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542: How to Turn Your Adversity into Advantage with Laura Huang

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Harvard professor and author Laura Huang shares how to build your edge and be perceived positively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the myth of hard work is so dangerous
  2. How unfair perceptions can quietly limit your career–and what to do about it
  3. A formula to turn embarrassment and bitterness into enrichment

About Laura:

Laura Huang is a professor at Harvard Business School, who specializes in studying interpersonal relationships and implicit bias in entrepreneurship and in the workplace. Her research has been featured in several publications like the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and Nature. She was also named as one of the 40 Best Business School Professors Under the Age of 40 by Poets & Quants.

Laura has also previously held positions in investment banking, consulting, and management in several companies such as Standard Chartered bank, IBM Global Services, and Johnson & Johnson. She received her MS and BSE in electrical engineering from Duke University, an MBA from INSEAD, and a PhD from the University of California, Irvine.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Laura Huang Interview Transcript

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

Laura Huang
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I want to hear what you’re allowed to tell us about your first job offer out of college being to work at the CIA.

Laura Huang
How did you know that?

Pete Mockaitis
We dig. We dig deep in your background. Maybe not as deep as the CIA did but…

Laura Huang
I know. You must have an in with the CIA. Most people don’t know that, yeah, that was my very first job offer, actually. And I wasn’t actually sure what it was about, to be honest, because I was an engineer, and I had applied for this role, and it turned out to be a different role than I had expected. Well, suffice to say that that’s what I was offered. And I sort of tried a conversation with a couple of my family members about it and I, essentially, was forbidden from taking that job. So, that was the end of that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
What are the key drivers that lead to that being off the table immediately?

Laura Huang
It was things like, “They trust you with a gun? They would trust you with a gun?” So, things like that. And I speak multiple languages and they weren’t quite sure exactly what situations I was going to be placed in, what kind of counterintelligence projects I was going to be involved in. And so, instead, I became a professor.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I guess some professors still do get recruited into intelligence agencies depending on what they study. I’m not sure in a personal relationship.

Laura Huang
Sure. Well, you never know.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one. Interpersonal relationships and implicit bias doesn’t sound as much like something that they would recruit for, but maybe. Maybe they will.

Laura Huang
Well, every so often, you know, when my husband is being particularly difficult or something, I’ll say, “Just be careful because you don’t know, I might still be in the CIA.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so the intrigue is sown. And so, I love the forced segue, but I’m also intrigued by the work that you’ve been doing talking about getting an edge. And so, I want to hear, maybe we’re going to cover a lot of good stuff. But perhaps we could lead off with what’s perhaps one of the most surprising and fascinating and counterintuitive discoveries you’ve made about how people successfully attract attention and support from others?

Laura Huang
Yeah. You know, I think the most surprising thing that I’ve discovered over the last decade or so of my research is that how very many people from just a young age were taught that success is about hard work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Laura Huang
To just put your head down and keep working hard, and that your hard work will speak for itself. And the thing is, is that hard work is critical. I would never say that it’s not critical. But I think there comes a time when people realize that hard work alone is not enough, and that hard work leaves us feeling frustrated. And we hear so many super successful people, you know, we ask people that are at the top of their game, people who are CEOs of companies, on top management teams, people who are Olympians and in professional sports, and we ask them the secret to their success, and they will inevitably say something along the lines of, “It’s hard work. Just keep working hard.”

But that often leave us frustrated because we can see how much effort we’re sometimes putting in and how much hard work, and how even when we putting in all that hard work, the rewards seemingly sometimes go to somebody else. And we realize that it’s often about the signals and the perceptions and the stereotypes of others that are actually dictating who gets the rewards and who gets those coveted outcomes. And so, I think that’s something that I realized is that we all sort of have this implicit understanding of that but yet we keep telling this narrative around keep working hard, putting your thing, and just keep working hard.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, I’d say that adds up to me in terms of that sounds true, but you’ve got more than just anecdotal stuff. Can you share some of your most compelling evidence or data out there that shows this is absolutely a big force affecting professionals all the time?

Laura Huang
Yeah. I’ve studied this in a range of different contexts, with a range of different qualities and characteristics, because I wanted to see how much we could push it, how much this could hold. So, I found, for instance, people who have an accent are much less likely to get hired for top executive-level positions. They’re less likely to get raises, they’re less likely to get promotions, they’re less likely to get funding for their ventures, even when we control for all other factors. The type of venture it is, what industry it is, it’s overwhelmingly people who have an accent have this negative, have this sort of disadvantage.

We see this with women. Women are only receiving 2% of the venture capital financing out there. They’re less likely to get raises, less likely to have the same salary or the same position, a host of different things. I’ve studied this with gender, or race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, across a whole different host of things. Probably the most appalling or surprising one to me was when a couple of my colleagues and I wanted to try and find a context in which bias and disadvantage should not occur, where we should see no difference at all.

And so, what we decided to look at was people who were suffering from heart attacks and were in the emergency room. And we figured, “This is a situation, this is an instance where the physicians, the emergency room physicians, their only job is to save that patient regardless of their gender or regardless of other factors.” But, indeed, we found, again, that when women were having heart attacks, they were more likely to die from heart attacks when they’re being treated by male physicians than when they were treated by female physicians.

And so, it was this amazing sort of revelation that even in life or death situations, we’re seeing the impact of signals and perceptions and ways of communicating, and how that has an impact. But I should say also that it’s not just men, for example, that are discriminating against women. I find in venture capital and in entrepreneurship, female investors and male investors are both equally likely to bias against women entrepreneurs in a host of different ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, boy, yeah, that’s so intriguing and I could just imagine all kinds of contexts and all sorts of combinations of times in which folks are discriminated against. I’m trying to imagine sort of the reverse as I thought you were going with, and I think men might be discriminated against when folks are hiring a nanny.

Laura Huang
Yeah, absolutely. This is what I talk a lot about. Everybody has something. Like, everyone has something. We tend to think a lot about the typical cast of characters – gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion. But, really, it has everything. Everyone is susceptible to the perceptions and the stereotypes of others.

You go into any situation, what happens is that you are being perceived by your counterpart, and it’s based on their background and their experiences, and your background and your experiences, and so every time you go into a different situation, when you change one thing, whether it’s the context or the person that you’re interacting with, those perceptions will change as well.

And so, we are all susceptible to these sorts of first impressions and stereotypes and obstacles that others present on our behalf.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to get a sense, and it’s okay if you don’t have every datapoint right off the top of your head, but maybe just a quick sense for the order of magnitude here in terms of like with the accent here, for example, or whatever example you happen to know the numbers. Is this like a 4% difference or like a 40% difference, or more?

Laura Huang
No, we’re talking 30% to 40% differences.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Laura Huang
Yeah, and it’s very, very robust in terms of repeated over different contexts. And, you know, the interesting thing about that, which is really sort of where this book came from, is that for the last decade, I had been studying inequality and disadvantage and people who are underestimated, and it’s starting to get really depressing in the sense that I saw all of these disparities and all of these disadvantages. And people would sort of ask me these questions around, “What can we do about it? Is there a way to prevent against these disparities?” And I don’t have the answers.

And so, really, what I set out to do, and over the last couple of years, what I’ve tried to do is figure out, “Are there things people can do, are there strategies that people can take to sort of inoculate against these biases and flip these signals and perceptions, these stereotypes in your favor?” And I found, indeed, we could, that there are ways to flip stereotypes and obstacles in our favor, and then we can find and create our own edge.

So, in the example of the person, if people with the accent, what I found, for instance, was that people typically think that people who have an accent are not able to communicate as well. But, in fact, it’s not about communication. When I did blind studies where I had some people with accents and some people without accents, giving pitching their ventures, I found that the people with accents were just as likely to communicate as much information, if not more, and people were just as likely to comprehend and understand what their company was about, if not more.

Instead, it was around perceptions we made about people with accents. Things like the fact that they may not, you know, we would perceive them as being not as interpersonally influential, or not as good at team interactions, or being a team player, not able to think out of the box, or be innovative. And so, preventing against these things, well, we had those same people with accents go into an interview situation and say things like, “Let me give you an example of a time when I fought for resources for my team,” or, “Let me tell you about a time when I didn’t stop until I had closed the deal.” Hence, showing how interpersonally skilled they really were. That actually prevented against these negative outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Okay. Well, so then that’s a rather particular instance, folks with accents trying to acquire venture capital money, sharing particular stories that combat where the bias is going. Can you share with us, to the extent that it’s possible, what are some of the best recipes in terms of, “Hey, if you have this adversity, here’s what you do to turn that into that advantage”?

Laura Huang
Yes. So, there are so many things embedded just within how we do this, which is, number one, it’s really the more that you make it authentic and recognize the way in which you are being perceived, the more equipped you are to stop and redirect. Like, that’s really the key. When you realize that somebody is perceiving you in a certain way, just stopping that sort of perception and redirecting it the perception that they should be having of you.

And people often want sort of, “What are the 10 steps to doing this?” I wish I could give like a recipe, or like the 10 steps to do this, but it’s so personal in terms of how you’re being perceived, who that other person that is perceiving you is, and how you redirect that in sort of the best way. But that’s, really, essentially what it is, is knowing yourself really well and being able to know where your strengths are, trusting and relying on your strengths as well as your alleged weaknesses, and turning those underestimated strengths upside down to succeed in both business and in life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so what are some of the best practices to go about decoding that stuff in terms of how you may be perceived?

Laura Huang
Yeah, so there’s a number of different things that you can do. I talk a lot in the book around knowing what your basic goods are. Your basic goods, those are really the things, those are like your superpowers, the things that you’re really good at that really make you who you are.

For example, you could be somebody who is really hardworking and trustworthy and compassionate. When you get to somebody else who’s really hardworking and trustworthy, but maybe isn’t compassionate, and it totally changes things. It makes you a completely different person even though two out of the three of those traits very much embody you. It’s understanding things like that.

And then it’s understanding that when you are engaging with someone else, that those aspects, those traits of yours are going to interact with that other person. So, creating and gaining an edge is really edge stands for sort of the framework for this perspective around how you can gain that advantage for yourself.

The E is for enrich, and that’s those pieces are your basic good. How are you enriched? What do you bring to situations? What is the value that you provide to other people? The D is for delight. How do you delight others? Because, often, even if you know how you enrich and the value you provide to other people, you don’t have the opportunity. Like, we don’t belong to the right group, we don’t belong to the right networks, and so we don’t have the opportunity to show how we enrich or provide value. Your ability to delight, really, is your way of getting that entrance, getting that opportunity.

And then once you get that opportunity, G is for guide. Guiding those perceptions of others so that you can continue to show how you enrich and provide value. And, finally, the last E is for effort. And effort and hard work comes last in this framework because we often think that effort and hard work should come first, that it comes first and that it’ll then speak for itself but, in fact, that’s where we get very frustrated where we don’t know how we enrich and how we delight and how we guide, and when we do know those things, that’s when our effort and our hard work works harder for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then I’d love to get your view in terms of to gather this self-awareness. Are you sort of interviewing people, doing 360-degree surveys, just sort of asking your good friends and family sort of? What’s maybe the intelligence gathering look like in practice?

Laura Huang
It’s a sort of continuous process, right? There’s no sort of easy solution to this. There’s a number of different ways that I sort of present this. One way is by following patterns and looking for patterns in your life. I talk about this a lot as life rhymes. So, your life really rhymes, and when you’re able to look for these patterns, things that maybe you had this feeling as a child, and you weren’t sure exactly what that was, but it either made you uncomfortable or didn’t sit well with you, or somebody had said something to you, or had interpreted you in another way, in some way, and then a couple of years later you might have a similar situation. You feel that same type of feeling. Something didn’t sit well. You start to develop an understanding and an awareness of what those sorts of things mean, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Huang
That’s something that we implicitly start to get an understanding. The other sort of way is that it’s much more explicit, and I always say that anybody can learn how to do this. Anybody can learn how to really have that authentic self-awareness, but not everybody is willing. Everyone is able to but not everyone is willing to. And the reason why not everyone is willing to is because it does mean putting yourself out there and asking for that uncomfortable feedback from people, putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to have the humility and also be embarrassed.

I talk a lot about how being embarrassed is so key to growth in our lives, and having this real understanding, because a lot of times we’ll be in situations and something will happen and we’ll be…it won’t go right, it won’t go the way we expected, or sort of we’ll be embarrassed about it. And then we’ll say, “Never again.” We won’t ever put ourselves in this situation again. We don’t ever want to feel that way again, “That just made me uncomfortable and I didn’t like it, especially when the stakes are really high.”

But when we push through in those moments of embarrassments is a lot of revelation. And there’s a lot of revelation about ourselves, and why we felt uncomfortable, and what it was that made us feel uncomfortable, and how we can sort of go past that in the future, but sometimes it takes multiple times where we’re embarrassing ourselves in the same sort of situations before we learn how life rhymes.

And so, it’s sort of those types of situations. And there’s also this element of we’ve all been burned before, we’ve all had people who have…it’s amazing how you can ask pretty much anyone to name an instance with somebody or some situation still bugs you. Like, you still have this chip on your shoulder because that person wronged you or burned you so badly. Like, within seconds, we can bring up two to three, at least, examples of situations where we still bitter, or we feel jaded, or we still have a chip on our shoulder because we still feel wronged, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Laura Huang
Those types of situations where we really allow ourselves to experience that bitterness and think about, “Is this making me bitter? And how can it make me better?” Let it make you better not bitter. That’s also a situation where we can learn a lot about ourselves and who we really are, and those perceptions that others have of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that is intriguing in terms of, like, if you feel super bitter and wronged, I mean, I’m right with you. It’s like that is indicative that, hey, there’s a deeply-held value here that you think has been flagrantly violated. And by sort of digging into that a little bit, you can kind of deduce what that is.

Laura Huang
Totally. That’s exactly it. Because it still leaves us feeling that way, there is something there, there’s something substantive there that tells us a lot about our deeply-embedded beliefs and values and what we really care about. But, instead, we sort of avoid those because they’re so painful, and we sort of chalk it up to frustration because, often, those are the instances where our hard work didn’t speak for itself, and somebody else sort of wronged us or our hard work didn’t speak for itself, our hard work was not enough. It left us frustrated. It didn’t go according to how we think it should go. There’s this myth of meritocracy. For some, that was the meritocracy was violated. And it tells us about our values and how we think the world, the orderly world should be and how things should work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, so I’m thinking about my own life and examples. But I’d love it if you could share some cool stories here in which someone came to terms with some situations that were embarrassing or caused bitterness, and what they learned and took away, and were enriched from those when they really dug in.

Laura Huang
When I talk about sort of life rhymes, there’s multiple instances where I didn’t advocate for myself because of inexperience, because I didn’t know better. And then later on something else happened that was really similar and I sort of learned how to advocate for myself and then advocated in the wrong way.

And then you sort of learn through the years. I think it still stinks every time I read about frivolous lawsuits, people who lose lawsuits because they don’t have the resources, or the know-how, or the people, it doesn’t seem always like justice is being served. It seems like the people who are getting out on the right side of things are the ones who had some sort of secret inside understanding, or had the resources and the money to continue hiring the best lawyers, and so the other participant couldn’t sustain it anymore.

It’s these instances where you…like for me, loyalty is so huge. And so, instances where I really gave my all to somebody and someone took advantage of that. Or instances where I had somebody’s best interests at heart, but then they were very willing to, for their own personal gain, even just a little bit of personal gain, create huge disadvantages for others. And those sorts of situations, I think I’m speaking on behalf of situations that lots of us have had.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And then can we sort of hear the conclusion of that in terms of, all right, so there you felt it, you noted it, you captured it. And then what?

Laura Huang
Well, I think the painful part of this is that you don’t win. You don’t win everything, right? And you only win when you take these experiences and, like I said, you let it make you better. That you allow it to inform you in some way so that in the future you can try and flip things in your favor. The tough part of this is that because it’s so often about the signals and the perceptions and the stereotypes that other people have of us, it’s these soft things that are really the poison. But, at the same time, because they are the soft things, they also become the anecdote.

We’re able to shift things and reposition them and flip them in our favor. We’re not able to put in the same thing, things when it’s a hard anecdotal of sorts of things. So, just like those signals and perceptions are the things that are leading to disadvantage, so, too, can we flip those things in our favor.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it, if possible, if we could maybe zoom out a bit. So, much of the work you mentioned is certainly getting that deep knowledge of yourself, and then your potential, how you’re being perceived. Are there any things that you see just show up again and again and again that are maybe nearly universal in terms of, “Here are some easy little things that just about all of us should start doing or stop doing to help positively influence how we’re being perceived”?

Laura Huang
You know, a lot of it is about recognition. A lot of it is about going into situations, and realizing that people are going to have these perceptions. But, at the same time, I think it’s really important to understand that people are very complicated and varied and embracing the fact that there is not just one version of each person. What I mean by that is that it’s very easy to go into a situation when somebody says something, and then, all of a sudden, we equate that person with that statement and personify that person as everything that that statement encompasses, rather than sort of seeing it as just one aspect or one facet of that person, understanding that they are also very complicated sort of people.

I think we can all identify situations in which we said something and it came out, it would come out in a way that we didn’t intend for it to come out. And we sort of think, “Oh, I hope that that person didn’t misinterpret it, or I hope they didn’t think that I meant this.” But we don’t think the same when somebody else says something to us, that past, if ended. No, we don’t think, “Perhaps they didn’t mean it that way, or it came out the wrong way. And let me sort of understand what they meant,” thinking then as that person. So, we don’t often look at the intent of other people but we evaluate things that we say based on intent.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yes. It’s funny, when you talk about bitterness, for me, personally, that’s one of the best ways that I personally found to resolve some of that, is when someone says something I think is just outrageous, like, “What on earth? That is just so out of line,” etc. I stop it. And sometimes, hey, it’s worth just acknowledging and addressing and digging into it, but other times it’s not. But if it sticks with me, that’s kind of what I think as like, “Well, hey, there have been times I’ve said things I didn’t quite mean to and it came out wrong and I regretted and felt like, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’” And they, too, very well may be experiencing those same emotions, like, “Oh, man, that is not what I meant to say there. Oops.”

Laura Huang
Yeah, I mean, it was really funny. Just the other day, we were having this conversation, a couple of us were having a conversation, this person said something that was like so out of left field that we all looked like, “Whoa, wait. Where did that come from?” And one other person was like, “Whoa, where did that come from? I know you didn’t mean it in that way. It totally must’ve come out.” Like, just give that person the benefit of the doubt, and so we’re laughing with that person being so, so out of left field, but he didn’t mean it that way, like, “What do you mean?” Like, that other person was, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I totally meant it that way.” And they sort of clarified, right?

But who knows, they could’ve meant it that way but in a benign way. Give that person an opportunity to like learn, to realize, like, “Oh, I shouldn’t say things in that way.” So, it could’ve just come out the wrong way, and then we gave them, in a really safe way, a way for them to clarify. But even if they did mean it that way, it also gave them an opportunity, in a very safe way, to kind of understand and have this dialogue with us. And that’s really what getting at this really deep, rich interpersonal sort of interactions is all about, it’s like understanding and coming to this recognition and overlap and shared sort of experiences and values. That’s where you really start to enrich the lives of other people and really show where you can add value.

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

Laura Huang
Yeah, I mean, I just think one of the things that I always sort of emphasize is that when we’re trying to sort of shift the perceptions and the stereotypes of others, and flip these perceptions in our favor, I often get the question, which is, “Well, you know, it just feels like manipulative. It feels strategic. I don’t like when other people sort of do that and act manipulative. And I really don’t want to do that either.”

And what I always point out is that this is something that’s very different. This is about people are going to have perceptions of you regardless of whether you guide them to who you authentically are or not. But it’s actually much more authentic and much more real and not manipulative at all when you are guiding these perceptions and you’re not passively letting others write your narrative. You’re writing your own narrative and guiding people to who you really are. And that’s where you get much richer and much more authentic sort of relationships.

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

Laura Huang
If I had to pick just one, recently I love “Keep the main thing the main thing.” And what really is like behind that is, like, no, you know what the main things in your life are, the things that really are important, the things that really drive you, and the things that you feel are like worth fighting for. But we often get caught up in the things that are more immediate or the things that demand more of our attention, and we lose sight of what that main thing is.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Laura Huang
I write non-fiction but I love to read fiction. There’s just something about fiction, so I love “When the Legends Die” it’s one of my favorites. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is another of my favorites. These are sort of like the Young Adult books that really impacted me. I love “Girl in Translation,” which is like a really powerful story about identity.

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

Laura Huang
I used the timer functionality on my phone a lot to keep me organized. It’s really easy to get off course, and so sometimes I’m like, “Okay, I have 30 minutes.” And if you set your timer for 30 minutes, you sort of focus, like, “I’m not going to work on this for longer than 30 minutes so I better get this right.” So, it’s such a simple funny thing. I tend to use really simple tools and try and leave the more in-depth things to projects I’m working on, the papers, the writing that I’m trying to do and so on and so forth.
Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Laura Huang
I have one that’s really aspirational. I really want to spend like 10 minutes every morning meditating and just thinking through, and just having like silence. I’ve been really, really bad at that so I can’t say that that’s a favorite habit but it’s one that I see as very valuable and I’m really working on.

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

Laura Huang
One of them is “Hire slow, fire fast.” And it applies to entrepreneurship very much so because, as you’re growing your company very quickly, the tendency is to hire very quickly and it sort of destroys a lot of companies because you’re bringing on lots of the wrong people but, yet, you feel like it impacts you.

But it also applies in life a lot too, which is like, really, we’re not as careful about sort of pruning the things in our life that are not good for us and, instead, we try and bring on lots of things that we think are going to help us without knowing that we already have all of this other stuff that’s going on that’s kind of interfering. And so, it’s like get rid of the bad, so fire quick, fire fast, get rid of those things and then hire slow, being really careful about what you introduce, whether it’s habits, people, or experiences. Being really methodical and thinking, not even methodical but being really intentional about how you do that. So, that’s one of them.

Another one I’d say a lot, that I used to say a lot in my entrepreneurship class is, like, you got to stop the bleeding. And a lot of times we start to think about all of these bigger more macro-level issues but we’re not focusing on stopping the bleeding. You got to stop the immediate bleeding. And then, as you’re doing that, sometimes you’re discovering and figuring out. But just stop the bleeding but you also have to look at what’s the root cause. And so, both of those are really important.

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

Laura Huang
Yeah, so on my website LauraHuang.net there’s lots of resources, how-tos, there’s a downloadable guide to finding your edge that has strategies and tips that you can find or exercises for how you can do exactly some of the things I’ve been talking about. I’m also on a variety of different social media, I’m on Twitter, Instagram. Laura Huang is my handle on Twitter, Instagram and a bunch of other things, Facebook, LinkedIn, all of those sorts of things.

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

Laura Huang
Yeah, the call to action is really just practice this, know that you can do it, and share with us your experiences of how you’ve been able to flip these stereotypes and obstacles in your favor.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Laura, thanks so much for taking this time and good luck in forming your edge.
Laura Huang
Thanks so much. Take care. Appreciate it.

529: Finding Greater Success and Fulfillment with Dr. Daphne Scott

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Dr. Daphne Scott says: "I'll never have enough time to do the things I don't want to do."

Dr. Daphne Scott debunks harmful myths to explain how to build a healthy relationship with success.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How your ambition is sabotaging your career
  2. How to end the vicious cycle of stress
  3. How to easily fit meditation into your daily routine

About Daphne:
Dr. Daphne Scott brings two decades of real world coaching and corporate development experience to her work with organizations, teams and individuals. She combines strong leadership abilities with highly-trained facilitation skills to bring individuals and teams into greater relationship, creativity, and ultimately, success.

Daphne is a Certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher, a Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), certified Hendricks Coach, a founding member of the Conscious Leadership Group, and a member of the International Coaching Federation. She also holds a Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctorate of Science in Physical Therapy from Andrews University. Daphne is the Chief Culture Officer at Confluent Health and was previously the Director of Leadership Development at Athletico Physical Therapy.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Daphne Scott Interview Transcript

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

Daphne Scott
Oh, thanks so much for having me, Pete. It’s my pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into this conversation as well as learn a bit about your sketch comedy tour in the past. What is the story here?

Daphne Scott
Well, I like to say that’s almost where it all started. It’s not actually the total place where it all started, but I did improvisational theater at the famed Second City in Chicago for quite a while, about three to four years, and then went on to travel with a sketch comedy group that traveled around the United States and we’d do all kinds of festivals and write funny sketches and think we were just hilarious and, yeah, that’s where it all started. And that translated into many of my skills that I have in facilitating groups now.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m curious, was there a particular sketch that just was the hit, it got more laughs than the others, not that you can perform the whole thing for us, but maybe give us a taste, what was the premise?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, there were two that were really big hits. One was called Amish pornography. By the way, I need to give acknowledgement to Nick DeGrazia, who was the founder of the group, The Comic Thread. Amish pornography, which was the theme song to Space Odyssey 2000, so bom, bom, bom, you know, the whole thing, and it was just simply two people, it was him and myself and we’re dressed up as Amish sort of folks, and we’re just simply…he is removing his suspenders very slowly and all I’m doing is lifting up my skirt about a half inch at most while this whole song plays all the way through. So, it’s just literally us standing on stage facing each other in this elaborate, much elaborate sort of setup of this Amish barn and that was always a really big hit because we didn’t say anything. We really weren’t doing anything but it was just this idea that this would be really what Amish pornography kind of would look like, if you could.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, clever. Clever.

Daphne Scott
It’s very clever.

Pete Mockaitis
Risqué.

Daphne Scott
Yeah, yeah, very, very risqué. And then there was another sketch which was based on the movie Braveheart and it was about this grandfather who was very obsessed with the movie so much so that he thought it was real, and it just culminates in this great hijinx of him torturing his grandson, and it was very, very funny. So, those are a couple. Those are a couple, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Mercy. Well, I love comedy that’s just a little bit out there and I think Key & Peele, my personal opinion, are the most amazing sketch comedians I’ve bumped into. Netflix has a new series I Think You Should Leave which is a sketch comedy show, and it’s amusing, it gets me some chuckles.

Daphne Scott
I have not watched it yet. I’ll have to check that out.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Cool. Well, so let’s talk about your modern-day programming or what you’re up to these days. You got some stuff called Waking Up A Leader. What’s sort of the main thesis or point behind this?

Daphne Scott
Yeah. so, I like to say my latest book, it’s my only book, but it is my latest, so, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Your first book.

Daphne Scott
Yeah, it’s my first book, also my latest book. Yeah, so Waking Up A Leader, really, the essence is this combination between the transformational skills that leaders and, by the way, people who want to be great at their jobs, need to have on board as well as the skills, some of the transactional skills, that are really helpful for leaders to have on board. And it’s specifically about looking at how we relate to sort of these five domains of our life, which seems to be these areas, especially in work, that can take over.

So, the five relationships that we’re having are our relationships to time, money, our self, our identity, how we see ourselves, and friendships, and then, of course, the very well-known unknown, in how we relate to the space of the unknown. So, that’s really what the book is about at its root.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, I love a good framework, you know, breaking that into five key ingredients. And so, I understand, in your own story, you had some relationships that seemed a bit out of whack. Can you share your tale?

Daphne Scott
I did. Yeah, so good. That’s a really nice way to say it, out of whack, absolutely. Well, I started, when I wrote the book, really started with in terms of the five relationships, the relationship to time, that’s always a big one for clients at work and with myself. I had much the same experience that all of us have had, which is feeling often as though I never had enough time to do things I really wanted to do and never have enough time playing guitar. I didn’t have enough time to write comedy, these sorts of things that I enjoy doing outside of my working world now. And, of course, I never have enough time getting my work done. That was one in one big relationship that had to change.

If I got, really, to the root though of what was happening, it was really there was this particular way that I was just relating to how I saw myself in the world, who I believed that I was, and also who I believed I needed to be to be successful. And I needed to be a person who had no less than 50 responsibilities at any one time, I needed to be a person who ran from thing to thing, and got more degrees and more certifications, and took on more responsibilities and all these sorts of things that I had created in my mind, by the way, as these marks of being successful.

And ambition took over and so the story progresses, my story progresses, a little bit through the book. And I really had to work to shift that relationship at the root, that really what was happening. And it’s intentional that the relationship to the self and the identities in the middle of the other four, in the book by the way, I discovered that that’s what’s going on the whole time.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, yeah, so intriguing. So, you felt that you didn’t have the time to do the things you really wanted to do from the guitar to the comedy. And what the holdup there was you had some ambition going on that said that you needed to tackle X, Y, Z. So, can you really zoom in there in terms of sort of what’s going on in the experience of your life and the feelings there in terms of frustration or overwhelm, etc., as well as sort of the internal dialogue that’s kind of propagating that?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, oh, man, so good. You’re getting right at it, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

Daphne Scott
Again, I think, well, I’ll just kind of talk about through, I love what you said, the internal dialogue because this is really what, at the core, is what’s happening for all of us, is if we paid attention long enough, and this is really the beginning of the book, if we pay attention long enough, we start to realize that we’re giving a lot of attention to thought that’s happening, the things that we’re telling ourselves. Really, there’s a whole part in the book around the stories that we tell ourselves, right?

So, when I looked at how I was organizing myself and my life, and by organizing I mean sort of my energy, my time, my thought processes, how I was taking care of my physical body, my emotional, mental, spiritual wellbeing, and I was really wiring that all altogether. It was based on sort of these root sort of experiences or these ideas, one that I had, first of all, let’s just take this, that I have to be an ambitious person to be successful, that I had to take on a lot more work.

And what was starting to happen was, when I really paid attention to my experience, I was really creating sort of this idea that, “One day I would arrive. One day I would finally get there, I’d finally reach the finish line,” which is really at the root, underneath all that, is this idea that things are permanent, that I would finally get the title, or the promotion, or the money, or one day I would finally have all the time that I wanted, then I could be happy, then I could relax.

And the idea that, even once you had those things that they would stay permanent, it’s really the root, if you paid attention, to all of our suffering. It’s really the core that we’re going to finally get this thing, then, and only then, can we finally be happy. And then when we have it, that it’ll last forever. And once I saw the truth of that, that was years and years and years, by the way. I make it sound like, “Oh, it’s one day, it happened.”

But once I started seeing the truth of that, I started unhooking myself and having a different relationship with myself. I started relating to this idea of time differently. I started relating to this idea of money. That was a big one. I don’t know how much you’ve encountered the idea that you can’t leave your current job that you’re making so much money on and go find another job that could pay you just as much. You have to stay in your current job because if you leave, you’ll be broke, so you stay but feel miserable. And I was really working through that relationship.

And so, the more that I kept paying attention to what I was really telling myself, the more that I kept paying attention to my feelings and how, also, transient they were, one minute I could be really feeling great, happy. The next minute I could be not so happy. And I started realizing, “Wow, maybe these things that I’m blaming on the outside of me, maybe there’s more going on in the inside that I need to pay attention to.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing. So, then the lie is, “Hey, one day I’ll have X, and then it’ll be all gravy from there on out. I’ll have it, it’ll be there, it’ll be permanent, and happy days are here.” So, that’s sort of the falsehood that you’re entertaining and it’s causing some troubles. And so, how would you articulate the contrary truth in terms of how is it really, and how should we really optimally operate?

Daphne Scott
Yeah. Well, great question. It’s tricky in a way because there’s the inherent reality, inherently things that are true but they’re not inherently true, right? So, it is true on one level that it’s good to have some cash. Like, if you’re going to have a business and we want to have a job, and it is true that that’s good. We need to keep the lights on, probably that’s all true. And there’s some truth to money, right? I’d sound like a complete crackpot if I was on your show right now and be like, “Look, money is not real.” It’s just that it’s not inherently real. It’s not the thing that’s going to ultimately, one day, get you the peace, calm, joy that you ultimately desire, that people are really looking for in their life.

And so, when we really look at the idea of money, yeah, there’s some truth to it. It’s reality. If we look at time, it’d be weird if I was like, “Oh, don’t concern yourself with time. It doesn’t really exist.” There is clock, that we had an appointment today, right? It’s helpful. But if I start to believe that it’s inherently true, that that’s all there is, and I start wiring my life around that, I really start to create a lot of suffering for myself because the clock just does what the clock does, it’s a convention, it’s helpful to a certain degree, but time and space are really, in the inherent reality, they’re not dependent on the clock. So, how I choose how to relate to that clock really actually sets up my experience.

I can be sitting quietly reading my book and feeling really, really great about everything. I can also be quietly reading my book and feel really stressed out and overwhelmed. Same exact thing on the video camera but very different experience, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So, how you choose to relate to these things makes all the difference in terms of how you’re feeling and operating, and your ability to be effective in your job, and more broadly as well.

Daphne Scott
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, can we dig in, then, in terms of what are some best practices and worst practices in terms of relating to each of these five key things?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, such a great question. And this is where the transactional part of it, sort of what sounds very transactional, transactional-sounding, fits into this whole thing, so I really, really love the question. So, let’s talk about time. Yeah, totally true, time, we use it, it’s a convention. The clock is a convention. I don’t have to feel at the effect. One o’clock is no different than 3:00 o’clock. It’s not doing anything to me sort of idea. That sounds great, right?

It also helps though if you know how to put stuff on your calendar, it also helps if you do some planning week to week. And what I really like to tell people is when I sit down and I review my calendar two weeks out, for example, review my list, so I work from a list every day, it’s one of the actions in the book, I really see that as a mindfulness practice because I know that when I do that thing, when I review that calendar, when I have my list up-to-date, and I’m keeping track of things, and I know what’s coming, I relax. My mind is clear.

Even if I day full of appointments, when I look at that on Friday, it’s not going to happen until Wednesday, I know these are the things I need to be prepared for, these are the things that I’m planning, that are coming. Even looking back on the calendar, for example, a week can be really helpful. There might be meetings, and I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t grab that one. I told that guy I’d get him that thing, and I didn’t write that down. I need to write it down.” So, we really start to relax.

And so, I think that is one around the experience of time. That is one of the key practices that if people really are willing to just slow down to go fast type of idea, right, it really starts to shift our relationship and how we experience things.

Pete Mockaitis
And the practice is simply maintaining your calendar and a list of things and so that sounds like a prudent thing to do. And so, what would you say many astute professionals do instead of that that’s causing them problems?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, so good. That’s just so great. So, let’s see how this fits together, right? So, imagine this, imagine if believing that you don’t have enough time, I’m sure you’ve had that experience before, you don’t have enough time, and you’re starting to believe that. Now, if you already start to believe that you don’t have enough time, that’s like your operating system, what’s it like to think that you’re going to sit down and review your task list and your calendar? Right, exactly. You’re like, “I don’t have the time to do that. I just have to get things done.”

And so, people are playing whack-a-mole, they’re not grounded in, “What really requires my attention right now? What’s really most important right now?” and they spend an awful lot of time sort of rethinking things because you didn’t have it written down and you’re having to go back and sort of re-plan the thing that you’re going to do next. So, that’s what I want professionals do, and this is where I think where the mindset and the understanding of our attention and how we train ourselves to pay attention and how we work with the mind, where that fits in with the very practical thing that we talk about, which isn’t really rocket science, right? Like, review your calendar.

But when you get these two things working, kind of working against each other, it creates a ton of stress for people. So, yeah, that’s really how this starts to wire, sort of congeal itself into creating a lot of overwhelm and not the best practices for folks.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. So, sort of like a vicious cycle in terms of, “I don’t have time. I need to go ahead and do this thing,” and, thusly, they don’t take the time to plan and setup the calendar and that list, and then things get all the more out of control. And so, is it a similar kind of a pattern with the other four relationships? Can you maybe show us how that plays out with them?

Daphne Scott
Yeah. So, there’s sort of this common myth, this sort of mindsets that we get into, let’s take money, for example. And this is probably one of my favorite ones, honestly, because I work with very successful people, and it’s fascinating to me, and I ask them, “How much money do you need?” It seems like a reasonable question. None of them have an answer.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. I want to dig into this a bit just because I know exactly how much money I need.

Daphne Scott
Yeah, me, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, I don’t know, I sort of thought that was something that people who were interested in growing wealth knew. So, tell me a bit more about this. So, you’ve got dozens of clients, and you’ve asked them this question, and zero have told you a number?

Daphne Scott
Yeah. So, they struggle to have a number, and what’s really sort of lurking underneath all of that is, in some instances, they’ve had enough for a really long time. And it really starts to back them in a corner mentally, sort of in a way, because they start to see, like, “Wow, if I have all the money that I say I needed and that I wanted, then why am I not spending more of my time living my life the way that I really like to live it?”

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to spending time to generate more wealth.

Daphne Scott
Yeah, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Daphne Scott
Which is fine but that’s not in and of itself a problem but, exactly, it’s sort of the way they relate to it. And so, the common myth that we all start to believe is that we need more. We need more money will ultimately make us happier. More money. And, by the way, when you get as much as you need and want, then you get to play the game of your fear of losing all of it.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

Daphne Scott
Right? So, you’re never settled, right? So, we’ll look at that. So, you start getting into this mindset around this, and this starts to drive that quest for more, that quest for greed, which lends itself to everything from people not spending time with their families, people not taking care of themselves, their physical wellbeing because they’re working all the time, to really, really horrific sorts of things, like creating fraud, defrauding people in the company, or stealing, all these sorts of things that we’ve read about in the news.

And so, when we have sort of this relationship with money, that the only way we’ll be happy is we have to have more, we’re not clear. We don’t have clarity around what is enough individually, and then even in our businesses, what does that need to look like. Leaders, really, and people in their lives, really get swept away then with this constant run on this treadmill all the time, and we’re not never going to get there so it creates a lot of stress for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Daphne, can I really put you on the spot here?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you talk about what is enough? Can you share, for us, personally, as you thought through these things a lot, what is enough time, money, self, friends, unknown for you? And why?

Daphne Scott
Yeah. Well, enough time for me is me, really, lives in spending my time the way that it’s truly in line with my values and my purpose. And I want to tell you, again, it’s not a straight line. I think, in my experience, and I feel like I live in my genius 95% if not 100% of the time with my work, but it’s not a straight line. People are asking me to do things all the time, different things, things that, by the way, would be great. I wish I had the space to just say yes to everything on some level.

But then there’s the part where I know it’s not mine to do, and I had to really work it through in my life at getting very good at saying the word no. And I know if I go do it, my energy level won’t be that great. It ultimately won’t bring me the fulfillment that I really, really know that I can have. And once you start having that in your work, it becomes pretty palpable when you’re not doing it.

So, not matter what, when it comes to time, what I know is that I’ll never have enough to do the things I don’t want to do. And so, as soon as I start aligning myself with doing a lot of things that I don’t want to do, we just become more and more unhappy. There’s that. So, what’s enough? What’s enough time? I have all the time in the world to do the things that I want to do and never feel constricted around that.

Around money, it really was a matter of looking at, “What’s the wealth that I know I want to have to live a reasonable life and to be able to, obviously, pay my bills?” Now, my lifestyle is a little different. I don’t have children, by the way, so that changes some things for people who have kids, you have more responsibility in that way. But it was really a matter of setting up my life so that, quite frankly, where work wasn’t costing me more money. And I think when we start looking at life in that way, when I understood that the place that I was spending my time, how I was doing my work was really my energy, my life energy, and it was the only energy I had, it’s the most valuable thing that I do have, how do I really want to be “spending” that, and is there cost on the backend that I’m not paying attention to.

And then, on average, they say, the research says that once you hit about 80,000 to 90,000 a year, your positive emotion, access to positive emotion, doesn’t really increase that much, even up against people who are multimillionaires. And so, I really started to look at that, and I‘m like, “What is it for me to live my life in a way that can really allow me to retire ‘early,’ to have some financial independence? And what does it look like for me to set my life up that way so that I have more flexibility around my time and my money? I’m not in debt. I’m not walking around with the most heavily-marketed product outside of crappy food and the United States’ credit. What’s it like to just not be living like that?”

And so, I really started setting up my life that way and realized how much money. When you choose to live on less money, guess what happens to your retirement account? You need less.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly, yeah.

Daphne Scott
You don’t need as much. So, yeah. And then, around my ambition and what that needed to really look like, and where was I out of my integrity with myself, meaning where I wasn’t in wholeness and driving myself in a certain way where I’d gain 30 pounds, my relationships are really falling apart. I even make this comment in the book, like I had all these great degrees and certifications but all my plants were dead, not taking care of things in my life, and not keeping friendships intact both at work and in and out of work.

I think one of the things I really landed on was that I was spending, and still do, a good deal of my energy, my life energy, working, that I love it. And to think you only have acquaintances at this place where you spend 40 or 50 hours or 60 hours a week, that gets pretty dry. And so, what was it to really understand and to live into, really, cultivating friendships and keeping track of people, and not just seeing people as a sort of a means to and end, or, “They’re just going to help get my done and then I’m going to go home”?

Yeah, so that was all of them except the unknown.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, let’s hear it.

Daphne Scott
All right. Well, the unknown, really, the thing that I landed on with the unknown really has a lot to do…are you ready? It almost sounds like the buzzkill of the show, but really has a lot to do with death. I really got in touch with the reality that it’s coming, I just don’t know when, but it is coming. And I had a meditation that I was taught by one of my teachers, Stephen Batchelor, this is in the book. But it really is taking a close look at, and really sitting in this question that, given that is unknown, or given that it is known, that I will, one day, take my last breath, I will one day have taken my last walk, I will have one day pet my dog for the last time, given that that is true, but given that I don’t know when that is, now what should I do?

And that was really the meditation that started to unhook me quite a bit from being sucked into that myth that things were permanent, kind of letting me get outside of myself a little bit to realize that this whole thing that I’m doing and existing isn’t just about me, like other people matter, other people are here.

And so, given that, what should I do? Is it me going to be about me just accumulating more ambition, more degrees, more, more, more, knowing that this is all going to come to an end? Or is there some other way that I might want to be organizing my energy and spending my time, which is finite in that regard? For lack of a better explanation.

So, it was all these things together, how we relate to all these things together. And, interestingly enough, these were the things that I kept watching my clients struggle with. It was the same sort of thing, and I’m getting in these coaching conversations about, “Wow, I get it. I, too, have had these struggles.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued then, so when you do that meditation, so given the fact that I’m going to die, therefore, what shall I do?

Daphne Scott
And given the fact that I don’t know when that is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. What sorts of action items tend to pop up over and over again for yourself and others when they engage in this?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, that’s great. One, it’s interesting because I’ve been doing that meditation for years, and one interesting thing, I think you’ll find this very curious because I find it curious, when you sit in it, it’s the ideas to let any answers come to you, and sometimes nothing phenomenal shows up, you’re just kind of doing your meditation. But one thing that does consistently pop up for me is the word rest. And how it lands is not like rest, like, “Go take a vacation.”

It’s more like a resting with what is. It’s more like a call to be with what is, which I think is probably a balance to my personality type, which is the unconscious or a part of my personality type is to want to be in control. It’s wanting to make sure things are going to happen. It’s wanting to have things turn out the way I think they should, right?

And so, there’s more to this theme of rest, be with what is right now, and more of this call for stillness, being still. And even in the midst of activity, having a sense of stillness, in the midst of us having a conversation, having the sense of stillness that there isn’t something that I have to make happen or that has to happen in this moment. So, that is a thing that comes up pretty reliably for me.

And then there’s really simple things like it can be I’ve done the meditation and just a simple thing will pop up, like, “Take care of your car.” Like, there might’ve been something that I was avoiding doing, and it finally just says, “Look, it’s time to go take action on this. Enough dragging your feet to have the thing.” So, it runs the gamut for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, all right. Well, so then we talk about rest, I’d love to get your take on are there some particular self-care practices that really seem to have a lot of bang for your buck in terms of much rejuvenation in not a lot of time?

Daphne Scott
Yeah. Well, again, this comes back to time for sure and how we relate to it, but I will say that, undoubtedly, there are two things that we know really impact people’s physical health. So, if we start to recognize, a few things I want to say about that, leading up to it, that the body, it’s what allows this being over here to move around. It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to nature. It will ultimately do what it’s going to do.

However, if we really start to look at what allows the body to really function well and to be in its best health, hands down, there are two things that have really been shown over and over again. The food that we eat really matters and getting some sleep. And, again, those aren’t really sexy things, right? Like, we are looking for sort of all these sorts of magic bullets, this sort of one-stop shop-type of thing.

And, for sure, in my own experience, when I am eating very healthy, meaning I’m staying away from processed foods, I’m staying away from foods that are laden with sugar, processed stuff, they’ve pulled all the good nutrients out of it, you’re eating out of a box kind of thing, staying away from that stuff, eating as healthy as you can, and getting, for me, it’s about seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Those two things really trump just about everything, anything that I could do.

And the science really has shown us a lot, I think, over this many last, you know, especially this last 10 years or so, although the media will try to grab all these weird sorts of things to try to tell you differently, but there’s just no substitute for that, I think, for the physical body. And this fits into our mental and emotional wellbeing. The body and the mind work together. And so, if we haven’t taken care of the physical being, and we haven’t made sure that we’re well-rested, and made sure that we had plenty of sleep, we act real crabby.

Like, the examples I love to give is, and especially people who have kids really get this. It’s like if you have a baby, let’s say the baby is one and a half, one years old, they’re not really talking, they’re non-verbal, and they’re crying. I’ll ask people in a group, like, “Tell me what your checklist is. Like, what do you go through if your baby is crying? You’re starting to analyze why is the baby crying. You have a checklist in your mind.”

It’s really great because parents will say things like, “Well, are they hungry? Do they need their diaper changed? Do they need to sleep? Do they need a nap? Do they need to move around?” That’s the other one as far as the body is concerned is getting regular movement. And I point out to people, I’m like, “I don’t know why we made this weird jump that just because we had a little body, and then it became a big body, that we don’t still need those same sorts of basic things.” We need to have good food, we need to get good sleep, we need to be well-hydrated as far as taking care of the body.

So, I think that really is something. And I could go on all day about sleeping. But that is really one of, really, a significantly-overlooked part of our health. For all of the emphasis that we can put on exercise and all these other things, I think sleep is what I watch people really skip out on. And all you have to do is pay attention to how you feel after you’ve been sleep-deprived for about one or two days, and we’re just aren’t in our best space. We’re just not going to be. The body is really running on empty so we really have to keep that gas tank full, and I think those are two of the big ones.

And then the third, of course, that I’m a huge fan of is meditation and learning how to pay attention because I think that is really at the root. When we can keep working with the mind, which is kind of the mind is really all we have, when we can keep working with the mind and training the attention in a certain way and teaching it how to pay attention, then we’re more skillful, actually, at noticing when things are getting off for us, we’re more skillful at noticing, “Wow, I am feeling like I need a bit of a break here,” then we can take action on things a little bit more clearly, and we’re aware of how we’re relating to things, too. So, I think those are the big three.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say meditation, what do you recommend people do to get that practice up and going?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, a few things. I will tell you Headspace is probably one. If you’re going to sort of go through the app route to learn, I am a huge fan of Headspace. Andy Puddicombe is the guy that put that together, and it’s such a great app. You can do 10 free sessions, and then there’s a nominal pay part to it that you can do. People can also access my meditations on InsightTimer. InsightTimer is a free application. And, actually, there are hundreds of meditations on there, and teachers too, and I have sort of an intro, a couple of intro meditations that people can do. But I think any of those are really good places for people to start so that they can sort of be guided through a process.

And then some people really like guided meditations and listen to them consistently. I kind of mix it up. I don’t do as much guided, I do a lot more just silent meditation. And I’d like to say a word, too, about one of the other forms of meditation that we probably need to talk about a little bit more. We talk about being seated and meditating a lot, that’s I think what most people imagine, right? But there’s walking meditations, and you can meditate and walk.

And I’ve even noticed in my own teachings when I work with people, I don’t talk about that probably as much as I could and probably should because learning how to sit, most of us are just not used to being still that long so that can take a little bit longer. Whereas, I find if people learn how to meditate and how to do a walking meditation, that can be just as beneficial. And so, you can use all these different postures, sitting, lying, walking, and be in those different positions, which I think is really good too. So, Headspace, a big fan, and my meditations are also on Insight Timer, too.

Pete Mockaitis
And if we’re doing a walking meditation, how does that go in practice?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, a couple of ways to do it. One, the way that I teach is, and the reason I like this is because it doesn’t take a lot. You don’t have to walk five miles to meditate. You can just do it in a space of about 20 feet long, which means that people can do it sort of in their office building or in their place of work too. But you find a stretch, about 20 feet or so, and the idea, the basic premise is that you’re putting your intention, and this is the basic premise of any meditation, but you’re putting your premise on what it is that’s really happening in that moment. And we really bring the attention to the feet, because you’re walking, and noticing what each step actually is like, and noticing that, like, “Oh, my right heel is touching the ground. My right toe is lifting. The bottom of my foot is touching the ground, and then my left leg is moving.”

And, really, bringing your attention to all of those moment-by-moment nuances as you’re just in this space of going from one side of the room, if you will, to the other side of the room, and then just simply turning and going back the other direction. And so, the idea is just bringing the attention and awareness to, “Oh, this is I’m stepping now, and this is the next step, and I’m doing that.” And so you’re using the walking and the stepping, and literally the foot making contact with the ground, as the anchor just like you might with the breath if you are using seated meditation.

Yeah, give it a shot. I think you’ll like it. Yeah, it’s pretty cool. If you haven’t done it before, it’s pretty cool. It’s a nice way to do it. And I think people really do enjoy it because you’re moving. I think people kind of can feel a little constrained when they’re sitting at first, and then do a combination of them, which is great. Yeah, it works pretty good.

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

Daphne Scott
No, I think that’s good. I think we got through the whole point.

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

Daphne Scott
I love the quote, it comes from Aristotle, but, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Yeah, I’m a really big fan of that quote, and I think because it brings me back to being mindful, it brings me back to being aware of how I’m organizing myself, how I’m moving through the world. And when I get on autopilot, I’m not paying attention, how I can be unskillful sometimes. So, yeah, I’m a big fan of that quote.

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

Daphne Scott
Oh, my gosh. I’m going to cite, there’s two. I have two favorite research articles. I’m going to totally nerd out now. By the way, I was a physical therapist and did clinical research in my first career. But one of my favorite articles was an editorial that was written by a pretty popular physical therapist at the time, Tony Delitto. And he wrote this article, and it was basically titled such, “Stop Looking for the Magic Bullet.” And he was writing about treating low back dysfunction in the United States, and how people were just trying to find this one cure-all, like people will just take a pill and they’d be rid of all their back pain.

However, that article really shifted my awareness of life in general, of how much time I was spending trying to find that magic bullet. And it was really what we were just talking about, Pete, around, “I’ll finally be happy when…” “If only…” And that article, I think he wrote that, I mean, I want to say it was like 1998 or something. It might’ve been 2001, but that always stuck with me even though it was very clearly around back pain. It was very clearly around clinical science. The idea, the premise stuck with me for a really long time, even till now.

And then the other study was done by Killingsworth, and it was on looking at how people are relating to what they’re doing in the moment and if that really matters. The idea is that our minds wander all the time and does it really matter? Does it matter if we’re really present? Everybody tells us it matters, but how much does it matter? How much does it really impact our experience day to day?

And so, they did this amazing study where they did experience sampling and they had these over 2,000 subjects, and they give them, it was an app on their phone, and they sort of could interrupt them through the day, and say, “Hey, what are you doing? Are you thinking about what you’re doing? And how much are you enjoying what you’re doing right now?” And so, they just collected all these variables from these people, and what they found was pretty amazing, actually.

First of all, this might not surprise you but, of course, when people are doing something that they enjoyed and they were fully present with it, they really enjoyed it. Interestingly enough though, when they asked people, “Hey, what are you doing right now? Are you liking it?” people are like, “Not so much.” “But how engaged are you with it?” And they’d be like, “Fully engaged.” And they’d say, “How much enjoyment are you getting? People reported just as high of positive engagement as they did when they were doing something that they actually enjoyed.

And what they really found, and this I think really comes back to the premise of my book, is that it’s when people were fully present with what they were doing, it didn’t matter as much. The actual content of what they were doing wasn’t driving how much wellbeing they were having in the moment. It literally was how present they were to what was happening that was really impacting the outcome of their enjoyment, positive emotion, and feeling engaged with what they were doing.

So, I thought that that study was very, very telling about the importance of how present we are in our day-to-day actions and our day-to-day life basically even when we might be having a difficult conversation with someone. The more present we are to it, the more benefit we can get out of it. So, those are two of my favorite studies.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Daphne Scott
My favorite book, I would have to say, I’m going to cite this one, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Have you heard of this book or read this book?

Pete Mockaitis
I have not read this one, no.

Daphne Scott
Oh, my gosh, okay. So, it is some of the most beautiful writings by Dillard, Annie Dillard. Some of the most beautiful writing I have ever read in a book. She opens up with this description of this tomcat that she’s living in sort of this kind of wooded shack type of thing, and this tomcat that comes into her room, and she just gives this amazing description of what this animal is like.

What I really love about the book is she literally would just go and watch. She’d sit out on this rock or she’d go out into the woods and she’d sit there, and she would just watch the most simplest of things, like a bug crawling across the grass, or the way the light was changing with the sun, and she would just write about. She writes about it.

And, to me, the book is just so representative of what it is to be fully present and what it is to really notice the tiniest of things that we sort of don’t give much attention to in our day-to-day existence. So, it’s one of my favorite books. I’ve read it like four times. Yeah, it’s not a leadership book, right?

Pete Mockaitis
But, in a way, it is. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be more awesome at your job?

Daphne Scott
Yeah, a favorite tool. I use for my project and task management, I use the app Asana, and I’m a huge fan of their approach. It’s a flexible enough system. I practice quite from a productivity standpoint, tasks management, mindfulness of my stuff, David Allen’s approach in Getting Things Done, and that app works really well because it’s flexible enough and lets you set things up that way. It has great project-sharing tools and they have an app on the phone where I keep track of things with my assistants, so I really, really like it. And that’s pretty much my go-to for sure outside of my fancy pen. So, I do have some fancy pens that I like.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, tell us what brands. What do we get?

Daphne Scott
Well, I have a Mont Blanc pen that I really, really love. It’s a fountain pen but it has a cartridge in it instead of having to old-school put ink in it, and it’s like my favorite. And it’s black and it has a red cap. So, Mont Blanc is if I’m going to use a fancy pen, I will use that pen, yes, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Daphne Scott
A favorite habit. Meditation for sure. And reading in the morning. My ritual in the morning is I wake up, I do get a cup of coffee, that’s my favorite thing, and then I read for about 30 minutes, and then I do my meditation for about 30 to 45 minutes every morning. So, that’s my ritual. Those are my favorite habits for sure.

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

Daphne Scott
Yes. I think there are two. The biggest one was a statement I said earlier which is you always have all the time that you need to do the things that you want to do. That really lands for people. And you’ll never have enough time to do the things you don’t want to do. So, that one really lands for people. And I think the other thing that really lands for people is when I really allow them the space to discover that nothing is permanent. That’s a game-changer.

And once they realize it, they’re really trying to strive to keep things the same, hold onto the good times, keep away the bad times, which, by the way, isn’t a horrible thing for us to be wired that way. But I think what really lands for people is when I’m really telling them and getting them to understand that they don’t have to worry about the good times staying around or the bad times staying around, that nothing is permanent. So, that seems to really resonate.

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

Daphne Scott
I would point them to, they can go to my website www.WakingUpALeader.com. That’s where they can find the book. And, of course, the book is also on Amazon. And then they can message me there, and I also have a 10-week online leadership course, too, that they might want to check out if they’re interested in getting some of those really key critical skills to leading and living your life that could be helpful.

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

Daphne Scott
Yeah, I think my challenge that I would love to give to folks today to be awesome at their jobs is sit down once a week, clean up that list, and take a look at that calendar. That would be the challenge. Sit down once a week 30 minutes and see what happens. Just give it a shot. Give it a try. Yeah, that’d be my challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Daphne, it’s been fun. Yeah, I wish you great luck when it comes to all the ways you’re waking up and making it happen.

Daphne Scott
Yeah, thanks, man. This is super fun. I really appreciate the conversation. Thanks for having me on the show.

504: Building a Gratitude Mindset to Increase Productivity with Karl Staib

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Karl Staib says: "One of the best ways to get ahead at work... is being grateful for other people."

Karl Staib shares how gratitude leads to a more pleasant and productive work life.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How gratitude improves productivity
  2. How to cut negativity and boost gratitude
  3. How to find more energy for your goals

About Karl:

Karl Staib is an author that seeks out growth at every turn. When his father passed it was focusing on gratitude that helped him get through one of the most difficult times in his life. That’s why he wants to bring more gratitude into the workplace. His work inside a fortune 500 company that regularly ranks in the top 10 for best places to work has shown him the importance of gratitude and how it increases productivity and communication. If you enjoy his writing, he encourages you to reach out to him at BringGratitude.com.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Karl Staib Interview Transcript

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

Karl Staib
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your take on gratitude. Maybe we can start off by hearing what are you most grateful for?

Karl Staib
Oh, that’s a great question. I’ve got so much. I wrote in my journal this morning and I’m grateful for my dog, I’ve got two wonderful boys, a really caring wife, and my brain. I think it’s important that I’ve been having a better relationship with my brain and the thoughts that go on behind the scenes as I get older.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so maybe let’s start by hearing when it comes to gratitude, if we can contextualize this a little bit, I mean, it’s a great thing to have, sure. But, specifically, how does that help us become more awesome at our jobs?

Karl Staib
Okay. So, it’s a really good question because I think just the act of being more grateful helps rewire how our brain thinks. And so, there’s numerous studies, but Edward Deci did a study and it basically talks about the positive interactions that we have either help us become more productive or reduce our productivity.

So, if we have six positive interactions, the one negative, we’re 31% more productive. If it’s three to one, we flatline. If it’s less than that, we decrease in productivity. So, right there it just shows the willingness to tackle things and stay on top of things.

And so, another study by David DeSteno talks about what happens when you are giving reinforcement, encouragement throughout the day or on a project. You’re 30% more likely to stick with it. And so those little things, when you fall down, when you make a mistake, you’re more likely to get back up and try again and keep at it and then you can thrive at work versus like kind of packing it in and not trying your best.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s intriguing. Let’s talk about that first study. So, six to one positive interactions, did you say? And how are you defining the interaction?

Karl Staib
So, I take a little creative license. So, it’s interactions with other people. So, if you’re grateful for people at work and you show them that, it boosts. So, there’s another study that basically talks about if we work together and I stop by your desk, and I say, “Hey, Pete, this was amazing. Like, you put this extra slide in here, this bar graph showed exactly what we’re trying to illustrate. Thank you so much. This is fantastic.” And then you walk away like, “Damn, I’m hot stuff.” That is equivalent to getting paid more money. That’s how our brains work. We think, “Oh, wow! I just did something well for somebody that I really wanted to help.”

And so, if you think, as a boss, or even a coworker, if you can give people compliments, I mean, honest, genuine compliments, you’re going to have them feel better, work harder, and want to be around you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great stuff. Well, I’m wondering, we have sort of a limited amount of control over whether or not we’re going to get some of these positive encouraging interactions from others. How do you recommend we, I don’t know, get more and do it yourself to the extent that’s possible?

Karl Staib
Oh, yeah, yeah. So, it’s important we don’t rely on these external validations completely. It is a good scorecard, right? So, if you go on to work and you don’t care and you basically hide in the corner, and you’re not very helpful, you know you’re not going a good job, you know that you’re not worthy of gratitude so even if somebody came up to you and gave you some appreciation, you probably wouldn’t believe them because you’re just like, “Ah, I’m just going to hide in the corner. I’m going to try to avoid work.” But the thing is it’s about the mindset. 

So, one of the biggest issues that I have is meetings at work. I despised them. It was a waste of time. I would tell all these stories inside my head as I was walking into the meeting and I was setting myself up for failure. And I remember when I started on this gratitude practice journey, my father was passing and it’s kind of what’s spurred me to start up my gratitude journal again. And when I did, I realized kind of a little bit of a switch going off inside me.

I remember a conversation with my dad before he was in the hospital and before he passed. We talked about it’s what you make of it, right? That’s one of the pieces of advice that he always emphasized to me. And I was taking it to heart. And because I was so tuned into, “Okay, I need to work on my mindset.”

My dad was one of my best friends, one of my confidantes, and so I knew that I wasn’t going to have this anymore and I didn’t want to go into depression. I had issues with depression in my past, especially in my 20s and early 30s. So, when I did some research, I knew gratitude helps in so many ways.

And so, as I started kind of diving back in and writing these bits of gratitude, I realized I was not grateful for going into these meetings. And those meetings are always opportunities, those are some of the best opportunities just to connect with other people, to go in and learn different things, and it doesn’t have to be about the project. It could be, “You know what, today I’m going to just practice being calm and focusing on my breath in this meeting.” And maybe that’s a meeting you’re not as involved in, right? You’re maybe on the outskirts.

And then there’s others that you say, “I’m going in. I’m going to ask one really poignant question. One question that I think could help maybe create a small little moment of, ‘Oh, I never thought of it that way before.’” So, when we start planting in those seeds and start being grateful for the moment before us, it makes it so much likely that we’re excited and that we try our best in that meeting, and then we make sure that whatever comes out of it we’re getting something and we’re appreciating whatever it is that we get out of it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. So, in practice, what you’re doing inside your brain, at first, you might feel, “Oh, these meetings are stupid. They’re a waste of time. They drain my energy. They’re not any good.” And then you find a way to give meaning to them, like, “In this meeting, I’m going to do this, or I’m going to appreciate that, or I’m going to focus on my breathing or whatnots.” So, are there any kind of key questions you’re asking yourself? Because I imagine, when you’re in a bit of that funk, it’s kind of hard to just flip the switch. Is there any kind of transition questions you ask internally or things you do to make the jump?

Karl Staib
Oh, yeah. It’s a good way of framing. It is about questions, right? So, if I go in thinking, “Oh, how much is this meeting going to suck?” versus I go in thinking, “What can I learn from this meeting?” It’s very much like that fork in the road. You can go left, down that dark, scary, ghost-ridden pathway, or we can go to the right where the butterflies are flying around. But both ways are a path that we can take and this is where awareness comes in and you can say, “Wait a second. I notice myself asking, ‘How much is this going to suck?’ What if I ask myself a different question? What if I set myself up to see this in a different way?”

And you say, “What is one thing I can learn from this meeting? And after one hour, I’m going to write this down. I’m going to take a note and say, ‘I learned…’ whatever it is. I learned how to ask a better question. I learned how to pay attention to how somebody else talks and speaks.” And I’ve noticed like work is a lot more enjoyable when I’m engaged, when I’m creating that mindset that allows me to feel engaged.’”

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s interesting because you can say, if you’re watching closely to see what you can learn about how a person is presenting, you can learn things to do, like, “Ooh, that worked very well. I should do that.” And things not to do, like, “Oh, man, everyone was bored and paying no attention at this point. Note to self: Provide a slide headline that clearly articulates what is on that chart or something, for example.”

Karl Staib
Yes. Yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that’s handy. good or bad, you can turn that into learning and that’s a great question, “What’s one thing I can learn?” What are some other key questions that help point your focus in helpful ways?

Karl Staib
One of the most important things that I like to do is, you know, I suffer from anxiety. My palms sweat, I get choked up if a bunch of people are looking at me, so what I do is I say, “How can I focus on my breath and relax through this whole meeting?” And just planting that seed, and then what happens is subconsciously your brain starts to notice, like, “Are you getting a little tense?”

And it’s always going to happen. I’m never going to get rid of my anxiety but I can notice it, appreciate it, and then work with it, and it becomes a friend that having this dance with during this meeting instead of, “Oh, my God. I’m anxious. I don’t know what to do. Like, I’m freaking out.” And, all of a sudden, somebody calls on me and I’m so stuck in my head I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do.

And by saying, “Okay, how can I relax throughout this meeting? And how can I notice when I get tense?” And, all of a sudden, you start to be more aware, and you can say, “Oh, take one deep breath right now.” And it’s done wonders for me. It’s really helped me with my anxiety in meetings.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, there’s a bit of a problem-solving focus there, so, “How can I notice? How can I relax?” And then you’re getting a chance to experiment and get better at something. That’s cool. Any other great questions?

Karl Staib
Oh, man. I think one of the most important things is how do you like to stay engaged. You might say, “Well, what’s the best way for me to take notes?” That simple phrase, right? Like, “What’s the best way for me to take notes?” will allow you to think, “Well, maybe I’ll try doing visual notes this time.”

Whatever it is, now you’re retaining more of that meeting and you’re more engaged as well. So, when you do need to ask the question, it’s easy to recall if someone does ask you a question, you’re on it because you’ve been in that mode of, “I know what’s going on. I know what the context is and I can really shine in this moment.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when it comes to gratitude, you define three different levels. Can you unpack this for us?

Karl Staib
Yeah. So, as I’ve been digging into gratitude and really understanding the research behind it, I realized most people just think of gratitude as an external thing. And so, I started unpacking it and I realized a lot of my studies through Buddhism, through Zen, Christianity, I realized it goes much deeper than that and it starts with surrounding gratitude.

Surrounding gratitude is the things around you: your computer, the glass of water, your cup of coffee. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, yeah, this is delicious cup of coffee and it helps boost my energy.” Now that is a very straightforward thing that most of us do kind of automatically and very subconsciously but it gets a little harder with the next one, and it’s sharing gratitude.

And sharing gratitude can create a bit of awkwardness inside a conversation with somebody else at work. If you walk up to them and tell them how good they are, they could feel embarrassed by that, they might not have the reaction that you planned that they did, and so it gets a little hairier and so we don’t do it as often as we should. We’re a little afraid to compliment somebody. Most of us are very bad at receiving compliments.

We struggle with celebration when it doesn’t fit into the norms of our culture, the small bits of celebration that we should be doing. I don’t know about you, but if I write a great email, sometimes they take a while, maybe an hour, hour and a half, like I do a little dance after that. And I’ve built that into my day to help me feel grateful for that moment, for that time that I spent to really make sure that message was conveyed that I hope it would.

And so, that is where it starts to get a little bit trickier because that’s where self-gratitude comes in, and that’s that third component. And we don’t treat ourselves usually very nice. I like to call it the inner bully. We beat ourselves up. We call ourselves names. We don’t think about all the hard work. I mean, let me ask you, Pete, just a year, two years ago, how far have you come since then?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy. Oh, it’s been a crazy two years. Two kids, home purchase and maintenance, podcast growth. Real far. It’s kind of exhausting.

Karl Staib
Yeah. And it’s hard, right? Like, I can feel your reluctance coming through. You’re just like, “I almost even don’t want to go there, right?”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I mean, there’s been a lot of improvement and growth and some cool ways and not as much sleep but I guess that’s what happens with kids in due time. My wife is a saint. She’s been doing less sleeping than I have. But, yeah, lots of improvement and I’m glad for it. I’m sure glad that we got those kids and podcast listeners and all the other blessings.

Karl Staib
And do you celebrate that? Do you celebrate yourself as a father, as a husband? Do you have any cadence around that?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, kind of. I think that I had a great podcast conversation with BJ Fogg talking about forming great habits. And he talked about celebration is really important to building those habits, and it could be as simple as saying, “I’m awesome.” And one of mine comes from Mortal Kombat II when you defeat your opponent while taking zero damage, it says, “Flawless victory.” So, that was a little affirmation celebration I got when I beat my brother in a video game as a youngster.

And so sometimes I will trot that out and occasionally I’ll just take the time to play some celebration music, like if we got a sale, like I might go play the song, “Whoomp There It Is.” This is like, “I’ve been waiting for that email. And there it is.” So, yeah, BJ said I was a natural celebrator. But not every day am I natural celebrator. It comes and goes.

Karl Staib
Yeah. And so, it’s one of those things, right? When you look at your life and you look at how far you’ve come, this is important. Hopefully, people who are listening right now really understand it’s great. Let’s say you’re at work, and you have to think about how we talk to ourselves internally. But let’s say, for example, you go up to somebody at work, and you say, “Man, you’re awesome.” Now, I kind of call that a level one gratitude, right? Like, it’s nice, it’s good to hear, but if it’s not specific, a lot of times you’d easily forget it. And this is what’s really important about gratitude and really help to rewire those neurons is to go a little bit deeper if possible when you have the time. And it’s why I suggest people keep a gratitude journal at the end of the day. So, usually what we remember is the most impactful part of our day and the things at the end of the day.

So, if you take some time and write three things you’re grateful for at the end of the day, you can do this at the end of the work day, this helps too because if you get into that routine. But the closer you can do it to bedtime the better because what happens is that’s the stuff that will solidify in your brain as you sleep. So, you’re tightening these neurons and making it easier to access the next day and the next day after that, which is really important because if you can be grateful before bed, you’re going to be more grateful throughout the day.

And so, as you’re more grateful throughout the day, it makes life more enjoyable and it helps lower your stress so you’re going to be healthier because of it. But what’s really important is your what and your why. What are you grateful for? And why? And so, this is where I think a lot of people get tripped up on their gratitude journal because they’re like, “What? Oh, I’m grateful for my cup of coffee. I’m grateful for my wife.” And it gets just to the surface. But, why? Why are you grateful for your wife? Can you give me, why are you grateful for your wife?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, she’s just so, so there’s so many things. I’d say, well, hey, we just talked about sleep. I’m grateful that she frequently sacrifices sleep in order to take care of nighttime wakeups from the kiddos, and it keeps me from feeling like a miserable zombie the following day because she’s handling that important responsibility. So, I guess that’d be one specific why.

Karl Staib
Yeah, so that specific why help deepen that experience for yourself. It helped put that into your subconscious a little bit deeper than, “I’m grateful for my wife,” or, “Hey, she’s awesome.” And that’s the stuff that’s then easier to recall. So, one of the best ways to get ahead at work, and this is a little hack, is being grateful for other people.

And so, try not to focus on yourself. The idea is just focus on other people and why you’re grateful for them, and try to express this gratitude in front of other people. And when you do this, remember it’s important to be genuine here because people can tell when you’re not. But if I work with you, Pete, and I say in a meeting with my boss or our boss, maybe you’re not there, but I say, “Man, Pete’s been awesome. Like, as soon as I ask for help, he turned around this email, or this design, or whatever it is, in just a few hours, and it was so good.”

Now, what the boss will remember is you complimenting that person, but they’ll also equate you with that compliment. And so, you’re sticking in their brain double because you’re giving somebody else a compliment and they’re equating you with that compliment. So, you’re creating win-win on both sides, which is one of the best things you can do in your career.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, I guess I’m surprised to learn that they’re equating me with that compliment. Is there some research behind this? Or what’s the story?

Karl Staib
Yeah. So, what happens in the brain is as that person hears that compliment, they’re hearing it from you. Now, it’s basically kind of the mirror neurons that are going on, right? Like, if we see somebody else behaving nicely, opening a door for somebody. We’ve all seen those commercials where you’re nice to somebody and then they pass it on, and they hold the door for somebody, and then somebody else picks up the tab at a Starbucks for the person behind them. It’s very similar to that. It’s seeing, like, you are being grateful for somebody else, and that person sees that, and says, “Wow, they must also live that way too, or be that way too.” And that’s why it works so well.

And it’s true though. Like, if you notice, and this is a positivity thing, but you wake up, you’re in a good mood, you just got a pep in your step, and you go through the day, and you’re just like, “Man, life is good.” You hit some traffic but it’s okay. You just got a good groove going on today versus the day where you got up on the wrong side of bed. You hit that same traffic and then you end up getting angry and mad and everything is wrong, and you go on to work, and everything just goes to hell. It’s the same traffic. Everything. But it’s your mindset going into it that was different.

And so, that’s why it’s so important to work on those things. And that’s what happens when you take that time to be grateful, you become more patient, you relax a little bit, you don’t try to force things as much because what ends up happening is you’re pausing to slow down the moment. If I have to think of something I’m grateful for, I can’t worry about anything else, I can’t do anything else, I can’t think another thought. Once a thought is in there, that’s that thought, right? There’s no double-thinking thoughts at the same time. You can’t think negative and positive.

And so what ends up happening is you are setting yourself up to create a more positive mindset and to be more resilient. And that’s the stuff when you get knocked down at work and somebody says something mean to you, or somebody talks behind your back, you can allow it to wreck your day or you can say, “You know what,” and I know, Pete, this is hard, but being grateful for that person. Being grateful for the opportunity to be just a little bit more empathetic towards that person.

I always give the traffic example because I struggle whenever I hit traffic, my blood boils but I’m working on not allowing it to do that to me. You’re in traffic. And you can choose, like, “Okay, I’m going to stay mad and I’m going to be pissed off, and I’m going to yell at everybody.” Or, I can say, “I’m grateful for this moment because I can look out my window and see the trees. I’m grateful for this moment because I can turn on my favorite song.” And that pause allows you then to stop and not be so reactionary.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I dig that, that pause and the why piece because I kind of wanted to get some more details associated with if you identify, “Hey, I’m grateful for this,” you write it down. It seems like sometimes you really feel it, and sometimes you don’t. And Hal Elrod discussed this when we were chatting in our interview that sometimes the gratitude is just sort of an intellectual thing, “It is good that I am in a car and it has proper climate controls.” You know, like, “That is a fact,” as opposed to, “Wow, this is just so warm and cozy and perfect.” I don’t know.

You talked about the why and as opposed just the what. Do you have any other pro tips on how we can really get there so that we are feeling the gratitude as opposed to just simply identifying, “Yes, this is something worthy of gratitude”?

Karl Staib
Yeah, that’s a great point, right? Because if we force it, it doesn’t have the impact that it could, right? Like, we can’t force love. You can’t make yourself be happy. But it’s not about, in this case, being specifically happy about the traffic and that you can’t get to where you want to go. It’s about being grateful for what you can be grateful for.

So, what’s important is to put everything into perspective, right?

We have to look at things and we’ve got to say, “Okay, is this really that bad? Like, I’m stuck in traffic. Maybe I’m late getting home to my family.” But if you’re saying, “This is miserable. I’m never doing this again. I’m not going to do this driving anymore,” that’s not a bad thing. Anger is not bad. We should feel angry. We should feel all our feelings. And maybe that spurs us to make a change in our lives. Like, that’s something to be grateful for, and that’s kind of the point of this, is it’s not about being happy. It’s about working on your mindset because there’s always a way to find some small thing you’re grateful for.

You just got to slow down a little bit and allow yourself to focus on the super small things that you can control and you can enjoy, and that’s the stuff that’s going to really help you focus your mindset in the direction.

Pete Mockaitis
And you also have a term called way power. What is that and how do we use it?

Karl Staib
Okay. So, you’ve probably heard of the study where you go through the grocery store and you have to deal with picking out, “Which bread do I want? What type of strawberries do I want?” And the more you make these decisions the more your willpower depletes. When your willpower depletes, you go to the checkout lane, you see the Snickers, you pick up the Snickers because you’re exhausted, you’ve made all of these decisions throughout the day, and you put that Snickers down on the conveyor belt, and you walk out with your Snickers bar, and you start eating it even before you get into the car, right, because you’ve had enough. Your brain can’t take anymore decisions.

Now that is how a lot of us do any type of good habit-building. We say, “I’m going to work out today. This is the day that I’ll wake up early.” And then the alarm goes off, and you don’t wake up early, and you hit the snooze alarm, and then you push off working out to the next day. Now way power is really important because it’s the wind behind your sails. It’s not, “Oh, I’m doing this and I have to do this.” It’s, “I want to do this.” It’s the why behind it.

You have kids, you’ve got young kids, and your wife is waking up early, and I’m guessing she’s looking at this as an opportunity to bond with her kids. I don’t know your wife. I don’t know you when you wake up at 4:00 a.m. or whatever it is to feed the kids. But if you can say, “You know, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to bond with my kid.” That right there is setting yourself up to have a better experience than, “Argh, man, it’s 4:00 a.m. I’m too tired for this.”

Those thoughts are going to deplete you, and then you’re like, “No, I got to just get up and do it. Pete, get up. Do it.” But if you say, “Okay, what are my options? Stay here, let the baby cry, or stay here and let my wife do it? You know what, I’m going to take this as an opportunity to bond with my kid.” And that is way power. That’s you finding that small bit of appreciation, of gratitude towards doing that thing and allowing that to guide you versus you forcing yourself to do it.

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

Karl Staib
I think it’s really important when people focus on working on their mindset, is to bring some awareness and watching those thoughts. And you don’t have to meditate. But the idea is you have to notice these things that are happening, right? If you’re stuck in traffic and you feel the anger coming on, you can ride that wave and just let it go, or you can pause and you can slow down and allow yourself to take a moment and relax and not let that anger overwhelm you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Karl Staib
So, I’m a big fan of the show so I have two, “Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” And that’s Zig Ziglar. That’s a great quote.

Okay, number two. “My dad encouraged us to fail. Growing up he would ask us what we failed at this week. If we didn’t have something, he would be disappointed. It changed my mindset at an early age that failure is not the outcome. Failure is not trying. Don’t be afraid to fail.” And I think that’s so important. Failure is not who we are. It’s not defining us. What defines is what happens after.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study?

Karl Staib
There’s a study where optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%. And this comes through their ability to bounce back. And so, that’s what I want people to try to practice.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Karl Staib
Can I give two?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Karl Staib
Emotional Success by David DeSteno. There’s a ton of research in gratitude in there. And then Siddhartha by Herman Hess because he was very influential of me, really digging into my mindset.

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

Karl Staib
My gratitude journal, I keep it on my phone so I have it always on me. And it sounds silly but whenever I have a tough meeting or whatever, I just pull up my phone and I write one thing I’m grateful for, and it usually kind of shifts my focus. Man, it’s helped me so much.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Karl Staib
Walking. I love walking. It’s usually when I come up with a lot of my ideas. Helps me process. We are meant to move as a species, all animals are. And if we sit or lay down too long, our anxiety takes over. So, it helps me keep my anxiety at bay too.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a key thing that you share that seems to connect with folks such that they quote it back to you?

Karl Staib
Hmm, yeah, the three levels of gratitude. A lot of people say, “Yeah, I know gratitude is important. I know I should be thinking about it more, being more appreciative of my life, but I never heard it in that way.”

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

Karl Staib
Yeah, I challenge them to keep a gratitude journal for 30 days. I do gratitude challenges. It’s how most people have found me. November, January, March, May and September, September just wrapped up. November, the next one starts. And so, I suggest, if they want, they can go to BringGratitude.com/thanks, like thanks for listening, and they can get some freebies, the five tools to be 31% more productive, they get information on how to join the challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Karl, thanks so much. I’m grateful for you and wish you all the best as you keep on going here.

Karl Staib
Thank you so much. This is great. And I love the questions and how you dug in and you really forced me to do deeper than I was anticipating in going.

500: Building Unshakeable Self-Esteem and Confidence with Victor Cheng

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Victor Cheng says: "I'm worthy simply because I exist."

Victor Cheng discusses the mindset and habits that lead to powerful self-esteem and self-confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The foundational mindset that yields self-esteem
  2. The three skills for developing healthy self-esteem
  3. How to recover from confidence-shaking setbacks

About Victor:

Victor Cheng is the founder of CaseInterview.com, the most prominent blog on the management consulting industry.  He also serves as a strategic advisor to Inc. 500 CEOs, and has been featured as a business expert in media, including Fox Business TV Network, MSNBC, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.

Victor is a former McKinsey & Company consultant and has been a senior executive in several publicly owned technology companies. He’s a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in quantitative economics, and the author of several business books.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Victor Cheng Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Victor, thanks so much for joining us on the 500th episode of How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Victor Cheng
Thanks, Pete. I appreciate that and honored to be the 500th episode.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m delighted to have you and, in a way, I really think of you, I don’t know if you know this, Victor, but your voice is inside my head almost every workday as I think about how to make epic content and build audience. And you’re sort of like maybe my content conscience, the little voice in my head who won’t let me get away with publishing suboptimal stuff, so I think all the listeners can thank you for that.

Victor Cheng
Thank you. I appreciate that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I think one of my favorite tidbits along those lines was we were making a program together for interns, and I had something about, “Hey, have enough clothes ready so that you don’t have to do laundry for two weeks.” And you said, “Pete, this is not sufficient. I need to hear how many blue dress shirts, how many white dress shirts, Like, “Okay. Yes, sir.” And that’s really stuck with me, it’s like, “Okay, am I thinking about this from a, ‘I have two weeks of clothes,’ or am I thinking about this from a, ‘These are the particular garments that you need?’” It makes all the difference.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, I know I think I always like to have, when I help people, I try to be as actionable-oriented as possible and I know some of the preparations you sent over for our talk today was around be actionable as you can, and I strive to do that as best I can and it sounds like you do too.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you, yes. Well, so let’s talk a little bit, you and your team at CaseInterview.com, you serve another audience of professionals who would like to achieve and more and do better. Can you orient us, what’s this brand all about?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, so the case interview term refers to a kind of interview that’s very widely used in the management consulting industry, and I help people who aspire to enter that industry with that interview process, which is very different than other industries. And so, most of my audience are people who at one point in their careers were very interested in that interview process, and most of my readers are either have worked in consulting, used to work in consulting, tried to work in consulting but went in a different direction. And the one thing they have in common, which I think they share with your audience, is they really want to be awesome at their jobs. And so, that’s kind of a tie-in between the two of us.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’re also really great at zeroing in on what do folks really want and need to learn and then building that for them. And so, I understand you and your team, you were kind of surprised when you discovered this need for developing self-confidence and self-esteem. How did that come about?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, the short answer is listening and paying attention. So, I noticed that we would try to help people be successful in their careers in this particular industry. The industry is very difficult to get into, maybe like less than 1% acceptance rate. So, there are a lot of people who strive to get in but can’t, and a lot of them will contact me, and say, “I just feel so down and out. I went very far in the interview process but I didn’t get a job offer that I wanted, or I got a second-tier offer.”

And so, you find these people who are, in many cases, with Ivy League degrees, sometimes multiple Ivy League degrees, feeling they’re kind of worthless when they’ve accomplished almost everything except kind of these one or two things that were really important for them. And so, I realized there was kind of a gap between kind of their achievements and how they feel about themselves. And so, I’m noticing, “Hey, there’s a self-esteem problem.” I see sort of, quite often, within my audience and started to help them with that issue.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating right there in terms of you said multiple Ivy League degrees and all kinds of credentials and achievements, and yet that’s sort of not enough, they’re not experiencing or feeling the self-esteem and the self-confidence. What do you suppose is underneath that?

Victor Cheng
Well, one of the things I like to distinguish between is the concept of self-esteem versus other esteem. And esteem really is how one feels about one’s self. And how one feels about one’s self kind of either come internally, right, and that would be self-esteem, or it can come from external sources. So, when someone is feeling really rotten about themselves because something outside of them has occurred, they didn’t get into this school they wanted to, they didn’t get the job offer, there was recession, their net worth took a big hit, stock market went down, they didn’t get a promotion, whatever that might be, and that is what I call other-based esteem. And that is when you tie your identity and sense of self worth to things outside of your control in your environment that aren’t always your decision.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so I think that that’s common and I would certainly prefer to have my esteem coming from myself as opposed to the fluctuating whims of the economy or other people’s opinions. So, how do you pull that off in terms of building that internal fortress of self-esteem?

Victor Cheng
Well, this starts with the mindset and the mentality. I think there are sort of two schools of thought or two ways of looking at the world and human worth, right? So, one is what I call the newborn baby approach, which is when a new child is born, like everyone looks at this baby, “Oh, they’re so amazing, they’re so precious, they’re like perfect in every way possible,” even though probably they aren’t in an objective sense, but that they have inherent worth, that they’re amazing purely because they exist. They haven’t got into Harvard yet, they haven’t had major achievements, they haven’t done many, many things in life because they’re literally just existing. And so, that idea of inherent worth I like a lot. And it’s very much associated with healthy self-esteem.

The other approach, which I mentioned, I alluded to earlier, was we tie our identity to outside achievements. So, one of the important things with developing self-esteem is to accept the premise of self-based esteem. And the premise of good, healthy self-esteem is this concept of inherent worth, that you and I, we’re worthy human beings solely because we are human beings and for no other reason. So, it’s a starting point to buy into that belief.

And anytime one’s actions or instinctive impulses of beating one’s self up for some kind of perceived failure, you have to remind yourself, “I’m worthy simply because I exist.” So, that mindset is an important starting point to have to kick off that process. And then the rest of the process really involves a lot of self-acceptance. When you have, externally, wanting to esteem, your esteem will fluctuate based on kind of the whims and volatility of the external world.

And what a lot of people do when they have the external environment changes for the negative, they feel worse about themselves, and they either beat themselves up, feel ashamed, embarrassed, or irritated at themselves, or shaming themselves. And that is a symptom or a sign of lack of self-acceptance, right?

So, when the world changes, when your life changes, when you make a mistake, healthy self-esteem people say, “No, I still care about myself, I still value myself, I still love myself. I may choose to do things differently going forward based on mistakes and lessons I’ve learned, but as a human being, my worth does not fluctuate based on my achievements or how the external world perceives me.”

Pete Mockaitis
Ooh, there are so much really good stuff here and these are some really, I guess, profound philosophical nuggets in terms of I’m thinking about many religions or wisdom traditions. We talked about the intrinsic dignity of a human being, whether it’s Christianity, humans being made in the image and likeness of God, or from a secular perspective, like the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights. And so, I’m with you, I’m bought into that. But if folks aren’t, do you have any kind of support pillars or evidence or how do you persuade them to make the leap?

Victor Cheng
Well, I think it comes twofold. One is the choice, making that choice consciously, and then the second part is there are certain sets of behavior       s and habits and practices that help reinforce that. And so, I don’t have a magic pill, if you would, on how to get someone to sort of buy into that idea. It really is deciding that’s the way you want to live your life. And after that, it’s making a lot of habitual choices and habit changes, which I’d love to talk about, in terms of reinforcing that. But, really, it comes down to a choice because you either say, “Hey, I’m going to live that way,” or not. And then if you decide to live that way, then it’s getting better at the habits around that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, what are some of those habits that go a long way in terms of reinforcing that?

Victor Cheng
Right. So, once you believe that sort of philosophy in life, if you would, and you’ve come to realize the importance of self-acceptance, there are three other skills that are really important to developing healthy self-esteem. And those are what I call individuation, boundaries, and self-care. So, let me explain what each of those are because they’re kind of, you know, those terms come from the psychology world so not everyone may be familiar with them.

But individuation is a huge one. I think this is where a lot of people, myself included, have had difficulty in making the transition from other-based esteem to self-esteem. And individuation basically says, “I am comfortable with myself, with my thoughts, and my feelings, and my identity. And my thoughts, feelings, and identity will not be altered based on your thoughts, and your feelings, and your identity.”

So, for example, do you have a favorite sport, Pete, or a favorite team?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I don’t follow sports much but my favorite sport to participate in would be swimming or weightlifting.

Victor Cheng
Got it, okay. So, Michael Phelps, great swimmer, most of us have heard of him. You could argue Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time. I could argue something completely different. The ability to have what’s called good individuation is where I can feel confident in my decision on who I think the greatest swimmer of all time is, you can feel confident in yours, and we can both acknowledge that we have a difference of opinion on that, right?

So, where you find is some people with very low self-esteem and no self-esteem cannot agree to disagree, right? They have difficulty agreeing to disagree. And what ends up happening is when you see two people with low self-esteem who lack this skill, the arguments never end because they’re trying to convince the other person they are right.

So, a simple example is my favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla, yours might be chocolate. We could argue who’s right, but what this really is, is a conflict of opinion. You have your opinion for what you feel is the best flavor of ice cream, I have mine, and if we were sort of two healthy people with great self-esteem, we go, “Wait. You like chocolate, I like vanilla,” we agree to disagree, end of conversation, right?

And if you watch most sitcoms, most movies, a lot of marriages, you’ll find people will just argue forever. And the reality is there is no right, particularly when it’s a subjective subject, there is no right answer, right? And it’s really what you decide for yourself. So, people with good individuation won’t get riled up, or triggered, or irritated, or sucked into social media debates about something that’s basically an opinion. And so, that’s one part of healthy individuation, and you can separate the validity of your thoughts around your ideas from other people’s opinions about your ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
And I suppose maybe and this could be a totally different concept.

Victor Cheng
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I’m guessing that if you’re strong and healthy there, then you can also be okay discovering that you’re wrong and adopting a new belief, like, “Holy smokes, Victor, you’ve brought up some excellent points about Michael Phelps that I was not previously aware of. I’m going to chew on this, and I may choose to adopt your position, but that doesn’t mean that I am a loser or a moron for having previously held a prior position.”

Victor Cheng
That’s right. And so, people with healthy self-esteem and self-based esteem are able to hear feedback without getting defensive because either of us are totally wrong, or actually there’s some merit there and I can consider it, but regardless of whether I accept it or reject your feedback, in no way is your feedback going to impact my sense of identity and worth because I’m pretty secure in my identity and worth.

And so, that’s why there’s a huge advantage at being awesome at your career when you have good healthy self-esteem because you can listen to feedback without getting defensive. And if you look at some notable figures in sort of in the news these days, some very high-profile people cannot take criticism, they cannot admit when they’re wrong, they can’t take feedback, they can’t apologize, they double and triple down on a position even when all objective data and feedback says they’re wrong, and that can oftentimes be a sign of someone who’s uncomfortable being wrong because they tie being wrong to a sense of poor identity. And so, that can be a very difficult situation to navigate.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I think there’s a famous scientist, and maybe you’ll know this, but there was quote I thought was awesome. It went something like there were two scientists, they were having a bit of a disagreement over time about a theory of sorts, and then one scientist got some great experimental data, then the other scientist said, “Hey, all right. It looks like your theory is right.” And then the person who changed his view got criticized by the prevailing scientist, but then the changing scientist said, “Well, when new evidence, just that my prior beliefs were incorrect, I change my beliefs. What, sir, do you do?” Zing!

Victor Cheng
There you go. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
I better look that up. All right. Okay, so that’s individuation. And we also got boundaries and self-care.

Victor Cheng
Yeah. So, boundaries would be setting rules for yourself to protect from people who have sort of toxic behaviors. So, one example is like name-calling. Name-calling is very, very damaging on esteem. If you call yourself a name, like, “I’m such a loser,” you do that a thousand times in your life, or 10,000 times, or 100,000 times, it’s going to have an impact, right? So, name-calling and avoiding it is super important to protecting your esteem.

So, one rule is I will never call myself a name, right? And if I do, I will call a timeout and find a different way to express my frustration. That’s an example about an internal boundary, a rule that I govern my own behavior. Another one is around governing what situations I am willing to allow myself to be in. So, for example, for me, if I’m in a situation when someone does engage in sort of very toxic name-calling at me, I have a rule that I will remove myself from that situation.

So, if it is one of my kids, and they’re getting really volatile, I will call timeout for myself. I will leave that room, I let my kids know, “When you’re ready to have this conversation in a respectful way, I’m willing to continue, and let me know when you’ve calmed down.” If it’s a client that does that, which does not last very long, I say the same thing, or eventually I fire them fairly quickly because I don’t want to be around people who would try to bring me down because it is not healthy behavior, not good for me.

So, boundaries are a set of rules, kind of if-then statements, if you would, that ensures that you’re going to be safe and your esteem is going to be protected. It’s a form of self-defense in a healthy productive way. And the way you define a boundary is, “If this scenario happens, then I’m going to do this.” “If I catch myself calling myself a name, then I’m going to immediately stop and try to find some other way to address that feeling.” So, it’s an if-then rule that you decide in advance as you discover the kinds of situations where you really feel very bad, like you don’t want that situation to repeat, you create a new boundary rule for yourself as a way to continually get you safer and safer and protecting your sense of worth.

Pete Mockaitis
So, name-calling, that’s a great area to put some boundaries around. Any other top boundaries you recommend?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, another one would be lack of acceptance of differences. So, for example, you know, we got in this debate of vanilla ice cream versus chocolate. A healthy version of that conversation would be, “Oh, I see, Pete, you like chocolate, I like vanilla. What do you know? We’re different. Okay, that’s great.” And I can affirm and validate that, “I can see clearly, Pete, you like chocolate ice cream,” right? And I don’t have to feel a pressure to try to change your mind, I don’t have to like shame you or say, “Only losers think chocolate ice cream is a bit like…you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s so 1990s.” I don’t have to do any of that putting you down.

So, one form of boundary is to look for people who can receive your ideas and not try to tell you your ideas are wrong. They might share additional information, they might try to persuade you, but they don’t make you try to feel bad just for having an opinion. Another variation of that that’s even more important is feelings. When you have a feeling, a feeling is always valid. A feeling is really a personal experience in how you’re experiencing a situation.

So, for example, if you go to a funeral, and maybe you didn’t know that person very well because you’re maybe with somebody, a significant other and they know the person really well, and you’re very sad because you just felt sad at the funeral. If someone who says, “Why do you feel sad? You didn’t know him, right? Like, that’s so lame,” that would be an example of someone who is encroaching on your right to have your own emotional experience about the situations you encounter.

And it’s neither right or wrong but all emotions have their own experiential validity that can be acknowledged. It’s such a healthy behavior to acknowledge your own feelings and to be around people who are able to acknowledge your feelings even though they don’t necessarily agree with them, and that’s a form of respect that’s important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, not to muddy the waters too much here, but I’d love it if we can maybe make this even more difficult with regard to, so sometimes we have opinions about things that maybe they are perceived as right and wrong, have big consequences. So, let’s just say that there’s someone who’s vegan and they believe that meat is murder, and that the cows and all of the resources to tend to them are terrible for the earth and the greenhouse gases and CO2 and climate change, and meat is just bad news, and then someone else is an enthusiastic beef eater who’s into that. So, now, these folks need to co-exist and they have strong feelings. So, does that change the game at all or how do you think about those situations?

Victor Cheng
It depends on the context of the disagreement. If it is in general, “Is veganism right or wrong? Is eating meat right or wrong?” that’s one kind of conversation. And the other would be more like policy change, make changing the laws that govern society because laws impact all of us and, therefore, we need to settle that dispute. But if it’s a matter of personal choice, relating a healthy interaction is, “Pete, I see you feel very strongly about being vegan and I respect that choice that you make for yourself. It’s not the choice I’m comfortable making for myself and I can see that we’re different, but I totally honor and respect that that’s what you’ve chosen for your life.”

And you might say, “Hey, Victor, there’s some new information that you might not be aware of, we should be open to hearing some reasons why you, Victor, might want to consider eating less meat or even converting to veganism.” And I would say either, “Yes, I’m open to hearing about it,” or, “No, I’m not,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Victor Cheng
If I say, “No, I’m not,” and you push it anyway then you’re crossing a boundary. You’re trying to control my personal life choices. This is my body, I control what I do with my body, and you’re encroaching on that limit. If I invite you, “You know, I heard a lot about it, I’ve seen some documentaries, I’ve seen some companies that try to make money in that market, yeah, I’m curious. What have you seen? Why are you vegan? Is it environmental? Is it philosophical? Is it moral? I’d be curious to learn more.” So, if I give you an invitation, and you accept that, then you can fully discuss that.

So, it is recognizing when a choice is yours to make, when it is somebody else’s to make, or if it is something that we are in it together. So, for example, we’ve got a coupon to go buy ice cream and we can only get like one pint of ice cream and we got to choose vanilla or chocolate, then we have a decision to make, that’s a joint decision. And we can agree that you like chocolate, that I like vanilla, you think chocolate is the best in the world, I think vanilla is the best in the world, that’s fine. We agree to disagree on our opinions on that but we still have to make a resource allocation decision because we can only get one, and that becomes a problem-solving exercise of, well, how do we solve that problem.

So, again, it depends on whether this is a judgment of somebody’s personal choice or is some kind of joint decision, or social decision, or team decision, or in a couple, a marital decision that impacts both people. So, that’s kind of the distinction between those two.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And now let’s hear about self-care.

Victor Cheng
Well, self-care is recognizing that in many ways you have to take care of yourself because you can’t always rely on somebody else to do it for you. And I think healthy relating is about taking responsibility for your own health, physically and mentally, and to look out for yourself. And I think healthy relating is when two people, if we’re talking about a romantic context, two people in a couple, they’re monitoring themselves, they’re figuring out what they need, they are requesting help from their partner when that help is needed, but it is their own responsibility to look out for themselves and to ask for help when they need it.

I think things get problematic when people sort of assume somebody else is going to take care of them for you, particularly if you just assume it but don’t actually ask or have them consent to it or form some kind of agreement. So, I think good maintenance and support of self-esteem involves taking care of yourself.

So, a simple example, it is very hard to have high self-esteem if, for example, you lack the ability to provide for yourself financially, right? So if you’re in an abusive relationship, whether that’d be like a marital one or working for a terrible boss, if you are dependent on that other person for your financial resources and they put you down, for example, it’s very hard to walk away because you have a form of dependence on them that makes it very hard to assert your boundaries to keep yourself emotionally safe.

So, if you have your own ability to earn your own living, you have a resume that’s strong, you have the ability to go get other jobs if you need to, then it becomes easier to say, when someone steps across the line, to say, “You know, that wasn’t cool with me. I’d like you to stop doing that.” And if it happens repeatedly then I need to reevaluate whether I can be in this form of relationship with you or not. And that gives you a lot of power to take care of your needs when you have the ability and means to take care of yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say self-care, I was originally envisioning meditation and massage and sleep, but you’re thinking about just actually having the means to care for yourself.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, and that’s certainly included in that, but it is a very broad sense. So medical health, dental, like the basics of life. It is very hard to feel good about yourself if you feel ill, right? And so those two go together. So, all those skills become a form of esteem. So, think about the opposite, think about sort of the stereotype of the man-child, right? Usually male, maybe in the 20s, 30 years of age, and they just can’t take care of themselves at all. They aren’t able to feed themselves. They can’t do their own laundry, they have difficulty paying bills, and they feel bad about themselves.

And so even though they have inherent worth, they feel bad because, like, “I have to rely on everyone else around me to do anything.” And so, it’s very hard to feel that sense of internal power when a lot of basic needs you can’t meet for yourself. You’re just so reliant on other people. So, you can see how someone would naturally gravitate towards having this sense of worth be tied to other people’s opinions that fluctuate just because they do when you can’t take care of yourself. You get much more sense of a grounded-ness around a volatile world when you have the ability to take care of yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, that’s really true. And what’s coming to mind for me right now is the funniest example. But we had a situation in which, well, I guess, so we’re recent homeowners.

Victor Cheng
Oh, cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And so it’s kind of doesn’t feel so great, I guess from a self-care perspective, when I don’t really understand what the heck is going on with so many of the systems, with plumbing, or electrical, or whatever, and maybe people feel this way like when they go to the mechanic with their car. And like, “I don’t know what’s going on, I hope you’re not lying to me and ripping me off with the work that needs to happen.”

And then, by contrast, we had this experience where our refrigerator temperature was just going up in such that it wasn’t even cool anymore and we had to throw some things out, and that was sort of frustrating because it was only like three years old. And so, I went through a process of assessing the temperature with this cool temperature laser gun and watching some YouTube videos.

Victor Cheng
That sounds like you, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, clearing some stuff out and opening a panel on the freezer and discovering that there was a huge ice clog where the cold air flow would go from the freezer so I resolved all of this, and then things worked properly. And I just felt awesome.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
I am capable of ensuring that my family’s food remains safe and cool.

Victor Cheng
Yep, I can totally relate. And I recently moved in this new house. Like, a lot of little things I didn’t like, it’s like light switches and light bulbs are wrong, so I changed all the light switches, they’re all motion-sensor lights. I put timers in the bathrooms because I wanted them to have an auto off, so I changed all that, and a few amounts of electrical works, I changed out a chandelier. I did this like 15 years ago when I first bought a house a long time ago, and it felt really good to be able to do it myself. And, sure, I could’ve hired an electrician but these are literally 10-minute jobs, there’s something very satisfying for me about doing that.

And this will be kind of crossed over from self-esteem into self-confidence. So, what you just talked about, what I just talked about, is we are developing competence in certain areas, and part of that feeling of feeling really good is feeling confidence in our competence in our ability to do certain things. And sometimes people kind of get self-esteem and confidence mixed up, but this is probably a great segue to switch it over to talk more about self-confidence and where that comes from.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes, please. Well, how about we hit that distinction, and then we talk about self-confidence?

Victor Cheng
So, self-esteem really is how you feel about yourself and your worth as a human being. It’s very global around the essence of who you are. And confidence tends to be situational-dependent around particular areas of skill. So, I am not confident at dancing ballet, okay? Not my thing, never done it, never taken a class, I watched my kids do it when they’re little, but I feel very un-confident in my ability to dance ballet. In fact, I feel terrified if I had to do that in public.

But when it comes to this case interview thing, the thing I’m known for professionally, I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve done it so many times, I’m very confident in my core area of expertise professionally. And so, confidence is about a specific domain of activity whereas self-esteem is about your domain as a human being. That’s kind of the difference in scope between those two concepts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s very clear. And so, when it comes to boosting self-confidence within a domain, how does that go about?

Victor Cheng
First, there’s competence. How good are you at something objectively? There is what I call outer confidence. What are your behaviors and actions, and how do they signal your comfort level with that particular skill? So, an example would be you see something in a job interview and they feel, they act very nervous, very fidgety, they say, “Hmm,” and “Ahh” a lot, and they look un-confident, and that prompts an external person to question their competence. So, it’s this idea of outside or external confidence, how you come across.

And then there’s internal confidence which is really how you feel about your skill level in that particular area. So those three, I think, are more useful way to think about this idea of confidence because sometimes you can act confident but be really incompetent and not know what you’re doing and people figure that out eventually. You can be really good at what you do but you sort of underperceive your own skill level and you sell yourself short a lot. That might be something called like impostor syndrome if you’re familiar with that term. So, it’s useful to have those distinctions because you address each of those particular challenges in those three different areas quite differently.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, I’d love to hear, so if you want to build that up, how would you recommend making it happen?

Victor Cheng
Several what not to do. So, one thing people often suggest is to come across as more confident, “Fake it till you make it.” You’ve heard that phrase. And I disagree with that a lot. I like this idea of what I call earned confidence, which means like I put in the work, I feel good about myself, and I demonstrate that. So, in your case, it’s around the refrigerator. In my case it’s around light switches. We put in the work, we learned the skill, we got better at it, we feel really good internally about it, that inner confidence, and then as we talk about what we’ve done, we express our stories and our experiences in a confident way, and it comes across. It’s sort of a standard cycle when everything works really well.

So, the first foundation of all this is to really accurately assess your competence level. Like, what is your skill level in this area? So, with ballet, for example, my skill level is zero, right? My confidence is also zero. It makes no sense for me to try to fake till I make it because I’m just going to look like a fool. Better to admit it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, these are the American Idol people.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, better to admit it than to prove it to other people. So, if I want to improve my confidence as a ballet dancer, what I really need to do is to work on my competence, work on my skill level, and learn, and put in the work, to learn the skill, and to get good at it. And as that improves, for someone with good self-esteem, as your competence improves so does your confidence because they’re supposed to go hand-in-hand when you have a good sense of self-esteem.

So, for those situations where, again, foundation is there, good sense of self-esteem, you’re lacking a skill in an area, you don’t feel defensive about it, you can completely admit you don’t know, you want to learn, you want to receive feedback, the next step really is just to go get the skill. Learn, read a book, YouTube videos, whatever it is, get the skill, practice the skill, get good, and confidence naturally flows from that because you’ve earned it, because you’ve rightfully earned it. So, that’s sort of like the ideal scenario.

Sometimes people have a situation where they have that skill level but for whatever reason they are either over or underconfident particularly externally. And oftentimes that can be sometimes a sign of low self-esteem. So, for example, if I’m really good at what I do, but I constantly put myself down, I’m constantly like really unsure of myself, yet my track record is 100% correct, like my objective track record is amazing, but the way I act about that and express that is very, very poor, that can be a self-esteem, a signal of a self-esteem problem because maybe I feel like I don’t deserve this feeling of confidence that I’ve rightfully have earned but don’t feel comfortable accepting. And so that becomes a different way of solving that problem.
So when you’ve earned the right to be confident but you just can’t do it, that becomes more of an issue of looking at your sense of self-esteem, the things we talked about earlier about self-acceptance, individuation, having good boundaries, and self-care, and you kind of go back to the foundation sort of shore up the foundation. The flipside is also true where if you are always overconfident and the way you express your level of skill is far greater than your actual skill level, that’s called arrogance, right? And you’ll see people oftentimes perceived as arrogant.

In those situations, their sort of cockiness is one that’s not earned and kind of rubs a lot of people the wrong way when they’re overly confident, they have not earned the right to have that confidence. Michael Phelps says he’s the best swimmer of all time. That’s like called accurate thinking, right? He’s confident, he’s not cocky, he’s not arrogant, it’s just true. If I say I’m the greatest swimmer in the world, I’m being an arrogant fool because, clearly, I’m not, right?

And so, if I’m doing that regularly, always overestimating my own sense of competence in an area, projecting a level of confidence that is not earned, that, too, is a form, oftentimes a form of low self-esteem. And it’s a little counterintuitive but the reason that happens is because people with low self-esteem cannot bear the thought of being thought of as poorly, or being imperfect, or having flaws, or having to learn something because they haven’t developed the skill yet so they go around pretending and projecting a level of confidence that’s not warranted as a way to hide the fact that they’re really ashamed of their skill level. And so that, too, can also be a form of self-esteem problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, this is very helpful in terms of the distinctions and a means of folks recognizing themselves in some of this. you can kind of diagnose, “Okay, well, then what are the interventions that’s going to make the impact?” Because it’s a very different road in terms of, “Okay, hey, got to build some skills,” versus, “I got to see if I really do buy into this notion that my worth doesn’t fluctuate with other people’s opinions.”

Victor Cheng
Yeah, and it’s an entire process. I like the word practice. It’s a practice to stay focused on yourself, to stay grounded, and to get your sense of worth from internally. And I think it’s important to only be in situations that can reinforce that and try to avoid situations where that gets eroded over time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to hear, if you do take a hit, like so you have many folks that you know who they had big dreams, the dream job, the interview didn’t go their way, or there’s disappointment, or demotion, or getting fired, when you take a hit, what’s sort of your recommended SOS or recovery strategy there?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, so when you want something, you don’t get it, sort of the natural and appropriate and healthy reaction is a feeling of disappointment, right? “I wanted that, I didn’t get it, I feel disappointed.” So, someone with healthy self-esteem will feel naturally disappointed. They’re human, that’s what they do. What’s unhealthy and more indicative of low or no self-esteem is when a setback occurs and rather than be disappointed, they go way beyond that to say, “I’m a loser. I feel worthless.” At the extreme, it’s, “Maybe I should kill myself,” that would be the extreme version of that, “because I didn’t achieve, and, therefore I have no value. When I have no value, well, logically, why would you want to continue living if you have no value.” That’s kind of the weird mental cognitive distortion of that sort of spirals around suicidal ideation and whatnot.

So, the SOS on that really is sort of going back to around self-esteem, and when there is a setback, one of the things you want to do is to have self-acceptance. This goes back to one of the key steps of self-esteem, is having self-acceptance. And one thing I didn’t mention earlier about self-acceptance is rather than using other people’s opinions or achievement as sort of your scorecard on how you feel about yourself, the opposite of that is to have an internal scorecard, if you would, on how you feel about yourself and, in particular, have the internal scorecard not be around achievement but around values, what are your personal values, what’s important to you in life.

And so, I’ll give you an example. So, a couple of my values includes respect, kindness, love, adventure, learning, teaching, these are things that are important to me. And, for me, at the end of my day, like, “Did I have a good day?” That’s the question I ask myself, “Did I have a good day this week? Or this day? Did I have a good week this week? A good month this month? Did I have a good year?” And it’s easy to use as sort of measuring stick to make that determination. Again, the alternative is to have an internal measuring stick around your own values.

So, for me, regardless of whether I have a setback or not, I say, “Well, today, was I respectful to myself and to others?” I go, “Yeah, I think I was.” “Was I kind to myself and others?” “Well, yeah, I was.” “Did I learn something new today?” “Oh, yeah, I definitely learned a lot today because I made some mistakes.” “Did I teach something today?” because I’m big on teaching. “Like, yeah, I did teach somethings to my kids. I turned this failure into a lesson for my kids and so they can learn from my mistakes so I feel good about that.”

And, basically, you kind of go through the list of your own personal values, and you go, “Okay, did I live by my values today? Separate from outcomes, separate from what may have happened, positive or negative, did I live by my values?” And if I do, it was a good day. And if I didn’t then I have the option to do better tomorrow. So, it’s a good way to buffer one’s self from specific outcomes because you can’t always control the outcomes. We can only control what we put into the outcome.

So, you can control the inputs, cannot always control the outputs, and the way to measure your value from a sense of self-worth standpoint is to compare your inputs relative to your values and see if you’ve lived the way you wanted to and did you put in the effort the way that you wanted to. And then if you did, be happy with yourself because you did what you’re supposed to do in the way you want to do it. And what happens, not always in your control.

Pete Mockaitis
And I imagine it really is powerful compounded sort of day after day, week after week, with those check-ins in terms of really forming kind of like an unshakeable core in terms of, “This is who I am and what I’m about and what’s more important to me is how my check-in goes internally than whether you give me this opportunity right now.”

Victor Cheng
Yeah, and I think the inverse is also true. If you don’t do the internal check-in against your internal scorecard, then the temptation is very, very strong to do it with the external scorecard, right? So, “I didn’t get the job offer,” “My net worth wasn’t as high as my friends and peers,” “I didn’t get the promotion. I got passed over.” Whatever setback you have in your external world and have lived it. It’s a miserable way to live because these are things that aren’t in your control. But how you contribute to what you do and how you show up, how you put in the effort, how you conduct yourself and your own behaviors, that is 100% in your control. 

And so that’s why it’s less volatile is because it’s in your control. And you can control it. And if it doesn’t go well, you can change it. When it’s very achieve- and externally-driven, you can’t control it, which means if you had a bad day you can’t even fix it because it’s something somebody else is deciding, not yourself. And that’s a very hard way to have a very calm and peaceful life when you’re always dependent on the whims of the external world, which is at times quite whimsical.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. So, that’s powerful stuff. Victor, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Victor Cheng
I’ll mention one other thing that kind of can sort of get people on the wrong track around self-esteem. Self-esteem, when done well, comes from parents with good self-esteem, that’s maybe a better way to say that. So, when they’re pretty comfortable with who they are, they’re very well individuated in the sense that you can disagree with your parents and they’ll be okay with that, and they have good boundaries, and they have good self-care, they’re good parents who have that skillset are going to naturally teach that to the kids.

When that process sort of goes awry is how you end up with adults who have other esteem, like myself for most of my life. And so, this concept of what I call traumas, that’s useful to be aware of. A trauma can be like a major life event. So, like if your parents were killed in a car crash and you’re orphaned at five years of age, like this whole process of building self-esteem gets completely contorted and can get really off the rails, right? That’s an example of a major trauma.

Another example of trauma is what I call a micro trauma. It’s lots of little things that erode your esteem what otherwise would develop in childhood, and that could be as simple as your parents only paid attention to you when you brought back a perfect 4.0 GPA. You got all As and suddenly they’re really excited about that. And you got one B and they kind of look the other way. And it was very clear that you weren’t approved of, right? When that happens hundreds of times, thousands of times in little ways, those micro traumas, they really add up. And so, even if nothing major negative happened in your life going up until maybe age 20, if a lot of little things just repeat over and over and over again, you can still destroy the normal path of self-esteem through sort of this erosion of what I call micro traumas.

So, that’s something to realize. If you haven’t been around people with a lot of high self-esteem, particularly the people who raised you, that’s a very high likelihood you’re going to have the same kind of other-based esteem that they may have. And people with other esteem tend to inflict micro traumas on the people around them. And so, it’s just something to be aware of to get with your own behavior towards others and also to be mindful of the other behaviors that you’re receiving from others to determine whether that’s something you want to be around or not.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you.

Victor Cheng
Sure.

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

Victor Cheng
There are several that I like coming out of the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I found that book when I was 17, 16, and it’s taken me more decades than I care to count to try to master the seven habits. I think I’ve gotten six down. I’m still working on the last one for the last two decades which is around self-care, ironically. He calls it renewal or sharpening the saw, which is another word for self-care and taking good care of yourself in all aspects.

So, I like all the seven habits. I think one is “Begin with the end in mind,” what do you want to achieve in your life and kind of work backwards. Another one which is really great for self-esteem is “First seek to understand the other person before you seek to be understood.” And so that goes back to our example of why you like veganism versus not, why you like chocolate ice cream versus vanilla, and be able to hear other people. You can only do that really well if you have good esteem where you don’t feel threatened by somebody’s opinion that might be different than yours. You can genuinely hear them and understand them, that’s a very useful skill.

So, I love all of seven habits and I find those quite useful as a way to live life.

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

Victor Cheng
Let’s see. Well, personally, I carry a Leatherman. I have one in my belt right now. It’s a multifunction tool, kind of like a Swiss Army knife but better.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, literally, a collection of physical tools.

Victor Cheng
Yeah, literally. It does really. That helps me function around the house much better. I like that. And then, let’s see, on the job. I like Trello, which is a workflow management tool. I use that as a workflow management tool. I like that for coordinating multiple tasks, I need to follow a set process, that’s really useful for my team from a management standpoint and working in collaboration with others.

And then, individually, it seems really basic but let me explain it because it’ll seem kind of too basic, but my calendar. I think the calendar is a very, very powerful tool and there are probably two things I do with it that are probably a little atypical which I’ll mention. So, one is, and this reminds me, I’m not doing it currently but I’m going to start because I don’t like being a hypocrite. But for many years I would set appointments with myself.

So, most of us will set appointments with other people. I like to set appointments with myself. And the appointments I set with myself or for myself are either do things I want to work on because they’re important, or they are related to self-care. So, there are certain timeslots in a week that I do self-care activities and I will schedule that in there as a deliberate way of taking care of myself in being productive and effective.

And this can be time to read, the time to take an online class, they can be more mundane like I go to the chiropractor regularly, I had one yesterday. That was on my calendar. I carved out time to go to do that. And that can be very, very useful. The other part around the calendar that I use is I really like setting recurring appointments. I use Google Calendar and they can do this sort of every Monday, every Thursday at 2:00 o’clock kind of a thing. And what I’ll do is I will set recurring appointments with people that I’m close to, like my close friends.

And so, the reason I like that is I can make one decision to have a recurring phone call with somebody, like every Tuesday at 2:00 o’clock, and that can oftentimes, in my case, it’s gone on for years, in some cases decades.

And so it takes a lot of time to connect with people with a similar sort of philosophy in life, and that’s very enjoyable without spending, in some cases, more time trying to schedule the phone call than the actual phone call itself, which is very true for myself because I’m quite busy and a lot of my friends who are equally busy. So, I like that as a productivity tool as well.

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

Victor Cheng
Sure. So, one of the things I wanted to offer for your folks is I have a class around how to improve your self-esteem, and I wanted to give everyone an excerpt to that free as a gift. And people can get that at CaseInterview.com/awesome sort of as a gift to all the people who are awesome here looking to be awesome at their careers. So, again, that’s CaseInterview.com/awesome and that’s a free excerpt from my class on how to improve your self-esteem and develop unshakable confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Victor Cheng
Yeah, I think I’ll leave everyone sort of a quote from Stephen Covey, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Begin with the end in mind,” figure out what you want for your life, your career, and work backwards, it’s a process for getting there. It’s been very useful for me. I encourage others to do it, and I would challenge everyone to think about that and to work backwards and to work towards it once you figure that process.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Victor, thank you so much for sharing this good stuff here and for all the ways you’ve helped me learned and grow. It’s been a real treat.

Victor Cheng
Great. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.

481: Easy Ways to Have More Fun at Work with Drew Tarvin

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Drew Tarvin says: "Would you rather do something that is fun or not fun? You're going to pick fun pretty much all the time."

Drew Tarvin shares how to bring more humor and fun into the workplace.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The power of humor on your work-life productivity
  2. How to craft good work humor that considers medium, audience, and purpose
  3. The 3 specific situations when NOT to use humor at work

About Drew

Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first humor engineer, teaching people how to get better results while having more fun. Combining his background as a project manager at Procter & Gamble with his experience as a stand-up comedian, he reverse-engineers the skill of humor in a way that is practical, actionable, and gets results in the workplace. Through his company, Humor That Works, Drew has worked with more than 35,000 people at over 250 organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals. He is a bestselling author; has been featured in The Wall Street JournalForbes, and Fast Company; and his TEDx talk has been viewed more than four million times. He loves the color orange, is obsessed with chocolate, and can solve a Rubiks Cube (but it takes like 7 minutes).

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, Sponsors!

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Drew Tarvin Interview Transcript

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

Drew Tarvin
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on such a nicely-titled podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Yes, I like the direct approach. I want to hear all sorts of things from you. But, first, I want to hear about how you’re left-handed except when it comes to shooting pool. What’s the story here?

Drew Tarvin
You know, I don’t know. Growing up, everything would go left-handed, which is not so great when you’re doing handwriting. And then I tried shooting pool and I could not shoot left-handed. It was just weird and awkward. So, then I switched to the right side and it worked, which is bizarre. So, everything, I write left-handed, I throw a baseball left-handed, I cut paper with left-handed scissors and all that, but shooting pool, it’s on the right side. I don’t know what that says about me. I don’t know what that means for coordination but that’s just a fun fact.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I wonder about like darts or bowling.

Drew Tarvin
Darts, yeah. You think of like the pool hall game, it’s mostly, yeah, darts is still left-handed. I try to act like I’m ambidextrous, that I can use right-handed, and, in fact, my handwriting is almost as good with my right hand as it is with my left hand, but that’s just because my left-handed writing is so terrible that whatever the right hand does isn’t that bad in comparison.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, handwriting was, I believe, my worst subject in my entire academic career.

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, and people are like, “You’re going to need this for your entire rest of your life.” And now our computers are like, “No, no, actually.” I mean, I sign things but, aside from that, I don’t really do much handwriting.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I want to dig into your career. You are a humor engineer – intriguing – and you’ve studied humor in the workplace for many years. Can you share with us what’s perhaps one of the most fascinating and surprising discoveries you’ve made as you’ve dug into this topic?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, I think that it’s a surprise for many people especially when they hear my background. So, they maybe see me speak, and like, “How did you get into this?” I’m like, “Well, I got a degree in computer science and engineering.” And they’re like, “That doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t seem like the background and then get into standup comedy and do speaking and all that for a living.”

But I think that’s part of what led me to one of the biggest realizations, is that humor is a skill. I think a lot of times we think of humor, making people laugh, being jovial in certain ways is kind of something that you’re born naturally able to do, and if you can do it, great, but if you can’t, you’re kind of out of luck. But that’s a big learning, is that it’s something that we can learn, that there’s an art and science to using humor, which means that we can teach this, the humor side, the science part of it, while also allowing people to practice the art side of it as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And so, I want to dig into the art and science and the skill-building, how we can all have more of it but I want to hear a little bit about the why first. So, you make an argument that humor is not just kind of, “Oh, nice to have. It’d be a little bit more fun if we could have it.” But, rather, like a must-have or a critical source of advantage. Can you share some of these benefits with us?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, absolutely. And so, part of it comes from the realization that 83% of Americans are stressed out at work, that 55% are unsatisfied with their jobs, and that 47% struggle to stay happy. And so, it leads to this recognition that with 70% of the workforce being disengaged, it costs the US economy an estimated $500 billion in lost productivity every year.

If you do that math on that based on the number of people working and the estimated cost, that costs a $4,638 per disengaged employee. And so, to me, as an engineer looking at all that, what it’s saying is that the current way of working isn’t actually working. And, for me, I discovered that humor was a way for me to stay more engaged in my work. And when I use it, other people actually got into it as well. And so, there’s all these benefits to it that have been backed by research, case studies, real-world examples, so evidence-based examples of why humor is valuable.

So, it leads to things like an increase in productivity, a decrease in stress, an increase in happiness. At a company level, when organizations embrace it, you see an increase in positive workplace culture, an increase in engagement, a decrease in turnover, an increase in profit. There’s all these different benefits that are factually based that speak to the value of using humor in the workplace, and that’s why I say it’s a must-have.

And the way that we work today, where work-life balance is no longer is a thing, and it’s more about work-life integration, and the challenges that we have day-to-day of always feeling like this need to do more with less-type thing, humor is a skill that can help us with all of those, the changes that are happening in the workplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued in that world of do more with less. Some might say, “Hey, Drew, we can’t burn all this time just joking around and being goofy. We got to produce some stuff.” So, how do you think about that?

Drew Tarvin
I would say, yeah, that’s 100% right. And if you were working with robots or cyborgs, yes, agree. But even something like, imagine running your phone down and being like, “All right. I need to be efficient with my phones so I refuse to charge it,” you would be great for about 24, maybe if you have a newer phone, maybe 48 hours, and then the phone is going to be burned out, it’s going to be dead, and it’s not going to work at all.

And that’s one of the things that I joke about is that, as an engineer, I’ve done a lot of research on productivity. I’m a huge fan of getting things done and thinking about that mentality and all that. But I’ve learned that it is very difficult to be productive if you are dead, or if you feel like you’re dead too, if you’re sick, if you’re tired, if you’re burned out, if you’re stressed out, if you’re worn out.

And so, recognizing that this was a huge aha for me in the workplace is that there’s a difference between being efficient and being effective. And you can be efficient with things like computers. You don’t need to motivate a computer to work, you don’t need to convince it to turn on, it doesn’t need a cup of coffee before it starts in the morning, right? But you can’t be efficient with humans because they have emotions and feelings, and because they have to eat and sleep, and because they get sick and tired. And so, instead of being efficient, we have to be effective and recognizing that humor is a way that we can be more effective.

So, you’re absolutely right. Maybe it’s not the most efficient thing in the moment, but it is long term more effective. And when you think about it, what’s efficient longer term, you explaining something once where people actually kind of get it, they remember it a little bit more, they understand it, or you having to explain it eight times down the road because you’re trying to do it as efficiently as possible?

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve heard, and maybe you can unpack this for me, Mr. Humor Engineer, that when we have recently laughed, our brain state, the neurochemical, biochemical situation is that you are more receptive to receive and hear and absorb information. Can you unpack that a bit?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot of both physiological and psychological benefits of using humor. And part of that receptivity is you can kind of explain it more simply with a dumb question. And the dumb question is, “Would you rather do something that is fun or not fun?” It’s a dumb question, right? But you’re going to pick fun pretty much all the time. So, that means if you were to make your content a little bit more fun, do you think people would be a little bit more open to wanting to hear it?

And I see this all the time as a speaker. So, I speak to a lot of maybe sometimes dry or more conservative organizations, so engineering groups and accounting firms and things like that, and so they’re used to a certain type of speaker. And so, I might go up towards the end of the day, a lot of the times I’m a closing keynote speaker, they’ve had a lot of content, a lot of great content, but it’s been on the drier side.

So, when I first go up, you’ll see a lot of people kind of on their phones or looking through their notebook or whatever, and then I say a line and it makes a couple of people laugh, and you’ll see people look up from their phones and be like, “Wait, I want to laugh. Why did that guy laugh? Oh, I’m going to listen to this guy to see why he made people laugh. Oh, okay.”

As a great speaker named Tami Evans says, “Once you give people laughing, you get them listening. And once you get them listening, you get them learning, you get them taking action, whatever it is, because you’re making that process a little bit more fun.” And, yeah, there’s some science in some of this stuff too in terms of showing that getting people to laugh makes them less defensive, you’ve kind of lower their defenses, or they’re a little bit more likely to see things from a different angle, because part of humor is also changing perspective.

So, if you get people to look at things a different way. So, for example, maybe a silly example is I don’t like mint chocolate. Are you a mint chocolate fan?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I do. I very much like them.

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, you’re a mint chocolate? Okay. See, I’ve never been eating chocolate, and then like, “You know what would great with this? Toothpaste, right?” And so, that’s not necessarily going to convince you to be like, “Oh, I don’t like mint chocolate anymore,” but it’s expressing that rather than me just saying, “Oh, I don’t like mint chocolate and it’s dumb,” right, it’s just giving you a slightly different angle that you now laugh about, and you’re like, “All right, well, I can at least kind of see that perspective,” right? So, it’s lowering your defenses because humor started it.

And that’s kind of one of the many benefits to using humor in the workplace is that, one, it gets people listening because they want to laugh, and then, two, once they’re listening, it helps them understand something a little bit more and maybe changes their perspective around it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, Drew, I have to ask, what’s that line, not that it’s the end-all-be-all and applicable to all circumstances, but we want to hear it? I think one of my favorite humor moves, I saw that to start a speech was this speaker was being introduced and they were sharing all of the great accolades, like, “Featured in the Wall Street Journal,” and all these things. And he just said, “Oh, my, that’s impressive.” I thought that was awesome because, like, anytime you’re being introduced you can pull that schtick a little bit because they know you wrote the bio and it’s being read about you, and for you to pretend that you’re surprised and like, “Hmm?” it just made me chuckle. So, what was your line?

Drew Tarvin
So, I have in my bio, in my introduction, one of the ones that I like, and it’s maybe not necessarily super hilarious, but like I give my client list as Microsoft, the FBI, the International Association of Canine Professionals is kind of my comic trip which, because it’s one of the most interesting groups that I’ve ever presented for.

And, of course, kind of my joke about it is that, and it’s kind of I had that split second when I first got the emails, it’s like, “Is this an association for dogs who have jobs?” I was like, “Oh, no, it’s an association for people who are dog trainers.” And that’s one of the things that I love about speaking is that I get to work with all of these different groups that, “Oh, yeah, of course, canine professionals, one, have a title like Canine Professionals, and, two, they have a conference where they get together and get to know each other a little bit better.”

And so, yeah, anytime you can kind of incorporate those types of things it helps. The other thing that I’ve started doing is in the bottom of my bio, I include that I love the color orange, which is kind of a random aside, and I love chocolate. Because what I found is when I spoke in Europe for the first time, I shared, “Oh, he’s obsessed with chocolate,” I started getting chocolate as my speaker gift because sometimes people are like, oh, not that I’m expecting a speaker gift, but if people are going to be like, “Hey, here’s a bottle of wine,” or, “Here’s X, Y, or Z,” I love chocolate so I’d rather inform them to say, “Hey, here’s something that you can get me that if you present me with a box of chocolates, I’m going to be delighted by.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay. Well, so there we go. We got some good benefits, and it’s possible for anyone to learn this art and skill. So, I guess, where do we start or how would you orient us to sort of the components of what makes humor work?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, I think that the starting point is probably around the definition of humor and making sure that we’re kind of aligned on that because I think we have a certain mindset when it comes to what we think of with humor. And that definition is really important. I kind of relate it to—so I was recently in the UK, and it took me going to the UK for the very first time to realize that I don’t speak English, right? I speak American because British English is different than American English. There are certain words that they say versus what we say.

Like, we say in the US, we say elevator, they say lift, right? We say fries, they say chips, and chips is something different for us. We say, for the most part, we say like bathroom, they say toilets, right, or the loo. And so, when you’re out in the public, I think that that’s more accurate because if you are out in the public and you say, “Hey, where’s the bathroom?” there’s typically no bath in that room. And as an engineer, I’m like, “Okay, that’s more specific, that’s accurate.” So, I was like, “I’m going to start using that in my language.” I’m going to start asking, “Where are the toilets?” or refer to them as toilets.

So, I’m in a Starbucks here in New York City, and I go up to a barista, and I’m like, “Excuse me, where are the toilets?” And she was confused, she was like, “Ah, in the bathroom?” Right? And so, there’s just that idea that language and how we think about it is important. We want to make sure that we’re on the same page with language. And so, when it comes to defining humor, to make sure that we know what we’re talking about, humor is more broad than comedy, right?

Humor is defined as a comic, absurd, or incongruous quality causing amusement. And so, so often people think laughter, they think standup comedy. They hear humor in the workplace and, suddenly, they’re like, “Oh, does that mean that I have to like start telling jokes? Does that mean that I have to try to become the class clown or a jester?” And that’s not at all what we’re talking about. Instead we’re talking about this broader definition where maybe it’s not about making the workplace funny, but about making it a little bit more fun.

Because the bar for comedy at work is much, much lower than, yeah, if you were trying to get up on stage and rock it at a standup comedy club or get a Netflix comedy special, the level of “funny” that you need to be is pretty high. You need to be getting four to seven laughs per minute, they need to be good laughs, solid chuckles, really kind of cohesive ideas, things that you’ve probably practiced many, many, many times before, versus if you’re just trying to get a little bit more humor into a meeting. Simply having an image behind you that isn’t just a wall full of text but is kind of an interesting image that you’re speaking to might be a simple way of getting a laugh.

Or, like you said, in your bio, having a quick line about, like, “Oh, that sounds impressive.” That’s not necessarily the funniest joke ever written, but it is something different, and in that context, it makes things a lot more interesting. And so, I think understanding that definition and recognizing when we’re talking humor in the workplace, we don’t mean about making the workplace funny, but more about making it more fun, I think, is a good starting point for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. Well, that’s great. That’s really reduces some of the pressure and lowers the bar and it’s true, I have seen certain contexts where someone tells a joke, there’s a whole lot of laughter, I’m thinking, “Boy, you know, if that person were not…whoever they were, or wherever we were, there wouldn’t be nearly that kind of response.” So, that’s great. Okay, so it’s not too hard. So, how shall we proceed?

Drew Tarvin
Yes, so the way that we kind of frame using and getting intentional about using humor in the workplace is around what we call a humor map. And the humor map stands for your medium, your audience, and your purpose. So, your medium is how are you going to execute that humor? Is it in an email? Is it in a phone call? Is it in a one-on-one situation? Because we know that your medium impacts your message.

Something like sarcasm or satire, you’ve maybe sent a text that’s meant to be a joke before, and you learned from the other person that they took it the wrong way, or they read into it a little bit more. So, sarcasm and satire are very difficult to do, say, in a text form because people, they can’t see that you are joking, they can’t see the paralanguage of the body language and the tone of voice and everything that  you’re saying it with, and so your medium impacts it, right? So, understanding what that’s going to be – email, phone call, one-on-one, live video, or life, or video version, or whatever it is.

Pete Mockaitis
I have to chime in. Have you seen the Key & Peele sketch where they’re texting and have completely different interpretations of what’s going on?

Drew Tarvin
Exactly, yeah. And that’s a great – and Key & Peele, one, fantastic, a great place to kind of share things. And also, they’re sometimes a little bit not safe for work with language, but the other thing about understanding kind of what we can talk about this with the map is recognizing humor in the workplace, you don’t always have to be the creator of humor. But, instead, you can be the shepherd of humor, right? You can share funny things out.

So, if you wanted to make that point about the importance of medium, you can then share the Key & Peele sketch, right, share a link to it on YouTube or Comedy Central or wherever it resides, and then be like, “All right. You know, this is kind of a funny reminder how someone says something in text might be taken a different way.” And there you didn’t create the humor but you’re now leveraging it in this way to still get a specific kind of result. That’s it.

I forgot about that sketch. That’s a great sketch and really demonstrates that idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, we think about the medium and note that some things work well or not so well for them, such as, “Do we have the facial expressions and the gestures and the tone of voice or do we not?” Anything else to consider with regard to the medium?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah. Well, I think, and this is where things like memes or GIFs or things like that can help because they introduce a visual element to your message, and you’re seeing emojis come up even more. I was just reading an article recently that emojis are coming up in court cases as well, and judges don’t necessarily know what to do with them. But the whole point of emojis are to help you better convey a message because you can’t visually be there.

Now, does that mean you should, in a very formal email to all of your clients and your boss and all that, include a bunch of emojis after every sentence to make sure that they know what message you’re sharing? No, but in a more conversational kind of text, you might. If you’re making a joke, you might put a smiley face at the end of it, or you might put, kind of the wry kind of dry winky face or something. So, emojis can be part of the communication.

But a big thing is kind of really with GIFs and memes, you might also express humor maybe in that way. So, it’s really just understanding the medium and how it might be received, and recognizing that the safest is kind of in person. Because if someone does take something the wrong way, you can kind of react to that more in the moment, you can react to it. In text, it might be a little bit easier just to link to things, to reference other things as opposed. If you’re not a great joke writer, then maybe you’re not going to write your own jokes but, again, you can, as so and so said, boom, quote someone else.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Okay. So, we got the medium. And how about the audience?

Drew Tarvin
So, the audience is, who is the audience? What do they know? What do they need? What do they expect? Because part of using humor is not to replace the work, right? To borrow kind of from Office Space, if your boss is like, “Hey, do you have those TPS reports?” You don’t want to like make a quick joke, and then when they say, “No, seriously, do you have them?” you don’t want to be like, “Well, got to go. See you later.” Right?

So, it doesn’t replace the work. You still have to actually do the work. And so, you still have to deliver on what the person needs, but you might do it in a way that they don’t quite expect, right, that’s bringing some of the humor, some of the fun element to it. So, that’s what you need to understand about your audience, is, “Okay, what does this person need and then how can I do it in a way that deliver against it whether maybe not quite expecting it? Oh, they know they need this information, they’re going to hear a presentation about it, they know they’re going to see some slides, oh, but if I make those slides a little bit more interesting, now they’re going to be leaning forward a little bit more because they’re like, ‘Okay, how does this picture of a dog relate to what I’m going to talk about?’” And then you can think of connect how that interesting picture of a dog leads to what you’re talking about.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And can you provide some more examples here?

Drew Tarvin
Another example, say, you want to build rapport with someone, and they need to get to know you a little bit more, right? So, they ask you a question. Think of maybe stereotypical networking questions of like, “What do you do?” So you could answer like, “What do you do?” with, for me, I could say, “Oh, I’m a speaker or I’m a trainer. But what I most I identify with is I’m a humor engineer. So, I used to be a computer science engineer, I used to solve problems in the workplace using things like technologies and computer-to-technology and computers. Now, I solve problems in the workplace using humor, so in that way I feel like I’m a humor engineer.”

And so, when people ask, “What do you do?” I say, “Oh, I’m a humor engineer.” That’s delivering kind of what they need in a way that they don’t expect it, and it usually leads to more questions. Because it’s a made-up term, they’re like, “Okay, what does that mean?” And that allows me to say, “Oh, well, I do a lot of speaking and training on the value of using humor to get better results.”

And so, it’s just something that stands out a little bit more, something that is a little bit more interesting. And then I might go into a story, right? So, stories, when people ask those questions like that, a story, or facts told in story form are 20 times more likely to be remembered than facts told in bullet point form. And so, if you’re at a networking event, if you want to stand out, rather than just being like, “Oh, yeah, I’m a speaker. I train on this,” giving a little bit more background, one, helps you remember things, but, two, it also builds connections.

So, I say, “I’ve always been an engineer. I’ve always been obsessed with efficiency ever since I can remember, really since before I can remember because I was born three weeks early, so apparently a human in the womb. I was like I don’t need a full nine months, I’m ready to go right now. So, then I went to The Ohio State University, got a degree in computer science and engineering. And after I graduated, I started working at Procter & Gamble, and that’s where I realized there was this difference between being efficient and effective.”

And, now, in that conversation, I’ve now answered the question, I’m getting to the point of, “Okay, how did I get to humor engineering?” And in that story, one, it’s a little bit more interesting than just kind of sharing “humor engineer,” or even just sharing “speaker-trainer,” but it also gives people a connecting point. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, you’re trying to find ways to build rapport with that person. And in that story, I’ve now told them, “Oh, I’m an engineer.” If they’re an engineer as well, they’re like, “Oh, okay, I’m mechanical,” or, “I’m in civil engineering.” Now, we have a connection over engineering.

Or, I say, “I went to The Ohio State University.” They might be like, “Oh, I grew up in Ohio as well. What do you think of like Cincinnati versus Cleveland, or Greger’s ice cream versus Jeni’s Ice Cream?” Or, if they’re not from there, they might be like, “Why do you guys say The Ohio State University?” And the answer, “I don’t know. I just know that if we don’t say The Ohio State, then we get our degree taken away, I think,” right?

Or if it’s like, “Oh, I work at P&G.” “Oh, I used to know someone that worked at P&G.” There’s all these small things that they can now connect to that build rapport that they’re getting from me, that they won’t even get if I just said, “Oh, I’m a speaker-trainer.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you. And then did we hit the purpose part here?

Drew Tarvin
Yes. And then the last piece, well, the other thing that I would say about the audience piece is that your relationship to that person matters as well because a joke that you would say with someone that you’ve known for 10 years is very different than something that you might say with someone that you’ve met for the very first time.

And so, understanding what is your relationship with this person, and recognizing that when you’re first meeting someone, or if you’re doing it in front of a large group of people, if you’re using humor in front of a large group of people, you’re probably going to be a little bit more broad, a little bit more, safer kind of with your humor versus someone that you know very, very well, where it’s like, “Oh, okay, this person likes this type of humor. I know that I can say this, and I know that they know that I’m joking, that we have that rapport, we have that relationship kind of built up.” So, that relationship piece with the audience is really important as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Drew Tarvin
And then the last piece, yeah, is the purpose. And this is the most important one, and this is, “Why do you want to use humor?” Because, humor, for the sake of humor is fine, I guess. But as an engineer, what I love about it is that we can use it for a specific result. And so, we kind of frame this around it’s my general belief that there are five skills at work. No matter who you are or what you do, it kind of comes down to five things.

Any thoughts on from your perspective? What do you think is included in kind of—if you have a job, what types of things are you doing?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thinking, communicating, creating stuff.

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, absolutely. Right. So, you have to be able to think, right? You’re creating strategic plans, you’re being critical, you’re also being creative kind of in that thinking mode. Like, you said, communicating. You articulate the intelligence that you have. You’re sharing the ideas that are in your head. Actually, creating stuff, right, so in a way I would call it, kind of execution, you’re actually completing tasks, you’re getting things done for sure. Any others come to mind?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think about how you do it with regard to just your own self-management, care, and energy, and attentiveness.

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, right. Kind of a component, a little bit of that, the thinking side of things, of actually creating the plan of, “Okay, what do I actually need to work on? How do I prioritize these things? And how do I actually get it done? What’s my motivation for it?” And then I would add also like you have to be able to connect with people, right? You have to understand emotional intelligence.

We recognize that emotional intelligence is one of the strongest predictors of career success. People who, I think it’s something like 90% of top performers have high EQ, high emotional intelligence. Where less than 20% of low performers do, so it is one of those skills that does tend to stand out. Because we work with humans, we have to be able to connect with them on a human level and understand how they work.

And then you also have to be able to lead. You have to be able to influence people to some type of goal to kind of move them in. In every job is what we would say is those five things of executing, actually completing tasks, thinking, right, strategically creating a plan, critically and creatively, communicating, connecting, and leading. And so, every job kind of comes to some percentage of those five things.

And so, what we say is using humor in the workplace isn’t going to change those five, right? They’re all still going to exist. It’s simply how you do those five, kind of what you’re talking about, the motivation and things like that. So, humor can be a how across those five. And so, the purpose piece is maybe you want to use humor as a way to increase your execution, right, to execute faster. So, you might use humor as a way to increase your efficiency.

And so, one way to do that, one strategy is to play-work, is to find ways to add gamification in your work so that it’s more enjoyable. Back to that question of, “Would you rather do something that is fun or not fun?” Well, if you make your work a little bit more fun, you’re more willing to engage, and you’re more willing to do it.

And so, this might be something as simple as listening to music while you’re doing kind of a mundane task. One of the things that I like to do is I’ll start to read emails in a different accent in my head. This is way to kind of stay engaged with emails that I’m going through. You might decide to do a task with a friend and compete with them. Be like, “Hey, we both got to do our expense reports right now, so let’s set a timer and see who can get through the most expense reports in 15 minutes.”

And, again, it’s not the funniest thing, it’s not a Netflix comedy special, but it’s making the work a little bit more fun, changing your perspective around it so that you’re a little bit more engaged with it and willing to do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, I would love it if you could share all the more of these. I do this when I am, I guess, proofreading. I’ve written something and I find, boy, when you read it out loud you just find stuff that reading it in your head doesn’t. So, I don’t know what character I’m assuming when I read things out loud but it’s kind of almost like a very earnest broadcaster who’s also talking very fast because it’s like, “Andrew Tarvin is the world’s first humor engineer teaching people how to get better results while having more fun.”

And so, I don’t know, I guess, and again, it doesn’t make me sort of laugh out loud, like, “This is ridiculously hilarious.” But if it gets the job done, I am proofreading by reading aloud, and I’m having a little bit more fun with it than if I were just reading the words like a school child is reading a book aloud.

Drew Tarvin
Exactly. And I think that’s exactly that makes it a little bit more interesting. And this is where I encourage in a lot of ways, you know, bringing things that are an outside passion in your work as well. Or maybe, yeah, if you were a kid and you always wanted to grow up to be a broadcaster, absolutely, proofread things kind of as a broadcaster. If you love doing accents for whatever reason, read it in a different accent and see what it would kind of sound like. Whatever it is, it’s just small tweaks.

And this is a form of humor called self-enhancing humor. And it’s kind of epitomized by, there’s a great quote from Kurt Vonnegut that said “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration.” I, myself, prefer to laugh because there’s less cleaning up to do afterwards.

And so, it’s this idea of, hey, you have to do the proofreading anyway. You could choose to say, “Hey, this is annoying and I hate it. Ugh, God, this is just the worst.” Or I can be like, “All right. I’m going to do it anyway. Yeah, let me put on a broadcaster voice to make it a little bit more fun. Or let me try to be an auctioneer and see how fast I can get through it. Or let me try some of these accents that I think are kind of fun. Or let me do it to music.”

In fact, I’ve just started doing this, because I have a bit of a nasal voice, getting over a sore throat, so it’s a little bit deeper now. And at times it is a little bit monotone. And so, someone was saying, “Oh, when you’re practicing your speeches, practice it to inspirational music.” Like, put on an inspirational instrumental behind you, and that’s going to automatically, kind of, you’re going to start to add musicality almost to your voice.

So, these are just small things that you can do to make the process a little bit more fun. And the other beautiful thing about these as examples is that no one can stop you from doing them. So there’s all these benefits to humor in the workplace, but not everyone was using humor. And so, I wanted to understand why.

And the number one reason why people don’t use humor, at least according to the survey that we ran through our site, was that they didn’t think their boss or coworkers would approve, right? They didn’t see that as a culture in the workplace. And the reality is that 98% of CEOs prefer job candidates with a sense of humor and 81% of employees said that a fun workplace would make them more productive.

Most people want it but they haven’t necessarily created a culture of it and so people think that it’s not welcome. And a lot of times it’s just because people haven’t tried, so a lot of times you can start out and it’s usually received pretty well. But even if you’re in an organization where like, “No, my manager has like explicitly told me no fun whatsoever. If you’re laughing it means you’re not working hard enough. They call it work because it’s work not because it’s play, and it has to feel like it.”

Like if you work in an environment like that, well, maybe consider kind of why you’re continuing to go to that, but also recognize that no one can control how you think. No one can stop you from if you’re proofreading these things to yourself, changing the voice in which you do them. If you have a commute that you have to go through, no one can stop you from listening to a comedy podcast, or making it a regular thing of, “Hey, every day or every Monday or whatever, I’m going to make sure that I’m listening to the Awesome at Your Job podcast because it puts me in a good mood, and I have a good time, and I’m going to relieve some stress to show up more presence for my family when I get there,” right? No one can stop you from doing that in your car.

And so, these are all things that you could choose to do no matter the work environment, and that’s why it’s a starting kind of first strategy that we share is that it is something that you are entirely in control of.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love to hear when it comes to we’re worried about it may be unwelcome, what are some of the easiest little baby steps for, “Okay, I’m entering a meeting, I’m doing a presentation, like, here are some safe things you can do that will make it a little bit more fun and have extremely low risk of folks flipping out about it”?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah. Well, I think going back to if you’re clear on the map piece, because I think that when people tend to get in trouble with humor in the workplace, it’s usually one of two reasons. One, it’s inappropriate humor. So, it is important to understand there is a difference, say, bad humor and inappropriate humor.

Pete Mockaitis
The joke which is not funny versus, “What? Why are you discussing these lewd sexual acts?” Not the place.

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So, a bad joke, yeah. And they’ve done studies where if you share a joke that is appropriate but people don’t laugh, there’s no real negative gain to a person, there’s no like perception change or anything like that, especially if it’s a positive-inclusive and a positive-inclusive joke that doesn’t get a laugh just becomes a positive-inclusive statement, so it tends to be okay.

However, an inappropriate joke, even if it’s successful, even if it makes people laugh, can have a negative impact on people’s perception of your competency in the workplace. It doesn’t affect their confidence in you, but it does affect their perception of your competence, right? And so, inappropriate humor is typically inappropriate for one of three reasons.

One, it’s an inappropriate topic, exactly what you were talking about. Using humor is not an excuse to talk about sex or drugs or rock and roll in the workplace. It’s not going to be, “Hey, this is typically a taboo subject, but because I’m saying a joke about it, it’s okay.” That’s not true. It could be inappropriate because it has an inappropriate target. So, some humor has a target that is someone else. And so, if you’re using humor as a way to make fun of someone, or if it’s a racist joke, or a sexist joke, right, that’s still very much inappropriate in general, but particularly in the workplace.

And then the third time is that it could in an inappropriate time, right? So, humor is just one tool of many tools that we can use in the workplace, and it’s not to say it’s always going to be the best tool to use so you do have to recognize that there might be inappropriate times. So, if you’re firing someone, that’s not the time to like bust out your “Frozen” parody and be like, “I’ve got to let you go, let you go. I’m not going to pay you back anymore,” right? Like, I can’t sing at all. But it’s not like, “Oh, this is going to make it more fun.” That’s an inappropriate time.

So, I think understanding that is one way to make sure that we keep things appropriate and that we don’t run into trouble, to make sure it’s more positive-inclusive. And then I think the other thing is going back to the map piece and specific to that purpose piece, that it’s not just, “Hey, I want to be fun to be just so I’m seen as funny.”

So, sometimes people ask me about, “Okay, but what about Michael Scott in The Office? He was always trying to have fun.” And the problem is that Michael Scott, you know, he’s a fictional character, his primary motivation of humor seems to be validation, right? He just wanted to be liked by everyone, and he wanted everyone to see him as a funny person, and that’s not a great starting reason for using humor. You want to be more specific about it, like, “Okay, I want to use humor in this meeting to keep people engaged in the content and help them understand it better.” That’s going to change the type of humor you use over, “I want people to see me as really funny.”
And so, some simple ways around to do that is I’m a big believer in if you’re doing presentations, rather than having a wall-full of texts, do include more images because the images themselves can be part of the punchline and you don’t have to be the one that created the humor. If you go to, like, Flickr.com and do a Creative Commons search for, hey, if you’re talking about new initiatives in the workplace around stress management, go in and do some searching for stress. Or if you recognize, “Oh, yeah,” and smiling is something that can kind of help in the workplace, find a picture of a dog that’s smiling and it makes people laugh.

Or, in my TEDx Talk, I share a picture of – I say that I work with some pretty conservative organizations and will admit that sometimes when I’m talking about the benefits of humor, they are a little bit skeptical. And when I say skeptical, as I click to the next slide, and it’s a dog that kind of looks skeptical. And so, people are now laughing, and goes, “Oh, yeah, that is kind of funny. That dog kind of looks like it has that expression that it is a skeptical-looking dog.” And so now they’re laughing, and it’s just an additional kind of punchline, and I didn’t have to put the word skeptical behind me. I didn’t need to put all the research and everything there. It was just kind of one way to keep it, and make it a little bit more engaging. So, I think images can be a great way to do that.

I think activities is another way to incorporate some humor in a way that everyone is included. And so, another form of humor, so we talked about self-enhancing humor. Another form of humor is affiliative humor, and this is positive-inclusive where everyone is part of the end group of that humor. So, I think of kind of Ellen DeGeneres.

And so, when you’re starting a meeting, as a project manager, I used to start meetings with a simple question that people could answer pretty quickly to go around the room, if it’s a group of like eight people or so, to be like, “All right. Just before we get started, I want to…” and I’ve set this up before but, like, “We’re doing these questions as a way to get to know each other a little bit better, remind ourselves that we work with fellow humans and not just resources. So, today’s question is, very quickly, go around the table and reply with the first thing you remember buying with your own money.” Or something that you think is, “What’s something that you think is true for you that you don’t think is true for anyone else in the room?” Or just these kinds of specific questions that get people to kind of share a little bit more about them because it goes back to this resource piece.

Like, as a project manager, I labeled people as resources, and most workplaces label people as resources. And, over time, you start to forget that the other person on the other side of an email, or the other side of a phone call, or the other side of a conference desk, is a fellow human being with human lives and human emotions and, maybe, just maybe, the reason that they’re email is late to you is not because they secretly hate you, but because they have a sick kid at home.

And that’s part of what humor is doing, is it’s reminding us kind of our humanity in the workplace, and saying, “Hey, we’re all in this together as people.” And so, small things that we can do that can remind people, that can be a great way to kind of introduce humor in a safer and easier way.

Pete Mockaitis
And you’ve also talked a bit about how to use humor to diffuse conflict. How does that work? Can you give us a demonstration?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, so a lot of times it’s just kind of becoming a reminder of that situation of kind of what the situation is and creating a pattern to interrupt. Because so often our conflict is we get so kind of narrowed in on a focus, or a problem that is coming up, or a conversation that’s happening, and we need to be just kind of interrupted from that to kind of take a break and step back. And sometimes just observing, kind of giving an observation or sharing an observation about the room can help or the situation.

For example, I was at a meeting at P&G and it was getting pretty intense, we were a little bit behind on a project and so there are some kind of blame, kind of calling out and blaming people and things like that. And my manager, at one point, was like, “All right. Everyone, listen. We need to remember that at the end of the day, we sell soap.” And that wasn’t to discount P&G’s mission, it wasn’t to say what we were working on wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things, but it was to remind us, “Hey, we’re in this very intense argument about selling soap. This isn’t World War II, this isn’t the Civil War. We can take a step back, we can take a breath,” and that was enough to make us laugh and for us to kind of recharge.

And so, sometimes it’s like to say, okay, you use a comment, or get people to take a break, and then say, “Okay, maybe let’s take five. Let’s take five minutes, let’s relieve some stress, let’s use some humor, whether it’s watching comedy video, or do a quick activity, or everyone just go for a walk and then come back,” because you need that kind of space between the stimulus and the action that you create, and humor can help you create that space.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Drew, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we talk about some of your favorite things?

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, so I would say there’s two quick things that I would say. One, kind of given the audience that I know is listening, recognizing that there is a difference sometimes in how humor is received between men and women. So, in one study they found that when men use humor, now, I’m going to mess up the percentages but they’re kind of close. When men use humor, it was met with a positive response 80% of the time, I think. When women use humor, it was met with a positive response 20% of the time.

In that same study they found that 90% of the humor that men use was off-the-cup humor, kind of conversationally in the moment, and 70% of the humor that women use was self-defeating humor or self-deprecating humor. And so, that brings me to a third style of humor. So, we have affiliative humor, we have self-enhancing humor, there is a self-defeating humor. And self-defeating humor is where you kind of poke fun at yourself. It’s a negative form of humor that you poke fun at yourself which can be great in a high-status position but it’s not great, one, if you’re low-status position.

And so, there’s obviously some challenges certainly with women in the workplace in terms of how status is sometimes perceived that something that we, as a society, need to work on, but it’s something that people should be conscious of. And, two, self-defeating humor works when it is used sparingly. Like, if you constantly always use it, so the women that were using self-defeating humor 70% of the time, the problem is that people stop laughing at it, because they’re like, “Ah, does this person have kind of self-esteem issues or is this a pity party? I don’t think that I should laugh.”

And so, recognizing just the style of humor that you’re using and who you are, how it’s perceived, it is an important thing to keep in mind. So, that’s just one thing that I want to say. So, stick to typically more affiliative and self-enhancing humor is going to be a little bit more helpful for you.

And the last thing that I’ll say before we get to the five questions is if people are feeling a little bit overwhelmed, like this seems like a lot, it seems like there’s a lot to go into, the last strategy, so we have 10 humor strategies that we talk about in the book, the last bonus strategy is to simply practice or strive for one smile per hour. Just try to think about one thing that you can do each hour of the day that brings a smile to your face or the face of someone else and that gets to a starting point, right?

Just think about, “Okay, I’m going into this meeting. How can I elicit one smile?” Or, “I’m getting ready to have my commute home, what’s one thing that I can do to make myself smile?” And that starts to help you develop your humor habit, then you can get into some of the more complex details stuff that we talked about a little bit later and that we talked about today, but it really starts with kind of that choice and choosing to kind of practice one thing each hour.

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

Drew Tarvin
Sure. So, a favorite quote I would say, I heard this many, many years ago, and it’s a cliché but it’s the best career advice that I’ve ever been given, which is that, “It is better to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.”

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

Drew Tarvin
So, there’s a great humor and problem-solving study that, they took three groups of kids. One group of kids watched a comedy video, one group of kids watched a math video, one group of kids watched no video whatsoever. They then had to do a pretty known problem called the candlestick problem, and the kids who watched a comedy video were nearly four times more likely to solve the problem than the kids who watched the math video or no video at all. So, it just kind of showed that, one, comedy is a way to warm up the brain. It helps you see different solutions and different ideas, and it introduced me to the candlestick problem which I think is kind of a fun problem.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Drew Tarvin
Favorite book? My favorite book of all time is The Complete Anthology of Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Drew Tarvin
Evernote. One of the big things for being a humorist is to keep a humor notebook. Anytime you’re going throughout the world, and something kind of piques your curiosity, write that down in a notebook somewhere. And I personally use Evernote so that it’s always on me whether I’m on my computer or on my phone.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Drew Tarvin
Favorite habit? I would say if I can complete it in five minutes, I actually do the task rather than putting it on the to-do list or waiting to save it to do it later.

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

Drew Tarvin
The one smile per hour, I think, is sometimes popular and I think the idea that, again, that humor isn’t about making the workplace funny. It’s about making the workplace more fun.

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

Drew Tarvin
If they want to learn more about humor in the workplace, they can go to HumorThatWorks.com. We’ve got plenty of free blog articles and resources there, free newsletter they can sign up for, also access to the book, the online course, some of the workshops that we offer. If they want to connect with me, if they like puns, I like tweeting out puns and things like that, so if they want to connect with me on social media, if they have specific questions, they can find me @drewtarvin on any of the social media.

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

Drew Tarvin
Yeah, I would say just start, right? You choose every single day how you’re going to do your work, so why not choose to be more productive, less stressed and happier, why not choose to get better results and have more fun, why not choose humor that works?

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Drew, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck and laughter in all you’re up to.

Drew Tarvin
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.