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830: Lessons Learned from the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness with Dr. Robert Waldinger

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Dr. Robert Waldinger breaks down key insights on happiness gathered from the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The top stress regulator—and how to cultivate it in your life
  2. Two big happiness myths to debunk
  3. How to foster warm, authentic relationships with one question 

About Robert

Robert Waldinger is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Dr. Waldinger received his AB from Harvard College and his MD from Harvard Medical School. He is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and he directs a psychotherapy teaching program for Harvard psychiatry residents.

He is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world. Robert is the co-author of the book The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness. 

Resources Mentioned

Robert Waldinger Interview Transcript

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

Robert Waldinger
I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Bob, I’m so excited to hear about your wisdom from your research project, as well as you’re also a Zen master. How does one become a Zen master? What does that consist of?

Robert Waldinger
A lot of meditation and a lot of training. It was years and years of training in Zen.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, who bestows the title of Zen master? How does it…? I’m thinking, like, a chess grandmaster, like I know how that works. But how does one become an official Zen master?

Robert Waldinger
Well, there are no points involved.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Robert Waldinger
Zen is essentially an apprenticeship, and so we end up studying with teachers. I studied with a teacher and, eventually, she gave me authorization to teach. It’s called Dharma transmission. And now I’m a fully transmitted Zen teacher, a Roshi is what it’s called.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s just so fascinating. I took one class on Zen Buddhism in college, so that’s the extent of my background, but it was fascinating. I’m curious, any particular insights that you found.

Pete Mockaitis
That was transformational in a very practical sense in terms of, “Huh, I am more effective and happier because of this perspective or insight or discovery”?

Robert Waldinger
Probably the biggest insight for me has been that everything constantly changes. And, on the one hand, that may sound trivial but, on the other hand, when you really sit on a cushion hour after hour, and you watch all the things that come up in your mind and then pass away, times when you start to get furious, or are euphoric, and then in a moment it’s gone, it really helps you to notice that some of the things we think are so terrible and are always going to be that way, never stay around that long. Similarly, a lot of the joys pass away, and that it’s a helpful perspective to realize that everything comes and passes away.

Pete Mockaitis
That is powerful. And I heard someone once asked Daniel Kahneman something like, “What’s a huge insight everyone needs to understand?” And he said that, “Nothing is as important as we think it is while we’re thinking about it.” And I see a little overlap there, it’s like, “Whoa,” because when you think about something, it is the thing, like, “These drapes, that is absolutely mission critical,” for example, but, really, it doesn’t matter.

Robert Waldinger
Exactly. We have a saying “Don’t believe everything you think,” that one of the things you see when you meditate a lot is how the mind just makes up stories. We’re just constantly making up stories about the world. And we need to do that in a lot of ways to get through. Like, I had a story that I was going to come talk to you right now, and that’s helpful because it got me to get here for you and for us to have this conversation. But many of our stories are just completely out of touch with what’s real. And the more we can have perspective on that, the less we suffer and the less we make other people suffer.

Pete Mockaitis
That is powerful. We had a great conversation with Rene Rodriguez who talks about framing and storytelling, and it’s powerful to convey a message to somebody else but it also really shone a light on, “Whoa, we’re telling stories to ourselves as well all the time.” And the stories we choose and entertain and give airtime to in our brains really affect the way we see things and feel about things. And it’s powerful stuff.

Robert Waldinger
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, Bob. Well, we’re already starting deep, so I think that’s a good backdrop for talking about your latest book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness. And I’m excited to chat about this because I’ve read a few articles about this study. Could you, first and foremost, orient us, what is this legendary study?

Robert Waldinger
It is the longest study of adult life that’s ever been done, the longest study of the same people as they go through their whole lives. So, starting with a group of teenagers in 1938, following them all the way through adulthood, into old age, almost all have passed away, and now we’re studying their kids, and their kids are mostly Baby Boomers. So, now, it’s been two generations, thousands of people.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I understand that we have two populations; one, Harvard undergraduates, and, two, folks in a more disadvantaged community situation. Could you expand on that?

Robert Waldinger
Yes. In fact, there were two studies and that they didn’t even know about each other when they both started in 1938.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how convenient.

Robert Waldinger
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Same year?

Robert Waldinger
One was started at the Harvard Student Health Service. It was a bunch of Harvard undergrads, sophomore, who were chosen by their deans because they seemed like fine upstanding young men, and it was to be a study of normal young adult development. So, of course, if you want to study normal adult development, you study all white men from Harvard, like it’s the most politically incorrect research sample you could possibly have.

But at that time, that’s what they chose. We’ve since expanded, brought in women. But then the other study, the other group was a group, as you said, of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. They were all middle schoolers at the time in 1938, and they were studied because they came from some of the most troubled families in the city of Boston.

And the question that the researchers had, also at Harvard, was, “Why is it that some kids who grew up in families that looked like they are destined to fail, grow up with two strikes against them, how do these kids stay out of trouble and stay on good developmental paths? What are the factors that foster resilience even in the face of so much disadvantage?”

And so, that was the question guiding the inner-city group study. And then, eventually, those two studies were brought together, and now these two groups and their children are studied together.
Pete Mockaitis
And so, can you give us a little bit of a summary statistics, if you will, in terms of “We’ve seen a number of outcomes”? And it looks like you have the luxury of attracting tons of different options associated with income and health and death. So, I’m curious, just how much of a difference does having that leg up with Harvard make in terms of wealth and health and whatnot?

Robert Waldinger
It makes a big difference in wealth, certainly. It makes a big difference in health, we think, because the Harvard men were more educated and they got the messages sooner that were coming out that smoking is really bad for you; alcoholism and drug abuse, really bad for you; exercise, hugely important; getting preventive healthcare, hugely important. So, they got those messages.

And what we found, actually, was that 25 of the inner-city men, 25 out of 425, actually went to college and finished college. And those men lived just as long and stayed just as healthy as the Harvard men, and we think it’s not because they had college diplomas. It’s because, first of all, they had the support growing up to get to college and stay in college, and because they had the education that they needed to keep in mind some of the things that were going to set them up for a good health as they went through life.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, so that’s one fascinating little nugget right there, and you got lots of them. So, Bob, I’m going to put it in your court, you’re going to be our master curator here. Could you share with us some of the most surprising, fascinating, actionable discoveries that have come about from this research?

Robert Waldinger
One great big one that, at first, we didn’t even believe, what we found was that the people who had the warmest closest connections with other people stayed healthy longer, they lived longer, and they were, of course, happier. So, relationships with other people were a huge predictor of health as well as happiness.

We didn’t even believe it because we thought, “Well, we know the mind and the body are connected, but how can having good relationships actually get into your body and change your physiology?” So, we’ve been studying that for the last 10 years as other groups have as well. And, as I said, we didn’t believe that at first, and then other research studies began to find the same thing.

And when different research studies all point in the same direction, that’s when you start to have more confidence in your research findings that it’s not by chance.

Pete Mockaitis
I remember reading an article, I guess that was your predecessor George Vaillant running the study, when interviewed, said that a key takeaway is, as he put it, “Love. Full stop. That’s what it’s about.” I think The Beatles and wisdom traditions have been sharing this message for quite a while, and now it bears out in a long-term study hardcore.

Robert Waldinger
Well, that’s what’s cool about this. Our clergy could tell us this, our grandparents could tell us this, for centuries back they’ve told us this, but the science now says, for those of us who are skeptics and want some data, the data really shows that warm connections with other people make a huge difference in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s dig into this then, warm, close relationships. What’s constitutes warm? What’s constitutes close? And how do we get more of those going in our lives?

Robert Waldinger
Yeah. Well, first of all, let me say it doesn’t have to all be close, and we can talk about that later in terms of the different kinds of relationships. But what we’ve been finding is that everybody needs at least one person who has their back, and that’s not always the case. So, when our original guys were asked, “Who could you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?”

Some people could list several people they could call. Some people couldn’t list anybody, not a soul on the planet. And some of those people who couldn’t list anybody were married. So, what we know is having that sense that there’s somebody there who will be there when you really need them, that that’s an essential component of wellbeing that it makes the world feel safer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Robert Waldinger
And one of the things that we’re finding is that this seems to have a lot to do with good relationships helping us manage stress. If you think about it, life is full of stressors. You have young kids. I imagine you have stressors every day, like, “Oh, no, this is happening. Whoa!” And when I have something bad happen in my day, I can literally feel my body start to get revved up. I go into fight or flight mode. My heart rate goes up.

And that’s okay. We’re meant to respond that way when we have stressors. But then, when the stressors go in the body, it’s meant to come back to equilibrium. And what we find, if I have an upsetting day and I have somebody at home I can talk to, or someone I can call up, and they’re a good listener, I can literally feel my body calm down when I talk to them about my day.

What if you don’t have anybody in the world? What we think happens is that those people who are lonely or socially isolated stay in this chronic flight or fight mode. And what that means is they have higher levels of circulating stress hormones, they have higher levels of chronic inflammation, and that those things actually wear away your coronary arteries. They wear away your joints. They break down different body systems. And so, we think that what’s so valuable about relationships is that they are real stress regulators.

Pete Mockaitis
Someone once told me I listened for differences or disagreement, and so I think that makes total sense to me. I guess I’m thinking, in the hierarchy of stress regulators, I suppose there are any number of practices from deep breathing to mindfulness, to yoga, to exercise, to hobbies. Do we have a relative sense that are relationships sort of the ultimate stress buster? Or, is it comparable to, I don’t know, if this could be measured, like, how does having a great friend or partner you can rely on compare from a stress-relieving asset perspective to a good exercise or mindfulness routine?

Robert Waldinger
I don’t think anybody has done those comparisons exactly but there is a little bit of evidence there. So, they did a big analysis of lots of studies of loneliness, and they found that the experience of loneliness, if you’re chronically lonely, it’s as bad for your health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese. And what we know is that, on average, about 30% of people will tell you they’re lonely.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay, so that tells me, if you have a good smoking buddy, and you only smoke two or three…just kidding. Just kidding.

Robert Waldinger
And you eat a lot of Big Macs, yeah, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is handy. Okay. So, relationships, huge. And then zooming into professionals and being awesome at their job, I understand there are some takeaways associated with some drivers of differing income levels. What’s the story here?

Robert Waldinger
Yeah. So, we’re always asking the question, “Does money make us happier?” and people have actually started to study it. Like, how much does our happiness go up as we make more money? And it turns out that, yes, in recent years in the United States, your happiness goes up until your basic needs are met. So, until you reach about $75,000 a year in average household income, until you get to that point, your happiness keeps going up as you make more money.

But once you get to that 75k and you keep making more money, you hardly get much of a boost in happiness at all. What that means is that once our basic needs are met materially, more money doesn’t make us happier.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Good to know. Good to know. So, there’s the impact of money on happiness. If I’m flipping it around, what are the drivers that you’ve discovered within this study that tend to explain or point to earning more money even if, as you just said, it’s not necessarily going to make us happier?

Robert Waldinger
Well, we don’t find greater happiness or greater unhappiness. So, earning more money isn’t bad. It just doesn’t make you happier. You just have more money. And so, the difficulty is that, as you might know, when they survey young people, like people on their 20s just starting out, and they say, “What are you going to prioritize as you go through your adult life?” most of them, the majority will say, “I need to get rich.”

So, we’re giving each other the messages all day long in the media that, “Boy, if you buy this car, you’re going to be happier,” “If you buy this kind of pasta and serve it to your family, you’re going to have the best family dinners ever.” There are just all these ways in which we are given the messages that if you buy the right stuff, if you have enough money to buy all the right stuff, you’ll be happier, you’ll have a better life. And it turns out, that’s not true.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, money doesn’t do it, more so warm relationships does it. And then there’s also the associations with the warm relationships, people who have them also earn more money.

Robert Waldinger
Yes. Well, it turns out that if you have better relationship skills, you’re more successful at work. So, they studied this where they’ve put people on teams, and they say, “Which teams perform best?” And it’s not the teams that have the highest collective IQ, it’s not the smartest folks. It’s often the most emotionally attuned and skilled folks because they cooperate better, they are more relaxed, and, therefore, more creative, they’re more engaged in their work, they’re less competitive.

So, what we find is that this thing we call emotional intelligence, which involves having better relationship skills, it’s hugely predictive of how well you do in your work life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, tell us, we have some do’s, cultivate close relationships; we’ve got a don’t, don’t chase maximum money, what are some other top takeaways in terms of folks who want to be happy, successful, flourish, be awesome at their job? What are some of the top things that you recommend they do do or don’t do based on these insights from the study?

Robert Waldinger
Well, one is, don’t expect to be happy all the time. We can get the impression, like when you look at social media and you see what we all present to each other on social media, like, me on a great vacation or about to dig into a great plate of food, it can look like I’m happy all the time, like I’m always having a party.

And what I can tell you from studying thousands of lives is that nobody is happy all the time. And that’s useful because it can seem like other people have it figured out and I don’t, and that turns out not to be the case, that everybody has hard times, everybody struggles with things. And I say that because it can help us feel a little less like an outlier when life isn’t always happy.

The other thing we know is that relationships are not always warm and harmonious. Now, you might be the exception, and you and your partner may never argue ever or disagree ever, but I’ve never met a person who’s in a relationship like that, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Robert Waldinger
So, what we know is that all relationships have conflicts and disagreements. That’s not a problem. But what matters is how we work out our disagreements and if we can find a way to work disagreements out so that we come away feeling okay with each other and like nobody has lost and nobody has won, that’s a big help. And to know that as long as there’s a kind of bedrock of affection and respect, that relationships are quite solid even when we argue with each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s expand on some of these best practices then when it comes to these warm close relationships. It’s okay to have some conflicts, some disagreements, but we fall back on having a fundamental foundation of respect. Got it. What are some other things that make all the difference in terms of cultivating these warm close relationships?

Robert Waldinger
Yeah. Well, one thing probably is curiosity. Like, to be genuinely curious about somebody else is a great starter for a relationship. So, let’s say there’s somebody at work and you noticed something on their desk and get curious about it, it gives somebody an opportunity to talk about themselves. It gives you an opportunity to get to know them in a way you might not otherwise.

And it’s not just in starting new relationships that curiosity helps and we do love to talk about ourselves. It’s old relationships. So, you know a coworker, or you know your partner, you think you know everything there is to know about them, but actually you don’t. And it turns out that when we start taking each other for granted, we stop paying attention to who the other person is as they grow and develop. So, if you can bring that sense of curiosity back to an old relationship, that can really liven it up.

One of my meditation teachers had an assignment for us once. He said, “As you sit there, doing something routine or talking to somebody you’ve talked to a hundred times, ask yourself this question, ‘What’s here now that I’ve never noticed before?’” And when you do kind of come with that mindset, it can get really interesting really fast.

Pete Mockaitis
“What’s here now?” You mean when you say here…

Robert Waldinger
Like, “What am I noticing?” So, I’m going to go have dinner with my wife, that we’ve done that for 36 years, lot of meals together. So, what if I come with that mindset? Like, what’s here right now in our discussion? Or, how is she right now that I might not have noticed before? Like, if I’m looking for something new, I get really curious, and that can set me up in a whole different way than, “Ah, yeah, I know what she’s going to say. We’re going to have the same dinner we always have, the same conversation,” right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, that’s good. Our brains love that novelty stuff, and so that really seems to unlock a lot of cool motivation-y dopamine-y…is that a word, dopamine-y?

Robert Waldinger
Dopamine-y? I like that.

Pete Mockaitis
In the mix. Very cool. And so then, we can do that in our work relationships, and there are some really cool research associated with the power of having warm close relationships at work, in particular, as well. Could you expand on that?

Robert Waldinger
Yes. The Gallup organization did a survey of 15 million workers around the globe, all ages, all cultures, and they asked the question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” And what they meant was, “Do you have somebody you can talk to about your personal life at work?” Now, many CEOs then, “That’s a distraction. You don’t want that kind of socializing.”

Well, it turned out that only 30% of workers said they had a friend at work, but those workers were seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. They were better at engaging customers, if they were customer-facing. They produce higher quality work. They were happier in their jobs, and they were less likely to leave their jobs because the job wasn’t as interchangeable because they had a friend there they wanted to see.

And the people who didn’t have a best friend at work, so seven out of ten people, they were 12 times as likely to be checked out of their work, to be disengaged.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, there you have it. Okay. And I also remember that alcohol was something that came up in the study as being potentially quite destructive. What is the takeaway here?

Robert Waldinger
Big time. Alcoholism, that means abuse, dependence, it destroys people’s families, it destroys their work life. So, the people who became alcoholics, in our study, had marriages that fell apart. Half of the marriages that ended in divorce had one or both partners stuck in alcoholism. And what we found was that the people who were abusing alcohol chronically had a downward trajectory at work. They couldn’t perform well. They didn’t get promoted. Even if they didn’t get fired, they plateaued pretty quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so how do we make sure that doesn’t happen to us? I mean, you enjoy a beverage from time to time. Any pro tips? Because if you’re watching people year after year after year, that’s an interesting vantage point in terms of, “Huh, this is kind of creeping in there.” And I guess, one, how do you precisely measure that? Do you ask them, “How many drinks do you have?” Or, are there any warning signs? So, if we enjoy a happy hour, how can we make sure we don’t lose control, slipping away over the decades, and fall into this category?

Robert Waldinger
Yeah, key questions. So, we measure it in different ways. So, one way we measure it is, “How many drinks do you have?” And for men, two drinks max a day is all that really is okay for your health. And for women, it’s one drink because, physiologically, they process alcohol differently. But another way to think about this, if you’re just kind of thinking, “Am I drinking too much?” is to ask the people who care about you. Ask them if they’re worried about your drinking.

Do you feel guilty about your drinking? Do you try to cut down and have trouble? Do you find that it’s getting in the way of your getting up in the morning and making it to work or making it to your parenting activities, or whatever they might be? If it’s getting in the way of your life, then it’s probably a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right, Bob, anything else we really should know about this study, its insights, and being awesome at your job?

Robert Waldinger
I think just to think about work as not so separate from the rest of your life but to really let yourself say, “Okay, how could I enjoy myself more at work? Particularly, how could I have better connections with other people because I’ll have more fun at work if I do that?” Sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no problem. Okay. Well, then, now I’d love to hear a little about your favorite things. Could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Robert Waldinger
Yes, there’s a quote by Joseph Campbell, he’s the guy who wrote a book called The Power of Myth, and he was like a PBS guy. And he had a quote that I love, which is, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on somebody else’s path.” That has really helped me. When I keep thinking, “Oh, I really should do that because everybody else is doing it,” or, “That’s what seems to get the most applause,” it’s really helpful to be reminded that, “You know, everybody is doing their own thing. Everybody is taking their own path through life.” And I’ve seen that studying these lives over decades.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, next, I want to ask you about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research. You’re intimately involved in a legendary one. Any others that leap to mind?

Robert Waldinger
Any other research that leaps to mind?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that you think is super cool.

Robert Waldinger
Yeah, when we asked people how they spend their discretionary income, so you got all your needs met, and then you have some income, what are you going to do with it? And are you happier if you buy material things or if you pay for experiences? And paying for experiences could be tickets to a basketball game, or taking your family on a trip, or it could be anything but experiences. And what they find is that the people who use their money to pay for experiences are happier and they stay happier longer than the people who buy material things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Robert Waldinger
Favorite book. Well, actually, one of my really favorite books is so old school. It’s Pride and Prejudice. I just love that book. Another favorite book is The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s about ecology but it’s a really cool novel. And there’s a book by a Zen teacher, Barry Magid, called Ending the Pursuit of Happiness.

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

Robert Waldinger
A favorite tool is serving lunch.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Robert Waldinger
People really like to be fed and they loosen up and they get more creative when they’re sharing a meal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you are the lunch provider.

Robert Waldinger
Yup, for my research group, and they love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I want to know what sort of lunches we’re talking about here.

Robert Waldinger
Oh, we get takeout, we get Mexican, we get Thai, we get healthier stuff, too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Robert Waldinger
Favorite habit is going for a walk every day, and looking at simple stuff, like trees.

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

Robert Waldinger
It’s a quote from a 19th century writer. He said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I just saw that written in some random decor somewhere. I don’t know, but I like that.

Robert Waldinger
Yeah, yeah, because it’s like it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but everybody has got stuff.

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

Robert Waldinger
Well, to our book, so TheGoodLifeBook.com, you can order the book but, also, to our website. There’s a website about the study, it’s AdultDevelopmentStudy.org. And there you can read some of our highly technical papers and learn more about the study.

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

Robert Waldinger
Yes. Think about somebody you’d like to connect with more at work, and reach out to them and ask them to have coffee, take a walk, do something. Reach out. Make a commitment to do that tomorrow. And just notice, it’s a small decision, and notice the ripple effects. Notice what comes back to you from that small action.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Bob, this has been a treat. I wish you much happiness and goodness in life.

Robert Waldinger
And you, too. I envy you having small kids. I miss that time. My kids are in their 30s and they’re wonderful, but I really miss the time when the kids were young.

828: How to Reach Your Epic Goals and Unlock Elite Performance with Bryan Gillette

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Performance expert Bryan Gillette reveals the foundational principles for epic achievement.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The five pillars of EPIC performance
  2. What you can learn from elite athletes to find your own peak performance
  3. How to quantify tricky goals 

About Bryan

Bryan Gillette knows what it is like to reach the peak as he has stood on the summits of many mountains and successfully completed many physically and mentally challenging ultra-distance endurance events. He’s reached several ‘summits’ in his career as well and before founding his own leadership consulting practice was the Vice President of Human Resource. Bryan has over 25 years of experience in Human Resources and Leadership and Organizational Development with executive-level responsibilities in small and large companies. His experience also includes consulting, speaking, coaching, and teaching all levels.  

Bryan is also a dedicated endurance athlete and has cycled across the United States, run 8-marathons back-to- back, and ridden his bicycle 300 miles in one day.  

When he is not traveling the world with his wife and two boys, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Resources Mentioned

Bryan Gillette Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Bryan, welcome to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Bryan Gillette
Well, it’s nice to be on the show, Pete. It’s good to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to talk to you about epic performance and one epic achievement I have to ask about right away. So, you ran eight marathons back-to-back within a 76-hour window, sleeping for less than two hours during this feat. First of all, is that accurate?

Bryan Gillette
It is accurate. Yeah, it’s 205 miles around Lake Tahoe. So, Lake Tahoe is one of the premiere high-elevation lakes in the Sierra mountains, and there’s a 200-mile race around it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you did that. Well, congratulations.

Bryan Gillette
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
That is astounding, almost unbelievable so I had to confirm that we’re getting the claim correct, first of all.

Bryan Gillette
You’ve got your information correct.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess we’re going to get into some of the core principles for how such epic achievements unfold. But, maybe for this specific tale, could you share with us a key thing you did before or during this event that you think made all the difference for you?

Bryan Gillette
There were a number of things, but if we just focus on one thing, it’s making sure I’m training well and I’m prepared. People often ask what’s the hardest part of running 200 miles, and they’ll think, “Oh, the hardest part is getting to the finish line.” In this case, the hardest part is getting to the start line. Getting to the start line prepared, getting to the start line healthy and injury-free. It’s the nine months leading up to an event like that that’s the hard part.

Pete Mockaitis
It only takes nine months to prep for that?

Bryan Gillette
Well, it takes a lot longer when I started. So, nine months prior to it, I had completed a 100-mile run in 24 hours so I was in pretty good shape when I started my training. So, for the nine months leading up to it, I started that in really good shape, so I started out with a really good base. And then I spent the next nine months really focusing on that one run.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, this is not a running or fitness podcast, but I just got to ask. How does one remain injury-free? Because it seems like I’ve always got something that acts up. Even when I start cranking about five miles every other day for a few months, something happens, “Oh, my IT band is doing whatever,” and it’s I’ll just like disappear for weeks or months. So, how is that even done?

Bryan Gillette
I wish I had the magic answer to that one and could clearly say, “This is how you stay injury-free.” I can tell you what I have done for all of my events, mainly all of my running events because I’m also a cyclist as well, is if all I did was run in order to prepare for the 200-mile run, I would not have been able to stay injury-free. So, I ran, I bicycled, and so I would mix it up a little bit.

And when I would notice something was starting to hurt, I would kind of assess, “What’s going on? Do I need a new a pair of shoes?” because you’re going through shoes quite quickly in something like that, and really understanding your body well. And I think it applies to everything. Do you understand kind of what’s working, what’s not working? How do you tweak things? And if you’ve got an injury, how do you stop and try to do something different so you don’t over-injure it even more?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, thank you. Well, now, let’s get into some broader lessons.

Bryan Gillette
All right.

Pete Mockaitis
Your book EPIC Performance: Lessons from 100 Executives and Endurance Athletes on Reaching Your Peak, ooh, that’s exactly the sort of thing we love to hear. There’s a lot of lessons but could you kick us off with a particularly shocking, surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive, dopamine-releasing discovery that you unearthed when you dug into this research quest?

Bryan Gillette
So, I spoke to a hundred people, and most of them were C-level folks, and about 75% were C-level folks, and then about 25% were ultra-distance endurance athletes, so somebody that has done an IRONMAN or equivalent, but people that…and, in many cases, the ultra-distance athletes were C-level folks.

Pete Mockaitis
And you don’t mean Cs in academic performance. You mean chief information officer, chief operating officer, chief executive officer.

Bryan Gillette
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m with you.

Bryan Gillette
Yes, thank you for clarifying that, Pete. Yeah, these were CIOs, CHROs, CEOs, all that C-level work. And what surprised me the most was how humble they were. These were some very accomplished people but I thought, at some point when I identified that I want to reach, talk to a hundred people, I thought, “How many people am I going to have to ask in order to get a hundred interviews?”

And what surprised me is I only had to ask a 102 people. Only two people said no and everybody else, was they were so willing to do it, spend the time. I spent a minimum of an hour with everybody, and it was something like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And when I would ask them, I’d start the interview, they would often start off and, it’s like, “Why are you interviewing me, Bryan?”

And it was that humbleness that really surprised me the most. But then the other thing along those lines was that all but two people said yes. If you don’t ask somebody, if you want something and you don’t ask, the answer is going to be no. But if at least you go out and ask, and that reinforced that concept even more in my head. If you at least ask, there’s a greater possibility of you getting a yes than if you don’t ask.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now there’s maybe a whole another podcast episode here about cold outreach because I’m imagining you probably got a number of ghost replies as in no reply whatsoever as opposed to a clear no or a clear yes.

Bryan Gillette
Surprisingly, so when I went out to people, a bunch of the people I knew personally, and so I could call them up, I could send them an email, and they all responded. And then at the end of any interview, I would ask one question, it’s like, “Is there anybody else who you think I should talk to?” And they would say, “Oh, yeah, you got to talk to Marilyn.” I said, “Can you do make a connection with me? And here are some information you can send to her and make that connection,” and so, I didn’t get those ghosts.

So, I literally sent out 102 requests or called 102 people, and only the two people, of the two, one of them said, “There’s a lot of family issues I’m going through. Now is not the best time.” I said, “Okay, I get it.” And then the other person, I actually never heard from.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that is mighty impressive. And then I suppose it’s also kind of fun. It was flattering, it was like, “I wanted to figure out how one becomes an epic high-performer like you,” so that’s just…

Bryan Gillette
I mean, I agree. I teach a graduate course at the university on leadership, and one of the things that often the students will come up and we’ll be talking about career and career advice, and they’re asking me questions. And what I’ll often tell them is, “Do some informational interviews. If you’re interested in, if you want to work in nonprofit, go out and do some informational interviews.”

And most people, when you say, “Hey, Pete, can I interview you on what it means to be a podcast host?” chances are you’re going to say yes because it is very flattering to the person. So, ask people, and it’s flattering to be asked, and chances are you’re going to get a yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Now, onto EPIC performance. Let’s hear the scoop. What is kind of the core thesis, message, big idea we should take away from this?

Bryan Gillette
Yes. So, EPIC performance, there’s five behaviors of EPIC performance. And EPIC stands for, E is what are the big things in life you envision? How do you envision those things that you want to accomplish? Not just one or two years out, but three, four, or 30, 40 years out. That’s E as envision. P is, “How do you put a plan in place in order to accomplish those big ideas?

I is, “How do you iterate to that plan so you don’t start off running 200 miles, you don’t start off running a marathon?” You start off running two miles or four miles. You don’t start off at the CEO of a company. You start off a much lower level. So, that’s iterate, “How do you work your way up?” The C is, “How do you collaborate with somebody who’s done this before?”

So, if I wanted to start my own podcast, I’d call you up and say, “Pete, what does it take to start a podcast?” And then the last one is, “How do you go out and perform it?” That’s EPIC performance. So, the performance is, “How do you deal with the hard times? How do you you get from the start line to the finish line? How do you deal with those challenges?” And then, once you’ve accomplished, you’ve reached kind of that peak, how do you think about what’s next?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, could you share with us a story of someone who did just that in terms of pushing beyond their limits, achieving something epic, and, ideally, in the professional or work context? Kind of walk us through their steps and the result they saw.

Bryan Gillette
Yeah. So, I’ve an assessment where people can assess how well they are at the five different areas. And, generally, what I found is somebody is probably really good at two of the five areas, and they know how to compensate for the other ones. So, for example, there’s a gentleman I work with, he’s one of my clients, and he’s also the CEO of this fairly decent-sized economic development arm here in California.

And he is phenomenal at envisioning things, and he can see stuff, and he works really hard to go and kind of get it accomplished. He’s not necessarily the best person to put the plan together, and he’s not necessarily the best person to iterate, but he can collaborate well and he can perform well. And so, part of it is understanding, “Where are you good at?”

And so, as I was talking about the envision part and trying to understand, you know, part of envision is understanding your why, understanding your purpose and how you can see that future. And as he’s building this business, I asked him, I said, “How do you deal with the challenges? How are you able to kind of see that future and then overcome some of the many obstacles you’ve come with?”

And he talked about, he goes, “I’m very clear on my why. I’m very clear on the purpose,” and that’s what envision is. And I said, “Where does that come from?” He goes, “Part of what I want to do with this organization is I want to be able to build up the economic arm of these 15 to 20 cities that make up this region.”

“And the reason I want to do that is because when I was a kid, I saw my dad lose his job because the economy wasn’t doing well, and the city that we were in, it was depressed. I saw him lose his job and I saw him lose that luster for life, and I never want that to happen to me or to other kids, and so that’s why I know that why really well.”

And so, that’s what that envision is, knowing that why, knowing your purpose, and being able to kind of stay focused, so when it really does get hard, you can go back to those types of situations. So, that’s one example of when somebody really understand kind of that vision and their purpose.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then let’s walk through the whole picture then. So, envision, plan, iterate, collaborate, performance. Can we hear a little bit about the definition and some best practices within them?

Bryan Gillette
Yeah. So, envision, it’s being able to think out. Most of the time, and when I work with companies, it’s thinking about one, two, three years out. And so, what I want people to do and kind of help people get to is, “How do you think in 10, 20, 30 years out?” a little bit further. And part of that is being clear, we just chatted about the vision part, being clear about that, being clear about what your purpose is, but then also looking out, “What do you want to accomplish in 30 years instead of just looking out a couple of years?”

And often what holds people back is we think, “Oh, I can’t think out 30 years because we can’t do that. And the problem is we can’t do that today.” So, the iterate part is, “What do you have to do in order to get to that point where you can drive to that bigger goal?” So, for example, if you just go back to our marathon example, you don’t start off running a marathon.

And so, a lot of people, if you ask them, “Hey, could you run a marathon?” they would say, “No, I can’t do it.” I was like, “Okay. So, what is it you could do today to move you closer to being able to run that marathon next year or the following year?” Well, today, you can run two miles or three miles. And then next week, maybe you can run four miles. So, that’s what the iterate is.

The plan is once you know what that long-term goal is, if it is to run the marathon, “What are the steps you need to put in place in order to get there?” And then the collaborate is, “Who are the different people? Who could you learn from?” Now, you think about a lot of times, people say, “Oh, what I’m doing, somebody has never done before.”

And I talked to a lot of CEOs who started up their own company, and they never said, “Oh, what I’m doing, somebody has never done before,” because somebody has started up their own company, somebody started up and done something in a similar space. It may not be exactly what you’re doing, but learn from what they did, learn from those people’s successes, learn from their failures.

And then, lastly, is the perform, how do you go out and you do it. And that’s all about how do you persevere through the difficult times. How do you stay focused on your goal is what you’re trying to do.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, can we hear another example of a professional who achieved some awesome things, and walk us through each of those steps, how they envisioned, they planned, they iterated, they collaborated, they performed?

Bryan Gillette
So, another example on the professional side is there was a CEO who I was talking to, and early on in his career, kind of as he was coming out of college, one of the things that he wanted to do in life is he wanted to run a hunting lodge. And so, that was what he wanted his career to do.

And so, he started, and this is kind of that iterate side, he started to go out and work for hunting lodges. And as he was working for one, so it was hunting and fishing was kind of where his passions were. And so, he went and he was working for one company, and he knew that, “In order to do this, I’ve got get better at finance.” And the CEO of the company brought him in, got him involved in some of the financial aspects of the business, so he started to learn finance.

And then he started to learn kind of that customer, that front-of-the-house type of management, how do you manage the customers. So, he was building up those skills that were all going to be important when he ran his own hunting and fishing lodge. Now, what happened is he started to get into that, started to learn about finance, started to learn about marketing, started to learn about the customers and what their needs were, and he realized, “I didn’t really like managing the hunting or fishing lodges.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Bryan Gillette
And so, he had to pivot a little bit, but still, hunting and fishing, really, fishing is at his core, so he figured out, “Okay, what do I have to do differently?” Then he went to work for a large fishing manufacturer, a large outdoor kind of company that focused on fishing equipment and fishing gear, and he worked his way up in different areas, in marketing and sales. And, eventually, he became the CEO of several well-known kind of outdoor apparel companies.

So, it starts off where you start off where it’s like, “My goal is I want to do something in my career around fishing,” because that’s what was his passion, and he got into it, and he realized, “I don’t like some of these aspects but I still want to stay in the industry,” and he kind of learned the different parts of what it took to run a business and, eventually, the CEO.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. So, there I’m hearing the iterate loud and clear with regard to, “Oh, I guess this doesn’t quite exactly the thing,” in terms of when we look at the realities of that. I’m thinking about a lot of people in their careers, they think they want to do something and then they realized that, “Oh, the reality of that is actually different than what I imagined.” Like, law is an example, “Oh, I want to be in the courtroom like the TV shows, doing dramatic persuasion of a judge or a jury,” and then they realize, “Oh, shoot, most lawyers are primarily creating documents. Huh, well.”

Bryan Gillette
Right. It’s the iterate part of that, Pete, as well as the collaborate part of that. Because if you’re going to be…if you want to be a lawyer and you’re thinking about going into law school, go out and talk to a bunch of lawyers. There are different types of law. There’s family law, there’s business law, there’s contracts, and so there are differences there, so go out and talk to those people.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Bryan Gillette
And so, you may not like litigation but maybe you like contract law. And so, understanding, and then that’s all what collaborate is, go out and talk to those people, “What do they like? What do they don’t like?” And it’s also talk to the people that were successful, but talk to the people who may have had some failures to understand what they did or what they didn’t do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I like these particular tips in terms of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to iterating and collaborating. Could you give us a few of those for each of the steps? What does great envisioning look, sound, feel like versus what are some common pitfalls and so forth within each of the steps?

Bryan Gillette
Yeah. So, great envisioning is you’re clear on what your purpose is. At the end of the day, you know what your purpose is. You’re also clear on what your values are. You’ve got to understand what’s important to you. Those people that know this, they know what’s important to them, they know where to say yes but they also know where to say no.

Great at envisioning is being able to put yourself into situations where you may be uncomfortable. And so, “How do you stretch yourself a little bit further?” is what you’re trying to accomplish. And one of the ways you know that is if you’re looking to try something new, does it make you nervous? It’s that nervous quotient I always like to focus on.

So, the way you know you’re thinking bigger, the way you know you’re pushing yourself, is because before you do it, you get nervous. And it’s not that nervous that stops you from doing anything. It’s that nervous that’s like, “Okay,” and you just kind of hold back a little bit, but, still, nervousness is a good indication that you’re stretching yourself.

Another key part of envisioning is, “Do you have some sort of strategy that allows you to write those big ideas down and you come back to that every once in a while?” So, I’m sure you’ve gotten, or your listeners have gotten ideas of, “Oh, I’d love to do X.” Do you have a place where you write that down and then maybe come back to it in a year, because maybe you’re not ready to do X?

I was talking to my kids the other day, and I said, “What are some of the things you want to do?” and one of my kids said, “I want to go on the Vomit Comet.” And if you’re not familiar with the Vomit Comet, it’s that airplane that goes up and it does a parabolic flight, and then for a short amount of time, you are experiencing weightlessness.

And I said, “Just write that down somewhere. You may not be able to do it today, but maybe in 10 years you can come back to it.” I keep a list of all the places that I want to go, all the places I want to travel. And every year, we go back and we look at that list. So, those are a couple of things for envision.

For plan, often we wait to put this big plan together before we get started, and I think the biggest thing is if you have this idea of something you want do that’s big, just do one thing no matter how small it is that moves you forward. Just do one thing in the next 72 hours, and that’s one of the things I’d encourage the guests to do. If there’s something big you’re thinking about, what one thing can you do in the next 72 hours that will move you forward with that idea? And then do something else.

We often wait to build the full-out plan before we get started, and you don’t have to. Just start moving forward now. And then, also, start to assess what obstacles and risks may be in your way. Look at the risks, write them down, figure out how you can break them down even smaller and understand that. One of the executives I talked to, he invests in a lot of the real estate in the San Francisco Bay Area where a million dollars is not going to buy you much of the house, so it’s really expensive, and at one point, he was 90% leveraged.

A lot of risks that he had going. And what he did is he took that risk and broke it down into smaller segments, and he kind of broke it down to, like, “What if I lose my job? What if I lose a tenant? Or, what if I need to do a major remodel?” He broke each of those down, or he broke those down into three components.

And that breaks the risk down into smaller components, and then you can break it down even further to understand, “Okay, how much risk is there? Where can I better manage?” Because when you think about the big picture, sometimes that’s daunting, but if you break it down into smaller chunks, you can manage it a little bit better.

With iterate, I always look at, “How do you practice with intention? How are you very focused on where you’re going to spend your time and where you’re not going to spend your time?” There was one of the executives I talked to, he’s a CHRO, so chief human resources officer, he’s also an IRONMAN, so he’s extremely busy, and he goes, “When I am looking to train for an event, I know I need about 11 hours out of the week because I can find 11 hours out of a week, and that means I have to say no to some things.”

And so, how are you looking at your calendar? How are you looking? Where are you spending your time and really assessing that, and then putting a plan in place that makes you very intentional on how you’re going to go about iterating to that? And how are you looking at data? What’s the data you need to know? If you’re doing a sports event, you’re probably looking at speed or time. If you’re looking at a business, then what are the financial data elements you ought to look at? And you don’t have to look at everything but find out those key datapoints that will indicate that you’re being successful, or indicate you’re moving in the right direction, and identify those.

With collaborate, find a few mentors, find a couple people that you can talk to, bounce ideas off, will push you. And I always like to ask folks, “Who are the mentors in your life? And do they offer a different perspective?” One of the assignments I have for folks in my class is I say, “Write down who are all the people, the mentors in your group, and then look at where they’re different. Are they different in gender? Are they different in ethnicity? Are they different in maybe marital preferences or sexual preferences? Are they different in some like business, some like education?”

Think about how different they are because you want to get different perspectives and learn from those different perspectives. And then, lastly, when we look at perform, is, “How are you really focusing on what your goal is?” And so, that takes you back to the envision, “Do you know what that goal is? Do you know what that peak is? And when the times get tough, how are you focusing on that goal and being very clear on what that goal is?”

Pete Mockaitis
And are there some best practices for refocusing on that goal?

Bryan Gillette
Yeah, it’s, first of all, you should have it written down somewhere. Have that goal written down where you can look at it, and constantly go back and evaluate, “Are we on track?” Now, I like to put some objectivity to a goal. When you think of it, we’ve often, most of us have probably heard the smart goals, “Is it specific? Is it measurable? Is it obtainable? Is it relevant? And is there time bound to it?”

And that helps put some objectiveness to your goals, and it also helps you to evaluate whether, “I’m on track or I’m not on track.” And so, the more objective, the more specific you can be with those goals, then it’s going to be easier to evaluate with whether you’re on track or you’re not on track.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Bryan, I’d love to get your take on when it comes to objectification, quantification of goals. It seems that some are far easier to do than others with regard to sales, or finance, or wealth, or lifting weights, or achieving feats of distance, or speed. I’m curious if you have any pro tips on how we might go about objectifying, quantifying goals that can feel fuzzy at the start, like, “I want to be happier,” or healthier, or more energetic, or in a better mood, or more present.

I think these are aspirations many listeners have, and I’m motivated by quantification and seeing progress, for sure, but some goals fall into a tricky zone there. Have you seen some clever approaches to quantifying them?

Bryan Gillette
Well, I think you have to continue to ask that question. So, if you say, “I want to be happier,” the question I would pose is, “All right, what would happy look like for you? Because what happy looks like for you and what happy looks like for me are different. So, what would happy look like for you?” And continuing to ask kind of a question until you get to something that’s a quantifiable.

You know, I was talking to a client yesterday, and they want me to facilitate one of their executive retreats. And one of the questions I often ask is, “What would success look like? So, if we were highly successful in this retreat, what would it look like?” And often they’ll say something that’s a little bit fuzzy, and then I’ll kind of ask, “Okay, what would that look like?” So, take your example, so, what would, for you, what does happiness look like?

And it may be, “I come back from my job and, four days out of the week, I just feel jazzed.” And so, how you do put some objectivity to that situation, is really what we’re trying to do. So, let’s get the fuzziness out of it as much as you can.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’d love to play with that demonstration a little bit more. So, four to five days, we feel jazzed, I think, so, we have a number four out of five, a fraction, 80%. Cool. So, then how do we put that into the system with regard to further eliminating fuzziness and getting numbers? Like, I suppose we have to define jazzed.

Bryan Gillette
You do.

Pete Mockaitis
Lay it on us, Bryan. What does jazzed mean in this example?

Bryan Gillette
Yeah, and that would be the question I’d ask. So, what would ‘jazzed’ look like? We know when we come home whether we’ve had a good day or a bad day. And it could be just as easy as, all right, when you come home from work, because there are some people that they want to…we’re going to put a quantity to everything.

And some people that, “You don’t have to have actually a number of 3.67,” but when you come home from work, can you check off that this was a good day, this was a great day, this was a bad day? And just put in a check mark on a whiteboard, on a piece of paper that said, “Great day!” And then the next day you come home, it’s like, “Eh, this was a good day. Good day.”

And so, if part of your goal is, “I want four of the five days to be great,” then what I would do is like, “Okay, for how long? Let’s see, first of all, where are we? Right now, let’s look over the next couple of weeks, and where are you now?” If that’s what’s important to you, just track it. And then, so look, after doing it a couple of weeks, and you find out that, “You know, right now, I come home and only three of the days, or only two of the days I can mark off as a great day. Okay, what’s going to get us to mark off three days? What do we have to do differently? What do you have to do in your job?”

So, it’s really, you have to, when you find a fuzzy word, ask yourself, “What could make it less fuzzy?” And how do you further kind of de-fuzzify that word?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, I want to get your take on when it comes to EPIC. Some might think about hustling, working super hard, digging deep, pushing it. How do we think about the exerting effort versus resting domain of this? Can we overdo it? And what are the telltale signs that we might be overdoing it or some rules of thumb, safety guidelines, to say, “Oh, watch out. This might be too much”?

Bryan Gillette
Can we overdo it? Yeah, we can overdo it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Bryan Gillette
It goes back to kind of what your values are. There are times in my life where it’s like, “Okay.” I’m a cyclist at my core, and, “Okay, I did a hundred miles. Now, let’s do 200 miles. Now, let’s do 300 miles.” And you can continue to push it. And you have to understand, “Is that what you’re trying to do?” And for a period of time, that’s what I was trying to do.

You have to get to the point where you understand where some of your limits are. And what I often say is you can probably go a little bit further if you want to go a little bit further. So, if we go back and use that marathon example, there’s a lot of people that will say, “I could never run a marathon.” And my view is, “Do you want to run the marathon?” Because if you say yes, then I’m going to argue, “You probably could.” If you say no, then I’m going to say, “Don’t do it and go find out what you want to do.”

So, it’s being able to get to that point to understand kind of what is it that you really want to do, what’s most important to you. I don’t know that I’ve got a great answer on, “How do you know when you’re pushing it too far?” On sports, it’s much easier. On work, “Are you succeeding in what you’re doing? Or, are you failing? And if you’re consistently failing, maybe you need to kind of back off a little bit and really assess that. And then, all right, maybe you kind of go back and iterate at a lower level.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now what is it for sports? I’m imagining you’re going to drop some, “Well, when your heart rate variability drops by over 31%…” like, what is it on the sports domain?

Bryan Gillette
No, I think if you find yourself injured.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go.

Bryan Gillette
I mean, we talked about that earlier. If you find yourself, you’re injured too much, then you’re pushing it too hard and you have to go back and reevaluate what’s going on. If you find yourself in a hospital, you’ve probably gone too far. How do you learn from that one?

Pete Mockaitis
“Call Bryan Gillette.” Okay. Well, any other guidelines? So, failing a lot, hospitalization, injuries, too far. Anything else?

Bryan Gillette
Well, it goes back to understanding to what is your criteria for success. And do you have those three or four measurable criteria that’s going to show you’re driving forward? And if you’re consistently not getting to that point, then you have to figure out, “Why am I not getting to that point?” And then kind of reevaluate what you need to do differently, or maybe you need to lower the bar, or you need to adjust some things.

So, I do think it’s good to have some data elements, and you don’t have to have a hundred, but what are three, four, five things you’re working at? And even as former vice president in the human resources, and it’s hard to measure success, people often have a challenge, “How do you measure success on the HR side?” And there were times we would measure turnover, and there were times we wouldn’t measure turnover, depending on what was important at the course of the maturity of the business or what we were trying to accomplish.

There were times when we would measure leadership, and we’d had to define what that look like. And so, again, it goes back to figuring out, “What are those measurable things that you see as success?” So, if I were to ask you, “What does success look like?” I’m going to continue to ask until we can get to something that is we can hold in our hands and is a little bit measurable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Any particularly clever measurements you’ve seen in your day?

Bryan Gillette
One of them was it was a woman I was talking to, and she wanted to work for a highly successful kind of growth company, and she wanted to be seen as the key leader, this is in human resources. She wanted to be seen as a respected leader in the human resources for that company, and she put a measurement of, “Being able to work for a company where I could be involved in ringing the bell at one of the stock exchanges,” whether it’s NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange.

And it wasn’t because she wanted to ring the bell, but it showed that she was working for the type of company, she was seen by the executives as the type of person that she wanted to be. And so, I just loved that. That’s what her measurement was. It’s like, “Okay, I’m ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really do appreciate that example because we take something fuzzy, “What do you mean by like a high-growth or cool company?” “Oh, okay, the kind that goes public. All right.” And then, “What do you mean by a key leader?” Like, you’re in, I’m thinking about the pictures I’ve seen in this, that you don’t get 80 people up there during the bell, it’s a smaller crew. So, I think that’s a cool example of going from fuzzy to un-fuzzy. And it sounds like, Bryan, that could take some real reflective time and not something you might be able to come up within five or ten minutes. Is that fair to say?

Bryan Gillette
It’s very fair, Pete. And it’s also not something that’s going to happen overnight. She had been working at that for years in order to do that. And it takes her to realize it, okay, when she went from one company to the other, it’s like, “All right, I was working at this public company, chances are I’m not going to be ringing the bell anytime soon.” And so, it starts to identify what’s important to her, the type of company she should focus on, so that was one that I really liked.

Another one that I liked that is less work-related but it was a colleague of mine who wants to hike all of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. And I forget how many there are. And so, he has a picture of all of the peaks, kind of on his wall, and so it’s got a listing of all the peaks. And every time he hikes one, he’ll go and he’ll put a pin in each of the peaks. And so, it’s a visual representation that sits on his wall above his desk, and he can look up and see, “Okay, I’ve done 10 so far,” “I’ve done 11 so far.”

So, that’s another important thing, is, “How do you make your goal somewhat a visual representation so you see it every time you walk in your office, or walk in the room, whatever it is?” One of the examples I had is I wanted to travel around the world, and I wanted to take an extended period of time off, and so I bought this world map, I put it up on my wall, and it was one where I could write on with a dry erase pen.

And so, I would circle countries I was interested in, so every time I walked into my office, I would see that map and it would remind me of what my bigger goal was. And so, how do you have some visual representation of what that goal is that makes it really easy and it reminds you every single day?

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

Bryan Gillette
No, I’m looking forward to the favorite things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, can you tell us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Bryan Gillette
Yeah, one of my favorite quotes is, “There’s nothing more rewarding than completing something you were too crazy to start in the first place.”

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

Bryan Gillette
I like reading about how people push themselves, whether it’s the study of the brain. I just read an article called “Train your brain to make you faster,” and it was in a swimming magazine. And it’s how do you stress the brain out in normal times so when you are going and doing something, your brain is prepared for that stress. And they were talking about swimming but it also talks about in the corporate world as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, Bryan, I have to ask, how does one stress one’s brain? The first thing that came to mind was Wim Hof breathing. That’s insane and fun. But what do they recommend?

Bryan Gillette
Well, there are different puzzles that you’re kind of doing while you’re working on something.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Bryan Gillette
So, if you’re working on one thing, you’ve got these puzzles that you’re trying to test your brain in, and so that forces you to use your brain while doing something else. So, that’s one way you just stress the brain out a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m thinking about chess checkmate in three puzzles while also running or walking briskly at an inclined on a treadmill. Is that the kind of idea we’re talking here?

Bryan Gillette
Yeah, could be.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right.

Bryan Gillette
Yeah, good example.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Bryan Gillette
I love autobiographies or biographies. So, I think three books that came to mind, and I know you asked for a favorite book, but I love Endurance, which is the Shackleton story. Ernest Shackleton went down to Antarctica. Unbroken, which is about Louis Zamperini’s story, Laura Hillenbrand is the author. He’s a World War II veteran. And then, most recently, Liftoff, which is about Elon Musk. A lot of people that can complain about him but he’s wicked smart. And so, it’s how he was able to build up SpaceX.

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

Bryan Gillette
A favorite tool. I was thinking more of a habit. I think one of the tools that I use, I use OneNote all the time. Microsoft OneNote just to track ideas, keep track of conversations I’ve had. And, realistically, I have a bucket list that I keep on OneNote, and I go back and use it all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Bryan Gillette
A favorite habit? So, this is not work-related but every time my wife and I go somewhere, where if she’s going off to the store and I’m staying home or we split apart, we always kiss each other. And it just keeps us together.

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

Bryan Gillette
Yeah, one of the things I often hear is we don’t all deserve a trophy. And there’s this view that everybody deserves a trophy, and I’m not of the view that we all deserve a trophy in everything. But find those things that you’re good enough to deserve a trophy.

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

Bryan Gillette
So, they can go to my website, they can to EpicPerformances.com. They can go on LinkedIn and connect up with me, but EpicPerformances.com is probably the best way.

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

Bryan Gillette
Yeah. So, I do have the EPIC Performance assessment where if you go to EpicPerformances.com, there is an assessment, and you can evaluate how well you do each of the five different behaviors: envision, plan, iterate, collaborate, and perform. And if they type in…so they go to the assessment, and you can do it for free. It’s going to ask you for a company code, just type in AWESOME, and that will be the company code that allow you, it’ll generate some results. Send it to me and I will send you back your report.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. Thank you. All right. Well, Bryan, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of fun and epic performances.

Bryan Gillette
I appreciate you having me on the show, Pete.

826: Finding Calm in an Uncertain and Stressful World with Jacqueline Brassey

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Jacqueline Brassey shares powerful tactics for facing stress and uncertainty with calm and confidence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to enjoy more calm with dual awareness 
  2. How to turn your voice into a calming tool
  3. How to access flow more frequently 

About Jacqueline

Jacqueline Brassey (PhD, MAfN) is a co-leader at the McKinsey Health Institute and a Senior Expert in the area of People & Organizational Performance. Jacqui has more than twenty years of experience in business and academia and spent most of her career before joining McKinsey & Company at Unilever, both in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom. Jacqui holds degrees in both organization and business sciences, as well as in medical sciences.  

She has worked and lived in five different countries, loves running, hiking and a good glass of wine, and currently lives with her South African/Dutch family in Luxembourg. 

 

Resources Mentioned

Jacqueline Brassey Interview Transcript

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

Jacqueline Brassey
Hi, Pete. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I am excited to be chatting about your latest book here, Deliberate Calm: How to Learn and Lead in a Volatile World. Can you kick us off with a particularly surprising, fascinating, counterintuitive discovery you’ve made while putting this together?

Jacqueline Brassey
Well, the discovery I’ve made may be a bit more boring than you just introduced, but what I really love about this topic is that, and it has become a lifestyle for me, is that it can be learnt. It is something you can master if you put in enough time and energy in it, and that is absolutely amazing. And, in addition, it’s actually applicable to all aspects of life. So, this book is written for leaders in a business context, but it is applicable to anyone in any job but also in personal situations, private situations in whatever role you play in life.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say it could be learned, what is it?

Jacqueline Brassey
Well, it is deliberate calm, that’s a set of skills, and the secret is in the title. Deliberate means that you are a choice, to choose in a specific moment how to respond. That choice is often better if you remain calm.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I can learn a set of skills to become deliberately calm anytime and every time I desire.

Jacqueline Brassey
Exactly. Even though you may not feel it…

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, superpower.

Jacqueline Brassey
Yes, superpower. Even though you may not feel it, but it’s about the response. So, at the heart of this lies also the power to become comfortable with discomfort, basically.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so maybe could you kick us off then by sharing a particularly inspiring story of someone who’s able to learn this and summon it to great effect?

Jacqueline Brassey
Sure. One example that we used when we kick off Chapter one in our book is the very famous story of Captain Sullenberger who lands the plane on the Hudson River after the plane was struck by a flock of birds.

He decided, in the milliseconds, that he was going to ignore the traffic tower and he made a different decision. He did not go to his default response. He has landed the plane, any plane, so many times but now he had to decide to actually choose something different than what was told to him in the moment. And everybody may know that story, you can read about it, but there was a high-stakes unfamiliar moment.

And people may think, “Well, that doesn’t resonate with me because that’s very exceptional.” But I have a couple of stories, how this actually can be also translated to day-to-day life because it doesn’t always need to be a similar extreme crisis situation, as that example of Captain Sullenberger. But we have, in our day-to-day lives, smaller or larger versions of this.

And so, let me tell you another story of someone I met recently, actually. His name is Flavio Gianotti, and I met him a couple of weeks ago in a radio interview. He’s an Olympian fencer. And it’s very interesting because he has been told that he is very talented, and he knows he’s talented. He’s a good fencer. He has all the skills he needs to actually play at this high level of skills and high-level sports. But what holds him back, nine of out of ten, is his brain, his mind.

And we chatted off the radio interview and he had a game that weekend, and a lot was at stake for him. His family was there, it was very visible, and it was important that he had a good game. And he texted me afterwards with a nice picture. He was number one on stage, very happy, so, clearly, he won. And he said, literally, “Today, I made it. I made a difference with my head.”

And I called him, I said, “Gosh, what did you do?” And he said, “Well, I remembered a lot of the stories that you told me and the conversation that we had.” And he said, “In the moment that I was fencing, I actually was noticing, I became aware that I was not winning.” And he then decided to actually consciously enjoy the game and focus on what he does best, which is fencing, and he was able to disconnect from his worries. He could let them be there but he could focus on the game, and he said, “That changed everything.”

And, long story short, he won, which is an example of high-stakes familiar zone, which is very different from Captain Sullenberger’s example because Flavio was also trained to do this game. The game was not unfamiliar territory but was highly stressful. In those moments, the best thing you can do is manage your stress and focus on the skills that you have, and focus on performing.

But if you go into a different situation, which is unfamiliar, that’s where deliberate calm comes in, then you need to learn and adapt on the fly. The key, Pete, is though, that in those situations, it’s hard for us to do. We default to what we know. And that’s what we call the adaptability paradox in our book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how do we define the adaptability paradox?

Jacqueline Brassey
The adaptability paradox is basically when you most need to learn, change, and adapt, it’s the hardest to do. I say it in a free translation. And the reason is, in high-stakes unfamiliar territory, we feel the stress of the high stakes but we also don’t have the skills to respond in the right way, so we need to actually adjust our behavior, and we need to adjust what we know.

And in those situations, our brains are wired to actually experience stress because we lack predictability. We also lack certainty, and so we will experience extreme stress. And learning and changing on the go is then very hard to do but that is what you learn in deliberate calm. First, you need to learn, actually, to become aware, “What situation am I in? What’s going on for me?” But then, also, you use a lot of the tools to respond in the right way in the situation that you’re in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so then I guess that’s the paradox part, is what we need to do is change, and that is stressful, and, thus, it’s harder to change, so that is what’s needed, hence the paradox. Okay. So, then lay it on us, Jackie, what are the skills or the tools, the approach, the top do’s and don’ts so that we can get this going for ourselves?

Jacqueline Brassey
At the heart of this book is what we call, and it sounds a bit fluffy but it isn’t at all, we call the dual awareness. And dual awareness means you need to become aware of the circumstances that you’re in and also aware of what it means for you and what’s going on for you.

So, in the book, we teach people a set of tools, and we have a protocol also in the back of the book that helps you start recognizing moments that you get triggered and that you feel stressed, for example, and that you feel pressure. And those moments matter to you, and why do they matter, and what does it mean.

So, by going through the protocol, you become more aware of moments of stress, also when it happens so you start recognizing what’s going on in your brain and body, but you also start realizing what the situation calls for. And sometimes we feel stressed in situations that’s absolutely, you know, may not be stressful at all but it is something that we do because we interpret the situation as such.

Sometimes we become aware that, indeed, this is a situation that requires a pause. And a big example is, Pete, the pandemic that we’ve been through the last couple of years. We didn’t know what was happening, so it eventually turned into a high-stakes unfamiliar territory where everybody was defaulting to what we knew best, trying to wait for when it was over and trying to get back to normal as soon as possible but we had to learn that that was not possible anywhere, and we had to change a lot of what we normally did in the way we worked, in the way we dealt with situations, and so on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you walk us through an example of an individual who is practicing some awareness and gaining that dual awareness, and then responding in a way that they bring about the calm?

Jacqueline Brassey
I will give an example of a story that I experienced myself a couple of years ago. That was about two years ago, just after George Floyd was killed, which was also very much discussed in the organization where I worked and I was heading learning and development for a topic including diversity and inclusion.

And one of the things that I was asked to do immediately thereafter was to train out 32,000 people in anti-racism. And I had to do that, I was asked to do that in a very short amount of time with a team that I had not yet put together. And so, there we are, hugely purposeful but high stakes because a lot of visibility, sensitive topic, and something we’ve never done before. It’s already difficult to do that in one country, let alone do it around the globe, 32,000 people.

And my default response to things like that, to asks like that, projects like that, is I want to control everything. So, I want to have a perfect project plan, I want every step detailed out and very clear, very sequential, but that was not possible because it’s quite a challenging topic and everybody had also an opinion about it, and we were basically building a plane whilst flying already, right?

I didn’t write about Deliberate Calm in those days yet but I’ve been a resilience researcher, and stress researcher, and authentic confidence researcher for many years, so I applied a couple of tools that we also integrated within Deliberate Calm. It was really to become aware, first of all, of that situation. This was a new situation which would not be served with my standard approach.

And so, taking a break, taking a step back, and re-looking at what was needed in the moment was one thing that I did because I was panicking a bit, and I thought, “Well, if I don’t change and if I don’t learn and adapt, then nothing is going to happen in the right way.” And another step was that I also, and I’ve done that for many years, I took good care of myself because this project takes a lot of energy away, and, for a long time, it will ask a lot from me. And if I worked harder and harder, and if I don’t sleep, and if I don’t take care of myself, then it won’t be sustainable, so I put an operating model in place to support this work that we had to do.

And then within the team, I focused on creating safety and security, and also speaking about discomfort. We all actually felt the stress, and bringing that in the room, putting a great team together but also agreeing that we’re all in this together, and it’s better to get all the problems on the table than to hide them was usually successful because it was a bit messy but, by doing that, we actually all could shoulder that stress. But also, what it helped was that we didn’t all go into default, and we call that protection mode, in the book, when you are in high stress.

But we went into a state of learning, and that gave us the creativity, the stamina, and the solution space that we needed to go into. So, there were a lot of elements that come together, Pete, in practicing deliberate calm. It’s not just one golden nugget. It’s actually a lifestyle, I call it sometimes, and sometimes I say it comes in three different layers.

The one layer is the foundation, having a good base to work from, taking good care of yourself, making sure it’s almost like you sometimes have to be a top athlete in the work that we do. Take good care of yourself because then you are more resilient to any curve balls and stress. And then set yourself up for success during the day, and have a couple of tools, that we also teach in the book, that deal you with moments in the day when you really need them, those SOS moments, when you get a curve ball, and when you have to respond in a calm way, which includes, one tool is breathing, for example. How do you breathe? And how do you breathe in such a way that you can immediately calm yourself?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, let’s talk about a couple of those tracks then, both the taking good care of yourself like you’re a top athlete, and then the specific SOS moments. So, I guess sleep, nutrition, hydration. What are some of the top things that make a world of difference in taking care of ourselves? Are any of them, shall I say, non-obvious? Because I think we’ve heard of a few, like, “Oh, yeah, you should sleep.” Like, “Yes, we know that.”

But, maybe, if you have any nuances, like, “Did you know that complete darkness actually makes all the difference for sleep as opposed to 98% darkness?” Or, give us the secret insight or info, Jackie, in terms of self-care and SOS tactics that make all the difference.

Jacqueline Brassey
Well, self-care, as you said, most people know it but they don’t do it. So, I would say, indeed, all of them that you mentioned, and I would also refer to Andrew Huberman’s podcast, who knows all the tools, who brings a lot of these amazing tools.

Pete Mockaitis
I love his stuff.

Jacqueline Brassey
Oh, me, too. I’m a big fan of his work. He also talks about daylights in the morning. He talks about the physiological side. And then there’s another friend of mine, Alexander Helm, who does a lot in sleep. Indeed, all of them matter. How we bring that together in our book is actually you have to be intentional. So we bring that together in a tool that we call your personal operating model.

And your personal operating model has a couple of elements, including energy management, and that changes also with circumstances when they change. So, what is relevant for me today may be different. So, just take a simple situation, family without kids, family with kids. Different operating models and different way of managing this intention and this energy. So, we provide tools for that.

But what many people forget is they know it’s important to sleep but it’s really critical to act like Captain Sullenberger in stressful moments, to act like Flavio in moments of peak sports. Sleep is important for your overall health, but if you do not sleep well, you become much more susceptible to stress and also to anxiety. And we have an epidemic of stress and anxiety, as also all the research that I’ve been doing through the McKinsey Health Institute has showed.

So, that’s one, no big secrets there. I would say just apply it. But there are also moments in the moment, applying this in moments of stress, there are tons. One favorite of mine, apart from the obvious ones that you just mentioned, is also the use of voice. So, how you actually leverage your voice in the moment, and how you become aware that if you are stressed, you start breathing more from your chest rather than your belly.

And if you become aware, so the key in this book is also about becoming aware, “What is happening for me in the moment?” and then you can catch the arrow, is another way of talking about it, basically, because then you can change, and then you can respond in the right way. And most people actually respond way too late.

The voice is all about calming it down a couple of notches, making a warmer voice, which is the voice is related to the larynx and our vagus nerve, which is also related to our parasympathetic nervous system, and that calms us down when we actually also calm our voice down, and others too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, can you give us some example demonstrations here in terms of, “Okay, I’m feeling stressed. Something happened, I’m freaking out. So, I’m stressed, how do I use voice to calm down?

Jacqueline Brassey
I just had one, actually, Pete.

Jacqueline Brassey
In the middle of this podcast, I think my husband tried to call me, and I actually stressed out.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Jacqueline Brassey
No, I had many. I’m talking a lot on stage and I’m talking a lot in workshops as well, and always in moments that I need to focus and concentrate, something happens. But it’s little moments that everybody also will recognize is that the doorbell may go, or everything comes together and it’s very difficult to stay calm.

I once had a workshop where I absolutely had to perform and I started to feel very unwell in the moment, and I wanted to stay calm because I wanted it to be successful. I can, of course, say that I’m sick and I walk out of it, but I really was not well, but too much was depending on it for me, so I made the choice that I actually was going to try to apply my own tools in that very moment, and I did not tell the group.

But a couple of things that I did is basically noticing what I feel in my body, and allowing that, taking a deep breath before I started the workshop, allowing it to be there, and being with that pain that I felt while still delivering the content in front of the group, which, eventually, became a bit hard, and then I decided to actually also bring it into the workshop, and I decided to talk about it, and to share it with people, and to say, “Listen, this is what’s going on for me. We’ll try to keep going as much as we can, but if it doesn’t work out, we have to take a break for a moment.”

But what happened…so, there are different tools. This is one tool which is really about becoming comfortable with discomfort, and it was clearly not comfortable for me. And the reaction that you immediately feel is stress and you want to get away from it. But what we then do, what I teach also in a lot of the work that I do is stay with it and try to actually, with kindness and compassion, observe it and see if you can stay with it. And that builds resilience, which is a story that may sound weird.

But the interesting thing that happened for me in that moment that, eventually, it went away, and I was able to deliver whilst starting with discomfort. So, that’s just one version. Another version of this is getting close to a panic attack where I had to speak in public. And what happens for me is when I feel very stressed, I start shaking.

And so, there was a public presentation where I was. At the end, we were all able to ask questions, and I had a good question, I thought, and so I said I’ll put my hand up. And the man with the microphone was coming to me, and I started to feel nervous but I was ready to ask the question. But, halfway through, somebody else actually put their hand up and they also had a question, and he said, “You know what, I’ll come to you next, but I’ll first answer, I’ll first take this question.”

In that moment, I started to become very nervous and my heart started to beat faster. The trick in those moments is basically to be with it and to learn how to breathe well and not to push it away. Because the moment you do not want to feel the discomfort, it becomes worse. And that has everything to do with how our biology works, how our brain works. And if you dare to start accepting and embracing it, you will calm down.

And that’s exactly what happened. So, I could still be there. So, I was still able to be there and perform, yet on the inside, I wasn’t 100% calm. So, this is also what deliberate calm is about. It’s not always about feeling calm, but it is about being comfortable with this discomfort and then still being able to perform in a calm way, which is what you do.

We call that in the book, you pivot from a state of protection, which is the increased sympathetic nervous system arousal, to learning, which is still increased arousal but with an open brain and with an open space where you can be curious and still effective and adaptive and change your behavior in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, with this observation of kindness and compassion, can you tell us what that sounds like in terms of an internal dialogue? Let’s say I’m thinking, “Oh, I don’t want to do this thing. Aargh,” I’ve got some procrastination urges, and then there’s a number of approaches, like, “Come on, we’ve just got to power through. We’ve got make it happen. Buckle down.” It’s like, “We’re just getting started. We need to do a little pit,” like coaxing one’s self. But what is the internal dialogue of observation, kindness, compassion, embracing sound like in such a moment?

Jacqueline Brassey
I think the most important one in those moments is really about getting in touch with why this matter to you. Why is it important that you actually go through this challenge? Because if there’s no reason for it, why would you go through that discomfort? So, the reason why I do difficult things is because there’s a purpose for me. The reason why I talk about the topics that I find meaningful, also about I have a lot of work done in confidence and the confidence crisis and the anxiety that I have gone through in my life, and I do that because it’s meaningful for me to share and to help other people understand that they’re not alone.

So, doing difficult things for a reason helps a lot. So, the dialogue in my brain is really all about, “Why does this matter to me?” and I focus on what I will achieve by doing that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s say it doesn’t matter to you but it’s, I don’t know, mandatory, compulsory, it’s for someone else, you’re kind of on the hook.

Jacqueline Brassey
Okay. Yeah, well, when you’re on the hook, you can always find a meaning. You’re on the hook for a reason. And can you give me an example of what you’re thinking of?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s say taxes. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s not fun, it’s not meaningful. You just kind of got to do them.

Jacqueline Brassey
I don’t think you’d get into high-stakes unfamiliar territory with taxes. I think it’s high stakes definitely. Maybe. But the thing is, with taxes, you have the time to do that, and you can find the help to do that. It’s not fun but if you don’t do it, so it’s meaningful to do it because you will suffer if you don’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, meaningful in the negative point then.

Jacqueline Brassey
Yeah. Well, you can also think of it, “With taxes, I contribute to this country and I can make a difference,” but that’s maybe for a whole different podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly.

Jacqueline Brassey
It totally depends, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I hear you. Okay. Well, I think we drifted a little bit away from using voice. Can you give us a demonstration for how we use voice to get those soothing benefits?

Jacqueline Brassey
Absolutely. What happens when you feel stressed, you can start noticing that with yourself, if you try to actually control a situation. And maybe if you have kids, this may resonate. I have amazing kids but sometimes you feel like you’re out of control when it’s a mess in the house and they’re not doing exactly what they need to do, and you feel already tired, and you try to control the situation but your voice comes out in a different way. It becomes this squeaking type of voice, which is the sign of you feel powerless but also you feel stressed and you have a higher pitch. Often that is happening. Or, you start crackling, you’ve got a crackling voice.

The only way to change things, and that’s why this is part of deliberate calm, is, of course, being aware that this happens because, then, you can intervene. That’s why, in this book also, work so much on awareness and awareness in the moment, picking up the signs that you go into a state of distress or in state of protection, we call it, that can be picking of voices in your head but also physical cues or behavioral cues.

And one is your voice when it crackles or where you breathe from, and also when you notice that you do not have…you feel out of control, basically. So, when you notice that, take a deep breath, and I would absolutely recommend people to do Breathwork, which I do a lot. It helps me a ton. There are different versions, different ways of doing that. The most basic version if, of course, breathing from your diaphragm, from your belly, and try to calm your voice down, and go slightly lower than where you are at that moment. Don’t go too deep but you will learn actually by practicing what is a comfortable tone because you start noticing that if you do it, it calms yourself down.

Now, when that happens, it will have an effect on other people. It will have an effect on your children as well because there will be a different response when you shout and you feel out of control, or whether you stay calm and you have a different mindset about the situation. And that’s better for you and that’s better for another, so it’s a very simple tool. So, learning how to control that is super strong and powerful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, Jackie. I’m thinking about Bob Ross right now.

Jacqueline Brassey
There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
Is that kind of what it might sound like or could you give us a demo for what that tone is like?

Jacqueline Brassey
I’m calming down. Totally. Well, I have used my soft voice the whole podcast already so I’m not going any lower. I think the version that you just gave us was maybe a little bit too smooth but…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you know, actually, I’m kind of having fun, Jackie. I might just keep it going. Can you tell us about, we talked about athletes a couple of times, you also have some work on flow. How, do tell us, can we enter flow?

Jacqueline Brassey
Well, there is a lot of research, of course, on flow, and going there on demand is not always easy because that feels almost like you have to, when you want something, that’s not when you get it. But the circumstances for flow are also often determined by, “Do you feel you have space to focus? Are you working on something that you really care about, that is meaningful for you?”

So, for example, in my case, I can go totally in flow when I focus on my research topic and I have the space to research, and to deep dive in the area, and to write. When I get out of that is, I get out of that if I’m distracted and if I am, well, not feeling well, when I’m very tired, but also when I don’t have the space to go into flow. So, there’s also circumstances, of course, that you need to create to get into flow, and sometimes you can make it happen, sometimes it also happens because of the situation you’re in. You can be in a flow with a team, for example, and it all comes together.

The key is though, in all of that, is the sense of safety and enjoyment. There’s a lot of research on flow, and that is not, per se, being in a hugely stressful situation but it is an increased activity of performance where you feel a sense that what you do is really meaningful and you really enjoy and you feel safe. You feel also the space where you’re also not distracted. So, I guess that is different for everybody but you can create that, I’m convinced, by creating the right circumstances.

Do you remember moments that you have been in flow?

Pete Mockaitis
I do. I’m thinking about a time I was doing an analysis on top-performing episodes, and I was so immersed that I totally forgot I had to go pick up my son from preschool.

Jacqueline Brassey
Goodness.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like, “Whoa, check out these indicators.” And so, it was like, “How might I do a weighted average in terms of, like, scoring them in terms of given all these interesting data signals from Spotify and Apple Podcast and the emails?” And so, I was really just kind of playing with that and iterating and getting some ideas and moving forward, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I really should’ve left over half an hour ago.” And so, that’s what leaps to mind, it’s because, well, it was painful because then I had to do all sorts of apologizing and felt very silly.

Jacqueline Brassey
Was he safe?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, he was totally safe. He was just chilling with the assistant principal, and they’re like, “Hey.” It’s just like, “Oh, Pete, you owe us some money.” It’s like, “Yes, I do. I’m sorry. Thank you.”

Jacqueline Brassey
So, what happened there? Why did you go in flow? Because you love the topic, you were fascinated by what you saw.

Pete Mockaitis
It was. It was fascinating and there were elements of surprise, like, “Huh, I wouldn’t have expected that.” And then it was sort of they’re like little bite-sized mini questions and challenges that I was tackling, like, “Well, hey, what about this? Oh, I can just do that. Oh, that works. Oh, that doesn’t work. Hmm, maybe I can do it a little bit differently.”

And so, I cared about it and it was, I guess, I’m thinking about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It was in that right zone of it’s not crazily overwhelming, like, “I have no idea how I would even begin to do this.” And it wasn’t just a snooze, boring chore I can do in my sleep. It was pushing me but not overwhelming in the amount of push.

Jacqueline Brassey
Yeah. In a way, it’s low stakes but unfamiliar new territory where you use a lot of curiosity. It’s a wonderful experience. It resonates with me. I often go there. But, yeah, the danger is you forget about the rest of the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Certainly. So, then what are the, perhaps, top do’s and don’ts if you are trying to set the stage to maximize the odds of entering flow? So, you care about the thing, you have the opportunity to focus, and maybe, you said it varies by a person. How about for you personally? What might you do?

Jacqueline Brassey
I actually enter often in flow when I’m on holidays or even in my free time because I love browsing, I love learning, and I love browsing on the internet, and I love jumping from one to the next. And so, at the core, for me, is really deep-diving in a topic that matters a lot, and learning new things, and getting up to speed on the latest insights. And I can totally spend hours and hours just going from one to the next. It’s so much like hopping from one island to the other island, and it’s amazing.

So, yeah, it’s in a space when I have not a lot of stressful things to do, and there’s not a lot of autopilot stuff that you need to do, but there is really space for creating new things. And, in a way, that is in between, if you talk about deliberate calm, we really also focus on the crisis of uncertainty. It’s not what this is about. And it’s also not completely in your comfort zone. It is, indeed, as you said, a little bit of that excitement and that focus, so it is the effort, but you need to have the space for it to happen.

And, for me, that often happens on holidays and in my free time. It doesn’t happen on a normal day where there’s always a lot of stuff coming into the inbox and phones that ring, and things that need to happen that take me out of flow.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Jackie, any final top tips on some of this stuff before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jacqueline Brassey
Well, a top tip for me, I would say this not really a quick fix. This is a set of skills and, as I said, this is a lifestyle and something that you can learn, and absolutely worth it. It’s also a set of skills that do not go out of date because you take them with you for the rest of your life, but I would give it a try. So, this was just the last reflection. Think about why, actually, what is more important, why would you do it, why does it matter to you. And why it matters to me, Pete, is it’s really about it really has brought me so much opportunity but also reaching my full potential, and enjoying life much more than before.

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

Jacqueline Brassey
Oh, yes, my favorite quote is actually from a math teacher from my high school, who I remember very well. He said, “You can do much more than you think.” And that was in a discussion that we had, I think I was 14 years old, in the class, where people were talking about, “Are you born with talent for math or can you learn it?” And he said, “You can do much more than you think if you put the effort in.”

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

Jacqueline Brassey
Well, I mentioned it already. A couple of favorite people that I study is… Andrew Huberman from Stanford. His podcast is amazing, also the work that he does. But I also like the work from Stanford’s Alia Crum, Adam Grant, Francesca Gino. Absolutely my favorites. And what excites me a lot is bringing insights from neuroscience and business together and leadership development. So, cross-disciplinary research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Jacqueline Brassey
One of my all-time favorites is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

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

Jacqueline Brassey
My favorite tools, a couple of my favorite tools are Breathwork, I walk every day, and I run. So, movement, cardio movement, which brings me in a state of creativity, and it’s also good physically. And voice techniques, I just mentioned one. And also, embodiments experience with really being and feeling situations. So, instead of being in my brain, I just try to feel the stress or the positive stress in my body.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Jacqueline Brassey
I‘m not sure if I noticed it, that you do that as well, but a favorite habit or a favorite feedback tool that I use are biofeedback, one of the tools. And I cannot recommend one over the other but one of the tools that I have is an Oura Ring.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. You saw mine.

Jacqueline Brassey
I think I saw yours. And I try more tools, actually, than only this, but I really love it. I think there’s a huge potential in it. And it helps also to be more aware and to take care of yourself. But I love the improving science around it and also the power and potential of these tools.

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

Jacqueline Brassey
I’m actually very active on LinkedIn. I post a lot, interact a lot there on social, also on other, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And if people want to find more about Deliberate Calm and our work at McKinsey and at McKinsey Health Institute, they can find that very easily by just Googling Jackie Brassey and McKinsey.

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

Jacqueline Brassey
Yeah, I would love to ask people to really think through why it matters what they do. Think about the purpose and think what really is important for them. Life is too short to focus your time on stuff that doesn’t matter.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, Jackie, this has been a treat. I wish you much fun and deliberate calm.

Jacqueline Brassey
Thank you so much, Pete. It was lovely being here with you. A lot of fun.

817: How to Navigate Complexity and Win with Jennifer Garvey Berger

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Jennifer Garvey Berger shares how we can all tap into our natural capabilities to overcome the challenges of complexity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How uncertainty affects your nervous system
  2. The secret to boosting your nervous system
  3. How laughter helps you be more awesome 

About Jennifer

Jennifer Garvey Berger is Chief Cultivating Officer and Founder of Cultivating Leadership, a consultancy that serves executives and executive teams in the private, non-profit, and government sectors. Her clients include Google, Microsoft, Novartis, Wikipedia, and Oxfam International. She is the author of Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps: Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World. 

Resources Mentioned

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Jennifer Garvey Berger Interview Transcript

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s great to have you and I appreciate you being up and with us in France. It’s a bit of a different time zone situation. And I understand you’ve lived in New Zealand, England, and France. I’m curious if you’ve picked up any wisdom having lived in different places around the world that us, Yankees, who have not lived outside the US might appreciate.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
You know, we moved to New Zealand in 2006, and one of the first things I noticed is that when you move from a country like the US, where I was born and grew up, to a tiny country in the corner of the world, if you can imagine a world having a corner, New Zealand would be in it, it was just amazing how much New Zealanders were engaged with the whole world because New Zealand itself was a little bit too small to be just engaged with New Zealand. And I found that curiosity about the whole world is very interesting in such a small country so far from everybody else. It taught me to be a little bit more curious, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. And I’ve been surprised at how, when I talk to people from other countries, they have a knowledge and interest in some of the happenings in sort of in the United States politics, it’s like, “Boy, I don’t think I can name your president or king or prime minister. I don’t think I even know,” shamefully, “what head of state title that you use over there. Excuse me.” And so, yeah, I do feel a little bit sheepish or embarrassed at how there does seem to be an awareness and engagement in a broader circle than just a narrow view of that country itself.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
It was amazing. I used to get into taxicabs and say where I wanted to go, and they would pick my accent, and then they would start asking me detailed questions about American politics. And I’d be like, “Wow, I don’t know the answer to that question. I haven’t even had that question myself. That’s amazing.” That’s amazing. So, yes, the kind of open curiosity about how the rest of the world works is, I think, it’s easier to attain when you’re not the big guy.

Pete Mockaitis
That makes sense. Well, let’s talk about attaining some complexity genius-ness. Your book is called Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead. That sounds like a handy thing to have. But before we get into the depths, could you first share, precisely what do you mean by complexity?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, so complexity is, for many of us, it’s what makes our lives so tiring right now. Complexity is that which has so many intersecting parts, so many interactions from so many places that you can’t figure out what’s going to happen next, no one person can control anything, and the outcomes that come out of it are, they call them, emergent. They can’t be predicted and they are a feature of all of those intersecting lines and relationships and conversations, and all those sorts of things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, I think a lot of larger organizations seem to have that going for them, or against them, as the case may be in terms of intersecting departments, and responsibilities, and stakeholders, and decision matrices, or processes, and things to be followed. It certainly can be overwhelming, so becoming a genius in this domain sounds very handy.

Could you kick us off by sharing a particularly surprising, or counterintuitive, or extra fascinating discovery you’ve made about this stuff while researching the topic and working with folks in this zone?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The first idea that I found amazing was that we do have the genius for it. The book I wrote before this one is called Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, and that book, I researched all the ways we stink at complexity, to be honest, the way our bodies and our brains work against our ability to handle complexity well.

And you talk about the complexity of an office. There’s also the complexity of COVID, there’s the complexity of relationships, there’s the complexity of living in a city right now. Life is really uncertain, unpredictable, and it has lots of these intersecting pieces. And my last book was to try and figure out how are we not good at that. Like, what are the patterns of our not-goodness?

And so, the first question I took on when we were researching this book is “Are there ways we’re really good at this? Are there ways we actually do have a genius for it?” So, the first aha I had was, “Wow, we have so much in us that’s great at handling complexity.” We have so many natural human attributes that when we rely on them, when we lean into them, we can handle complexity with grace and style and creativity and awesomeness.

And the kicker is, it turns out, when we are in a complex situation, our body understands that as a threat and all the awesomeness goes away. So, we’re great at handling complexity until it gets complex, and then we’re not good at it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, the body, is that sort of like a stress response-type situation going on there, cortisol, etc.?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The classic stress response.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And just to triple check that we’re on the same page, we and us in this context just means humanity, human beings?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s what I mean.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
All of us. As far as we can tell from the research, this is like a natural thing. My guess is it’s different across populations, but in the research that I came to, uncertainty is actually metabolized by the body as threat. And your body doesn’t know whether you’re feeling uncertain about what the stock market is going to do, or whether you feel uncertain about whether something is going to jump out and eat you. And so, what your body does is it prepares you to be narrowed, to be self-protective, and to run like crazy. None of these things are that useful in complexity.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so could you give us an example of how, there’s some complexity that shows up, and then we have a stress response that is suboptimal that professionals could relate to?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think we kind of know this when we walk into a meeting and we think we know exactly what the agenda is and what our role is in it, and, suddenly, there are different people in the room or on the teams or Zoom, or whatever, than we expected, and it looks like our job is going to be different than we thought it was going to be in that meeting, and we don’t know what it is.

I’m guessing everybody has some experience of sweaty palms, and shallow breath, and wide eyes trying to figure out, “What am I supposed to do here? How am I supposed to show up here?” And that kind of narrow-minded focus that might actually take us out of the meeting, it might be like people are talking and we hear, “Waah, waah, waah” in the background. We don’t even know what’s going on particularly because we are so…what our body is saying is run. That’s our body’s main message.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Well, Jennifer, I’m encouraged by what you say there with regard to the stress response is natural for all of us when there’s a switcheroo going on, because I’m thinking about the CliftonStrengths assessment, puts adaptability for me, personally, as one of my very bottommost strengths. They don’t use the word weaknesses but I know, like bottommost strengths is adaptability.

And so, when I encounter a switcheroo, I do feel something like, “Huh? What? What’s going on? I thought we were doing this. Well, this is the time that we establish for that, but, apparently, we’re not doing that.” And so, I can get there, I can calm down. I just merely need a moment to process, reassess, like, “Okay, before we were going to do this. However, the contexts have shifted in this way, and now we’re doing that. Okay, kind reorienting, reprogramming, repositioning. All right. So, now, let’s talk about this new thing.”

And sometimes it feels like other people are just like rolling with it, and I’m a little late to the party. But it sounds reassuring that everybody has some kind of a feeling of this when there’s a shift-up going on.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Oh, I think so. I think so. And whatever the size shift is that changes our reactions, there’s research that shows that people are generally more satisfied with their life conditions if they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness than if they’re diagnosed with something that may or may not be terminal. This is like mindblowing for me.

So, that if you know that your illness is terminal, it calms you down, “I know what’s going to happen next. I can predict this thing. I know where we’re going.” But if you don’t know, your nervous system is activated, “I don’t know where this is going. Is it going to be diagnosed as terminal? What’s going to happen to me?” Living in that uncertainty is harder than even living in the ultimate certainty of your own demise.

For me, this is like an example of the ways uncertainty is really not that friendly to our bodies. We just do not like this thing unless we go to a movie, in which case, then we like it. We like it in the movies. We don’t like it in our real lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s just really striking and I’m chewing on that right now. And I guess I’m thinking, if that’s true, then it seems the natural implication to me is maybe our best strategy is to assume that it is a terminal illness, and then you have that certainty for now, and then maybe you’ll, I don’t know, have a second…well, sometimes, when people discover this tragic news, they really do live life to the full, sometimes, and that could be inspiring.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s absolutely true.

Pete Mockaitis
And then you may have a pleasant surprise, “Actually, you’re going to live longer.” It’s like, “Oh, cool.” So, anyway, I might be way oversimplifying things here, Jennifer, but that’s what sort of what I’m thinking. It’s like, if that’s how we work, maybe we’re better off just assuming the worst and being delightfully surprised if our assumptions are incorrect. Is that one useful strategy?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I’m guessing, in some situations that is a useful strategy, but we’ve all been thrown by COVID, and we all know that our travel plans for a business trip or a holiday might be upended at the last minute. We can’t plan for the worst all the time, and not make plans or else we wouldn’t go anywhere. And so, we do sometimes have to throw ourselves into the game, and, in the game, we know that there are things we’re going to be able to predict, and then there’s just a ton we’re not going to be able to predict.

And getting our bodies able to handle that and you did it just a minute ago when you were talking about the great switch-up, and you became frazzled for a moment, and then you realized, I mean, you were fake-frazzled, but you realized you were fake-frazzled, and you breathed and you noticed and you calmed yourself down.

And this is the first thing for us to do is to notice, “Oh, I feel frazzled now. How do I return to my body? How do I return to my breath?” because it turns out, we can, in fact, switch on the part of the nervous system that is helpful for us in complexity and that it brings online all the things we want. We can actually switch it on on purpose.

It switches off when we face into complexity, but there are all these moves we can make, short-term and longer-term moves that mean we get to be the boss of our nervous system, to a certain extent. And that is amazing. To be able to hack into this thing that humans have just been able to just run in the background, now we need to hack into it, and there are ways to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing, and I’m just imagining the nervous system saying, “You’re not the boss of me.” You’re saying, “Yes, I am.” So, lay it on us, how do we become the boss of our nervous system?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, the first thing is we need to notice it. I think everything starts with noticing, which is why having this conversation is great because before I did the research for this book, I’m not sure how much I noticed my nervous system, to be honest. I think it just ran, right? And, now, after having done the research that we did and really thinking about it, there are all kinds of ways we can notice.

We can notice our breathing, we can notice our heart rate, we can notice the way we’re sitting or standing or moving, how fast we’re talking. We can notice all these things, and you’ll have some constellation of things that can alert you all. My sympathetic nervous system, my stress bone, my fight or flight often people call it, nervous system is running the show right now. It’s not a help in this situation. I don’t need to fight or flee from anybody right now. It’s a meeting. I need to be here.

And once we notice that we’re in this place, the next thing we can do is change our breathing, just as you did in your example. Just like your mama told you, to take three deep breaths before going any further. Actually, your mama was right, because deep breaths that push out the diaphragm, and that have a slower exhale, those actually activate this complexity-friendly nervous system. They switch our nervous systems. We have the switch at hand all the time.

And I think we could use that switch all the time. We could use it 80 times a day. And most of the folks I work with need to be reminded that they have this thing right with them.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And when it comes to deep breathing, any pro tips, do’s or don’ts to make that work for you? This has come up before, but I’ve got the Breathwork app in my phone. I think it’s fun and there are so many varieties in terms of, “And for these many times, for that, through the nose, through the mouth, through alternating nostrils.” Like, “Oh, okay, that’s fancy.” So, any pro tips on is there a deep-breathing approach that maximally helps us here?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
As far as I can tell, the deep breathing approach that helps you the most is the one you can learn to use in your meeting, where alternating nostril breathing is harder when the accounting team is looking at you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, the people is like, “What are you doing over there?”

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, something that you can remember. I’ve talked to many people about this. Sometimes people find that counting your breath is super helpful, and other people find, “When I count my breath, it makes me stress out.” You do you and figure out what’s the good thing. The thing that we know helps the nervous system.

Slower exhales than inhales and your diaphragm moving. Both of those things are important. If you can tick those two boxes, all the others, yes, they’re incredibly varied states that you can get into with your breath. I’m just trying to get us prepared to handle complexity, and those two boxes will do.

Pete Mockaitis
So, slower exhales than inhales means it might be like inhaling for a count of four-ish, and exhaling for a count of eight-ish, for example.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Exactly. That’s exactly right. It turns out that when you inhale, an inhale activates your fight or flight nervous system, and an exhale activates your complexity-friendly nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. And so, if you can activate one more than the other, that’s a win.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then how much how long would we need to do this breathing? Can I see results in 10 seconds? Or, is three minutes a super sweet spot? Or, what do you recommend?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think you can start to see results in three breaths.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think it’s best.

Pete Mockaitis
So, three breaths will do something. And would 30 breaths do more?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Again, if you have time and space to drop into some meditative state, maybe. The thing I like about breath work is it’s so fast. And so, dropping into a meditative state is always good. If you can do it, that’s excellent. Again, hard to do in a meeting without people thinking you’re odd or not present or whatever. Unless you all do it together, then that’s fun. But if you’re just trying to manage your own nervous system, watching your breath is helpful.

By the way, if you have a team of people and everybody in the meeting is agitated, having your breath be a little bit audible, slowing down your breath, and having it be audible just for one or two breaths will actually make others in the meeting also slow their breathing, and you’ll hear other people also kind of sigh. And then you are not just deactivating your stress response. You’re beginning to deactivate the stress responses of the people around you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I’m curious if you have any nifty research or numbers which suggests, “Hey, this is just how much smarter you’re going to be simply by taking three-ish breaths.”

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I don’t have any research about breath. There’s really good research about sleep, which is another genius that’s really good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, let’s talk about sleep.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Let’s talk about sleep. I happen to know you recently had a bay.

Pete Mockaitis
I sure did.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
And so, my guess is you know a lot more about sleep deprivation than most humans right now from the experiment you’re running in your own life. But sleep is I always have to figure out how to phrase this because it’s the least helpful thing in the world for people who aren’t getting enough sleep to find out how stress-inducing it is for them to need to get more sleep.

So, I want to say we could all do just a little bit better. By and large, the modern life we live interrupts our sleep in a way that’s not very helpful. And if we begin to work on it a little bit more and a little bit more, then we can actually take sleep as a piece of our job. How to be awesome at your job? You prioritize sleep. It turns out that the sleep you get early in the night helps you code the things that you did yesterday into your long-term memory and transfers them to long-term memory. That’s helpful.

The sleep you get later in the night, like the early morning sleep, that helps you code people’s faces as less threatening. So, if you cut off the sleep in the early part of the night and the early part of the morning, you go to bed late and you wake up early, then you’re going to go to bed not remembering quite what happened yesterday, and also thinking everybody’s out to get you, which these are not helpful. These are not helpful ways of connecting with your world.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, sleep, one key thing is to just get in bed, turn off the lights, at a reasonable hour. Do the math associated with when you got to wake up and then when you got to go to bed. Any other pro tips on sleeping that is novel for folks?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think, for me, the most novel thing is, and it sounds boring, I know it sounds boring, is that we have to think about our sleep during the day. We have to actually plan our night sleep the way we would plan our workout, or our dinner, or whatever else we do that’s good for us. And I believe that sleep is a part of our job.

And I used to treat it as like sleep was the inconvenient thing that happened when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. And I did it until I could stand to wake up. Like, this was how I treated sleep. And now I understand that treating sleep that way, as if it’s kind of an annoyance, really reduced my commitment to creating the conditions in my life to get good sleep.

And now, I prioritize, I really prioritize, “What does it mean for what hours I’ll take phone calls? What does it mean for what hours I’ll have caffeine? What does it mean for what hours I’ll have alcohol?” I really prioritize sleep because I understand that it creates the conditions for my nervous system to be smooth and happy, as well as there’s awful lot of other stuff it does, but that’s what I lean into.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And you said you have some hot numbers associated with just how much dumber sleep deprivation is making us.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Numbers are not exactly my thing. I can point you in the direction of numbers. I’m good with metaphors. If you’re looking at my StrengthsFinder, you would find me with in the strengths in the metaphors, and the numbers would be my lower strengths, or weaknesses we might even say.

The thing that they attached it to that really makes sense to me is alcohol. Every hour you don’t sleep is the equivalent of a drink or two, depending on your stature, a drink or two, and that means that if you lose three hours of sleep at a night, you’re walking around drunk, basically. You have as much of a chance as getting into a car accident as somebody who’s been drinking. You have as much of a chance as doing or saying something you’ll regret later as somebody who’s been drinking. That’s the cognitive equivalent of alcohol.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, there’s…

Jennifer Garvey Berger
But less fun.

Pete Mockaitis
But less fun. Okay. And then how about the moving?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The moving really matters. We know that our bodies were meant to move, and we spend most of our time moving our mouths and maybe our fingers on the keyboard. But actually, when we get this burst of stress hormones in our bodies, really helps to move them off. They exist in order to be run off. And unless we do something, we don’t have to work out 30 minutes a day to get our nervous system in line.

There are these ideas about, like, micro bursts of, literally, ten seconds of exercise. They’re studying amounts of exercise as small as ten seconds, and getting breathless for ten seconds running up the stairs instead of walking up the stairs, for example, changes your nervous system.

Pete Mockaitis
In a good way.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
In a great way.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m thinking, if I’m doing a sprint, if we’re talking about stress, that seems like that would make my body stress systems more stressed, like, “Whoa, this is intense,” but that’s a positive?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
It turns out you’re exactly right. During the sprint, your body experiences stress. After the sprint, your body experiences release from stress. So, if you’re having a heavy day, it’s a bad meeting, and then you have to get to the next bad meeting, and you can run up your stairs in between them, yeah, you’ll be stressed for those ten seconds that you’re running up the stairs. But, actually, the rebound, they call it the parasympathetic rebound, the rebound after that is super beneficial and it lasts a while.

So, this is another thing to do even if you’re just clicking at home from one Zoom line into a team’s meeting, if you run down the stairs and get yourself a cup of tea, and run back to your office, you’ll be in better shape for your next meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Hopefully, if the tea is hot, you have a lid for your mug or beverage holster of choice.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Good plan. Maybe just run in one direction.

Pete Mockaitis
Just really visualizing that scene.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
This is probably a good idea. Yeah, that’s a pro tip.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, when do I get that rebound? Is it immediately or as soon as I catch my breath again? Like, when can I start reaping what I have sown?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think it’s right away, yeah. As soon as you start to breathe normally, your body is like, “Oh, I feel refreshed. I feel clean.” And sometimes, I just have people stand up at their desk and kind of move their bodies. There’s some research that moving your hand across the midline of your body changes your brain functioning. So, if you can kind of stand up and swing your arms around, it actually…this possibility exists that makes your brain more flexible. There you go.

Pete Mockaitis
It seems like this is something a clown does in performing for children.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
And just imagine how stressful that job is.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s the takeaway, Jennifer. How clowns get through their workday, you’ll learn that at Awesome at Your Job. Okay. Well, we’re doing some laughing, that’s also in your list. Tell us about that.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Laughing is great for our bodies, and it’s also great for our communities. The thing that surprised me in my research about laughing, I thought, maybe you think, we laugh at something that’s funny. We think that it’s the funny thing out there that causes laughter in here. But actually, it turns out that laughter isn’t that much about what’s funny out there. Laughter is a social cuing more than it is about our response to laughter.

We all actually know this because we’ve all watched something that we thought was hilarious, and then we showed that hilarious thing to somebody who’s like, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever see in our lives.” And when we showed it to them, it wasn’t funny anymore, you’re like, “Oh, this is embarrassing that I’m showing you this right now.”

So, everybody who’s had that experience understands that laughter is more about the relationships than it is about the actual funny thing. And so, it turns out that our willingness to laugh together, it’s really important to things like team cohesion, the ability of teams to be creative together, the ability of people to feel psychologically safe together. All these things that we want, laughter opens up a door to that.

And as I read across the research, the kind of pro tip here is not that you have to be funnier, but it’s that you have to just be more frequent a laugher, more gracious with your giving of laughter. And if you think of your laughter as a gift that makes social situations easier, suddenly, it becomes easier to laugh. People laugh more around you. They feel more comfortable around you.

My co-author, Carolyn Coughlin, who’s my friend and colleague, as well as the co-author of this book, she laughs so easily, more easily than just about anybody I’ve ever known. And when people describe her, they say, “Carolyn is hilarious.” I’ve been friend with Carolyn for 20 years, she’s not hilarious.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, on the record, disagree.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
She just laughs a lot. On the record. She doesn’t very often say things that are funny, but she participates in laughing so much that everybody gets funnier when Carolyn is around. She makes you feel funnier, and she makes you feel connected to her. It’s not being funny; it’s being generous with your laughter.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, and it’s true. When I’m saying things that are even mildly amusing, and the person I’m talking to is laughing, I feel good, I like them more.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
That’s it. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
And all sorts of good things are flowing there. So, I’ve actually tried to get myself to laugh on command, and pulled up some random YouTube videos to help facilitate that. I didn’t have the best of luck pulling that off, Jennifer. So, how can I just get better at laughing if I’m not just getting exposed to more hilarious stimuli?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, laughing, because it’s a social phenomenon, there is this whole thing, which I’ve not found research on but I’m curious about, like, the things we only laugh at when we’re alone, like, whatever stupid cat videos, or whatever it might be. But, by and large, laughter is much easier to find in social situations, which is why early sitcoms have laugh tracks because they cue us, “Oh, it’s time for me to laugh now. That must be funny.”

And it’s actually, like many complex phenomena, it’s actually hearing other people laugh that signals to you that you find it funny, which is why we have so much more laughter in groups than we do by ourselves, and it’s why, in our hybrid world when we’re alone in a room and on mute and everybody else is on mute, we just laugh a whole lot less because we hear other people’s laughter less.

So, the thing that shaped it, for me, is to be able to notice myself, again, it starts with noticing, to be able to notice myself and to begin to turn, like the idea, I think sometimes I would have had kind of like the Mona Lisa smile, like, “Oh, you said something amusing,” I will kind of smile in your direction. And now that I understand what laughter actually is for my nervous system, for your nervous system, and for our relationship, now that I know, it’s like, “Oh, I can actually laugh.”

I think there’s a way I was actually holding myself back from laughing. And the thing I’m doing now is doing that less. And by doing that less, I laugh more. And when I laugh more, the other person laughs more, and it becomes just hilarious. It becomes much, much funnier a world. And we need that. Our nervous systems need that, our relationships need that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And you’ve got also the recommendation that we should do some more wondering.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Yeah, I love the word wonder because it let me get two geniuses in one, because wonder has both the idea of like awe. And there’s a lot of research on awe, on the sense of majesty, the sense of being connected to and part of something so much bigger than us. And we tend to find this sense of awe at the Grand Canyon, or when a choir is singing very beautifully at church, or wherever that might be for you.

And it turns out that we can go looking for that. I’ve sent hundreds of leaders out into their neighborhoods, their city neighborhoods, and said, “Go find something that fills you with awe,” and they’re like, “I’m not going to find something that fills me with awe.” And they come back, and they’re like, “Oh, my God, there’s so much there that fills me with awe.”

The intention of finding awe actually activates our capacity to find it. So, another thing you can do on your lunchbreak, if you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, you can wander around and see whether you can find something that strikes you as awesome. Grass is awesome. Trees are unbelievably awesome. The way that we’ve been able to build buildings, make neighborhoods, there’s a lot in the world that is filled with wonder.

And then the second thing wonder leads us to is curiosity. When we are wondering, then this question about, “How can we be curious about things?” Certainty is unhelpful in complexity because it’s a narrowing emotion. What we want is curiosity. And so, again, the question is, “How do we inject more curiosity into our lives? How do we shift some of the certainty, which just arises for all kinds of reasons? How do we shift that into some kind of wondering, some kind of musing, some kind of ‘I wonder if I could connect to some new idea, new possibility’?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, now, tell us, Jennifer, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
The last thing I’ll say is the thing this book has convinced me is that we can create the conditions in our lives for complexity to be more manageable, more fun, and for us to stay connected to ourselves and to other people as we face into it. And I’ve found that knowing that I can create the conditions in my life for that has made every day better.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
So, I’m hoping that your listeners get to connect to that idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now can you tell us about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think the quote that has moved me the most is attributed to a whole bunch of different people, but I tend to attribute it to the Talbot, and it says, “We do not see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” And I find that idea magical.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
My favorite research is research on willpower and how we use willpower. And they took, scientists, diabolical scientists, gave people a really difficult task and then they had them walk down a hall to another room and past somebody who had a plate of hot chocolate chip cookies. And people were offered the hot chocolate chip cookies.

And those people who declined the chocolate chip cookies did less well on the cognitive test after declining the chocolate chip cookies. It turns out that the act of willpower actually uses up some of our cognitive possibility, and it’s depleting. And so, if you’re relying on willpower to make a change, it actually makes you stupider.

Pete Mockaitis
I see. Okay, good to know. And a favorite book?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
My favorite book in this field is called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. I think it is laugh-out-loud funny. You’ll learn everything, everything about stress and the body, and have fun doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool. And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
What helps me be awesome at my job. I am very grateful for the microphone you sent me because that shows that you are awesome at your job, and you are going to help me be more awesome at my job.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. And a favorite habit?

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I have all these sleep habits that are super important to me right now. Really, this idea of “Can I plan my day so that I can get more sleep? And can I shift to…?” So, here’s what I do. I shift to my favorite herbal tea at noon, so I shift away from coffee and, too, with caffeine. And I love this habit. It’s delicious.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Asking the question, “How can I be wrong?” People love this question. When you are feeling certain about something, and you are feeling closed, and you are just trying to hammer your way through, asking the question of yourself, “How can I be wrong here?” actually opens you up to new possibilities.

And even though this is the simplest question in the world, I swear, and I obviously didn’t come up with it, like I didn’t make it up, if you look me up, you’ll find this quote. People quote me about this all the time, “How can I be wrong about this?” When you’re feeling too certain and dug in, it’s like punching a skylight and letting new possibilities stream through the roof.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I have a great website CultivatingLeadership.com. And there’s just a ton of we believe in sharing everything we know with anybody who cares, so papers, articles, videos, podcasts like this one. My colleagues and I are constantly trying to figure out how to make the world better, and how to help us all be awesome at our jobs and at our lives. And you’ll see lots of good stuff there.

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

Jennifer Garvey Berger
I think the question is, “Can you bring the fullness of you to work? Can you find a way to cultivate the you that you feel the most proud of?” We are often at work trying to be the thing that we think other people want us to be. And the work I do is to help people find what’s the greatness that’s theirs, and then how do they create the conditions, like unleashing their complexity genius and other things that help them bring that greatness to the world.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jennifer, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in the midst of complexity.

Jennifer Garvey Berger
Thank you so much. That’ll be great. I hope the complexity of you and your new growing family, I hope you get some sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

814: How to Take Control of Your Mood and Feel More Powerful at Work with Steven Gaffney

By | Podcasts | 2 Comments

 

Steven Gaffney shares the simple shifts that help you feel more powerful at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to easily redirect negativity into productivity
  2. Three reframes that make problems more manageable
  3. Two quick hacks to snap you out of a funk

About Steven

Steven Gaffney is a leading expert on creating Consistently High Achieving Organizations (CHAO)™ including high achieving teams, honest communication, and change leadership. Steven has worked in more than 25 different industry and market segments for over 25 years. He uses cross-discipline solutions and best practices from other industry sectors to bring fresh, innovative and consistently successful approaches to his clients. He works directly with top leaders from Fortune 500 companies, associations, as well as the U.S. government and military; and is also an author, speaker, and trusted advisor.

  • Book: Unconditional Power: A System for Thriving in Any Situation, No Matter How Frustrating, Complex, or Unpredictable
  • Website: JustBeHonest.com

Resources Mentioned

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Steven Gaffney Interview Transcript

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

Steven Gaffney
Thank you for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Unconditional Power. But first, I want to dig a little bit into… one of your areas of expertise is honesty. I’m curious if, in all your work and research, if there’s an area in your life where oh, you had to do a bit of an honesty upgrade.

Steven Gaffney
You mean honesty upgrade as in like being honest to myself or that something? Is that what you mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. An area where it’s like, “Oh… Given this, I’m seeing a little in myself, perhaps there’s an area I need to be more honest about.”

Steven Gaffney
What actually happened, how I got involved in the work is I started to do some seminars for creative people like photographers and film and radio commercial directors because I used to have a business in that area. So I’m teaching them how to do communication, real basic stuff, and on the side, I would just always give people advice about honesty because I’ve always been a really honest, upfront person. 

And one day, a friend of mine said, “You should be teaching this stuff.” So, I guess the honesty moment was around being honest and actually teaching honesty out there. But what I mean by honesty, just so we get this out, it’s not the truth or lies that’s the big hang-up. The biggest problem is not what people say. It’s actually what they don’t say. It’s what they leave out.

So, that was what I realized and starting to teach. And then I developed a nine-step formula on how to share difficult things and have it go well, and we can get into that as well, but that’s how I started and that’s really about the honesty moment, you could say.

Pete Mockaitis
What we don’t say in terms of we just choose to omit this because it’ll be uncomfortable, we think we might not like it.

Steven Gaffney
Yeah, think about it this way. How often have you thought, “My gosh, if they just told me that, I could’ve figured out the answer.” A lot of people in their jobs experience this because, “My gosh, if my boss had just told me this, or a coworker just told me this,” or if you’re leading an organization, and you lose a great employee, and you find out the real reason why they walked out the door, and thought, “My gosh, if I had known that was what was bothering them, what prompted them to look, we could’ve done something about it.”

Really, when you look at life, and I challenge people, the number one problem isn’t what people tell us. It’s actually what they don’t tell us. It’s what they leave out. So, the trick of the whole thing is to try to get the unsaid said. And I don’t mean that people try to hold back from an evil standpoint. People are often afraid to share really what’s going on with them and with others.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. So, speaking of some of this emotional stuff, your latest book Unconditional Power is about some of that, how we can do some thriving in situations that are frustrating or complex or unpredictable. Tell us, what’s the big idea here?

Steven Gaffney
Well, the big idea is that most people suffer from conditional-ism. Now, that’s not going to make a lot of sense till I explain it, so let me explain it really easily. The three different types of moods or mindsets we all get into. One mindset is powerless. That’s where we say, “What difference can I make? I’m only one person here.”

Conditional mood is kind of this next-thing mindset, and that’s where we say, “We recognize we have some power over this situation but it’s conditional on other things.” And so, we say, “I can do that as long as they give me more money, or as long as there’s more resources, or as long as I have the right time.” There’s always a condition to the power.

But the most powerful state is when we are powerful, and that’s where we recognize there’s conditions but we’re in charge and we ask ourselves, “What am I going to do about this situation?” So, the big aha was doing work with so many organizations, what I discovered was many people think they’re powerful but they’re really conditionally powerful. And they’ll say, “I can do that as long as…” But the objective is how to be unconditionally powerful.

Hence, the whole idea of the book and how to get that done. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so is that even possible? Aren’t all of our powers subject to conditions?

Steven Gaffney
Well, here’s the thing. I’ve worked with a lot of successful people, and I’m sure yourself as well. Whenever you’ve overcome a challenge, you haven’t been conditionally powerful. You said, probably in a powerful state, “I recognize the situation,” but you focus 100% of your energies on what you’re going to do about the situation.

For example, a client of mine lost a big contract. Now, they could’ve rationalized to the whole organization, “It’s our biggest contract. We’re really doomed and we’ll do as best as we can, given that we lost a big contract.” But what the CEO said, and what all the top leaders said is, “No, we’re not going to use that as an excuse. It is what it is. We clearly lost this. But what are we going to learn from it and what are we going to do about it?” And they’re having one of their best years ever as a result because they didn’t waste time being conditionally powerful, which is really kind of the state of excuses. They, instead, have been powerful.

Let me give you example in my own life. So, in 2009, I got diagnosed with cancer, and I’m completely fine now, so fast-forward to that. But, also, 2009, was in the middle of the great recession. And so, one of the first things to go, obviously, were things what I do for a living: consulting, speaking, that type of thing. But what I said to myself was, “I can’t control that I have cancer, and I can’t control that there’s a recession, but I can control what I’m going to do about it.”

So, I didn’t allow myself to have excuses and I spent 100% of my time focusing on what I was going to do about it. And from that point on, we’ve had our best years ever. And some of the strategies in the book is really what I learned from others about how to be unconditionally powerful. So, yes, it is often the state we’re on in the conditional side, but we’re really being conditionally powerful and it is around being powerfully unconditionally powerful, and that’s the state of when we make things happen.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say state as in sort of like our emotional, internal way of being?

Steven Gaffney
Yeah, absolutely, because I make the argument in the beginning of the book. Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a good mood you’re smarter? Think about that. Like, when we’re in a good mood, and somebody throws us a problem, we’re like, “All right, this is a problem, but I’m going to figure out a way.” But when we’re in a bad mood, maybe a lack of sleep, or whatever the case may be, somebody throws us a problem, and you’re like, “Ah, here we go again. Not another problem,” right?

Or, we might say things like, “No good deed goes unpunished. We’re always having some challenges,” or, “What am I going to do about this situation?” And so, it’s easy to affect our mood, and our mood impacts our actions. So, I make the argument in the book that, as leaders, and as friends, the most important thing is to have a great state of mind, but, really, what we’re looking at is mood.

So, mood matters. Mood really does matter. And the objective is to have mood discipline because we can be in good moods and bad moods but what if we can be in a great mood on demand rather than by accident, and that’s a big part of the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds very appealing. I’d like that very much. Tell us, Steven, how does one get into a good mood on demand?

Steven Gaffney
Well, there’s ten strategies in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’ll need them all.

Steven Gaffney
So, we can go through as many as we can. Well, and the thing about it is it’s not like hold tight till we get to number five. No, let me give you some real ones that they can move on immediately. So, one of them is intentional disruption. So, have you ever been in this situation where you can see things going downhill, or somebody gets in an argument and something is going downhill? And what we end up being is a victim to a meeting, a victim to a dinner party, a victim to something, and we’re like, “What am I going to do about this?”

Intentional disruption is the idea that human beings are creatures of patterns and associations, which is there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s working, but when it’s not, we have to intentionally disrupt it. So, let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. First on the personal side on how I use this. I had a dinner party a while back. And do you ever have one of those couples over and they’re great but they could start to get into an argument and they can bring everybody else down? Well, that’s what started to happen.

And so, I just used intentional disruption, and I said in the middle of them having an argument, I said, “Can I ask you a question?” And one of my friends, she goes, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, what do you love about him?” And she kind of jolted her head back, and she said, “Well, he does always have my back.” And then he started to say some favorable remarks, and it shifted. I disrupted the pattern.

In a meeting. So, let’s say you’re in the leadership, you’re in a meeting, and you’re dealing with an issue, and you can feel everybody kind of being in a down mood. Intentionally disrupt it. So, one way to do that is begin a really tense meeting that you have to talk about a problem, do a go-around and say, “What’s the biggest win that’s happened to us over the past month as a company? What’s the best thing that’s happened to you?”

And by the mind going there, it actually puts it in a good mood, good spirit when they’re answering that question. And then when you go back into the problem, they’re looking at it from a good mood, a good perspective. Those are examples of intentional disruption. And the good news is we don’t have to be the leader to use these types of strategies.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that a lot. When it comes to questions, boy, I see it in my brain and I think it’s the human condition. When posed a question, we just want to go after an answer, and it’s like we’re just running after that thing. And so, it is an effective redirection pretty quickly is asking a great question. So, can you share with us a couple other favorite questions that do a good work in terms of getting us into a positive mood with that disruption?

Steven Gaffney
Yeah, and I’m not talking about just being big motivational talk, because people say, “Oh, motivational talk, how long does it last?” It really is about being sensitive to the mood of us and others. So, another example is you could say to somebody who’s really challenged with a problem, is I love using the magic wand question, which is, “Well, if I gave you unlimited time, money, how would you approach this?”

Or, when somebody doesn’t know what to do in their career, I’ll say to them, “Okay, if you had unlimited talent, but you had to choose a job so you’re not going to work for free, what would, ideally, you would love to do?” And, see, people often look at their life from the past into the future, but when you ask the magic wand question, it creates an energy and excitement about the future, and you’re releasing all those other conditions to look at things.

And it doesn’t mean that we can make that happen overnight, but what it does is it jolts the mind out of why we can’t do something, or, “I don’t know what to do.” Because you just say, “If I gave you a magic wand, what would you ideally like to happen in this relationship, in this conversation?” And what you’ll find when you ask people that question, it will jolt them, and they’ll often say, “Well, I don’t know.” And then a really good comeback to that is say, “Well, if you did know, what would your hunch be?”

It’s interesting, when you just say that, people say, “Well, is it that simple?” Yeah. If somebody says, “I’m confused,” you say, “Well, if you weren’t confused, what do you think would happen?” Because what you’re trying to do is have them engage in the future and where you want to go. So, the magic wand question is the case.

Another good on the innovation front is, “What if the opposite was true?” So, somebody says, “We need more resources.” “What if the answer to the problem was we needed less resources?” “But we need more resources.” “But what if?” So, you use the what-if principle, and that gets them thinking differently. But my point in bringing this up is we need to be in control of the questions rather than suffering from answers we don’t like. We just can redirect it.

So, for example, somebody is really critical of us. You say, “Well, thank you for the feedback. Can I ask you one question?” They’ll say yes, and most likely. Say, “Well, what do you like that I have done? I understand that’s a feedback that I haven’t done these things correct. But tell me something that I’ve done right,” and see it jolts their mind in a different direction. You’re not discounting the feedback but that’s how you can get balanced feedback as well.

The point being is don’t suffer in silence. Don’t suffer from the things that aren’t going well. Intentionally disrupt it. That’s just one of the strategies in the book, and I can go through more as well.

Pete Mockaitis

Please do. So, that’s intentional disruption, a great question redirects things to help you get into a good mood on demand. What’s another strategy?

Steven Gaffney
Reframe to refocus. So, the idea of this is back to the powerless conditional and powerful state. When we’re in a state of mind or mood or whatever that is not serving us, and we all can get in these moods, “What difference can I make? I’m only one person,” we feel powerless or somewhat powerful but it’s conditional. So, that’s how we’re looking at a problem. But if we reframe the problem, put a different context to it, it can make us more powerful.

 

So, let me give you an example. There’s three types of reframes, and I’ll go through the first one as an example. We can go through the others. But it’s reducing the frame. Reducing the frame. So, have you ever had a situation which is really seemingly the odds are against you, or it’s a business problem, or something going on in your life where it sounds like there are so many problems, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, where do I start?”

Well, reducing the frame would say, “While all that could be the case, what are the most important things I need to do now?” So, let’s say you’re on overwhelm. You’ve got business stuff and other things, you say, “Okay, what is the most important thing in my life?” whether it’s family, whether it’s work, or let’s just say work, “What’s the most important thing to do that I need to do now?” But that is reframing. Leaders can use this really well where people are stuck in a problem that seems very complex. The idea is to make it simple.

So, an example would be where you might say, “What are some key performance indicators?” So, we got a lot of things to consider, but what’s the most important thing? Let me give you an example. I worked with a company that was really suffering in revenue, and their backlog to business is really poor, and, Pete, they had all these key performance indicators, and, of course, people are like making this problem really complex.

And I said to them, “Well, how often do you see the customer?” And they said, “Well, that’s a good question. We spend a lot of time internally.” And I said, “Why don’t you have a key performance indicator and just monitor people going to see the customer, customer interactions?” And people could say, “But what about the quality of the interactions? What about your marketing?” I said, “Look, look, just focus on going to see the customer,” because that’s what they weren’t doing, and that was a big needle-mover. So, they focused on just going to see the customer and their whole pipeline turned around.

So, somebody, I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “It takes genius to make a complex problem simple but it doesn’t take genius to make it more complex.” I’m not sure he exactly said that. But when you think about it, have you ever met somebody who can make a complex problem even more complex, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?” But what you’re doing is you’re reducing the scope of it. You’re reducing the frame. And then when somebody says, “Well, I can do that. I can get that done.” And so, that’s the idea behind reducing the frame. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Thank you. And how about a third strategy?

Steven Gaffney
Well, so let me cover a couple things on the reframe because there’s a lot to dig deep there that I think between intentional disruption and reframing people could change things. Another type of reframe is enlarging the frame. Enlarging the frame is have you ever had something bad happen to you and you’re feeling down, or maybe other people are feeling down?

Enlarging the frame is putting it in a bigger picture. And what you’re saying is, “While that is bad, we lost a customer,” or, “While this is bad, this conversation didn’t go well or this meeting didn’t go well, let’s put a perspective. We’re doing well here, we’re doing well here, we’re doing here. And this is happening, and this is happening.” And, suddenly, people see it in a bigger picture.

What you’ll notice is, really great leaders like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and all the historical ones, but any great leader you feel kind of you want to follow are really good at enlarging the frame. What they’re doing is they’re creating a bigger vision, and they’re saying, “While these are issues, we need to see the big picture, the future.” And enlarging the frame makes people feel more powerful. That would be an example of that.

And the third type of reframe is you change the frame. That’s where you say, you just change it to a direction you want. I’ll give you an example there. I hired a company to work on an IT project and they were really behind, and I was getting annoyed. And so, I said, “When are you going to get this finished?” And, in essence, I can go the long version of it, but, in essence, what was happening was they said, “Well, it’s going to take us about four months,” which would’ve been in November. This was a couple of years ago.

And I said, “Given that I would like it, ideally, done in a month, what would need to happen?” which is basically just one month instead of four months. “And I’ll credit the company.” The company said and shot me an email filled with action items that if I could agree to it, they could get it done in a month, and it was done in six weeks.

Now, what’s interesting to unpack there? Well, most people would work in the existing frame, “It won’t be done till November.” “Well, how do we get it done shorter? And how do we get it done in October?” whatever. But I just said, and I wasn’t demanding in a jerk-type of way, I just said, “Given that I, ideally, would like it done in a month, playing at this, what would need to happen?”

So, you can use change the frame. You just say the prepositional phrase. So, for example, you’re having a difficult time with somebody. You might say, “Given that, look, we have a lot of arguments, but given I, ideally, want us to get along great, what would need to happen?” You see, that’s creating a different frame rather than “Let’s try to solve the problem.” Solving the problem would be the existing frame, but reframing it, or changing the frame would be, “Given that I want us to get along great, given I want us to work on this and not have any strife, what would need to happen?”

And so, those are examples of changing the frame. How is this landing with you, Pete? I know I’m doing all the talking.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s good. Yes, I like it. Let’s hear a third strategy.

Steven Gaffney
Another great one is, oh, act and you will become. So, when you look at a lot of times, when we’re sometimes down, and so a way to trigger ourselves is to be the person we want to be. So, imagine you’re playing a movie of your powerful self, how would you act? So, in other words, you might feel down but that’s where you might smile, you might change your body, like you’re an actor in a movie.

And what you find by researching great actors is they don’t play the part; they become the part. And becoming the part means really stepping into it. So, if you’re feeling conditional or powerless, it would be acting and you will become. So, you’re tricking your mind to get into that powerful state, and then that helps move it forward.

Now, I will say, I don’t like the terminology fake it till you make it because there’s something insincere. But what I’m saying is access to just becoming that, so you’re not doing the lip service, not just, “I now want to smile.” That’s kind of fake. But it’s like, “No, I’m going to smile, I’m going to carry my body differently, I’m going to change the tone. I’m going to really be that part and see how that feels.” And it’ll often trick your mind into changing things.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Steven Gaffney
I’ll give you a very simple, another one that’s so simple we often forget it, and it’s make the unaware aware. Make the unaware aware. So, let’s go back to that distinction. You got powerless, you got conditional, and you got powerful. So, what I’ve experienced is that a lot of people, now I mentioned this earlier but I’ll apply it to the strategy, where they think they’re powerful but they’re really conditionally powerful, “I can get that done as long as, as long as…”

But if you explain this distinction to people, and just from the podcast that we’re doing, what you’ll do is you’ll find out that people will shift to the powerful. In fact, just listening to the podcast and being aware of it. Nobody wants to say, “I love being conditional.” No, people want to be unconditionally powerful but they just don’t think about it. So, making the unaware aware is you explain the distinction. And by explaining it and thinking about it, it’ll automatically, because of awareness, make you become powerful.

An example would be a client of mine, there was an operational problem. And I had taught his folks on the strategies, and so they came into his office, and they said, “We got a problem.” You ever have somebody just dump a problem on you? And he said, “Look, I understand we have a problem here. So, how are we all being about it?” People said, “Well, we’re being conditional.” And he said, “How would we act if we were being powerful about it?” And people said, “Well, I think we should be doing this, and we should do this, and this.”

And they, suddenly, came up with a whole bunch of ideas, and they shifted from the complaint mode, which is kind of the excuse conditionally powerful, and they solved the problem, he said, within about five to ten minutes. It was just a matter of being aware of catching that. That’s another strategy as we’re talking about things.

And in the book and stuff like this, I know we’re going super, super fast, but there’s a lot of examples to trick even more doing this, but we can continue, too. But, anyway, make the unaware aware is another really successful strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Yeah, let’s hear a fifth.

Steven Gaffney
So, another one is input drives output. The input drives output. We are a product of who we’re around, if you think about it. Jim Rooney is a motivational speaker, he subsequently has passed away, but he said, “We are a product of the five people we spend the most time with.” And so, what I have found is, if you think about it, if we have a down mood or our mindset is feeling powerless or conditional, who are we surrounded by? Who are our friends? Where are we watching on television? What are we doing?

Pete, did you find out, you probably experienced this, did you ever meet during the COVID period where they had CNN running 24/7? Nothing wrong with CNN but it was like repeat, repeat, repeat. Well, if you got all that negative input, of course, it’s going to bring you down. So, I’m a big fan of knowing what and being aware of what’s going on, but what’s the input into our minds? So, if we’re feeling down, or we’re feeling like things aren’t going our way, or we’re being powerless or conditional, we really want to ask ourselves who are we surrounded by. Who are we being?

So, this is like, as parents, people are sensitive to who their children are around, but it’s really an example would be you’ve got somebody at work who’s just self-righteous, who’s just really difficult to deal with, and you’re saying, “I can deal with them maybe but what’s the impact to other people?” And so, input drives output is honoring the idea of who are we surrounded by.

So, one of the exercises I love to do with people is I’ll say, “Write down the names of the five people you spend the most time with. The five people.” And then I’ll have them place them on a grid, which we can talk about, but, in essence, it’s around what kind of person are they. And, inevitably, we are a product of who we hang around with. So, if we don’t like who we’ve become, we got to change the environment. We got to look at things differently.

People say, “I can’t pick and choose everybody I work with.” No. That’s true. But you can pick and choose how much time you spend with a person. You can pick and choose whether you stay on the phone or get off the phone, whether you’re on the Zoom call, or then after the Zoom call, you just jump off and you’re doing other things. You can all the person afterwards or not. And, in a physical sense, when we’re around people at work, you might be in a meeting where somebody that’s way, you can use intentional disruption and the strategies we talked about. And then after the meeting, you can just distance yourself. You know what I’m saying?

I often say to people, “Reward people with the time that they deserve.” And so, who charges us up, we should spend more time with them. And whoever doesn’t, we should distance ourselves from them. Have you ever had somebody who’s like really just brought you down, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I got to get rid of them.” Legally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I’ve decided to make some choices associated with folks I like to spend more or less time with, and certainly.

Steven Gaffney
When we’re talking about this stuff, it may sound kind of obvious at certain points and maybe not at every point, or maybe all. I don’t know. It’s up to people, of course. But I really want to challenge them because simple things make a big difference. Somebody wrote a book years ago called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Steven Gaffney
I actually think it’s the opposite. We should sweat the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that matters. It really is. When people say, for example, “Culture at work. What’s the company culture?” My experience is culture is very local, so you can have the broad company culture but if you work for somebody who’s really difficult to deal with, or if you had people who are really challenging, that’s your sense of culture of the organization.

And so, you got to look at certain things, and ask yourself, “Well, it’s the small things that make a big difference, who we hang out with, how we frame up things, intentional disruption, making the unaware aware.” Things of that nature.

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

Steven Gaffney
Norman Cousins said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss in life is what dies within us while we live.” And although that may sound like a downer, but it’s really about don’t let things that are important to you stay inside you. Share it. Do something. Take action. Go after your dreams. And go for what you want and what you deserve.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Steven Gaffney
One of my favorite books of all time in change is a book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. It’s fantastic. And what’s neat about that book is it’s all about everyday people making major changes in organizations. And there are many, many books I can go through but that’s just one that just comes off the top of my head that I just love.

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

Steven Gaffney
If they go to JustBeHonest.com, so our website is JustBeHonest.com, and if they go there and they say that they’ve listened to your show, and here’s the thing, and they write and email us on something they did, and I want to hear an action they took, if they do that and they just share what they did, we’ll send them the book I wrote years ago about how to share the most difficult things to people and have it go well, it was all about how to have honest conversations and have it go well, we’ll send that to them for free. And all I ask them to do is share that they listened to your podcast and share how they’ve used what we’ve talked about.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Steven, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and unconditional power.

Steven Gaffney
Thank you. And thank you very much for having me.