency of returning embedded in.

There was often ones that I’ll say are more aesthetic, and that could be spiritual commitments that people are making but it could revolve around music, poetry, book clubs, museum outings, foodie, dinner groups, all sorts of things that were more about an artistic or spiritual side of life. And then, oftentimes, it was purely social that one of the strategies, if you’ve fallen out of these groups and you don’t have them, and that’s the most people through COVID, one strategy is you do what I mentioned with the neuroscientist, you reach back to a hobby, and use that to slingshot forward.

Another equally effective strategy is to reach back to ties that have gone dormant – college friends, friends soon after you graduated from college – and use some activity to reignite that group – hiking, dinners, whatever it may be. So, there’s a lot of strategies like that that people would use but I think the things I would see is they would tend…the people that were doing particularly well had dimensionality built out in terms of a physical realm, a spiritual or aesthetic realm, a social and an intellectual realm that they were pursuing.

Pete Mockaitis
And that is often a means by which we support the perspective that all this stuff is not that big of a deal. So, how would you articulate that, that concept, like the clarity?

Rob Cross
I view it as rising above. Yeah, you kind of rise above. It puts in perspective. And I do not, at all, want to make this sound like rose-colored glasses but that it helps you start to get a different sense of why we’re living. There are so much, so many messages come at us that feed a very narrow model of what good looks like, what success looks like.

And we, as a society, have never had more ability to shape what we do and who we do it with than today, but we give it up a tremendous amount. And what we’re seeing is that, adding that dimensionality and preserving it, is one of the things it does is it just helps keep in perspective what’s significant, what’s important, what isn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And any other key findings among these ten percenters?

Rob Cross
Two things that pop to mind immediately. One is they were really good at tapping into others for resilience. So, we’re conditioned to think about resilience as something that we own, we have grit or fortitude or internal toughness. But if you asked hundreds of people about how they made it through difficult stretches and focus not on what they did but on how they leaned into others in that situation, whether it was “I didn’t get the promotion” up to “My spouse died of pancreatic cancer,” you find that we tend to get seven benefits from others in tough times.

You get empathy, for sure. You get perspective that this isn’t maybe as big a deal as you think. You get a path forward from people maybe that had been there and can say, “Here’s the way to proceed.” You get laughter from friends, and that turns out to be really important. And so, what we were seeing is that people that would weather difficult stretches better typically had those connections in their lives, have gone through in their life in a way that built those relationships, and, importantly, they know how to use them for them.

So, some people, it’s really laughter that they need to reset. Others it’s empathy, and then a path forward. And so, that was a big distinguisher, the degree to which we’re conditioned to think resilience is something we have, and yet it’s really in the interactions and the quality of the connections that we have around us as well.

The second thing for me is that the happiest people in the work, they were not all pursuing magnificent things for happiness. Like, they weren’t hiking Everest, or writing concertos, or sailing the ocean. Really, what it boiled down to is that they tended to live the small moments more richly in connection with others.

And so, as an example of that, again, one of my favorite interviews was a Silicon Valley executive, kind of mid-40s, a woman, type A, hard charger, wildly successful by anybody’s definition, and she had been a runner in college, and she said, “Rob, when I came out of college, I continued to run. And what happened to me is if every year I didn’t get a personal best on what I was running with, whether it was 10K or marathons, that was a bad year for running. And you know that’s a losing strategy. Eventually, life is going to catch up to you.”

And she said she woke up one day and realized that that was somebody else’s idea of fun, that was society’s definition of why you run for those times. And, really, what she wanted to be doing was running with her daughter, her daughter’s best friend, and a parent in the neighborhood. And so, they started running, and it actually evolved into this community group, and she got a great sense of purpose out of being more closely connected with her daughter, and more closely connected with that community.

So, what she was doing, and what I’m always trying to emphasize to people, is she wasn’t saying, “I need to go find another job to have purpose,” or, “I need to feed the world’s hungry.” She was saying, “How do I take what I already am doing and pivot it just slightly in ways that will pull me into interactions, into relationships that’ll make a more meaningful life for me.”

And that’s what we saw over and over again. The people that were really doing well, it wasn’t the big things. It was that they lived the small moments better and more authentically with other people around them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then I’d also like to touch on this notion of engaging the people that are causing the microstress. Some people say, “You can’t change other people, Rob.” But tell me, if I’m seeing, okay, there’s a particular person who’s doing a thing a lot that’s a recurring sense of microstress, what are my options?

Rob Cross
Yeah, I think there’s a couple. And everybody will have examples of people in their lives that they can’t shape. And, again, I would also urge thinking about the positive connections too. And what I described with my daughter is an example. How do you find those opportunities to shift interactions that you may not even be thinking about? Like, I wasn’t thinking about those ever as microstresses when she was ladling stress on me. I just thought, “Oh, I’m the provider. I’m a good parent. I’m a good dad. Whatever it may be, and this is what I need to do.”

So, you are probably drifting towards, “Here’s the person that’s driving me nuts,” and that’s a form of microstress, too. But what I want to emphasize is we live in a sea of this stuff, and there’s opportunities all over the place. Now, when it is the conventional person that’s driving you crazy, of course, the lead is always to reset the connection.

And the more effective strategies are always saying, “Let me start with me. What am I doing that’s kind of leading you into this behavior, whatever it may be that’s driving you crazy?” and then try to move from that to what could they do, or what could they shift that would have a positive impact on you. Always providing evidence of the impact of the behavior and the tactics that they’ve been taking.

That’s one approach, where you have the opportunity to actually shift the behavior. And there’s a ton of great stories of people that actually developed the courage and went into the situation and found it was much more cathartic than they had feared. A second is to find ways to increase the timespan between the interactions. Third is to embed those interactions with other people.

So, if it’s one person that’s driving you crazy, bring them to lunch with three others, and not kind of have the interaction in isolation. So, there’s a whole set of progressive, I guess, actions you can take depending on how entrenched it is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now I’d like to shift gears into stuff you can do by yourself in terms of what about, you mentioned, exercise, breathing exercises, affirmations, meditation, visualization. Are there some stuff we can do that’s super effective to alleviate microstress that’s 100% in our control?

Rob Cross
Yeah, very much. And meditation is one, like super proven effect, and mindfulness practices in general. It doesn’t have to be massive. It can be small time commitments that people are making to meditation and breathing exercise. And there’s also some really neat breathing exercises through the day that can have impact as well that has been proven to be super effective.

Gratitude journaling is one of the most prominent and effective shown up over and over again to have perspective to help us keep our minds set on the positive. As a professor, a lot of times, I’ll be in an audience where there’s executives or undergrads, and I’ll have the individuals in the room, just as an experiment, I’ll say, “Tell me all the things that are stressing you out.” And it’ll be 18 things, very quickly that’ll come out of their mouths and I’ll get them on a flipchart or chalkboard or whatever.

And then I’ll switch gears and I’ll say, “Okay, now tell me the things you’re grateful for in the moment.” And it starts a little slower but what, comically, almost always comes out is an almost identical list of things. Somebody complains about having tuition they have to pay for, well, they’ve got a kid that’s successful and starting to thrive. And somebody complains about a mortgage, well, they’ve got a house that they’re safe in, as an example.

And so, gratitude journaling can help us from our drift to the negative and our tendency to do that to kind of see things on a more positive light. And I’ll give you one more thing that does go back to connections. This is a great experiment that a colleague suggested, and my co-author and I did it here. If you’re trying to rejuvenate connections that have gone dormant, people you haven’t talked to in a while, they’re proposing a challenge and say, “Just make seven-, eight-minute calls. Take one week. Write people, say you just want to catch up for eight minutes.”

And they’ll laugh at you, they’ll say, “Eight minutes? What are you talking about?” But it’s just a small-enough time block that nobody says no, nobody says it’s too busy, or “We have to wait four months to find it.” And that can be a really neat way to kind of rejuvenate connections that you want to be back in touch with and have a pretty positive impact as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. And you said breathing throughout the day, I’m intrigued. Is there a particular timing or way of breathing? How does it go?

Rob Cross
Cadence for me. So, it’s a four by four by four by four. So, four seconds on the in-breath, four seconds hold, four seconds exhale, four seconds hold. And it’s just one technique of a bunch to just kind of calm and bring presence in a little bit more.

Pete Mockaitis
And you mentioned it doesn’t have to be long stretches of time. Like, how many minutes of this breathing or this meditation stuff is enough to make a significant impact?

Rob Cross
That’s a great question, and that’s going to drift beyond a lot of my expertise in terms of knowing the specific time intervals. I hear people routinely starting with 10 minutes, and then some people can take it much, much, much further than that. But it isn’t hours of time, let me say it that way.

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

Rob Cross
I don’t think so. I think we’re good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Rob Cross
So, I think probably, and this will sound a little bit corny, but it’s, “Ask not what you can receive, but what you can give.” I’m not getting it exactly right but I think that, to me, it’s a mindset that I have as I go forward in the work that I’ve been doing for some time. And I think it pays off in pretty significant ways.

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

Rob Cross
Favorite experiment for me is a whole body of work that’s kind of showing the effect of the relationships in our lives. So, my own work showed that having these energizing interactions is typically four times the predictor of a high performer as other things that we see happening in the relationships. And then, of course, the negative in my work is about two times as much. So, for me, that body of work is always really emphasizing the importance of managing the negative interactions, whether they be things we’re experiencing or things we’re causing in different ways.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Rob Cross
Favorite book right now would be Together, and that was the study that was done around loneliness and the epidemic that it’s hitting in society today.

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

Rob Cross
Favorite tool. I would have to say my iPhone. Constantly in connection with different people that way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Rob Cross
Favorite habit is exercise with other people. So, I’m a heavy cyclist and I love tennis as a vehicle, not just be physically be out there but be with other people.

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

Rob Cross
Would look at my website RobCross.org, and there’s also the Connected Commons, the consortia that I’ve cofounded and direct research for as different ways to see us, a bunch of the research there.

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

Rob Cross
I would say lean into the small moments, really pay attention to the small moments and leverage those, whether that be adapting the negative or leaning into the positive in a different way. That’s what we have way more control over than we tend to give ourselves credit for in today’s workforce.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Rob, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of good times and even less microstress.

Rob Cross
All right. Thank you so much for having me here.

839: The 12 Stages of Burnout: How to Identify and Recover from Yours with Hamza Khan

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Hamza Khan says: "Burn bright, not out."

Hamza Khan provides an in-depth look into how professionals burnout—and offers powerful advice for recovery and prevention.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The 12 phases of burnout.
  2. The D.R.A.G.O.N. framework for beating burnout.
  3. How to set boundaries without ruining relationships.

About Hamza

Hamza Khan is the Co-Founder of SkillsCamp, a leading soft skills training company, a top-ranked university educator, and respected thought leader. He is a TEDx speaker whose talk, “Stop Managing, Start Leading” has been viewed nearly two million times. His insights have been featured in notable media outlets such as VICE, Business Insider, and The Globe and Mail. Hamza is trusted by the world’s preeminent organizations to enhance human potential and optimize performance. His clients include the likes of Microsoft, PepsiCo, LinkedIn, Deloitte, Salesforce, TikTok, and over 100 colleges and universities.

Resources Mentioned

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Hamza Khan Interview Transcript

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

Hamza Khan
Pete, thank you for having me. Truly honored.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk about some of your insights on burnout and more, but, first, you have many cool work accomplishments in your career. And one that stuck out for me is the time you did a movie marathon at your desk at work. Can you tell us the tale here?

Hamza Khan
Oh, man, I was quiet quitting before it became a thing, apparently. Wow, where do we begin? First of all, I’m just a little bit starstruck because you interviewed very recently on this podcast one of my heroes, Dr. Christina Maslach.

Pete Mockaitis
I was going to say she’s on my mind when we talk about burnout.

Hamza Khan
I listened to that episode three times.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Cool.

Hamza Khan
And the first time, I was like, “I cannot believe I’m listening to Dr. Christina Maslach. She’s going off right now on the upstream factors, which influence burnout. But, oh, my goodness, I’m going to be on this very podcast very soon.” And then I went back to it for a third time to just take notes and transcribe it, but thank you for providing the transcription, and you just saved me a lot of time. So, that was fantastic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool, yeah. Thank you.

Hamza Khan
Okay, so the quiet quitting. Really interesting. If you listened to that episode, I think, at the time of this release, it might be maybe ten episodes out. I think it’s number 823, if I’m not mistaken, Pete, which, by the way, congratulations on nearly a thousand episodes of this podcast. That is remarkable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Hamza Khan
I was very disengaged at this workplace, quite frankly. I was working at an organization that I just accepted a job with soon after graduation, or, actually, just before. I was petrified that I wasn’t going to find a job, graduating in 2008, into the middle of a recession, so I said yes. First job that was offered to me, I’m like, “I’m taking this. Let’s do it.”

And I joined this company, and I realized it was very imbalanced in the sense that there was a lot of people that were benefitting from the labor of a very small group of people, of which I was a member of. It was a very heavy marketing organization. Even though it was a tech company with two developers, it was very marketing heavy.

And I realized about a year into it that this company was shady, to say the least. They had some Ponzi scheme-like elements to it. And this was an organization in which the optics were rewarded, so you were rewarded for appearing to be productive, showing up early, speaking up in meetings even if you had nothing valuable to say, if you seemed busy, and if you were staying late. And I just increasingly became disengaged, disillusioned by the organization.

And all of the things that Dr. Christina Maslach talked about in her episode, Pete, were present in my working experience there. There was a lack of fairness, there was inconsistent or missing values, there was a lack of control, an unsustainable workload, insufficient reward, to say the least, and a lack of…or poor/toxic community. So, all of those things gradually wore me down and, by the end, I was like, “Hey, what would happen if I just played the game, if I just pretended to be productive over here, if I just leaned into the optics, could this happen?”

And I talked about this in my first TEDx Talk, Stop Managing, Start Leading. For, I think, two weeks, I would show up on time, I would say hello to my boss, wish me good morning, and I’d sit there for eight hours a day, and just marathon movies. And I did them all. I did “Rush Hour,” “The Lord of the Rings.” I did Harry Potters at the time, Godfathers, extended editions of course, and I would leave shortly after 5:30, and my boss would be like, “Hey, good job, buddy. You did an amazing job today.” I’m like, “Oh, all right, man. If you say so, sir, no problem.” And I quit at the end of that marathon. I was like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I had several follow-ups when I watched your TEDx Talk, and that was one of them. I was like, “Just how long did this marathon persist?” And so, two weeks, like ten business days, 80-ish hours, so, yeah, extended editions would probably be a good 25 plus films here.

Hamza Khan
Yeah, man, I also had to pop into Reddit and just had to leave my thoughts as well. Make sure they understood.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. The world needs to hear what Hamza thought about these movies on Reddit.

Hamza Khan
One thing I will say, the only sort of – what’s the word I’m looking for over here – movies that are part of, like, franchises or trilogies that actually improved over time, “The Lord of the Rings” I would say, and, surprisingly, “The Planet of the Apes,” which wasn’t out at that time, but those were the only movies that actually get better and don’t actually experience any quality loss, in my personal opinion.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so I was also going to ask, so you mentioned Ponzi scheme vibes, and maybe I already know the answer to this question. To what extent did you feel guilty, like you were stealing from the company? And it sounds like you thought they were shady and you’re on your way out, so, yeah.

Hamza Khan
Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t have engaged in that behavior were the circumstances of…I don’t know how much I can say over here because I did sign an NDA but, to be fair, I think people can look this up. You can go on my LinkedIn and put the timelines together and figure out what organization I was with, and you could Google them and find out which one is no longer in existence. And I think there’s one that’s going to stand out.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hamza Khan
So, this organization, once I clued into the fact that they were engaging in fraudulent behavior, that’s when I was like, “Oh, wow, you guys are unethical, and I would contend, engaging in some criminal behavior,” so I didn’t feel bad about it at that point. That’s when I realized that, “Hey, we’re being abused.” When I say we, me and my coworkers were being abused in this workplace. That was very much using the Theory X style of management, assuming the worst in employees, and treating us in this pretty antisocial way, behaving in some very antisocial ways, relying on some very dominant behaviors.

And so, once I clued into that, I was like, “Ah, yeah.” I knew I was going to leave but just for my own edification, I wanted to see what would’ve happened if I played the game. And, of course, it worked out in those two weeks, and I was like, “Yeah, this is ridiculous.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is kind of fun, that experiment. And I have sort of daydreamed about, I don’t know, interviewing for jobs and being just flagrantly honest and see how that goes, or, if it’s like a lucid dream or fantasy or experiment, to see what happens. And so there, you saw it happened, they said, “Great job,” and that persisted. Who knows how long it could go on had you not exited?

So, that is an amusing opening picture of what can happen when you’re in burnout. And so, Dr. Christina Maslach did share a lot of excellent insights in terms of the fundamental guiding principle causes of burnout. So, please, yes, if folks have not heard that, and you’re interested in the topic, she is maybe the luminary on the topic at Episode 832.

But, Hamza, you’ve got some good stuff here which is fresh and interesting. In particular, you walked through a very resonant 12 stages of burnout, and then a six-step DRAGON method, which I think is supremely practical and very worthwhile. So, I’d love it if we could dig into these particulars and if you could maybe, first, start us off by sharing something you found kind of surprising or novel as you did your own burnout research.

Hamza Khan
Wow, I just want to clarify for the listeners, I sound like an awful employee.

Pete Mockaitis
The worst two weeks of your career, I mean, you had some experiment.

Hamza Khan
The worst two weeks of my career. I did not repeat that experiment ever again. You can ask my bosses. Even during that time, I was a delight to work with. I hope that that is something that all of my employers would say and have said in most cases. And you can go on my LinkedIn, you can see my accomplishments. I’m not a slacker, I promise. I work very hard. I apply myself.

Pete Mockaitis
Message received.

Hamza Khan
Because I would be listening to this, and being like, “Holy, this guy is terrible.” Okay, but I did burn out. And so, this happened when I was highly engaged. Fast-forward to a couple of years later, I’m in an environment in which all of those upstream factors that Dr. Christina Maslach described are working in my favor. My workload is manageable, things are fair, the values are clear, there is a healthy community, so on and so forth, and yet I burned out.

And I burned out in a scenario where, in hindsight, on paper, I shouldn’t have burned out because this was a place where I was very well compensated and we had the best of benefits possible. I mean, if you wanted to, you could get a massage every single day there if you wanted. So, in terms of the things that should’ve prevented burnout and promoted optimal mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing, those were at play, and yet I still experienced burnout.

And I realized so much of the reason why that happened is because I had internalized some greater fears. I think any given day, people don’t feel like they’re perfect enough, efficient enough, progressive enough, satisfied enough, innovative enough, whatever the case may be, and they engage in patterns of overwork that, inevitably, extinguish the fires of productivity, and that’s what happened for me.

I subjected myself to persistent chronic stress that left me feeling depleted. I was ineffective, I was negative, I was cynical, and there was a distance between me and the work that I was doing. And so, when this happened, I was very perplexed. Well, first of all, it was very isolating. I felt like I was alone in this. I really needed to understand what had happened to me.

And, at that time, I was using the term burnout quite casually, even flippantly, I was like, “Oh, I’m burning out. I’m burning the candle on both ends.” I didn’t really understand what it was. At the time, I even remember that my understanding of burnout was related to an XBOX game that was popular at the time, “Burnout Paradise” or something.

And then when I delved deeper into this, I realized, “Wow, I was quite lucky to have experienced this and emerged on the other side of it with my health intact,” because that is not the case for so many people. For instance, burnout, ooh, I get chills when I think about this, people are dying every single day because of this.

Just today alone in China, approximately 3,000 people will die from working too hard. And this is not just people working in difficult labor-intensive jobs, blue-collar work. This is knowledge workers just like us dying every single day around the world, not just in China, dying every single day around the world from overwork. So, I felt very lucky in this sort of me-search that gradually became research, and then we-search.

I discovered the 12 stages of burnout, a model proposed by some of Dr. Christina Maslach’s contemporaries, some of the pioneering researchers, Dr. Herbert Freudenberger and Dr. Gail North, respectively. They demonstrated a linear progression of burnout. It starts with the compulsion to prove one’s self, which I imagine a lot of people feel in the work that they do. They feel like they need to prove themselves, which then naturally leads to working harder, stage two.

And then stage three is neglecting needs. And then stage four is displacement of conflicts, and that’s when it becomes tricky for me. That’s usually my tell that I’m burning out. Whenever I become short with clients, whenever I become short with my family, with my friends, that’s when I clue into the realization that I might be on this path to full-blown physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. And that’s the last stage of burnout, stage 12 is there’s nothing there. You’re a husk, essentially.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, when it comes to the working harder and neglecting needs, let’s zero in on what are some particular sorts of needs that are easy to kind of push to the wayside when you’re working harder that can start to sneak up and spiral?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, this is a good one, right? Let’s go into some specific examples. You should try, to the best of your ability, to eat three meals if possible, and eat them around the same time. It’s optimal for metabolism, for energy maintenance and sleep, a whole host of other benefits, but it starts with you just saying, one day, “Oh, you know what, I can’t do breakfast today,” or breakfast starts to happen at lunch, or you just breeze through lunch, or you’re working while eating and you’re not chewing your food in the same way, so just disrupting your eating habits. That’s one thing that you can neglect.

Another thing that you can neglect is fitness, skipping going to the gym, or whatever other recreational or fitness activity that you engage in, pushing that to the side. Not sleeping consistently, not waking up at the same time every single day. So, eating, sleeping, family, friends, whatever you need to refill your energy buckets, you start neglecting those, I would say that’s what happens around stage two, stage three, sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Yup, got you. Okay. The friends, the exercise, the eating, the sleeping, yeah, okay. And so then, the displacement of conflicts, you say you’re being short with people, so you’re displacing that you’re feeling conflicted about what’s up at work on over to other people around you.

Hamza Khan
It’s just avoidance behavior. You just sweep that conversation underneath the rug, below the rug, or you need to have a difficult conversation with your boss, and you think, “Maybe I’ll have it tomorrow. Maybe next week,” and then next week becomes next month, and next month becomes never.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And that makes sense because if you don’t feel like you’ve got much in the tank, it’s like, “Oh, that’s too hard. That’s just beyond me.” And I guess I find in my own self that it’s not only sort of difficult emotional conflict conversations, but it’s all kinds of hard projects or things, like taking a hard look at the subscriptions that you’ve signed up for over the last two years and see which ones really needed to go a while ago, and feeling the, I don’t know, maybe guilt, shame, regret, silliness of not having cleaned up some of these messes where they’re hiding in your life earlier, whether they’re difficult conversations or difficult, let’s say, looking at the mirror, peering into the messes that you’ve made sorts of things.

Hamza Khan
That’s a very, very relevant example that you gave over there. So, last year, I was flirting with burnout, 2022, I think on record was one of the most difficult years of my life just in terms of the sheer frequency of stressors and the intensity of stressors. And I remember when I de-loaded my priorities, and we’ll go into the DRAGON method in a bit maybe and talk about ways that we can recover and beat burnout, recover from or beat burnout.

I remember thinking to myself, at the start of the year, like, “Hey, I need to cancel this NBA League Pass subscription that I have.” And an entire year went past, 2022, where I just had this subscription running in the background, and in December I’m like…

Pete Mockaitis
“Well, I might use this soon someday-ish perhaps, maybe.”

Hamza Khan
I was like, “Hey, Adam Silver, you’re welcome, man. I just made a 12-month donation to you and your organization. I didn’t use it at all.” So, yeah, this happens, right? You just avoid, you push away, because you don’t want to deal with it, it’s difficult, and there’s one more stressor that’s going to maybe push you over the edge that you parry.

But I think it was JRR Tolkien who said something to the effect of, “Shortcuts now result in roadblocks later.” And I think about that a lot with stage four. Avoidance of these difficult conversations will ultimately resurface at some point.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we’ve covered the first third of this dozen. Now, let’s hit it with number five, revision of values.

Hamza Khan
Revision of values. So, this is rewriting your own code, the things that are important to you, your sense of purpose, and the things you reward, tolerate, and punish, enter into a state of flux. Work at this point becomes really your only focus. Then, I think, next, we go into stage six, denial of emerging problems. People are starting to notice things are off about you but you dismiss them, you say, “It’s not a me problem; it’s a you problem.”

Stage seven is withdrawal. All of the stress and, especially, all of the social pressure that you’re now feeling, it just becomes overwhelming, it becomes a topic of conversation whenever you meet your friends, whenever you sit down with your family or your spouse. They’re pointing out that something is off, and you say, “It’s easy for me to just not deal with this,” so you retreat. You become isolated, you become even antisocial.

And then eight, we have odd behavioral changes. You undergo obvious behavioral changes that are now significantly concerning friends and family. Stage nine is depersonalization. You fail to see yourself as valuable. You start to antagonize other people. You start to blame people for things that are going wrong in your life.

Stage 10 is inner emptiness. This is loneliness. It’s an extreme sign of burnout. And then stage 11 is depression. It’s like a forced introversion. And then stage 12, full-blown burnout syndrome. This is when you experience physical, mental, and emotional collapse at this stage. And, frankly, I think some stage six onwards, it’s imperative that you seek out professional help.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, this collapse, can you paint a picture for what that might look, sound, feel like?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, I talked about this, I did another TED Talk in 2015, I believe, titled “The Burnout Gamble,” and I went into some detail about it. If I do that topic again, I would definitely just be more present with what was happening. So, I experienced this in 2014, the December of 2014. I had worked that year from January all the way until beginning of December.

I was putting in the nine-nine-six, and nine-nine-seven work weeks. I was just working 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. six days a week, and some weeks 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week, a style of working that was very popular in the tech sector and was popularized in, I think, it was Alibaba. Jack Ma of Alibaba really just talked about this and extolled its virtues.

Anyway, didn’t take a break, didn’t really have weekends, no vacations, and it was working in the beginning for me. I was being rewarded, I was being promoted, given more responsibilities, and – what’s that saying – the hardest worker gets the bigger shovel. And so, I was just grinding myself down, wearing myself out.

And then in December of 2014, I’m ready to take this epic trip around the world. I’d booked my flights, I’d reserved hotels, Airbnbs, intracity travel. And the day I was supposed to leave on that trip, that grand adventure around the world where I was going to flame out like a phoenix and recover from the ashes of all of this overwork, I got cold feet. And it happened minutes before I was supposed to call the Uber to go to the airport.

My knees buckled, my chest clamped, my breathing became shallower, my temperature skyrocketed, I panicked, and I blacked out. I think my body just said, “Enough is enough. Hamza, you’ve subjected us to too much over here. We’re shutting you down.” And it was just such a surreal feeling because I was, when I awoke, there’s barely minutes left until the flight was supposed to take off.

And in my delirium, I thought that I could still book it into the airport, rush the tarmac, state my case, and hop on the flight, and everything would be okay. But I was paralyzed. I just couldn’t stand up. And the flight left without me. And what happened, instead, is I became sicker than I had ever been in my life, and this is coming from somebody that caught COVID, and this is the OG strand of COVID, too, pre-vaccine.

I threw up, I became nauseous, and, essentially, for the next month, I was alone at home, bedridden, completely bewildered. My mental health was a wreck. I could barely get up out of bed, one of the lowest points in my life. There was just nothing there. I just became a complete shell. And when I talked to doctors about what had happened, they all said that I had burned out, but I had, based on what I told them had happened on the eve of that trip, they said I experienced the symptoms of very traditional panic attack, complete system failure which led me to fall as deathly ill as I had become at that point.

That’s what it looked like for me, and I imagine all the people have gone through similar…who’ve gone through the full 12 stages of burnout, who’ve made it all the way to burnout syndrome, they’ve experienced something similar to that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s heavy, and thank you for sharing that experience. I’m thinking that’s certainly dramatic and memorable. I’m thinking back to a conversation I had with another guest, Carey Nieuwhof, and he says, “I don’t have a diagnosis on this but from chatting with people, I think many people suffer from a low-grade burnout.” And he would define it as you’re still able to show up and do the things as opposed to being bedridden, but there’s not much feeling or joy or emotion or life inside you.

And I thought that that was powerful because it rings true to me, is that I’ve seen burnout take kind of these two routes. One is like, “That’s enough. Done. Out.” And then, I’m just sort of like, I was like in a quiet desperation going through the motions. What’s your take on that?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, geez. I never want to go back to that level of burnout that I experienced, full-blown burnout. And the two routes that you mentioned are really interesting. I don’t think I’ve publicly spoken about this but last year, 2022, I definitely was on the burnout cycle. I was in a cycle of burnout but I didn’t make it all the way to stage 12.

And so, there’s a part of me, like an inner defense mechanism that made me maybe reluctant to share my burnout story in the first place, that’s like, “Don’t admit that you experienced burnout because that will undermine your message. It’s like how can you be an expert on burnout? How did you write this book? Are you speaking on burnout but you’re going through it as well?”

But the truth is even if you’re on stage one of the burnout cycle, you’re still technically experiencing burnout. It’s just to a lesser degree than somebody might be experiencing if they’re at stage 12. And the fact remains that you’re still going through the motions, you’re still experiencing, on this continuum of burnout, effects, the thing that the World Health Organization ascribe three dimensions to: feelings of exhaustion and energy depletion, increased distance from your jobs, and negativism and cynicism about your work.

And that can happen at stage one, it can happen at stage 12. It certainly happens at stage 12. So, even if you’re experiencing chronic stress that has not been successfully managed but you’re still effective, you’re still productive, you’re still getting things done, you might be tempted to think and say that you’re not going through burnout, but the truth is you are. And acknowledging that you are is the first step, in my opinion, towards recovering from burnout, to dealing with it constructively.

Pete Mockaitis
And as we look at the 12 stages overall, one that’s striking a chord with me right now, and I don’t think I noticed it at the time, is I was working a lot and I wasn’t really pleased with it, but I thought, “Well, hey, man, that’s the nature of the game. Some projects are tougher than others and some seasons are trickier.”

And then I found myself frequently checking my bank account balances and stock holdings, which was weird because I didn’t do that before. And it was like, “Ah, man, I’m working a lot and now I’m tired.” I was like, “But, you know what, I’m making a lot of money.” It’s like, “Look at that. That’s pretty impressive. Look at that. Did you imagine a couple of years ago that…?” And then I remember even reflecting on myself in that moment, thinking, “Yeah, but when did you care about that?”

Hamza Khan
Yeah, yeah, I’m right there with you. That’s busy work, right? Like, you’re just doing things to give you the illusion that work is being done, that progress is being made. I’m right there with you. And I would actually start to obsess about whenever money was leaving my accounts because that was a stressor for me too.

So, Stevan E. Hobfoll, a researcher, has proposed this theory, the conservation of resources theory, which states that people experience psychological stress, which is a big contributor to burnout, psychological stress in three scenarios: when there’s a net loss of resources, when there’s the threat of a loss of resources, or when there’s insufficient reward following an investment of resources.

So, when I was going through burnout, just like you, Pete, I would obsess, I would check my bank account every single day, and I was like, “Ah, in case of movement, things are okay.” And I’m like, “What am I doing? This is not moving the needle on anything. I’m just trying to fill my time over here.” I’m just trying to give myself some optical illusion that progress is being made, or at least I’m not regressing, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think I also remember thinking about how, like, we’re working a lot and that, somehow, meant that we were really tough and hardcore and awesome like Navy Seals or something, and a 9-to-5 worker was weak or lazy or something. And so, that’s kind of gross too in terms of stoking…

Hamza Khan
A toxic hustle culture.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s stoking a toxic…and it’s inside my own mind too. A toxic, I don’t know what the word is, othering or being contemptuous of like normal.

Hamza Khan
A disassociation almost.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, it’s like it is weird in terms of the revision of values. It’s like, “Who I am is different, and that’s not pretty.” So, that resonates as a real step that pops up there, I didn’t care about being a super hardcore dude capable of working a lot or having a fat bank balance. But in a world in which I was working too much, that was the consolation I had available to me, and that’s what I clung to.

Hamza Khan
I can relate so much to that. So much of our identity, it sounds like, and just hearing that, was tied up in being productive. It’s how we made meaning in the world. It’s something that we did to inflate our egos and to feel valuable, to feel wanted in the world. And when that wasn’t true for me in 2014, when I burned out, it was an ego death.

It was like a, “Holy smokes, what’s going on? Who am I?” moment. “If I can’t be effective in the workplace, if I’ve now signaled to all of my colleagues and to my partners and to my leaders that I can’t manage myself well enough to be effective in the workplace, then maybe I’m not who I think I am.” So, there was a significant period of depression that followed that burnout, and it’s taken me years to recover from that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, let’s talk recovery. There’s a six-step DRAGON method you mentioned, D-R-A-G-O-N. Yup, that’s six letters, or six steps. It’s an acronym. Lay it on us, Hamza.

Hamza Khan
Look, I got to be honest with you. It was not dragon when I put it together. It was like D-R-A-G-X or G-L-M, and I was like, “Ah, I got to find a synonym for this X and L word, and let’s just make it dragon,” so it worked out. But I think the idea is still salient because the way I was behaving in 2014, and prior to, was very much like a phoenix. I had this false belief that I could just continue to burn bright and burn out, and then recover from the ashes every single time.

And I think a fantastical mythical creature that has better relationship with fire, that isn’t beholden to fire, is the dragon, very much in control of it. It’s calm, it’s powerful, and it’s resilient, so I’ve leaned into that metaphor.

Pete Mockaitis
Look at you, smart work with that dragon, fire breathing, controlling it.

Hamza Khan
Thank you, sir. There we go. There we go. So, better to behave like a dragon than a phoenix. Now, I was very inspired by Dr. Christina Maslach’s work so I want to preface by saying this. What I’m sharing, this DRAGON method, it assumes that there is a good fit with you and the organization, and it assumes that the upstream factors are non-existent. Because if the upstream factors are in play, then this DRAGON method, it’s going to be very difficult for you to implement.

And I’ll take it a step further. I’ve heard this verbatim from some clients throughout the years, like you can’t yoga your way, you can’t journal your way out of burnout, if you’re dealing with a toxic leader, or you’re grossly underpaid at your workplace, or if there’s no mission, vision, values, principles, purpose. So, these are very much designed with the individual in mind, and it’s what I used to emerge from burnout and to keep burnout at bay.

So, the first step is to de-load priorities. Identify the sources of stress in your life, and diminish them, and reduce them down to something that’s manageable, to create the time and space, essentially, to recover. That’s step number one. The second step is to reconfigure focus because it’s one of the things that we lose sight of when we’re going through burnout. We lose our north star. We lose our sense of purpose. To reconnect with why you’re doing what you’re doing, the transcendent reason for your being in the world of work.

Then stage three is to assemble boundaries against the very things that caused you to experience undue stress and burnout in the first place, to get better at saying no, essentially. Then we go, once we’re past the recovery stage, D-R-A, then we go into the inoculation stage. This is how to prevent yourself from burning out.

So, the first part of that is G, gain mastery of stress, separate good stress from bad stress, and understand that it’s better to then go into the next stage, O, be a high-performer and not an overachiever. So, overcome overachievement. And then the final stage, perhaps the most important stage in terms of inoculating yourself against burnout, is to nurture resilience. And a big part of that is about developing better self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. De-load priorities, reconfigure focus, assemble boundaries, gain mastery of stress, overcome overachievement, and nurture resilience.

Hamza Khan
Bingo.

Pete Mockaitis
So, could you share a couple of your favorite tactics or huge bang-for-the-buck types of initiatives or interventions that fall within each of these six that are some of your faves?

Hamza Khan
Okay. Wow. I’m going to give you a couple ones that I have been relying on extensively over the last year and a half. So, the one that I’ve gone pro at is assembling boundaries, and a big part of this is learning how to say no, and doling out respectful no’s. You could do it like Oprah, that’s one way to do it. You could just make your default response, to everything that takes you out of balance, no. Like, no to birthdays, no to Zoom meetings, no to coffee dates, all of that.

But I think you’ll quickly learn that you’re going to lose friends and exhaust a lot of social capital. But one way that you can dole out no’s is respectful. You can acknowledge their request. You can say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this opportunity.” Then you can clearly state why you can’t do it. So, it’s like, “Hey, Pete, thank you so much for thinking of me to be on the podcast. Unfortunately, I can’t do it because for the next three months, I’m busy with…” whatever. Clearly state why I can’t do it.

Then I can offer an alternative, and that’s the master stroke. Instead of leaving you hanging, I should say, “Hey, what if we circle back in about six months? Or, instead of me, I think somebody else would be a better fit for this podcast on this topic.” In this way, you don’t feel like I’ve left you high and dry. It actually builds social capital between us because I’m looking out for you. I’m looking to solve your problem, looking to help you out in that situation. So, that’s one way to do it. Doling out respectful no’s, that has been very helpful to me.

Another strategy, ooh, I love this one a lot, it’s the five D method. This is especially important whenever you’re dealing with triaging any of your inboxes. I use this with my inbox every single day. Before I decide to do something, I run it through another set of D options. The first one is defer. If I can do this at a later date, great, push it aside. Diminish, reduce the scope of it. Delegate, if you have the ability to give it somebody else, and if it’s unnecessary, if it’s not relevant, just delete it.

And then whatever is left over, then do that. And I promise you, if you run your inbox through that filter of defer, diminish, delegate, delete, and then do, you will overcome that hesitation to start something. I mean, what’s that saying? There’s only way to eat an elephant; one bite at a time, which is a ridiculous adage when you think about it because you shouldn’t eat elephants, unless you’re a dragon, of course. That’s a different story.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Yes.

Hamza Khan
But the point remains that our reluctance to start something is proportional to the size of it. And so, when we’re staring down an inbox of 200, 300 emails, the five D method comes in handy. And the last one I want to give you over here, I could give you so much, but one that I’m using quite regularly is the dash method.

Decide, essentially, how work is going to end before you start work, in this way you activate what’s known as Parkinson’s Law, this productivity principle which states that work expands so as to fill the time allocated for its completion. Well, if you don’t have these constraints in place, if you’re not simulating these constraints, you’re probably like, if you’re like me, like a procrastinator, you’re going to wait until the very last minute to start it, and it’s probably not going to get…or at the very least, it won’t be very good.

And there’s a couple of dashes that you can use; there’s time-based dashes. So, let’s look at it in the context of this podcast. We have an hour allocated for the recording of this, so we’re either going to reach the full 60 minutes or we’re going to end before then. So, that’s a time-based dash. You and I both know how this recording is going to end.

There’s also an energy-based dash, whenever either of us loses energy in the tank to continue, that’s another way we can end this. There’s a unit-based dash, we can go through all of the questions that, Pete, you’ve designed, so that’s one way to end this podcast. There’s time, energy, unit. There’s feeling-based as well. So, Pete, whenever you feel like we’ve got a good episode in the can, we can wrap this up.

And there’s also results-based. We’d be trying to hit a certain metric for the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast, and then you might feel confident that we’ve reached that metric. And so, what you can do is you can establish one of these dashes as a way to end work before it begins, or you can combine some of these dashes and decide to end work when one of these dashes has been reached. So, that’s another strategy that I would recommend that falls within the DRAGON method.

Pete Mockaitis
And within the gain mastery of stress step, any favorite tools there?

Hamza Khan
Okay, so when it comes to gaining mastery of stress, this is one that was challenging for me last year, when I was flirting with burnout, and it was taking regular breaks. And I know this seems really pedestrian. There are probably some listeners who are just rolling their eyes, being like, “Seriously? Just taking breaks? How important is that?”

It is essential. It should be non-negotiable. It’s not a nice to have in a very busy work day. It’s actually essential to you doing your best work. And so, put them in your calendar, hardcode them. I now have breaks built into my calendar. For example, I’ve really slow mornings, and I color-code them as well to be green. And green signals to me that this is going to be something that’s going to be replenishing.

Lunch, non-negotiables, in there at the same time every single day. Weekends blocked off. Some evenings, date nights with my partner, all blocked off. So, scheduling these breaks and structuring them is essential. And if you have the ability to take regular vacations if you can, and when you are taking these vacations, I think, plan them in such a way where you can actually go dark and disconnect completely from the very things that might be causing regular stress.

So, within overcome overachievement, or, sorry, gain mastery of stress, I would say, in that step, take breaks, and, if not, be warned that you could break in the process.

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

Hamza Khan
Wow, no, you’ve really asked some questions here that have given me reason to step back and just appreciate all of the wisdom that has been accumulated through mentors, through different researchers, and Dr. Christina Maslach being one of them, that helped me get through the stress of last year. I think had this conversation happened in 2014, you’d be speaking to a very different Hamza that would be on the brink of full-blown burnout.

So, I’m just very grateful that I have the ability now to pay it forward to people who might be experiencing any stage on that 12 stage of burnout model, and, hopefully, it’ll compel you to separate run-of-the-mill everyday stress from what might be something that will lead to debilitating consequences for you. And, hopefully, you can say that.

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

Hamza Khan
It’s by Martha Graham, considered to be one of the pioneers of ballet in the United States.

She wrote, “There is a vitality, a lifeforce, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there’s only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly to keep the channel open.”

And, Pete, I sometimes find myself just staring at this quote, and really meditating on it because, as somebody that’s very critical of their work, as somebody who easily becomes disheartened with the results or lack thereof, I tend to fall into the trap of just comparing myself and competing unnecessarily. And so, when I read this, whenever I feel down about my work and my output, I’m like, “Hey, there’s a thing that’s working over here. Just keep the channel open. It’s okay.”

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

Hamza Khan
I’ve got a lot but the one that has my attention these days is The Dark Triad of Personality Traits, specifically within leadership. Very interesting research. And as a nice companion to that, you can look at the D Factor of Personality. Fascinating, especially if you’re studying destructive leadership and how that might be impacting such things as employee engagement, burnout, turnover, and the works.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s tempting for me to jump all over that. So, what are the three things, just the minimum?

Hamza Khan
Yeah, okay. So, The Dark Triad of Personality Traits: subclinical levels of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. And they fall within the other model, which is the D Factor Personality, the inverse of the OCEAN Big Five Traits. This is essentially, and I hope I can get this right, it is the relentless pursuit of maximizing one’s individual utility while provoking, neglecting, or accepting the disutility of others. In other words, selfish behavior. And that is what is at the root of destructive leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it seems to check out, having done none of that research, that sounds about accurate. And how about a favorite book?

Hamza Khan
One that I’m reading right now. Man, I cannot say enough good things about it, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. My goodness, it’s about something that happened in 1886 but it’s reading to me as though it was written for this moment in time, 2023, and all of the tension and the levels of disengagement and burnout that are happening in the workplace.

Clearly, to me and many others, there’s something fundamentally wrong about the world of work today, and I think this book offers a very timely warning for if we don’t correct the things that are going wrong in the modern workplace, then we face some kind of upheaval that is going to be uncomfortable for everyone.

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

Hamza Khan
If I had to pick of the current suite of tools that I’m using at the moment, Asana, the task management system.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Hamza Khan
A favorite habit is waking up at the same time every single day, even on weekends.

Pete Mockaitis
And what time is that?

Hamza Khan
It ranges between 5:00 and 5:30.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yeah.

Hamza Khan
Never the same time on the dot. I’m always surprised whenever it spills over beyond 5:30.

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

Hamza Khan
Two in particular. One is “Stop Managing, Start Leading,” and the other one is “Burn bright, not out.”

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

Hamza Khan
HamzaK.com. You can find all of my links, my social links, links to my podcast, newsletter, all of that at HamzaK.com.

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

Hamza Khan
Don’t resist change. Don’t resist chaos and the uncertainty of the future of work. Embrace it. Understand that change is the ability to triumph through adversity. To overcome adversity is something that makes us uniquely human. It’s the closest thing that we have to a superpower. So, always be changing, and, at the very least, change before change is required, especially before it’s too late.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Hamza, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and little burnout.

Hamza Khan
Thank you, sir. Thank you. And likewise.