Tag

KF #31. Situational Adaptability Archives - Page 2 of 3 - How to be Awesome at Your Job

849: How to Build Better Teams through Better Inclusion with Sally Helgesen

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Sally Helgesen says: "It’s easier to act our way into new ways of thinking than to think our way into new ways of acting."

Sally Helgesen provides practical ways to foster solidarity and inclusion rather than division.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The merits of true inclusivity.
  2. Why it pays to give the benefit of the doubt.
  3. How to manage your triggers effectively.

About Sally

Sally Helgesen, cited in Forbes as the world’s premier expert on women’s leadership, is an internationally best-selling author, speaker and leadership coach, honored by the Thinkers 50 Hall of Fame. Her most recent book, How Women Rise, co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith, examines the behaviors most likely to get in the way of successful women, and its rights have been sold in 22 languages.

Her previous books include The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, hailed as the classic in its field and continuously in print since 1990, and The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work, which explores how women’s strategic insights can strengthen their careers. The Web of Inclusion: A New Architecture for Building Great Organizations, was cited in The Wall Street Journal as one of the best books on leadership of all time and is credited with bringing the language of inclusion into business.

Resources Mentioned

Sally Helgesen Interview Transcript

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

Sally Helgesen
Thank you, Pete. It’s wonderful to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace. Well, Sally, I’d love to kick it off by hearing about a particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discovery you’ve made along the way when it comes to this inclusion stuff since you’ve been studying it for quite some time.

Sally Helgesen
Yeah, Pete, I’d say the thing that most jumps out at me is that the approach to inclusive culture that’s taken in many organizations, which focuses on unconscious bias, is possibly the least effective focus that we can take. And I know a lot of people have been through unconscious bias trainings, and sometimes they can stir real insights, and sometimes they can make us pretty angry, but whatever the response, they usually don’t lead us with much of a path forward to creating more inclusive relationships, getting along better with people we perceive of as different from ourselves, or creating inclusive teams or cultures in the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s intriguing. Let’s dig into that. And maybe, first, just to make sure we’re all on the same page with regard to terms. What do we mean by being inclusive, fundamentally?

Sally Helgesen
I think an inclusive culture, whether it’s a team, whether it’s an organization, whether it’s a community, we always know it because it is one in which the largest possible percentage of people feel that they are valued for their potential, not just their contributions, so they really feel seen and feel as if they are part of a ‘we’ not a ‘they.’ So, it’s a real cultural belonging in that sense, and that’s why it’s kind of the acid test. If you have a culture and people talk about the organization, say, or the team as a ‘they,’ you can be pretty sure that they’re not perceiving it as inclusive.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful, or corporate, or ‘they,’ it’s like the other folks.

Sally Helgesen
Yup, exactly. So, there’s no possible way that the person who’s using the word ‘they’ perceives themselves as really seen or valued, and so that’s how we know.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, fundamentally, what are some of the key drivers that get in the way of having a real big ‘we’?

Sally Helgesen
A lot of times people are concerned about, or shy about, or fearful of saying things, for what they might imagine would offend somebody who they perceive as having a different background, different values, people across gender, race, age, ethnicity, etc., so people may feel and sort of do a self-censuring so they don’t really feel like they’re being themselves when they’re talking to people who they perceive as being different. And then the other person picks up on that and recognizes that they’re rather stiff because of this perception of difference. So, that’s one of the things that can get in the way.

On the other hand, another thing that can get in the way is we can have an awareness of what someone else might perceive as problematic. So, a lot of it comes down to both of those situations I’m describing, is trying to read other people’s minds and figure out what they might be thinking. Much better to be really transparent and to just ask questions, “How do you like to be spoken to? How do you like to…? What enables you to bring your best talents to work? What talents do you have that may not be viewed? Is there anything that really upsets you when people say it?”

Those kinds of conversations are really helpful at building relationships across boundaries in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you say something that often is not getting the job done is unconscious bias training. Could you paint a picture for what does unconscious bias training look, sound, feel like in practice so folks can sort of recognize that, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I did one of those a few years ago”? And then why isn’t it getting the job done?

Sally Helgesen
Well, what it looks like in practice often, and, of course, there is some unconscious bias training is more effective than others, but, basically, what it looks like is people being asked, either through a test or through a conversation to understand where they might have biases, prejudices, beliefs about people. It can be anything. It can be gender or race, but it could also be people with tattoos on their necks or whatever it is.

So, something that really tests and helps you identify what your beliefs are is where it’s focused. And that can be fine as far as it goes, but there’s no how there, there’s no, “How do you move forward from that?” As someone I worked with once said, “It’s all aha moment, and no ‘now what?’ We don’t know how to proceed.”

And what I’ve tried to do in Rising Together and in the work I’ve been doing, generally, for decades is focus on the how, what are the practices. People perceive us based on our behaviors not on our biases. Really, whatever happens to be running through our heads at the time, that’s how they’re impacted, that’s how they’re affected.

So, I think a stronger approach is to start by practicing more inclusive behaviors with people. It’s also easier to, as I like to say, to act our way into new ways of thinking as opposed to thinking our way into new ways of acting, because once we try out something, we may learn something about it. And so, then we’ll think, “Okay.”

Well, for example, you might think, “Well, this person seems to be this way.” And then you have a conversation with them, and you realize that your presumption was wrong. But if you were trying first to address what was in your head, what your thoughts were, you wouldn’t have any evidence to begin changing.

So, it’s interesting that we seem to often get it backward. We think we need to change our minds so that we can change our behaviors rather than change our behaviors so that we can change our minds.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is powerful, Sally. And I was just about to ask, if some folks have had the unconscious bias training, and they had the aha moments, but not the ‘now what?’ I was just going to ask, so folks have determined, “Okay, I’ve got some unconscious bias against people with tattoos, or trans people, or Trump voters,” I mean, you name it, you have some unconscious bias about any grouping of folk. What is the ‘now what?’ And maybe it sounds like your answer is maybe don’t even bother to think yourself into new ways of acting. Is that fair? Or are there some useful thought-to-action approaches as well?

Sally Helgesen
No, I think it should be action to thought rather than thought to action. It can really keep us stuck because when we’re thinking, “Well, what about this person? Or, what if they…?” etc. So, I would really recommend in those situations going to action. We’ve all had this experience where you go into a store and it looks like you’re going to have a slightly hostile encounter.

So, you practice being almost aggressively nice to that person. You act as if you never noticed any hostility from them. You act as if they were treating you superbly, “Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate that,” without being too sucky-up but acting as if you don’t notice that they’re treating you in a slightly disrespectful way.

Often, not always, but often they will kind of…you’ll be cuing them, “Oh, yeah, you know, I am a nice person. This person, okay, they seem to be responding to me in a positive way.” And nine times out of ten, they’ll switch their response to you. I know, I’ve watched this be true throughout my life. Somebody’s water is dripping down from their bathtub in an apartment above mine, and I know it’s because they were having kind of a lost weekend, and I knock on the door, and say, “I can’t believe you would…” and all that kind of stuff. Well, it’s going to escalate.

If I go up there and trying to diffuse the situation by giving them the benefit of the doubt, “I’m sure you didn’t realize this but the water in your bathtub overflowed and it’s doing whatever it is. And I’m sure this isn’t something that you had any awareness of,” then they’ll, “Oh, well, okay. I’m so sorry,” etc. We don’t do this, and part of the issue in the workplace today is people are kind of primed to be on the search often for microaggressions or, “Does that person think…?” or, “What about their response?” and so we’re not accustomed to diffusing those situations. We feel like we have to react to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was going to ask specifically about getting people a benefit of the doubt. I think most folks are, generally, familiar with what that phrase means. But could you expand upon, in practice, what are the thoughts, the assumptions, the practices, that one embodies when they are just habitually giving people the benefit of the doubt as their default way of being?

Sally Helgesen
Well, I’m not advocating passivity because passivity, when we do that…what I’m really talking about is being able to write a script for yourself. Okay, somebody, let’s talk about gender. So, a woman thinks, “Oh, men just can’t listen to women.” She feels unheard in a situation, “Men just can’t listen to women.” If we just kind of passively accept that, or grab a friend and complain, “I can’t believe that guy. Men can’t…” etc. that’s not an approach that’s going to be helpful.

But often, just saying, “You weren’t listening to me. Men can never listen to women,” that’s not a good path forward either. So, we want a way to give that person the benefit of the doubt. So, in our head, we can write a script, “You know, maybe he couldn’t hear what I was saying because there was noise in the room,” or, “Maybe I didn’t phrase this using language that was that familiar to him. I think I’ll give it another shot.”

Then you go to the person and you say, “I noted that you didn’t seem to hear what I said in that meeting, and I figured it might be helpful to you if I were to rephrase it,” and then you do that. Well, usually, they’re not going to say, “No, I didn’t hear what you said because I wasn’t interested,” or “because I have a terrible time hearing women.” Generally, they’re going to say, “Oh, okay, thank you.” Then you have a way to begin a constructive situation. So, it’s neither defensive nor is it passive.

Now, what is so remarkable, and I’ve used this in coaching for quite a while, what is so remarkable about this technique of writing a new script is that it is effective whether or not we believe that person really earned the benefit of the doubt. If we think that they might have intentionally said something to us in a way that bothered us, or if we think this is part of a pattern with them that they never really listen to us in a fruitful or effective way, even if we think that, if we write that script and then act as if we believe it, it will usually serve us better than the stock response or negative script that we’ve been invested in, in the past.

It will usually serve us better and it will also give us a path to potentially building more of a relationship with that person where they could serve in some way as an ally for us, and we could serve as an ally for them. So, it’s very effective even if we don’t necessarily buy it. And knowing that you don’t necessarily buy it is where part of your power lies in doing this because it’s not a Pollyanna, “Oh, they must be a wonderful person even though…” It’s a very realistic testing and probing to see, to discern an alternate path so that you can connect with that person.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now I want to hear, in your book Rising Together, you identify eight common triggers that undermine our ability to connect. Could you first define what do you mean by trigger? And then could you give us the quick rundown of each of these eight?

Sally Helgesen
Sure. What I mean by trigger is any situation or stimulus in our environment that stirs an emotional response in us.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is this a negative emotion response?

Sally Helgesen
It can be a negative or it can be a positive response. It could be positive as well as negative.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, “I’m delighted by this.”

Sally Helgesen
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“You triggered delight in me, Sally.” Okay.

Sally Helgesen
Wonderful, Pete. I’m so glad to hear it. So, they can be negative or they can be positive, but it’s the negative ones, obviously, that are more likely to undermine us in the workplace, so that’s why I’m focusing on triggers that can often stir a negative response. But what’s important to recognize is that they’re environmental. They happen in the environment so we can’t really control what triggers us.

They lie outside our circle of control, if you will. We can only find a more effective way to manage them than we may already be doing. So, I think we waste our time by trying to create an environment in which we are shielded from any potential triggers, and that’s what’s happened to a lot of younger people coming into the workplace because, in their colleges and universities, there’s such an emphasis on trigger warning, etc.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, really?

Sally Helgesen
Guess what? Our environment is always going to give us trigger warnings. What we need is to understand an effective way to address them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Could you then share with us some of these common triggers?

Sally Helgesen
Yeah, a couple of them that really stand out, one is visibility, which we don’t necessarily think of as a trigger but it really can operate, and it can operate in a number of ways. Number one, we can feel triggered by people we feel are very good at being visible, “Oh, he’s such a showboat. He’s always talking about himself. He’s that kind of person. I’m a wonderful person. I’m not like that.”

Or, we can just simply feel triggered by our own lack of visibility, “Oh, nobody ever notices me. I guess I’m just not the kind of person who grabs attention. Oh, well, I know that I’m a good person, and this, that, or the other, couple of my friends like me,” but we’re being triggered by that, by that reaction. Or, we can, if we are really good at it, and I’ve seen this with senior executives I’ve worked with, if we’re really good at it, we can be triggered by people who are not good at positioning themselves to be visible.

We think we can dismiss them, “Oh, well, he’s not a player. He’s not very good at bragging on himself or tooting his own horn. He seems to have some moralistic inhibition against doing it, so I’m not going to waste my time with him.” I heard that a lot from people who are good at it. So, it can trigger us in all kinds of ways.

But, here, you see this is a really good demonstration of how triggers work. What they do is they stir up a kind of automatic or stock response in us, “Well, he’s a showboat. I don’t want to be like him.” And I’ve heard people say this for years, “Yeah, well, if I act out like that jerk down the hall to get noticed in this organization, no, thank you.” Why is he a jerk, because he gets noticed? Maybe learn from him.

So, they stir up a stock response, and then that response keeps us from being able to think of a more positive way to address the situation, “Hmm, okay, I see that I am being triggered by that person’s skill at getting noticed. I wouldn’t necessarily want to use the same techniques, but I think that there is probably something I can learn here. Maybe I’m going to start watching him and thinking about how I might rephrase things he says in a different way, a way that’s more comfortable for me.”

“So, for example, if he’s saying, ‘Well, I had that client eating out of my hand,’ we might think, ‘Okay, that’s helpful.’ Maybe it would be more useful for me to phrase it, ‘Well, that client and I really bonded together.” But it’s helpful to understand and watch what he’s doing in a constructive way so that we’re rewriting that script, “Hey, here’s someone I can learn from.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful in terms of the notion of our automatic response, and it just closes down the whole universe of possibility and opportunity. And I think we do this all the time with so many things.

Sally Helgesen
We do. We do.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you tell us, Sally, what are some ways to catch ourselves in the moment regardless of what the trigger is?

Sally Helgesen
Well, I think, number one, when we recognize ourselves going into telling ourselves a story that’s kind of negative and defensive, or telling ourselves, in particular, a story that’s very self-serving about who we are, “Well, I’m not the kind of person who would ever…” The minute we hear ourselves telling ourselves that kind of story in our heads, we should recognize that, “Ah, okay, I’m probably being triggered.”

“Now what is triggering me here? In this case, it’s the fact that I feel that that person is better at getting noticed than I am. Okay, that’s triggering me. How could I rewrite this or take a different path of action that would be more helpful to me, that would serve me better and might also help me figure out a way to connect better with this person instead of, judgmentally, dismissing them?”

So, defensiveness, judgment, self-serving narratives, these are all keys that we are being triggered. And if we want to address them, we should take heed and then think about how we might more skillfully and usefully respond.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so given those things to be on the look out for, could you share with us another one of the common triggers called ‘that’s not funny’?

Sally Helgesen
‘That’s not funny.’ Exactly. These are triggers that are based around humor. And humor has become, I think, are really challenging thing to deal with in today’s workplace because people have different perceptions in terms of what they think is funny. Also, jokes, especially jokes that would’ve been acceptable and thought of as sort of fresh and interesting a number of years ago, now have a way of giving offense to a lot of people. And that has made humor, to some degree, really challenging in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Sally, could you give us an example of a joke or piece of humor or reference that might’ve been fine and dandy five to ten years ago, and now is, ooh, risky business?

Sally Helgesen
Yeah, any joke that has to do with gender, lots of jokes that were in the workplace – I don’t want to necessarily repeat them right now – that had to do with women who were sort of hot quantities or a presumption that men were always trying to seduce women in one way or another, those kinds of jokes. I came of age; I was in the Mad Men era when I started working. I worked in advertising and it was really like Mad Men, and there were all kinds of stuff that, today, would get somebody fired on the spot that was happening.

So, there are a lot of people who kind of come from that era, or just a bit afterwards, when it was sort of rock and roll time, and anything would go. And there could be jokes about who somebody picked up at the bar last night. Well, that’s fine, that was then, but now that’s going to rile up a lot of people. Anything that pertains specifically to someone’s looks or appearances is really out of bounds. Even very simple things.

Like one example I give in the book, which is a classic sort of golf joke where the husband comes home, and the wife said, “Well, how did it go?” And he said, “Well, it was fine until the sixth hole when Charlie had a heart attack.” And the wife says, “Oh, poor Charlie. What happened?” And he said, “Well, he expired on the sixth hole, so it really was a drag after that because it was all hit the ball, drag Charlie, hit the ball, drag Charlie.”

I heard this joke told probably far too many times at various conferences in Palm Springs, right up through the ‘90s into the end of the last century, as it were. And people would always laugh, depending on if the joke teller, number one, was skilled in telling it, and, number two, if he had a high-enough rank in the organization, everybody would yuck it up. But today it wouldn’t work.

For example, a lot of younger people would think, “How is this relevant? It sounds like the wife is at home waiting for the husband to come back from a golf game. This isn’t a situation I identify with.” Or, people who had had a relative who had a heart attack would be prone to think, “Well, that’s not funny.” That wasn’t how people thought 30, 40, 50 years ago. It just wasn’t.

So, people need to be a little more careful but, very importantly, we cannot ban humor from the workplace. We absolutely can’t do it. It is one of the most important qualities that helps people bond and create relationships, and it makes work more fun, so we can’t get into a very uptight situation where we’re constantly scanning the room to think, “Who could this offend? Who could this offend? Oh, better not do this. Oh, better keep my mouth shut.”

Much better is to create an environment where we look at things that are obviously meant to be offensive, and there are a lot of them, and things that might misfire a little bit, like that ‘hit the ball, drag Charlie’ joke. They might misfire, somebody thinks, “Wow, so and so just had a heart attack. How is that going to play with them?”

And we need to be, I think, a little less hard on people, unless we perceive that they were really trying to be provocative and offensive. It’s also important to try to find the humor in situations rather than dragging in jokes, because jokes rely for their power on their capacity to be provocative and, to some degree, outrageous. They cross boundaries. That’s what they do. That’s where that sort of twist that makes a joke funny comes from.

And so, having an awareness that, “Let’s find the humor in our situation,” in self-deprecating humor, making fun of yourself, not too much, but enough when something goes wrong, when you say something stupid, that is especially effective if you’re in a position with some degree of power.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Sally, we talked about a few behaviors and habits that are great in terms of giving people the benefit of the doubt, and watching yourself and your triggers, and if you’re just riling people off, and constructing self-flattering narratives that are defensive left and right. Are there any other key inclusive behaviors that make a world of difference for folks in organizations?

Sally Helgesen
Oh, certainly. One of the things that I really heard a lot about when I was working on the book was the power of nominating other people for awards. And one of the women I interviewed, she said, “I really learned a lot about creating allies from a much older executive when I was very early in my career. And this executive came up to me, and he said, ‘I am trying to see if I can get a certain number of nominations for some big award in the industry.’ And he said, ‘I’m wondering if you would nominate me.’”

So, she said she was shocked on two fronts. Number one, she said she was shocked because she didn’t know that that’s how it was done, that people who got awards often lobbied for it. She said, “I just thought they got awards.” She said, “I never really thought it through.” She was early in her career at that time.

But she said, “I was also astonished that someone who was at such a senior level would ask someone junior like me.” She said, “Again, that really, really…I didn’t know you could do that.” She said it made her very aware that this is something that you can do that earns you tremendous gratitude from your colleagues. It’s not only agreeing to nominate them but volunteering to nominate them, “You know, you’ve really been in this job, and I saw that…” whatever it is, whatever entity it is “…is taking nominations for people who are outstanding in our sector. I thought that I might nominate you. How would that be?”

Well, this is something that people really, really respond to. And, again, I think it’s important to recognize that this is something that we can do really early in our careers. We can also ask people what would be helpful to them. And, again, we can do this even if we’re very junior in our career. We can recognize that part of our job is always going to be trying to make our bosses, our leaders, the people we work for, part of our job is making them look good, so we can be clear about this.

So, we can say, “I understand that I want you to look good in this initiative. Is there anything I can do that would be especially useful to you in letting the people in the organization know what a terrific job our team is doing, and, therefore, you, as our team leader.” So, asking a question like that can really be eye-opening and it does a couple of things.

“You solicit my ideas for how you could be helpful,” but it also suggests to the person that you say that to, that you really understand how things work in an organization, and that you’re not naïve about it. You understand and accept that part of your job is making them look good. So, that kind of puts you on a different footing than you might’ve been before.

Of course, there are plenty of things senior people can do as well, “What talents do you have that you feel you may not be using? Do you have any skills in this job that you would particularly like to develop? Is there anybody you would like to meet that I might know who could be helpful to you in the future?” Those kinds of questions, we don’t ask those kinds of questions enough wherever we are in our careers.

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

Sally Helgesen
A couple of things I do want to mention is it’s very hard to try to identify when we’re being triggered and then think of a different path of action. And we will always be more successful at it if we are bringing other people along on our journey. This is part of this theme of asking, of saying, “You know, one thing I’m really trying to work on…”

Fairness is a trigger in the book we didn’t talk about, “One thing I’m really trying to work on is coming to a better understanding of what is fair and what isn’t fair in this organization because I realize that I often think something is unfair but it may not be as unfair as I think it is, or I often recognize that something is actually much more unfair than I was thinking it was. Can I bounce my ideas off you once I have a perception about this and kind of get your thoughts on it?”

So, it’s a kind of seat-of-the-pants pure coaching where we engage other people in our own development. In this case, our development as we try to think about what undermines us in terms of building strong relationships really broadly.

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

Sally Helgesen
I think a favorite quote of mine, because it’s one that I use virtually every day, and I referenced it a bit earlier, comes from the really terrific old self-help book by Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. And it was, “Always seek to discern what lies within your circle of control, and to align it with your circle of concern.”

In other words, don’t waste your time trying to address whatever concerns you but you can’t control. And, in fact, probably don’t spend too much time being concerned about it if you can’t control it.

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

Sally Helgesen
I would say that the research done by Daniel Kahneman, who basically invented the whole field of behavioral economics, about how people don’t always, or even often do what really serves their own long-term interests, that we’re often a lot more irrational and reactive in terms of how we respond to everything, ranging from how we manage our financial lives, to the decisions we make about where we live or how we interact with our families, that we often make decisions that don’t serve our own interests.

And I think this work was so important because it brought a whole recognition of the fact that humans are not as rational as they imagine themselves to be into the discussion. And, in fact, that’s really influenced a lot of my thinking about how triggers operate. We tend to be triggered by things and respond in ways that do not serve our interests.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Sally Helgesen
I think my favorite book, in fact, I know this because I start most of my days reading it, is Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, which translates as a manual for power. It is a complete listing of deeply counterintuitive insights about the nature of power and how we use it, especially in the RW Wing translation. I find it a fantastic way to begin every day. Real insights into human behavior and how to understand human behavior but also use it in ways that serve what we’re trying to be and contribute in the world.

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

Sally Helgesen
What I use to be awesome at my job is basically Word documents. I’m a writer and my preferred method for communicating with the world is, and always has been since I was a little child, writing. And I find Word such an improvement upon typewriters, and that sort of stuff we used to use to erase words on typewriters. So, I just absolutely love it and couldn’t live without it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do that helps you be awesome at your job?

Sally Helgesen
My favorite habit, I think, is my ability to admit vulnerability. When I don’t have a skill, when I’m not good at something, I don’t try to cover it up. And I think that really helps me. I deal with a lot of things all day long, and if I had to spend energy trying to pretend I was good at what I’m not good at, I don’t think I’d have much success.

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

Sally Helgesen
I think it relates to something that I said earlier, that it’s easier to act our way into new ways of thinking than to think our way into new ways of acting. Since my work has been focused upon the ‘hows’ for the last 35, 40 years, that really resonates with me. I think we want to act in thoughtful ways, learn from how we act, and then let that shape what our opinions and our views are.

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

Sally Helgesen
Well, to my website, SallyHelgesen.com. And I’m active on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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

Sally Helgesen
Yes, I do. Being awesome at your job requires a little bit of humility, a little bit of willingness to recognize when your stock responses do not serve you, but it doesn’t require self-effacement. We should never equate being humble with being humiliated. We can be humble and acknowledge what we need to learn without beating ourselves up or telling ourselves a negative story about who we are or what we’re trying to do in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Sally, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in rising.

Sally Helgesen
Thank you, Pete. Thank you so much.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

Thank you, Sponsors!

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Care.com. Find the perfect caregiver for your child, parents, and home.

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:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • FSAstore.com. Use your flex spending account funds with the greatest of ease! Save $20 on a $150+ purchase with promo code AWESOME.

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:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • FSAstore.com. Use your flex spending account funds with the greatest of ease! Save $20 on a $150+ purchase with promo code AWESOME.
  • Monday.comExperience a 14-day free trial of the Work OS that boosts the ownership, joy, and efficiency of work.

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.