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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:

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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.

497: How to Prevent Burnout by Shifting Your Focus with Aaron Schmookler

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Aaron Schmookler discusses how a service-oriented mindset keeps you from burning out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. A powerful phrase for de-escalating conflict
  2. How to stop feeling so self-conscious
  3. How to make work more fulfilling

About Aaron:

For over 20 years, Aaron has been striving to help people find their own intrinsic motivation, their capacity to collaborate, and the fulfillment that comes from harnessing the creative impulse in us all to serve others.

In 2014 Aaron and business partner, Adam Utley, co-founded The Yes Works and developed the Adeptability Model of collaboration and leadership training and the Adeptable Culture Audit. Aaron and The Yes Works serve clients across the country and across industries including Microsoft, MOD Pizza, DiscoverOrg, Burkhart Dental Supply, SOG Knives, 9th Gear, and Textainer to make work good for people and people good for work.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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  • Blinkist: Learn more, faster with book summaries you can read or listen to in 15 minutes at blinkist.com/awesome
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Aaron Schmookler Thomas Interview Transcript

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

Aaron Schmookler
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’ve been listening to your show for years, learning a lot from it, admiring you from afar, we’re birds of feather, you and I.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I appreciate that and, well, thank you. I’d love to get started by hearing a little bit about your background. It seems like one of your formative experiences and key credential is that you worked in the Elephant House of the National Zoo. What’s the story?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, if I’m really going to tell the story, it goes back to that my mother actually was dating the curator of mammals at the National Zoo. I had to, in order to graduate from high school, find some way to do community service. A number of my friends had done envelope-licking and envelope-stuffing and things like that. That sounded like an unbelievable drag to me. And he said, “Well, I can’t get you a gig but I can introduce you to the head of the Elephant House.”

Pete Mockaitis
Power broker.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. I met the assistant curator of mammals he told me that they don’t permit people my age, at 16 at the time, to work in the Elephant House because it’s too dangerous. And after an hour’s conversation, he changed his mind and permitted me to work in the Elephant House. I shoveled, I did the calculation at one point, I don’t remember what it was, but it was many thousands of pounds of poop.

And I got to ride the elephants and it was a fantastic, remarkable, fun experience, and I learned a lot about leadership actually there because of how consistent you have to be as an elephant keeper, which I was not. But as an elephant keeper, as an elephant trainer, you’ve got to be incredibly consistent or the elephant will kill you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that can really be a formative experience and one that probably certainly beats the licking of envelopes for your volunteer requirement.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, I don’t make a good envelope licker.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s dangerous. I guess the sponge is a better approach. Better.

Aaron Schmookler
Indeed, yeah. No paper cuts on the tongue for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so nowadays you’ve moved onto different career path outside of elephants, but your company utilizes the work of improv, “Yes and,” something you call adeptability. Kind of what’s the story here and how does improv stuff help us be awesome at our jobs?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, the story, again, I’ll go to my family. My wife told me she was pregnant, I looked around the work culture and the place that I was working at the time, and thought, “Man, is this a drag.” People clock-watching, it wasn’t particularly cool to be glad to be there, although I was. I loved my work. And I just thought, “I can’t stand the idea that my daughter is going to inherit the prevailing work culture in this country.”

And so, I reached out to a friend of mine who’s the best improvisor I know, Adam Utley, and I said, “I want to change work culture. I want to use improv to do it. I need you to help me. I can’t do this on my own.” And so, we started actually doing what we called improv for business which we knew other people were doing.

And as we got into further along in our business, we realized that the other people out there doing improv for business were doing something different from what we were doing. And so, we had to come up with a different name for it and we thought about the folks who had hired us, what they were looking for. They wanted their teams to adapt, they wanted their teams to be excellent communicators, to be excellent collaborators. They wanted really people to be adept at teaming.

And so, we took adaptability and adept, and we smashed them together. And so, we called our training program Adeptability.

Pete Mockaitis
Clever. All right. And so then, tell us, what does it mean to be adeptable and how can we be more of that?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, when we defined this for a team, an adeptable team is, and I supposed it would stand for individuals as well, somebody who is adeptable. A team that is adeptable is exceptionally good at doing what they do regardless of the circumstances. And what we know about what it takes to do that is that you really need to take in input, you need to take in the input of your fellow collaborators, you need to give input, when I think about, what’s the name of the book, Good to Great, and he talks about how important it is to have an open system, a collaborative system is an open system, so you need to be an exceptional collaborator.

And also, to collaborate with reality. I think one of the things that prevents companies from being adeptable teams, and people from being adeptable, in my own life where I am not adeptable, where I get myself into trouble is where I am not allowing myself to see reality. And so, where teams, where companies resist reality that’s where they run into trouble, and you can ask Kodak about that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, reality, like, “Hey, the marketplace is changing. Customers don’t want this thing anymore.” What are some other realities we might ignore and why do we do that?

Aaron Schmookler
One of my clients is a CEO who had an important director in his company who was an incredibly strong performer, who had connections in the community that really mattered to their company, and who engaged in a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, who did a lot of things that offended people that really created an environment of fear and manipulation on her team. And rather than look that reality square in the face, this CEO spent a lot of time kind of making excuses for her. So, that’s one example.

Another example might be, you know, I could think of my own efforts to prospect, to find clients, and I might write an email that I really like. And so I will send it out to lots of folks that I’ve met, lots of clients from the past, and I’ll just keep sending this email out even though it’s not getting me any results because I like it, I’m closed to the fact that it may not giving me the results that an email where I’m paying more attention to my audience might get.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, how do you open yourself up to receive and adapt to that reality well?

Aaron Schmookler
Well, it takes discipline and, to me, it really takes systematizing collaboration, and that’s what improvisors are great at doing. There are principles behind improv. A lot of people think that improvisors get on stage together and they wing it, and they just kind of make it up as they go along. The fact is that they don’t make it up as they go along.

What they do is they listen really hard both to their scene partners, in the case of theater improvisation, and they listen also really hard to the tiny little tickles in their brain that erupt as a result of what they’ve heard from their partners. So, they allow themselves to be inspired, they allow themselves to surprise themselves, and they allow themselves to not be attached to where they think this thing might go.

And, speaking for myself, I find it very difficult to let go of that attachment. I find it very difficult to let go of the plan. Some of the habits that I formed are to also listen both to my improvising partner, whether that’s on stage, or whether that is a CEO whom I’m coaching, and allow my plan to kind of sit beside me while instead I react, I respond to the moment. And I forget, was it Churchill who said that planning is imperative, and plans are nothing?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is ringing a bell. That’s like the process of planning means that you’re thinking through a lot of great stuff but the actual output of it is very, very well not at all be what you end up doing but you’re enriched by having thought about it.

Aaron Schmookler
Exactly. It goes right along with the quote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Otherwise you end up like, I guess, Michael Scott who always had a plan in his improv to have a gun in every scene is what I’m thinking about from The Office, and it didn’t work so well, and his improvisors didn’t like working with him and excluded him from the fun they were having.

Aaron Schmookler
I don’t know the particular context that you’re talking about and I imagine that what happens when you bring a gun into every scene is that people simply get shot and you railroad the scene, you determine what’s happening, and nobody else really has any input.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right. Yeah, they’re all just on the floor pretending to be dead.

Aaron Schmookler
Isn’t that fun?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, that’s talking about improv, we were going to talk about burnout. But I suppose there really is a healthy bridge, an overlap here associated with, I understand one of your foundational principles here is that when you’re focused on yourself and you plan how it should go as oppose to the other, you naturally get more exhausted. Can you unpack some of these ideas here?

Aaron Schmookler
So, there’s this concept emotional labor that’s getting a lot of attraction in some of the research these days. Basically, there are a number of forms of emotional labor. We have a big tech client out here in the Pacific Northwest, for example, where we surveyed the leaders, and most of them answered the question, “Do you feel like you can be yourself at work on a scale from one to ten?” They were down in the three to four range thinking that’s not very much yourself.

So, if you’re not being yourself, that’s emotional labor. Or I think about folks in customer service, we work with folks in customer service who feel like they have to smile and act chipper, and they’re putting on this disguise, they’re putting on these adjectives that fit their picture of how they’re supposed to be with their clients.

And I’m not suggesting that they’re not correct, and it’s exhausting to, for example, if you’re already tired because it’s the end of the day, it’s exhausting to decide for yourself, “I’ve got to be chipper. I’ve got to be energetic. I’ve got to be cheerful.” And, in fact, my degree is in theater, I’m a theater director, and what actors know is that you don’t go on stage and be angry. You don’t go on stage and be or pretend to be cold. You don’t go on stage and pretend to be happy. You go on stage and try to affect the people on stage with you.

And when you invest stakes in accomplishing affecting the other person, then the way that you must be bubbles up naturally. And so the implication for folks at work is that if you go in to work to serve people, if you’re in a call center and you get on the phone and you’re dealing with an angry customer, and you think, “I’ve got to be cheerful,” that will feel very, very difficult and it will wear you down. To have somebody yelling at you, and in the face of what feels like belittling behavior from them, you are just all smiles. It will feel incongruous and incongruent, and it will be exhausting.

If, however, you think of it as your responsibility, your duty, your mission to serve them, then that cheer will both be easier, less exhausting, and it will also be much more fitting, much more relevant to the situation. So, instead of responding to anger with cheerfulness, which might actually get you more anger, you respond to anger with service that may also sound light, that may also sound cheerful, and it also be organic. We’re incredibly sophisticated tools. We’re incredibly sophisticated measuring tools, we humans, and we pick up on very subtle things.

And I’ll give you an example from my week. I hired somebody to send out, to craft and send out some marketing messages. The name of my company is The Yes Works. He was supposed to send me this message, I was going to review it, approve it, and then he would start sending it out. And instead he just started sending it out, and instead of saying, “Hi, I’m Aaron, a co-founder of The Yes Works,” it said, “Hi, I’m Aaron, co-founder of Yes, It Works,” and I was not happy.

And I called him and he certainly acknowledged it as a mistake, and the more I kind of tried to get him to respond in the most relevant way that I could imagine, he was becoming more and more defensive. And in response to his becoming more and more defensive, I noticed I got my dander up. And I was just about to kind of raise my voice when I took a page out of my own training book, and said, “How can I serve him?”

And in that moment, I also kind of recognized how difficult it would be for me as a business owner to get this call from one of my clients, how ashamed I would likely feel, how tempted I would be to try to save face in whatever way that I could. And in that moment of service, I calmed down, not in effort, it was an effortless calm down, just all of that chemistry drained out of my body, and I said, “You know, I can imagine how difficult this is and how much your mind must be spinning. So, I tell you what I think we should do. I think we should get off the phone, I’ll give you 24 hours to just consider how you would like to respond because I think I’ve been putting you on the spot and requiring that you respond to me right away.”

And it was no effort for me to pretend to be calm in order to get that response from him. It was simply I decided to serve him instead of requiring that he serve me exactly as I wanted to be served, and it changed the whole relationship right there in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just because we have to have completion for a story, what happens within the 24 hours with the response?

Aaron Schmookler
He came back in a much more relevant fashion, and stopped defending, and stopped kind of trying to retry questions that we had already answered earlier, and it is an ongoing thing because it’s actually very recent. So, I gave him to the end of today to give me a response, and we haven’t quite got there yet.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so that’s powerful there with regard to that mindset shift with regard to, “How can I serve this person?” And then, in doing so, I guess it’s just natural that you’re focused less on yourself, and how you’re angry, and you’ve been wronged, and this is ridiculous, and you’re spending this good money, and this is a rookie mistake, and aren’t they supposed to be good at their jobs, into you’re in their shoes. I can see how that would just sort of change your whole emotional being in a hurry.

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah. And one of the objections that we get when we talk to clients about adopting this mind of service, just as you said, “I’m the one paying. Why am I going to serve him?” Well, because it’s less exhausting for me, because it’s more effective. We actually started to make progress when I started to serve him. And I’m not talking about being walked on. I didn’t say, “You know what, it’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” Instead, I thought, “How would I want a client to treat me?” And part of how I want a client to treat me is to hold me accountable, and part of how I would want a client to treat me is to give me the opportunity to come to wisdom, right?

So, serving people is not soft, it’s not laying down. It’s calling people up to their highest selves, sometimes. Sometimes it’s bringing somebody a glass of water.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so this is great in terms of you’re less exhausted and you’re getting better results. So, I guess my impression here is that this seems like a great principle, which is wise and proper and we should do. However, in the heat of busyness, lots of obligations, lots of distractions, and things pulling for our attention, and our own sort of emotional triggers, it’s probably hard to do with great consistency. So, do you have any pro tips on how we can keep coming back to this again and again when forces try to pull us away?

Aaron Schmookler
Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. I am really good at this in my professional relationships. I’m a lot less good at it in my personal relationships, and so I practice there as well. Asking for feedback, taking timeouts, adapting tools. One of my favorite tools, and I know we’re going to get to this again later, is, “Tell me more about that.”

When I find myself getting my dander up, I go, “Okay, I’m going to choose to say, ‘Tell me more about that.’” And what I get often is an opportunity to, as they say, listen to understand where I can feel that kind of hijack coming, that neurochemical hijack coming, I say, “Tell me more about that,” and then I get more information. So, that’s another thing.

Vocabulary and, “Tell me more about that” is a piece of vocabulary is an incredibly powerful mind-shifter, or mind-crafter. So, we can craft our minds by disciplining ourselves to certain kinds of vocabulary.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And what’s so great about that is you can, well, that piece of phraseology there, “Tell me more about that,” is very flexible and that can go anywhere and it gives you a pause because even if someone said the most offensive, outrageous things to you, like, “Aaron, you are a moron and your entire company sucks and is this a big rip-off. I think it’s a big rip-off fraud scam and I need all of my money returned instantly.”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t know. I tried to conceive of the most outrageous things someone could say to you. And when you’re about ready to yell, you could say to them, “Well, tell me more about that.” Even just say so you can take some breaths.

Aaron Schmookler
And it’s incredibly disarming. And you really are right on the money. We were working in a call center just last month, and some of the call center reps were telling us some of the horrendous things that people say to them when they call.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, example please. Dirt. Give me the juicy details. You can skip the profanities if possible.

Aaron Schmookler
Okay, yeah. So, yes, skipping the profanity, “You are a bleepity bleep. Your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep and I can’t believe that you have the audacity to steal my money,” right? That’s one of the things that this person said. And I’m toning down my voice, also as I understand it, that was pretty well hollered. The person had to take their headset off in order not to get their ears damaged. And this is exactly the tool that we recommended to her, “Tell me about that.”

And the way in which, I mean, that’s a tremendous act of service. To say to somebody who is in that frame of mind, “Tell me about that,” is such a tremendous act of service. You can hear the fear and the expectation that they will not be received, the expectation that they are out there on a limb all alone, you can hear it in the vocabulary, you can hear it in the tone of voice, you know that’s what’s happening from afar. When you’re the receiver of that, it just feels like an attack.

But to serve them in such a way as to say, not, “Hey, screw you,” or, “I’m going to hang up,” or, “You can’t talk to me like that,” to say instead, “Tell me about that,” is so disarming because it is such an act of service in a moment when they’re expecting a battle.

Pete Mockaitis
I think it’s great for feedback too just within a workplace. If someone says, “Hey, Aaron, I think that this podcast interview, you’re really scattered, you’re all over the place. Have you done any prep whatsoever? Your sound quality is dismal. Did you read any of the documents I shared about a proper mic?” Whatever. So, even if I give you feedback that might be true, it’s not, you’re doing great. It might be true even if it’s not overtly hostile, I think “Tell me about that” works there too just because, like, “I cannot believe the way I bend over backwards and this is the lack of appreciation I’m getting, to tell me that I’m not meeting expectations after this guy gave me zero guidance whatsoever,” whatever.

You can sort of go start spinning with regard to why you’re mad about the feedback you’re hearing, then “Tell me about that,” one, might get you some actionable wisdom and, two, lets you calm down and, three, I think would really just, as a manager, I’d appreciate it, like, “Well, thank you. Here’s a person who is actually interested in my feedback as opposed to putting up all the excuses and defenses.”

Aaron Schmookler
And we both get to learn that way, right? If you as my manager come to me and lambast my work, and I say, “Tell me more about that,” I mean, you’re likely to come out of that lambasting posture because, again, it’s unexpected. We expect resistance. It’s Aikido, right? Aikido is a martial arts wherein you absorb the energy of your combatant and redirect it.

And so, the service is a fantastic form of interpersonal emotional Aikido. And so when I say, “Tell me more about that,” to an angry manager, well, I might get an initial kind of fiery burst, but then it’s all spent, and even more likely, the fiery burst won’t even happen because the wind has just suddenly been removed from those sails, and now it appears as though we’re on the same side of the table, looking at the same jigsaw puzzle.

And because that really lowers defenses, and it diminishes offenses, we could both become a lot more objective about how these puzzle pieces fit together. You, as my manager, may discover something that you didn’t know, I, as the managed, may discover something that I didn’t know, and we both get to walk away with a lot fewer bruises and scrapes.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really great stuff. So, then when you talk about service, I guess you’re thinking about service in the moment in terms of a conversation. But we could also pull back and think about service more broadly in terms of your overarching personal purpose or your purpose as an employee. How do you think about some of that introspection and clarity that can infuse the service into everything in good vibes?

Aaron Schmookler
Boy, what a question. Thank you for asking because you’ve got me thinking now and I’m looking at the ceiling. So, the first of our fundamentals of Adeptability, the whole umbrella, the whole purpose of the day, we call it trust as an action. And you get trust as an action through “I got your back” culture. And we talk about trust as a feeling.

Trust is, in fact, also an action and there’s often kind of the stalemate that happens in workplaces where, “Pete, I’m not going to give you any task, I’m also not going to be vulnerable with you until you prove to me that you are worthy of my trust.” Now, what do you have though to prove your worthiness of my trust? It’s kind of like the catch 22 where I won’t give you a job until you have experience, and you can’t get experience without getting the job.

And I will never feel trust for you, I will never trust in you until I invest my trust, until I give you my trust, until I take trust as an action, and then I will experience from you what you do with it. So, you can either earn more trust or you can spurn, you can burn that trust. Either way the trust I really have to have is trust in myself, or trust in the system, or trust in the rest of the team to be able to weather whatever you, Pete, do with the trust.

And so this is maybe a roundabout way of getting to my answer for you, which is that I, anyway, find a lot of meaning in figuring out how to have ever more trust in myself. And part of how I have ever more trust in myself is by serving others. I think you brought this up a little bit earlier on the self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is such an apt description of itself. That term is so apt, “I’m conscious of where I have anxiety. I am conscious of myself. I’m really paying attention to myself.”

When we stand up in front of a crowd and feel nervous, feel frightened of public speaking, it is because we are self-conscious. We are conscious of ourselves, “Will I do it right? Will they like me? Will I stumble over my words? Will I remember what I wanted to say?” There is all of this focus on the self. And what happens when somebody stands up in front of a crowd and instead thinks, “I’m here to serve you,” and they speak and they pay attention to the response that they get from the crowd, they pay attention to how attentive the crowd is, they pay attention to where the crowd may need them to pause, these things just flow and the anxiety melts away because we are other conscious.

So, what’s the cure for self-consciousness? The cure for self-consciousness is consciousness of the other. And service is the best portal for gaining that consciousness.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And so, when it comes to consciousness of the other, I think that the questions that you ask yourself are powerful in terms of focusing your energies and your attentions onto something. Like, the brain just naturally wants to seek answers to questions posed, or like you told a story earlier, the brain seeks completion to a story that we wade into the middle of. Are there some internal questions that you recommend folks take on that have a natural way of pointing our consciousness to others?

Aaron Schmookler
The “What do you need in this moment?” is a really good one, which is different from, “What do you want?” because people will tell us what they want all day. It may not be what they need. It may not be what would really affect them. You can think about negotiations in medical malpractice situations where they’re saying, “We need $5 million,” and the negotiation goes back and forth, “Two-hundred thousand,” “No, 5 million,” “Okay, 300,000,” “No, 5 million.” And sometimes when you get the patient, the wronged patient away from their attorney, all they really need is an apology.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Aaron Schmookler
So, “What is it that you need?” is a great question. And if I may respond to your question in other ways, other than answering it, there are system of adeptablity, the “Got your back” culture that we’re talking about, we build on four principles. One, “Yay for failing,” that not, “Hey, isn’t it great that we failed.” In fact, we say failing rather than failure because failing is a fragile present progressive word. The only thing you need to do to break that verb is to pick yourself up and start working again. If you’re working then you’re not failing because you’re actually back in the trying stage.

So, it’s actually fantastic to have ambitions that you can’t easily accomplish, that’s how we grow. And also, being in an environment where “Yay for failing” is practiced. That’s a service in and of itself. To say “Yay for failing” to somebody else who’s maybe just fallen down is a service. To say, “Yay for failing” publicly is also a service because you create an environment where other people feel free to fail, and then get up.

By the way, I don’t mean to say that we should just wallow in it, but we should get up and keep working. So, we move from “Yay for failing” into “Be obvious,” which is about really being direct, really being clear, saying what has so far been unsaid, nothing goes without saying, and most importantly what’s obvious to you is not necessarily what’s obvious to me. There is no such thing as common sense.

And these are all questions also in a way, “What is the obvious thing to me? What may not be obvious to you? How do I create clarity? What are the things that have gone unsaid so far? What’s the elephant in the room?” And from there we say you really have to take in the information. This is what we were talking about earlier. You have to take in the information in order to have a relevant response.

Kodak refused to take in the information that digital was the way of photography’s future largely because they were attached to their film business. They made so much money on film and film processing that they couldn’t even imagine a reality in which film and film processing were going to be removed from the economy.

And then, lastly, “Yes and” which is something that you brought up, which is an incredibly advanced skill. And while it’s the most commonly known improv principle, it’s also the hardest because it’s hard to say yes to bad ideas, it’s hard to say yes to somebody who says on the phone, “You’re a bleepy bleep and your company is full of bleepy bleep bleep bleep. How dare you steal my money.” Saying, “Tell me more about that” is actually a “Yes and.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Without you having to explicitly say, “I agree, sir.”

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
“We are fraudulent, aren’t we?”

Aaron Schmookler
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Tell me more about that.” You’re saying, “I’m curious,” and we can build on that and without you feeling like you have betrayed something by giving something up.

Aaron Schmookler
That’s right. And, yes, also might take the form of, “I can understand how you would see it that way. And let me share how I see it.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, thank you. So, all right.

Aaron Schmookler
Sorry if that was too long a monologue. I noticed I was holding forth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we’re covering a lot of really great stuff here. And so then, I’m intrigued, when it comes to, it sounds like with regard to burnout that when you practice these things, you’re just naturally less exhausted because you’re not forcing it, you’re not faking it, serving is energizing just because it feels good to help people and make them feel good. So, any other tips when it comes to keeping the energy flowing? You got an interesting turn of a phrase about treating the workday like a workout. What does that mean here?

Aaron Schmookler
A lot of people come into work, and I have been this guy, and they go through the motions. And there’s actually, I think, nothing more burnout-inducing than just going through the motions, phoning it in, following procedure and protocol on autopilot. That we are beings, we humans, who aspire to growth. We are fed by growth. We are fed by accomplishment. And there’s nothing fulfilling about going in and just going through the motions.

There may be a few people out there who would love to be paid, I hear about folks whose jobs essentially don’t really exist. They go in, they’re paid, and there’s nothing that they are required to accomplish. And most people in that circumstance feel like they’re withering on the vine. And one of the great ways, I think, to feel as though you are working, growing, contributing every day is to come in and serve.

You cannot serve while going through the motions. You cannot serve while on autopilot. If you really are trying to serve the people in front of you, we people are incredibly dynamic, incredibly changeable, changing things, and so by serving we create the constant change of what it is that we need to accomplish and the ways in which we may need to accomplish it.

And if you really are committed to serving, when I am really committed to serving, I also run up against my own bull, the places where my ego really gets in my own way, the places where I have blind spots. And in my most intimate relationships are the places where I am most tempted to serve myself, where I’m most tempted, for example, to have arguments where I can watch myself saying, “I never did that,” or, “That’s not where I’m coming from,” even though I know that the truth is exactly what my wife, for example, is telling me it is, and my ego won’t let me tell the truth.

And so, that’s a place where if I am able to turn myself instead to service, that I get to grow, I get to feel accomplished, and, therefore, I get to feel alive. And, really, what is burnout but not feeling alive?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Aaron, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, man, we’re just scratching the surface, and that’s worth mentioning all by itself. We’re just scratching the surface. And the other thing is that we will serve best when we are generous with ourselves. I’m not suggesting that we go out and be selfless. I’m suggesting that we go out and serve. And sometimes that means that we need to turn off our cellphone, and go to the spa, go get a massage, go on a fly-fishing trip, as somebody I was talking to this morning is about to do in Alaska, to recharge.

And that serving of the self is sometimes required, is regularly required, frankly, in order to be able to serve others. And when we find the places where our conditioning, where our ego, where our habits interfere with our ability to be decent, to serve, to even be proud of ourselves rather than ashamed, well, I suggest that we’d be kind to ourselves.

I remember telling my mentor just a couple of weeks ago about a place that I was just like, “Man, I just don’t know why I keep doing this.” And she said, “Why do you judge it?” And it was so freeing to have her say that to me. And that gift that she gave me also made me more capable of addressing this gap in my own habit.

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

Aaron Schmookler
John Kennedy is reputed to have been walking through NASA and saw a janitor carrying his broom, and said something to the effect of, “What is it that you do here?” And this janitor turned to him and said, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Pete Mockaitis
Nice. Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Aaron Schmookler
Adam Grant in his one of his books cites some research about leaders, that leaders are more likely to receive input, receive ideas about how to solve a problem from their team if they have, first, tried to solve a problem themselves. And it doesn’t even have to be the same problem. But simply the fact of putting yourself into a problem-solving posture before hearing somebody else’s ideas makes us more receptive and less critical in that kind of nagging sense than we would be just hearing their suggestions cold.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. And a favorite book?

Aaron Schmookler
I’m going to have to give you two, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. The subtitle of that is “How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter.” And I’ll put in another quick quote here from Liz Wiseman, “At the apex of the intelligence hierarchy is the genius-maker not the genius.” And also, I love the The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle.

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

Aaron Schmookler
I have a headset made by Plantronics that allows me to hear and be heard on my phone better than anything while I am hands-free, even walking into a 10-mile per hour headwind. I love this thing. In fact, the couple of days when I could not find it, I went to Best Buy and bought another one just so I could use it that day, and then return it if and when I found the one that I had misplaced.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to hear the model number.

Aaron Schmookler
Let’s see. I think it’s 5200. It’s not there on the device but it’s got a little arm that comes out from your ear so that the microphone is near your mouth, and it’s wonderful. Nothing else that I’ve ever tried comes close.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Aaron Schmookler
“Tell me more about that,” hands down. We’ve already talked about it but saying that, particularly when I am inclined to dismiss the other person as irrelevant in some way, to say instead, “Tell me more about that,” hands down my favorite habit.

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

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the second fundamentals course in our series of three, the “Umbrella for that day.” It’s never about the thing, it’s always about the relationship, and the implications of that being whether you like it or not, people will come away from this interaction affected by you, and your future relationship with them will be affected by it as well. And that is much more lasting than whatever the transaction might have been about.

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

Aaron Schmookler
I am the only Aaron Schmookler on LinkedIn so you can find me there. And you can also find me at TheYesWorks.com. And you can hear my voice more, along with my guest, on the podcast Mighty Good Work.

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

Aaron Schmookler
Yeah, the next time you find yourself in that amygdala hijack where you feel the chemistry rising, where you are either getting fight-y or flighty, see if you can just remind yourself with one word “serve” and see what that does for you, and see if you can find a way to serve the other person even while your amygdala is tempting you to fight or to flee.

Pete Mockaitis
Aaron, this has been a treat. Thanks so much for sharing your time today and for listening for years. Keep up the great work.

Aaron Schmookler
Oh, Pete, I think you are a really excellent curator and contributor to this world of how to do work well, how to do great work, and how to be great doing it, so I’m glad you’re out there.

494: How to Train Your Brain for Maximum Growth with Dr. Tara Swart

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Dr. Tara Swart says: "Visualization...primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by."

Dr. Tara Swart explains the science behind neuroplasticity and how to train your brain to brave any challenge.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to use neuroscience to break out of your comfort zone
  2. The six approaches to problem solving
  3. Simple tricks to turn around terrible work days

About Tara:

Dr. Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach, and award-winning and bestselling author. She works with leaders all over the world to help them achieve mental resilience and peak brain performance, improve their ability to manage stress, regulate emotions, and retain information. She is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management where she runs the Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience programs, and is an executive advisor to some of the world’s most respected leaders in media and business.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Dr. Tara Swart Interview Transcript

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

Tara Swart
Pete, thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited about this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited too because neuroscience stuff is always super fascinating and you are at the forefront of some cool research and teaching at MIT and elsewhere. So, why don’t we kick it off, if you could share with us maybe one of the most fascinating or recent discoveries that’s come out of neuroscience?

Tara Swart
Sure. Well, the one that I focus most of my research on, because I think it’s the most fascinating, is about neuroplasticity. So, we used to think that by the age of 18, our brain had grown and changed and that our personality was pretty much set by that age. We know now that there’s massive growth from zero to two, that there’s a lot of pruning of neural connections in the teenage years, but that the brain actively molds and shapes itself to everything that we experience, every smell, every person that we meet, every emotion that we experience until we’re about 25.

And that from 25 to 65, we have to actively do things, learn new things, expose ourselves to different experiences to keep the brain as flexible, or what we call plastic, as possible. And if you start making some changes in your late 30s to early 40s, you can even contribute towards reducing the decline in some cognitive functions that starts to happen around the age of 70. So, when I first started understanding this really well, it just opened up a whole new world of what you’re capable of doing, and it turns around that whole idea of self-limiting beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I’m curious then, so if you’re over 65, what happens then?

Tara Swart
Well, I think that a lot of people worry about their memory changing and they think it’s like the first signs of dementia or something, and people get very stressed about that. And they focus on it. What actually happens from 65 onwards is that, sure, some of the pathways that relate to, for example, sequential memory, so the order of the things happening, they do change. But, actually, we have a more super sophisticated pathway to our wisdom and intuition. And my view is that we focus on our changing strengths and we access that wisdom and we outsource our sequential memory to our devices.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I already do that.

Tara Swart
Yeah, me, too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, neuroplasticity, I’ve heard the term before and people are really excited about it. And so, practically speaking, what does that mean for us? So, our brains are continuing to change shape and we can have some impact in how they’re changed. But so, practically, in terms of, I don’t know, skill-acquisition, or learning capabilities, what does that mean for us?

Tara Swart
There’s two main things, and I want to focus on the skill acquisition, actually. But I do want to say before that, that if we don’t think about neuroplasticity then our brain is being changed by things that we’re not conscious of and, personally, that’s not something that I would really like to happen. So, I’m very conscious of what I watch on the TV, what I read in the news, who I hang around with because I’m just so aware that all of those things will be having an effect on my brain.

That aside, in terms of proactively bringing change and flexibility into your brain, it’s really about continually learning, well, learning and/or exposing yourself to new things. And the reason for that is that change will happen around us, and some people can find that really stressful, and some people seem to ride that change more easily. The more that we’ve done to introduce change and, therefore, inoculate ourselves against the stress of change, the more easily we’ll be able to deal with those things that can come from left field both at work and in life.

Equally, things like learning a new skill, and my favorite analogy for this is learning a new language. It’s a physiological process in the brain like building a road from a dirt road into a highway, a tarmac highway that you can speed down. That’s basically starting to learn a language where you have a few words when you go on vacation, all the way up to becoming fluent in Spanish, if that’s the language that you choose.

And what I really love about it is that the language thing is easy to understand. Yes, if I use an app or I get lessons, I can learn a language. It applies to things like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, things that seem much more intangible but when neuroscience tells us it’s exactly the same process in the brain, it feels much more doable for people.

Pete Mockaitis
And I want to hear some more about what you said, you said if we are introducing changes, then we become more resilient to unexpected stressors and things that happen to us. What’s the story here?

Tara Swart
Basically, anything new or anything different is seen as a threat by the brain, so the more that we are proactively introducing our brain to new and different things, the less stressful it will be when something happens at work or in life that comes from left field that we didn’t expect. So, we’re essentially increasing our comfort zone with new and different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great and handy. Now, I’m wondering, can we overdo it in terms of we become sort of like addicted to the novelty and, “I need to be entertained and have new inputs all the time or I’m sort of like unsettled and anxious”?

Tara Swart
That’s a really good point, and I think sometimes what is an issue here is a set of words that we use in neuroscience and how they translate to real words. So, for example, when I say, “You want to make your brain more plastic,” people can take offence at that because we don’t want plastic in the ocean, do we? We definitely don’t want it in our brains. That just means flexible in neuroscience.

And similarly, novelty is not that unhealthy novelty that you’re talking about that we can get addicted to just constant stimulation. It’s just about the way the brain views something new or different. So, we prefer to be in our comfort zone, we prefer to default to our strengths, and it’s really about just pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and increasing the toolkit that we have in our brain for different ways of thinking and different things that we’re able to do. So, that’s what I mean by novelty in this sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Got you. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, are there some cool studies that suggest just what is the impact of habitually doing that versus not? Sort of what’s at stake or the consequences here?

Tara Swart
I think what’s at stake is really just staying the same, and then something happening that you didn’t expect, and us finding that really, really difficult to cope with, and us having to draw up deep on resources that we didn’t know we had. What we’re doing if we take on new learning throughout our lives, like a language or a musical instrument, or just listening in a different way to how we’ve been listening before, is that the brain is more like moldable material so that when something suddenly changes around us that we didn’t expect, we actually know what that feels like and we’re able to go with that more easily.

And, actually, it starts from birth. If you’ve got young kids, bringing them up bilingual or multilingual is one of the best things that you can do for what we call their executive functions later in life. So, executive functions are things like being able to regulate your emotions especially in stressful situations, being able to think flexibly or creatively, and being able to solve complex problems.

There are studies that show that children who are brought up bilingual are better at that later in life. So, we’re not going to get the same benefits as starting bilingual from birth if we haven’t got that already, but we’re trying to emulate that in our adult brain.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, some things are connecting here. We talk about executive functioning and our ability to have a plastic or flexible brain for stuff that shows up. We had a chat previously with the CEO of Korn Ferry, Gary Burnison, who talked about how learning agility was like the top thing in terms of a competency that predicts executive success, and there’s a few ways you could find learning agility. But it sounds like it’s very much in this ballpark of, “How do you figure out what to do when you have no idea what to do?” It’s sort of like there’s no script or playbook, you’re in a new situation and you just kind of got to figure it out.

And so, if you have, in a way, gotten some comfort with being uncomfortable and not having a clue, but having kind of gotten it figured out time and time again, you’re better equipped to handle it again when the next thing happens.

Tara Swart
What I love about your podcast series is listening to these perspectives from people from all different industries and backgrounds. So, if you’d asked me the same question, I would’ve said the ability to adapt, to be adaptable, and have mental resilience, which is either to cope with change or bounce back from adversity. And, to be honest, I think he’s just using a different word for exactly the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, so that’s exciting and I know I’ve had that experience. I’m thinking about sort of my early consulting career, like I had no idea, “Hey, Pete, figure this out.” Like, I don’t know. I just don’t even know where to start, and then I’d say, “Well, I guess it might make sense if we check out this and this and this.” And before I knew it, I had a decent plan. And then you do that dozens of times and it’s okay. It’s like, “Yeah, I have no idea what we’re going to do next, but history and my experience has taught me that that’s fine. That, through time, we will get to the bottom of things and all is well.”

Tara Swart
Pete, that already tells me a lot about your brain because if you think about somebody who relies solely or strongly on logical thinking, they could really struggle in that scenario. Ask somebody who relies solely or strongly on creative thinking or motivational thinking, what you’ve done is actually it comes back to the learning agility piece, which I call brain agility, is you have probably seamlessly worked through several different ways of thinking because you know that one of them will give you a solution even to something that you don’t know.

So, logic relies on things that we know and that we’ve learnt formally. Intuition relies on wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life. But there’s also empathy, there’s the brain-body connection, there’s staying resilient and motivated, and there’s creative thinking. So, if you’re able to work through those, at least, six different ways of solving a problem, you’re so much more likely to come up with a solution than if you’re just relying on one or two main ways of thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like how you’ve laid out a bit of a framework there. Can you give us those quick six bullet points there in terms of we might approach a problem six different ways? Can we hear them again?

Tara Swart
Yeah. And I actually like to put them in a certain order because I believe that logical-technical thinking is so overrated in modern societies. So, obviously it’s there and it’s important, but I like to start at the top, mastering our emotions because, to be honest, if you get too emotional or you don’t understand the impact of emotion in a crisis situation, that can really unravel you.

So, I would say that the six are mastering your emotions, trusting your gut or your intuition, listening to your body, making good decisions which is the logic, staying motivated and resilient to reach your goals, and using your creativity to design the real-world outcomes that you wish to have.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when it comes to tackling or solving a problem, it might fall into any of these or all of these is kind of sounds what you’re suggesting, is that some are more… line up readily with one of them, and others you really want to take maybe a multifaceted approach to get to the bottom of them. Can you tell us a bit about the distinction between trusting your gut and intuition versus listening to your body?

Tara Swart
Yeah, sure. So, listening to your body is actually a sense that we have that not many people have heard of which is called interoception. So, just like the five senses that we all know about, and even that sixth sense, intuition, which we’ll come to, interoception is the acknowledgement of the physiological state of the inside of your body.

It’s how, for example, our kids learn to tell us when they’re hungry or when they need to go to the bathroom. So, you recognize a feeling that you need to go to the bathroom. This is about recognizing slightly more intangible feelings like butterflies in your stomach, or the little hairs on your arms standing on end, or nervous laughter, or blushing, or sweating. So, it’s just being much more aware of our bodies than we can be when we’re super busy and focused on an important deadline.

Intuition, separately, is accessing wisdom and life lessons that we’ve picked up. So, more of a combination of physical and emotional feeling, what we know about how we lay down information in the brain and the nervous system is that we keep at the top of our mind or in the article or text the things that we need to do to live our life and do our job every day. And that’s commonly known as the working memory. Deeper down in the more limbic part of the brain, which is the emotional and intuitive system, are our longer-held habits and behavior patterns.

Deeper still, we believe, in the brain stem, the spinal cord, and in the gut neurons, we hold the wisdom and experience that we’ve picked up in life, because we can’t remember every single thing that we’ve experienced in life, but obviously we learn from these experiences. And that’s how we see patterns where, perhaps when we were younger and less experienced, we wouldn’t have noticed them before. So, it’s more about recalling patterns from the past that you’ve built up through life experience. Whereas the listening to your body is very visceral.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good. Thank you. And so then, I’m curious, with what we’re picking up from our bodies, what are some, I guess, if this then that, like almost recipes with regard to, “If you’re noticing that something is twitching or your hairs are standing up, you might intuit or take from that sort of this signal”?

Tara Swart
There are some really specific ones and I think there are some that are very much down to the individual. But one that I actually talk about a lot with my coaching clients is about how to recognize magnesium deficiency in the body. So, statistics show that 75% of people in the modern world are depleted in magnesium supplies in their body.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Tara Swart
No.

Pete Mockaitis
And that is harming our sleep, I’ve learned elsewhere.

Tara Swart
It’s harming our immune system and it’s increasing our stress levels. It has wide-ranging effects. When we’re stressed, we leach magnesium from our system. So, a little bit like if you’re training for a marathon, you would eat more protein. When we’re stressed, we need to supplement our magnesium levels.

Now, how do you know if you’ve got high levels of this stress hormone or low levels of magnesium, they tend to go together? A really, really obvious way of knowing is if you ever get that little twitchy eyelid or tiny little, yeah. Whenever I say that, everyone says, “Yes, I know what that feels like, and I get it sometimes.”

Sometimes it can be cramping in your feet or just twitches in your fingers or toes but that’s quite a solid sign of magnesium deficiency, and many people wouldn’t know that. But if you do know, you can go and take your magnesium supplement and, hopefully, reduce your stress levels and stop the negative consequences of that on your immune system and your resilience.

An extreme one, to be honest, Pete, is that I’ve done a lot of coaching in financial services since 2007, and I’ve worked with way too many people that said, “Yes, I was getting chest pains for months but I never thought I would have a heart attack.” And I’ve worked with men and women in their 40s to 60s that have had mild heart attacks or tragically people who’ve seen their colleagues drop dead on trading floors.

So, that’s the extreme version of not listening to your body, but there are so many smaller things that we can listen to, whether it’s that we’re not sleeping right, or we’ve got these twitching muscles, all the way down to just, “Do you feel drained when you spend time with a certain person? Do you feel energized when you work on a certain project?” and really using that to choose what you do and who you do it with.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Thank you. And so then, I want to get your take then. So, this sounds great with regard to we’ve got a number of approaches we can take to solve a problem, our brains have neuroplasticity, that capability. So, if we want to do some smart rewiring of our brain and thinking, how should we go about doing it? We talked about like a language, or a musical instrument, or some other novelty that we can pursue. But I’m wondering, what are some of the obstacles or things, best and worst practices, I guess, when it comes to making sure we’re molding this plastic brain?

Tara Swart
So, I think it’s really important to say that something like learning a language or a musical instrument is very attention-intense. So, it’s inevitably going to distract resources from the day job or your work-life balance. So, I only really recommend something that major when you absolutely have the time and space to bring those things into your life. There are lots of small things we can do even when we’re stressed or busy that really help towards cultivating this more flexible brain and mindset.

So, for example, journaling is a very simple practice, something that hopefully most people could fit in a few minutes most days of the week. And what that does is really raise from non-conscious to conscious any behavior patterns that might be barriers to your success. I have to say that when I’ve done a regular journaling practice, which I have spent six months or a year at different times doing it religiously, I don’t necessarily always do that now, and I’ve read back over three to six months-worth of what I’ve written, it’s quite shocking to see your own handwriting and your own thought processes repeating over and over again where you totally expect a different outcome from doing the same thing.

And we’ve all heard about this, but when you actually see it in your own handwriting, you are compelled to try to do something different in the future. And, therefore, it’s actually a really good way of accessing your intuition and seeing where it works when you go with your gut and maybe where that was not the right thing to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, can you give us some examples of, in your own journals or those of others you’re aware of, how they said, “Holy smokes, this is there and I didn’t even notice it before. I’m going to do something different now”?

Tara Swart
Yeah. So, I’ll give you a small example of my own from something we’ve already talked about which was that twice a year I go to MIT Sloan to teach and I often take my journal with me because I have more time there, I’m not with the family and everything. And I was journaling, and then I thought, “Oh, I wonder what I wrote when I was here six months ago?”

So, I looked back specifically to the time that I was in Boston, and I had recorded that I was having that twitching eyelid, and I was actually having it again at the time. And so, I worked out that travel, jetlag, just being in the plane, just being in a different environment, was causing me some stress. And so, I just became much better at making sure I took all my supplements before I traveled, carrying my supplements with me, and just increasing the dosage of magnesium whenever I was traveling. That’s a tiny thing.

I would say at the other end of the spectrum, the biggest thing I’ve heard clients and friends talk about is when you’ve been in a bad relationship for so long that you still don’t leave. And when you just think about it in your mind, it’s easy to disregard that you have the same nagging doubt over and over again. If you actually recorded in writing, it becomes just so much clear. It’s really raised in your consciousness. And I know that it’s helped so many people to not make that same mistake over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think the same thing can go when I need to fire somebody, which fortunately is rare. But it’s sort of like all those little things, like, “Huh, this is weird.” It’s like, well, you know, you can sort of make a quick excuse or rationalization or justification in the moment for a one little thing, and you sort of forget that you did that before, and then before that, and then before that. Whereas if you had a log, it’s like, “Wow, we have 50 incidents of this and many of them following the same patterns and many of them we’ve discussed numerous times. I guess this isn’t going to go anywhere.”

Tara Swart
Absolutely. When I talk about a bad relationship, I mean, either personally or at work, also bad relationships with yourself, so, for example, alcohol is an obvious one. But if you want to get more psychological, then the inability to say no is one that hugely gets clarified by journaling.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say journaling in your own hand, this has come up a couple of times, are you a big advocate for using handwriting as oppose to digital means? And why?

Tara Swart
I am and I’m not. I mean, I would rather that people were journaling digitally than not journaling at all, if you see what I mean. I think I’m probably just of the age group where there’s something to the handwritten or we might talk later about vision boards where I say it’s a collage made by hand, but obviously you can now do it digitally. So, again, it’s better to do it than not do it.

I’m a huge fan of technology but I do think, for example, that if you create a vision board and you keep it on your device, you would just less likely to look at it than if you actually have a physical vision board in your bedroom or in your office.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk a little bit about visualization in particular. So, I want to get your take on what’s that doing to our brain and the effects we might be able to harness from it.

Tara Swart
So, you know how we talked about anything new being sort of threating to the brain. What visualization does is it makes you go through a scenario or imagine a certain event or an outcome, and because when you visualize it, when something similar happens in real life it’s not as threatening because you’ve already seen it in your brain.

Now, there’s various bits of research on visualization in the brain, there’s so many that I’m actually just wondering I’d love to get through them all. But, for example, if somebody is in a coma and you ask them to imagine playing tennis, it actually activates the parts of the brain which are active when somebody is physically playing tennis. So, the whole movement parts, the hand-eye coordination, the social elements, it actually activates, just visualizing it, even if you’re in a coma, activates similar parts of the brain.

We also know that just the act of knowing that something is possible, which is half won by visualizing it in your brain, makes it more likely that you can physically achieve it. So, visualization really comes originally from sports science. And the classic example there is of a human running the sub four-minute mile. So, at one point we did not believe that that was not physically possible. When Roger Bannister first ran a mile in less than four minutes, within two months, seven other athletes ran a mile in less than four minutes. So, that’s not quite visualization for yourself, but it’s knowing that something is possible. makes you able to achieve it. And that’s kind of what visualization relies on.

My favorite story about visualization is a study that was done on people in their 80s. So, three groups of octogenarians, one group was just asked to carry on living like normal for a week, they were the control group, one group were asked to reminisce about what it was like to be in your 60s, and one group were actually moved to homes that resembled their home 20 years ago. They had photos in the home of themselves 20 years ago, and they had their visual aids and walking aids removed if they weren’t something that they used 20 years ago.

Both the reminiscing group and the active group showed improvements in their visual acuity and muscular-skeletal coordination after one week. And the reminiscing group results weren’t as dramatic as the people that actually lived it, but they were quite significant in themselves. So, there’s just so many examples of what people don’t traditionally think of as visualization.

But just tying it back to where we started, I actually call a vision board an action board because it’s not that you can make imagery of what you want in life and just wait for it to come true, you have to actively do things to make that more likely. But one of those things is to look at this board and visualize it actually becoming true.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, if we are going to do some visualizations for a goal, let’s just say someone wants to be promoted to a leadership position in their company. So, if that’s the goal and we want to do some visualization, how might we go about doing that optimally?

Tara Swart
So, there are actually some exercises in the book that focus on becoming our best selves as it were. If you specifically wanted to focus on getting a promotion, then, although I call it visualization, I would say that bringing in all the other senses is important. So, it’s literally like doing meditation. You would spend a certain number of minutes as frequently as you can during the week, you could even start with one minute and build it up to five or 10, or 15 minutes, and you would imagine yourself in that corner office, wearing that suit or whatever represents you reaching that leadership position, and you would visualize who’s around you, what does it look like to be in that position, what does it feel like in your body and in your mind, what does it smell like, even what does it taste like, like the taste of success.

And you would basically envision it until you can almost feel it through your five senses and in your body, and you would build up that practice, as I’ve said, to longer and longer periods of time so that, for example, when you go for a job interview, it doesn’t feel so alien. One of the things that I encourage, from neuroscience research, is apply for jobs that you don’t even think that you could get, even if you get a bit more interview experience so you get more advice on your resume. It’s all building up to it becoming more likely in the future. Essentially, what visualization does is it primes your brain to grasp opportunities that might otherwise pass you by.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s nicely said. And when you say longer and longer periods of time, how long are we talking?

Tara Swart
Actually, the latest research on meditation shows that transcendental meditation for 20 minutes twice a day is really ideal. So, that’s not actually that long. I mean, I’m still building up to that myself. I’m not going to sit here and say that I am meditating for 20 minutes twice a day because I’m not. Although I would say more and more of my clients are actually doing that now.

So, I think if you start with 10 minutes, you try to do it most days of the week, you get yourself to daily, you either do 10 minutes twice a day or you increase it to 20 minutes once a day, it’s literally building that pathway in your brain from the dirt road to the highway. It’s just smoothing the path, deliberately practice something, repeating it until it becomes more natural in your brain.

And then, with both meditation and visualization, you can just switch it on when you need it. That’s the lovely thing about things like journaling and visualization, that if you get the foundations right, it actually becomes like a superpower that you can use when you need it.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say transcendental meditation, is that something other than what I’m thinking of when I think of meditation, focusing on breath and such?

Tara Swart
Transcendental meditation specifically means use of a mantra. It’s a religious practice that you can be ordained into, but in terms of remaining secular and focusing on leadership and business, I ask people to think about a recurring insecurity or anxiety that they have, like, “I’ll never get that promotion,” and to create their own positive affirmation that overturns that insecurity. And then you can use that in your meditation.

So, even if you just use it when you have that negative thought in your head or you sit down and repeat it for 10 to 20 minutes, either way it works. I think creating that personal mantra, you can go and receive a mantra from somebody else but I think a really good way for leaders to use is think, “Okay, what’s the insecurity that holds me back?” And then to create a mantra that helps to reframe that.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the mantra could be, “I am fully capable of doing that job.”

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, is it just that simple, something like that?

Tara Swart
Just literally that simple. Whatever works for you in your words. So, just what you’ve said, every one of your listeners could go and just tweak that for their own wording and what really means something to them and use that to set a mantra, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I want to also get your take on… so you’ve got some pro tips, I understand, for if you’re having a bad day, you’re not feeling it, you’re tired, you’re grouchy, you’re irritable, you’d rather just be in bed. What can we do to turn things around in a hurry?

Tara Swart
Okay. Well, ideally, you would make sure that you’re well-rested and well-fed and hydrated, and that you have a regular meditation practice. But on a day that maybe you haven’t been doing all of those things, I tend to run through a list of things that usually kind of time-sensitive, and think, “Okay, I’m feeling tired and grouchy, and this day is not going how I want it to. Do I have time to drink a glass of water?” Usually, that’s a yes. “Do I have time to do 10 minutes of meditation?” That might be a yes, it might not. So, if you don’t, maybe you could just do a quick positive affirmation.

If you have more time, “Do I have time to go outside for a walk or a run?” Oxygen is one of the major resources for our brain and our thinking. If we have more time, “Do I have time for a nap?” That’s usually a no. But let’s say you have a really important interview coming up and you did actually have the afternoon at home to prepare for it, if you’re super tired, if you actually haven’t slept, and that might be a really good thing to do. Again, this is very individualized.

Do you just use caffeine? I don’t recommend drinking too much caffeine or having any caffeine later in the day, but if you’ve got an important meeting or interview, you might want to have a shot of caffeine just for that temporary boost. If you’re looking longer term than that, then things like eating blueberries, having a spoonful of MCT oil or coconut oil are short-term things that we can do to boost our brain. Ideally, we’d be doing those things longer term, keeping our brain in ideal physical condition to really draw on our mental resources.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that idea of how much time do you have and just sort of having the lineup of these things. And it seems like there probably, again, some universals for all people that are good to do. And then I imagine some particulars with regard to, “Oh, boy, if I listen to whatever music, then I am raring to go.” So, I’d imagine there are some real benefit into taking some time to write up your own, “What’s my one-minute, five-minute, 10-minute sort of hitlists?”

Tara Swart
Music is a really good one so I’m pleased that you mentioned that because I forgot to, and I also agree with writing up the list. So, for some things, I’ve been writing a list for so long that I don’t need the list anymore. But, at first, I had a list of positive statements when I needed that boost. I had a list of accomplishments for when I needed a slightly longer term, “Yes, I can go for that promotion,” kind of self-project that you might work on.

Doing a gratitude list or something that can really like reframe you into more positive thinking. So, keeping these lists so that if your energy is really low, you can just go to the list. You don’t actually have to think it all up yourself is a really good idea. And whether it’s eat a square of dark chocolate, speak to a friend, listen to some music, you’re absolutely right, all of those things can work for different people, and you need to know what the right things are for you and the right timescales.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, sometimes what I like to do is, usually Twitter is no good, but there’s this account You Had One Job which just is ridiculously hilarious, I think, in terms of like people doing road signs just wildly incorrectly, or mislabeling things. It just pushes all my right buttons and so fast, it’s sort of like, “Oh, there’s a joke. Ha-ha. Oh, there’s another one. Ha-ha. There’s another one.” And then it’s like, “Okay, well, that was good for three minutes,” and I’m back to something. And I’m now had a lot of laughing going on.

Tara Swart
I love the way that you keep intuitively hitting on these things that are backed up by neuroscience because humor actually has a massive effect on the brain. So, even if just using this by yourself, looking at Twitter and laughing to yourself has a good effect on the brain, but actually laughing with somebody else.

So, imagine you’re in just one of those tricky tense situations at work, shared humor has a really positive impact on the brain in terms of bonding, lowering our guard, making us more likely to collaborate. So, each of the things that we’ve talked about apply not just to ourselves, also in terms of how do you positively impact someone else’s brain.

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

Tara Swart
I would say, we talked a little bit about what if you’re tired and grumpy, which, of course, we all have those days. I think that another really important area of research from neuroscience is around sleep. And. as a neuroscientist, I do find it quite disheartening that there are still high-profile leaders that will say, “I only sleep four or five hours a night,” just because of the impact that has on so many other people that feel that maybe they should do the same.

There’s a Nobel Prize-winning research now that shows that there’s a specific cleansing system in the brain called the glymphatic system that needs seven to eight hours to work. It needs seven to eight hours uninterrupted overnight. And that goes together with the stats that 98% to 99% of humans need to sleep for seven to nine hours per night. I think we’ve always wondered, “Why do spend so long sleeping?” And neuroscience really is giving some answers to that.

Obviously, I’d been a junior doctor, I travel a lot so I’m often jetlagged, and I don’t want people to suddenly think, “Oh, my God, I’m going to get dementia,” because that’s what the research shows if we disrupt that cleansing process regularly over our lives that it’s causally related to the onset of dementia later in life.

I just try to get eight hours of good-quality sleep as often as I can. If my sleep is disturbed, or jetlagged, or other reasons, I take the opportunity to turn myself onto my left or right side because that’s the most efficient sleeping position for that cleansing process to work. So, to me, sleep has loomed larger in important space on the research that we’re seeing coming out.

Pete Mockaitis
Wait. So, this is interesting. You’re saying that if we’re sleeping or just lying down on the side as oppose to on our back or on our belly, we’re getting more brain cleansing?

Tara Swart
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Huh! Oh, I never knew that. Thank you. And I am into sleep, so that is cool.

Tara Swart
It was my challenge to come up with something that you haven’t heard about, Pete.

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

Tara Swart
The one that I find myself using the most is an Alvin Toffler quote, which is, “The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who can’t read and write, it will be those who can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn.” And, of course, this connects back very strongly to what we were talking about that logical-technical skills alone are not enough, that we need that brain agility and we need that neuroplasticity. So, it’s such an old quote that just applies so beautifully to the cutting-edge neuroscience.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research that you haven’t already mentioned here?

Tara Swart
Well, I think my favorite research is that research on the people in their 80s, but my second favorite piece of research is actually done on rats. It shows three groups of rats. One group that were kept in a confined space, which equates to having a sedentary job, one group that were forced to run on a treadmill for certain number of minutes or hours a day, which is the sedentary job person that drags himself to the gym at the end of the day, and one group were allowed to roam around freely during the day and do various types of exercise whenever they wanted to for as long as they wanted to. And that equates to the person who is mobile during the day and then, at some times, does exercise that they’ve chosen that they enjoy.

And we do see a differential effect in the brain when you do exercise that you enjoy. So, there’s two lessons here really. One is to not be sedentary. And if you don’t do any formal exercise, then just being mobile as much as possible is really important. Those two groups of rats, the two that exercised, they both got the benefits of oxygenation in the brain, but the voluntary exercise group released more of a growth factor in the brain called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. And that factor leads to not only connection of existing neurons in the brain but actually growth of new neurons in the brain. So, that’s a very exciting latest part to the neuroplasticity research.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Tara Swart
Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson. I return to that book every time I have a big dilemma or unanswered question in my life because it uses metaphor. It always just seems to apply to everything.

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

Tara Swart
Definitely mindfulness meditation.

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

Tara Swart
I would say that psychology having informed business and leadership for so long left some things like emotional intelligence as very intangible. The analogy that I use from neuroscience of learning a language, or building a pathway in your brain for any scale, like even intangible scales like emotional intelligence or mental resilience, that is a thing that people have come back to me and said, “Once you put it to me like it was building a pathway in my brain, and you gave me the steps that I had to do to build that pathway, I felt like I could do it.”

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

Tara Swart
Well, I’m very active on social media, so on Twitter @TaraSwart, and on Instagram @drtaraswart with D-R as the doctor. Yeah, I try to put lots of neuroscience-based facts and images out on those channels. And my book is available on Amazon and at all major retailers so, hopefully, you’ve enjoyed it and, as you know, there are many exercises in the book. I really do think that we need to take the time to step back and do those sort of self-development exercises.

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

Tara Swart
Yeah, I would say try to change 10 things by 1% rather than trying to change one big thing. So, go to bed half an hour earlier, walk around a bit more during the day, make whatever tweaks to your diet you know that you need to make, read a new book. Just pick 10 quick things, write them down, and just work through them over time. You’ll find much more cumulative effects and being awesome at your job than if you try to take on one big challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Tara, thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck in all the cool ways you’re molding your brain.

Tara Swart
Thank you so much. I hope you mold your brain too.

493: How to Amplify Your Impact through Great Presence with Anese Cavanaugh

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Anese Cavanaugh shares how to create more meaningful impact by being more present and intentional at work.

 

You’ll Learn:

  1. The cost of contagious negative energy at work
  2. The 4 Ps to lead you away from burnout
  3. The Leadership Trifecta of impact, self-care, and, people-care

About Anese

Anese Cavanaugh is devoted to helping people show up and bring their best selves to the table in order to create significant positive impact in their lives. She is the creator of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®), an advisor and thinking partner to leaders and organizations around the world, and author of Contagious Culture. Her next book, Contagious You: Unlock Your Power to Influence, Lead, and Create the Impact You Want (McGraw-Hill) will be available November 2019.

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Anese Cavanaugh Interview Transcript

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Thank you for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, first, I want to hear, you mentioned that you have an addiction for rescuing dogs. What’s the story here?

Anese Cavanaugh
I do. I have an addiction. I have got it under control and I haven’t rescued one in about five years now and it used to start with goldfish. I would take my daughter in to get a goldfish, and they would be showcasing dogs from the Humane Society or from the local shelter, and before we knew it, instead of walking out with a goldfish, we would walk out with one or two dogs. I just had this amazing inability to say no to bringing home a homeless dog. So, I’ve rescued five of them.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, is that the Sara McLachlan song with the commercial and the sad-looking dog? That’s what I’m imagining right now.

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, probably. The last one, you know, it’s funny I’m down to one because they’ve either passed on or my sister adopted one of them because she fell in love with him. But I’m down to my last puppy, or my last dog, he’s about 12 years old now, and he’s a little dog, and I’m not really a little dog person, but he gave me that look, that sad look, and I’ve probably heard the Sara McLachlan song in the back. I’m sure they probably channeled it in really unconsciously so you can adopt them even easier. But, yeah, he came home with me. His name is Link and he’s laying under the table right now.

Pete Mockaitis
Link makes me think of the Nintendo game. Or is that from another source?

Anese Cavanaugh
No, that’s exactly it. Nice catch.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yes, The Legend of Zelda, correct.

Pete Mockaitis
Doo-doo-doo-doo, yeah.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, my kids named him. My kids said, “Mom, he was rescued by the princess and became a very good person so he should be named Link.” And I was like, “Okay, you had me at hello with that one.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. If you’re the princess in the story, that’s nice.

Anese Cavanaugh
Right. I get to be the queen. I get to be the princess or the queen. I can’t really remember. It was quite a while ago but, yeah, he’s been great.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of your wisdom here. And so, you’ve got a column called “Showing Up” on Inc.com and we’re going to use this phrase, I think, a lot so it might be handy if we find what do you mean by “show up”?

When you say show up, I’m imagining, “Hey, I’ve got an appointment at 2:30,” and then the person appears at 2:30 so they have shown up. And so, it sounds like you’re using a different usage.

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, I think that’s definitely important. I would add to that if I showed up on time for my 2:30 meeting, that’s great. And am I showing up, present? Am I showing up well-fueled? Or exhausted? Like, what is the energy I’m actually bringing to that?

Are we showing up in a way that creates more energy and is positively contagious? Or are we showing up in a way that is, going through the motions?

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what does it mean to not show up?
The contrast, the distinction.

Anese Cavanaugh
I love this question. I don’t think anybody has ever asked it to me this way. Okay, so if I’ve not shown up it means I’m not taking care of myself. It means I haven’t done my preparation for whatever meeting I’m walking into. It means that when I want to say something and I’m sitting in that meeting, and I have an idea, or I really want to chime in about something, and I don’t because I’m scared, that means I’m not showing up.

I think, for me, in the work that I do with people, when I look at showing up, the biggest place I see people don’t show up is in their own self-care and nourishment so that they can show up fully resourced.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it sounds like showing up then is sort of like your preparedness and contribution. It’s like what you have to offer presently within you. And so, you might have plenty or you might have sort of a poverty.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think it’s also showing up in that moment. If I’m in conversation with you, Pete, if you and I are standing there, we’re in a meeting, or in this conversation right now, there’s the showing up that I did before which is to review, to think about some of the questions, or to think about this conversation. I’m well-fueled, I’ve eaten well, I took care of myself beforehand, I had a moment to do kind of a presence reboot and just get here and present to this conversation.

“What is the energy I’m bringing to this conversation?” Because you and I could have this conversation and I could be incredibly not present, I could be totally checked out, I could be thinking about what I’m going to do right after we talk. I could be stressing out about something that happened right before we got on the call. Am I actually here, present, intentional and really being with you in this conversation?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess what’s interesting here is that the word showing up seems to have a couple different dimensions there in terms of physically being present, like you have appeared at the scheduled time, as well as having more to contribute because you’re energized, you’re prepared, you’re present as opposed to, I guess, maybe the opposite, as I think about it, would be sort of like you’re checked out, like you’re not really all the way there.

And it’s sort of like when I was in grade school, I was so annoyed when many people would say, “Earth to Peter! Hello? Is anybody there?” It was like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s annoying.” But it’s kind of like in anything you do that is the opposite of warranting that response kind of fall into the category of showing up it sounds like.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, and I love it how we’re pulling this apart.

Pete Mockaitis
So, with that present and established, you also talk about being a contagious you or establishing a contagious culture. What do you mean by contagious and what makes something contagious?

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay, great. So, contagious, if you look it up in the dictionary, there are two different definitions if you go textbook in the dictionary. One is contagious being that you’re spreading disease or something from person to person. The other is actually spreading the contagion of emotions and attitudes from person to person. So, I look at it kind of as both because I look at if we are bringing negative vibes, negative intentions, negative energy into a conversation, it’s very, very easy to match, like, what I call the lowest vibration in the room. It’s very easy to match each other’s emotions.

And so, there’s a way that in any interaction we’re in, we are contagious. Anybody who listens to this has had the experience of walking into a room, maybe it’s a meeting and they’re feeling really, really good and they’re excited to be there, and they walk in and they sit down, and within about a minute or two, they start to notice that the energy of the room is dipping. And if they look around, a lot of times it’s that one guy in the corner, I always call them George or Georgette, it’s that one person in the corner who their energy is really low, their sitting there, their arms are crossed, maybe they’re complaining, or whatever it might be.

And, typically speaking, it’s easier to match the lowest vibration in the room, it’s easier to catch it. So, this whole idea of contagious is that we walk around emoting and putting energy out into the world, and whatever we’re putting out there, it is very easy for us to either have other people catch it or for us to catch other people’s stuff. So, that’s why we’re contagious.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And I remember we had Michelle Gielan on the show some time ago talking about broadcasting happiness and how there’s all sorts of science associated with how that unfolds. Could you maybe share with us some of the surprising or fascinating discoveries you’ve made in the research here?

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah. So, okay, great. So, with Contagious Culture, that was that first book that I wrote which was about basically how everybody thinks that culture is happening around us, it’s everybody else’s, the executives create the culture, everybody else creates a culture. But what I found in that book was that, actually, every single one of us is creating the culture by how we’re showing up, just what we’ve been talking about here.

When I moved into Contagious You, I took it even deeper and I really wanted to explore the science, so I actually had a neuroscientist work with me on Chapter 8 which is called “The Science of Showing Up,” and we dug into, like, “What’s actually happening?” So, for example, we see there was a study done in Princeton where when we see another person, we decide within a tenth of a second if we like them, if we think they’re trustworthy, if they’re competent, how aggressive they are, like all these different things that we’re sorting for within a tenth of a second just based upon what’s happening in our brain and our intuition. So, that was one thing I thought was interesting.

The other piece was actually happening with mere neurons when we’re seeing people and how we’re responding to what they’re projecting, how we decide to take that on or not take that on. So, there’s a lot that I went into in that, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so I’m curious then in terms of the practical beneficial application of some of this. Could you maybe give us a story or a case study of how someone sort of grab onto these principles and had a cool transformation?

Anese Cavanaugh
I think the first one that comes to mind was a person I worked with who was super, super smart, very, very good at his job, incredibly talented, but he was having a hard time with trust and credibility with the team. He was just having a hard time motivating his team.
But, basically, he was confused because he wanted to move in his career but he couldn’t. He was doing everything “right” but what it really boiled down to was his presence and how he was showing up with the team. So, things that we found were: he had a pretty strong lack of what I call personal impeccability, which is our relationship with ourselves, which means how we are in terms of time integrity.

So, for example, with this guy, what I noticed is he would show up late for every single meeting we had. So, here’s this really, really brilliant guy, super nice, doing a good job, works for a real cool company, every single conversation that we have he shows about two to four minutes late. So, that’s one leak in impeccability. And when I look at leadership credibility, that even though that two to four minutes might not seem like a big deal, it is creating an impact for the people that we’re in a relationship with.

The other thing that was happening for him is that he was using language that wasn’t very, very strong language. So, he would use words like try, and hope, and have to, and he was really, really big on using busy, the word busy, and he would always talk about, “I’m so busy.” He’d get on a call and he’d go, “Oh, gosh, I’m so busy.” And he’d walk to his team, and, “Oh, gosh, I’m so busy and I’m late because I’m so busy and all this stuff.”

And so, that, even though these are like little, little things, in the bigger picture, no matter how great his skills were or his abilities, the way that he was showing up, the language that he was using, and then his lack of internal integrity with himself, that was getting communicated in a way that people weren’t trusting him. So, this is the problem with his team.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you say internal integrity with himself. What do you mean there?

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, internal integrity, so, for example, if I say that I want to be a really good leader and I want to build trust with my team, and then I’m late to every meeting, and I make excuses for it, there’s a way that my integrity is out of alignment. If I say that I want to take really good care of myself and I want to show up strong and solid and present, but then I go home and I don’t take care of my body, and I eat bad food, and I don’t spend any time setting my intentions, or really thinking about what I want to create that day, there is a way that I‘m not, “what I say is important to me” and how I’m actually showing up with myself is not in alignment, so there’s a breach in internal integrity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Gotcha. Well, so then, I’m intrigued. We talk about these intentions and the energy that you’ve got there. You have the phrase “intentional energetic presence” as something that we should strive to convey. What is this?

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay, great. So, intentional energetic presence is exactly what it sounds like. It’s being intentional about the energetic presence I bring to everything I do. So, whether I am having a conversation with you, whether I am talking to a room of a thousand people, whether I’m meeting with my team, my boss, whether I’m talking to my teenager, whether I’m doing the dishes, there is always, there is an energetic presence that I bring to everything I do. And that energetic presence is either going to be something that is life-giving and inspiring and what I think of as expansive, feels good to be around, or it’s going to be contracting and heavier and not inspiring. I think of it as like soul-sucking.

And so, we have a choice, and every room that we walk into, every conversation, there is an energetic presence we bring. So, setting an intention and being even conscious of the fact that our presence has impact, and how we show up in every moment matters, that in itself I find is about 70% of the battle, it’s just knowing it. The other 30% is what you actually do with it. So, that’s intentional energetic presence.

And then if you break those three words down, you’ve got your intention, which is what you want to have happen. So, I’m basically claiming, “This is what I want to have happen in this conversation or project or whatever.” There is energy which is the energy and stamina I have to actually make that thing happen. And then there’s my presence which is, “How am I showing up and how present am I with the people when we’re actually making this happen?” You put those things together and you’re more likely to get your intended result.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, within these three areas then, are there some ways that people often fall short? And how do you recommend we rectify that?

Anese Cavanaugh
Great. Yes, so the place that we most often fall short is we get so busy we forget that this is even at play. I think that the number one killer of presence, and also trust and credibility, right now is the lack of presence that we have with each other because we move so quickly and we forget that we are bringing energetic presence to everything that we do.

So, I think that just being aware of it and taking a moment before any conversation, just go, “Okay, my presence has impact. How do I want to show up right now?” That in itself has me come to a moment of presence and it has me get out of my “busy-ness” so I can actually see what’s here.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. And so, do you have any particular tactics or approaches you recommend that we do in order to make that happen more often? One is just to have that moment of thought in advance. What else?

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, there’s an entire methodology around it. So, with intentional energetic presence I created what I call the IEP Method. So, the methodology is three parts, and the first part is being able to reboot your presence in the moment, which is what we just talked about. The second part is building a strong energetic field and foundation, which has everything to do with the food that you’re putting in your body. I mean, the hotdog and the Craft beer that you had last night could be having an impact on your ability to show up really well this morning at your 9:00 o’clock meeting.

So, being really conscious about how food impacts you, conscious about how your environment impacts you, conscious about how the people that you hang out with impact you, like this is part of building our strong field, and I have some tactics I can give you for that. And the third component of the IEP Method is the ability to create intentional impacts. There actually is a five-step framework that if you plug yourself into this, if you get clear about the impact that you want to have, and you plug yourself into your five-step framework, your next meeting or your next conversation could be very, very different. So, do you want the framework? Would that help as a tactic?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’d love to hear, in terms of the bringing the strong energy, for starters, what are some of the biggest drivers or sort of high-impact levers we can move with regard to the food, the environment, the people so that we’ve got more energy there?

Anese Cavanaugh
Mm-hmm, okay. All right. So, this is the thing I always invite people to do. I invite you to look at, first of all, getting still and looking at, “How does your physical body feel?“ So, I always invite people to do what I call an energy check where I go, “All right. Zero to ten, zero being you’re absolutely exhausted, ten being you feel amazing physically. Give yourself a rating,” and then they’ll give a rating. If anybody listening to this does that, the next question is, “What is the littlest thing your body needs right now in order to bring its physical energy up?”

And if we stop and get still and listen to ourselves, our body will tell us. And this is usually where we’re going to hear, “You know what, we need to get more sleep,” which is huge. It’s going to be, “You know what, I really need some good protein and some spinach, or I need you to feed me better. I need more hydration.” Our bodies will talk to us but we have to have that awareness first.

So, I never tell people, “Don’t eat sugar,” or, “Don’t eat gluten,” or, “Here’s how you’re going to do it.” I’m not a nutritionist. What I do invite them to do is to really look at, “How are you eating? How are you sleeping? How are you exercising? And are you meditating, by the way? And does the way that you eat and take care of yourself does it set you up so your physical energy feels as strong and robust as possible?”

And the number one thing I hear from people, Pete, is people go, “Gosh, I wasn’t even aware that I was at a two because I’ve been running around cyclically to have my attention on it. I wasn’t really aware that I was this exhausted or what I needed until I started asking myself these questions. And then once I started asking myself these questions and being in partnership with my body, that changes my relationship, and now I start to feel better. And then I realized that there’s even more I could be doing.” So, again, it goes back to that awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about the environment side of things?

Anese Cavanaugh
Ooh, all right. So, environment, I always like to have people look at their home and their pantry first. So, if you tell me that you want to feel really fantastic, and then you invite me over for dinner tonight, and I come over and there’s nothing but Ho Hos and donuts and processed food in your pantry, there’s a way that your environment is not supporting you.

So, I always invite people to look at their home base first and what is feeling good to them. Their closets are a big one. I can’t tell you how many people like leave sessions or conversations and go home and clean up their closets because every single thing in our environment is either causing contraction and it’s taking energy to even be in it, or it’s creating expansion where it feels really good.

So, common things, pantry, your kitchen, your closet, your car, what you’re wearing. When it gets to the office, it’s your calendar, it’s your office space. It’s when you look at your calendar, is it full of million different colors and back to back to back and your meetings are 9:00 to 10:00, 10:00 to 11:00, 11:00 to 12:00? Well, if that’s true then most likely that is an environmental component of something that you’re surrounding yourself with that is not energizing and it’s not setting yourself up to be the best leader possible.

So, instead you want to start looking at, “Okay, what are some things I could do?” So, for example, with the calendar, I always suggest to people, “Well, take those hour-long meetings, make them into 45 or 50s because you’re not going to miss those five or 10 minutes, or these 10 or 15 minutes. Make them into shorter so you have 10 minutes in between to reboot, take care of yourself, set your intentions for your next meeting, and then go in fully resourced. So, little things like that.

I remember I was working with a group once, and one of the people in the session was a deputy in the jail, the local jail, and he said, “Gosh, Anese, my environment, I have no control over my environment.” And I know people travel and all these different things. So, he said, “I have no control over my environment.” I said, “Well, what’s the littlest thing that you can do to make your environment feel more life-giving and energizing?” And the guy ended up taking flowers in to put on his desk in his cubicle in the jail, and he said that made a difference for him. So, it’s looking at anything in your environment that does not make you feel expansive and good, and doing the littlest thing you can to make it feel a little bit better is also the trick there.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued. Well, yes, let’s hear some more. We got flowers. What else?

Anese Cavanaugh
So, when I travel, I don’t have a lot of control over my environment so it becomes my job to make sure that I do everything I can to set myself up for success. So, proactively I will look at the hotel and try and make sure that it’s got a place to work out, that it looks like it’s clean, etc. I’ll have my room be far away from the elevator because I’m super sensitive to noise. Little things like that.

Well, when I get there, like let’s say I go in, and I can’t control the carpet or the aesthetics, so the littlest thing I might do is I might run to the grocery store and grab flowers for the room, or I will most often, if I’m traveling for more than two or three days, I will go and I will get groceries or have them delivered so that I actually have food on site to support me versus being tied to fast food, or the restaurant food, or something I’m going to be able to control as much. So, little things like that.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to get your take, when you got these 10- to 15-minute breaks in between things, what are your top things that you or clients find valuable to do to be amazing for the next session?

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah. So, I love to use those 10 to 15 minutes to, one, I use the first part to close out any thoughts, or write any notes, or send any quick emails that are directly related to the meeting I just had before me, because what happens is I want to free up my mental energy as much as possible because, so now, I’ve just had, let’s just say I’ve just had this great meeting, you and I have a meeting, we’re 45 minutes in, it’s time to take a break. I know myself long enough that if I go away from that and I leave things open, it’s going to be harder for me to get back into it.

So, I’ll spend a couple of minutes during that break to go ahead and close any loose ends. Then people, myself, will often go use the bathroom, do a quick presence reboot, stretch, do something that will support them in getting ready for the next meeting, and then set their actual intentions or look at what I call, we have a thing called the IEP Sheet, which basically has the entire methodology on it, and they’ll fill that out before their next meeting, or they’ll fill it up with a review, excuse me, before their next meeting so that they’re connected to what they’re walking into in the next hour.

And so, close out the last meeting, use the bathroom, take care of yourself, and set your intentions for the next. And if you don’t have time to do all that, just reboot.

Pete Mockaitis
And rebooting consists of what?

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, great. Rebooting is just to take a deep breath, notice where you’re at, you’re just getting still in this moment, just go, “Okay. Well, I’m here. I’m out of the meeting. I’m present right here, getting into my body.” So, take a deep breath, notice where you’re at, you notice what you need, what do you need right now to show up for your next meeting, you do whatever you need to do to take care of it, and then you just step into the next level of presence that you want to be in.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, can you give us some examples of articulating those intentions?

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, sure. All right. So, let me give you the five steps because I think that will put this all together really well. The five steps are the five steps to intentional impact. So, the first step is I want to set my intention for what outcomes I want to create in this meeting, so what outcomes I want to create.

So, let’s just say, for example, you and I today, Pete. So, outcomes for today, I want to have a very honest and organic conversation, so that’s an outcome. I want people to understand intentional energetic presence, and that their presence has impact. That’s an outcome. Maybe you and I are working on a business deal, so an outcome might be that we have an agreement for our next steps by the end of this meeting. So, two to three tangible things that are going to happen as a result of that meeting. So, those are your outcomes.

The second thing you want to set intentions around is emotional impact. So, how do you want the people in your meeting to feel? So, for me, my intention, and it can vary from meeting to meeting, but they’re usually like, well, I want people to feel safe. I want them to feel connected. I want them to feel curious. I want them to feel inspired. Maybe I’m doing a sales meeting, and I really want people to feel super, super hungry by the end of the meeting to go out there and perform and really push this month’s numbers more. So, I want to set my intentions for what is the emotion I want to create.

In that intention is also, “How do I want to feel?” And so, I find there’s great value in setting an intention. And an example of an intention for me would be I always want to feel really well-used. Like, at the end of a conversation, at the end of a meeting, I want to feel like I gave it a hundred percent, and I really showed up. So, that’s an intention for how I want to feel in that meeting.

The third step of that is then, “How are you going to show up in order to do that?” Well, we have to show up present, in command. this could be like what you’re going to wear to the meeting. Are you tracking with me so far?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay, good. So, this could be: curious. Like, if I’m going to give a feedback conversation or maybe I’m getting feedback, maybe the way I want to open. So, I want to set an intention for how I want to show up. I want trustworthy. I’m listening. I want to show up as prepared. Just claiming this before I go into the meeting sets me up to start creating that outcome.

And then after that you’ve got two more steps which are really simple, which is, “If I’m going to show up that way, what do I have to believe? What do I have to believe about this person? What do I have to believe about the product we’re talking about? What do I have to believe about the customer? What do I have to believe about myself?” Sometimes when people are going in, for example, for a job interview and they do their five steps, they’ve set their outcomes, they’ve set their emotional impact, they’ve set “How do I need to show up?” they get to beliefs, and they go, “Oh, gosh, what do I have to believe?”

Well, a very useful belief going into a job interview or networking or a sales call is, “I believe I am the right person for this job. I believe that I will do a phenomenal job here.” If I’m giving someone feedback, “I believe that this person is a human being who deserves to have really honest feedback.” So, it’s just really getting clear about, “What am I going to have to believe in order to show up congruently, in a way that helps me create the emotional impact I want and in a way that helps me create these outcomes?”

And then the fifth step is just what do you do, which is actually at the end of it, it’s the simplest part. It’s like, “What am I actually going to have to do during that, before, during, and after that meeting?” So, for you and I: before, prepare, review what you sent me; during, be with you, answer your questions as honestly and thoughtfully as I possibly can; and after, any follow-up that we need to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. And so, if the energy is kind of low over time after time after time, and you’ve got some burnout going on, what do you recommend we do there?

Anese Cavanaugh
Great. So, is your energy low and you’re burnt out or is your energy low just in the moment?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about more of the chronic situation because I think we’ve talked about some of the moments.

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay. So, in chronic, what I find is there’s seven Ps to burnout, and I won’t go through all the Ps but there’s four that if you can address these four and start paying attention to these and reboot with these four, this can help us move out of burnout. Because here’s what I find with burnout. I don’t know about you but I know people who work 60, 70 hours a week, they do a ton, people don’t know how they get it all done, and they’re moving a million miles a minute, yet they feel great, they have a ton of energy, and they’re not complaining about being burned out. They actually feel fantastic. Then I know people who work 40 or less hours a week, go to yoga every day, maybe they work 9:00 to 5:00 but they’re totally burned out. Have you seen that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah. So, most often people talk about burnout as being something related to like you’re working too much, or you’re burning the candle at both ends, etc. And, yes, absolutely, these things definitely come into play. But what I found after doing this work for the last 20 years is that, in my mind, burnout comes from the disconnection from one of the four Ps.

And the Ps are presence and pausing. So, building these in proactively will help us avoid burnout. But if you’re finding yourself in a place of burnout, that is an invitation to stop, get present to what’s really going on, to take a big pause in your life, or in your day, or in your week, or wherever you might be, and to just get still to see what’s actually going on. So, I believe that we have to build in these pauses proactively, but a lot of times we don’t that. And so, when we catch it, the moment we start to feel burnout, that’s our opportunity to start building that in more consciously. And I could talk about that if you want.

The second part is the connection to purpose. A huge thing that I see for people, why they burnout is they forget about why they’re doing the work that they began doing in the first place. They forget about why they’re doing it, what’s important to them about it, they forget about who it’s impacting, the people that they’re actually impacting. They just lose touch because they get so busy and overwhelmed with everything that’s going on.

So, if you can reconnect to purpose and what is truly, truly important to you about the work that you’re doing, then that, I find, will often help people reboot out of burnout. And sometimes I find we can outgrow our purpose. Our purpose has to grow with us. So, sometimes somebody might’ve been totally on purpose, and they’re doing great in their role, and then all of a sudden they’re feeling burnout, and when they really dig in deep, they pause, they get present, and they look into their purpose, they realized, “Oh, well, you know, actually, I want to be doing something bigger. I want to shift my focus and my career.” So, that’s purpose.

There’s people which is staying connected to the people that you serve and remembering that you have your people that support you too, so it’s asking for help. And the fourth P is staying connected to pleasure, play, and also giving yourself full permission for pain. So, those are your Ps.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear about the permission for pain. What’s this?

Anese Cavanaugh
Okay. So, for permission for pain, so I find it’s really easy for we human beings to move through stuff really, really quickly. And something happens, and I see this all the time, something happens to make us really angry, or they get their feelings hurt, or something really hard that just happens, they’ve had a loss, something huge. And what I notice is it’s very easy for people to go, “Ugh, you know what, I don’t have time to deal with that right now,” or, “You know what, I’m a leader, I can’t be angry about this and I got to have it all buttoned up,” or whatever. And so, they don’t allow themselves full permission for pain. They don’t allow themselves to actually have the experience and then to get the support around it.

And what happens is if we continue to avoid actually engaging with our pain and getting support around it and healing it, then it tends to mount up and then it comes out in really odd ways, or at worst it comes out in something odd and even more severe at best. It just means we don’t have full access to ourselves. So, if I don’t allow myself pain, I also don’t have full access to my pleasure. So, it’s allowing full permission to be wherever I’m at and to take care of myself and get the support I need so I can manage it responsibly.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we had a Dr. Shawn Jones on the show talking about how this could be difficult for physicians in particular. It’s like, “Somebody died. Well, that is painful and difficult, but there’s no time. It’s onto the next surgery.” And so, that could really take a toll, and that’s what his research is suggesting, that is one of the big drivers associated with physician burnout is that if there’s a whole lot of time demands and urgency and rushing, and not a whole lot of opportunity to process some of the pain going on.

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, absolutely. I do a lot of work with healthcare and I will say that is one of that. That, actually, working in that industry and with physicians in particular really helped me hone in the Ps for this particular book because that was one of the things I saw was the cruising over of pain. And also just generally, culturally speaking, I see this in any organization I go into, this cruising over of pain because people are so busy or they feel like they don’t have the permission or they don’t have the time or space or whatever it might be to actually really dig in and get support. And by support, I mean things like working with their EAP, their employee assistance program, or working with a therapist, or whatever it might be to really honor their own mental health and wellbeing as well. So, the pain thing is important.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
No, I think one thing that is worth thinking about is just this whole idea around the leadership trifecta. There’s a trifecta, and I find that all of us tend to fall into this in some way, shape, or form. And what I find is when we have awareness around it, then we can start to shift it. And what I found years ago is that there are three different kinds of leaders that would come to me for support in this work around presence, leadership, creating a healthier culture, etc.

And the first leader was the person who had, let’s see, a tremendous amount of impact, really great at what they did, great at their skills, maybe they have a ton of degrees, they’re making a ton of money for the company, and they’re great! Except for, they were exhausted, they’re burned out, their relationships are falling apart, their health is falling apart. And so, that leader has got the impact part of the trifecta down but they did not have the self-care component. And so, what that means is that you’ve got an unsustainable model because now you’ve got a ton of impact but you’re burned out so that doesn’t work.

Then I found that there was a second kind of leader that would come less frequently. These are actually very, very rare. But this is the one who’s got phenomenal self-care, works 9:00 to 5:00, everybody likes him, they eat really well, They’re super. Their self-care is on point. However, they were completely ineffective at actually getting anything done or creating impact and holding the line around solid leadership skills to help them be impactful. So, in that case they’ve got the self-care piece but they don’t have impact.

But then I found there was a third person, that great impact, great self-care. However, they left dead bodies everywhere they went. So, they were having the impact they want to have, they were taking care of themselves, but they were doing it at the expense of the people that work with them and followed them. And in that case, that person is missing the people component of the trifecta. So, people being the ability to meet people where they’re at, the ability to make people feel seen and cared for and heard, the ability to coach and champion others.
And so, I just want to offer that part, that component is that there’s these three pieces that I think it’s really important for us to tend to in order to be as positively contagious and contributory contagious as possible which is impact, self-care, and the people piece. And I find, Pete, that most of us have two of them down pretty well, and there’s always one that’s an Achilles’ heel. And so, it’s not about having all three of them perfect, it’s just about being aware of it and then giving that third one a little bit extra TLC so that we can really show up and do our best in the world.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Oh, yes. So, my favorite quote of all time came to me from a mentor years ago, and his name is Chris Wallace, and he said, “People will tell you you’re great, and people will tell you you are terrible and that you suck, and believe none of them.”

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

Anese Cavanaugh
I’m really digging the one about the first impression right now just because it’s so fresh in my mind from edits for this book right now. But I’m really digging the one about the one-tenth of a second and what happens, how quickly we make decisions about people. I like that one right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Anese Cavanaugh
Let’s see. My favorite book, I will say, Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. I’m liking that one right now.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Todoist. Yeah, Todoist.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Anese Cavanaugh
My morning ritual.

Pete Mockaitis
And what does that consist of?

Anese Cavanaugh
My morning ritual, my alarm clock goes off at 5:30, I spend nine minutes, I use my snooze but I don’t go back to sleep. I spend nine minutes just waking up and getting present and thinking about how I feel about the day, and also how I feel about anything I might’ve gone to sleep wondering about. I find that I do my best thinking when I’m asleep sometimes. So, I spend my nine minutes, they’re mine. I don’t look at my phone. Nothing gets into my space. It’s just my space.

And then I get up, and I grab my coffee, and I set my intentions. I do my IEP Sheet, and then I’ll either meditate or workout or journal or something, I mix it up, but those. It’s basically that first 30 minutes of my day, no matter what, is mine. And I find that it helps me really, really set the tone and claim my space. So, it’s my favorite habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I appreciate that you use the snooze button in a way that is excellent for you as most people use the snooze in a way that is shameful and they wish they could break it. So, kudos.

Anese Cavanaugh
Well, so talk about studies, have you seen the research on that, on what happens when we snooze?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Anese Cavanaugh
When we snooze, we put ourselves into what they call sleep inertia. So, every time, and I’m probably going to mess this up so I apologize in advance. I got this, I learned about this from Mel Robbins’ book The 5 Second Rule, and she talks about the snooze button. And so, as I recall the exact data is something to the effect of, we go through 90 to 110 minutes sleep cycles, and when the snooze button goes off, our brain wakes up, or when the alarm goes off our brain wakes up.

If we hit snooze, it sends us back in, and we go back to sleep. We go back into a 90- to 110-minute cycle. So, the brain goes, “Cool. I’m going to get some sleep now. It sounds fantastic.” Well, no, because now the alarm goes off again nine minutes later, and it sends us into sleep inertia. And the sleep inertia is where we get brain fog, it’s harder to wake up, we’re fuzzy, it can take up to four hours to shake it off, we’re fuzzy, our decision-making isn’t as good.

So, one of the things that she talks about, and I’ve heard this in other places as well, it’s like if you’re going to eliminate one thing from your day, if you have to eliminate one thing, get rid of the snooze button because the damage that it’s doing to your brain and your decision-making is actually quite significant. So, yeah, I don’t snooze.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And, tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, or people quote back to you often?

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, “Your presence is your impact.” It’s, “Presence is our impact.” That’s the one that always surprises me that people tend to when they start to really pay attention and let this work, and they start to let this work enter them or to start to embody it. The presence is our impact, and that we get to set the tone. Those are two of the core things that come up over and over and over again.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
So, they go to IEP.io. If they go there, they can sign in and they will get, we’ve got resource kits and presence kits, and virtual toolkits, and we’ve got the IEP Sheet that I mentioned earlier, so they can go ahead and download that. That’ll give them a nice head start, a kickstart on some of this content. And then I’m out there on social media, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook @anesecavanaugh.

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

Anese Cavanaugh
Yeah, I would say give yourself 10 minutes starting immediately. As soon as you hear this, give yourself 10 minutes in the morning, and if the morning is not your jam, 10 minutes during the day. At some point, 10 minutes, to just get still, get into your body, to breathe, and to start to set intentions about what you want to create, whether it’s a conversation with your kid, whether it’s like anything. Just start getting intentional about what you want to create. Because if we can get in front of our days, or in front of our meetings, or whatever, I always hold that an ounce of proactiveness is worth 20 pounds of cleaning stuff up later. So, that would be one.

The other one would be to not complain for a week and see what happens. Just turn every single complaint into a request, and see how that shifts the energy of your wellbeing, but also how it shifts how people respond to you. So, those are two thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Anese, well, thanks so much for this and good luck to you and all the ways that you’re contagious.

Anese Cavanaugh
Thanks, Pete.