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699: Redefining Success for More Fulfilling Days with Brad Stulberg

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Brad Stulberg says: "There is hardly, if any, correlation between more money and more fulfillment, more happiness, more health."

Brad Stulberg discusses the fundamental mindset shift that helps us feel more fulfilled every day.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The deeply-rooted belief that explains why we’re often dissatisfied 
  2. The simple secret to feeling more fulfilled every day
  3. The hidden costs of efficiency 

About Brad

Brad Stulberg is an internationally known expert on human performance, well-being, and sustainable success. He is coauthor of the bestselling Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox. His work has appeared in the New York TimesWall Street JournalLos Angeles TimesWiredForbes, and more, and he is a contributing editor to Outside Magazine. In his coaching practice, Brad works with executives and entrepreneurs on their performance and well-being, and he regularly speaks to large organizations on these topics as well.

Resources Mentioned

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Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brad, thanks for joining us again on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Brad Stulberg
Hey, Pete, it’s great to be talking with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m looking forward to digging into your latest, your book, The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul.” I just get a kick out of that subtitle Feeds—Not Crushes. That’s fun. So, yeah, I want to get there. But, first, it’s funny, I am prepping for a camping trip actually and you are a contributing editor to Outside Magazine, which I have looked at several times.

And it seems like you guys always get cool gear sent to you to check out, to test, to review. I’d like to hear if there’s been any just straight up, silly, ridiculous, noteworthily, hilarious devices that have been sent your way in the years you’ve been doing this.

Brad Stulberg
Oh, my gosh, the list is infinite, particularly around so-called wellness products. Most of my writing for Outside is around health and wellbeing, and the amounts of products with such broad claims, all containing CBD, is just outrageous. You’ve got CBD for your sore knees, CBD for your anxiety, CBD for your dog’s sore knees, CBD for your dog’s anxiety, CBD for your child. So, I think we’re in like peak CBD wave.

Now, whether or not CBD does any of those things, I can’t say. I’m quite skeptical. But, perhaps, more helpful for your camping pursuits, the one device that I find so helpful that so many people often overlook is just a really good light that you can strap onto your head, so like a headlamp for reading at night without keeping everyone else up, for navigating the camp ground when it is late or pitch black, and for just getting around. You don’t have to find a flashlight, it’s just there on your head. So, that is my recommendation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. I sprang for a fancy one, I think it was a Black Diamond, and, yes, it has served me well. I have fond memories of everyone having their little headlamps on playing cards at night on the campsite, and it’s a fun little picture. Cool.

Well, so let’s talk about groundedness what’s the big idea behind this latest book?

Brad Stulberg
Right. So, the big idea is this. If you look at charts showing the performance of the stock market or the national GDP in America but also in most Western countries, you see a trajectory that looks very good. It is a pretty consistent rise. But then if you look at charts of depression, anxiety, loneliness, burnout, you see the exact opposite. You see a pretty steep and consistent decrease.

So, the book asks, “How do we reconcile these two things?” The measures that we have show that people are doing really well in terms of GDP and stock market, but these other measures show that we’re not. And I call this problem, or at the least the problem is a function of something that I call heroic individualism, which is this notion that the only arbiter of success is external measurement and it’s a constant race for the next thing, to constantly one up yourself, one up others, and it’s like this never-ending game that is very much fueled by consumer marketing to be better, have more, do better, succeed, and it’s leaving people feeling pretty miserable.

And the solution that I proposed is this framework of groundedness which is based on modern science, ancient wisdom, and concrete practices from individuals who have done well but, more importantly, felt low along the way and had fulfilling lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds lovely. I’d like that. And so then, it’s intriguing, you’re right. So, one would think that in a world in which folks, individuals, are wealthier, we ought to be happier and better off. And I guess there’s been a host of research on that which seems to suggest that there’s really kind of a cutoff point. Like, once your needs are pretty well met and you’re not like worried about, I don’t know, housing or food, or you can buy the basics that you need to be fine and not be freaked out, it seems like right around that point, you don’t get much benefit from being wealthier. Does that tie into some of this as well?

Brad Stulberg
It does, yeah. There are some research that shows just that, that once your basic needs are met, I’ll throw healthcare in there as well, but shelter, food, healthcare, that, generally speaking, more money is not tied to more health or more happiness. I think if you’re a double-minimum wage worker that’s working those jobs so that you can meet those basic needs then, yeah, more money would help. But for the average knowledge worker or business professional, there is hardly, if any, correlation between more money and more fulfillment, more happiness, more health.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, with that established, then we’re going to talk about groundedness a lot. Could you give us a definition for what is groundedness? What is the opposite of groundedness? What does that kind of look like?

Brad Stulberg
Sure. So, the opposite of groundedness is to be pushed and pulled by the frenetic energy and fast-paced-ness of the culture of your life. So, it constantly feels like you’re falling behind, you’re all over the place, you’re treading water, you’re seeking some kind of contentment, you’re not sure where to find it, so you don’t feel firmly rooted where you are.

And, as a result, even if you’re striving and even if you’re successful by conventional standards, you probably don’t feel very good. Lots of people find themselves in this position. Unfortunately, this was true before COVID, certainly true during COVID, and I think a lot of people are now evaluating, “Hey, as we emerge from this pandemic, how can I craft a life that perhaps feels more wholesome and more fulfilling?”

So, the opposite of that being pushed and pulled around is being grounded. And being grounded is about being firmly rooted where you are. It is not a lack of ambition or a lack of striving, but it is doing so from a place of having a very solid foundation in place. And what tends to happen to pushers, high-achieving people, successful professionals, is that once they start to have some success, they often focus on the overstory of the metaphorical tree, so the bright and shiny objects, the next thing, and they neglect the foundation, the core, the trunk, the root system that holds it to the ground, and that whenever rough weather comes, the whole tree is at risk of toppling.

So, this book says, “Hey, here’s how you build that solid foundation that will support you and hold you through highs and lows, and an outcome of that is not only setting yourself up for success but also finding some more fulfillment in life and some contentment and not constantly needing to be chasing the next thing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds excellent. Can you share with us an example of that in practice, like someone who made the shift, they got extra-grounded and good things came from it?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah. So, there’s five principles that are really key, I think, to talk about that help take this from something that sounds really good to something that is concrete and achievable for so many people. And I’m going to pair each of these principles against the current ethos.

So, the first principle is to accept where you are to get where you want to go. And the current culture very much encourages magical thinking, delusional thinking, things don’t go your way, you’re not happy with your circumstance. And instead of face it, well, what do you do? You buy something, you numb it with a substance, maybe you go on social media and you post and you tweet, but you’re never really fully confronting what’s in front of you. And whether things are going well or going not, you have to be where you are, accept what’s happening, and confront what’s in front of you because, otherwise, you’re never working on the thing that needs to be worked on.

The second big principle is cultivating presence so that you can own your energy and attention instead of have it be all over the place. So, what is the current ethos all about? It’s about distraction, busyness, overscheduling, being everything to everyone everywhere all the time. Groundedness asks to say, “Hey, my presence, my attention, my time is actually my life. That’s all that I have so I need to take ownership of it. I need to be more intentional about how I use it.”

The third principle is this notion of being patient to get where you’re going faster. Again, let’s compare this to heroic individualism and the current ethos, which says that you should move fast and break things, you should strive for hacks, for silver bullets, for overnight breakthroughs. What I argue in the book and what the research shows is that all of that tends not to work, and, if anything, it sets you back. If you move fast and break things, what tends to happen is you end up broken. So, groundedness calls for patience, for giving things time and space to unfold, and for really committing to staying on a path and not getting off and on it and off and on it as the next bad comes out.

The fourth principle is vulnerability to build genuine strength and confidence. Particularly with men but with women as well, the current ethos is very much about invincibility. I think there’s a bestselling book by a guy whose last name is, ironically, Asprey, and the book is called Bulletproof, and there’s this whole notion about becoming bulletproof. But humans aren’t robots. We’re not machines that are hardwired. We’re actually quite soft. And the more vulnerable that we can be with ourselves and with others, the stronger and more confident we become because we’re no longer hiding anything. When you’re not hiding something, then you can really own your strength.

And then the fifth, and perhaps the most important, principle is to build deep community. So, the temptation is to prioritize optimization, the hustle culture, road efficiency, more, more, more, and what often gets cannibalized is the time spent forging a true sense of belonging and community, yet we know what makes us happy, what helps ground us when we soar, and what also provides a safety net when things aren’t going well is a sense of belonging to something that’s beyond ourselves, to a community, to strong relationships.

So, those are the five principles that yield the sense of endurance, unwavering strength, ability to be where you are, find fulfillment and still strive for success.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, there’s a lot to dig into in each of these. What are some practices associated with accepting where you are while also not being sort of resigned, like, “Well, that’s who I am. That’s the way it is”? Like, what is that practice of accepting where you are in an excellent way look, sound, and feel like?

Brad Stulberg
I love that you asked that question. So, thank you for asking that, Pete, because so many people hear about acceptance, and they immediately think passive resignation, and the truth couldn’t be farther from that. The best way to move forward and to excel, to pursue excellence, to get better, is to start from a place of fully accepting where you are. And the reason for this is twofold.

The first, as I mentioned earlier, is if you don’t accurately appraise your situation, whatever steps you take to improve are not going to be the best steps because you’re not working on reality. The second is you actually want to be pretty confident and content to get better. If you feel the need to get better, the compulsion to get better, “If I don’t get better, everything is going to go to crap,” for most people, that leads to tightness, constriction, fear. If you feel okay where you are, you don’t even have to like it but you just have to be okay with what’s happening, then you can drop your shoulders, you can perform from a place of openness, from a place of love, and most people perform better from a place of openness than from a place of tightness and constriction.

Something else that I think is really important to talk about here is this notion of acceptance and commitment therapy, which is a huge part of the book. And acceptance and commitment ask you to do two things. The first, accept where you are, be clearheaded about it. The second is to know your core values, the things that define you, that make you who you are, and really commit to practicing them day in and day out. And by merging an acceptance of the current situation with the ability to practice your core values, that’s how you get where you want to go.

The final story that I’ll tell, it’s an old ancient Eastern parable about the second arrow, and this is so applicable to so many people today. So, the first arrow, you often can’t control. This can be an illness, it can be being laid off at work, it can be a global pandemic. The second arrow, your judgments about that situation, your denial of that situation, your fear of that situation, your resistance of that situation. The second arrow often hurts worse than the first arrow.

So, what acceptance asks you to do is not be all rosy and deny that there aren’t plenty of first arrows, but instead of wasting the time and energy judging it and resisting it and deluding yourself about it, to say, “Hey, this is what’s happening right now. Here’s what I need to do to improve the situation.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, that’s the acceptance piece. And when it comes to cultivating presence, yeah, I think that just about all of us are feeling it in terms of in ourselves and in others, folks don’t seem as present. There’s a boatload of distractions, and we can wax poetically about the doubling of information and omnipresent devices and social media, yadda, yadda. But what are the best ways to get more present?

Brad Stulberg
All right. So, here we go. There’s a study that I wrote in the book by some researchers from Harvard, and they, very ironically, had people download an app on their phones that allowed the researchers to ping them throughout the day. And what the researchers found is that, excuse me, they pinged them and asked them what they were doing and their level of concentration and their level of happiness.

And what the researchers found is it wasn’t so much the activity that someone was doing that made them happy or not, it was their level of presence. So, if someone was fixing their car or mowing their lawn, but reported being quite present while they were doing it, versus someone that might’ve been having sex but not present, the person that was mowing the lawn actually reports being happier in that moment.

So, we often think that we need to be doing the right activity to be fulfilled to be happy, but often we actually just need to be present for what’s in front of us. So, then the question, of course, becomes, “Well, how do you cultivate presence?” And I like to use an analogy of brown rice and M&Ms. So, if you’re ever faced with a bowl of brown rice and a bowl of M&Ms and you’re quite hungry, if you’re anything like me, and like just about everyone I’ve ever asked this question to, you’re going to go for the M&Ms, especially if they’re peanut M&Ms. And the M&Ms are always going to taste really good on that first bite, much better than the brown rice.

Ten minutes later, if you’ve just been eating M&Ms, it might still be pretty good, you might be happy with your decision. But if you choose M&Ms for hours, days, weeks, months, eventually you’re going to start feel gross and sick. And M&Ms are like all the things that encroach upon our attention when we’re doing stuff that matters.

So, the stuff that matters is the brown rice. Working on a big report, writing a book, creating a song, trying to do deep focus brainstorming with colleagues, that stuff is brown rice. M&Ms, social media, refreshing emails, CNN.com, the list goes on and on. All those things feel better in the moment because we’re getting some dopamine hits, some thrill, some excitement but, over time, you get on this huge bender of distraction.

So, much like with real M&Ms, with distraction M&Ms, the best thing that you can do is try to keep them out of the house. So, you design your environment to avoid distractions. And then, also, have this mindset shift that realizes that, “Hey, the deep focus, fully present work that I’m doing might not feel as good at first as engaging in distractions, but I know if I just stick with it, I’ll feel much better.”

And then what happens is you get enough positive feedback and enough reinforcement that, eventually, you start to prefer brown rice to the M&Ms, you prefer presence to distraction because you know how much better it makes you feel.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that sounds sensible in terms of, yup, that checks out in terms of those being the consequences of going there, and so keep them out of the house is great. So, just think about shaping your environment such that the enticing distractions aren’t as available. I guess what I’m finding in my own distracted life is a lot of the distractions, they come from within. It’s like I’m really curious. I got a lot of curiosity. It’s good for a podcaster.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’ve got some curiosity and so I’m doing something, it’s like, “Well, what about this?” And so, the personal practice, when it’s really firing hard, like I find my favorite notebook for this purpose and I write down, “I am doing this.” And then for all the distractions that pop up, it’s like, “Okay, I’m very curious about that. I’m just going to write it down. It’s there so I’m not going to forget about it.”

And then it’s almost like it kind of feels like a workout in terms of, “Well, hey,” actually I got this from you and I think about it all the time, “stress plus rest equals growth,” in terms of like, “I’m focusing. I’m focusing. I am getting kind of tired in focusing and I’m getting all the more tempted but I’m going to hold out for my 30, 60, 90 minutes, whatever,” it’s like, “Ah.” So, it’s like the end of a workout, I get to have a beverage, get in the shower, or whatever.

So, anyway, that’s one thing I figured out but you got the book. Tell me, when distraction comes from within, how do you recommend we cultivate all the more presence?

Brad Stulberg
So, writing it down was the first thing I was going to say, and you beat me to it, so you’re already on track, Pete. The only thing I’ll add to what you said is when you write that thing down, you’re actually offloading it from your brain, so not only do you give yourself permission to stop thinking about it but you also don’t have to worry about forgetting it, because we want to remember our really interesting insights and curious ideas. Someone like who’s a creative, it’s core to your work, to your identity.

What you also just described is almost like a working meditation. So, mindfulness meditation is the practice that always comes up with training presence. And why is that? Because meditation is doing exactly what you just said. Instead of the paying attention to whatever you’re working on, you’re paying attention to your breath, you have thoughts and feelings that arise from within, they distract you, you notice them, non-judgmentally you say, “Oh, interesting distraction. Back to my breath.” In your case, “Oh, interesting thought. I’m going to write it down. Back to what’s in front of me.” Practice that over and over again, and it should get much easier to pay attention.

Something else that helps a here is to schedule blocks of deep focus work. So, oftentimes, what I find people will do is they’ll say, “Oh, this sounds great. I’m going to have an entirely deep-focus present day.” And unless you are a motorcycle mechanic in a room with no digital devices at all, it is extremely hard for people in the 21st century to be distraction-free. What ends up happening is you cave in. You check your email, you check your social media, blah, blah, blah. And negative; you fail.

So, rather than try to avoid distractions all day, what I like to do, and what I tell my clients to do, what I write about in the book, is just to schedule times for deep work, for full present work, and then whatever happens, the rest of the day happens. If you schedule two 90-minute blocks to be present and direct your energy to something that really matters to you, only three hours, you would be amazed at how much you get gone and how good you feel.

I have some entrepreneur coaching clients who are in companies, a stage, where there’s a ton of operational work to do, constant fire drills; keeping the doors open and closed is really hard work. And a common issue that they’ll come to me is they feel empty at the end of the day. They feel like they didn’t really accomplish anything. And for these really busy operators, even just one hour of deep-focus work where they can take something that is at point A, exert energy and presence and get it to point B, leaves them feeling so much more satiated at the end of the day.

So, that’s why I think scheduling, it can be really important. I want to get in the weeds because I know that your audience tend to be business professionals that really enjoy the concrete. In addition to scheduling deep-focus work and fully present work, you want to know what you’re doing ahead of time. Because if you don’t, and that free hour or 90 minutes pops up on your calendar, you have a greater likelihood of filling it with email or with scrolling.

Whereas, if you know ahead of time that, “Hey, today, during my deep-focus work, I’m going to read Brad’s book,” or, “I’m going to work on the PowerPoint deck for this client,” or, “I need to draft this memo,” or, “I really need to write these three important emails.” Well, then you’ll actually do that thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that. And it’s funny, I used to resist that in terms of it’s like, “Oh, no, something really important might come up.” But I find that when I schedule the thing, and then I say, “Okay, that’s the thing,” then I actually know I can trust myself. It’s like, “Well, no, Pete, that was the most important thing when you scheduled it. And now there is a thing that has greater impact. It’s not just urgent. It straight out has greater impact that’s true.”

And so then, I can, in good conscience, say, “Well, this deep-work time was scheduled for important thing A, but in the last four days, important thing B is now clearly way more important than important thing A, and so I’m going to do that instead.” And I can do that as opposed to, it’s like, “Well, no, I feel like catching up on the news instead.” It’s a different substitution and I know it.

Brad Stulberg
But you’re pausing and you’re deliberately making that decision, and I would argue that that’s the value of the pause. And the pushback is always to my coaching clients, “Is it really more important or impactful or is it just something that you happen to be more excited about now?” Because, I’m not saying this is happening with you, but what can happen in really high-achieving professionals is that the long projects where you don’t see immediate results that take a lot of time tend to not get worked on for that very reason.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true, yes. And so, I think it’s so great to have some clear metrics. And for business, I think about expected profit created per hour invested, or wealth generated if we’re going broader in terms of thinking, “I really do need to get a financial planner.”

Brad Stulberg
And then what I would also say, back to measuring what actually matters, is some level of fulfillment. And if you spend an hour doing X or an hour doing Y, there’s also a question of, “Hey, when you get home and you’re with your partner or you’re with your kids, what’s going to make you feel like you’re satiated, like you had a good day at work?” And something that I talk about a lot in the book is so many people that are frenetic and all over the place, and don’t own their energy and attention, they come home from work and they’re super short with their kids or their spouse, and they don’t know why.

And it’s because they feel guilty that they weren’t productive during the day, and they were pushed and pulled, and they had no time, and, “Now, I’m at home and now I can’t even own my time because my partner needs it and that my kid needs it.” Whereas, if you just set aside an hour to do something important that fills up your cup, the rest of the day you can release from that need. And, ideally, you go from an hour to an hour and a half, to two, to three, to four. And some people can do five hours of deep work in a day. They have the capacity to do it, and they have a job that lets them.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so let’s talk about fulfillment in terms of values, clarity, what do you really want. What’s your top perspectives in terms of arriving at that clarity, of determining the answers to that, and what one’s values truly are?

Brad Stulberg
So, fulfillment is an inside game, that’s the first thing. There’s a concept in the book that I write about called the arrival fallacy, which basically says that so many individuals will say, “I’ll just be content, I’ll just be fulfilled, I’ll just be happy when I get X, Y, Z; that promotion, that car, that beautiful partner, my book sells this many copies, my podcast is number one and its category, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s a fallacy because we never really arrive. The goalpost is always 10 yards down the field, “Oh, your podcast is number one in personal growth or in learning. Well, why isn’t it number one overall?” “Your book sold a thousand copies. Why not two?” “You got promoted to be VP. Well, now, I want to be the CEO.” You never really arrive so you cannot find fulfillment from chasing something outside of yourself.

Brad Stulberg
And it’s a very human thing to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That is so true. When those numbers, they resonate. And that’s sort of my joke whenever I catch a download milestone, it’s like, “Ooh, I’m at 15 million downloads but, you know what, I’ll truly be happy when I’m at 16 million downloads.” It’s an absurdity and I just sort of check myself with that little joke every time we hit the next million.

Brad Stulberg
And I catch myself doing the same thing. Like, none of this is bad. This is human nature. I write books for myself as much as anyone, so that’s why the practice of groundedness is in the title. This stuff is an ongoing practice. So, yes, very human to catch yourself saying, “If then, then I’ll be content. Then I’ll be able to just sit down in the easy chair and be happy,” but that doesn’t happen. Research shows it, all the ancient wisdom traditions point toward it, and stories of people like me and you say the same.

So, rather than try to achieve fulfillment externally, if you can shift the focus internally, then you’ll have a much better chance of doing it. And this is where core values become so important and why they’re such a big part of the book. So, I think about core values as the qualities that you most want to embody, that make you who you are, and if you’re not sure of what those are, you look at people that you really respect, and you say, “What do I respect about this person?” And it’s rarely, “Oh, they sold three million books.” It might be that they are a hard worker, or they’re kind, or they’re compassionate, or they’re present. Those are core values.

So, I think it’s good to come up with between three and five. You don’t want to have a laundry list because then you end up not really doing any. You don’t want to just have one because that’s not very specific. Then for each value, again, things like creativity, family, reputation, grit, determination, persistence, love, kindness, you want to individualize it and define it. So, what does something as broad as love mean to you? What does reputation mean to you? What does grit mean to you?

Then here’s where the rubber really hits the road. For each of those things, in addition to a definition, you want to come up with three daily practices, or weekly practices, monthly practices, where your day-to-day concrete actions align with those core values. In that way, regardless of what’s happening externally, if you can show up and live, in alignment with your core values, then you can feel really good about yourself, not just because “succeeded at the game,” but because, again, these are the things that make you who you are, that you want to embody. When you’re living in alignment with these things, you tend to feel good.

So, an example of this is someone might have the core value love. Okay. Well, this is super esoteric. And let’s say that they define love as “Caring deeply and paying close attention to people and pursuits that matter to me.” Okay, that’s getting a little bit better. Now let’s get to daily practice. “Well, one of those people and pursuits is my relationship with my partner. And this might mean that every night during dinner, I’m going to turn my phone off and put it in another room so I’ll have a better chance of being present for her.” Boom! That’s a practice. It might mean that, “Hey, I’m a creative person, and when I write music, I want to bring all of my loving energy to that. So, I’m going to schedule three-by-one hour blocks a week of distraction-free time to write music.” Now you’re practicing love.

Let’s say the core value is grit. The daily practice might be, “Every time I’m really tempted to stop something and quit what I’m doing, I’m going to say, ‘What’s the cost of just giving it 10 more days to play out and see if it can’t work out?’” That’s the practice that embodies grit. So, you go from these very noble, high-level, lofty, ambitious qualities, down to the minutiae of day-to-day, and that is ultimately how you become more grounded and how you achieve fulfillment.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And I like that extra level of the practices, and you’re right.

Brad Stulberg
I’ve heard people call it an internal dashboard.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like it.

Brad Stulberg
So, it’s like, okay, if your end goal is profit, well, in a business sense, where you have all these steps to execute on to get there. So, here, if your end goal is groundedness or fulfillment, well, here are the three to five things that ladder up to it, and then here are the process measures that are going to get you there.

Pete Mockaitis
And what I like so much is that you can, I don’t know, for better or for worse, I don’t know. Brad, maybe you’ll coach me. I really like feeling like a winner and I really hate feeling like a loser. And so, there’s some little bit of growth mindset, fixed mindset, precariousness there associated with doing things that I’m not good at. I seem to have a heck of a time navigating the medical landscape in the United States, it’s like, “What? My appointment was cancelled. Why? I didn’t do that thing. Well, what?” Whatever. So, that makes me feel like a loser.

And so, what’s cool about this notion of the internal dashboard and fulfillment being an inside game is that you can be a winner no matter what the external results are, “I got dozens of medical appointments cancelled.” It’s like, “But you know what, I still nailed those daily practices associated with the values of who I want to be. So, I’m probably not going to feel all that down about it. It’s like, yeah, that’s annoying and that’s a bummer, and I guess I’m going to have to do it again. But, hey, I’m being who I want to be, and that’s pretty awesome.”

Brad Stulberg
Yes. It’s the ultimate F-U to all the voices in your head that are like, “Oh, you didn’t do good enough. You’re not enough. This isn’t…” And it gets back to what we’re saying. The more you practice those values, that actually, the paradox is the better chance you’ll have of conventional success because you’ll be doing it for the right reasons from a place of strength and confidence.

It also gets back to that practice around presence and scheduling time for very focused presence. Because if you just say, “I’m going to be present all the time,” well, you’re going to be a loser because you’re a human being in the 21st century where distractions are everywhere. Whereas, if you say, “Actually, just for three 90-minute blocks a week I’m going to be present,” well, that’s a game that you can win at. And winning feeling is good. So, you win then maybe you say, “Four by 90-minutes,” and you keep the ball rolling.

So, so much of this is shifting from the more traditional self-help, hustle culture, crush it, be bulletproof, be great always, never be content, to more of a research-backed look, that actually says, “Hey, contentment and achievement go hand-in-hand. The more that you can live on your values, even if they have nothing to do with career success, the more successful you’ll be in your career.” The less you need to buy something outside of yourself to feel good or to numb what’s happening, the better you’ll feel and the more effective you’ll be in addressing whatever it is that’s happening.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Thank you. Well, Brad, tell me, any other huge things you want to make sure we don’t skip before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, I think that we didn’t talk as much, really at all, about community, and I think that that’s a really important practice as well. And I’ll just say that what happens to just about everyone, myself included, is that we can get into a really good groove with whatever it is that we’re working on. And when we’re in those grooves, we want to be efficient. And it’s so easy, easier than ever in today’s day and age, to go from meeting up with friends in person to a Zoom, to go from Zoom to a call, to go from a call to a text, to reschedule it because I can just send you a new calendar link. And we tend to do all this stuff because it makes us “more efficient” with what we’re doing.

And, sure, day to day, like schlepping in the car to go meet up with your friends in person, or joining an actual physical book club, or going to the gym instead of working out at home, that takes time and it will make you less efficient. But when you look back over the course of a year, or a decade, or a lifetime, those relationships and those communities that you’ve built and belong to, that’s the stuff that gives your life meaning, and that will help you find fulfillment. And when you’re experiencing a bout of anxiety or depression, no amount of efficient work is going to help you get out of it but your community will.

Or, if you crush it and you go from 15 million downloads to 40 million downloads, guess who’s going to be there to be like, “Hey, Pete, don’t get drunk off your own success”? Your community. So, it’s this thing that is so foundational to being grounded that’s so often gets overlooked when we’re doing well because it takes time and energy and effort, but it always pays back.

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

Brad Stulberg
“You don’t have to feel good to get going. You need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good.” And so often, people think that you need to be really motivated or inspired to get started, but then good luck getting started because most people don’t wake up super motivated and inspired every single day of their life. But if you can just get going on the stuff that matters to you and the stuff that’s in alignment with your values, often motivation and inspiration follows.

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

Brad Stulberg
So, I think from this book certainly, and maybe just now in my life, I find the convergence of ancient wisdom tradition thinking and modern science to be just absolutely fascinating. So, for instance, for this book, talking about deep presence and flow, being absorbed in something, losing your sense of self, ego-lessness, everything that the modern scientists describe about these great flow states that we chase, the Buddha described as nirvana, the Tao Te Ching described as the way, and the ancient Greeks described as arete.

So, you could put like a scientific description of a flow state next to what the Buddha called nirvana and they’re the same thing. And I think that, particularly with more of these Eastern wisdom traditions, we’re seeing so much modern science just empirically proving what these thinkers have been pointing to for thousands of years.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg
I forgot what I said the last time I was on your show, so I don’t want to repeat myself. I will say Middlemarch, which is a novel by George Eliot. It’s a big book. It’s like a door stopper, probably about a thousand pages. But if you’ve got a month or two of your life where you really have a good time to read and you just want to get completely lost in a story about a community and characters and people’s struggles, I highly recommend it.

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

Brad Stulberg
It’s going to sound crazy but a barbell.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Brad Stulberg
So, I’m a writer and a coach. I use my brain to do my work, but my physical practice is just so integral to my being able to sit still, focus, think creatively, solve problems, so, yeah, for me it’s probably a barbell. I’m not really any good at lifting weights, but I firmly believe that movement is a part of my job even though I’m not a pro athlete.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Brad Stulberg
Reading. I just freaking love reading. I can never read enough. It’s a big part of my life. It fuels my own writing. And my wife is constantly probably telling me to stop chattering about whatever book I’m reading but I can’t help myself.

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 a lot?

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, I think, particularly in most of my coaching clients, it’s just this identification or language of heroic individualism, “So, I need to be productive. I need to be efficient. I need to keep striving. If I just get this thing then I’ll finally be fulfilled,” and realizing that that’s not your fault, that doesn’t make you a bad person, it doesn’t make you weak. That is just the water that we swim in in the 21st century here in America and the Western world.

And realizing that that game is ultimately not going to lead to fulfillment, so kind of flipping it on its head and saying, “Hey, what are these principles that will lead to fulfillment? What are my values? How can I live them? How can I accept where I am? How can I be present? How can I be patient?” and so on. So, it’s catching yourself playing the game. And I catch myself playing the game at least weekly. We all do. Realize when you’re playing it and then try to go back to living in alignment with your values to being more grounded.

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

Brad Stulberg
Well, first thing I’d say is please consider the book if you find this interesting. The book goes super deep into all of this. And my website is www.BradStulberg.com, just like my name. And the only social media that I’m really active on is Twitter where my handle is @BStulberg.

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

Brad Stulberg
I do. I think that it would be pretty simple, and it is to be honest with yourself right now if you’re listening, and saying, “Hey, how much am I playing the game of heroic individualism?” And if it feels like hardly at all, great. But if it feels like more than you’d like, try to identify some of your values that are the inside game, define what practices work in alignment with them, and then start building your life around those values. It can be very gradual. This is not about quitting your job. It’s about still being awesome at your job but also making sure that you’re doing it in a way where you’re living in alignment with your values that will, hopefully, leave you not only a high-performer but also fulfilled.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Brad, this has been a treat. Thank you. And good luck in all of your groundedness.

Brad Stulberg
Yeah, thank you, Pete. I hope you stay grounded as well.

690: How to Get Luckier and Create Serendipity with Christian Busch

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Christian Busch says: "No matter what situation we're in, there's always something we can still do even if it seems powerless."

Christian Busch reveals how to create good luck.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to connect the dots for smart luck 
  2. How to turn random incidents into serendipity moments
  3. How serendipity develops grit 

About Christian

Dr. Christian Busch is the director of the Global Economy program at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where he teaches on purpose-driven leadership, impact entrepreneurship, social innovation, and emerging markets.  

He is a Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the co-founder of Leaders on Purpose, an organization convening high-impact leaders, as well as the Sandbox Network, a global community of young innovators active in over 20 countries. Previously, he served on the faculty of the LSE’s Department of Management and as the inaugural Deputy Director of the LSE’s Innovation Centre. 

Resources Mentioned

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Christian Busch Interview Transcript

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

Christian Busch
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck.

We previously had on the show Annie Duke who was a former poker world champion and now teaches a lot about decision-making. And she’s had quite the statement which was that, “All the results in your life are due to your decisions and your luck. And so, you can’t do much about your luck so I’m going to get really great at decisions.” I thought that makes so much sense to me.

But, here, Christian comes along, and is like, “Well, actually, perhaps we can do some things to create good luck.” So, let’s make sure we cover both sides of that equation. So, tell us, maybe as we dig in, could you kick us off with one of your most particularly surprising, counterintuitive, fascinating discoveries you’ve made while researching and working on this serendipity stuff?

Christian Busch
Yeah. It really comes based on the premise of saying usually when we think about luck, we think about this blind luck, to your point, as opposed to skill. It’s like, “Oh, my God, it’s just something that happens to us and we didn’t really work for it.” And serendipity is really about smart luck. It’s about that luck that we have to work for in some ways.

So, take the quintessential moment, if you have your really calm movements like I do, imagine you’re in a coffee shop, you spill a coffee over someone, and you sense there might be some kind of connection. You don’t know what it is but you sense there might be some kind of connection, professional, personal, whatever it is, and now you have two options.

Option number one is you just say, “I’m so sorry. Here’s a napkin.” You walk outside and you think, “Ah, what could have happened had I spoken with the person?” And then option number two is you start a conversation, that person becomes your co-founder, your next investor, the love of your life. The point here is the way we react to the unexpected, the way we connect the dots in that moment, essentially leads us to that smart luck.

And so, if you think about everything from Viagra, to potato washing machines, to how we find the love of our life, a lot of times that is based on our own actions. And so, what I’ve been working a lot on is the question of, “Is there a science-based framework that allows us to create more of those meaningful accidents but also makes accidents more meaningful?”

And so, to give you one example that I’m fascinated by because I think it’s a very tangible approach of how we can better our lives for doing this is the hook strategy. And the hook strategy, essentially, is all about saying if you would ask Oli Barrett, who’s a wonderful entrepreneur in London, “What do you do?” you know, the dreaded question that’s essentially putting you into a box. He would not just say, “I’m a technology entrepreneur.” He would say something like, “I’m a technology entrepreneur, recently read into the philosophy of science, but what I’m really excited about is playing the piano.”

And so, what he’s doing here is he’s giving you three potential hooks where you could say, “Oh, my God, such a coincidence. I recently started playing the piano. You should come by,” “Oh, my God, such a coincidence. My sister is teaching on the philosophy of science at university. You should give a guest lecture.”

The point is we can use every conversation to see the couple of information in there that essentially allows other people to connect the dots for us, and that’s how serendipity starts to happen more and more. And it’s almost like this multiplication of serendipity that we can have through this kind of practices.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the hooks then is you’re providing multiple opportunities for connection or things to be latched onto there as opposed to just sort of like following the script, “This is what I do and that’s that.” And I guess, likewise, with Viagra, so I’m a little familiar with the story. So, how about you share? The discovery of Viagra was not quite what they originally starting to try to figure out. Can you share the story in how that connects to serendipity?

Christian Busch
Absolutely. So, that was really a couple of researchers giving people medication against angina, the disease, and they realized, “Oh, my God, there was some kind of movement happening in male participants’ trousers.” And what would we usually do? We’d probably be like, “Oh, my God, that’s embarrassing. Let’s look away, or let’s find a way to cure that kind of side effect, or let’s get that off the table.”

They did the opposite. They said, “You know what, that’s unexpected but there’s a lot of men in the world who might have a problem in that department. So, why don’t we try to figure out how that could turn into a medication?” And so, that’s how serendipitously Viagra evolved.

And that’s actually, to give you one more example that maybe shows exactly that kind of effect is the example of the potato washing machine. And the potato washing machine was really a company in China that sells refrigerators and they were essentially…they had farmers call them up and say, “Oh, your crappy washing machine is always breaking down.” And so, they asked them, “Well, why is it breaking down?” “Well, we’re trying to wash our potatoes in it and it doesn’t seem to work.”

And so, what would we usually do? We’d probably look at that unexpected event and say, “Oh, my God, why would you wash your potatoes in there? Don’t do that.” They did the opposite. They built in a dirt filter and made it into a potato washing machine.

And so, it’s really that idea of, “How do we react to the unexpected moment, that kind of random events that happens? And then how do we connect the dots to something meaningful?” And that’s where we imbue meaning in it, and so that’s really what serendipity is about. It’s about somehow finding this kind of meaningful accident.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, so that already seems to be a theme here in terms of not being so maybe rigid, fixated, on the thing I’m trying to achieve or how it’s supposed to go, or the protocol or the rules, but rather having kind of an openness to what might emerge from this. Yeah, any tips on how we’d do more of that?

Christian Busch
You know, it’s interesting. So, one kind of part of our research is focused a lot on that question of, “What makes people more successful than others in their careers, and when they run companies, or when they manage groups, or when they run their own life?” And one of the key themes behind that was really that the most successful people seem to have in common that they actually have some kind of sense of direction.

They somehow know, “This is approximately where I’m going. If I’m running XYZ company, a MasterCard, and I want to bring 500 million people into the financial system,” or, “If I am looking for a new job and I approximately know that I want to go into XYZ area.” But then this openness to the unexpected that it might not necessarily be exactly that kind of job that I’m looking for. And that’s really what a lot of them have in common, that they let go of this illusion of control, that you can know exactly what you can do tomorrow, exactly the kind of job you can find tomorrow.

I grew up in Germany, and I love plans, I love everything that reduces ambiguity, that reduces anxiety and everything else. But, actually, one of the things that I’ve realized in my own life, and the life in those people that I’ve studied and worked with, is that exactly that idea of having a certain sense of where we’re going but then unexpectedly, a lot of times, the most interesting things emerge. And so, it’s really about saying, “Let’s redefine that. Let’s redefine the unexpected from a threat into something that actually can make our life even better if we somehow reframe those moments.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Well, that sounds swell. And maybe to help pull that off, having some extra awareness of what you call three core types of serendipity might help. What are they?

Christian Busch
Yeah. So, it’s really about, “Is there something we’ve already been looking for?” So, let’s say you’re Archimedes and you know that the king asked you, “Hey, can you tell me if this crown is pure gold or if it is something else, some kind of fake type crown?” And Archimedes wanted to solve that problem but he couldn’t find a solution, and he was like, “Okay. Well, let’s forget about it for a second. Let me go to the baths and just kind of chill out for a moment.”

And then when he went into the public baths, he realized, “Oh, the water seems to go up when I go into that, so maybe I can use that logic to figure out if there’s actually gold in that crown because the gold will probably part water in different ways or volumes than it will be if it will be some kind of other material.” And so, essentially, he unexpectedly found a way to solve the problem he already wanted to solve.

And so, that’s a lot of times, if I know I want to have a job in McKinsey and I want to apply to that exact job, and I always think I’d do that via XYZ application or XYZ contact, but then actually the niece of my father’s brother unexpectedly tells me about this one kind of person that I should connect with and I get the job via that person. That, essentially, is kind of that Archimedes serendipity that is one.

The other one really is the kind of more Post-It note where we realize we’re looking for one thing. So, in the case of Post-It, the beautiful notes, someone was looking for solving that in some way, like, “How do we essentially develop a stronger glue?” They were experimenting with strong glue. And then they realized, “Actually, a weaker glue is much more fun because we can then use that on these kinds of Post-It type notes.”

And so, it was something, they were looking for one thing, but while looking for that, something completely different happened. And so, that’s how when we look for one job, and then we might find a completely different job on that journey, and it’s just unexpected.

And then the third one, which is my favorite, is really when it’s completely unexpected, the kind of thunderbolt that comes from the sky where that’s the way how we fall in love a lot of times. We’re in those coffee shop moments, we just bump into someone, we didn’t see it coming, and it just happens.

But what all these three have in common, really, is that it’s all a process. It’s all a process. Rather than just like something that happens to us, it’s always the process of there’s some kind of trigger happening, something happens to us, but then we have to do something with it, we have to connect the dots and turn it into something. And so, that’s the beauty of serendipity.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, how can we get better at kind of spotting those triggers in terms of, I think, depending on your mood? I mean, in my own experience, in terms of like it’s something just sort of like a frustration, an irritation, a headache, or just kind of weird versus is it, “Oh, a wondrous opportunity”? So, how do we spot them and jump on them?

Christian Busch
You know, it’s interesting. I’d cluster it probably in two different types. The one is really, in a way, the way we frame the world and the way we look at the world. And there’s this beautiful example of the lucky and unlucky person where researchers essentially took one person who self-identifies as very lucky and someone who self-identifies as very unlucky, so someone who says, “Bad things always happen to me and I’m always in accidents,” and so on. And we probably all know people in both kind of camps, people who are considering themselves to be very unlucky versus very lucky.

And then the researchers tell them, “Walk down the street, go into a coffee shop, order a coffee, and sit down, and then we’ll have an interview.” Now, what he doesn’t tell them is that there’s hidden cameras along the street and inside the coffee shop, there’s a £5 note, so money in front of the coffee shop, and inside the coffee shop, there’s this extremely successful businessman and there’s this one seat next to that businessman that’s empty.

Now, the lucky person walks down the street, sees the £5 note, picks it up, goes inside the coffee shop, orders the coffee, sits next to the businessman, has a nice conversation, they exchanged business cards, potential opportunity coming out of it, we don’t know that. The unlucky person walks down the street, steps over the £5 note, so doesn’t see it, goes inside, orders the coffee, sits next to the businessman, ignores the businessman, and that’s that.

Now, at the end of the day, they asked both people, “How was your day today?” And so, the lucky person says, “Well, it was amazing. I found money in the street, made a new friend, and potentially an opportunity coming up.” The unlucky person just says, “Well, nothing really happened.” And that’s the interesting thing, that there were two of those moments. The one is the moment of, “If I expect that things can happen that are good, I open my mind more to it. Once I believe that there could be good things out there, actually I see more of those dollar bills. Like, I found I’m consistently and constantly finding money in the street,” because people actually surprisingly drop a lot of money in the street.

But then, also, when you are in the coffee shop and talking with the businessman, that’s more the kind of extroversion piece, that the more we interact with people, of course the more there’s potentially opportunity coming out of it. But closet introverts like myself, like a lot of times serendipity comes from silent sources. It comes from reading a book and then saying, “Oh, my God, people haven’t talked about this for a while. I should do a podcast about this. This is kind of different.”

So, I think the one pocket is really around this idea of overcoming the bias of, “Oh, life doesn’t have something there for me,” because actually life can have something everywhere, and that’s the fascinating thing. If we talk about Viktor Frankl, and so this idea of you can imbue meaning everywhere and there’s always something interesting everywhere.

But, also, then the second piece, and that’s the one I’m much more interested in, actually, is the deeper psychological questions, “What are the self-limiting beliefs that we all have that really hold us back?” And that really is, you know, imagine you’re in a meeting and people talk about something, and you have this random idea come up but you hold back, you don’t talk, and then you go outside, and you think, “Ah, I should’ve talked about it.”

What was it that held you back? Was it, “I’m not worthy enough”? Was it, “I’m not ready, it’s not mature enough, the idea”? And, really, working on these deeper underlying biases because a lot of times we might see the idea, we might see something, but we might not act on it, and I think that’s the bigger piece. So, it’s both the kind of, “How do we train to see more things by not underestimating actually how likely the unexpected is?” But then the second piece, also, “How do we connect the dots and allow ourselves to do that?”

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, yeah. So, you mentioned self-limiting beliefs, are there a few in particular that kind of rise to the top of the list as being prominent and widespread serendipity killers?

Christian Busch
One that I’ve certainly, myself, for a very long time, I’ve struggled with this fear of rejection. I think when you think about that a lot of times in life, the reason why you don’t reach out to someone, the reason why you don’t do XYZ, is because you’re afraid that you might get negative feedback, that someone might say, “That idea is bad,” “No, I’m sorry, I don’t want to date you,” “No, I’m sorry, I don’t want to offer you that job.” And so, it’s that kind of idea that we anticipate the worst case, and we’re like, “Yeah, okay, maybe not.”

And one thing that I’ve realized in my own life, and that I’ve seen with others as well, is once you redefine that away from the worst thing that can happen is rejection, to the worst thing that can happen is that feeling that you have afterwards if you didn’t try, that feeling of when you go outside and you’re like, “Aargh, I wish I had done XYZ,” and, really, that regret that comes from not trying. And that’s very Mark Twain-ish in terms of we won’t regret the things we have done, but we will regret the things we haven’t done a lot of times.

And it’s really that kind of overcoming, that fear in some ways, and it’s not easy but I feel like the more rejections we get in life, the easier it gets in some way to work on that. So, I think the fear of rejection is a big one.

One of my absolute favorites also is, I think, because we, or a lot of us, might have that tendency to kind of control things, we, in a way, then imbue a lot of meaning and trying to have everything under control. And so, as soon as something unexpected happens, imagine you go on a trip with your colleagues, and you organized the whole trip, and now there’s a tire that breaks down and that’s unexpected, and you’re like, “Oh, my God, no, this can’t be. We’ll be late for lunch or dinner, and that will ruin the whole day.” Or, “Hey, maybe this can become a bonding experience for this team. And, like, is there something in that moment?”

And so, I think, in a way, once we let go of this idea that the way we planned it is the ideal way, to, “Hey, actually, if something goes wrong, maybe that’s a great bonding experience, maybe that’s something in that moment that we can do something with,” I think then it gets really interesting. And one thing I’ve always found fascinating about presenters, for example, great presenters, I feel they always have this kind of line if something breaks down because they know the likelihood of something breaking down, the likelihood of a projector not working, of the moderator not appearing, whatever it is, individually it’s very small likelihoods. But if you add all this out together, it’s very likely that something unexpected happens.

And so, if they have a sentence at the beginning where they’re like, “Oh, my God, XYZ ha, ha,” that’s the way how they pull the audience on their side because the audience says, “Oh, my God, like they really can cope with that situation well.” And so, I think those situations, in a way, show real leadership but I think, again, we can all build that muscle for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Christian, now I want to have a few of those sentences ready to go. Can you recall some of those?

Christian Busch
Yeah, my favorite, really, so a friend of mine, she used to get very red. So, when she would go on stage, she would turn red, and so she would literally then kind of build that into a sentence, and say, “Hey, look, this is the warning signal that we’re about to start.” And this is kind of like something that directed her and something that could’ve been seen as a weakness, or something that where people would’ve talked about anyways. Everyone in this room would either have thought it or would’ve told the person next to them, “Oh, look, like this is very red.”

But by turning this directly around, she actually turned that into something that made her, like made the audience really be on her side. And I think, in my case, being German, we have a lot of anti-jokes. There’s a lot of dumb ones. There’s a lot of like when a projector doesn’t work or something, it’s like, “Oh, the slides were crap anyways, like it’s much better if we talk XYZ.” Things where it’s not necessarily funny in that sense but I think just having a sentence that allows us to bridge that, I think, that shows the audience, “Okay, great. This person is still in control. That person somehow tries to figure out how to just make that work.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s interesting, that theme there in terms of, “I am not freaked out by this not having gone to plan. In fact, maybe I find it amusing or I am somehow charmed or enchanted by it working out the way it has worked out,” really does put other folks at ease because it’s like if a presenter is in all awkward, nervous, feeling uncomfortable, well, then the audience is as well. And so, if you go there, that’s cool.

I guess, in some ways, this all seems a little bit easier said than done, I think, particularly maybe when the stakes are high when you really want the thing that you’re really going after, and you have invested a lot of yourself in terms of the time, the money, the resources, into making something unfold the way you want it to, and then it just doesn’t: there’s a flat tire, the slides don’t work, nobody shows up to the thing. Yeah, any pro tips on how to get better at that?

It sounds like you’ve already mentioned previously that the more we can believe and accept that things not working according to plan can be in our best interest and truly an asset. That’s great. And I guess it’d be helpful if maybe you should make a list of such things that happen in your life, like, “Hey, here is some evidence.” But how else do you recommend that we get there when, yeah, when the stakes are high?

Christian Busch
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve seen a lot with my students who, when COVID happened, a lot of them had their jobs lined up after graduation or their internships. They always wanted an internship in XYZ bank, and they worked so long for it, and they worked all their contacts work out, and then COVID happened, and it just didn’t. And so, it was this kind of very high-stake first-job type situation where you really felt, “This is what I really want to do. This is what I really need at this point in time.”

And what I found fascinating, and now one and a half years in. Having conversations with some of those students, it is tough. Like, I remember when I graduated in 2007, we had the financial crisis hit. I had so much mapped out, and then that crisis hit, and you just got it emotionally and cognitively, you’re just like, “Oh, my God, life is over and that is it.”

I think one of the things that I’ve always been fascinated by is that kind of question of, “When we look at it in the long run, like when we look at this kind of two, three, four, five, six years, like what does it really mean?”

I’ve seen the same with my jobs, for example. I was on a consultancy track and then, essentially, serendipitously fell into the startup world first, and that was very kind of…it felt like in that moment, “Oh, my God, there’s something going wrong here.” But actually, it turned out, when looking back now, I wondered, like, “Why would I ever even consider that?”

And so, I think to your point, like in the moment it always feels very tough and rough, that’s kind of moments of, “Oh, my God, this is exactly what I wanted. I worked so hard for this for years.” And then I think with a bit of distance over time, what happens a lot of times is that we’re saying, “Oh, actually, I only had limited information at that time. Actually, at that time also, I was another person than I am now because I went through this kind of tough period.”

And so, I think a lot of times, when looking back, it’s this beautiful saying that if it’s not a happy ending, maybe it’s not the ending yet, and maybe we shouldn’t stop the story too early. And I’ve seen that with a lot of people who I consider to be extremely successful, that they essentially have a certain story stop at some point, but then they develop that grit and that persistence. And that is my kind of, on the more actionable side.

I’ve always been a big fan of that perspective-taking, or that kind of when we are in this emotional moment where we say, “Oh, my God, the world is going down. I didn’t get the job I wanted,” saying, “What would I tell a friend now?” And the friend probably usually would say, “Hey, look, that’s really not nice but, actually, hey, have you considered XYZ?” and really taking ourselves out of that purely emotional and into the kind of perspective, which a lot of times, then I think helps with this kind of developing grit.

And I think Adam Grant has done some amazing work around this. I highly recommend it for everyone to check out around grit, resilience, and perseverance.

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

Christian Busch
Yeah, I think, look, at the end of the day, serendipity is about potentiality. It’s about, “What could be?” And I’m a big fan, there’s this amazing organization that’s in Cape Flats in Cape Town.

I went there around a decade ago for the first time. I went in there and I was like, “What is the one question I should never ask you? I come into your context here but what should I never ask you?” And they were like, “Never ask us first question, ‘What do you need?’ because if you ask us, ‘What do you need?’ you put us into this weird role of, like, someone who needs something, a victim, a beneficiary, whatever it is, versus asking, ‘What’s already here? And how can we make the best out of this?’”

And so, that really shaped my perspective in terms of how people, even in the most resource-constrained of environments, want to create their own luck. It’s not about saying, “I’m just waiting for resources here,” and I think a lot of times we have this reflex, “Hey, here, here is some money, here is this. Like, let’s apply for a budget or a grant.” But actually, that dignity that comes from creating your own luck is really at the core of this.

And so, this organization, what they do is they go into different contexts and they ask, “What is already here and how can we make the best out of it? Oh, there’s a former drug dealer. Interesting. That person has a lot of creativity, that person has a lot of contexts, so if we can turn them into a teacher, it becomes cool now to be a teacher. If we look at an old garage, we can look at a potential training center.”

And so, the point here is that we start connecting the dots differently once we get away from looking at resource constraints and the things we don’t have and into the potentiality of it. And so, it’s a lot of banks and others now who apply exactly that thinking. Imagine you’re organizing an event at your company, and you write your budget, and you’re like, “Oh, I need 20 chairs for this event.” Well, what this organization would do, they would first ask you, “Well, do you really need the chairs or can people stand, whatever it is? If you need them, can you ask the restaurant next door, if they can borrow you the chairs, which might also nicely kind of give you some new contacts there, whatever it is. And only if you say no to all of these things, then go ahead with it.”

And what happens a lot of times is that we’re like, “Oh, my God, we don’t even need all this budget. We can make stuff happen much more resourceful than we thought.” And that’s where serendipity starts to happen because we get away from thinking about budget constraints, and things that don’t work, and scarcity, and really think about more, “Wow, what could be in this situation already? And maybe I have more here than I think I have, more kind of context than I thought I had, more kind of resources than I thought I had.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s exciting and, yeah, it makes kind of sense that when you…I think I remember from like a college psychology class, there’s a name for this, being fixated on the lack versus what you have. There’s a name for it. Do you know the psychological term here?

Christian Busch
Well, I think it’s a lot around framing. Like, essentially, how do we reframe a situation? And I think that goes very deeply into psychology. How do we essentially understand that’s it’s not about resource scarcity always? I think it’s, actually, you know what was really interesting, I had a couple of conversations recently with psychologists.

And for them, actually, the mindset is interesting because they’re saying it helps us to get away a little bit from the anxiety, from the feeling that we’re losing control because, actually, maybe there’s something in there that still helps us. And so, I think, to your point, I think there’s a lot of psychological linkages there, I think, all in terms of, “How do we approach life and see less scarcity and more as abundance?”

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

Christian Busch
My absolute favorite is a Goethe quote. I grew up in Heidelberg, and there’s this Philosopher’s Way where Goethe wrote some of his poems. And he had this idea that if you take someone as they are, you make them worse, but if you take them as who they could be, you’ll make them capable of becoming who they can be.

And that’s, actually, Viktor Frankl took that idea at some point, and he talked about it in the context of a flight instructor. The flight instructor told him, “Well, Viktor, if you want to fly like this or just a little bit up, you always need to start a little bit higher than you want to fly because the wind will always pull you down.” So, if you start as a realist, you end up as a depressionist, but if you start as an optimist, you end up as the real realist.

And Goethe’s point really was to say, “If we always see a little bit more in the moment than there is that meets the eye, we start seeing serendipity happen after and after and after and after again.” And I think that’s also what good leadership is about. Good leadership is about looking at a former drug dealer and not seeing just a former drug dealer. It’s about looking at them and saying, “Wow, you could be a teacher,” “Wow, you could be XYZ,” and then people start also seeing it themselves and seeing other potentialities as well. So, I would probably quote Goethe in that regard.

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

Christian Busch
Well, one absolute favorite is about rabbits. So, essentially, a couple of decades ago, two researchers at approximately the same time, they were injecting rabbits with a protein, with papain, and the rabbits’ ears flopped. And both of them saw that, that the flop was surprising, it was interesting, but only one of them followed up on it, and only one of them went through and realized, “Oh, wow, that has to do with bloodstream. It has to do with the blood flowing better.” And then that led to amazing arthritis and other medications and got a lot of prizes.

And, to me, that has always been a beautiful example of how we can really understand serendipity and how we can understand the kind of effect of this. What could have happened had the person acted versus not? So, in this moment, it’s really the one person acted on that unexpected thing, connected the dots, did something with it, versus the other had the same thing happen but they didn’t. And so, it’s similar to what we talked about earlier, these other experiments that are about you can give people exactly the same situation but the way they react to it and what they do with it will lead to extremely different results.

And so, I think that, to me, is always, as an academic, I’m always thinking about, “What are science-based ways that we can understand serendipity?” And one is really about tracing back different types of decisions, and then saying, “Oh, this decision unfolds differently because of that and that action.”

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Christian Busch
Oh, my favorite book, definitely Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This book is next to my bedside table. I’ve been re-reading it so many times and, essentially, the core idea is that he was in a concentration camp, which, as you can imagine, is the toughest of environments that one could ever be in. You’re being stripped of any dignity that you’ve ever had.

And he said, “Look, but I still can do something here. I can still…” He had this idea of, “I can still converse with other prisoners every day. And by making them feel better about life in general, I have some kind of meaning here. I can still write this book after I come out here.” And so, he had this duality of meaning, this kind of meaning in the day-to-day that he built, and this meaning of, “I still want to do this later.”

And so, I found that in my work to be extremely effective to have this idea that you both have something that’s in the day-to-day that gives those meaning but also something to look forward to that gives us a broader meaning.

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

Christian Busch
That’s a good question. Probably the coffee machine. I need a lot of coffee.

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

Christian Busch
It’s probably a lot around that idea that comes back to Viktor Frankl, that we cannot always choose a situation or a stimulus, but we can always choose our response to it. And so, that is really our agency, that is where our growth comes from, that’s where our freedom comes from. And so, really, this idea that no matter what situation we’re in, there’s always something we can still do even if it seems powerless.

And so, I think that’s very…something that I think resonates particularly, I think, in tough, I mean, during COVID periods like now. I had COVID last year, the severe form of it, and it’s the kind of period where you just feel complete despair, I just feel like, “Oh, my God, what is this all about?” And then this idea of, “How do you still find some kind of meaning in some way?” And I think that is a lot around this, “How do we respond to stimuli that we didn’t choose?”

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

Christian Busch
It’s on Twitter @ChrisSerendip, and the homepage is SerendipityMindset.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?

Christian Busch
Yeah, I would really suggest set up a serendipity journal where you write down, “What are the key themes, three key themes, interests, you have at the moment?” And then, every conversation you have during the next days and weeks, seed a little bit into this and just see what happens when people start connecting the dots for you.

And then doing the same for kind of like the self-limiting beliefs, so really saying, in those moments when you’re out there, where you feel something could’ve happened but it didn’t, “What seems to be the pattern behind this?” Really writing this down and then seeing what it is. And I think what you’ll see is that it’s very relieving to then kind of start tackling this and seeing how many, how much multiplication that has in that area as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Chris, this has been a treat. I wish you many serendipitous moments in the future.

Christian Busch
Thank you so much.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Eric

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Eric Karpinski Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[03:12]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Karpinski
Yeah, she’s awesome.

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

[06:05]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
At 16 years old.

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

[09:16]

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

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

Eric Karpinski
Yeah, conscious acts of kindness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Karpinski
It is. It is.

Pete Mockaitis
This feels good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right. What else?

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

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

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

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

Eric Karpinski
Visible in the Zoom window, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Any other key practices?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And how about a favorite tool?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

660: Finding More Success through More Failures with Jim Harshaw, Jr. (Host of the Success Through Failure Podcast)

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Jim Harshaw Jr. explains how to overcome the fear of failure and use it as fuel to achieve more success.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A mantra to ease the burden of failure 
  2. The simplest way to improve your chances of success
  3. The one common habit of successful people 

About Jim

Jim Harshaw Jr. is an NCAA Division I All American athlete, internationally recognized TEDx speaker, and personal performance coach. He has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives across the world by helping clients and audiences increase resilience, maximize potential, and build high performing teams. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Jim Harshaw Jr. Interview Transcript

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Pete, thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m delighted to have you here. We’re going to be talking about failure and you’ve got some good failure stories under your belt. I mean that in the nicest way and you probably take it that way.

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Yeah, I don’t feel insulted by that anymore. Yeah, I used to.

Pete Mockaitis
You were a Grade-A failure, Jim.

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And we want to hear some stories and some practical perspectives on that because most of us hate failing. It feels really bad. And you have a different point of view. But could you kick us off with your story? Do you have a favorite failure or two and what do you love about them?

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s funny, I was talking to a group of doctors, actually. They’re finishing up their residency and I was brought in to give a talk about a week ago, and I was like, “Man, you’re here because of your success and I’m actually here because of my failure. I hope that doesn’t put you off of this message today.”

And same for the listeners. Everybody who’s listening right now, knowing the profile of the listener of the show, you’re generally a successful person. You’re looking to get to that next level and be awesome at your job, and failure is part of that. Failure is a necessary step on your path and on my path and on every world-class performer’s, it’s the same for them as well.

I get to interview Olympic Gold medalists and CEOs and New York Times’ bestselling authors and astronauts and Navy Seals on my podcast, and they always tell me about these miserable failures that they’ve had, and so we explore that. And while I’m not at that caliber, I will share with you some of my failures. And, really, I want to make sure everybody gets actionable stuff out of this. Like, how do you actually deal with failure and be resilient and use it for your benefit?

So, I was a college wrestler. I got recruited to a great school, the University of Virginia, but I had so much failure, and fear of failure, and self-doubt, and lack of confidence when I got there because I just really never saw a future for myself, for really much of anything, let alone in my sport or academically or professionally. And I got to the University of Virginia, and I looked around and I realized, “Gosh, everybody here has more money than me. Everybody here is smarter than me. Everybody here is better-looking than me,” so it just reinforced all of these feelings of unworthiness, of that next level, whatever that next level would be for me.

And I began my wrestling career and I had set my goal to be an All-American, and in my freshman year I qualified for the national championships, which is kind of the first step, but I failed. My sophomore year, again I qualified for the national championships but, again, I failed. My junior year, pretty much a repeat of the prior two years, I got to the national championships and my season ended with me in the locker room, my face buried in a towel in tears, wondering, like, “Why can’t I do this? Like, what’s wrong with me? Am I not good enough? Am I not smart enough? Am I not capable enough?”

And then I dedicated that entire off season searching for the answer, like, “What is it about me? Why do I keep failing? Like, what’s wrong with me?” And I searched and I searched, and over the summer I went to the Olympic Training Center to pick the brains of some of the best in the world out there. I worked wrestling camps so I could be around other wrestling coaches all summer long and pick their brains. And the next season started and I realized I never found the answer, I never figured out what it is that I need to fix or do better in order to reach my potential so I finally gave up and I let go.

I let go of that goal and I said, “All I can be is all I can be. All I can do is all I can do.” And I ended up having this great successful season. My senior year ended up on the podium at the national championships in front of 15,000 fans in the arena, and I had reached the pinnacle of my sport. I was one of the best in the country at what I did.

And this kind of set me off on this trajectory of success. I was invited to live and train at the Olympic Training Center as an Olympic hopeful. Shortly after that, I got into coaching and I ended up being the youngest division one head wrestling coach in the country. I coached for about a decade, about 12 years, and I got out of coaching and got into business. I started my first business and now was a success, and I’m like, “Man, this is great. I’m on this trajectory, this winning trajectory.” And all these feelings of self-doubt and failure, etc., all that kind of like fell by the wayside and I was like on this trajectory of success in my life.

And, finally, looked up two years later and realized that everything I was trying to build, I was doing the opposite of. I had a failed business, we had debt up to our eyeballs. I had failing relationship with my wife. I wasn’t spending enough time with my kids and I was in the worst physical shape of my life, and I’m like, “This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen to me.”

So, there was this second crucible moment of failure in my life and I, literally, I mean, Pete, I was shutting down that business, I was scrolling like on Craigslist looking for jobs, scrolling past jobs for paper boys and unpaid internships, and thinking like, “You know, I have two degrees from the number-one rated public university in the country, I have all this success in my background. How did I end up here again? Did I not learn the lesson that I was supposed to learn?”

And I closed down my computer. I remember that night specifically. I laid down next to my wife in bed, I’m staring at the ceiling. She’s already asleep. And I’m like staring at the ceiling, thinking, “What was in place of my life when I was able to turn failure into success? What was in place when I was clear on what was next for me, when I knew how to do the things I needed to do, I was able to be consistent and stay focused, and stay on task and on track, and do really hard things for meaningful goals? Like, how do I get that back in my life?”

And I realized there were like four things in place in my life then when I was competing at the highest level and reached that platform of being an All-American, they were not in place of my life at that moment. And I can share those in a minute here, but I went back and I reconstructed this system in my life and it changed everything for me. I tripled my income, healed my relationship with my wife, and started spending more time with my kids, and got physically fit again. Like, it just transformed my life, and that’s what I get to do now.

That’s my mission in the world, is to help people deal with failure, overcome their own self-doubt, have clear and meaningful goals and a plan to achieve them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. Well, yes, let’s do hear about these four principles. First, I’d like to note, so in between your junior and your senior year, you were studying with all kinds of great potential mentors, coaches, and you said there wasn’t any particular bit of learning or technique or thing that you’ve fixed. So, then what was the difference-maker?

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Yeah, it was this realization. Well, let me share this with you. I’ll use another wrestling reference. So, it’s a woman who’s the first ever Olympian, an Olympic Gold medalist from the United States. Her name is Helen Maroulis. And she talked about how this overwhelming self-doubt that she had, literally, a month before the Olympics and even through the Olympic games. She made it to the finals. Now she’s got to wrestle the best female wrestler in the world from Japan and she had this mantra of saying, “I am enough. I am enough. I am enough.”

And if you go back and you Google it on YouTube, you can see her lips moving when she’s standing in the tunnel next to her opponent and she’s saying this mantra, “I am enough.” And I realized that this is what I had learned. It was literally the night before the opening event, opening competition of my senior season, I was literally sitting in the hotel room on the edge of the bed, going, “Wait a second. I never figured out the secret. I never figured out the thing that I’m missing.”

And I said, “Well, I give up. All I can do is all I can do. I can follow the plan. I can make sure I go to bed on time, put the right food in my stomach, in my mouth, eat healthy, rehab my injury, show up for practice early, stay late, watch film. I can do all those things and everything else, I can’t control winning and losing. I can control the process. Otherwise, I’m enough. And if I become an All-American, awesome. If I don’t, I can put my head on the pillow at night knowing that I did everything I possibly could that was in my power to achieve that dream.”

And so, at that night I, literally, I gave up on the goal, I gave up on the dream, and just said, “I am enough.” And I went out the next day and I competed, knowing that I’m enough, and it’s not about winning or losing, it’s not about the fear of failure any longer. It’s about showing up as my best self and putting everything I can out there, being fully 100% me, and allowing that to be okay and to be enough, and taking my ego out of it. And it became so much fun.

I mean, wrestling is not a fun sport. It’s pain and suffering and that’s when you win. And I had so much fun that season because this burden of failure I was able to set down. And for the listeners, you have that burden of failure whether it’s at work and you’re trying to look good for your boss, you’re trying to get that promotion or trying to get that raise. It’s not about that. You start with the end in mind, that goal, then you work backwards and go, “Okay, what’s the process? As long as I follow that process, I will have control what I can control because there are other things that are outside of my control that I can’t influence, and for those things I’ll let them go and know that I’m doing everything I possibly can.”

And that allows you to fully show up as yourself, as your authentic genuine self. And guess what? The world needs more of that. The world needs you.

And that’s what I realized and that was this moment where I made this mental shift which freed me up.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s huge. And so then, when you say, “I am enough,” I guess let’s unpack what specifically we mean by that. I guess I’m interpreting, from all the context, that means, and this is a lot more words, so “I am enough” is a better succinct mantra to use here but it’s sort of this “My intrinsic worth, value, dignity is in no way contingent upon a particular success or outcome. I have no attachment to any of those things. And I am okay and at peace with simply being and doing how I do.”

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Amen. You said it. Can I write that down and then cite that back?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. Hey, send me a recording.

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Can we hit pause on the recording and I’ll say that instead of you?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
That’s it. But that’s it. So, I interviewed a world champion on the podcast one time, and he said his breakthrough came for him mentally when he realized that failure was an option. People talk about failure is not an option. Yeah, it is an option and it’s okay if you fail. Like, you actually can’t control success or failure. You control the process that puts you in the best position to be successful.

And so, if you can let go of that failure and fear of failure, and know that everybody fails, like I said on my podcast, I interview these world-class performers and they’ve all failed. Like, failing is actually part of their DNA, it’s part of their story, it’s why they’re good at what they do. They’re not good despite those failures. They’re good because of those failures.

John Wooden, he’s a legendary basketball, he said, “You can’t give 110%.”

People talk about 110%. Like, you can’t give 110%. You can only give 100% and that means if you go out and you give 110%, that just means that other times you were giving something less than 100%. That’s what that means. The first time I heard that, I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, that didn’t really resonate with me.” But the more I thought about that, the more I realize, like, all you can do is all you can do, and that’s okay.

You can’t show up and try to be somebody you’re not in something that you’re not. If you’re making a sales proposal or interviewing for a job, you can control the studying that you’re doing and the test and the sample interview questions that you practice and rehearse. You can control all that but, when the day of the interview comes, let all that go. Let all of it go because fear and anxiety decrease performance. I don’t care if it’s in sales, I don’t care if it’s in public speaking, or in sports, or in anything else, but fear and anxiety decrease performance, so let it go. It’s not going to help you. Don’t carry it with you. Let it go and understand that failure is an option.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s beautiful. Well, I want to talk about the four principles. But, first, you quote Tom, the CEO of IBM, who says, “If you want to…” well, you do it better. What did he say and how do you think about it?

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
He said, “If you want to double your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
And that’s the crux of all of this, is you have to be willing to fail and to be okay with it. There was a fantastic study out of Northwestern business school, at Kellogg School of Management, and they studied failures who became successes in three different areas. So, it was grants to the National Institutes of Health, they studied investor-backed startups, and they wanted to find something a little bit off topic to really study this and have a breadth of examples, and they studied terrorism attacks.

And what they discovered was all of the successes, if you can call terrorism attacks successful, all of the successes started as failures. All the winners started as losers, but not all the losers became winners. So, what was the difference between the losers and the winners, the failures and the successes, the failures who went to success, or the failures who just kept on failing?

Well, the difference was how soon they tried again. And the ones who succeeded tried again sooner. So, they’re learning, they’re taking what they learned, they’re being resilient, they’re getting up, they’re dusting themselves off, and they’re trying again, and that leads to success.

I interviewed Tim Ferriss on my podcast and he said, “Just because you fail doesn’t inherently mean you’re going to be successful. It’s the learning that comes from failure and then applying that learning to your next iteration, to your next attempt, is what leads you from failure to success.” So, for the listener, when you’re saying, “I applied for all these jobs and I didn’t get them,” or, “I failed at this presentation I tried to make,” or, “this raise I tried to get,” or, “this promotion I tried to get,” like, try again. Learn from that failure and try again.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have any pro tips or tactics for maximizing the learning and maximizing your emotional ability to get up quickly?

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Now, in the podcast, I’m interviewing these amazing people, and on the podcast especially, I started asking them, “If there’s one thing, one habit, one thing that you do that you most credit for your success, like what is that thing? What’s the secret? What’s the one thing for you?” And it’s so fascinating, Pete, for the New York Times’ bestselling author, it’s never the writing. For the Olympic God medalist, it’s never the training. It’s never the thing that you think it’s going to be.

The actual thing that they say is they’ll say things like, “I journal every day,” or, “I meditate,” or, “I work with a coach,” or, “I plan my day in advance,” or, “I spend half an hour at the end of the week reviewing my week prior and planning my week ahead,” or, “I take a retreat once a year with my spouse and myself and we look back on the year behind, and we look forward to the year ahead, and we create plans and goals and action plans, etc.”

And I put this all under one umbrella and I’ve coined this term productive pause. And if there’s such a thing as a secret to success it’s a productive pause. And the productive pause is this, this is the definition. It’s a short period of focused reflection around specific questions that leads to clarity of action and peace of mind. Like, who doesn’t want that? Clarity of action and peace of mind.

So, this is like in the military they call it an after-action report. When I look back at my career as a wrestler, and if I could pick one hour that was the most valuable one hour spent the entire season, it was not in the weight room, it was not in the practice room, it was not watching film. It was sitting on the couch in my coach’s office setting my goals, setting my goals for the year, setting the goal and creating the plan to achieve that goal. That’s the most important, most valuable one hour, and this is a productive pause.

When you hit the pause button, for example, after a failure and you say, “Okay, what went right? Well, I did this and this and this and this. This went right. All these things went right. Okay, what went wrong? Well, this and this and this went wrong. What would I do again? What would I do next time if I could do it again differently? What would I tell myself if I could back to prior to that failure? What would I tell myself?”

If you simply ask yourself those three questions, “What went well? What didn’t go well? What would I do differently?” those three productive pause questions will bring you tremendous insights, and now you can get back up sooner and try again.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, I love it. Well, so that might be one of your four things, but I want to make sure we hit these four principles. What are they?

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Yeah, so there’s sort of four pieces to this framework. And number one, it’s this. When I was competing, I knew what I valued. Like, I probably couldn’t have stated as core values like I can today, but I knew what I value. Like, I wanted to be tough, I wanted to live my life a disciplined life, I wanted to be respected, I wanted to go on to success after the sport. Like, these are all the things that I value just because this is what my mentors and my coaches, this is how they lived their lives and these are the things that they did. I’m like, “Man, that’s who I want to be.”

And so, number one is get very clear on your core values. Number two is this, when I was competing, I had goals that aligned with my values, not goals that aligned with my mom and dad’s values, or my teammates’ values, or anybody else’s. Like, these were the things that I valued. And in the real world, what happens is people set their goals based upon what’s parked in their neighbor’s driveway. They set their goals based upon what they see on social media or what the mass media is forcing down our throats and telling us that we should want. You have to set your goals and align it with what you value because failure doesn’t change what you value. Like, if you fail at something, it doesn’t change what’s important to you so you become more resilient when you have aligned goals.

And in my program, not to get into the weeds too far, but we set goals in every area of our lives: relationships, self, health, and wealth. And relationships, pretty self-explanatory. Self is sort of three subcategories: growth, impact, fun. Health is health and wellbeing. Health and wellness is going to be physical health, mental health, spiritual health. And then, the last one, wealth is wealth/work/career goals. Those are the four areas and so we set goals in all of these areas. Goals that are aligned. They’re tethered to the values.

And so, those are the first two steps. The third is this. Like, when I was competing, I had a coach who kicked me in the rear end if I needed it or picked me up and dusted me off when I needed that. I had teammates with similar goals, we’re like-minded people pursuing similar goals. I was accountable to them; they were accountable to me. I had nutritionists and sports psychologists and strength and conditioning coaches, on and on. I had the support system in this environment, and I call it the environment of excellence.

In this environment of excellence, it’s not just people. It’s actually four things. So, there are four things under the umbrella of the environment of excellence, which is the third step. And these four things are this: M-A-P-S. Just like you need a map to get from point A to point B, you need to know your maps to get from where you’re at to where you want to go in your life.

So, M stands for media. Like, what’s the media that I’m allowing into my life? Like, when I was competing, I didn’t watch much television, but when I did, I was watching the national championships or breaking down film of myself or my opponents. I used to fall asleep with a mindset audio in my ears with my Walkman, if you remember those Walkmans, back in the day. I used to listen to these mindset audios. And so, the same now.

So, for the listener, you’re doing the right thing, you’re listening to How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast. This is the kind of stuff you need to be bringing into your life and then blocking out things like the news. There’s a minimum effective dose of it but are you consuming it constantly, or social media? So, the first one is media.

A is for area, like your physical space around you. When I was competing, I had a poster on the wall with my hero, this Olympic champion. I had my goals written down in front of me. I had a training journal. I had healthy food and snacks. Like, I had an optimized physical space. Right now, I’m talking to you, Pete, I’m standing at my standing desk. Like, this is part of my environment of excellence. So, that’s A for area.

P is for people, we already talked about that, who are the people you’re surrounding yourself with. And then S, and this is really, really important, S if for speech. That’s your self-talk and your out-loud talk. There’s a great quote that says, “If our mind is a super computer, our self-talk is the program that’s running it.” Like, what are you saying to yourself? Like, are you saying, “I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not capable enough because of that failure”? Or are you saying, “I’m smarter, wiser, and stronger because of that failure”?

Those two stories are there, they’re going to take you down different paths. So, that’s the environment of excellence. And then let me give you the last and fourth and final sort of phase or module in these four steps to this framework, it’s this. It’s nice to have core values, like really clear core values and aligned goals in this environment of excellence but if you stop there, what happens when you show up at work the next day and the boss puts a big project on your plate, or you get sick, or the car breaks down, or a global pandemic happens? You can’t put your goals up on a shelf. You have to have the fourth and final piece in place, and that’s a plan for following through.

Like, if I lost a wrestling match on Saturday, coaches are like, “Hey, Jim, I’ll see you tomorrow morning at the team lift 8:00 a.m. Be there.” It’s like, “Oh, man.” Like, this is a plan for following through even when I didn’t feel like it. And you have to have that system, that structure, that framework in place to make sure you follow through, you come back and you check in on your goals, you have a monthly goal check-in, you write those, I call them micro goals, like these smaller goals that are part of the larger goal, you write those down.

Every single month, actually, I’ve got mine right here in front of me, they’re here, these are my micro goals, and I write them on the back of my business card, and I keep these in my wallet. So, these are the type of things you have to do to ensure follow through. So, those are the four steps or four phases: core values, aligned goals, environment of excellence, follow through.

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Well, it’s this. It’s nice to sit here and talk about failure in like, “Oh, yeah, you can learn from failure and it’s valuable and it’ll help you grow, etc.” Like, failure sucks. Failure hurts. It’s not something you’re seeking. You’re not trying to go out and fail but you’re just becoming understanding of it, you’re becoming aware that this is a normal thing for very high-performing people, for the best people in the world, it is a normal thing.

And understand, like, “Yes, it’s going to be painful.” I know it’s painful. I know. I’ve cried the tears both when I was in college and as a grown man of the pain and suffering that comes from failure. You are enough. Get up and try again. Build this framework into your life and keep going.

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Yeah, the quote that I’ve always lived by was “There’s two pains in life: “The pain of discipline and the pain of regret.” The pain of discipline, do it now; or the pain of regret, “I wish I had done that thing.” So, that’s a quote that’s just always stuck with me.

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Most recently it’s been that one that I just shared with the study that came out of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. It’s just fascinating to understand that winners were losers, and winners were the ones who got up faster when they were a loser. So, get up and try again.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
How to Win Friends & Influence People. This is such a game-changer and I’m probably not the first person to recommend this, but this is such an important book on human relationships and how to deal with people. You mentioned favorite study, and another one of my favorite studies is the grant study out of Harvard which is the longest longitudinal study on human happiness ever.

And what they’ve come to realize, proven, is that happiness comes from connection and relationships. And this book will help you strengthen your relationships and just be more emotionally intelligent. It’s like the original book from an influencer, Dale Carnegie, written back in the 1940s, I think it was. So, How to Win Friends & Influence People.

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
For me, it is The Five-Minute Journal. The Five-Minute Journal is a productive pause. There are three questions in the morning, two in the evening. In the morning, it asks you, “What are you grateful for?” And then three things you’re grateful for, and, “How will you make today great?” Three things and then an affirmation.

And then in the evening, it asks you, “What are three amazing things that happened today?” And then the last one is, “What could you have done to make today even better?” And when you ask those simple five questions, super short productive pause, takes than less combined five minutes, it helps you be grateful, it helps you reflect on your day as opposed to just kind of moving onto the next thing. It’s about mindfulness and bringing you into the moment.

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Yeah, it’s, “We all need someone in our lives who holds us to a higher standard than we believe that we can attain.” There’s a lot of fear of hiring somebody like me who’s a coach, and people think like, “Oh, I should be able to do this on my own.” Well, no, you shouldn’t. Yeah, certainly, you’re listening to this podcast, you’re successful at some level, but there’s another gear inside of you. And whether it’s me or somebody else, like find somebody else who can hold you to a higher standard than you believe that you can attain because that will push you, that will drive you, that will help bring the best out of you.

We see this, again, going back to athletics as sort of the public example. I love watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. You look at all these Olympians down there, they all have one thing in common. They’re doing different sports, they’re from different countries, but they all have one thing in common. They’re the best in the world at what they do and they all have a coach. And so, what about you?

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
JimHarshawJr.com. You can find everything there. You can sign up for a free one-time coaching call with me. It’s just JimHarshawJr.com/apply. My podcast is on all your favorite podcast platforms, so it’s called Success Through Failure. And if you just go to any social media outlet, just search for Jim Harshaw, you’ll find me.

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

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
I challenge you to hit the pause button. Take a productive pause, whether it’s using The Five-Minute Journal, whether it’s reflecting on your day, reflecting on your most recent failure, setting goals and creating a plan to achieve them. Hit the pause button in the next 24 hours and evaluate where you’re at and where you want to go.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jim, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and success and even fun in your future failures.

Jim Harshaw, Jr.
Thank you, Pete. It was great to be on here.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Ellen

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

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

 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Dr. Ellen Reed Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Reed
Yes, absolutely.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s quick.

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Reed
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

Ellen Reed
Great question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen Reed
Expands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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