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KF #31. Situational Adaptability Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

721: How to Balance Caregiving with Your Career with Liz O’Donnell

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Liz O'Donnell says: "Sometimes the most important work we do is not in the cube or an office; it is at home."

Liz O’Donnell shares her tips on how to deal with the stresses of taking care of your aging parents while managing your career.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset that eases the burden of caregiving 
  2. The most important thing you can do when things get overwhelming
  3. The motto to remember when times get tough 

About Liz

Liz O’Donnell is the founder of Working Daughter, a community for women balancing eldercare, career, and more. An award-winning writer, her book, Working Daughter: A Guide to Caring for Your Aging Parents While Earning A Living, was named one of the Best Books of 2019 by Library Journal. 

Liz is a recognized expert on working while caregiving and has written on the topic for many outlets including The AtlanticHarvard Business Review, Fast CompanyForbesTIME, WBUR and PBS’ Next Avenue, and has been featured in Health and Ozy Media. She also works with companies to create programs in support of working caregivers.

Resources Mentioned

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Liz O'Donnell Interview Transcript

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

Liz O’Donnell
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. It is a tricky topic that a few listeners have requested and you are one of the top experts in the field, so maybe you can orient us a bit. What’s the backstory behind the book Working Daughter?

Liz O’Donnell
The backstory is that both of my parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the exact same day. So, I went from one hospital where the team told me my father had Alzheimer’s and could never go home. And before I even left the parking lot after that meeting, I got a call from another hospital where my mother had been brought a couple of days before, it was stomach pains, and they told me she had ovarian cancer and probably three months to live, and could I come right away and we could tell her together the news.

And I was working full time at a marketing agency, I had two kids in elementary school, I had my first book that had just come out, and I already thought I was as busy as could be, and I felt completely alone and completely unprepared, and working through elder care was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. So, I vowed no one else should feel this way.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s powerful. And thank you for sharing your story and your journey with us here, and the book to enrich folks. Boy, what a day. So, tell us maybe a little bit of the story in terms of a little bit of the ups and downs and key best practices and discoveries you made that somehow make it possible to make things kind of still somehow work?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. Well, I’ll start backwards, I’ll start at the end. And the end was realizing that sometimes the most important work we do is not in the cube or an office; it is at home. And so, we have to forgive ourselves when we’re not on our career paths because I was the breadwinner in my family. My husband and I had an agreement that he would be home with the kids and I would go to work. And I laugh now thinking, “What was I thinking?” But at one point, I was all in on my career so I couldn’t not show up for work. And I worked for a small company, and I was really lucky that I had paid time off and I had flexibility because so many caregivers don’t.

And so, I had all of these things going for me as far as trying to make this work but, again, probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. I lost a lot of influence at work. I lost key clients. I still had a seat at the table but I could tell that my voice didn’t carry as much weight. And so, like I said, if I start at the end, I just had to really forgive myself and realize that, one, you should never feel guilty for showing up for your family, and, two, you should never feel guilty for having to go to work and earn a living. And in between, do the best you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we definitely want to hear a little bit about sort of the how one forgives one’s self because that’s so much easier said than done. But, first, can we hear a little bit about sort of, in practice, in terms of like at the ground level, how is it that you lost influence at work and key clients? Like, how did that translation unfold?

Liz O’Donnell
The next six months of my life after those two diagnoses, I can only describe them as completely wild. I had an Excel spreadsheet, I had at the time 196 items on it. I would wake up every morning and highlight the ones that had to happen that day. So, it’s things like I had to find a memory care facility for my dad. My mom was an hour away but, now that she had a terminal diagnosis, I wanted to move her closer to me but I wasn’t moving her in with me, “So, was I moving them to the same facility?” They had different care needs. I was digesting these two diagnoses and what they meant and trying to learn about them.

I end up moving my parents four times. So, if you can imagine four phone calls to the phone company for a hookup and four calls for a change, so that alone, I think, could kill a person, waiting on line on hold for the phone company, and medications, and hiring nurses, and looking for wills, and I had no sense of their financial package, so literally digging through Rubbermaid bins where my parents, who were Depression-era, which meant they kept everything. So, digging through trying to figure out what their financial picture was, what they could afford, if they had burial plots, like all of that stuff had to happen every day.

And so, I don’t know how else to describe it but I was kind of a mess. And in the middle of all of this, or on top of all of this, I still had to show up at this very demanding job. And so, as I said, I was really lucky in that I had flexibility. So, I went to my boss and asked if I could extend my flex time and my paid time off, basically, so that I didn’t take any one chunk of time off but every week I would set a new schedule, and that was such a God-send.

But that’s one thing, I know I’m kind of jumping ahead, but one thing that when people think about elder care in the workplace, they think, “Well, it’s like child care.” But assuming you have a healthy child, child care is much more predictable. You know when your kid will start preschool, and when they’ll start kindergarten, and when they’ll start first grade, and when their vacations will be, and when their well-checks at the doctor will be, and you can put all that on a calendar.

With elder care, I didn’t know, “Was my mother going to live three months? Was my dad going to live ten years? When were these moments that I needed to drop everything and show up? When were they going to happen?” And so, I was flaky.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, flaky as in you ended up making additional errors and not following through on some commitments at work due the sheer overwhelm and stress of all this stuff happening unpredictably day after day.

Liz O’Donnell
Absolutely. The hardest thing I think was caring about work. As I said, at one point when my husband and I were planning a family, I was like, “I love my job. I’m not giving it up.” And now, here I am, and I’m literally dealing with life and death, end-of-life decisions, and the fact knowing that my parents…we all know our parents are going to die someday, we’re all going to die someday, but now it’s imminent and it’s being discussed.

And to show up at work and care about you’re on conference calls and people are like circling back, and parallel pathing, and strategic paradigm shifts, and it’s like, “People are dying. I don’t care about any of this.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Wow. Well, Liz, you’ve really painted quite a picture in terms of so that’s what life…that’s what the experience of life was like in the midst of that. And so then, you learned a few things in terms of some principles and some practices and some tools in order to cope with that, whether our listeners are specifically dealing with exactly this, parent elder care, or other realms of illness or wild stress and unpredictability in the personal life.

Share with us, what are some of the key principles and practices? You mentioned forgiveness, and so just to make sure we don’t lose it because it sounds huge, tell us, how does one go about forgiving one’s self? Because I think it might be easier to know intellectually, “Hey, this is a difficult time right now, there’s some special unique demands that need my attention, they’re very important, and so I’m going to need to tend to those.” And, yet, we could still feel some guilt about the tradeoffs that we have no choice to make. So, how do you wrestle with that?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. To be perfectly transparent, I don’t think I came to this conclusion, forgave myself, until later when I was writing about the experience. And, for me, it’s through writing I realized what I was thinking. So, if people are wrestling with it right now and not figuring out how to do it, I would say you’re right on path. You’re totally normal. Don’t beat yourself up.

You asked me, well, your question has a lot of parts to it, so I’ll start with the practical stuff that I learned at work. And what I learned at work is that I needed to be prepared every day for an emergency. So, years prior, I went out on maternity leave twice. And leading up to maternity leave, which, again, is predictable. You get a date. It might not be the exact date but you kind of know when you’re going out on leave. And so, I started to keep a running list of projects and what the status was, and I made it really easy for whoever was going to fill in for me to be able to fill in for me.

When I got these two diagnoses and when this crisis first sort of erupted in my family, my house, if you will, at work, was not in order. I hadn’t filed an expense report in months. I was storing stuff on my hard drive, not on the Google Drive or the server. I wasn’t really good about cc’ing co-workers. So, one of the things I learned through the whole experience – my dad lived for, I don’t know, maybe another five years, so I was a caregiver for quite a while – was to always keep your house in order, and, like I said, keep stuff on the hard drive, I mean, on the Google Docs and Google Drive, and cc everybody in the company, and make it really easy for your co-workers to help you out.

And then just know. I was a Gen X worker with a lot of younger millennial co-workers, so they had not been through this experience yet. They also hadn’t seen all the equity I had built into my career, the years of sweat equity, to sort of earn that flexibility. They just knew that this older woman was a flake. She was leaving a lot, just taking lots of personal calls. I just had to trust in the process that we don’t always get to see what comes around but know that someday they would experience it too, and that there’s just sort of this cosmic payback in the workplace. And maybe my reputation was taking a hit with them and they didn’t understand what I was going through, but there had been people ahead of me that I had filled in for, and there are going to be people later that you need to be filled in.

So, a lot of it was mindset. So, there were those practical things I did at work to hopefully make it easier for people to cover for me, but a lot of it was just mindset, constantly telling myself, “This is okay. This is normal, and you really can’t worry about your reputation at work right now. It’s is not the most important thing.” And death has a way of kind of giving you perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And that’s beautiful as we’re talking about forgiveness. So, it’s not only forgiving yourself, but then forgiving others and the co-workers. Like, if you see them, I don’t know, gossiping or chattering about you, or maybe just a look on their face, or whatever, that a subtle or not too subtle contempt or frustration, that that is a beautiful perspective in terms of not so much like, “I hate them, they suck,” but rather, “Hey, you might not realize it yet, but there will come a day when you, too, need and will appreciate this flexibility, and right now happens to be my time. And so, that’s where we are.”

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. And that’s easier said than done, and part of that is because we all have so many jobs now. It’s not like we’re all working at the same company for 20 or 30 years and we sort of evolved together. So, I had to know that I might never see my co-workers go through this. They did not see my early stages of my career in sort of a, “So, what now?” kind of perspective. And I don’t mean to minimize this process because I think, for many of us who are career-oriented, being mediocre at work is really hard. It’s a big adjustment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know what, that reminds me of, this is under the most random of connections, but I think it was Ronda Rousey, the ultimate fighter, who was defeated and she gave an interview. She’s very vulnerable in which she just started crying, and she’s like, “If I’m not this, what am I or who am I?” in terms of her identity was so wrapped up in like winning and victory and being a champion. And that can happen amongst folks who like being awesome at their jobs when there’s a period of time in which the environment is not so conducive to awesomeness at the moment.

And so, you shared a couple mindset bits. Did you have any other kind of phrases, or mantras, or mottos, or kind of go-to things you reminded yourself of in those moments?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah so, prior to the crisis, the two diagnoses, my parents were needing more and more care, and I was finding it quite disruptive to my life and my career. I was working. I was traveling. On the weekends, I want to be with my kids. I was spending at least one day a weekend helping my parents with shopping and bills and mowing the lawn and all of that stuff, and I was really resentful of it.

And I remember after this crisis and coming home that night after being at the two hospitals, and it was really late by the time I got home, everyone was in bed, and I just sort of sat on the sofa in the dark, and I remember thinking to myself, “You know what, the only way through this is through this,” which is a bad paraphrase of the Robert Frost quote. I didn’t know that at the time but I just remember thinking, like, “You can’t get around this so you might as well just get in it and just figure it out.” So, the only way through is through kind of kept me going.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And that sounds simple but I think the alternative thoughts to that are numerous and tempting, like, “There must be some kind of a trick, or approach, or a strategy, or a tactic, or a resource, or a something that’s going to make this all better.” And we’re chatting about some things that kind of help a bit but, ultimately, the fundamental difficult circumstances are there and are not just going away.

Liz O’Donnell
Right. And I had been thinking about elder care, as I mentioned, for a couple of years prior to the crisis because my parents were needing more, I was giving it to them, I was feeling squeezed already as a busy working mother. So, I had been waking up at 2:00 in the morning, thinking, “I know they need more care but I don’t know exactly what, I don’t know exactly how I’d fit it in.” I’d been Googling and finding these websites that were all, I call them halo and angel websites back then. And this was like 2013, 2014, and it was just like, “What a blessing to be a caregiver and just sit down and chat with your family, and divide the work, and everybody will be okay.” Useless. Completely useless.

So, I’d been searching for the tools and the resources up until this point and I hadn’t been able to find them, and so that’s why I thought to myself. And so, I was just…I wasn’t getting anywhere. And so, this concept of the only way through is through was really, for me, about how you’re going to use your energy. You only have so much energy. Energy is probably boundless and all of that good stuff, but at the time I was feeling depleted.

And so, was I going to use up my energy resisting, like, “I don’t want to do this. Why is this happening?” or was I just going to use my energy to get it done?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And, let’s hear, inside your mind, what is resisting sound like, so we can readily recognize it in our own minds and curtail it sooner rather than later?

Liz O’Donnell
It sounded like, “This isn’t fair.” It sounded like, for me, the typical family caregiver of elder care is, I mean, I fit the profile. I was a woman in her late 40s, early 50s, with a parent over the age of 65, and a child under the age of 18, she’s working outside the home, and she’s busy. So, I fit the poster child for this, but the difference is it’s usually the oldest daughter, and I’m the youngest of three, so there’s a lot of, “Why me? And what about my siblings? And why don’t they step up?” And I bet if any of your listeners are going through that, because siblings come up all the time, it’s like one of the top two questions I get, “So, where are my siblings? This isn’t fair.”

And the other thing that I was feeling, and I hear from caregivers all the time, was, “This is putting my life on hold.” And so, again, I learned after the fact, after I wrote about this and processed this, that it didn’t actually put my life on hold. It’s just the turn that my life took. And I think if people can learn to live through these life crises as opposed to wait until, that’s another huge step.

And I think, whether it’s elder care or anything else, we tend to, “When I get the next promotion,” “When I find the right partner,” “When I drop 20 pounds,” this whole concept of waiting until, if we can figure out how to wake up every day, and be like, “Okay, this is my life. How am I going to make it work? It might be ugly today but…” then I think that’s just freeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, so in your book, your chapter titles are imperative verbs, which is a style we like to use in our gold nuggets actually, so it resonates. So, it sounds like you’ve done some talking about how you accept and how you absolved. And you teased a little bit about prioritizing with 196 items in Excel, and you have limited energy. How do you prioritize well in the midst of these difficulties?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, the 196 items, those were the tactics. And, for me and what I talk about in the book, the prioritizing is when something, some kind of wrench comes into your life, or your career plans, or whatever it might be, like elder care did for me, and when you realize that the path you thought you were taking and the ladder you thought you were climbing isn’t quite what can happen right now, figuring out what’s most important and what you can shed.

So, back to that concept that I hear from other working daughters all the time, which is, “Caregiving has interrupted my life, or stopped my life, or put my life on hold,” I understand that concept, I felt that concept, but not necessarily true. Your life just needs to shift right now. So, what are the top three things in your life that are non-negotiable.

And so, for me, it was staying employed, because I was the breadwinner. I couldn’t lose my job. And it was showing up at some level as a parent. And I don’t remember what the third thing was at this time, but what are those three things? And so, everything else was a no. I said yes to those three things every day. I was going to be there for my parents. I was going to not lose my job. And I was going to be an okay parent myself. And everything else fell off for a while.

I was very involved in local politics. I was an appointed official. I resigned from that position and I had been promoting my first book, and I decided I was going to give that a B or a C effort. I had these three things that were most important in my life, and that’s what I was going to do. So, prioritizing for me was more bigger bucket items, and realizing that there were other things, so many other things in my life. I knew I wanted my first book to do well enough that I could write a second book. And I knew that I wanted to be an okay enough mother so that my kids wouldn’t be talking about me in therapy in a few years.

So, what were the things? And I knew that I had to stay employed but I wasn’t going to keep fast-tracking at that point. So, what were the things that I wanted to have in place when caregiving was over? And what was the minimum I had to do to make sure that I could step back into those roles?

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s a question that many of us haven’t asked much and don’t like asking, “What’s the minimum I can do?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, Liz, so you’ve got some other great verbs here: deflect, choose, manage, disrupt, renew, plan, reflect. I’m intrigued about the renew, in particular. So, could we hear about some of the best practices there and another one or two things that you think made all the difference?

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, so renew is in that chapter, I talk about, I think, it’s seven most annoying words that a caregiver hears, which is, “You should take care of yourself.” And, in my case, when I finally told my boss what was going on in my life, that’s what she said. And, luckily, I had worked for her off and on almost all of my career so I was able to take her head off and keep my job and the responses.

We know we’re supposed to take care of ourselves. What we can’t figure out is how and when with the 196 items, waking up every day, going through all of this stuff. And so, she said to me, she goes, “Well, why don’t you start with hydrating?” And it was so simple. I had been waking up every morning, starting the coffee, caffeinating all day long, drinking Diet Coke all day just trying to stay awake and go, go, go. And then at night, I would be so caffeinated that I would have a glass of wine to try to unwind, so I was definitely dehydrated through this whole experience.

And it was such a simple thing to do. Who can’t fill a CamelBak or a plastic water bottle and walk around all day? And so, I said, “Okay.” And because I had promised my boss, I committed to it, and I started just adding more water to the day. And then eventually I started keeping a pair of sneakers, or trainers, or tennies, depending on what part of the country you’re from, in the trunk of my car, and going for walks when my parents were sleeping, if I was bedside or waiting. There’s a lot of waiting in elder care. There’s hospital time. There were doctors who were late. So, I just started throwing on a pair of sneakers and walking around whenever I could. And little by little, I was adding these small things. So, in my book, I write about, I think, 50 things you can do for self-care.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, 5-0. Nice.

Liz O’Donnell
Well, they’re really small and simple, and some of them are physical and some of them are mindset. This is kind of embarrassing, but what the heck. I had certain songs that I would play at certain times in the day to just sort of shift my mind and put me in a good mood. Like, there was a song I always turned on as I was driving up to…my mom eventually moved into a hospice home, and I never knew on any given day what I was walking into, and I worked from the hospice home a lot of times. I worked remotely so I wanted to be as upbeat and positive.

So, I’d clicked on my iTunes. If it’s singing in the shower, if it’s sometimes helping other people out, it didn’t have to be hit the gym every day because that wasn’t realistic. But what are the little things we can do to feel better every day? And it really makes a difference.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s powerful. You know, it’s so funny, hydration, that’s a great place to start because it’s easy to neglect, and that makes a big impact. So, suddenly, I’m looking at a pair of eye drops on my desk, which is true. Sometimes I like tough through a day with dry eyes for no reason, all day. It’s like I just don’t have to live like that, or dry lips with ChapStick.

Liz O’Donnell
Right. Exactly. Yeah, I just kept going to the soda machine for Diet Coke. I didn’t have to live like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Liz O’Donnell
You’re actually less tired when you drink water.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, water, songs, walking, sing in the shower, helping others. Any other thing that leaps to mind of the 50 that’s huge for renewal?

Liz O’Donnell
I think anything that helps you escape, that helps you sort of shift out of the stress that you’re in. So, reading, comedy, podcasts, all of those things might not sound like the traditional self-care that we talk about, but anything that can give your mind, which is on overdrive, a break is really helpful. So, are crafts as a parent. I didn’t practice this but my research shows that doing any kinds of crafts, knitting or…because they take your brain away from the stress that you’re thinking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. Well, so outside of renewing, any other top tips or best practices you want to make sure to share with listeners who are dealing with elder care and career at the same time, or other, just personal challenges with work at the same time?

Liz O’Donnell
I want to go back to that planning what happens after because I think it can be really uncomfortable. Because when you’re thinking about what happens after, you’re actually thinking about, “What happens when my parent dies?” And we have a term in the Working Daughter community that we call grelief, and it’s a combination of grief and relief, and that’s often how we feel when our parents die. And it can feel really uncomfortable to admit that there’s an element of relief there.

But the person you love is no longer suffering, you’re no longer struggling, and so I think it’s really important that we’re honest about this. And so, thinking about, “Okay, someday this is going to be over. What are my goals and how do I keep moving towards them?”

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

Liz O’Donnell
You know, the other thing I want to mention, and thank you for asking that, is just to talk about this at work. As recently as 2013, 2014, when I was first going through it, nobody was really talking about this. And more and more, we’re seeing articles about elder care, there’s a lot of conversation about workers who are parents, but there haven’t been that many about workers with parents.

And it’s not just elder care; it’s spousal care, it’s sibling care. COVID has made us all caregivers at some level, so I think being comfortable, and trailblazing a little at work, and talking about caregiving, and when your companies might be talking about parents, reminding them it’s not just parents. Because the more we talk about it, the more normal it’s going to become. And it is, there’s like 54 million of people out there who are going through some kind of caregiving and working. So, why isn’t it more discussed?

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

Liz O’Donnell
My favorite quote now is “Action is the antidote to despair,” which is attributed to Joan Baez, the folk singer. And, for me, it’s the things that have you stressed out, if you just take one small step, you’re going to feel that much better. And, specifically the elder care, part of the reason we are so unprepared when it comes to elder care is nobody wants to talk about these things. We all know we should be talking about our wills. We all know we should be talking about burial plots. And often, like, “Eww, who wants to talk about that?” But if you just take one little action and move in that direction, ooh, your stress just goes away.

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

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah, I found these two professors when I was writing the book. One is at Johns Hopkins and one is at University of South Florida, and they have been studying the impact of caregiving on people. And they have found all the things that I just told you that it is stressful, it impacts your health, your relationships, etc. However, they also found something they call the caregiver’s gain.

And when they looked at non-caregivers compared to caregivers, they found that caregivers have better physical strength, cognitive ability, self-esteem, and actually longevity. So, I think the more we can talk about the caregiver’s gain, the more people will realize that caregiving, while it often feels like something that takes from you, it actually gives you something tremendous as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. You know what came to mind is, “So, those deadbeat siblings can suck on that.” That’s not the kindest.

Liz O’Donnell
That’s exactly the kind of conversation you’d hear if you joined the Working Daughter Facebook group.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m not too out of line. Okay. All right.

Liz O’Donnell
No. And that’s part of the reason I wrote the book, and I started the community, was back to that, like, it was all angel wings and halos, and people would always like they kind of tilt their head, and their voice gets sappy, and they’re like, “You’re a caregiver. It’s a blessing.” But I wanted a place where people could say things just like that. And that’s what I love about that research and what these two professors have done, is that their research doesn’t say that caregiving is all wonderful and it’s going to be better for you. They say both things can be true at once. And I think I just answered one of your upcoming questions, but I’ll wait till you get there.

Pete Mockaitis
A favorite book?

Liz O’Donnell
Oh, no, not that one. My favorite book is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Just can’t say enough good things about it.

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

Liz O’Donnell
I think it’s Spotify. I have a playlist for like every scenario. Like, if I wake up and I’m feeling stressed, I have a playlist for that. And if I’m giving a big presentation, and I’m having impostor syndrome, I have a playlist for that. And I have a Working Daughter playlist that reminds working daughters that they’re doing amazing work. So, I think Spotify is actually one of my best career tools.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Liz O’Donnell
A favorite habit? I think it’s water.

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?

Liz O’Donnell
And that’s what I was just alluding to a second ago. In the Working Daughter community, we say all the time that two things can be true at once. And it’s we can say, “This completely sucks,” and also know at the same time that we’re glad that we have the opportunity to do it. We can feel grief and relief at the same time. Not something that people always embrace but we can hold two opposing truths.

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

Liz O’Donnell
WorkingDaughter.com, that points you to the private Facebook group and the book and all kinds of stuff.

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

Liz O’Donnell
Yeah. It would be to think about how we can be more compassionate at work because it was First Lady Rosalynn Carter who said, “There are four types of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who need caregivers.” So, this is a workplace issue, and it requires that we’re compassionate with each other as we go through it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, thank you. This has been powerful and helpful, I hope, to so many. I wish you the best in all of your adventures.

Liz O’Donnell
I appreciate you talking about it. Thank you.

675: How to Boost Your Brain for Better Happiness & Performance with Eric Karpinski

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Eric Karpinski reveals why investing in your happiness leads to better performance at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The secret to boosting your brain power at work
  2. The one question to jumpstart your happiness habit
  3. How to make stress work for you

About Eric

Eric Karpinski has been on the cutting edge of bringing positive psychology tools to workplaces for over 10 years, with clients that include Intel, Facebook, TIAA, IBM, T-Mobile, Kaiser Permanente, SAP, Deloitte, Eli Lilly, Genentech and many others. 

He is a key member of Shawn Achor’s GoodThink team, and developer of the Orange Frog in-house certification program, where he’s trained more than 100 facilitators to lead positive cultural transformation at their organizations. He was trained as a scientist at Brown University and has an MBA from the Wharton School.

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Eric Karpinski Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Eric, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Eric Karpinski
Pete, I’m super excited. I’ve been listening to a bunch of your podcast. You get in deep and I love listening, so I hope I can step up to the quality of everything else you’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I have no doubts. But I think the first thing we need to cover is beekeeping. What’s the story here?

Eric Karpinski
So, I wanted to be a beekeeper for years and years. They’re fascinating, fascinating little creatures. And so, yeah, it’s something I’ve been doing the last four or five years, and I learned so much about community and teamwork from them, and you get the occasional sting and you get the occasional jar of honey. It’s perfect balance.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I imagine having your work product repeatedly robbed from you might be disengaging in terms of happiness at work.

Eric Karpinski
They just keep working. I’ve got this fun device called a Flow Hive, and so it kind of drains part of the honey out without them even noticing. They still get mad at me when I have to do hive inspections and stuff but, obviously, you need to make sure you leave them plenty for the dry summer here in San Diego but, no, they don’t seem to be bothered by that as much they are about me coming in and looking in trying to find the queen.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Duly noted. And how about the stings? What’s the story there?

Eric Karpinski
It just happens. I wear a suit. I like to use feral bees, which is I save bees from people’s walls and their gardens and the trees where they don’t want bees. I’ll come and sort of capture them and bring them home. Sometimes you get a little more Africanized genetics, and sometimes that really…they get a little ornery when you start looking in instead of the nice European bees that you can buy and manage really easily, but bees are fun. You take stings with the territory, that’s what part of beekeeping is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’m sure this can be a whole podcast episode but I must ask in brief, to what extent is the human species at risk of extinction because of bees not being able to pollinate stuff in the future?

Eric Karpinski
What I love is the Flow Hive that I mentioned. It is making so many people into hobby beekeepers, and for those that are, especially those that are taking local honey, like hives, and local colonies and bringing them, you’re maintaining the genetic diversity of the bees. And so, there’s a huge benefit, so lots of hobbyists, because the commercial ones need to have very predictable bees but the rest of us can just go. We don’t need things really efficient so we can come in and nurture the genetic diversity that I think is really important for countering a lot of the things with the colony collapse issues.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, good to know. Now, we’re going to talk about happiness.

Eric Karpinski
Let’s talk about happiness. Bees make me happy but there’s more direct ways to do it than having to get your own hive.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, you’ve got a book Put Happiness to Work. Can you tell us, what’s one of the most surprising, counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made along the way about happiness and engagement when you were working on this stuff?

[03:12]

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. So, starting at the top, we spent over a third of our waking hours working, so we should invest in our happiness. In our relationships at work and finding meaning at work, we spend so much time, it makes sense that we actually focus on those things, and the ties between happiness at work. I think one of the biggest things is, over the last 10 years, really understanding how much being happy at work actually ties, and specific types of happiness, really ties to being awesome at your job.

So many people think of happiness as that thing that happens once you get what you want. And the most surprising thing and the most important thing is happiness is the way to get a lot of the other things that you want, the way to success. I spent years working on my own, “Look, if I can be as successful as I can be then I’m going to be happy.”

And so, I worked hard, did all the things except that “work hard and success thing” became this loop of, “Hey, all right, I got a degree from Brown University. Awesome. I got this great job. Great. I got an MBA from Wharton. Awesome. Look at all the success I have. I have this incredible job where I’m doing a venture capital job, and I’ve got all these things.” Well, I kept milking at those success and then I would stress so much about the next level of success, the next promotion, the next raise, the next thing, and I never stepped from that success down to the happiness piece.

And I got stuck in this loop and I ended up stress turned into anxiety, anxiety turned to insomnia and then depression, and I’m supposed to be getting happy by the success and instead I’m driving it into the therapist chair and Paxil, not the path. So, when I found positive psychology research though, I realized you can flip that around. There are so many things we can do right now in our lives and in our work. And, actually, when we’re happier, our brain works better. And there’s specific types of happiness, we can talk about, really helps drive engagement at work and all the positive emotions that come with that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so I think that’s a huge idea, and I think I first learned this from Shawn Achor and his TED Talk, and I understand you worked with Shawn, which is cool.

Eric Karpinski
Yeah, for almost 10 years we’ve been working together. He’s incredible. He helped shift the world and the boardroom from happiness is one of those little things that you don’t really need to worry about at work to say, “This can be central.” And, obviously, the work is still ongoing in terms of creating that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Well, we love positive psychology stuff over here and we had his wife, Michelle Gielan, on the show and she was great.

Eric Karpinski
Yeah, she’s awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
So, let’s get into it a little bit. So, what are some of the top things we can do to boost our happiness and engagement at work?

[06:05]

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. If I can take a second to sort of round out sort of the idea behind the book which is there is so much in the positive psychology research, 20 years of positive psychology, neuroscience, organizational psychology research, and I’ve spent 10 years actually implementing that with organizations. And I think 80% of this book is really good for any of us that want to be happier and spread that happiness and be awesome at their jobs. The other 20% is really focused on managers and leaders and how they can help create engagement at work through a specific set of strategies and using positive emotions.

So, with that sort of frame, let’s get into the topics, let’s get into, “How do we apply it?” One of the topics that I think is most important, particularly right now at this moment, as we’re 14 months into the pandemic, so many of us have just lost our ability to socially connect. And maybe we’ve got that ability still with a few people, but we’re out of practice. And as the vaccines get more well-distributed, there are so many opportunities for us to reactivate that and to bring that. And I think that that’s true for our personal lives for sure and I think it’s really true with our work lives.

We’ve gotten so stuck with sort of Zoom fatigue and all these different issues and we just aren’t spending the time. Most of us aren’t spending the time connecting with people as much as we’d like. As Adam Grant says in his recent New York Times article, “We’re all languishing. We’re just sort of sitting in this pause mode, not everybody, but many of us, many more than normal.”

And so, when I think about social connection, and there’s a whole strategy about this about work, and I wanted to bring a couple of the habits that I talk about in the book that I think are really good at retraining us, reopening us to connection, and then helping us actually motivate and start doing things. So, one of them, the first one is a simple one.

Everyone that talks about positive psychology talks about gratitude, and targeting this really for gratitude for others. Sitting down and just spending a couple minutes each day writing down three people that you appreciate in your life and something specific you appreciate about them. So, it can’t just be, “I love my mom because she’s always there for me,” or, “I love my partner because…” something else. Like, not just “Because I love my partner,” but what specifically do you love about your partner or your children?

Like, my son is 16. He’s just got his driver’s license, he’s driving around the world now, but he also is always willing to give me a hug. He’s always wanting to just stop his day and hug me.

Pete Mockaitis
At 16 years old.

Eric Karpinski
Touch being one of my love languages, it’s really huge. So, that’s one of my gratitude that pops up from time to time. And this idea just opens you. And make sure you include one person from work, a work-related person each day. So, that’s one. Another one is something Shawn did on the original research on, we call it conscious acts of kindness message. It’s an email or a text.

[09:16]

When you first get to your phone or you first get to your email, just send one two-line, two-sentence email each day to someone appreciating them, sharing some good news, sending some encouragement, just something that’s kind, something that’s thoughtful. It just takes two minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to dig into that a little bit because I’ve heard of that. And so, I like the conscious kindness communication. Is that how you called it?

Eric Karpinski
Yeah, conscious acts of kindness.

Pete Mockaitis
Conscious acts of kinds and its message. And so, that’s broader than only thinking, or sorry, thanking and/or praising. It can have a variety of flavors there, which I like. You’re expanding this for me. So, we can also have encouragement. How about you just give us a few examples of some recent messages you’ve sent out that fall into those categories? It could be thanking, it could be praising, it could be encouraging, it could be any of those.

Eric Karpinski
Sure. Well, I just launched a book so there’s so many people that have helped me and that have encouraged me. Every time I get someone who posts a photo of them with my book, I’ll send them that authentic message of, “I really appreciate that you…it wasn’t just you bought it but you bought it and you’re reading it and you’re sharing with the world that you got it.” So, I sent a couple of those each day just because this is still the time when everyone is still getting the book and sharing it.

Then another good one is my wife helped write the book. She was there. She read it all. She was there to bounce ideas off of, and she’s got a full-time job. She’s a senior executive in a healthcare organization, and she makes the time to do it, so I told her that yesterday. When someone is in person, you can absolutely do it in person. The idea is make sure you do it. And so, the easiest way is to just say, every time you get to your email, every time, when you first get to your phone, send that message. Make it the first thing you do and it’ll happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I love it. Well, hey, keep them coming. Keep them coming. What else can we do?

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. So, the third one that is really awesome. Some people, it’ll strike as kind of hippy dippy woo-woo except I want to say it’s got total backing from researches at Stanford, from the University of North Carolina. It’s something I call connection meditation.

Connection meditation is really what’s known as a loving kindness meditation. And this evolved along with mindfulness meditation for years, for thousands of years, and what’s awesome is it brings…by the way, all three of these are things that bring happiness to us immediately. It’s not just about creating connection. It’s also about it feels good to do these things. And so, that reinforces sort of the need.

So, to describe it then, if you’re talking about connection meditation, you envision someone that is really easy for you to love. Maybe it’s a wonderful niece or nephew, or a grandparent, maybe it’s your partner if you’re not in some kind of conflict with them or have something that’s kind of dragging you down. But bring someone to mind that you love easily, that love comes easily, and then you just bring them to mind and you send them little wishes, “May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you find peace in your life.”

And while you’re saying those things, just opening yourself to the love and really trying to connect with them and open yourself to those emotions. You do that once or twice. And once you get a good head of steam going, then you bring it to someone else that you love. Maybe this is your partner, or maybe it’s one of your children, or something else, but someone that maybe there’s a little bit of conflict and a little bit of holding back, and you bring the love to them, and you bring the same statements to them.

And then you bring it to someone who’s kind of neutral, someone you don’t know that well. It could be a neighbor, it could be someone at work that you just haven’t spent much time with, or it could be, again, someone who at work that you kind of have a little bit of conflict with but you want to overcome that. And then you bring them to mind and you bring the same wishes to them.

And what’s so cool, Barbara Fredrickson did a lot of research in this space and said, “We feel so good when we do that.” Now, not 100% of the time, not always, but people stick with this connection loving kindness meditation longer than they do mindfulness meditation. She actually did a head-to-head study which was really cool.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s not surprising. Mindfulness meditation is hard.

Eric Karpinski
It is. It is.

Pete Mockaitis
This feels good.

Eric Karpinski
And we feel so…we get so judge-y about, “Oh, I didn’t stick with it. No, now this,” the same stuff we’re not supposed to do when we’re doing mindfulness meditation but, anyway. Then the Stanford group saw increases in empathy, increased desire to actually reach out to others. It’s a great way to just prepare your mind for connection and it feels really good, so that’s one that I really integrate that and mix it up with my mindfulness meditation from time to time, so highly recommend that.

And not a lot of people talk about that, especially in a work context. I haven’t heard anybody else mention this in kind of a work context but it’s really useful to help build those social connections, build your own preparation for social connections. And then I think I’ve got a couple really good ones that can help you connect with others and help create that connection amongst your teams.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. Well, let’s talk about the loving kindness meditation a bit. So, I think it may feel, I don’t know, woo-woo or hippy dippy for some folks. So, when you mentioned science, it’s awesome. So, we talked the boost in empathy, I think that just makes sense. Can you share any particulars associated with the studies, the results, or the numbers?

I mean, I can sort of imagine or extrapolate, like, “Oh, well, if you have an increased in empathy, you’re more likely to be patient with the people that you work with, and much less likely to be overly critical, and improve your working relationship with them such that they like to…they enjoy being with you and you feel more comfortable sharing feedback, positive and negative, which improves performance.” So, I can just imagine how these turns into improved work results. Can you share any hard-hitting stats?

Eric Karpinski
They haven’t done those studies yet. They measured the increased empathy, so I see all the benefits that could happen but I haven’t seen it actually put into practice in an environment where you’re then looking at downstream benefits. So, that’s a study that’s going to be there but, as you say, I can imagine so many of them, and just the ability to…and I actually recommend this for people that don’t feel like they are that caring or that they care that much about connection. And I try to avoid the should. You shouldn’t be picking things that you should do.

Pete Mockaitis
“Don’t be a selfish jerk.”

Eric Karpinski
Right. So, only if it sounds intriguing. We’ll talk about that in a second. But a big thing is to pick these habits by which ones get you, are drawn towards and that bring you energy, you get excited about. But, at the same time, if you know that caring for others is something that can often derail you, it’s a nice practice to try out for a little while and see if you take to it.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool.

Eric Karpinski
So, anyway. But that increased in empathy and the ability to take someone else’s side. And I remember hearing one of your other podcast, someone was talking about compassion and activated empathy is kind of an important aspect, that you can’t be like, “Oh, yeah, I know what they feel like, and I’m going to utilize it to make myself better.” Like, compassion and action, putting empathy to act is kind of an important step on that. So, it’s not just about increasing that empathy, but then how do we actually then do things for others and help relieve the challenges that they’re facing, or share positive emotions that they’re feeling? Both of them are important.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I think about some people who work within a religious or wisdom tradition could very readily integrate this right into their existing prayer or whatever time since a lot of it feels like kind of morning ritual prep, get a great start to the day type stuff here.

Eric Karpinski
Yup, yup, it integrates with so many different prayers and different types of meditation. It’s nice to just slot in if you’ve already got…and anytime you’re doing a habit, if you can lock it next to a habit that you’ve already got. So, if you’re already sitting and doing a little prayer, maybe this fits as an add-on to that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. What else?

Eric Karpinski
So, let’s talk about when we’re at work and some things we can do because these are habits that we can do individually. One of my favorites that I just learned about because of writing the book, Scott Cabtree is a friend of mine who works, he does happiness talks and things up in the Northwest in Oregon, and he talks about something called a “Pecha Kucha” presentation. Now, the name doesn’t matter. But what it matters is that you ask everyone in the team to collect 10 photos of their life outside of work that they’re willing to share. And you have them put it together in a presentation, and then you ask one person at the weekly meeting to just spend two minutes, because here’s the ticket, you only get 20 seconds per photo, so you can’t tell any kind of long story. You can just mention a couple things.

I’ve done this with several different groups I’ve been with and so when I present it, it’s like all you can say is, “Hey, I’ve lived in these 12 cities,” is one of mine, “I struggled with cancer this year,” and give them a couple facts about that. “I’m a beekeeper.” And those are the things that you show a photo, and you something, you show your family, you show the important people to you too, but then it creates these opportunities. You can’t tell whole stories but it creates all this, “I’ve been curious about beekeeping.” Just like you and I had that conversation at the beginning. Some people are going to be like, “Oh, wow. Don’t you get stung all the time?” and they’re going to come asking me on the side, and that’s going to create a fun conversation even if we didn’t have that connection before.

And, for me, that’s the real thing. We get knowledge about our coworkers and we get a chance to seed some really cool conversations that might create these high-quality connections, these experiences of positivity resonance when we’re like connecting and kid each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s so cool. And I think about managers or teammates, I mean, that can just be fun to have either in your cubicle or somewhere, a home office as the case may be, on display in terms of, “Okay, that’s Eric…”

Eric Karpinski
Visible in the Zoom window, right?

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s Eric and there are these 10 photos,” and that’s helpful just in terms of just continually reminding yourself because it’s obvious, but we forget it, I think, at the emotional experiential level that, “Oh, this is a human being with needs and values and priorities and concerns outside of work. And, oh, yeah, and here they are right on display visually. Okay, cool.”

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. And I envision that usually in a sort of a PowerPoint kind of setup but to then transfer it over is perfect because then it’s always there, it’d be like, “Wait, there was something I wasn’t curious about.” And once we’re, for people that are in their offices, “Oh, wow, right, beekeeping. I wanted to ask you that question. It’s super cool.”

And you mentioned managers, like one of my favorite habits for a supervisor or manager or someone who’s got direct reports is to start those one-on-one meetings, we all have one-on-one meetings with some of our key people, asking, “What’s one awesome thing someone on your team has done today?” or, “What’s one awesome thing that someone at work has done this week?”

And if you just take a minute or two right at the start of your meeting, and ask that question, and you don’t let them off the hook. Some people will be like, “Oh, I can’t think of anything.” That’s all right. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It can be something small. Just think of something and they’ll come up with one.

And then in the next week, or next Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. when you’ve got your weekly standing meeting, you ask the same question. And then, by the third time, they’re coming with…they’re often coming with answers with, “Oh, here, Eric is going to ask this question. Here’s the thing I’m going to say.” And so, it starts to actually train the people that you’re working with to start noticing the good stuff at work and sharing it with you so that you, now as a supervisor, if you’ve got three or four of this every week, you can create a list of all these great things.

And I love to ask them after they tell me, “Have you shared this with them? Have you told them that you thought this?” And they’re like, “No, but I should,” is often the response you’ll get. Sometimes it’s inappropriate. And then I’ll ask, “Would you mind if I mentioned it to them too?” And now you’ve got three things, three incredible benefits.

First, you’re helping them do, essentially, gratitude for people at work practice. They’re starting to learn. And, hopefully, over the course of you doing this consistently, they’re going to start noticing things as they’re working. They’d be like, “Oh, that’s awesome. I’m going to bring that to Eric, and I’m going to tell them right now.”

And then, I, as the supervisor, I get this long list of all these great things that are happening in the team and for the team. And then you’re also starting the conversation off in a positive way. You talked about Michelle Gielan, she talks about those power leads, those happiness questions that you start with. This is a powerful one because it starts the conversation in a positive way that then makes the rest of your agenda much more productive and much more creative and much more flexible in their thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
And then just some good contagious emotional stuff because we’ve got a bit of a natural negativity bias in our thinking to have these things being surfaced again and again and again, just kind of puts you in a better groove in terms of, “You know what, work doesn’t really suck as a matter of fact.”

Eric Karpinski
That’s the hope of all of us. You realize there are so many opportunities for connecting and smiling and laughing. Look, we don’t have to be happy all the time. All we need is, two or three times a day where we just get a nice little pop of positive emotions. And all we’re doing, all these habits are just about planting seeds for that to potentially happen. If we don’t create space for it, it’s not going to happen nearly as often. So, let’s create space. That’s what these habits are for, that’s what these interpersonal sorts of habits do, is create space for potential connection, for potential happiness. That’s the best we can do when we’re going to work, is create space for others to have those experiences and for ourselves.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Any other key practices?

Eric Karpinski
There’s lots of things that we can do. I don’t want to pooh-pooh the whole idea of doing a picnic or a happy hour. I think those are important but I think the most important thing is that we find ways to integrate it into our day, just like in these one-on-ones, just like in our weekly team meeting, like we have someone do their Pecha Kucha each week till everyone has done one. Finding ways to make it part of our day, make it part of our routine is the key because if we don’t, then if we only rely on the happy hours and the picnics, it’s just not going to happen very often, and then we’re going to continue sort of languishing and not really creating that positive thing.

So, I want to make sure that we do those things. I’m not saying don’t do picnics. I’m just saying make sure you also pick some things that can create those daily and weekly experiences of one another and of happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think the high frequency makes a world of difference there. Well, let’s talk a little bit about stress here. How do we think about it? How do we use it well?

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. So, there is some really powerful research that’s coming to light and that more people are talking about. But what we know is that most of what we hear about stress is how it’s such a problem, that it’s a problem for our productivity, that it’s a huge problem for our health. And, of course, that’s only been multiplied with all the stress that we have from the pandemic and from COVID.

But the thing is we evolved stress for a reason. When we’re stressed, like our hearts start to beat faster, we also start to breathe faster, our liver releases glucose and fats into the bloodstream. All of this is to help us get ready to act. And recent research has really talked about how we can actually change and put a mindset around stress that can help us actually experience that benefit.

So much of what we think about sort of one stress response is fight or flight. And, actually, there’s a lot more sort of a continuum. There’s what we call the threat response, what researchers call the threat response which is what hear so much about. This is when we initially hear about something that we don’t think we have the resources to respond.

And this response is to really address the issue that’s caused there, and we get this flood of cortisol and it has these negative effects on our performance and on our health. Blood is actually centered away when we have this threat response, away from the evolved parts of the brain so we can’t think clearly and we can’t choose how to react. So, when we’re in this reactive place of avoiding what’s happening and trying to kind of run away or just totally freeze and just forget about it, that’s not good.

And, by the way, we’re also narrowing a lot of the arteries in our whole body that causes the high blood pressure which causes a lot of health problems associated with stress.

The other side of the continuum is something we call the challenge response. The sciences have really understood now this challenge response, and this happens naturally when we see that something difficult is coming but we believe we have the resources to actually address it or at least try to address it and start moving it, moving towards fixing it. And what’s cool here, we still get cortisol and we still get a stress response, but it’s countered by this other stress hormone called DHEA.

And what happens then is actually that combination of the two hormones opens the vascular backup in your brain and in your body. You get access to the full of your brain, so you get access to the prefrontal cortex, which is the home of reason and logic and of choice, and we actually get to choose then how we’ll respond and what we’re going to do. Our hearts are still beating fast but those open vessels drive our blood pressure down, and that’s a much healthier state for us to be experiencing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Well, challenge response sounds lovely relative to the alternative. So, how do we have more of those?

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. So, I have an acronym called ASPIRE. I’m aspiring to utilize the stress that I feel and so there’s a lot of things. I’ll just hit on a couple. The A of ASPIRE is acknowledge your stress. Notice when you’re stressed and call it out. Now, some of us, we’re so reactive to our stress we don’t even know when we’re in it. And so, there’s work in the book about how do we notice, what are our signal for stress.

And then, “Oh, man, I’m feeling stressed right now,” or, “I’m feeling a little bit of stress right now,” whatever it is. Just by calling it out, we change where we process that stress from the amygdala and the limbic centers of our brain, which are much more primal, to the prefrontal cortex, which is, I said, is a place where once we activated that, we have choice. We can actually decide how to move forward and so it shifts us. Just that alone, acknowledging it can shift us towards the challenge.

The other is S of ASPIRE is shifting your mindset. Simply recognizing that stress can be helpful changes how you respond to it. So, just listening to this podcast, reminding yourself when you’re feeling stressed, “Oh, wait, didn’t Eric say that stress can be good for us?” And they’ve done studies with LinkedIn employees, with investment bankers, with college students at MIT, with high schools, with students preparing for the GREs, again and again, just by teaching a simple, sometimes just a five-minute exercise, reading a couple of articles about how stress can be helpful changes the way that people respond. It moves them to a challenge response.

So, simply remembering this podcast and what we talked about already can change how we respond here.

So, P is purpose. What’s really interesting, and Kelly McGonagal has done a lot of work in this space and shared a lot about this, talks about the stress paradox, that when we are stressed, behind every stress is something that matters to us or we wouldn’t be stressed. We care about the outcome in some way. So, if we can spend the time thinking, “All right, why am I so stressed about this? What’s underneath it? Not that someone said something bad to me but that respect is a value of mine and I don’t feel like they respected me.” Okay. Well, let’s go deeper in that. And what is most important about this?

And if we can find things in that meaning, particular that somebody else, what benefit might there be if we’re successful, to my family, to end users, to patients, to whoever it is? Tapping into the meaning behind why we’re feeling that much stress and just understanding who this is for, what this is for, can help us switch over to the challenge response.

Eric Karpinski
So, I is inventory your resources. When we hear about a stressor, we do this lightning quick, so fast we can’t even have conscious thoughts response, “Oh, my God, I can’t do it. I’m overwhelmed. There’s no way it’s going to happen,” and it throws us into the threat response. If when we notice that, we can just pause, take a breath, step back a little bit, be like, “Okay, this is big. This is going to be hard. But what resources do we have? What strengths can I bring into this? What experiences, when have I had something like this before, and what happened? What skills do I have?”

“Who’s in this with me? Who’s the team that’s going to help us do this? What skills and experiences and knowledge do they have? And can we reach out beyond just our team? Like, who else in the organization has seen this? Or, can we bring in some outside expertise for people that have dealt with this? Is there technology that might be able to address this problem?”

And just by categorizing and inventorying the things that we have, it often brings us into that sort of natural challenge response, like, “Oh, there’s more here than I thought. Maybe we can do it.” And it starts to bring you, it activates you into bringing energy towards the problem rather than stepping away. And then the final one is, the RE is reach out to others.

There’s Shelley Taylor at UCLA has done all this work about the tend and befriend response to stress. A lot of people, when they first feel stress, they want to bake cookies for others, they want to bring them into the office, and they want to reach out to others and just connect and help others. Obviously, you can’t, you’re stressed about your own work, you can’t spend hours and hours helping others. But if there’s some five-minute favors in your inbox, someone asked you for a reference to somebody, or someone asked you for a quick advice, go and do that. And then when you come back, it feeds your courage and your hope to sort of address your own challenges. It helps you move, again, into that challenge response.

So, these are the four. I’ve got a whole worksheet on my website at PutHappinessToWork.com/resources, I’ve got a worksheet that people can just download and it’s great to do when you’re feeling stressed or when you’re doing your planning for the day or the week. Just bring that out and everything that you know is going to stress you, run through the ASPIRE toolset real quick, “How can I shift my mindset? What’s the purpose and the meaning behind this? Let me inventory my resources.” Whichever one works for you, try them out, experiment with it, and then see how you respond and how your stress changes.

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

Eric Karpinski
Yeah, one of the other things I think that is a fun one to do, two of the chapters really need some introspection before you can get value out of them. One of them is really about strengths. And the thing that we need to do there, there’s lots of great strengths assessments. I love CliftonStrengths. It’s a great place to start. The University of Michigan talks about your best self, and you ask 10 people that know you really well for stories of you at your best, and then you harvest that for the things that you’re good at.

But then the important thing that you have to do personally is then think, “Which of these strengths actually energize me when I do them? Which ones give me energy?” And then prioritize those strengths that came out of the assessment, whatever. Feel free to add ones. Like, one of my strengths was, for years, analytical. I’m really good at taking datasets and pulling it out and figuring out what the answer is, but I hate it. It drains me of energy now. I used to love it but now it drains me so I knocked that one off the list and I looked for something else to pop into that top five, and then prioritized those by how much energy they give you when you do them.

And once you’ve got that list, now there’s lots of things you can do with your work, like how you view your work, “How am I actually using this strength that I didn’t even know? Or, what are some things that I can take on that will allow me to use these strengths more?” And that’s magical. That’ll really get you. That provides the energy that really helps us be happier and more engaged all at once.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, thank you. Now, can you share with us a favorite study?

Eric Karpinski
Yeah. So, Harvard Business School, this goes back to the stress stuff I talked about. She did this study where she had a group of students that were going to have to do a last-minute public speaking opportunity. They were going to be recorded and they were going to be evaluated by their peers. And she told one group to say, “I’m calm. I’m calm. I try to calm down this stress and this anxiety. Try to counter it.” So many people think that that’s the right thing to do.

But the other group, she said, “Hey, just tell yourself you’re excited. Yeah, your heart is beating fast, you’re breathing faster. This is excitement, getting ready for it.” And the objective evaluation of that study were incredible, how much better the “I’m excited group” performed. They were more confident, they made their points better, they were fully understood, versus the “I’m calm” group which is kind of going against their biology. They physiology was going, “Ahh, I’m getting up here,” and they’re trying to say, “Calm down. Calm down. I need to calm down,” instead of the excited it goes with what’s happening with the physiology.

And so, that one thing. When you’ve got like an explicit event that’s happening, like you’ve got a difficult conversation coming up, or you’re doing a presentation, or you’ve got something that you’re worried about, hey, when you feel that stress, this is, “I’m excited. I’m excited about this. This is going to help me.” Just that one little switch can change you into that challenge response. So, that’s my favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And how about a favorite tool?

Eric Karpinski
I’m going to go back to the connection meditation, that habit is something that I do regularly, and I want to reinforce that that’s something worth trying even if it sounds a little weird to listeners.

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

Eric Karpinski
So, PutHappinessToWork.com, all one word, is the book website. And so, learn about the book and it’s got all the purchase links there too when you’re ready to buy it. And then my full website is at EricKarpinski.com. And Eric is with a C at the end, and Karpinski starts with a K, K-A-R-P-I-N-S-K-I.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?

Eric Karpinski
Pick one thing and do it now. If there was something, I like to refer to this, when I do talks and when I do podcasts and in the book itself, I like to refer to it as an action buffet. There are literally dozens of tools and ideas in there. Don’t wait till you can do multiple of them. As soon as you find one that sounds interesting, take a little helping. Try it out for a day or two, or a week, never just one day, never just one time. You always got to try it two or three times. And any time you do something new, it’s going to be a little awkward and weird. But after three or four times, hey, if it doesn’t take, that’s okay. Go back to the list and pick something else.

But if it does take, now figure how do you really take a full helping, how do you integrate into your day, how do you make a habit of it. Number one is move to action. Stop just reading, stop just listening, and actually pick one thing. And it only has to be a couple minutes a day but do something, move to action.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Eric, this has been a treat. Thanks so much. I wish you much happiness at work.

Eric Karpinski
Thank you so much. This was fun. Yeah, I appreciate it. This was really good. It was really energizing to talk to you and I love your questions. So, thanks for that.

653: Training Your Mind to Conquer Stress, Pressure, and Underperformance with Dr. Ellen Reed

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Ellen Reed says: "That which you focus on expands."

Dr. Ellen Reed reveals how to build mental toughness by training your brain to be more solution-focused.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biological reason why we underperform 
  2. Three simple questions to your build mental toughness 
  3. How to beat out stress in 60 seconds 

 

About Ellen

Dr. Ellen Reed has been a top performance coach for more than ten years, working with Dr. Jason Selk. In addition to helping others reach high-levels of success, she has a well-established career as a professional dancer. With her background in academia and the performing arts, she helps athletes, students, and business leaders reach their peak performance by developing mental toughness. 

Dr. Reed received her PhD. in experimental psychology, with a focus on memory and cognition, from St. Louis University. 

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Ellen Reed Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ellen, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Ellen Reed
My pleasure. I’m so excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom, talking about Relentless Solution Focus: Train Your Mind to Conquer Stress, Pressure, and Underperformance. I love so many of those words so I think you’re right up our alley. So, maybe, first, could you tee us off with a cool story? So, you and your colleague have been using relentless solution focus to help athletes win Super Bowls, gold medals, national championships. Like, can you tell a cool story with a particular athlete and how this stuff made the difference for them?

Ellen Reed
Yeah. Well, a big part of what I do is helping people perform at their best. Athletes have really kind of this opportunity to kind of show us how these mental tools can play out kind of in their arena.

But, really, what we do on a daily basis, and what the listeners do on a daily basis, is probably so much more important than what the athletes are doing, and these fundamentals were developed by my colleague Dr. Jason Selk. And you’re absolutely right that they were developed originally for athletes and teaching athletes how to focus on the right things, especially when the wrong things want to be swirling through their minds.

So, when a basketball player, is at the free-throw line with one second left, and they’re down by two, all those thoughts that want to swirl through your mind and all that pressure, how do you deal with that?

So, Jason Selk, who is the co-author on our book Relentless Solution Focus, his first book was called 10-Minute Toughness, and it was geared towards athletes. And in this book, he detailed a mental workout for athletes to do to really help train their minds be prepared for high-pressure situations. And people started picking up this book and applying these fundamentals to their own lives, in business, in their relationships, whether it be a business person, a doctor, a stay-at-home mom, and really started to find that these fundamentals, that really helped athletes play to their peak potential, really had almost better results with us regular people.

So, Jason, he started as the director of sports psychology for the St. Louis Cardinals in, I think it was 2006 where they had not won a World Series. I might need to fact-check this but they had not won a World Series in, I think, over 20 years. And the year he started with them, they won the World Series and they won the World Series again, I think, six years later. Again, I may need to fact-check this. I may be a couple years off on this.

And Jason spent, gosh, 20 plus years really studying highly successful people, and studying and paying attention to kind of the common threads that these people that have accomplished great things and people who are happiest in life, “What about them stands out? What about them kind of sets them apart?”

And what he noticed is that it’s really their ability to stay focused on solutions especially in the face of adversity, whether that be an athlete standing at that free-throw line with two seconds left, down by two, being able to keep their mind focused on, “What I need to be doing in this moment to improve or to succeed…” versus, “The pressure is on and we’re down by this much, and all of those thoughts. And I’ve got to make this shot.” All of those thoughts that are really normal that swirl through our minds on a daily basis.

So, relentless solution focus is essentially a method of training our brains to be able to stay focused on solutions and improvements when it’s really normal for us to want to focus on problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so, that sounds very useful and powerful for professionals who… their brains can go, myself included, our brains can go in all kinds of places that might not be super helpful. So, I think, for me, it’s like, “Uh-oh, I feel tired. I feel stressed. I feel overwhelmed. I am annoyed at…” fill in the blank.

So, yeah, there’s all kinds of thoughts going on up in there, and I imagine some are helpful, some are not. So, walk us through it, how do we get our brains to do what we want them to do? And, maybe first, what do we want them to be doing?

Ellen Reed
Right. Right. And I love that example, and I think that those thoughts that you’re kind of talking about that are normal for you, I think we can all really relate to. How many times do you wake up and think, “Oh, I’m so tired”? And then it’s easy to carry that into the next hour, and, “Gosh, I’m so tired today. I’m so tired today. I’m so tired today.” Right? And the more we focus on things, the bigger they get in our minds.

There’s a theory called expectancy theory that states that that which we focus on expands. And those examples that you just gave are such a great testament to that. When you focus on the fact that you’re tired, and when you focus on the fact that you’re annoyed by something that your spouse has done, those things get bigger in our minds.

And when you pair that with this what’s called problem-centric thought, where it’s normal for our brains to focus on problems first and foremost. We’re built this way. This is part of our DNA. And if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it was really important that we were very quickly able to pinpoint and recognize the problems and threats and shortcomings in our environments and so that problem-centric thought was really essential to our survival.

But, now, statistically, this is the safest time to be alive. Even with everything going on in the world right now with COVID, it’s still the safest time to be alive. And so, this problem-centric thought that really set us up well years and years and years and years and years ago, now really just causes us to underperform, it causes us undue stress, it’s unhealthy for us. And so, how do we get around that? That’s your question. What do we do? Because we know that we’re wired to focus on problems, and we also know that the more we focus on problems, the bigger they get.

And so, relentless solution focus is essentially a concrete method of training your brain to become abnormal. Mental toughness really is abnormal because it’s normal to be driving home from work, and having done 99 things right that day and one thing less than perfect, but then on that drive home from work, you’re focused on that one imperfection. That’s normal.

What’s abnormal is to be driving home from work and thinking, “Hey, what’s one thing I want to do that’s a little bit better tomorrow?” or, “What three things did I do well today?” Can you imagine how great life would be if that was what you were thinking on your way home from work instead of hampering on that one imperfection?

And so, the point is that this requires training because it’s not going to happen for most of us naturally. Everyone once in a while I think there’s somebody that’s kind of born with this amazing mental toughness and this amazing kind of uncanny ability to stay focused on solutions. I certainly was not one of those few that was born with it. For the rest of us, we can learn to be solution-focused. And RSF, relentless solution focus, is the polar opposite of that PCT.

So, the training aspect of this is critical. And we have a couple of tools outlined in the book, and I’d love to be able to teach everybody at least one of the tools today. And this tool that I’d love to teach everybody is called “the success log.” The success log is composed of, for our purposes, three questions. In the book, it’s a little bit extended because we talk about some goal-setting in there, but for our purposes, if you can get a start on these three questions, you’re going to experience some really dramatic results.

And that first question, just ask you, “What three things did I do well today? What three things did I do well in the last 24 hours?” So, it’s forcing your brain to think about and focus on some of the little things you’ve done well when, remember, your brain wants to be focused on what you feel like you screwed up that day. So, that’s the first question.

And the second question is, “What’s one thing I want to improve tomorrow? What’s one thing I want to improve in the next 24 hours?” So, keeping your focus on making small incremental improvements instead of, “Hey, what did I screw up today?” Again, that’s where our brain wants to go.

And then the third question is, “What’s one thing I can do that could help make that improvement? What’s one thing I can do that can help make that improvement?” So, let’s say that today you got really behind on emails, and so the one thing you want to improve tomorrow is you want to catch up, you want to clean out your inbox, you want to catch up on emails. That’s where most people stop. And most people are pretty good at identifying, “Hey, what do I want to do better or what do I want to improve the next day?” but most people won’t take this critical next step to identify something concrete you can do to bring about that improvement.

So, then you might say, if the improvement you want to make is to clean out your inbox, “What’s one thing I can do that could help make that improvement?” Maybe you say, “Okay, I’m going to block out from 10:00 to 10:30 on my calendar to go through emails,” or, “I’m going to set my alarm for five minutes earlier so I can get into the office five minutes earlier and work through emails.” It doesn’t matter so much what you come up with to make these improvements. What matters and what’s important is that you’re training your brain to be searching for improvements.

And you’re really taking advantage of the brain’s ability to change and mold itself through training. It’s called neuroplasticity. You probably learned about it in school, and it’s really important. And I think anyone that thinks, “I’m just not motivated,” or, “I’m just not a morning person,” or, “I’m just not good at math,” or, “I’m just not…” you fill in the blank. We’re really good at labeling ourselves as lacking certain things. But you’re failing to recognize that you have the ability to change your brain through training. What fires together, wires together.

So, using the success log and filling out that success log on a daily basis, starts to cause those positive thoughts and those productive courses of thoughts to wire together. So, it’s a really, really useful tool that I would encourage everybody listening to this, just try to answer those three questions three, four times a week, and you don’t need to spend more than a minute or two on it.

Pete Mockaitis
And for three things I’ve done well, I guess that’s interesting. As we talk about being positive and journaling, I’m thinking about gratitude. Three things I’ve done well is a different prompt than three things I’m grateful for. Can you maybe give us some examples? Because I guess there could be a Venn diagram overlap there, like some things are both.

Ellen Reed
Yes, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
But others are uniquely…So, I’ll just put you on the spot, Ellen, can we hear your success log from today or yesterday?

Ellen Reed
So, how about I’ll do my success log for today right now?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Ellen Reed
Because usually I would do it about the end of the day and it’s about that time. So, three things I did well today. I snuggled with my boys this morning for a little bit of extra time before we all got ready and went off to school and work. I sent out an email to someone that I wanted to follow up with about getting their thoughts on the book. And, number three, I got my headphones ready for this podcast today.

And one thing I want to improve tomorrow, let’s see, I want to make sure that I get my mental workout done before I go to rehearsals. So, today, I was a little bit late getting out the door and so I had to do my mental workout kind of lunch break but I want to make sure I can get it done before rehearsal. And the one thing I can do to make that improvement is I’m going to write myself a Post-It note and I’m going to stick it on my dashboard to say, “Don’t leave before doing your mental workout.” And I’m going to get it done in the car on my way to rehearsal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Ellen Reed
So, that took what? About 45 seconds?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s quick.

Ellen Reed
And let me go back to your point and your question about kind of the three things I’m grateful for versus three things I’ve done well. I think if you’re in the habit of, every day, identifying three things you’re grateful for, I think that’s awesome, and I would absolutely keep doing that. I think that’s awesome. I think that really promotes that positive thinking and I think that’s really important for our soul.

Now, there’s an added element to the success log that I think is really important that I want to talk about, and that is developing self-confidence. Now, self-confidence, scientifically-speaking, is the number one variable for performance. It’s the number one variable for performance. So, empirically-speaking, there is nothing you can do that’s more important for affecting your performance than developing your self-confidence.

Now, remember, PCT, problem-centric thought, we’re really good at honing in on our imperfections or where we feel like we fall short, which is a disaster for our self-confidence. And so, if you can get in the habit every day of identifying just three things you did well, three little things you did well, search for the small. I spent like five or ten minutes, snuggling with my boys this morning, when it’s really easy for me to be kind of rushing around in the morning to get out the door. They don’t have to be huge. But identifying the little things you’re doing well on a consistent basis really promotes that self-confidence.

And I think it’s easy to blow this off and it’s easy to kind of shrug it off as being kind of soft. It doesn’t necessarily sound very tough to take that time to develop your self-confidence but I want to be really clear that there’s really nothing more mentally tough than being able to identify some things you’ve done well when you’ve just lost a game, or when you’ve just lost a deal, or when you’ve had a bad day at work. That is mental toughness. It’s being able to get your mind focused on what you’re doing well and what you want to improve because that’s going to make you perform better in the future. Being hard on ourselves and really beating ourselves up for mistakes is a big, big factor in people underperforming to their potential.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious then, when we talk about three things I’ve done well, should we kind of keep it broad, like in any and all domains of life?

Ellen Reed
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, is it preferable to focus it in terms of one thing or another?

Ellen Reed
Right, that’s a good question. And the best option is to just get it done instead of trying to get it done perfectly. And I think it’s a really important thing to point out is that you don’t have to do these success logs perfectly. Getting them done is so much more important than getting them done perfectly.

If, one day, you’re sitting there for two minutes trying to come up with something you want to improve for the next day, just stop and put it away and then come back and start a new success log the next day. It’s the consistency of forcing your thoughts onto what you’re doing well, and forcing your thoughts on searching for improvements that really works to rewire the brain. Remember, that’s the key here. That’s the key is working on re-training, rewiring the way our neurons are firing together.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s one approach. Boy, there’s so much I want to ask about. Okay, maybe we’ll hit this. You say it’s key to remember 60 seconds. What do you mean by that?

Ellen Reed
Yes. Yes. Okay, great question. So, what we talk about is you want to really recognize that you’re focused on a problem and be able to come up with a potential solution within 60 seconds. And why this is so crucial, it’s so important to understand the biology behind it. I won’t bore you guys with a ton of the details of the biology behind it but I think it’s important to understand a little bit of it so you really understand why this is so important and why this is so effective.

So, when you are faced with a problem, or when you’re faced with kind of thinking about something that you messed up or something that you feel like you’re lacking in life, that sends a message to your body to feel a certain way, to experience negative emotion. And I want you to think of negative emotion as really a wonderful gift, a gift that tells you what you’re focused on because you don’t feel anything without your brain telling you to. Your body does not feel any emotion without your brain telling you how to feel.

So, if I’m focused on a problem in my life, I’m going to feel like garbage, right? I’m going to feel stress, I’m going to feel frustrated, I’m going to feel nervous, I’m going to feel worried. Whatever it is, whatever that feeling is, you’re going to feel like garbage, and that is your signal that your brain is focused on a problem.

Now, what happens when we’re focused on a problem and when we’re feeling these negative emotions is that our brain sends a message to our body to release cortisol, the stress hormone. And we’re all probably a little bit familiar with the effects of cortisol. Now, in small doses, cortisol is actually helpful for performance, it kind of gets us going.

But, now, people are walking around with really elevated levels of cortisol because of this problem-centric thought. And even at moderate doses, cortisol really wreaks havoc on our health and on our happiness. It causes us to feel like garbage but it really increases our propensity for a lot of diseases, it limits our creativity, it significantly limits our intelligence.

And, again, because of this problem-centric thought that, evolutionarily-speaking, doesn’t really do much for us anymore. Our cortisol levels, for most normal people, are really elevated to the point where it’s creating a lot of unhealthy people and a lot of miserable people. And so, being able to recognize that you’re focused on a problem, within 60 seconds gets you ahead of that cortisol release.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Ellen Reed
And so, this is why that 60 seconds is so important. Now, let me tell you though what you do within that 60 seconds because I think it’s easy to say, “Oh, just recognize you’re focused on a problem and start thinking about solutions,” right? We all probably know that it’s good to think about solutions and that it’s good to be positive and it’s good to be optimistic, but I think people have a harder time with understanding how to do that because we haven’t really been taught how to do that.

And so, I challenge everybody out there to write this down. Write down this question, it’s called the RSF tool, the relentless solution focus tool, and the RSF tool is a question. The question is, “What is one thing I can do that could make this better?” So, when you catch yourself focused on a problem, when you catch yourself feeling any negative emotion whatsoever, you’re feeling stressed, that’s your cue that you’re focused on a problem, and that’s your signal to ask yourself, “What’s one thing I can do that could make this better?” You ask and answer that question within 60 seconds and you’ve just beat that cortisol release.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s cool. And so then, I’m curious, Ellen, not to be a downer or super difficult, but what happens when there’s just not a solution?

Ellen Reed
Great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, your parents are dying of a degenerative illness, etc. Like, it just sucks and there’s not much you can do, but you feel lousy because your environment sucks. What do you recommend we do there?

Ellen Reed
Yeah, that’s a great question. And we’ve got to redefine the way we think of solutions. Okay? So, I think kind of the traditional definition of solution is complete resolution to the problem, right? But it’s really important that we’re really clear about how we define solution. And the way we define solution is any improvement whatsoever to the current situation even if that means improving the way you deal with the situation.

So, I think that’s a great example that a lot of people are going through. I work with, in my other life, I’m a professional dancer so I spend the first half of my day in dance class and rehearsals, and then the second half of my day coaching others. Our outreach for the dance company is in senior living facilities.

We do a little performance, we’re not doing them now, obviously, because of COVID, which has been really sad, but we go into a lot of memory care units with older adults who have dementia or Alzheimer’s, and we do like a little 45-minute show, and we use music that’s from their era, and it’s just amazing to see a lot of these residents who their caregivers will tell us, “Gosh, this person hasn’t spoken in a week, and after the performance we couldn’t get them to stop talking.”

Or, we’ll go up to the residents afterwards and try to talk to them for a little bit, and they’ll tell us about, “Oh, that reminds me of my grandchildren who I used to go to their dance recitals. And my husband and I used to go dancing all the time.” It conjures up all these emotions and these memories, and it’s really amazing to see.

Now, I completely got off on a tangent there, but I think the point that I want to make with this is that we’ve got to search for anything we can do to improve our situation. And maybe, in your specific example, maybe there is nothing we can do with a parent who is, let’s say, suffering from Alzheimer’s. But what’s one thing you can do to make their day a little bit better? Or, what’s one thing you can do to help yourself emotionally deal with watching them and caring for them?

And this isn’t a one-time question that you answer. This is something that you have to be relentless about. You may ask yourself this question 50,000 times a day. Just because you come up with one answer to the question doesn’t mean that that’s going to solve your problem, right? We’re searching for the small, we’re searching for anything we can do that will improve our current situation or improve the way we’re able to deal with the situation by one, because remember expectancy theory. That which you focus on expands.

And when you’re focused on all the sadness, that’s a really, really hard thing to watch someone that you love go through dementia or Alzheimer’s, and that can really consume a person to watch that. But when you search for the small, kind of going back to what you said, you search for what you’re grateful for, those moments of seeing that spark, or thinking about the memories, or whatever it is that turns your focus onto something positive.

Again, go back to the biology of it. You can get ahead of that cortisol release and you can prevent yourself from going down what we call the PCT tornado where you get going on a negative train of thought in a problem-centric thinking and it becomes really hard to climb out of. But as soon as you can turn that around, and the one thing you can do that can make this minute a little bit better, or make this minute a little bit better for someone else, you’ve stopped that tornado from going down and you can start that momentum going in the other direction.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to get your take, Ellen, if there’s any skeptics in the house. We had a couple guests just very fond of the poem by Rumi about “The Guest House,” I don’t think I can recite it, but about the notion that each of our emotions is a guest which has something valuable to offer, and we should allow them to enter and remain until they exit. Or, others have said, you said that which we focus on expands.

Ellen Reed
Expands.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve also heard it said, “That which we resist persists.” So, how do we reconcile or work with the idea of avoidance or running away from negative feelings and how does that square with what we talk about here?

Ellen Reed
Okay. I love that you asked because I think probably a lot of other people are thinking the same thing. And one thing that’s important to understand is that this isn’t about running from your emotions, or resisting your emotions, or turning a blind eye to the problems in your life. It’s about being able to get to solutions faster. And, really, it’s about being able to look at your problems with much more accurately focused lenses.

It’s important to recognize our emotions, and I think people have become so afraid of negative emotion. We do everything to try to avoid negative emotion. We run from it. We take medicine to not have to feel negative emotion when, really, again, negative emotion is given to us as a gift and we need to be able to recognize why we’re experiencing these emotions so that we can start to get to work on it, start to move in the direction of, “What can I do to make this better?”

Because what happens is that we get so consumed with the problem that, oftentimes, we don’t even get to the solution. pick up any newspaper, or watch any news show, and you just see how focused the world is on problems, and it is so important to be able to recognize the problem. And, in fact, we have, in the Relentless Solution Focus book, we have this broken up into three steps. Three steps to developing this relentless solution focus.

And the first step is to recognize. You’ve got to recognize when you’re focused on a problem because, a lot of times, people will feel a negative emotion and then they’ll try to put a Band-Aid over it, or try to, like you said, kind of resist it, and, meanwhile, this problem is still swirling around in their minds but they haven’t done anything to be able to move forward with it or figure out what to do about it.

And so, that first step is to recognize that negative emotion because, remember, negative emotion is there to tell us that we’re focused on something that we can’t control or we’re focused on a problem. And so, it’s so much more efficient to focus on what you can control or to focus on the solution by asking yourself, “What’s one thing I can do to make this better?”

If everybody in our world right now was asking themselves, “What’s one thing I can do that can make this a little bit better?” just imagine what kind of a world that would be, and we can do it. We can train ourselves to think like that even though it’s normal to want to really get consumed with the problems and spend so much time focused on the problem that we never take that step towards a solution. We can learn to do that. We can learn to become more solution-focused.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, you mentioned the mental workout a couple times. Have we covered that or is that something else we should talk about?

Ellen Reed
So, that’s something else, that’s something else. That’s another tool that we outlined in the book. So, the first tool, again, was that success log that I told you as three questions. And then the mental workout is a tool that’s designed to help you visualize and keep your focus on what you want out of life, and then to practice in your mind what you need to do on a daily basis in order to get there.

So, in the book, we talk about something called the framework of achievement where we walk the readers through how to develop, basically, a vision for what they want out of life in the long term, what they want out of life in the short term, so within the next year. And that’s really important because you’ve got to know where you want to go or you really have zero percent chance of getting there. And I think so many people kind of avoid this question because it seems like such a big question that they’re afraid to get it wrong, like, “Where do I want to see myself? What do I want out of life?”

But we really challenge people to just get a start on it. Just spend a little bit of time, and we walk you through it really specifically, really concretely, it’s not scary, and just get a start on it. You don’t have to get it perfect but you want to avoid holding pattern at all costs. Get a start on that vision and then modify it along the way. But it’s important that you know where you want to go so that you’re motivated to do the things on a daily basis that are going to get you there.

So, we establish that vision, but then the really important piece of this is establishing what we call the integrity piece of the framework. By the integrity piece of the framework, we mean what it takes on a daily basis in order to achieve that vision. What are the most important daily activities for you to be doing that are going to get you to that vision in the short term and then in the long term?

So, for example, let’s say you’re in sales and your goal is to increase your sales from a million to 1.1 million in the next fiscal year. And you’ve identified that the most important thing for you to do on a daily basis that’s going to put you in the best possible position to achieve that is to make ten prospect phone calls every day.

So, what you’re going to do in your mental workout is you’re going to visualize who you want to be and what you want your life to be in the long term, so three to five years down the road, but then you’re going to visualize yourself doing those things that you need to be doing in the upcoming day in order to get there. So, you’re going to practice and rehearse and visualize making those prospect phone calls, or putting in the effort and with the intensity that you want and that you need to achieve what you want to achieve.

So, it’s really a targeted mental tool that helps you practice what you want out of life and prepares you for what you need to be doing in order to get there.

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

Ellen Reed
One of my favorite quotes is by Coach John Wooden. And John Wooden is one of the winningest coaches of all time, one of the quotes that really sticks with us, and we talk a lot about in our coaching, is that, “It’s the little things done well on a consistent basis that cause greatness.”

I think most of us know what we should be doing on a daily basis that’s going to put us in a great position to get to where we want to go, but we have a hard time executing those most important things.

And let me give you one more quote because I think this is a good one in conjunction with Coach Wooden’s quote. And this is a quote from Jason Selk’s, one of his books, I think it’s Executive Toughness, where he says that, “Highly successful people never get everything done in a day but they always get the most important things done each and every day.” So, you don’t have to get everything done in a day but you’ve got to get the most important things done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share with us a favorite book?

Ellen Reed
This is probably not what you would expect me to say but I love interior design and organizing and all of this stuff, and there’s a book called The Home Edit, and they’re actually a company and they do organizing, and they’re kind of taking the world by storm right now, The Home Edit, and they basically teach you how to organize. They teach you how to organize your drawers, your closet, your garage.

But when I go through this book and I look at all of their amazing, beautiful, inspiring pictures of these beautifully organized drawers and closets, it just reminds me in kind of a strange way of what we try to do for our clients. And they basically teach you how to get rid of all the stuff that doesn’t serve you, get rid of all the noise, get rid of all the extra stuff that we don’t need and that holds us back, and really prioritize what’s important, and make sure you have it prioritized and organized in a way that you can execute it and that it’s functional for you.

And so, I know it’s kind of a weird response.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, that’s beautiful. I think it’s a great book.

Ellen Reed
But I love that book and I love kind of what it represents for people’s lives, and I think it’s like a different way of packaging kind of exactly what we do for our clients.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with clients; you hear them quote it back to you frequently?

Ellen Reed
I think it’s probably, I would say, the importance of self-confidence. I think that’s where everybody that we worked with, one of the first things that we are going to teach them is a success log.

And the beauty of it, and this is what, again, really kind of drew me to Jason’s fundamentals and Jason’s perspective is that it’s so simple.

And one of the simplest things you can do is to really start working on your self-confidence through the success log. And so, I think the nugget that probably comes back the most is, “Gosh, the success log is really making a difference and it really affects the way I go throughout the rest of my day.” And just taking that one or two minutes to identify what I’m doing well and what do I want to improve, really fuels so much performance and success and happiness in people.

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

Ellen Reed
Well, you can go to RelentlessSolutionFocus.com and that’ll take you to some really great resources. There’s also more information about Jason and myself at JasonSelk.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?

Ellen Reed
My challenge would be to pick one thing from this that maybe stuck with you. Maybe it was the success log or maybe it was that RSF tool, “What’s one thing I can do that could make this better?” and pick one thing and work on starting to implement that one thing. Don’t try to do it all. Pick one thing, whether it be the success log, or that RSF tool, or something else that you heard that maybe resonated with you. But try to just start implementing that one thing with consistency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Ellen, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you lots of luck in your dancing and your coaching adventures.

Ellen Reed
Thank you. It was so fun to be here.

652: The Nine Mindset Shifts for Your Best Preparation and Performance with Brian Levenson

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Brian Levenson says: "We all need to stay curious so that we earn the right to be convicted."

Brian Levenson shares the key mental shifts that elite athletes use to prepare and perform at the highest levels–and work for professionals too!

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to get into the elite performer mindsets
  2. When it pays to be arrogant
  3. The visualization hack used by elite athletes

 

About Brian

Brian Levenson is the founder of Strong Skills, which provides executive coaching and mental performance coaching, speaking and consulting to elite organizations, performers and leaders. He has been fortunate to work with CEO’s, professional athletes and with teams in the NBA, NHL, and MLS, Division 1 athletic departments, the Federal Reserve, the Department of Homeland Security, Hilton, Disney, Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and many other organizations. 

Brian has a weekly podcast, Intentional Performers, where he interviews a diverse group of elite high performers. Brian has a weekly newsletter called Brian’s Message of the Week, which shares articles, videos, podcasts, and information to subscribers. Brian also created an assessment tool called the Self Belief Inventory which is used by elite athletes, executives, and organizations. His book, Shift Your Mind, was released in October of 2020.

Brian currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and two kids.

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Brian Levenson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brian, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brian Levenson
Thanks for having me, Pete. Excited to chat with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited too, and so, we’re going to be talking about your book Shift Your Mind: 9 Mental Shifts to Thrive in Preparation and Performance. And so, I think you’ve got such a great idea that you’ve captured here. Maybe, why don’t we kick it off by hearing a little bit about the behind-the-scenes research in terms of is there a particularly surprising or fascinating discovery you made while researching this stuff?

Brian Levenson
For sure. So, I work as a mental performance coach and an executive coach but most of my career, before what I’m doing today, has been with athletes and working with athletes so I really cut my teeth in coaching people with mental performance for athletes. And as I started to work with these athletes, some are golfers, some are basketball players, baseball, you name it, I would notice that their mindset for preparation was very different than their mindset for performance. And there were many times where they were bringing their mindset for preparation into their mindset for performance.

So, we just started putting a line down a piece of paper and saying, “Hey, what do you need in preparation and what do you need in performance?” What we started to realize was that they were very different mindsets and often they were actually opposites. So, the preparation mind and performance mind, they weren’t just different. They were often like very, very polar and sort of had polarity in them.

And then as I started to study more and more elite performers and I’d watched documentaries and I’d study the great performers in music or in comedy or in sports, I would notice this trend that many of them, not even consciously, but they would actually set their mind for preparation and set their mind for performance. And then I did a deep, deep dive and took about four years to write the book formally but spent much more time thinking about this framework and using it with my clients as well. So, that’s sort of the background of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, that’s a cool big idea there. So, the preparation mindset is different than the performance mindset, and we’ve got some nine particular distinctions we’re going to dig into shortly. But when you said you noticed some of your clients, they were in performance but some of the preparation stuff was getting in there, is that a bad thing? How do we think about that? Is it fine or do we want there to be a really crisp line between them? And what difference does that make?

Brian Levenson
I think what I started to notice, even with the pro athletes that I worked with, that many of them would bring their preparation mind into their performance and it would get in the way. So, for example, perfectionism. It would really help them to drill down on what they needed to do, how they needed to do it, as they were training their body, or they were training their technique, or they’re training their mind, yet when they got between the lines and they needed to execute and compete, they actually needed to be adaptable.

So, we’ve seen performers and, for your audience, I’m sure a lot of them have been in meetings or have been in sales calls, and what they need to do to prepare for that meeting, it might be perfectionistic, but when they get into that meeting, it might be completely different than how they imagined or how they planned, and they have to be adaptable. And if they try to perfect it, it will really get in the way of their performance.

And if we just go from a macro level and zoom out a little bit, we’re recording this in the middle of a pandemic, like there’s no perfecting a pandemic. Some people might try to perfect it but you have to be agile, you have to be adaptable. So, really, the ethos and the thesis behind the book is that what we think dictates when and how far we’re going to go and what we’re capable of when it’s time to deliver. And a lot of times we just tell people to be humble or be selfless and we don’t really think about the when.

And so, I saw with my clients in sports, and then, as I said, I do a lot of executive coaching now, my clients in business, whether they’re directors or VPs or at the C-suite level, they often need to shift their mind in preparation and performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you’re saying, “Hey, be humble, be selfless,” you’re saying, “Well, no, there’s a time you want to be humble and there’s a time where you just want to be the opposite of humble, and there’s a time when you want to be selfless and then there’s a time just want to be just the opposite of selfless, and match it up right,” is what you’re saying.

Brian Levenson
Pete, have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs or any those personality assessments?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Brian Levenson
Like, on one hand, I love them and on the other hand, I hate them. And it’s a love-hate relationship because I love data and learning more about myself, and that part I love, but I hate being put into this box, and I read it and I’m like, “Well, sometimes I’m like that and sometimes I’m not.” Like, let’s take introversion and extroversion, for example. I’m like, “Well, sometimes I’m very extroverted and sometimes I’m very introverted.”

Now, I don’t go into introvert and extrovert in the book, but I just really believe in the power of polarity, and I think when is so important when you’re talking about performance, and how you’re going to prepare, and when you need to bring out a part of you that might be more humble, and when do you need to bring out a part of you that might be more arrogant. And I think that when really dictates how far we’re going to go.

Pete Mockaitis
As you speak, I’m thinking about times I’ve been particularly humble and particularly arrogant, and I hope I matched it up appropriately.

Brian Levenson
Yeah, because if you don’t, it’s a disaster, right? It’s a disaster. If you’re arrogant at the wrong time, first of all, you seem like a jerk, and then, second of all, like that’s probably a time when you needed to learn and grow and develop, and I think about young people, for example. I know a lot of your listeners might be in their 30s, I’m in my 30s. I felt throughout my career that I’m often the youngest person in the room.

This morning I was on a board call for a nonprofit, and I was like the youngest person in the room. And I think sometimes when we’re the youngest person in the room, we feel like we have to overshare, add value, like bring something bigger to the room to compensate, perhaps, for our inexperience, or, perhaps we feel like an impostor. And I found actually it’s the exact opposite, like we need to be aware of what room we’re in, how we can add value to that room, while also understanding there’s a time to learn and grow and develop, and then there’s another time to share with conviction. And figuring out when you do those is essential.

Look, I have a podcast. My job as a podcast host is to ask questions and be very curious and learn, learn, learn. And then when I put on this hat, and you’re asking me questions, I need to share and I need to be willing to share everything that I’ve learned.

Pete Mockaitis
And you nailed that, and I’ve noticed that when I’ve been a guest on other podcasts. I just sort of didn’t make the same shift, it’s like, hey, I’m comfy, I’m behind the mic, and so I’m just sort of curious, like, “I don’t know. Well, you know, I think I would say…” And it’s like that’s not what people want when you’re the guest, like, “No, I’d actually like for you to be confident and have the answers that you’ve thought through and establish your best thinking on as opposed to just kind of, ‘Huh, I’m just thinking out loud.’” I mean, some shows you might want to do that but I noticed that was a pause I had, is that, “Oh, I would say…” it’s like, “No, Pete, you’ve actually thought about this for many hours and you’re not just making it up on the spot, and you don’t want to convey that as a guest.” So, hey, I guess humble and arrogant right there.

Brian Levenson
Yeah, Pete, let’s use curiosity because I know you are a very curious person. You’ve done hundreds of these episodes, a lot of episodes. You don’t get to, where are you at, like 800, how many episodes have you done?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, 650-ish.

Brian Levenson
Six hundred fifty, right? Like, you don’t record that many episodes without curiosity. You’re trying to learn, you’re trying to grow, you’re trying to develop, and there’s a time to have conviction in them, there’s a time to share your ideas and whatever you’ve learned along your way. Actually, I think about humble and arrogant because we’re often told just to be humble, and we’ve all been around that guy or gal who was just trying to be modest, and they’re saying, “Oh, I’m just humble,” and we’re saying, “You’re actually really not but you say you are.”

And, actually, what we need right now from our leader is not someone who is going to be humble. Right now, we need you to give us direction. Right now, we need you to give us some answers and some solutions. There was actually an interesting study that was in the Harvard Business Review that talked about when being a humble leader backfires, and it can backfire. And I’m not saying I don’t want people to be humble. Trust me, I love humility as a value and as a trait, but I just don’t think you need it all the time. And so, understanding when we tap into these different sides of ourselves is really key.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, actually, I have not read that article. When does being a humble leader backfire?

Brian Levenson
When people are looking for answers.

Pete Mockaitis
And when answers are like, “Well, hey, you know what? We’re going to explore, we’ve going to engage, we’re going to listen, we’re going to do our research, we’re going to see where the science leads.” Like, “Give me the answers.”

Brian Levenson
For sure. There are times when team members are expecting leaders to be powerful and expecting them to say, “You know what, let’s go forth. Let’s do this. Let’s maybe be a little fearless.” And in those moments, if you’re being fearful, or you’re being humble, or you’re being too careful, or you’re being too cautious, or you’re asking too many questions in the room, there does come a time where leadership requires us to step into something and take a risk.

And if you’re just going to be humble and look for a meritocracy or look for everybody to have a say, you might actually not be leading. And so, I think there are absolutely times where leaders need to step away from humility and, trust me, there are plenty of times we need to step away from arrogance. I’ve worked for arrogant bosses before and that’s not a fun experience either.

So, the book is really about the power of and, the power of when, the power of polarity. And beyond the book, I use this just like a framework for how I operate with most of the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lay it on us. We talk about humble versus arrogant, so we got nine shifts or continua or polarities. Tell us, how should I be thinking about these in terms of like an axis, or a continuum, or a polarity, or a shift? And what are the nine specific shifts?

Brian Levenson
So, I think there are nine shifts and I don’t think they are the nine. And when we were thinking about the book cover and the title, I pushed back on the publisher, I was like, “I don’t want there to be the nine.” So, we settled on nine, I sort of met them halfway. And the reason for that is I don’t believe that these are nine shifts that everybody should use. They might have different jobs and different requirements, and these are the nine that were the most compelling, they were the most backed by research and backed by anecdotal evidence, and that I saw also with my clients.

So, we have humble and arrogant, we have work and play, we have analysis and instinct, perfectionistic and adaptable, experiment and trust in process, and comfortable and uncomfortable, future and present, fear and fearless, and selfish and selfless. But there are many other shifts that we cut out of the book. I’m just big on truth telling and these are the nine that we settled on that would be most impactful for the reader. But I hope that people finish reading the book and think, “Wow, there’s actually a different shift that I need to make that’s actually not listed in the book.” That, to me, would be a sign of success.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, with those nine pairs, the first word is generally associated with the vibe we’re going for within preparation, like, “I want to be humble. I want to have some fear. I want to be perfectionistic, etc. while I’m prepping.” And so, that might be with, “I’m writing the speech,” “I’m rehearsing the speech,” “I am practicing basketball,” “I’m rehearsing the instrument,” “I’m thinking through the plan.” That’s what preparation feels like versus performances. It’s like, “All eyes are on you and it’s time to dazzle.” Is that a fair encapsulation there?

Brian Levenson
Yeah, there’s three distinctions that I would make just so we all have clarity and we’re all speaking the same language. So, for me, preparation is the action or process of making ourselves ready and competent. It involves learning, growing, developing, improving. It’s about being ready and, hopefully, working on our competence. Performance is much more about execution. It’s about the execution of actions that will be evaluated in some way, so I do think there is judgment, there is evaluation involved when we are performing. But, at the end of the day, a performance is about execution.

And then there’s a third distinction that I do think is important to point out which is practice. So, practice, to me, is actually a combination of both the preparation mind and the performance mind. Because a great practice will be an action of working at something repeatedly so that we become more proficient. So, the argument is the book is that you need to become proficient at both the preparation mind and the performance mind so you need to practice both of these.

You mentioned getting ready for a speech. Yes, we need to practice what it’s like to be in front of an audience whether that’s our family, or our dog, or our friends, like, let’s actually practice. Dogs are probably a little harder to be judged because they’re probably just going to bark at you and run out. But try to find ways to practice your performance so that you can feel what it’s like to be evaluated and to be judged.

And then there’s also that time where you’re away on your own, working on your material, really making sure you’re perfecting your craft, and you’re taking care of everything you need to take care of so that you’re learning, you’re growing, you’re developing. And so, we need both the execution and the learning and growing if we want to be effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then can we say a few more words about each of the nine shifts? Not the nine, but nine. And so, we talked about humble versus arrogant. In terms of humble, hey, we’re learning, we’re growing, we’re curious during preparation. And we’re arrogant, like, “Confidently, this is the point of view that I’ve settled on and that could be compelling.” So, lay it on us some of the others here.

Brian Levenson
Sure. And before we move on from arrogant, I know arrogant triggers people and it gets them up in a roar often. And there’s a reason we used arrogant instead of confident, and it’s because we believe that it takes confidence to be humble. If you’re truly humble, it actually is an act of confidence. It’s a belief in yourself that you can learn and you can grow. For us, arrogance is this exaggerated sense of your own abilities.

And I think anybody who’s done great things in this world has to exaggerate what they believe in, and a lot of times our society will say that they can’t do what they think that they can do. So, I think there does need to be arrogance. And I, also, would argue that our society prefers humility. It prefers the person that says, “No, I can’t do that,” or, “Let me take a step back.” And it’s often the people that are willing to dare greatly and to go for it, and say, “You know what, I think I can do this,” and it’s way safer to just stay humble. It’s way safer to stay humble than to go into this space to say, “No, I believe I can do it even if society is saying we can’t.”

So, I’d like to make sure that people understand how I think about arrogance because, once again, I think we’ve all seen arrogance run amuck and it can really backfire when it does.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very well said in terms of when maybe naysayers, like I guess I’m thinking there’s a point early on in the podcast, it’s like, “Wow, this is a lot of work and I need help, yet I don’t have much revenue or budget. What can I do? Surely, there must be exceptionally talented English-speaking people in developing nations I can hire to help out with this.” And some say, “That’s a really bad idea, Pete.” Like, “Hey, maybe data entry is something they can handle.” First of all, I thought that was a little bit, I think, maybe conceited. I thought that was a little bit of an attitude.

And, secondly, I thought, “You know what, I’m looking at English newspapers in other countries that are excellent, have excellent writing so I think this can be done.” And so, in a way, I was arrogant in that I defied the conventional wisdom of the podcast Facebook groups and such, but it totally worked out. They’ve been amazing. I love you, guys. So, yeah, that’s a better spin on arrogant. I like that.

Brian Levenson
We talk about curiosity because I think we both really value curiosity. And I love curiosity for preparation and I need to be curious. And it sounds like, “Okay, I’m curious. What is possible out there?” And then there needs to be a time to be convicted. And that conviction is often greeted or birthed from your curiosity. So, I think the arrogance in performance, if done right, will be birthed from humility and preparation.

So, done right, a lot of these shifts will actually serve the other shifts because if you’re just arrogant all the time, you’re going to miss the opportunity, you probably are thinking, “I’ll just do it all myself. I don’t even need help. Like, I’m good.” But the humility to say, “Hey, I need help if I want to get this to where I want to get it to.” You needed that and it allows you to be convicted when it’s time to execute and pull the trigger on something.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. And there’s humility in terms of, “Hey, you know what, I’ve tried it. So far, it hasn’t quite worked. Is this even possible?” I guess one way we all learn is by asking some opinions. Another way I’ll learn is to see, “Is it being done anywhere on this Earth?” Like, “Does that thing exist?” And so then, in that humility, this is why I like this idea, Brian, humility does lead to arrogance in terms of I had a period in which I was wide open to learning and exploring and seeing what was what, and being willing to be wrong. And then after having accumulated a lot of research, I’m like, “Well, holy crap, this is totally possible. I’m going for it even if people say I’m nuts.”

Brian Levenson
Like, we all have these things that are holding us back in some regard, and we’re very quick to share with others why they shouldn’t do something perhaps because we haven’t gone and done that thing as well. And so, I’m an idea guy, and I can tell you when you’re an idea guy and you share your ideas with others, the first thing they’re going to go to, most people, is why it won’t work. And I think it’s often their own stuff coming up as to why it won’t work. Sometimes it’s really good feedback and I know you care a lot about feedback, and, trust me, I do.

This will actually dovetail nicely into some of your shifts, which was your original question. Analysis and experimenting are two preparation mindsets that you’re even talking about. Like, “I ran the analysis. I tried to figure out, all right, what else is out there. I experimented. I tinkered.” And when you do the analysis, that’s when you can trust your gut. That’s when you can rely on instinct. I almost think of analysis as a mind experience. It is, “Hey, what am I thinking? How am I thinking it?” And then instinct is more of a body experience. And so, there is a time where we do need to go to the gut instead of the head.

And then I think experimenting is no different. We need to test. We need to try things. We need to try to discover. You said, “I need to see the possibilities. What’s out there? I need to experiment,” so that you can then trust your process and have an unquestioning belief and resolve in your process and the systems in which you set it up. And, for me, this is always a back-and-forth so we don’t always just stay in trust and process. We want to evolve, we want to get better, we want to experiment, we want to tinker, and keep improving.

And when the lights are on and you’re interviewing me, now is not the time for you to tinker with your process. Now is not the time to try to find a new way to do it. It’s about trusting that you’re ready, that you’re competent, and that you can do it. So, those are two other shifts that I’m hearing from you as I hear you talk.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s well said. It’s not the time to experiment. I remember I used to do a fair bit of keynoting on college campuses, and I don’t do much of that anymore, but I remember there is a big conference for fraternity and sorority people. And so, the idea is that if you’re a speaker and you’re keynoting at that conference, you’d just be exposed to like tons of different schools and groups with budget, and so you might be able to book a dozen or two keynotes off of one speech as sort of a promotional thing.

And then I remember someone from the agency said, “You know, I didn’t think it needed to be said but I guess it does that this huge keynote that sells all the gigs for a year is not the time to be experimenting with new material. It’s the time to bring your greatest hits that you know are absolute gold so people will say, ‘Wow, that person was great. Let’s book him on our campus, or let’s book him at our fraternity/sorority convention.” there is a time and a place for the experimenting and then for delivering the goods.

And I think comedians is another great example there because, well, you started the comedians. I’ll let you take it. What’s the story there?

Brian Levenson
Yeah. So, I was actually, as you were telling the story, I was thinking of Chris Rock. And what Chris Rock does is he goes and experiments at a small little club in New Jersey and tests over and over and bombs, and just tries ridiculous stuff so that when he gets to the HBO Special, he can trust his process and let go. And so, I think comedians are great at working on their craft and constantly bombing and experimenting with new material. So, I would bring that back to your situation.

The other story that I share in the book is my own. So, when I was a senior in high school, I was running for vice president of the student body, and I looked over and there were all these people running. And even the advisor, when I turned in my application, she goes, “Why are you running?” I’m like, “What do you mean why am I running?” She said, “You’re never going to win,” which, of course, fueled me to try to do it. And she didn’t know I was the eighth-grade president of my middle school. She didn’t know I had the experience to be in this role.

However, the difference between me and eighth grade when I ran as president was, I wasn’t expected at all. I came in there, I went over my speech over and over and over again, I perfected it, I got feedback. I did all this work and then I delivered a killer speech. And in eighth grade, you do an eighth grade, then you do seventh grade, sixth grade, and I was like standing ovation-type stuff, which is like maybe it’s when I peaked in life was eighth grade, but it was a moment and still people remember my speech, which is crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, I want to hear it right here.

Brian Levenson
Brian “is the bomb” Levenson for president. I may be small but I have tall ideas. Like, I did amazing. And for that senior year, it’s four years later, or five years later, I didn’t prepare at all. And I got on that stage, and I looked over, and I was like, “Shoot, I don’t have this at all.” And so, I just winged it, completely experimented and it was awful. I was terrible and I had no shot.

And I think, similar to the comedian, or similar to anyone who has to give a speech, and we all have to do some form of speaking in our life whether it’s a wedding or a funeral or a board meeting or whatever it might, I really believe that when you prepare and you experiment and you play with all the stuff, that allows you to earn the right to then trust your process and let go of it.

So, Chris Rock is a really good example of somebody who constantly does that. Jerry Seinfeld has an experiment calendar where he marks an X every single day that he creates, and he really just believes that a lot of comedy or writing is constantly experimenting and creating. So, I think Seinfeld and Chris Rock are both good examples.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, there’s a lot of good stuff there in terms of like it is back and forth, so you had a victory. And this is, I don’t know if I made this up, but I’ve experienced it a couple of times and I’ve seen it with others what I call the second-time syndrome, which was you do something great the first time because you’re kind of worried. You’re not quite sure you got it so you put a lot of time and effort, you learn, you grow, you prep, you figure it out, and then you nail it. You’re like, “Okay, I’m awesome at this.”

And then the second time, you don’t do those preparation things because you think, “Well, hey, I was great the first time, so naturally I’m just going to be great the second time.” And the second time is actually way worse than the first time because you sort of overestimated what’s innate versus what’s the hard work and prep that needs to happen.

So, I have suffered from that myself a couple of times as well as others. And your student government example really resonates in that way. It’s that we do need to keep going back and forth here from preparation to performance, and then back to preparation, and then back to performance.

Brian Levenson
Yeah. And, by the way, I lost. I didn’t win.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I just assumed.

Brian Levenson
It did not end well. My friend, Michael Burns, won. Good for you, Michael. But, look, I think this is fear and fearlessness. And we often say, “Oh, just be fearless. Just go for it. Just live fearlessly.” And I don’t really believe in that, and I think your story is a good example of that. If you don’t have a healthy dose of fear and you don’t have a concern or any apprehension for the potential consequences or losses, you’re not going to give it the attention that it deserves, so fear is actually really helpful in preparation.

And we all know that it can be crippling when we’re in performance, and that’s when we need to shift into fearlessness. So, for me, fearlessness is a boldness. It’s being brave or courageous and not really caring about, “If I lose…” And that is healthy in performance if we’ve done the work and been fearful in preparation.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, as we’ve been chatting through this, I think we’ve hit the majority of these shifts. We’ve talked about humble to arrogant, perfectionism to adaptable, analysis to instinct, experimenting and trust in the process, fear to fearlessness. How about selfish to selfless?

Brian Levenson
Yeah, selfish gets a bad rap. We tell people, “Stop being selfish.” And, for me, we have to take care of ourselves first if we want to pour into anyone else. Like, I work with a lot of executives who they’re never taking care of themselves. They’re always focused on their people.

I work with head coaches of sports teams, and they’re always focused on, “What are our players doing?” The executives are often thinking of, “What do my team need?” And they get burned out and they’re unhealthy, and then they can’t serve and be selfless. And so, for me, we really need to be selfish in preparation, which is a concern, primarily, with our own interests, benefits, and welfare. And if we do that, if we take care of ourselves, then we can serve other people.

But a lot of people, and I even think about, like, I know a lot of women who have left their career, and their whole lives is to serve their kids. And, look, I’ve got two small kids at home. Being a full-time mom, it’s tough. And I think anyone who questions that, during the pandemic, is now learning how hard that job is. It is really, really difficult.

And a lot of the women that I know, I often have these conversations with them about, “Hey, what are you doing for yourself?” because they’re living so much for their kids and they don’t always take care of themselves, and then it can backfire. So, we can see it in business, we can see it in our personal life, we need to take care of ourselves and then be outward-focused and think about how we can serve others.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I totally buy that in terms of when your needs are being met very well, you have a lot of energy, creativity, sort of loving generosity, better ability to listen and be present as opposed to be distracted by the fact that you’re hungry or exhausted or need to be doing all kinds of things you’re super behind on. Like, you’re totally better-equipped to be selfless and help others when you’ve invested there.

Brian Levenson
Pete, you even sent along this document that had all this great information about what makes this conversation great. And one of the elements of the document was, “Hey, make sure you’re good before we hit the record button.” So, I’ve got this, people aren’t going to be able to see, but I’ve got this big jug of water to make sure I’m hydrated, I went to the bathroom before, I got on here a few minutes early even though we had some tech issues. Like, I wanted to make sure that I was taking care of myself.

I’ve got two small kids at home. I told my wife, “Hey, I’m recording a podcast.” I locked the door to make sure they don’t barge in here and interrupt it. Like, there are things we have to take care of. And I’ll tell you, as a parent, I have had those experiences. My wife turned to me at one point when we had our second kid, and said, “Brian, are you okay?” And I was like, “Man, I’m tired.” And she’s like, “Yeah. When was the last time you did something for yourself?” Like, what an awesome wife, first of all. And, second of all, she was right, and I needed to start focusing on what I was doing to take care of me so that I can be there for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s perfect. Well, so then theoretically that’s cool. We got nine or more shifts and a very different vibe when you are preparing versus when you’re performing. So, how does one just make that shift on command, like, “Oh, I’m now going to be selfish. Oh, now I’m going to be selfless. Oh, now I’m in analysis mode, and, oh, now I’m on instinct mode”? How do you pull that off?

Brian Levenson
Yeah, it’s hard. It takes work. I think everything worth doing, typically, takes work. And so, in the book, I’ve got a bunch of exercises. If you’re an exercise-type person, I have a workbook. I live in the how with my clients, like, “All right, how do we actually put these into place?” But I’ll just go to that selfish and selfless one. First, I had to be aware of it, I had to notice it. And then, from the notice and the awareness, I had to be intentional with what I was doing and how I was setting up my days and how I was showing up for myself. And so, I think it starts with awareness.

Then there are processes that you can integrate into your day. I even talk about winning the week instead of winning the day. I think a lot of people talk about winning the morning, and, “What are you doing every day to be successful?” I don’t know about you, but my days can change and I need to be adaptable. So, I often think about winning the week and what that looks like for myself, and where are these shifts playing for me throughout the week. But there’s a ton of exercises that you can get into.

Like, for me, self-talk is a big one. How am I talking to myself? Let’s talk about arrogance. Third person self-talk has been studied and researched, as in like literally saying, “Hey, Brian, you’re good, you’ve got this. You know how to handle this situation,” is a really good example for arrogance. Visualization is really good. We didn’t talk about future and present, but visualization is a how-to for future focus. Breathing and meditation is great for being in the present.

There are all these exercises that I talk about in the book that are how-to’s. Those are three. I’m happy to go into more of them but I think a lot of it, it takes work. So, one of the other shifts is work and play. Like, you need to put in the work and preparation if you want to earn the right to play and to play with joy. But, yeah, there’s a lot in there. I live in the how world for a long time and there are exercises that you can practice. But it always starts with, “Hey, what do I need to work on?”

So, if someone is listening to this, I would say pick three. Pick three of these shifts that you think are essential for you and then go to work on them and start bringing in tension to them, and then you can shift them and you can change them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, maybe let’s hit visualization real quick. Well, I think, in many ways, just knowing, “Hey, there’s a difference between preparation and performance. This is more of the prep vibe, this is more of the performance vibe, and so I’m going to, now, deliberately choose to move away from analysis and adapt some instincts.” So, I think that’s huge just right there. Like, conscientiously deciding, “Hey, this is how I’m looking to be right now.” So, that’ll take you far right away.

Then, let’s talk about, so we got the visualization, the mindfulness, the self-talk, how do we do visualization well? I have a feeling, working with so many athletes, you might have some pro tips that we need. Lay it on us.

Brian Levenson
I’ll just share what I do. I warm them up by doing a lemon exercise to just show them the mind-body connection. So, we go through a whole experience where they have to visualize a lemon, and how it smells, what it tastes like, what it looks like, and we’re trying to activate the senses. So, great visualization often involves activating the senses because our mind doesn’t really know the difference between whether we’re imagining it and we’re visualizing it, or if we’re actually experiencing it. So, it’s one of the powers that does exist with visualization.

And, as you mentioned, athletes, Olympians, are really big on visualization because, for many of them, it’s very hard to simulate what it’s going to be like from an environment standpoint, let’s just use the Olympics as an example. They train four years for this event that lasts, for some of them, it can be one event, and that’s going to determine how successful they are so the have to put themselves in that situation as often as possible.

The Blue Angels, who fly fighter jets 350 to 700 miles an hour and are within feet of each other, doing flips and turns and all kinds of wild stuff, they use visualization because they know they have limited amount of time actually practicing in the plane because of expenses and because of a lot of other reasons, weather, etc. So, first of all, I just try to acknowledge and get them to understand the power of the mind-body connection.

Second, how I do it with my athletes that I work with is I’ll have them tell me an experience that was a great experience. Let’s use a basketball player as an example. So, they’ll explain to me the experience. What was it like before the game? What was it like in warmup? What were they feeling? Once again, we’re going to try to activate those senses.

And then we’ll go into the game and actually record an audio clip. And with the power of phones now, it’s really easy to record and send an audio, we’re even recording this, I can use my podcast equipment, but you don’t need that. You can do it on your phone. So, I’ll type it up for them, I’ll basically try to capture their emotions and their feelings and their senses, and then we’ll try to paint the picture of what a great performance looks like, and then we’ll record it. And mine typically run about five, seven minutes and they can listen to that before a performance, and they can close their eyes and see themselves performing, and use that future focus to visualize how they’re going to perform.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we get a real good description of a great performance memory, and then you’re trying to use the senses to make it all the more powerful and come alive there?

Brian Levenson
That’s correct.

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

Brian Levenson
It’s interesting because when I was thinking about this, I was really thinking about curiosity. And I do just value curiosity tremendously, so I love, “I have no secret talent. I’m only passionately curious” from Einstein. I just think that is, when in doubt, I try to go into my curious mind and it often serves me.

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

Brian Levenson
Yeah, I mentioned that humility study earlier, but I’ll give you something else around self-determination theory, which is what makes people motivated, what allows people to thrive, especially in organizations. And self-determination theory, typically, looks at people are most satisfied when they’re competent, when they have relatedness, and when they have autonomy.

So, competence, I think people have a good sense of what that means. It’s you know how to do your job, like you’re a competent podcaster. Okay, cool. Now, relatedness, “Are you building relationships? Are you part of something bigger than yourself?” I think all of us, as human beings, crave to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And then there’s autonomy, and just, “Do I have the freedom to go toward the things that I want to?” And so, that’s something that has been really helpful for my clients and helpful for myself as well.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Brian Levenson
So, for fiction, I always say I love The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I just find it to be a great read and something that really stuck with me as far as what leads to successful teams and businesses, and I think your audience may be familiar with that book.

Then there’s a book called The Master Plan by a guy named Chris Wilson. That book is fascinating. It’s about a guy who was arrested for murder and committed the crime and was in jail, life sentence, and got out. A little spoiler alert. But it’s all about his journey. And I think it’s really valuable to hear his perspective and how he got to where he’s at. And I just couldn’t put it down.
Range by David Epstein, I think, is an awesome book. And then I go to like what is a biography-type book that I love, and I love Open by Andre Agassi. So, they’re different types of books, and I like them all for different reasons.

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

Brian Levenson
There’s an app called Pocket which I love. I send out a newsletter so whenever I read a great article or watch a great video or get a piece of content online that I really like, I throw it into Pocket and it saves the content for me. And there are sometimes where I’ll see a headline for an article and I’ll be really intrigued and curious, but I won’t be able to read it right away, so I’ll throw that into Pocket. So, I was actually telling a client about it today, so that’s a tool that I use often.

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

Brian Levenson
Twitter and LinkedIn are probably the places I play most, so it’s @BrianLevenson at both of those places. And then my website for my company is called StrongSkills.co. You can learn more about the book, my podcast, the newsletter, and the business that I’m involved with and that I founded. So, StrongSkills.co it’s dot co not dot com. I always joke that the dot com was too expensive and it wasn’t worth paying for so we went with that co.

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

Brian Levenson
When I think about that idea of curiosity and conviction, and I think we all need to stay curious so that we earn the right to be convicted. And I think about the world where we are right now, and we’re in this pandemic, it’s hard to be convicted. It feels like things change every day. And so, if we can continue to be curious, especially as it relates to what’s going on socially in our society today as well, like let’s just stay curious and then be convicted. And I find that that usually works out for me, and I find when I usually am convicted before my curiosity, that’s where I tend to regret some of the things that I say. So, I’ll just leave people with the power of curiosity so that they can step into their own convictions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Brian, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all of your preparations and performances.

Brian Levenson
Thanks for having me, Pete.

430: How to Reach the Unreachable: Lessons Learned from Master Teachers with Jeff Gargas

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Jeff Gargas says: "It's important to understand who you're serving."

Jeff Gargas shares best practices from teaching that every professional can use.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three links between classroom management and organizational management
  2. How to return to caring when you’re not feeling it
  3. How to reach the unreachabl

About Jeff

Jeff Gargas is the COO and co-founder of the Teach Better Team (Creators of www.teachbetter.com, The Grid Method, and Teach Further). He works with educators to increase student engagement and improve student success.

Prior to co-founding Teach Better, Jeff was the owner of ENI Multimedia, an online marketing firm, where he worked with entrepreneurs and small businesses, assisting them with web design, social media, content marketing, and brand awareness.

Prior to all of this, Jeff was an adjunctive professor at Kent State University and spent 10+ years in the music industry. He has spoken at conferences around the country, and has successfully promoted more than 500 events and launched 7 businesses in a variety of industries.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jeff Gargas Interview Transcript

Jeff Gargas  
Truly an honor to be on here and I really appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh yeah, well, I’m excited to dig in. And first, I want to hear you share when signing up for this scheduler, that you can “likely cry,” more so within your wife. What’s the story about it?

Jeff Gargas  
I’m a big sucker for romantic comedies, and I’ve always been a hopeless romantic as I describe it, just the way I am. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I blind my mo, but I’m just a hopeless romantic and my wife’s a tomboy, so I’m more likely to tear up a little bit at a moment. Even if silly, like Adam Sandler romantic comedy, and it shouldn’t be. Too likely, I’ll get there before her for sure. Yeah, like it’s not that uncommon.

Pete Mockaitis  
Oh, that’s funny. That’s funny. I just recently discovered the TV series This Is Us.

Jeff Gargas  
I wanted to get into it. I wanted to get into it because I know what’s going to happen, like my brother and my sister-in-law are watching, my mom is watching, and I’m like, no, I don’t know how to handle that, like, no.

Pete Mockaitis  
It’s like it’s a good thing I waited until I became apparent to watch this show, otherwise… yeah, this is boring but I’m like, “Oh, my god!”

Jeff Gargas  
It’s crazy after you become a parent what other things affect you and you’re like, “Yeah, that shouldn’t. Wow, okay. Wow.” Yeah, it’s crazy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you’re also a listener and fan of the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Jeff Gargas
I am. Big fan. Legitimate.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to things that publicist say to try to get…

Jeff Gargas  
No, absolutely legitimate fan. No joke. And not because we were doing this, but I was at the gym a couple hours ago, gonna get my workout in. And I was listening to it, with your episode with Michael Hyatt, which was awesome. He’s a big fan of his as well. So yeah, love it, man. Love what you’re doing, totally.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I love what you’re doing, you are helping the world teach better. So can you orient us a little bit? So you got a few things going on, what’s up with “Teach better,” and the “grid method,” and “Teach for us?”

Jeff Gargas  
So yeah, the Teach Better team is what we are at things over at teachbetter.com, and we basically work, but we do a lot of stuff with like, our general missions is we work with teachers and school districts to implement best practices, implement district-wide initiatives and other bits and pieces of professional development and training for the teachers.

Essentially, all we try to do is just help teachers be better at what they do. Like, teachers are already doing amazing things in the classrooms, we’re not trying to go in and change what they’re doing. We’re just trying to support them in every way, in any way we possibly can to help them do it.

It all got started with something we call the Grid Method, which is a mastery learning framework that my co-founder Chad Ostrowski, he created in his classroom, basically out of necessity, and you’re struggling to reach his very high-needs population of students and got to the point where he considered quitting, and decided that he either need to go get a job somewhere else, or he needed to figure out how to teach better.

And he luckily stayed in and figured that out. He’s a scientist by trade, so we kind of dissected everything and found best practices that seemed to be, the research showed, would answer his struggles, but couldn’t find a way to put them all together. So we created the system.

And that’s sort of what launched us, as he called me asking about doing an ebook, because I was in the online marketing world at the time. And teachers in his district were asking questions, because basically the students were telling them they didn’t know how to teach anymore, which was fun for him in a lot of ways.

It’s a little target on his back, but also a lot of teachers that were like, “Hey, I want to reach these kids, too.” And then our team will tell you my famous words were, “Dude, we’re not just doing an ebook.” I said, “We have to do something different. You’ve got something here.”

And apparently I was right, because now we try it to schools all over the country, and it’s growing. And we do a lot more than just a good method now and teach for— there’s another model that we have that incorporates classrooms working with community members and mock internships and real life, real purpose situations and all their units, and we do a lot of your just regular base, the best practices and stuff.

I’m one of the co-founders, and I work as our chief operating officer. We’re a small business with a small team, so I really operate also as our chief marketing officer, CFO, HR manager, and just about anything else you can think of. We all wear a lot of hats, but really what I try to do is just work to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to first take care of our team. And then a very, very close second is take care of our partner schools and all those teachers that are changing the world. We’re just trying to what we can help them.

Pete Mockaitis  
And in your work, you say that you have seen many commonalities, connections between some of the teaching better classroom management stuff, and then, you know, nonprofit, government, business organizational management stuff. Can you lay out that link for us?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, I think the biggest link, to keep it really simple, is relationships, relationships, relationships, and then environment and culture. So I come from a background in the restaurant industry, managing restaurants, and a wide variety of those also in the entertainment industry for a little while. And I’ve been, pretty much most of my life, ever since I got my first job and was able to get promoted to a shift-level management — I’ve been in management my entire life and the supervisor role.

And now with our team, it’s a little bit different, but so many commonalities there. And then we started to chat, and I started seeing all these connections between like how we needed to build things and run things in our business and the connections they had to the management in the classroom.

And one of the biggest things we saw is like this need for strong foundational relationships and building the right environment, the right culture. So like whether you’re in a classroom, a restaurant, entertainment company, market, firm, insurance agency, whatever it is, you need to build a culture of trust, of positivity, and to build that synergy.

And you need that environment that promotes growth, that promotes passion, that promotes excitement around what you’re trying to do. And in order to do all that, you’ve got to build the relationships first, whether that’s building relationships with your students to understand where they’re at, what they need, and how to reach them, or if it’s working with that new, that new employee, or a struggling employee, and building that.

And from an employee standpoint, if I’m on a team, understanding that I’m also a massive part of building that culture and building that environment, and how I interact with my colleagues, how I interact with my supervisors, and how do I build those relationships that I can understand, how do I do my job the best I can to make my supervisor’s job easier, because that’s going to make my life easier, and so on, so forth. So in my mind, all that comes in on those relationships is the foundation of everything.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, so intriguing. Relationships, relationships, relationships. Can you maybe paint a picture for us? So what does it look like for the world class teachers? I guess we’re gonna say relationships, but what does that look like in practice, in terms of what are they doing? What are the key differentiators that these rock stars who are getting huge student learning attainment gains, test scores, improvements rocking out versus the rest of the teachers who are kinda getting by, you know, doing okay. What are the things that they’re doing differently? How are they working their relationships or classroom behaviors in a different way?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, man, the relationships are a huge piece of that, because any kind of management system you put in place in your classroom, any kind of new technology, or awesome new innovative type of experience or anything like that, even the lesson plan that you bring in, it’s going to fall apart, if you don’t have the relationships to build on that.

The same thing is, I know the best business plan in the world, but if my team just can’t operate, because there’s no relationship, there’s no culture, there is no environment, it’s not going to work. But I think on top of that, these teachers that we see that are just amazing like that, they just have a refusal to quit, they refuse to quit. We call it the Teach Better Mindset.

It’s this relentless pursuit of better. It’s not perfect, it’s never going to be perfect, it’s just better — better today than you were yesterday, better tomorrow than you were today. That’s what we preach on. And it’s never this, “Hey, we want to change everything you do,” or, “Hey, you got to fix everything,” or, “You’re not good.” It’s, “You can always be better.”

And the champions that we see, these teachers that are doing amazing things, as they always look every day that reflect in their software, and they’re always thinking, “What can I do to be better? How can I reach more kids? It’s never enough until I’m reaching 110% of them.” Right?

So I think the teachers that refuse to accept anything but the best for the students, and who go above and beyond every single day to do whatever it is that they need to do to support those kids. And basically, I mean, if you think about, they’re spending their days just pouring love into other people’s kids.

I mean those are world changers, that they dedicate so much to it. And I think it’s really just that refusal to accept anything, and they’re willing to take risks and put themselves on the line and challenge themselves every single day, every single second of every day to do better and be better for the kids. Those are the ones that are really making those differences.

Pete Mockaitis  
All right, that’s awesome. Maybe could you could share a story in terms of a teacher who’s really just doing that great? So I just sort of get a sense for, build relationships and never quit. What does that look like in practice?

Jeff Gargas  
I can think of a lot of stories, but it’s all slightly general, more general. But like, it’s a teacher that you mentioned that’s already doing pretty well, right? So, you know, I’ll talk about Ray here, she’s on our team, but she’s also a phenomenal teacher, which is why we checked her into working with us.

So Ray, you know, was a good teacher, she was doing well. You know, she did well on her observations, she was reaching most students, they did well, the bell curve looked like it should as the average kid was doing well. And she could have easily skated by and been okay, and just probably had a good career, probably worked her way up to maybe being a principal one day. That was, you know, she was gonna go back and get her license, probably could have, you know, she’s got the personality and charisma to where she could have easily got into an admin position and probably, you know, had a nice career.

But early on, she decided she was not okay with being okay. And she… look, she said, “My kids are engaged, but are they as engaged as they possibly can be? My kids are doing well, but are they doing as well as they absolutely can be. I’m reaching most of my kids, but am I really okay with most of my kids?” And then she wakes up and says, “Man, I hope I hit some of my kids today. Like, that’d be great.”

No, I wake up and I say, “I want to have every single one of my kids grow today.” And I think it was that passion and her and then like, again, that’s where piece of equipment the way she did it. She said, “This isn’t working. I’ve got a lot of great pieces, but I need other pieces.”

Actually developed our Teach Further model. She’s the one who, like that was one of the things that caught our eyes. And she said, “How can I take what I’m doing, these fun activities, and really make sure that I’m not just putting in fluff?” Ray’s biggest thing is “Fluff is not enough.” And by fluff, I mean, it’s really, you know, it’s easier to create a classroom that looks really cool on Instagram, that looks really fun and engaging. But if there’s no purpose underneath it, there’s no connection to what they actually need to learn in the real world application of what they’re learning in your classroom. It’s just fluff. It’s not actually doing much other than just, you know, being fun for Instagram.

And so she said, “How can I do that? How can I make these connections?” And then she started reaching out and calling companies, businesses, saying, “I have this idea. I’m wondering if you’d take this crazy journey with me, and allow my students to operate in a mock internship with your company, and here’s how I’m going to connect it to my math standard, here’s how I’m going to connect it to my ELA standard,” and the way that she started connecting pieces to real world applications, to these seemingly boring math standards and things like that, is phenomenal.

And now, we’ve sent them to build, help teachers all over, connect with major companies and businesses and do some amazing things. But, you know, she’s a great example of that teacher that you were talking about, that rock star teacher that just said, “I could be okay, I can be comfortable, I can get by, but I refuse to do that.”

You flip that, you see it in the corporate world — I saw it when I was managing people in the restaurant industry of kids who came in and out a lot of time. I was in fact in the quick service industry, kids come in a lot of times, the first job, first opportunity, they’ve taken a management position or have a little bit of responsibility.

And you have some that said, “I’ll just do what I need to do, because I’m just here while I’m figuring out what I’m doing my life, because I’m going to college, it’s a part time thing,” and others that looked at and said, “If I’m here, I’m going to be the ‘best here’ I possibly can be. I’m going to learn everything I can, I’m going to pick the brains of the people that are here, and maybe I’ll end up in this place forever and I’ll retire here, or at the very least, I’m going to take it and make sure I get the most out of this experience. So that when I go on to the next part of my journey, my life, I can be the best I can be there.”

I think that’s the same thing when it comes to any industry or in any job you’re in. And it’s this refusal to just settle for being okay. I mean, we spend more than 60% of our lives at our jobs. So if you’re just being okay, that means you’re just being okay, for the majority of your life. I’m not okay with that. But…

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, so it starts with having a higher standard, a higher bar in terms of, “Okay, we’re going to be the best we possibly can, we refuse to quit.” So once you get that commitment, that fire in play, let’s talk about this relationship stuff. So how does one go about forging great relationships?

Jeff Gargas  
It’s a couple of things. So the biggest thing with me is, I think it’s caring. It’s actually caring, though I have this thing that I talked about a lot, where some people do things because the book tells them to. And by the book, I mean the manual, or the best practice, or the person who says, “This is how you should do your job,” or whatever. And there’s some people that do it because they actually care.

A really simplified answer is in a restaurant, where an elderly couple is at a table, when you go to have a conversation with them. The difference between going there because, well, that’s good customer service, “And our manual says we should focus on customer service,” versus, “I’m going there because just possibly, those are grandparents who haven’t seen their grandson who’s about my age in a long time, and I can give them a little glimpse or reminder of that grandson they haven’t seen for a while. I can have a conversation with them and brighten their day.” Those are very big differences.

In same thing when it comes to building relationships with your employees, with your colleagues, with your with your students. It’s actually caring, and it’s not, “I’m doing this because it’s going to better me and make my life better, even though it will. But it’s focused on how can I help make your day better? How can I actually learn because I actually want to help you?”

And I think in the more and more tactical piece, it’s actually fairly simple. No, we chatter fast, because all the time, we have a thousand conversations about nothing. But truly get to understand that person. Dig down and figure out what they’re actually about, and build that.

You talked about authentic relationships. Authentic relationships isn’t, “Pete likes to be rewarded at work.” It’s, “No, why is Pete like that? What is the actual reason behind that? What what’s going on in Pete’s real life that connects them? Why is recognition at work so valuable to him?”

So that can truly understand what truly drives you. And I think the teachers that truly understand what their students need, and what drives them and each individual student, they’re the ones that reach them, they build those relationships nested and wants to work for them. And I think that’s the biggest piece of that, it’s truly actually caring and then having those conversations to dig down and actually understand those people.

Pete Mockaitis  
Now that’s tricky. When it comes to the “actually caring” part, I’d love to get your take on that: If you if you don’t actually care on a given day, because you’re tired, you’re stressed, you’re overworked, you got so many distractions, whatever your reasons, you know? I’m going to assume you’re not just like an evil, hateful person. But to give a day, you don’t actually care. What do you recommend to get back into that zone?

Jeff Gargas  
So there’s, I guess two parts. One is, my day will be spent figuring out why you don’t care that day, and see if there’s something you can do to fix that. But sometimes, there’re just as a new thing you can do: Would you try to leave it in your car? You can’t, and you just don’t have it in you.

So then, you may still want to practice that, because that’s still important to your and your role, but also to that person. It’s important for them, too, because you still need to understand them. So you still need to dig them. So you may have to practice the fact that, “Today, I got to put on a face and I got to make sure that I’m still digging, I’m still building these relationships, I’m still letting them know that I care.” But you can’t be fake about it.

So if you’re going to come off fake, and they’re going to see through it, that’s going to ruin a lot of the progress you made. So you may have to kind of take a day off, or maybe take not quite as many conversations. It’s not digging up in as deep. But I think the key to that is for now, “Why don’t I care today? How do I fix that?”

It’s one thing to just be down and be like, “Hey, I’m not in the mood for conversations,” that’s understandable. But like, actually not caring? You’re like, “I just don’t care about anybody today.” Like, there’s something else going on there in my mind that needs to be addressed first, and figure out like why am I not feeling this way today.

“And if I’m feeling that way, is it actually going to be harmful if I try to engage with my colleague or with my student or this way, because I’m putting off some negativity?” And so having that self-awareness and reflection on that, I think, is coordinated and figuring out, “Okay, how do I get back onto it tomorrow and I can be authentic again, and get back into doing what I need to do?”

Pete Mockaitis  
And I like the example you brought about with the waiter or waitress in terms of, “Hey, these grandparents may not have seen a really young person in a while. And so this could mean that for them.” So that seems to be a little bit of the formula with regard to “I am putting myself in their shoes and recognizing how the thing I’m doing here can make a world of a difference.”

And for teachers, that’s huge, like, “Hey, what happens here can set the stage for whether learning and growth and development are headed to college or career or interesting fulfillment jobs or, you know, much less pleasant for folks.” So that’s as well as medicine. But I think that some of the other fields I think can require a little bit of thought at times to zero in on who is it that we’re serving, and how is what I’m doing today potentially going to be transformationally amazing for them.

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s important to understand who you’re serving, regardless of what industry you’re in, and what kind of engagement can help whatever it is that they’re coming to you for. And I mean, obviously in the hospitality industry, it’s a lot of that communication and being friendly, because you never know what kind of day they’re having. And if you can put a smile on their face, that might be the first time all day.

Same thing in the classroom. It’s like it takes so long to figure out what are those kids coming to school with? What else do they have? You know, what are the other things that they care about emotionally? And you might be the only person in the world that that’s showing them love for the day. That shows you care for them; that’s massive.

The same can be said for your employee or your boss or your colleague, like everyone’s got something going on, right? And you don’t know if the guy in the cubicle next to you or the girl down the hall and in the other office is struggling with something, that just the simple, quick smile, a “Hello, how are you?” an actually authentic “I care, I actually am asking you. I want to know, how are you doing today? What’s going on?”

That can that can make a world of a difference to somebody. And if you have a culture in your small business, big, large business, whatever, that has that, and everyone’s feeling that way, the opportunity for negativity to seep in is far less, which is better beneficial for everybody.

Pete Mockaitis  
You know, I like what you said about the difference a smile can make. It reminds me one time, just a few months ago, I was in church and there was someone who’s just smiling, like completely and thoroughly. It was like, “Wow, that feels really good.” I realized that she was looking at my baby.

Jeff Gargas  
Oh, there you go. That’ll do it, right?

Pete Mockaitis  
I guess that puts you in a good mood. She’s looking adorable, but I was like, “Wow, you know, it’s pretty rare that you actually get to feel a genuine, authentic, full-on smile. Like, I have enjoyed seen you!” I mean babies get it, but we don’t as much.

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah. And you know, the crazy thing is the smile. It’s crazy what a smile does for you. So there’s an author and amazing educator named Adam Welcome. He wrote a book called Kids Deserve It, which is a massive hit and educational, but then he also wrote a book called Run Like a Pirate. In this amazing book, he just picked up with a short, easy read, but it’s phenomenal.

It’s like his story of 2017, he ran a marathon every single month — because Adam’s just intense. But in the book, he talks about, like, one of his tactics for sort of getting through that mental game of running — and I’m a runner, this is why it’s big for me — but it’s to just smile.

And it’s funny, like when I run now, like if I feel like I’m having a hard time getting rid of a mental hurdle, I will smile. But then what’s funny is then I remember the fact that I’m smiling because I had this book said it, which makes me kind of chuckle, and I smile.

I’m telling you, man, it’s like a whole other level, like it just does something to you. Like it’s crazy. So if you can give someone a smile, maybe they give you a smile back. And now you get your authentic smile to yourself. Like it’s going to warm your soul. And I’m a huge fan of that.

We so often as humans just do anything we can to avoid contact, or avoid eye contact, right? Like we look down, we just don’t do anything. I try really hard. And I don’t do it every day, but I try really hard to just smile at people and say hi to as many people as I can, because again, you don’t know what they’re going through. That’s just such an important thing, in my mind.

Pete Mockaitis  
And to point about having a thousand conversations about nothing, in a way, I like the feeling that sentence creates, because it’s sort of like, you could just chill out. It’s like, I’m not intentionally trying to tease out 14 precise takeaways from this discussion.

But yeah, we’re talking about, “Oh, you like pizza? That’s cool. What are your favorite toppings? Oh, yes, sausage is the best,” you know, whatever. And in so doing, you build up a picture. But that being said, could you share what are some of the conversations about nothing that are often quite telling, and they deliver something?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, I mean, simple conversations about like, “What did you do this weekend? What are you up to tonight?” and then playing off that at all, like, “Do you do you watch this? Do you watch This Is Us, right? Do you cry during movies? Do you get up? You said you like pizza.” It’s a million different ways.

And you know, with students, a lot of times, it’s, “What did you do this weekend?” And that that opens up another question, noticing something that, maybe they have a graphic T-shirt on, like, “Oh, do you like The Incredible Hulk?” or whatever. Given that, your co-workers can simply just be like, “Maybe they have a shirt on,” you know, depending on the dress code and stuff, but it could be asking them what they do this week, and what are they up to this week, and what do they think about this or that, did they cast a game last night, have they got in that new movie, whatever it might be they have.

You know, just those conversations that just start a conversation about nothing, you give you a chance to just sort of learn a little bit about them, because the way someone tells you about their weekend, or explains what they liked or disliked about a movie, or the team they cheer for, something like that tells you little bits and pieces about that person, you know? You get someone talking.

I’m a Cleveland Browns fan. So you connect with the Cleveland Browns fan, and you connect with another Cleveland Browns fan, that’s a bond that can’t be shook. So those little areas — and a lot of sports teams are like that, like that’s such a connection that you may not know that you have with a colleague or with your boss or whatever — and that simple little connection can change the way you guys communicate forever. Because now there’s that little, like, “Oh, that’s typical Browns, right?” There’s these little inside jokes that automatically form, or you love that show, or, “I’m a huge fan of Friends, the TV show Friends from way back.”

And I had an employee of mind for that for I think five years, he was with us. And he had autism. But he was a credible worker; worked really hard. And he would have moments where he had some struggles, and he got frustrated with what would usually begin, you know, directive, because he’s pretty good at his job. But if we need to direct them, sometimes he took them wrong, he had a lot of stuff in his life that he was dealing with, and people would have to struggle with him.

And when he got into that mode, he was kind of like… you weren’t going to break him. And I would literally just rattle off lines to the episode of Friends, and we would just get going. And it was just this ridiculous, back and forth that no one else understood, because unless they happen to know that one weird episode, but it was just to crack him out of this thing.

And it was a little piece that took me a while to figure out, through just random conversations, where one day… I don’t even remember the actual conversation, but we were talking. I don’t remember the situation with the conversation, we were just talking about… I said something, I came up with a line, that reminded him on an episode, he goes, “Oh, that’s like the time Joey  said blah blah blah,” and we repeated it. And we’re like, “Oh, it’s the connection.” And now I now have my bond with you.

We now have a million inside jokes that we can laugh about. And I now have something that I can pull off to help you get out of a funk if you get into it. And that just, like for me, that made my life managing shifts that he was on so much easier.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, and I’m curious, as you’re having these conversations about nothing, you’re forming some relationships, you’re learning all kinds of little things. I mean, especially in the context of a teacher with a classroom of I don’t know, 15, 20, 25+ students, how do you keep all that straight direct community particular systems, or tracking, or note keeping?

Jeff Gargas  
Well, you know, we’ve seen teachers do a million other things, and some teachers are just amazing at it. Just really, really good at it. There’s a lot of different types of things of, you know, at the beginning of the year, working with… some teachers do picture things with it, the kids get to share their stories along with pictures, and then the teacher sort of has that on the walls around, in a document or something like that, where they have that sort of resource. But you know, they’re spending every single day with those students

So you’re getting to know what they become, just like your colleagues at work. I mean, if you’re with the same 10, 15 people every day at work for 60% of your life, whether you like it or not, they’re in your life as much as a best friend would be, so you’re able to build that. So, I think, you know, big pieces.

It is much easier if you’re truly caring, I’ll go back to that. Because I don’t have any trouble remembering which one of my friends likes this, or likes that, because they’re my friends. I know though that information because I care about them. And I built it in an authentic way, not because I was supposed to because my job said so.

So it’s tough to remember, “Okay, what’s employee A1’s favorite food?” It’s easier to remember what’s Max’s favorite food, because I’ve built a relationship now, versus “I learned it because I’m supposed to because my job will be easier.” And I think it’s the same thing with teachers, teachers who truly care about their students, like they remember, “That’s Johnny, he has the brothers that do this and the mom that struggles with that,” or the, “He lives with his aunt,” or the “He has this,” and “Now, that’s Sarah, and she has these things.” I think it comes with the actual caring that comes in that situation.

So I think teachers are naturally inclined to be really, really good at that, because their hearts’ there in the first place. They’re trying to do something amazing and reach those kids, but I really think it comes down to actually caring about the people that you’re working with, and people you’re serving, and truly wanting to learn about them.

Pete Mockaitis  
You know, it’s funny, you keep coming back to this caring. And we had an interview with Alden Mills, who was a NAVY seal, and his whole thing was caring. He had a framework: CARE — C-A-R-E, each of the letters has multiple subcomponents that start with a C and A and R and E. So it’s kind of fun little connections here.

Well, so let’s talk about, what are your great phrases that you have for your businesses that help teachers to reach the unreachable? So we’ve talked about some principles that are applicable across students. But if you got a particular employee or student who is noteworthily, seemingly unreachable, what do you do?

Jeff Gargas  
It’s gonna feel like I’m coming back again and again, but it’s the way you understand them, like truly understand the person, to figure out who they are, what drives them, and why they’ve been deemed unreachable. So when it comes to employees, it’s figuring out what are their strengths, what are their struggles, and then working with them to play on those strengths, and focus on those strengths while still trying to build those struggle points, and focus really on what drives them.

You know, one of your colleagues, one of your employees might be driven just by financial gain, like they’re driven by money, and that’s okay. But understand what drives them, versus someone who’s driven by admiration and wants to be looked at as an incredible employee or the best colleague around, whatever it might be.

When it comes to the classroom, it’s finding out what’s driving your students. Are they struggling, or they’re quote unquote, “unreachable” because they come from a really rough home? And their entire life, they’ve been told that they’re there dumb and they fail, and they’re stupid, a knock at school, and no one’s given them a shot because they struggle when they were younger? And now they’re in seventh or eighth grade, and it’s just been the cycle of failure where, you know…

Chad talks a lot about the cycle failures. If you think about a student who goes to school in first grade, like every student goes to the first grade as, “I got my backpack on, and my new shoes, I’m ready to go!” right? “I’m gonna be awesome!” And they go on to try really hard and they get an F, “You failed.” “That’s all right; I’m gonna try again next year.”

Second grade, they go and they’re pumped up. “I’m gonna try really hard to do awesome.” “You failed, you get an F.” “Okay. All right, I’m gonna try really hard next year.”

And again, by the time they hit that fifth, sixth grade, they start doing some quick math in their head, and they’re like, “Huh, you know, if I try really, really hard, I get an F. But if I don’t do anything at all, I also get an F. That’s a lot easier.” Boom, stamped with unreachable. And what happens is, unfortunately, they get kind of written off. And so then, you get this little, like, “Oh, watch out for so and so; he’s unreachable. You’re not going to like him. He’s a trouble. He’s gonna…” whatever.

And the difference is when a teacher chooses to say, “Yeah, I don’t accept that. I’m going to figure out what’s really happened. Why are they struggling?” And in Chad, this is actually, like, I love the asset, because actually, you know the story Chad tells a lot about one of his students, Jesse, who was that kid. He was a kid who was on all those lists that teachers don’t have on the top 10. And it actually ended up where Chad had him at the end of the day, and for a couple weeks, Chad never saw him.

So he thought maybe he moved, because transferring was pretty common in those types of community and stuff. But he asked his colleagues, like, “Where’s Jesse? I haven’t seen him today.” “He was just getting kicked out of class before he gets to yours. He’s getting sent down to school suspension.” Then Chad asked if he could go get him, worked out a deal with his principal and stuff, and actually started going to get him, because he had delta relationship with Jesse.

And you know, “Look, this kid’s just been struggling his whole life. He’s never had anyone tell him that it was worth it,” and he was able to. Long story short is that Chad was able to connect with him, because Chad started to understand that if Jesse had some time to work through things a little bit, and had an opportunity to fail a few times and try again and try again without being told, “I’m dumb,” because a lot of times when students get to a certain point — they get that after that D — their mind goes up, “I’m stupid. I’m not good. I don’t do well at school, I’m not good at school.”

And Chad goes, “Well, if I can give us some time to work on that, and if I’m working my class and management class right way, and I have some time to maybe read aloud to Jesse to help work through these things, I bet he can do better.” And he did he started doing really well, obviously still had some issues here and there and stuff, but end up doing real good.

“I actually am good to be in the class.” And it’s an awesome story that Chad tells that I won’t go into because he’s much better.

But I think it’s the same thing. You know, I think about the employee I was just talking about, it’s a similar thing. Like, when he got on those modes, it was just like, “Well, here he goes again. I can’t, he’s just written off, like you can’t get to him.” And this isn’t to say that I’m anything special or anything, but I was able to find a way to connect with him. To get him out of that. He went from being unreachable to reachable now, and boom, he was doing his job well.

And so, I think that goes for whether it’s an employee, whether it’s your colleague, whatever it is, like, everyone’s got something going on, and it all comes back to this: getting to know that person and truly understanding them and figuring out, “Okay, what drives them?” And then also, what takes them to the spot where they’re quote unquote unreachable? And then what can I do to get them out of that?

You don’t need to be a boss to be the person that gets an employee out of a funk. Sometimes, the best person to do that is a colleague, right? And it’s just like, sometimes it takes another student to do it. But, you know, I think it’s really focusing on understanding that person, and what drives them, and what they need at that time.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, well, I’d love to get your take when it comes to to teaching, the actual delivery of learning content, what are some of the key principles that make communication engaging versus kind of lame and boring and not so engaging?

Jeff Gargas  
I think this goes the same as caring over some of the things we say that carries over, both in the classroom and in the world, and all other industries, when it comes to training, teaching, and redirecting all the stuff.

The thing is focusing on the why. So, “Why am I teaching you this content? Why do you need to know that?” And it’s the same “why” as like, “Why do we do this or that in this particular way, in this company?” You can choose to just say, “Because I’m boss, and I said so. Because I’m a teacher, and I said you have to do this, and this is how we’ve always done it.” Or, you can go beyond just barking orders and show them why it needs to be done.

So I talked about Ray earlier, and the Teach Further model. And that’s one of the big things; we’re going beyond just the, “Hey, let’s just do this because the state says we have to hit these standards.” But let’s actually focus on “Why do you need to know this?” Like, why do you need to understand math for the real world? Like, why do you have to understand this concept? Why is understanding history important? Why? Why should you learn coding? Like, what are you going to do with your life? And let’s connect this. “Let me show you how this is connected to real world applications.”

One of the awesome things about the Teach Further model is that a piece of that, at the end of every lesson where wherever unit, where teachers are sending home what we call a “Plan for the Future page,” which is to the parents or stakeholders, whether it is the guardians, it says, “This is what we’ve learned, this is the state-standard hit. This is how we did it. Here’s some of the things that your students showed; that means that maybe they’d be interested in a couple of these fields. And by the way, if they weren’t interested in these fields, here’s the type of education they may need to do after high school.”

We’re doing this at sixth grade levels and fifth grade levels or eighth grade levels. way before they even get to high school, because they need to be understanding that early on, so they can apply all the stuff that they’re learning through the rest of the school into real life things.

And it’s the same thing when you’re in the business world and you’re trying to employees and stuff. It’s like, “I can tell you to just do that, because that’s how you’re supposed to do it, because the rulebook says it,” whereas “I can tell you why the rulebook says why have we determined this, the way of doing this thing or that thing is the best, how does that affect everything else that happens?” Because what I’m essentially doing is saying, “Hey, this is why your job’s important, why your role in this company is important, because if you do this, this is what happens. And it ends up doing this for our customers. If you don’t, here’s how it bottlenecks, it falls down and we don’t get there.”

And so that’s the way that I think takes it from… even the person who goes, “Man, my job says I just do these numbers and whatever.” But it’s like, “If you don’t do those numbers, then x, y, z doesn’t happen. And somewhere down the lot, this ends up happening, that we don’t serve our clients.”

There’s an old story, and I can’t remember who told it originally when I heard it, but they’re interviewing a bunch of people in NASA before, like when we’re getting ready to launch to the moon, way back when. And they were talking do a janitor, and they asked, like, “What do you do?” And he said, “I’m working to put a man on the moon.” And he’s understanding that if those halls weren’t clean, if the garbage wasn’t taken care of, if the lounge wasn’t clean, that affects the progress of everyone else, and could potentially interrupt someone who shot to make a breakthrough to figure out how do we get to the moon.

You can break that down. Like every little piece of the organization is so important that if you focus on explaining to your team and everyone and to students the same way, like why is it important that you’re doing what you’re doing the way you’re doing it, we’re learning these things. How does that affect the outcome? How does it positively impact what we’re trying to do? I think that’s how you get there.

Pete Mockaitis  
Well, I really dig that, because you unpacked the explanation of why, on a few dimensions, I think it’s great as one is, you know, historically, this is what we’ve discovered, and how we ended up here. And the formulation of it is the way it is for this reason. And then this is what happens if you do it, and this is what happens if you don’t. So that paints a picture, like “Well, shoot. This is pretty important. Like, I matter.”

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, and that’s the key, right? I matter, because who’s going to work hard?” Or someone who just thinks they push papers, or think someone who thinks these papers matter. Like that person who thinks the papers matter. If you’re a manager, listener, supervisor, whatever, one of the other little side effects that this does, and you may not like it, but you should, like, it is that if you’re explaining to people why you do things a certain way, it opens up the door for them to recommend other ways.

And sometimes as managers and owners, whatever, we don’t want to hear it. But it’s really important to close your mouth in that and listen, because they may have something you never thought of, because they’re at the ground level. And that’s crucial. And we see it in classrooms, too, where if you’re explaining to the students why do they need to understand that, they’ll come up with other reasons and be like, “Oh, or because x, y, z?” And you’re like, “I didn’t even think of that call. Like, yeah, I’m gonna throw that in mind next time I talk about it.”

But the same thing in a company is like,

“Hey, this is why we do it.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s great. Why don’t we do it like this?” And you’re like, “Oh, we probably should; let’s change that.” Like, it’s just powerful in so many different levels.

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s good. That’s real nice. Well, so we hit the Grid Method a couple times in terms of little references. But you know, I just can’t help myself. But I hear Grid Method, I’m already visualizing a grid, and I got to know, what does it consist of? And how might it be applied to folks learning and growing and developing in a grownup work context?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, so what the Grid Method is, is a framework for utilizing a mastery learning in classrooms. So when I say mastery learning, there’s a lot that can go into that. But in general, it’s a shift from standing in the front of classroom delivering content to all the students all at the same time and expect them to move all at the same time, to shift into mastery learning, which is where students are moving at their own pace, and only moving on as they master the content and master certain pieces of it.

And a lot of organizations already do a similar version of mastery learning, where you’re in a training program, you have to master a certain level of skill or understanding before you can move on to the next. I think the difference is, and the focus is the speed at which.

In education and a lot of businesses, we set a certain time table. We say, “Well, let’s take it two weeks to learn this. And if you don’t learn in two weeks, I guess you’re just not good enough for it.” Or in classrooms, it’s “If you don’t learn these in two weeks, too bad. You fail, we’re moving on,” right? “If you don’t understand two plus two, we’re moving on to two times two, and you’re just never going to get it at all, ever.”

I think the biggest thing is that individuality, because we need to understand that we all, one, learn differently, and two, learn at different speeds. So if you think about— a real great way to break it down is, think about that. You have a couple kids at home, correct?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Jeff Gargas
Okay, so when you were teaching them to walk, maybe you’re doing it right now, you probably did it like most people: you stood him up and then they fell a lot, they called, and they fell, and they started using whatever they can to grab onto your leg or the furniture or whatever. And then eventually, they figured out. Now they run around like crazy, if they’re like my kids.

But what if I told you that the way I do with my kids is, I took my son Jonathan, I said, “All right, man, we’re going to do this. We’re going to practice for two weeks, and then I’m gonna work with you. You’re going to fall and everything like this.” Then in two weeks, I said, “All right, Jonathan, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna stand there, I’m gonna stand the prescribed 10 feet away from you, and now you need to walk to me.”

And he takes a couple of steps, stumbles, boom, falls. And I said, “Well, sorry, son. You failed in the walking test. I guess we’re going to just not learn how to walk. We’re gonna move on the potty training.” It’s ridiculous, right?

But then when we get into school, and in the business, we say, “Hey, you got two weeks to learn this, or you got a week to learn this. And if you don’t, I guess you’re just not going to get it.” And I always wonder how many potentially amazing employees are we not giving a shot to, because we wrote them off? Because they didn’t get it quick enough?

Same in education, too many students get written off as unreachable, or not smart, not good test takers, not good at math, because we gave them a short amount of time. And we expected them to move at the same speed as everyone else. Well, we all learn differently, how to walk in different speeds — some kids walk a year, some take some three years. I mean, same with talk and same with learning how to ride a bike, learn, and everything like that.

So the framework, and just the mastery learning shift in general is focusing on the individual and actually focus on what they actually need, and when they need it, versus when we think they should have it. And I think that’s the biggest piece we drive that helps drive mastery of the content, whether in a school, business, whatever.

Pete Mockaitis  
That’s good. And so where does the grid come into play?

Jeff Gargas  
So the grid, essentially, so when we work with teachers, one of the first things we do is we help them look at their state standards and what they have to meet, what the state says that they’re supposed to be teaching, and we help them break them down and align them to the essential questions that they need to ask their students, that they need to have their students understand. And then that breaks down into learning opportunities and activity, the actual activities that students are doing in order to master the content, in order to master that.

So then, they take all those learning opportunities, which you can think of like a lesson plan, right? We call them learning opportunities, because a lesson is something you give someone; a learning opportunity is something they have to take. So we purposely use those words, but the grid becomes a learning path for their students to move. It’s the guide, it’s their map, if you will.

And it’s this form, these little squares that have activities in them. And it explains what they need to do, what it needs to get to whatever it is that they’re doing, whether that’s vocabulary words, whether that’s science experiments, whatever it might be, and then what they need to do in order to be checked off for mastery.

So students move through these. And so I go and I do what I need to do in square one, and when I’m ready to be checked, and I feel I’ve mastered that, I check in with the teacher, or there might be a self-assessment or automatic assessment through technology, and I cannot move on to the next square until I’ve mastered that content and I’ve shown my mastery at least an 85% or higher level of mastery. And then I move on.

So the grid, if you can visualize, is just a piece of paper with levels, five different levels of those squares. And as students start from the bottom, they build that foundational level knowledge. As they move up the depth of knowledge that’s required, the level of mastery that’s required grows. So there’s fewer boxes, few activities, because they’re a little more in depth as they move on. And as they move up, and they level up in that grid, they’re getting deeper and deeper into that content and into that concept and into that.

So a grid itself would encompass basically sort of like what you would consider like a unit of study. Some units might require multiple grids, some are just one grid. So it could vary from teacher to teacher how much they want to pack in there.

Pete Mockaitis  
Okay, we talked about, is there something in particular that’s on the x axis and the y axis?

Jeff Gargas  
So yeah, so going up on the side, there’s your levels of depth of knowledge. So your x depends on the lead, those are your learning opportunities, right? Those individual boxes that say “This is what you’re going to do to help practice,” and then show your mastery along the moving upwards is that level. So the knowledge we’re referring to, we built it off of what’s called Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. And there’s levels, and it’s moving up, it’s the level of understanding. So as they move up, those levels are showing the level of understanding they had.

There’s actually four levels and depth in Webb’s; we do five levels, because we put like an independent exploration up top for the students that just excel and blow through it, so that once they master content, they can go have fun with it and learn more about it.

Most standards are written in that 2, 3, sometimes four-range, typically two to three range. So most students are going to end up around that level, but you have students that are moving all at the same or at different paces, based on what they need. And so what this does, then, is allows those students that have just get it and they’re just like — we call them rabbits, that are just really quick — and they just get it, they can move and they can keep learning. They can grow, they don’t have to wait for the student that maybe struggles.

But that student that needs a little more time, that needs a few attempts to try to get it because they just don’t get it, now they have the time to do that. You can spend time with them, either one on one or small groups to assess where they’re at, where they’re struggling, to find other ways to explain it to them. Also, side note, build those relationships really nicely there and stuff, and move on. Because what you’ll find is, most students struggle, because of one or two reasons: either one, they already get it, and they’re bored. And so they just checked out of your class. And a lot of times that leaves the problems.

Do you have, like these extremely gifted students that are really intelligent, but they cause problems? They’re just bored. They’re like, “Why am I learning this? I already know it, I don’t need to do this, this is a waste of my time.” Or you have a student that’s just struggling because, maybe they’ve struggled, they have trouble with reading? So like, just basic, simple vocabulary work is really tough for them. And they’re struggling because they’re getting yanked along, and it’s like, “Oh, you don’t know two plus two? So we’re moving on right now.”

“I’m frustrated because I don’t get it. So now I’m lost forever.” And it’s just been a cycle. So, by folks giving everyone the time they need, you’re hitting that top level, and all the way down to the bottom level of students getting what they need. And they’re allowed to move on when they need to move on, but they can take a little more time, with a little more time. So and then, there’s a lot of pieces that go along with that, on how to manage that and stuff.

And that’s where a lot of our training comes into. It’s like, alright, and how we create a grid. But then also, how does this work in my classroom? Because it can be a little scary to think of 20, 30 students all moving, doing different things at different times. And that’s a big mindset shift for a lot of teachers.

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

Jeff Gargas  
Let’s go.

Pete Mockaitis  
Alright, sure how about a favorite quote? Something you find inspiring?

Jeff Gargas  
It’s “Some people dream of success. Others wake up and work hard at it.” I think that’s true, no matter where you’re at in your life.

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

Jeff Gargas  
So I don’t do a lot of studies up, but there’s one that I have found a while back. I don’t know what, it’s from the University of California, Berkeley. And there’s just a study on happiness, like what is happiness? And the biggest thing that I’ll refer back to every now and then, but really just sort of the summary of it, and the fact that like, happiness isn’t about money or things; it’s about fulfillment. It’s not about what others think, it’s not about Keeping Up With the Joneses, and stuff like that. It’s about what you need, what’s important to you.

And you know, for a long time, I felt like I needed to be like a certain person, at a certain level of success, make a certain amount of money, do certain things, whatever. But all I really needed was to find something that I love doing and that I’m good at, and that I find a purpose. And I think that’s… I just love that about happiness.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jeff Gargas
The Go Giver, Bob Burg. Is one of my all-time favorite, I love it. I have quotes, you’ve had them on that episode — I gotta dig through that episode. Actually, I have massive final prints of the laws, all over my walls. So…

Pete Mockaitis  
And how about a favorite tool? Something that helps you be awesome at your job.

Jeff Gargas  
I live and die in basecamp, we leave that as our project management, use of self reminders, project management. Our team, we’re all virtual. So that’s massive for us. And then I also use an app on my phone called the Five-Minute Journal. That’s really just a like a morning, sort of gratitude and self awareness. And then an evening reflection, it just sets me up for the day and allows me to reflect everyday. Love it.

Pete Mockaitis  
And a favorite habit?

Jeff Gargas  
Favorite habit, I started running about this past August and just getting back into it, focusing on waking up early and getting a workout, and it’s changed everything.

Pete Mockaitis  
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with those that you’re teaching?

Jeff Gargas  
Yeah, I think so with them and more with the team and stuff I love, is… I don’t know if you know Gary Vaynerhuck, he says… I won’t say it in the way he says it, but if you live for the weekends, your stuff is broken. That’s massive for me, because I just think we live in such a world where there’s so many opportunities to do so many different things that if you’re doing something you hate, like it’s just not worth it. You gotta get out, find something that you love.

And I say the same thing to teachers all the time. I said “If you’re dreading Monday, you should probably not be a teacher anymore.” And I love when I talked to teachers and they’re like, “I am so pumped to be back from spring break, because I get to see my kids again. I get to make an impact.” And I’m like that, too. I am pumped for Mondays, every Monday, like even when it’s stressful.

And it’s crazy. Like we’re a small business, we’re growing, it’s stressful pretty much every day. But I love it and I just think if you’re just dying on Monday already for it to be Friday night, man, like something’s broken, you gotta fix it.

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

Jeff Gargas  
Twitter, I love big on Twitter. I love Twitter. I’m on there all the time. I’m @JeffGargas. I’m on Instagram, too. @_JeffGargas. Or just reach out to us at TeachBetter.com, and you can literally email me at Jeff@teachbetter.com. I love building connections and chat with people and just figuring out if there’s any way that I can help

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

Jeff Gargas  
I think take some time to get really, really self-aware. Get rid of all the nonsense and like the BS and what other people say. Take time and figure out what you love, what you don’t love, what you’re good at. And once you start with really thinking about it, clearing out all that other junk, everybody else’s voices… forget the expectation that people have for you. That criticism, the negativity, all that stuff.

Just focus on like the real you. Be you. When you do that, you have no reason, like, make it up and try and put on a show. It’s just for you, like, what are you awesome at? What do I love doing? Go do that. Figure out how do I play on my strengths? How do I surround myself with people who are awesome at what I’m not, so that I can be awesome at what I need to be?

And just like, what that means going to work for someone joining the team, development team. “Let’s fill your gaps,” whatever it is, like no one can be as awesome at the things you do as you are. So go find out what that is, do it, and just love your life. It’s just not worth not doing that.

Pete Mockaitis  
Awesome. Well, Jeff, this has been a treat. Good luck and all you’re doing and helping folks teach better.

Jeff Gargas  
I appreciate it, Pete. This has been awesome. Thank you.